Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Ravenous: Their Finest Hour written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the early days of the Second World War a strange and elusive craft attacks British targets. Could it be a German superweapon? Churchill calls for the Doctor’s assistance and with the help of a squadron of Polish fighter pilots the TARDIS crew take to the skies to investigate.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Don’t you think it’s rather breathtaking just how much the eighth Doctor has been fleshed out on audio? Anyone who is familiar with my scribblings will know that I also found his print adventures a joy, and he certainly had the most experimental and ground-breaking run in the comics too. But on the eve of his latest new epic it is worth considering the prolific number of stories that Paul McGann has featured in for Big Finish now and just how he has been the spearhead for the range for some time. When they were both in the main range it was both McGann and Sixie to watch out for but since he went it alone with his own series of adventures with Lucie, and then Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, his input is the most excitement that Big Finish generates. There’s something very exciting about a Doctor who is a such a blank page. And what’s surprising is that even after 100 or more releases, they are still finding surprising things to do with him. McGann himself is a terrific actor and has more than proven his worth in the role and because the storytelling has become bigger and bolder and more end of the universe than ever (from the Web of Time being threatened with Charley to the massacre at the end of Lucie’s run to the death of the future in Doom Coalition) it has given him the chance to indulge in some apocalyptic performances. Whilst I have missed standalone adventures, there is an undoubted frisson each time a new arc of adventures kicks off for the eighth Doctor and I cannot help but get caught up in it’s wake. There is something refreshing about slipping out of all the baggage that came with the previous arc and just diving headlong into a brand-new adventure with the eighth Doctor. He buzzes around like a caffeinated bee. When the phone rings in the TARDIS he comments that only the finest have the number and picks it up expecting Ringo Starr. Every time he looks in the mirror he gets a glimpse of a face he isn’t expecting. It’s a lovely, discreet reference to Night of the Doctor.

Liv Chenka: She seems to be the only one who is determined to get after Helen, whilst the Doctor is more interested in palling up with Churchill whilst the calculations work themselves out. Liv is a very conservative sort of woman and not the sort you would expect to have her head turned by Russian pilots. Much like her emotional breakdown in Absent Friends, this a surprising thread for the character but one which Nicola Walker plays beautifully. The moment when Rozycki compares her to his mother is priceless, her staggered reaction is nicely underplayed. It might appear to an outsider that the Doctor and Liv don’t like each other very much because they bicker like an old married couple but anybody who has been following their adventures will know that this is just how they communicate. If they weren’t insulting each other, then there would be a problem. She survived the Eminence, the Master, Padrac…for her to die in a plane in the Second World War seems such a small death. If people are going to threaten her friends and she will stop being nice. She’s got a Doctor on her side so piss her off and she’ll sit back with popcorn and watch him defeat them. Even though she knows that practically every one of his plans is far from perfect.

KBO: The rules of meeting up with Churchill is that there is no discussion of relative chronology. The Doctor doesn’t want clues to his own future. There’s an easy chemistry between the Doctor and Churchill that suggests a relationship of long standing and built on respect. It’s nice that he can call on his old friend at times when there appears to be alien intervention in the war.

Great Ideas: If mysterious black triangles are appearing in the sky and taking out military aircraft you better bet your bottom dollar that the Doctor is going to head to the nearest plane and try and take a gander. He’s like a moth to a flame to that sort of thing. The Hellian Blocks are at war but their evolved enough to realise that it’s a waste of population and resources. So they let another planet do it for them. They pick a world that’s already at war and choose sides randomly and whichever side wins, wins the war.

Audio Landscape: It’s astonishing how quickly a Second World War setting can be conjured up on audio with just the growl of aircraft, a siren and an awfully posh radio operator using the term ‘old boy.’ It’s all cliché, but it serves to set the scene immediately.

Isn’t it Odd: Liv writes off what she is hearing about the Second World War as history, which strikes me as a rather stupid thing to say given that everywhere they go in the universe is history of some kind or another. It feels like she is reducing the suffering that is occurring on the front lines to an academic exercise and that simply won’t do at all. Calling Liv’s death in a plane during WWII ‘small’ is another dig at the time, suggesting that to have gone down in this massive conflict is somehow less dramatic than what she has been through in Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition. If only Doctor Who could think up something half as ghastly as WWII, I say… The ending is sad but I felt both the writer and the director could have pushed the moment a little more. Compared to Liv’s outburst at the climax of Absent Friends, this was very passive.

Result: Their Finest Hour wriggles out of the arc constraints of Doom Coalition and tells a pleasingly simple story to kick start Ravenous. Churchill might be a little over-advertised given how much airtime he has in this story, but it’s always nice to have Ian McNiece back in the role and he enjoys an easy chemistry with Paul McGann. Nicola Walker, one of the unsung heroes of the eighth Doctor range for some time, gives a masterful turn as Liv Chenka, afforded a sweet romance with a Polish pilot and given a chance to explore her relationship with the Doctor some more. It’s so much more understated than the Doctor/Charley or Doctor/Lucie relationship (as wonderful as both of those were) and I think McGann and Walker have similar acting styles (subtle, until asked to really go for it and then they blow you away) which give the Doctor/Liv friendship a natural chemistry all of its own. For John Dorney this is a subdued affair, not trying to shake the foundations of the Doctor Who universe but instead gently easing in to the next phase of the eighth Doctor’s life. He’s always focused on character, which is why I love his writing so much. I always feel close to the people in his stories, even if the plot isn’t always as punchy as it might be. Big Finish is always so good at bashing out pure historical so when this dives into science fiction my interest waned a little, despite the fact that an alien presence was suggested from the start. To be honest the aliens made no effect on me whatsoever, but the rest of the story was easy to listen to. Doom Coalition started on a much punchier tale which immediately grabbed my attention but Ravenous has offered me what I have been asking for quite a while, to step back from all massiveness of an arc narrative and just enjoy some good old fashioned standalone storytelling. It was diverting with an authentic production and wonderful performances and as benchmark you can’t ask for much more than that. Unexceptional, but enjoyable: 7/10

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