Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Beneath the Viscoid written by Nicholas Briggs and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the ocean planet Gardezza, deep beneath the Viscoid, a mysterious capsule is recovered from the Time War, and an equally mysterious stranger found within. The Doctor’s reputation precedes him, even here… but can he be trusted?

War Master: He was a prisoner of the Daleks when he escaped them. One is not usually a guest when one has to escape. The Master is having a whale of a time pretending to be the Doctor, trying to wave away his reputation with false modesty. Heading into this adventure incognito does address one of the problems that I had going into this box set and that is if the Master is a truly evil bastard who is out for himself, how does he drive the stories and help people out? But if he is taking on the persona of the Doctor then this can be driven in quite a conventional way. At least for now. I wouldn’t want every story to play out like your typical Doctor Who story, but as a way of introducing people to the idea of stories featuring the Master it makes a lot of sense to do it this way. He might be a conniving son of a bitch but that doesn’t mean he cannot marvel at a scientific wonder or praise a society that has lifted itself out of the mire technologically. The Master (well maybe not the Ainley but certainly the Delgado version) was always much more interesting than a walking evil cliched villain. He has a glorious moment when he gets to admire the Gardezzans for their strength at resisting the Daleks, a very Doctor-like speech that Jacobi delivers like an over excited puppy. The Master is clearly loving this guise. He considers himself a natural ally to the Daleks because he wants to crush the Time Lords and the Doctor as much as they do. Now that would be an interesting idea for a story, one where he completely allies himself with the race his people are at war with to meet his own ends. Would the Master sell out Gallifrey so completely? Of course he would!

Great Ideas: It’s made distinctly clear that if the Time Lords weren’t fighting the Daleks then the people of Gardezza wouldn’t be under Dalek occupation. They are using the power of the Viscoid to power a transportation network. The seabed bases used to be for their storage and energy distribution needs. When they Daleks invaded, they retreated beneath the surface. An alien artefact was discovered when they took refuge under the sea. The Master recognises his TARDIS but keeps his poker face fixed tight and all the survivors of Gardezza recognise is that it has an immense power source and they are hoping to defeat the Daleks with it.

Audio Landscape:
I thought Big Finish had portrayed the Daleks in every possible way before now, such has their exposure been on audio but I cannot recall them ever turning up immersed underwater before. It’s a novel experience and it sounds absolutely genuine. I’m I really using ‘novel experience’ and Daleks in the same paragraph when it comes to a Big Finish story?

Musical Cues:
A very impressively conceived and executed musical titles, combining the sort of bombastic punch that we expect from Doctor Who but strained through a darker, less optimistic lens.

Result: ‘He’s going to be an orphan now, poor little chap…’ Beneath the Viscoid is one of those stories that plays out with a crushing sense of inevitability…but it’s one of those times when it is perfectly okay because the predictable ending is what you are waiting for throughout. Having the Master pretending to be the Doctor is cute but I was on tenterhooks waiting for the moment where he throws off the disguise and turns on the Daleks. It’s a story with an extremely vivid setting, thanks in part to the atmospheric direction that brings the underwater setting to life so well but also because it sketches out a race that has been heavily affected by the Time War and details a pivotal moment when they push back against the Daleks. Had the Doctor turned out to be their saviour things might have worked out very differently for them but they were saddled with the War Master who is only out for himself (whilst smiling and pretending otherwise all the way). There’s nothing especially original happening here (but then with Briggs that ship sailed a long time ago) but it’s a story told with real efficiency with some lovely ideas like the Master appearing to be aiding the Daleks. If you’re a fan of Jacobi (and who isn’t?) this is such a treat. You get both his take on playing the Doctor and more of his burning eyed Master that made such an impact is Utopia. This is less pantomimic than Anthony Ainley and Michelle Gomez and far less manic than John Simm. Jacobi gets the closest to Delgado’s original Master; suave, intelligent and dangerous to know. If you greeted the idea of this box set with disdain it might be worth giving it a listen just to hear this iteration of the Master come to fruition. It shows what a crushing shame it was that we couldn’t have had more Jacobi on the telly. I’m game for more of this sinister incarnation now we’ve got the traditional Doctor Who story out the way, albeit with a very dark slant towards the climax: 7/10

Monday, 26 March 2018

Scott Handcock Interview

What inspired you as a child to want to enter the world of influences?
Blimey. There’s a question! And not one I’m sure I can remember accurately. I know that as a kid I adored stories. I was constantly borrowing books from the local libraries, devouring as many as I could. I loved learning new words and the moment I discovered Doctor Who in print, I was devouring every Target novelisation I could find, not to mention a load of Terrance Dicks’s other children’s books. I remember drawing pictures of various covers - including Spitfire Summer and Destiny of the Daleks - and writing him a fan letter as an eight year-old, to which I got a lovely, encouraging reply. I think, in a way, I’ve always wanted to enter the creative sphere. I remember chatting to my teachers about wanting to be a writer, but never dreamed it might actually happen. It’s really easy to pigeonhole yourself at an early age and think, because you’ve no experience, you can’t do something. But writing’s addictive. It’s like acting in some senses: you get to pretend to be other people. But, unlike actors, you get to be EVERYONE. What’s not to love?!

What were your greatest literary, film and television influences?

It’s probably a cliche - but it’s true - that Doctor Who was a massive influence on my childhood. I got into it in the 1992 repeat season and never looked back. In terms of literary fiction, I was always drawn to classical mythology, and loved epic stories like The Odyssey. This was partly because my older brother studied Classics (I ended up following in his footsteps) but there was something rather magical about these tales of gods and monsters that appealed to my childhood self. They still do. There’s a wonderful balance of the human and the grotesque. For all their larger than life elements, there’s always something very human at the heart of them, and a reason they still exist millennia on. I’m not sure when my love of horror took hold in me - it would have been my late teens - but I’d definitely cite John Carpenter as an influence. Not only did Hallowe’en terrify me the first time I saw it (a good few years before I should have) but the original version of The Fog had a massive effect on me. Watching it back now, I’m not sure why, but there were sequences that thoroughly freaked me out. I’m pretty sure it was the music!

How did you first come to work for Big Finish? What were your first jobs with them?

It would have been around 2004, I think, when Big Finish opened their doors to unsolicited submissions, and I pitched a handful of ideas alongside Big Finish actor Dan Hogarth. None of them appealed for the Doctor Who range, but producer Gary Russell saw potential in one of the ideas, set in ancient Greece, and suggested it to Simon Guerrier for the Bernice Summerfield range. As it happens, Simon’s wife is also a Classicist, so it appealed to him as well, and so I could commissioned to write my first script. Around the same time, I also wrote a couple of Dark Shadows scripts for their first season of audio dramas. Looking back, I had absolutely no discipline. I was guilty of all the sins I’ve since learned to flag up to writers having trained as a script editor, and I wish I’d had a stronger understanding of the medium (beyond being a listener) when I tackled those first scripts. I made the classic mistake of think audio’s easy because you can do practically anything - but I’ve learned that’s precisely why you need the discipline. But yes, they were my first jobs for Big Finish, back in 2006…

You’ve had quite an influence on the Bernice Summerfield range over the past decade and came on board during a time of sweeping change for the range. What was the reason the range jettisoned so much of it’s established continuity during the Epoch set and driven in completely new direction? 

Honestly, I don’t know what the reason was. I know John Ainsworth had been in charge of the season before, and had moved to reboot the range and clear the decks, but I couldn’t say why that was. I suspect it was to bring the focus back to Benny. All Gary Russell and I knew when we started was she had arrived on Atlantis, but John had no idea himself where the story was heading - including whether that location was actually Atlantis or (as Gary decided) some kind of artificial construct.

Some fantastic stories took place during that period – do you have any favourites?

I’m very fond of Paradise Frost, and I was chuffed to introduce David Llewellyn to the Big Finish ranks. He’s a brilliant writer, and that was technically my first directing credit (though actually the second in studio) so it holds a special place in my heart. I also adore The Winning Side, which I think is one of the finest Bernice Summerfield stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on, written by the brilliant James Goss. I’m pretty sure it was hearing the finished edit that convinced James to ask me aboard as director when he took over as producer. But it was a gift of a script as a director, and for all the cast too. Beautiful stuff.

Since these were your first Big Finish direction credits could you take us through a typical day of an audio director?

To be honest, the studio days are the simplest thing. By the time you get to studio, you’ll have fed back all your notes, made revisions, prepped your script and cast your actors. The recording days themselves are just a case of being as prepared as you possibly can be, sticking (as much as you can) to a schedule, being prepared for curveballs that will shock that schedule, and making sure everybody in your cast has fun. That’s not to say we don’t take the work seriously - everybody does - but I’m a firm believer that you get the best performances when people are relaxed and comfortable, so we’re quite irreverent in some ways. It’s very collaborative. I’m in charge of the day, but not the boss, if that makes sense. Everyone should be free to suggest ideas, rather than simply be told what to do and how to play things. So it’s more suggesting ideas and seeing where they take us rather than any hard and fast “do this, do that”. It’s just about making sure everyone’s included and involved.

What was the inspiration for the move to box sets for Benny?

I don’t know, actually! The decision was made before I came on board…

Would you say the range has lost a little of its identity since adding the Doctor Who logo or that that was a move that salvaged the series?

I don’t think it’s lost its identity, no. If you look back at some reactions online, a lot of the responses to those early New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield box sets were they were too Benny-focussed, when a section of the audience wanted more Doctor and Ace. The shift simply allowed us to play with different sides of Benny, in the same way that previous ‘eras’ placed her in different environments, with different recurring characters, and so on. I think you only have to listen to something like Good Night, Sweet Ladies to know the emphasis is still very much on Bernice Summerfield - and even when we have her travelling with the Unbound David Warner Doctor, he’s very much her companion rather than vice versa. It’s been fun to take her out of her established comfort zone and throw all manner of new things at her.

Does Benny have a bright future with Big Finish? What is to come?

Absolutely! She kicked it all off, after all. I can’t imagine a Big Finish without her (and thankfully neither can anyone else). This year marks twenty years of Big Finish (and in turn, Benny at Big Finish) and we’re celebrating in style with two new three-story sets - The Story So Far - covering all eras of Benny’s long life at Big Finish, with a whole host of familiar faces - plus a special audiobook collection of classic sort stories, including contributions from the likes of Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Andrew Cartmel and Steven Moffat…

Let’s talk Dorian Gray. What was the initial pitch for the series?

Ha, I think I’ve spoken about this so many times, so I’ll keep it brief. But yeah, the original pitch was: “What if Dorian Gary was a real person who Oscar Wilde knew and based his novel on?” Obviously he wouldn’t have had to die, as he did in the novel - that’s a work of fiction, after all - so how would a man like that react to the twentieth century? How would you cope watching the world change around you, especially at the rate of progress we achieved…? That was the basic idea for the series.

Can you take us through the individual series with your aims?

Yeah. The first series was just a doggedly determined stab at showing we could do something original and attract an audience. It’s strange to think that, even five years ago, Big Finish was in a situation where it was still a big gamble to try new things that didn’t have an established audience, and I’d like to think it’s partly due to the success of projects like Dorian that we now have an entire range of Big Finish Originals. Obviously that first run was self-contained, as we didn’t know if we’d get more. But we did get more, and a second series was quickly commissioned, so my intent was to again keep it contained and wrap up the timeline - this time travelling back through his timeline, to a childhood haunting that tied in with the present day and a cliffhanger that shocked the listening audience at the time. We still didn’t know if Dorian had a life beyond that second series, and The Mayfair Monster was commissioned partly because Alex had an idea for a story, and I suggested that - if we were to stop - when better than with a story written by the man himself!

We were then lucky enough to be asked for a third series, and had the episode count increased from five to eight, allowing for a much larger arc. Every time we came back, I wanted to do something different, so that third series was always going to be one long arc. Part of me wanted to do something set in the ‘80s, because I’d seen how listeners had taken to Hugh Skinner’s character, and I had a notion of them fighting monsters together throughout the UK (which sort of later inspired the Christmas special, The Spirits of Christmas, a year later). Instead, I knew we had to set it i the present day and pick up from the cliffhanger, and if Hugh hadn’t been game for a return, we’d have brought back Isadora, as played by Katy Manning. Series four then returned to stories through time, and a two-hour Christmas special; whilst the fifth and final series morphed into four hour-long episodes, covering all of Dorian’s timeline, ending in the present day and a controversial climax…

For such an incredible range, why aren’t we seeing anymore?

There just came a point where Alex and I looked at one another during a lunchtime and simultaneously went, “we should end on a high”. We didn’t want it to become a routine thing, or for people to feel we were churning it out, as a lot of love went into every single story, and it’s tough to maintain that momentum sometimes. I count myself lucky that I get to work on a lot of different ranges, so I always feel fresh by the time I come back to anything. But yes, I think it felt like a natural time to draw a line under Dorian. Do I miss it? Course I do. I love the range, and the listeners, and working with Alex… but I’d hate for people to become bored with something we love. We did flirt with the idea of doing a “Lost Confessions” collection for the twentieth anniversary of Big Finish - there are three scripts I had written long before Big Finish even came aboard, plus the original unmade finale, so we could have done four hour-long dramas - but it felt too soon and I know Alex is reluctant to return to the role. In hindsight, we probably should have done the original ending. It was predictable in some ways, which is why I rejected it, but probably what the audience really wanted. You live and learn!

How did you find Alexander Vlahos?

Just by being in Cardiff. I’m always keeping an eye out for new talent, and Alex was doing a number of things at BBC Wales around 2010, when we first got him in for Big Finish. Then, by the time we came to offer him the Dorian series, he was just about to appear on screens as Mordred in the popular BBC One Merlin series, so we managed to nab him just as he entered the Cult TV sphere!

Do you think audio drama is suited to half an hour segments?

It depends on the story. Some can be told in half an hour, others will need an hour or even longer. I think the joy of the half-hour format is it allowed us to tell different types of stories, with sharper focus that don’t outstay their welcome. I found the same thing applied when I took over the Iris Wildthyme range, especially as comedy really does rely on maintaining a pace, and I always felt the hour-long adventures meant the central gags became tired by the time you reached the end, which was far less of a problem when you only had thirty minutes. At the same time, we’d never have dome something like One Must Not Look At Mirrors justice if we’d only had half an hour. So yeah, audio’s suited to half hours just as much as any other duration, depending on the story your’e wanting to tell.

What are your personal triumphs with this series?

Getting it out there in the first place was a major triumph for me, to be honest. It was the first project I’d tackled solely as producer, and having sold the idea to Big Finish, it was my mission to make sure it worked - which thankfully, it did! I’m still amazed it developed the audience it did, and we were able to reach five series. It would have been tempting to carry on just to see how much further that momentum would have carried us. If I had to pick a single episode, however, as my personal favourite, it would have to be The Heart That Lives Alone. It was the first script written for the series in its Big Finish format, and very much set the tone of the series for the other writers. It’s a script I’m very proud of, and the fact it provoked such responses in people was great to see.

Is there anything you didn’t have a chance to do that you would like to do now?

There are certain storylines I’d have liked to have tackled, or writers I’d have liked to have on board, but so much of this stuff is down to timings and availabilities. I don’t think there’s anything I really regret not having done. Maybe I should have gone with the original finale rather than try to resist the obvious. But then, if I had, people could well have argued it did exactly what they expected. It’s easy to overthink things in the moment!

You’ve made a huge success of the Torchwood range. Firstly, were you a huge fan of the TV show and what do you think were its greatest strengths and weaknesses?

When I joined BBC Wales back in 2006, Torchwood was just starting, and I was working on Doctor Who Confidential and Torchwood Declassified, so I was quite lucky to be immersed in the world from the very beginning. And it was terrifically exciting - you couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement. It was a Doctor Who spin-off, made in Cardiff, set in Cardiff, and had the same ability to tell all manner of different stories as its parent show. So yes, I was a fan from the very beginning. In terms of strengths, it had one of the most dedicated teams both in front of and behind the camera, and I think that shows on screen. Everybody absolutely goes for it. I think, if there’s a weakness, it’s that Torchwood sort of became a victim of its own success. After that very first series, when it worked out what it was and wanted to be, it then transferred to BBC Two and had to become something different; then again with its transfer to BBC One, and move to America. Every season, the production team were effectively starting afresh for a slightly different audience and delivered the goods, but you kind of look back wishing they’d had chance to enjoy their successes at the time. Then again, as I say with Dorian, it’s probably good to shake things up!

How easy was it to transfer such an ambitious show on to audio? It’s another series that has gone from individual releases to box sets – could you tell us why?

It’s remarkably easy, as we’re not limited by CGI budgets and can tailor stories to focus on individual characters. It’s not really gone from individual releases to box sets. The individual releases are still there and going strong, but there are also larger stories we want to tell too, which work better in box sets (such as Outbreak, or Believe, and the epic Aliens Among Us). It’s just a case of variety. Some stories require more time, we’re experimenting with arcs, and the monthly releases allow us to explore more intimate character combinations. We want to try and deliver something for everyone!

You’ve directed a great many of the Torchwood release, are the cast of this show as riotous in the studio as they appear? Care to share any funny stories?

They’re brilliant, every single one of them. I’m not sure I’d say they’re riotous. Cheeky, certainly, and they like to have fun, but they’re also deeply professional. The focus is always on the work, and we work at a hell of a pace, so there aren’t many standout stories. Just lots of giggles and funny voices, and anecdotes from the likes of John Sessions who told John Barrowman his John Gielgud Umbrella story. We lost five minutes to that. He told the same story on QI if anyone wants to Google it…

How have you found the reaction to Aliens Among Us?

I think, from what I’ve seen, it’s been universally positive. I know there’s a vocal section of fandom who were against it because it’s not the classic team, but equally there’s a section who want the Torchwood story to move forward and embraced the new characters with that in mind. That’s probably been the nicest thing: casting a whole new gang of actors and seeing people fall in love them. Again, it’s a case of doing things for all the different pockets of fandom. This team doesn’t replace the old one. it’s not a case of one instead of the other. Old and new can exist side by side. That’s the joy of Big Finish!

For a show that encompassed swearing, violence and sex…how far can you go on audio?

We can go just as far, if we need to, and we’ve had instances of all of the above in the audio adventures. The question is always: does the story warrant it. I’m quite hot on swearing particularly in scripts. If it doesn’t feel natural, or doesn’t carry dramatic weight - basically, if you can cut it and no one would notice - we cut it. Less is more, so you need to judge when you want to play those cards to their maximum effect. So yes, while we can have sex and swearing on audio, we try to avoid being too casual with it, or it loses its impact. But I think the Love Rat episode of Aliens Among Us shows we can go pretty much as far as anyone needs…

What titbits can you tell us about the future?

For Torchwood? Well, we have the monthly range kicking off again, with the return of James Marsters as Captain John Hart opposite John Barrowman; then stories with Burn Gorman and Gareth David-Lloyd, Eve Myles and Kai Owen, Samuel Barnett and Tom Price, Naoko Mori, and finally Murray Melvin as Bilis Manger… John, Eve, Gareth, Burn and Naoko all return for Torchwood: Believe: a three-part adventure written by Guy Adams, reuniting the original line-up… Yvonne Hartman returns with Ianto Jones for more tales from Torchwood One… and there are a few other things recorded for further down the line.

What inspired the War Master series?

Basically, I’d wanted to do a series featuring the Master without the Doctor for a while. Then, when Big Finish got the rights to the new series and were doing stuff with the War Doctor, I asked what the Master would be getting up to during the Time War, and whether I could tackle a box set with the Jacobi incarnation. I always figured the Master would exploit the fallout from the Time War, and the suffering that would ensue, rather than fight for either side, which I think makes for an interesting distinction from other Time War box sets, as he’s slightly removed from the main action.

Will we be hearing more from him? What can we expect?

He’s turning up in UNIT: Cyber-Reality… and Nick Briggs mentioned in a recent podcast (with a clip) that Derek’s been back in studio with me. But I can’t say anything more than that!

What was the pitch you gave to Russell T Davies that convinced him this was a solid reason to tell more tales with the Jacobi Master?

I think Russell just had it in his head that Derek couldn’t have fought in the Time War because he became the baby on the shores of the Silver Devastation… so I asked why that process had to mean a regeneration, and Russell agreed he could simply have been rejuvenated from Jacobi to Baby Jacobi at some point. Having worked on the show during Russell’s era, I’m aware just how much thought went into every decision, however small, so I like to preserve that onscreen intent as much as possible, and he’s very happy to say yes or no to any suggestions… thankfully mostly yes!

Is it difficult to tell stories with an anti-hero driving the action?

Not really. You could have said the same about Dorian, in a lot of ways. Just because the Master’s not a sympathetic character doesn’t mean he isn’t interesting for the audience. He absolutely is. And, like the Doctor, he plays his cards close to his chest a lot of the time. His motivations may be different, but they actually share a great deal in common, personality-wise…

Gallifrey is a series very close to my heart and one I have been following since it’s inception. Is it difficult to find new stories to tell for a series with so much history and continuity?

Truthfully, yes. I’d sort of walked away from it after Enemy Lines, as it felt like we’d been treading water a bit ever since the end of series three, which hinted at the oncoming Time War but had never quite gone there. So when David Richardson said they were planning to pitch Gallifrey into the Time War, I was very happy to come back as it opened up a fresh avenue of storytelling beyond Gallifrey itself.

Do you have any favourite characters?

I don’t know if I do, really. They all work so well individually, but really come together as a unit. It’s the combinations of characters that excite me, if I’m honest. It’s why I rather enjoyed the recent Time War box set, because it allowed us to explore dynamics we hadn’t yet been able to, but that’s only fun if you have such strong characters to begin with…

Why did the last three box sets take place in three different periods of Gallifrey’s timeline?

It was a slight case of goalposts changing, unfortunately. Intervention Earth happened because there was an appetite for more Juliet Landau, but then it was felt that people missed the classic line-up of Lalla and Louise, so we were asked to revert to those characters for the next set. Obviously that nixed our plans for any ongoing storylines, so we tried to make a virtue of it in Enemy Lines: actively having to undo that timeline in order to continue. If we’d known going in we’d be zipping back and forth, we’d have done things differently! It’s why Enemy Lines then had a definite ending, just in case we didn’t end up coming back, or the next set did something different again!

How did you want to approach the Time War in this series?

It’s the very early days, so it’s more about the declaration of war at this stage, and how we’ve ended up from the skirmishes we’ve seen to something altogether more catastrophic taking place. The Time War’s such a vast and sprawling event, I was keen to show as many different aspects to it as possible, from all sides of Gallifrey, otherwise there’s a danger that it becomes hordes of Daleks flooding the Sky Trenches, whereas the Gallifrey series has always been something more contemplative. At its heart, Gallifrey has always been about character, politics and concepts, and we were keen to keep that at the heart of the most recent release.

The ending of Desperate Measures seemed to segue rather neatly into the New Series Time War…will we be hearing any more and will it continue the story as left here?

There will be more Gallifrey, yes.

Could you tell us anything about your upcoming Main Range story, The Helliax Rift?

I’m not sure how much I can say, as it’s not been released yet. It came about after I did one of last year’s double-bills for Sylvester, Sophie and Phil called World Apart. Alan Barnes seemed to like it so asked if I fancied pitting the Fifth Doctor against UNIT. So this is that story! Weirdly, I then got asked if I wanted to produce the Fifth Doctor strand of the monthly range, and The Helliax Rift ended up being the first story I took into studio. But Jamie Anderson’s done a brilliant job casting, and Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian have provided a cracking soundscape and score to accompany the performances, so I’m hoping people enjoy it!

Of all the stories that you have written or directed, what are your personal favourites and why?

The Heart That Lives Alone, for the reasons I mentioned above. It’s probably the first time I felt I truly cracked the audio medium. I’m also very proud of Torchwood: Cascade because of the sheer challenge that script presented everyone, whether as a writer, script editor, director, actor, sound designer, composer… it really was an intricate production with so many different layers, all of which came together better than I could have hoped in the final edit. And most recently The Devil You Know because I love my intimate casts, and getting to write for Derek Jacobi and Louise Jameson is simply something I’d never have imagined possible!

Are there any Big Finish ranges that you would like to take a stab at that you haven’t tried yet?

There are stories I want to tell, but I don’t think that’s the same, as most of those would be for ranges I’ve already worked on. As a director, it’s more about people I’d like to work with rather than ranges, as such. I just count myself lucky to get to do as much as I am, and to work with as many brilliant people as I do.

What does the future hold for Scott Handcock?

At the moment, a fair old chunk of Big Finish, plus some TV development work, and bits of writing here and there. Beyond that, I’ve no idea… which is always terrifying and exciting in equal measure!

Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you!

Bernice Summerfield...
Dorian Gray...

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Desperate Measures written by Matt Fitton and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Dalek Emperor attacks a vital Time Lord outpost. Victory would be a devastating blow to Gallifrey. Romana is caught in the machinations of a President who sees control slipping away. Is it time to bargain with the War Council, or perhaps to parlay with even more dangerous parties? The Time War has barely begun, and for Gallifrey, desperate times are already here...

President Romana: Whilst she objects to the idea at first it does make sense that a woman who has seen Gallifrey through so much strife in the past should put herself forward to lead the Time Lords through the Time War. However, in order to do so she would have to give up her current incarnation, sacrifice the Romana we know and love and force regenerate to take the position. The more I think about it the more this is the most original, powerful and shocking way I can imagine to lose the Lalla Ward incarnation of the character, the definitive Romana in my eyes. She believes they should be seeking allies from beyond Gallifrey to help win the fight. Praxiteles gone, the Doctor’s gone…even Romana’s alien helpers seem to have abandoned her. She was a Dalek prisoner for years on Etra Prime, she has greater exposure to Dalek cruelty than anybody else on Gallifrey.

He’s very good, Livia can see why Romana keeps him on. Narvin brings a politically underhanded approach to his work that served the ex-President well during her term. Narvin made attempts to stop the Time War by scouting through Gallifrey’s past and future and bending the laws of time. A Co-ordinator in Extremis. The War Council attempt to take Narvin out of the game because he plays it so well and could potentially help Romana to win the election. There’s a terribly sweet moment when Narvin promises not to let Romana down and she assures him that he never does.

Born Again Brax: He admits he has tried to keep Gallifrey safe but has failed and now the only alternatives are to stay and fight or to run.

Standout Performance: It was a wonderful touch for Nicholas Briggs to turn up playing a newscaster that sound very much like Runcible from The Deadly Assassin. Maybe they were a family of cowardly newscasters. It just goes to prove the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I hope we can secure our own communications. Close the door, Narvin.’
‘The Time War has always been our destiny.’

Great Ideas: The Dalek Emperor is baiting Romana in the first scene, telling her that Gallifrey is going to lose. The War Council is no longer attending CIA briefings or following recommendations, they are a law unto themselves. The good work that Livia has done in her second term has been compromised by a conflict that nobody seems prepared for. She never intended to become a wartime President. Among the raft of alterations that the War Council have been forcing through are temporal taxation laws, bolstering the War Chest. Should the Daleks get hold of the resurrection technology they will continue the work of the Time Lords, but turn those Time lords into Daleks. The more Time Lords they kill, the more they will swell their own ranks. They’ll be unstoppable. The latest Nano weapon from the CIA Arsenal was very effective when deployed against the Daleks; splitting them like desert fruit and poising space time itself. The would-be dictators that are mentioned from Time Lord history are Morbius (pre-classic series), Borusa (during the classic series) and Padrac (exclusive to Big Finish). You can feel the weight of Gallifrey history during this sequence and how it all seems to be culminating. I like how dirty the campaign gets in it’s closing stages with Romana’s ‘little chats’ with the Dalek Emperor being exposed to all on Gallifrey before the people cast their votes.

Isn’t it Odd:
Carla’s defection was a little predictable, only because somebody who appeared to be working for Romana had to be working against her.

Standout Scene: ‘We’ve raged this War for just a few relative months but already we’ve seen centuries of conflict and millions upon millions dead. And that’s all it will ever be. Attrition on both sides until no-one is left…’ The conversations between Romana and the Dalek Emperor are some of the best scenes in the entire box set. It would be considered treason, what she is doing but she is simply doing whatever she can to try and prevent a conflict that will clearly wipe out both sides. If Romana (always the intellect) can see that so unhindered by the possibility that the Gallifreyans might win out…then why can’t the rest of her people? She’s trying the Star Trek approach of attempt to broker a peace with the enemy to prevent the deaths of countless lives on both sides. She spells it out very clearly to the Emperor that if he wants his people to survive then they need to halt their attacks and return things to how they were. They can control their own destiny rather than letting time decide it for them. A beautiful moment for Romana, one of her finest, as it sees her at her intelligent and persuasive best.

Result: ‘The Matrix has been warning us for years!’ Matt Fitton skips over from the eighth Doctor Time War set to the Gallifrey one and things start to get a little muddied and less focused and we’re back in the territory of Daleks screaming their heads off in war chants. A co-incidence? I’m being unfair because this is vastly superior to anything that he wrote for the other Time War box set mostly down to the fascinating politics that play out, the bold moves that Romana makes and how Narvin is so well utilised. As this story plays out it is with an ominous inevitability that Gallifrey is on its path to its own destruction and despite Romana trying to push against that, the tide of opinion is against her. The election ends with a puppet President and the War Council in charge of Gallifrey and lacking the power to intercede, Romana will have to watch her people fall off a cliff into perpetual conflict. Her insane rant against the administration to try and get them to listen is simply awesome, one of several definitive Romana moments in this climactic instalment which offers stunning material for Lalla Ward to deliver. Big decisions have to be made for our regular characters when the fighting breaks out and they can either run or fight. The pacing of this story is odd with plenty of talking in the first half but a furious sprint to the finale and things get more and more desperate but the circumstances were all so gripping it didn’t really matter about the slow build up. This segues so perfectly into the new series it’s like a jigsaw puzzle coming together, serving as a true prequel to the Time War as depicted in The End of Time. The final twist, which you might have seen coming from the first moment the resurrection procedure was mentioned but is still a glorious moment regardless, sees the final piece fall into place. I wonder if the Gallifrey series has truly come to a climax now because there doesn’t seem to be anything else for them to say about the Time War that wouldn’t contradict what happened on screen. It’s almost too perfect an ending. This set has been a triumph for Big Finish and the pinnacle of their New Series tie-in material so far, refusing to water down the Time War and blending it with a range that has its own continuity that it can bring to the table. More importantly this is simply four beautifully told pieces of drama, impeccably performed and with too many memorable moments to recount. A character driven thrill ride that has confounded my expectations. Bravo: 8/10

Friday, 23 March 2018

The Devil You Know written and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Time War has begun in earnest, and Romana must think the unthinkable. For a most dangerous mission, she selects the most dangerous warrior – the Master. But he will not be alone. Leela accompanies her old enemy as they begin an unusual interrogation. What does Finnian Valentine know? And can Leela and the Master ever truly be on the same side?

President Romana: The Doctor refused to help Romana in dealing with the Time War and so in desperate times she has called upon the only other Time Lord that she knows is capable of making the tough calls in wartime. Someone utterly ruthless who will get them the information they require, someone who will do whatever it takes…and someone who they can use as a scapegoat if need be. I love how the Master so off-handedly calls Romana ‘former President.’

Noble Savage: Because Jacobi had never played scenes with Jameson before I was a little floored when the Master recognised Leela so freely and then all those 4DAs where she and Beevers played off against one another coming flooded back in my mind. The Evil One finally serves a purpose. Leela found the old Master raw and honest, not hiding himself away as he does now. Her opinion of the Time Lords has really shifted over the years. Once she had a similar opinion to Finnian that they were terrifyingly inhumane monsters that played about with peoples lives but since she has become involved with Romana and Narvin she has a softer outlook on them now.

War Master: He is not the man he was. War has changed him for the worse, and he was pretty damn bad to start off with. The war has given him purpose and whatever it takes he will do in order to come out on top. He’s committed a great many crimes since he has been resurrected but the Time Lords have turned a blind eye because they need him. He does so enjoy a good old-fashioned threat. The idea that the Times Lords are offering the evillest version of the Master a pardon to head off into the universe to commit goodness knows what atrocities in order to secure him for a particular mission to help them win the war goes to show just how desperate they are. Admittedly this is very similar to the situation in The Five Doctors but there we were dealing with the cuddling panto chuckle and throw off the disguise version of the Master. Jacobi’s Master feels dangerous, which makes this bargain a heavy one. They are literally doing a deal with the Devil. What the Time lords think of him matters very little to him so he refuses their request. He won’t have his TARDIS taken away from him, not again. There is the scent of death about his TARDIS. Trying to navigate your way through a warzone undetected requires great skill. You’ve got love how jovial and calm the Master is before extracting a weapon and shooting both Finnan’s down without a second thought. He makes a very good point that when talking about Leela (who also kills) it is hard to judge who is good and who is evil. It all depends on your point of view. He happily admits that he would be considered evil and is willing to talk about everyone he’s killed and betrayed. The reason he turned his back on Time Lord society was all the pomp and ceremony, of having to do things a certain way. He has absolute faith in his ability to extract information from somebody because he is the Master. There’s no fun in killing somebody who knows that it is coming.

Standout Performance: Derek Jacobi has joined the Gallifrey series playing the War Master. No wait…let me say that again. DEREK JACOBI HAS JOINED THE GALLIFREY SERIES AND IS PLAYING THE WAR MASTER! To be honest I could have handled any godawful technobabble excuse for him to be brought into the fray because Jacobi made such an instant impression on me in Utopia and his take on the Master, whilst theatrical and brief, was one of the most chilling. Listen to the way that Jacobi plays his dialogue, like he is relishing every second of this. The extras reveal that this was the first time he reprised the role but he is so comfortable with it, so skilled at dripping malevolence with every syllable that you could never tell. Huge kudos to Bryan Dick who takes on a challenging character and manages to make quite an impression in a one-shot role. I didn’t feel anything for anyone in the eighth Doctor Time War box set, but here I felt a lot of sympathy for Finnian, twice over.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There has been enough death!’ ‘This is a War! There’s no such thing!’
‘Time to dispose of the evidence, don’t you think?’

Great Ideas: The two Finnian Valentines were once the same, at the heart of a temporal explosion whilst all the timelines shattered around him. He died in the explosions but copies of him were made that exist to torment each other. Two iterations of the same man, living very separate lives but they both ended up in the same place. He’s an experienced freedom fighter, a soldier and above all else he has knowledge of a weapon that could potentially end the Time War. The Time Lords saved his planet a couple of decades back when the Dalek occupation forces embarked on their first assault. Batting back and forth between the two Finnian’s talking to the Master and Leela respectively offers a very different slant on the story of what he has been through. The weapon is called the Possibility Canon and its located on a world in the Isop Galaxy. It can target reality, pinpoint specific moments in someone’s history so you can contain the effect. The Master spots this as a lie immediately. The real weapon is an unlimited energy source that could fuel the Daleks or the Time Lords for almost a millennia. Another lie. The perfect torture device sees the recipient being forced to live their entire life cycle in no more than 20 minutes.

Standout Scene: The Master doesn’t want to kill Leela because it would give the Doctor closure. He is still punishing his friend, even from a distance. Her fate, when it comes, is chilling to the core.

Result: ‘Trust me, I’m a Time Lord and I’m on your side…’ The best kind of character drama sees two people clashing in a very vivid way and bringing together old adversaries Leela and the Master proves that formula perfectly. Sent on a mission by the Time Lords to discover a superweapon that could bring the Time War to end…actually that is pretty similar to the recent eighth Doctor set in premise but to be honest it doesn’t matter why these two characters are forced together because the fireworks that ensue are so beautifully written and performed. Jacobi and Jameson are an ideal pairing, and it’s one memorable scene after another between them. Having them interrogate a different version of the same man individually shows their individual strengths and weaknesses and there are times where the Master’s charm is far more effective than Leela’s tunnel visioned approach. I also really enjoyed the assertion that from the right point of view, Leela could be considered evil and the Master good as their methods are similarly homicidal. Their motives could determine how fate sees them. I think the War Master is characterised outstandingly here, entirely honest about his willingness to do whatever needs to get done, open about the people he has murdered and betrayed. He’s charming because of that openness and that’s terrifying. Handcock remembers and has remembered throughout this entire set that the only way to make your ideas bounce is to channel them through strong characters and I have really loved how the plot has often taken a backseat to exploring who these people are and how the War is affecting them. This is the sort of Time War that Russell T Davies would write, powerful and creative ideas but always making us feel something whilst exploring them. It’s the most restrained story of this set so far but because it is so focused on the three characters and their interaction I was rivetted. If I thought the previous story had a bold climax, wait until you see what happens here: 9/10

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Solider Obscura written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Braxiatel has always planned for contingencies. As hostilities escalate, he takes Ace into a deadly region of spacetime – The Obscura – to locate an ancient research station. But Ace is about to learn more about Irving Braxiatel than anyone should know. Some soldiers are ready for this fight, but some will not make it through the first round.

Born Again Brax: ‘Do you know how many battles I’ve fought? How many plans I’ve made? How many deaths I’ve caused? Next to me Ace you seem ever so small!’ I loved the moment where Brax snaps at her and says she has been coasting her way through this mission with little but wisecracks. He’s far less enamoured with her sarcasm than the Doctor is and he is isn’t afraid to let her know. Brax is pretty much always wonderful but when he is addressing my own personal issues with a long overused character, I’m simply delighted with him. He’s not sure he can trust her with top secret information about the weapon and he asks that she trusts him to guard that knowledge. There’s an element of danger to Ace working with Brax because we have seen him do terrible things in the past to people that he professed to care about. Where does that leave someone like Ace when the stakes are this high? Ace can’t imagine Brax with a gun, it just doesn’t seem subtle enough. Danna taught Braxiatel everything he knows, including how to exploit a dangerous situation to his advantage. Given his Machiavellian machinations in the Bernice and Gallifrey ranges, from heartless to downright psychotic she certainly taught him well. Why is everybody so suspicious of him all of a sudden? Even he is paranoid that Danna has betrayed him when she fails to shoot a Dalek at close range. The truth he isn’t prepared to admit is that his mentor has gotten old and lost her edge. I fucking love Brax when he is put on the spot and has to improvise and I was creasing up when he was trying to convince the Daleks that Ace was the secret weapon (Armed Computer Entity). When they suggest he is lying to them he is affronted at the very idea that such a thing is possible. When Danna speaks to Brax after her murder it is unclear whether it is a manifestation of his guilt or the effect of the temporal energies in the Obscura.

Oh Wicked: Ace is serving as Brax’s companion these days, which works a lot better than most of her stories with the seventh Doctor these days. It’s a similar set up with a morally ambiguous Time Lord to bark at but Ace is a lot older and wiser these days, and Aldred plays it as such. It’s a much more appealing take on her character than I am used to these days because it gives Aldred the chance to tackle the subtler aspects of Ace’s character, rather than having her shouting her head off all the time, which is the bane of her performance. It’s just a really fun dynamic between her and Richardson and I wouldn’t mind more stories of this ilk between the two of them. The Doctor sent her to Gallifrey for a reason and she wants to do her bit. As such she’s eager to take her part in the Time War. Dodgy landings and mysterious locations makes this feel like old times for Ace. She learnt most of what she knows from a freelance Professor. She’s not without pity when faced with a Dalek in distress. Are the Obscura energies making Ace paranoid or is it just the case of working with Brax? Ace’s silence in the final scene is deafening. Amazing how effective she can be when she just shuts up. She respected Brax at the start of this.

Standout Performance: Prepare yourselves because I’m going to say something that is going to stun you rigid…Sophie Aldred is simply fandabbydoozy (TM The Rapture, for its sins…) in this story! Seriously! I know I bang on about how much Aldred struggles in the role of the younger Ace that she keeps being portrayed as in the 7th Doctor audios but this script is a different kettle of fish altogether. She’s given some challenging material and she rises to the occasion magnificently. The climax featuring her and Brax in the TARDIS is extremely raw and I truly felt the weight of her experience with both the Doctor and Brax weighing on her. How annoying that she seems to be jettisoned from the series then, just when somebody has figured how to make this character work.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m sick and tired of Time lords treating people like chess pieces!’ ‘Well maybe that’s the only way we win.’
‘The way he screamed…just like that damaged Dalek. If that’s what this War will do to us…’

Great Ideas: Just look at that cover. When I commented that the cover of the final instalment of the eighth Doctor Time War set lacked skill, this is the sort of work I was looking for. Ace looks amazing dressed in more sophisticated clothes than usual and overall it looks like a still taking from an actual episode. One that I could get quite excited about. Back in the Dark Times of Gallifrey there were many Temporal Wars. All that remains today are the many broken battlefields and the largest of these is an area known as the Obscura. It’s sealed off in a fold of space time because it’s so oversaturated with temporal energy it would be incredibly foolish to enter it. So paradoxical is this region that it is impossible to look at it. Even the slightest glimpse at the Obscura is enough to shatter your mind. Danna was Brax’s mentor and one of the finest military strategists that Gallifrey has ever seen. There’s the broken and twisted remains of nearly 300 Daleks in the hold and if they aren’t dead on arrival, Danna soon takes care of them. 12 years ago they started to arrive on the Obscura and they look…different. Daleks with wings? That’s novel. They have attempted to graft all kinds of technology onto themselves in an attempt to steer themselves through the Obscura. You’ve got to give it to the Daleks, they never truly give up until they are dead. For the Daleks to corrupt their purity like that they must have been desperate. Danna has been testing on them and has discovered that their pain threshold is remarkably high. I love the idea of Daleks sacrificing themselves like sheep being driven across a minefield, travelling the Obscura in the hope of a safe path so they can activate their beacons and guide the others. The Obscura is the biggest tear in space and time and this station has formed a frame gateway to a thousand dimensions. If an invasion is imminent, this station would be the perfect launchpad. Danna guarding the weapon is a form of retirement for her as she doesn’t do so well in peacetime. After Brax showed a Dalek a few pages of a book about the Obscura it couldn’t stop screaming. Brax wants the Daleks to be interested in the weapon…will you come into my parlour said the spider to the fly.

Audio Landscape: A massive point in its favour is how the Gallifrey Time War set isn’t reducing the conflict to scenes of Daleks screaming EXTERMINATE with a crossfire of gunplay but instead taking a far more intellectual approach. The John Hurt and eighth Doctor sets had the irritating ability to reduce the war to all sound and fury, signifying very little. Soldier Obscura has far more atmosphere for holding back on the sound effects. Sometimes less is a lot more. When the Dalek comes to life singing deranged nursery rhymes, it’s all the more chilling for the previous restraint.

Standout Scene: Brax’s solution to the problem of Danna’s age slowing her down. Holy fuck! I always knew he was like the Avon of Doctor Who, the anti-hero who was willing to do anything to get results…but oh my word. This takes that moment from Orbit when Avon hunts Villa through the shuttle and takes it up a notch further. Gripping stuff. Also, the ‘welcome to the mind of a coward, Ace!’, which is just astonishingly raw in it’s mind rape of a beloved character. He violates her mind with violence in a way that even she can’t conceive. It might be Brax’s vilest act yet and if the Doctor ever found out…

Result: ‘And I’m not prepared to lose…’ Bubbling with superb ideas and imagery and featuring terrific chemistry between Ace and Braxiatel, Soldier Obscura continues to raise the game of the Gallifrey Time War set. The Daleks are attempting to annexe a gateway to a thousand dimensions in order to launch the Time War, the battlefield of a previous temporal war tucked away in paradoxical madness. That’s the sort imaginative lunacy I have been looking for and I love how this is a story that sees temporal conflicts of the past and future collide. You would think that the Time Lords would have learnt not to stoke the fire so much these days, given they have the proof of the destruction and loss of life of wars gone by. One thing this set is getting very right is the perfect mix of both character and plot. I need both to secure my attention and more often than not it is the character side of things that is absent in order to fill the running time with a ton of ideas and exposition. I think Scott Handcock focuses on thrilling character drama as a necessity (again ranges like Dorian Gray have honed this instinct) and he’s ensured that his writers have made interaction and growth a priority in Gallifrey. Ace and Brax just work, it’s like her relationship with the 7th Doctor taken up to eleven because Brax makes no secret of the fact that he will do whatever it takes to secure his goals and there is an underlying feeling that she is expendable if it comes to it. It feels dangerous, which the dialogue between them is witty and enjoyable. The ideas feel bolder and more creative too, I feel the Time War is being portrayed on a much greater canvas and with some truly twisted notions. Something akin to a Joss Whedon style finale is brewing, I can tell. Each story is introducing big concepts but not following through with them. I have a feeling the finale of this set is going to see these ideas come together and make quite a dramatic impact. Solider Obscura (great title) is another one of the puzzle pieces, but it’s very well written, features very good character work and kept my interest throughout. I’m surprised about how much we learnt about Brax as he is usually such an obscure character and he STILL manages to surprise me despite that. More gold: 9/10

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Gallifrey: Time War: Celestial Intervention written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Temporal Powers are under threat. It is only a matter of time before the Daleks attack. Now CIA Coordinator, Romana must protect the interests of Gallifrey, while dealing with demands from President Livia and an increasingly powerful War Council. As allies are whittled away, the Time Lords are drawn into a conflict they can no longer avoid…

President Romana: There is a notable difference between the Romana of the Gallifrey sets and the Romana of the 4DAs and it’s not in the way that you might imagine. Here Romana is caught up in a terrifying temporal struggle that threatens the extinction of her people. The 4DAs see Romana having jolly adventures in time and space with a space vagabond known as the Doctor. So, which would you imagine would feature Lalla Ward at her peppiest and most agreeable and which would feature her as a grumpy, angry harridan that is struggling to control her mood? Because if you’ve figured this out it should quite the reverse. Ward is back on form here, sounding thoroughly engaged with the material. Regardless of what I have thought about Big Finish’s handling of the Time War (not a lot so far, I’m reserving judgement on this set until I have completed it), it certainly seems to be bringing the best out of the performers. Like they are happy to take their place in new series canon. Sure, there are moments in this where Romana loses her cool (especially when she sees an injustice of humanity in the Time Lord response to seeking aid from them) but there is a huge difference in how Ward plays those scenes (bold and sassy) than how she plays her grumpiness when acting alongside Tim Baker (which really feels like she doesn’t want to be there). I love the idea that Romana has been deposed as President (a role she has held in spin off media for some considerable time now) and has taken place as the Head of the CIA. It’s true that there is an element of humour in the notion of the CIA accusing the War Council of secrecy when that appears to be their stock and trade. Something that Romana learnt when she was president was never make promises that you can’t keep. It’s nice to see Romana can still step into action when she needs to, with the twofold motive of heading to the Death Zone of rescuing Leela and wanting to know what the War Council is up to. Romana is going to fight the Time War in her own way. The War Council might gather an army but she is going to gather information and intelligence.

Noble Savage: It’s fantastic how far Leela has gone up in Narvin’s reputation over the years. Once bitter enemies, they are now close allies and trust one another because of the hardships they have been through together. I really like how you can watch the development of this relationship across the entire Gallifrey series. It was one of the few salvaging features during those tricky fourth and fifth seasons. When Romana asks her to careful in the Death Zone, she answers where is the fun in that? Given she was one of a few companions not to wind up on the Death Zone, it feels appropriate that this should be her chance and given her USP as a warrior I can’t think of a place on Gallifrey where she would be better suited.

Narvin: The last time ha asked Leela to go on a mission for him she pinned him to the wall with his ow chair. Nice to see they are still getting on so well.

Standout Performance: Is Louise Jameson ageing backwards or something? I can’t detect the age in her voice at all. Lalla Ward acting all bossy and moralistic is always fantastic value.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘War has not been declared!’ ‘With all due respect that is pretty much a formality.’
‘You make it sound like I am the one bartering with lives!’
‘It may come as a surprise to you Narvin but the people appointed to the War Council are rarely the most generous and kind hearted of Time Lords.’

Great Ideas: Earth has been added to a list of planets that cannot protect themselves. Gallifrey setting itself up as the grand protector of all the lesser planets is about to become embroiled in a conflict where they join them. Only half the quantum shields on Gallifrey have activated but then at this point it is hoped that they will never be needed. Ever since it was established, the War Council has been doing its damndest to operate behind closed doors. Gallifrey has avoided all out war with the Daleks for so long, despite skirmished, but now it feels inevitable. One of their drones has picked up security images of a facility hidden deep within the Loom forest, and only because it malfunctioned. The Daleks have annexed Monan and are gearing up for War. The facilities that have been uncovered are part of the response to the upcoming conflict. A Dalek relic has been discovered drifting through space near Phaedon and it is soon announced that Gallifrey has lost all contact with the Warpsmiths. Is this their first move? I loved Romana taking the piss out of whatever ridiculous Time Lord superweapon that the War Council might be working on because that is exactly the sort of (old hat) McGuffin that inspired the Doom Coalition and eighth Doctor Time War stories. 5000 is all that’s left of the Warpsmiths and their planet has been completely destroyed by the Daleks. This development has real impact because this species has appeared in Gallifrey based Big Finish releases going back as far as The Apocalypse Element in their opening salvo of main range audios. If the Time War wanted to get my attention, this was the way to do it. Fascinating to see Gallifrey discussing granting the Warpsmiths asylum, questioning whether that would be worthwhile because they will be taking in their weakest elements. I only hope that the rest of the universe is as kind when Gallifrey flees and requires help. Livia, for all her leadership qualities during peacetime, lacks the nerve for War. Because their vote counts, the War Council demand that their projects remain secret in order to grant their permission for the Warpsmiths access to Gallifrey. Typical Time Lord duplicity. In the Death Zone they find an interdimensional gateway and cargo ships filled with Time Lord caskets. Gallifrey needs the best minds working towards a solution, peaceful or otherwise. Imagine an army ten times larger than any they have ever known, led by the greatest military strategists in Time Lord history. Or a society populated by their greatest scientists and philosophists. Project Revenance is raising the best of the Time Lords from the past back from the dead. A desperate measure for a desperate people.

Musical Cues: Top marks to Ioan Morris for his score throughout this story, which never overpowers the action but really helps to build that feeling of dread that gathers momentum. I’m fascinated to see what he might do with a more action-oriented release.

Standout Scene: Listening to the exile Warpsmiths begging the Time Lords to take mercy on them and grant asylum is a humbling experience. Once a temporal superpower, reduced to such handouts, it’s a vivid way of showing the effects of the Daleks now they are mobilised for war. Rather than simply show mercy, the Time Lords bureaucratic in their response.

Result: ‘Why would the War Council need to make multiple trips into the Death Zone?’ God bless Scott Handcock, who has managed to do two things simultaneously with this box set. Not only has he managed to make the Gallifrey series feel hugely relevant again, but he’s also managed to do a take on the Time War that is both interesting and worth investing in. The two things compliment each other very well; a series that was long starting to run out of steam since its fourth season and a tapestry of backstory from the new series that (rightly or wrongly) hasn’t been explored in any great depth. With the previous two Gallifrey sets Handcock has established a strong and extensive cast of characters and now they can be utilised across a four-story box set in a narrative that feels appropriately epic and dramatic thanks to the Time War backstory. There’s a lot of detail in the world building on Gallifrey and the surrounding universe and vivid cast of characters that gives this series substance. It has all the relevance that the recent eighth Doctor Time War series lacked. What’s more it has Handcock himself directing, which automatically gives this series weight and punch. I’m not just praising him for the sake of it, go check out his credits. He’s a proven asset to Big Finish, creating their superlative Dorian Gray and Torchwood ranges, which have both received terrific acclaim. There’s a genuinely ominous feel to Celestial Intervention with the Time War feeling that it is about to kick off big style. It reminded me a lot of Call to Arms from Star Trek DS9, the feeling of inevitability of an oncoming war that our heroes cannot hold back any longer, despite their efforts. Given that this is mostly a lot of chatter and very little action, the feeling of momentum is all the more impressive and we have David Llewellyn to thank for a script that introduces a lot of the players and the main conflict but doesn’t lose track of anybody. It’s a return to the politicking of old, which was always a series strength, with efforts to depose the latest President and replace her with somebody more able to guide the planet through warfare. If this is the standard of the set, we’re going to be in great shape indeed. For the successful blending of Big Finish and New Series continuity in such a seamless way, I’m very impressed. And ultimately Gallifrey Time War practically promotes itself with the lead performances of Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Sean Carlsen, Miles Richardson and Derek Jacobi. A phenomenally talented cast: 8/10

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

One Life written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: As the full force of the Time War crashes down around the Doctor and his friends, a desperate battle for survival ensues. But not everyone is playing the same game. Ollistra is after a weapon that could end the war in a stroke and she’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to take it back to Gallifrey. Even the Doctor. Surrounded by Daleks, and on a tortured planet, only one man can save the day. But he doesn’t want to fight.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Because I spend a lot of this review having a moan I want to take the opportunity to say something complimentary and that is that Paul McGann excels throughout this set and gives one of his most energised performances to date. It’s a shame that he couldn’t be given material worthier of his talents, but I appreciate the effort he goes to so show a Doctor on the brink of War, trying to push it away and then desperately trying to deal with it as it catch up with him. Ollistra will miss this incarnation because the boyish enthusiasm had a certain charm. It’s quite amusing that the Doctor imagines that the renegade that the Time Lords have been looking for must be him. Ollistra calls his ego monstrous for believing that, and you have to agree with her on this one. Wonderfully every single cadet at the Academy had a better psych evaluation score than the Doctor’s. The Cloister Bell only stops every second Wednesday given the Doctor’s lifestyle. He does nothing by the book, which Ollistra points out at every turn. He almost never has a plan, an approach that has done him perfectly well so far.

Standout Performance: I love Jacqueline Pearce, really I do, but she does insist on playing every line in this set like she is the greatest villainess the universe has ever known. Surely the whole point of morally ambiguous characters like this should be that they don’t like to advertise the fact?

Great Ideas: An abstract chronology of the Time War from Gallifrey’s perspective in constantly in flux. A weapon that can remove itself from history. The Daleks hit Tenacity with a reversal wave, de-evolving the planet. The base broke up because they were sending Tenacity back to a time before the base existed. One of the greatest Time Lord weapons that has ever been devised (what, another one?) was on board the Theseus when it was attacked. The Daleks have used a quantum causality generator to split a single ship into several parts. Multiple versions of the same spacecraft spread out to form an impenetrable wall, back and forth through time, encircling a disintegrating star system. Quarren, with just right adjustment could alter reality with just his mind, rewrite the very nature of time itself. Is this really much different from Doom Coalition in that respect? A superweapon in the shape of a person (Kahleera) that can cause devastating temporal and spatial consequences with an impact on Gallifrey’s future in the Time War. It’s the same bloody story! Experiencing a planet shifting in time would be exciting…but that’s exactly what happened in the first three stories in this set. Dorney writes it a little more poetically, but the idea is a little overused now.

Isn’t it Odd: On purely aesthetic terms, the cover for this release is quite the least inspiring I’ve seen for some time. A stock shot of Paul McGann, which is repeated twice, a bunch of actors who don’t even look as though they are in character and a few Daleks floating about. I don’t think I have seen a cover cobbled together with as little imagination since the early days of Big Finish. I know I said I wanted the Time War to be this unknowable thing in my last ranting review but I wasn’t talking about the Time Lords discussing a bunch of might-have-beens in the first scene. It’s trying very hard to be hauntingly prophetic but just about all they can say for sure is that something is amiss with a graph that shows Gallifrey’s journey through the Time War, something looks bizarre, nobody knows what it is, we might speculate that it its this thing, but we can’t say for certain but it in all likelihood will be the end of Gallifrey unless we figure out what it is. Now get on that! With that kind of assignment, I would quit. As I feared, early on Ollistra spouts some cliché about morality being twisted in wartime (that’s possibly the least original observation this set has made) before the Daleks turn up and start shrieking. For the Daleks to work on audio these days after their severe overuse in every range you can imagine they have to be guided be a creative, original hand that can (somehow) show us a fresh side to the creatures. Track four literally begins with them screaming ‘EXTERMINATE TIME LORDS!’ over and over again. How terribly original. The tacked on scene with Rupa is panfully awkward. 'Oh hello, we don't know you and we haven't just had an adventure with you and we haven't just seen the love of your life erased from time...but how are you? Did you ever find a boyfriend and have children?' 'No, I never found the right person. Why am I telling you this?' 'Oh never mind, we're off. Bye!' I mean seriously do you want to get a bigger hammer so you can smack the message over my head some more?

Result: As you might be able to tell from my impassioned tirades I have been less than impressed by the Time War box set. Quite apart from reducing the War to something transparent and approachable, it has been a series of four stories that form a set for no other reason than the stories follow each other and end on cliff-hangers. One Life attempts to address that by revealing there were elements of all four stories that form an arc but rather than building some momentum into that arc it has been a series of adventures with a writer coming along at the end and going ‘aha! You see how these are interconnected!’ It’s all very unsatisfying and it’s a shame that these couldn’t have been released individually. I could have warned people away from The Conscript if they had. I’m not saying that it is impossible to tell a gripping Time War story featuring the eighth Doctor (The Starship of Theseus, hello) but I am definitely wondering if I am not the target audience for this kind story. To me with the resolution made clear on the television and the fallout of the Time War having little impact on the series afterwards (aside from a personal cost for the Doctor), spending time sketching out (lifeless) detail of the conflict seems to be a creative dead end. Unless those events are going to have gut wrenching impact on the Doctor or his companion, this is simply a documentary series featuring the Daleks and the Time Lords going at one another. I’ve heard it said recently that we are extremely lucky to have the worlds of Doctor expanded in such detail. I agree, we’re incredibly lucky. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say when we personally feel it has gone too far and unfortunately the Time War gets less worth investing in with every minute of this set. What does this all this have to do with One Life? It’s not a bad story, as it goes. It’s trying to make the war personal for one of the characters and it has seeded that character throughout the set to try and make some kind of impact. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that much of an impact on me in the other stories (much like Bliss or any of the supporting characters) so that twist lacks the punch it probably should have had. But by all means put yourself through this all over again to see how Quarren’s arc was laid out in the previous stories, I’ll give that a miss. At least we are viewing the Time War through a fresh pair of eyes and his attempts to try and live a regular life are quite touchingly handled by one of the best writers of this kind of emotional drama on Big Finish’s payroll. The performances are all very nice and there was even a moment where I felt a serious twinge of regret for Quarren and his doomed lover. However, that small, personal story exists in a bubble within the problematic framework of the Time War that I have detailed above, so the second we come away from these two characters, everything feels flat again. Unless hearing Daleks chanting EXTERMINATE or learning about the latest in a long line of Time Lord superweapons is Doctor Who porn for you. The Doctor and Ollistra indulge in verbal duels but the dialogue again barely rises above stock war movie cliché. And Bliss is our new companion. Oh bless. To say I’m not thrilled about the second set would be an understatement: 5/10

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Conscript written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Cardinal Ollistra has a new tactic to persuade the Doctor to join his people’s fight. With his friends locked away, he has been conscripted alongside fellow Gallifreyans to train for the front lines of battle. Commandant Harlan has a reputation – his camp’s regime is harsh. He believes the Time Lords must adapt to win this war, but the Doctor is not easily intimidated. Can there be any place for dissent when the Time War looms so close?

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor never was an easy student, they say he sent Borusa mad. I can see the logic in telling this kind of story, forcing the Doctor through punishing Time Lord military boot camp to make him military ready for the full force of the Time War. But surely if there was anybody who has been used to conflict his entire life, it is the Doctor. He’s spent his entire lives battling evil and confronting the terrible corners of the universe. He’s stakes at an all-time high kind of guy about four times a week. Surely he should be leading the training, especially in how to deal with the Daleks. He meets up with them maybe five times a week and has tackled them in every way imaginable from magnetic cores to human factor madness to ice volcanoes. I’d say he is the ultimate authority on the Daleks. Taking even all of this into account…I thought the whole point of the Night of the Doctor was to show how the eighth Doctor wasn’t ready to take on the sort of responsibilities and hardships that the Time War would foist upon him. That he was too amiable a chap. So what is the point of telling this kind of story if we already know that he won’t make it. And even taking all of that into account…this is the Doctor! The most rebellious, childish, downright anti-establishment Time Lord in the universe! Of course he is going to fight the tyranny of military discipline! Of course the Doctor starts to get people on his side against the odds…that’s his thing. That’s what he’s been doing for the past 1000 years. Although his dialogue to his fellow military cadets about not allowing the Time Lords turn them into Sontaran clones is so heavy handed. Causing a food fight? Is this really what we’ve come to?

Standout Performance: What can one say about Rakhee Thakrar? Utterly unmemorable, for a start. When you already have eighth Doctor companions that are as vivid as Liv and Helen it seems unfortunate to replace them with Bliss. She was given a few lines of backstory in the previous adventure but apart from apparently having more gumption than a scientist on a research mission should, I’m not detecting any real character or motive for her existence. Thakrar says the lines with all the lackadaisical flatness like she was still in Albert Square. I really can’t see that much of a difference. In the extras you can hear what a genuine pleasure it was to hang out with her and how lovely she was in real life and that’s just fabulous. But without handing her a gully formed character with strong motives and opinions and a personality Thakrar is just bringing audible cardboard to life.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Because that’s what it means to be Gallifreyan these days! To be part of the Time War! Forget who you were! Your staser is your best friend!’ – this cod dialogue has been ripped from any war film.
‘You’ve got thirteen lives today!’ ‘Never let a Dalek live!’ ‘When they cry exterminate!’ ‘Don’t be late Regenerate!’ – I literally cannot unhear the Time Lord war chant as they are being put through their paces. Words fail me. And bugger me if they didn’t repeat the exercise again later in the story with fresh lyrics!
‘Are you the weak link? Weak links break chains!’
'There’s no glory to dying in battle!’

Isn’t it Odd: I couldn’t take any of the dialogue that came out of the military Commander’s mouth seriously, it was so horribly cliched. I wanted to quote the entire lot in the section above but I would be writing out half the script above. Is this really the Gallifrey that was introduced in The War Games? If we look over the shoulder of those Godlike beings that put the Doctor on trial would we see a number of Time Lord guards that were driven to their absolute obedience in a Time Lord boot camp like this? I very much doubt it. Gallifrey has never felt more like Earth and less tangibly foreign. The moment the military Commander started barking on about polished boots I just couldn’t take him seriously anymore…and that was his first scene. The story is reduced to the Doctor defying authority and making a ozone detector rather than a staser canon.

Result: I want the Time War that Russell T. Davies promised me. You know, the one that could barely be spoken about the atrocities were incalculable. The one that fucked with all of time and space. The one that rewrote entire histories. That was conceptualised through nightmarish imagery like the Nightmare Child. Big Finish are happily reducing the supposed Greatest Conflict of all Time to something akin to a bog-standard war movies that depict the First and Second World Wars including innocent refugees being caught in the crossfire and our heroes being put through their paces in boot camp. I just never imagined it would be this...recognisably human. What next? A story set in a prison on the other side of the conflict or a rousing drama about trying to rouse a bunch of deserters? This isn’t supposed to be War as we understand the term but utter devastation, complete destruction, wholesale slaughter. It should be beyond my comprehension. The Conscript was very much within my comprehension, a soporific little tale that sees the Doctor being put through his paces in Time Lord military camp. Even if this story was set on Earth during one of the world wars I would find it hackneyed and obvious at every turn. The clichés pile up until I couldn’t take anymore. Matt Fitton says in the extras that because it was John Hurt’s Doctor that was close to the action that Paul McGann’s incarnation has to be shunted off to the side-lines of the Time War because he cannot have a major part in the conflict yet. Nick Briggs follows this up saying there are infinite number of stories to be told on the fringes like this. Oh God why? Because he happens to enjoy the often thoroughly boring genre of war stories, which unless they are handled with a great deal more adeptness than this can be smeared in cliché? Does that mean we’re going to visit every planet that was corrupted by the Time War? Every civilisation? Cross dimensions that the Time War threatened? Given we know precisely where this conflict is going my major questions is this…what is the point? Is this just an excuse to churn out Big Finish material with new series influences or is there a seriously valid creative reason to bring these stories to fruition? I feel like we are going to go round and round in circles being told this is the BIGGEST THREAT TO THE UNIVERSE OF ALL TIME, listen to lots of Daleks screaming exterminate, see some people sweat blood and tears and witness some temporal fuckery. But guess what…you can do all of that if you just watch Day of the Doctor! The Starship of Theseus worked because it began as a regular Doctor Who adventure and twisted into something much darker and more interesting. We saw the personal effects of the conflict. I need a justification for every story to be set in this conflict beyond making what began life as a genuinely threatening and life changing conflict into something far less interesting and mouth-watering. I think a story like this is fundamentally misguided because it reduces the Doctor’s people to something so predictable and relatable. My opinion of stories set amongst the Time Lords was already so low I thought they would have to work extremely hard to disappoint me. Apparently, I was wrong. The Doctor causes a stir amongst the ranks, people get punished for his insurrection, the Daleks show up before people are ready to fight, the futility of war is discussed, the end. There isn’t a line I could believe in, not a character that wasn’t utterly predictable, not one moment of serious characterisation or a moment where the plot made me do anything other than sigh with the sheer inevitability of it all. This isn’t my Time War: 2/10

Echoes of War written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Colliding with the full force of the Time War, the Doctor crash-lands on a jungle world with a ragtag band of refugees. To stay alive, they must cross a landscape where time itself is corrupted. A forest which cycles through growth and decay, where sounds of battle are never far away, and where strange creatures lurk all around. Luckily, the Doctor has friends: not only plucky scientist Bliss, but another, much more unlikely ally. Its name is ‘Dal’…

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor states that his condition of forgetting where the TARDIS is is a little more complicated than amnesia…and thank God because we had enough of that malarkey in the BBC Books. He’s trapped in a War that has no respect for details, facing an opponent he has been tangling with all his lives, has no way back to the TARDIS and is taking responsibility for a group of desperate refugees in a dangerous environment. For the Doctor, this is called a Wednesday and will surely bring the best out in him. He’s a Time Lord but he’s not part of their fight.

Blissful: First Flip, now Bliss. Would it be possible to have companion named Louise or something? I jest, it’s a memorable name for a pretty unmemorable character at this stage. If Bliss is to be the Doctor’s new companion (and there’s no real indication of it at this point) then her only real qualification seems to be ‘because she’s here.’ She was at the Lunar University, a post grad in applied astro-tech, which makes her sound like the modern-day Nyssa (I wonder if she knows anything about telebiogenesis?) but with combat experience because of the Time War. This is a good academic experience for her because it is about as hands on as quantum tech gets. Like Clara in Nightmare in Silver, she is accidentally put in charge of a group of people when it is complete outside of her skillset. Rather than having any tactical competence, she seems to make it up as she goes along. She was on the Theseus because some brink spark thought it would be interesting to measure quantum fluctuations in a temporal warzone.

Standout Performance: Nick Briggs gives a terrific performance as the damaged Dalek. He always does his best work when he gets to play a Dalek that is completely different to the norm; the eponymous Dalek from Rob Shearman’s gripping re-introduction to the creatures in series one, Dalek Sec after going doolally in the time vortex, the Dalek Time Controller from Briggs’ own Lucie Miller and To the Death. This Dalek has completely lost its memory and is a unique individual rather than just another drone and Briggs works overtime to give it a little personality.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Every step could be your last before you even take it.’

Great Ideas: Proving this will be a series of heavily linked adventures, this picks up precisely where The Starship of Theseus left off with the refugees stranded on a jungle world with a damaged Dalek in tow. Everything around them is in a constant state of flux. It was a fun idea in the first story but we can’t really have an entire set of stories where from scene to scene all the details are different. Eventually things will have to normalise. No technology will work within this environment, not even the Doctor’s screwdriver. Time is fragmented here, causality’s askew. Battles long past resonate around them; other times and versions of reality are pressing into existence.

Audio Landscape:
This is one of those stories that truly relies on its soundscape to tell much of its story and I’m reminded (as I need to be every now and again) that we are dealing with a company at the top of its game when it comes producing vivid and complimentary sounds to construct a story. I think Big Finish’s output is so prolific these days that we simply hear too much audio Who and forget how lucky we are to have it. I particularly liked the sounds of warfare in the distance that faded away to nothing as the environment shifted. This sort of thing must be a sound technicians wet dream. It’s true that the Dalek voices are one of their big selling points (I wonder if Briggs would ever let anybody else voice them for a whole story now?), especially on audio. So, it’s jarring to hear one screaming in pain and behaving like a victim, especially when it is prolonged like this.

Isn’t it Odd:
Whilst the idea of a forest growing and dying all around them is an intriguing one and is well realised by the director, I really could have done without all the clunky dialogue that points out exactly what is happening. Big Finish is usually a lot better than this at getting across what is happening visually without having characters state the obvious for the audience’s benefit. If they are trying to help the Dalek forget about its origins and since the inference is that to mention its species will do just that, wouldn’t it be sensible to call it something other than ‘Dal.’ Besides, it just sounds really goofy. Creatures that have been forced down some twisted evolutionary path thanks to the Time War is an interesting concept, but I don’t think it is explored with much interest here beyond an assault of noise as the creature adapts as its timeline shifts.

Standout Scene: The echoes of war weren’t from its history but its future. In comes Ollistra and her War TARDISes and they are about to doom this world in the name of the Time War. The Doctor is appropriately furious, but it does mean that everything we have experienced on this planet is just a prelude of a conflict that is to come. Which means all the interesting stuff that is going to happen here, will happen off screen and at another time.

Result: Echoes of War plays out like standard war story with some temporal jiggery-pokery going on in the background. It’s less immediately gripping than the first story because it takes pains to explain what is happening as it goes and thus loses a lot of it’s mystery, plus some overly descriptive dialogue can really kill some of the more memorable scenes. However, it’s one of those adventures that offers up a unique Dalek character, brilliantly portrayed by Nick Briggs, who has completely lost his memory but is always on the verge of discovering that he was a ruthless killing machine again. He’s really interesting and I wish we had spent more time getting to know him rather than going on a protracted chase scene with him, this might have been a good chance to delve into the Daleks psychologically, especially with one so exposed like this. Instead the story focuses more on his combat tactics, which felt like a missed opportunity. There’s plenty of dangers and running and screaming, but this is one of those Time War stories that I question if it needed to be told. Yes, we know a lot of innocent people were wiped out in the universe spanning conflict but unless you are going to make those characters extremely vivid or have some lasting effect on the Doctor this is just another action epic that would be summed up in a throwaway line in a Russell T. Davies script. If you’re looking for a gripping Dalek live action adventure I would opt for Enemy of the Daleks or Masters of War over this because they have a greater sense of immediacy and better character drama, but this is a perfectly serviceable piece which thanks to some punchy direction remains dynamic, but it’s never intellectually challenging. It’s ‘Dal’ (I wish they had chosen a better name) that makes this worth listening to. Bliss makes little impact, but Dal would have been a brilliant companion: 6/10