Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Abominable Snowmen written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln and directed by Gerald Blake

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and company head to the Det Sen Monastery in the Himalayas, a retreat of peace and harmony where evil cannot reside… 

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The opening scenes between the three travellers are wonderful, it shows a relaxed chemistry between the trio that has developed practically overnight. The Doctor is giddy with delight about his return to Det Sen, Jamie enjoys discovering a set of pipes in the chest and Victoria sighs wearily at the excitement of her two male companions. Listening to Jamie and Victoria laughing about the Doctor being a ‘great hairy beastie’ is a healthy reminder for me (because I’m quite hard on Victoria as a character at times) that as a trio they were pretty much the ultimate Troughton regulars set. Troughton has a fine rapport with Watling as Travers, initially distrustful of one another but ultimately come to respect one another. It’s one of those relationships with an intellectual equal that crops up a couple of times each era (the third Doctor and Liz, five and Todd) where the relationship transcends the story you are watching and becomes something interesting to watch in its own right. I can see why Travers was booked in for a return visit. He’s not a Doctor who makes an incredible fuss when he’s locked up, he just sits their tootling on his recorder quite happily. You might say that Troughton is a little neglected in this tale (although it is one where he doesn’t take a holiday, which is a novelty) but he gets some pleasingly weighty scenes with Padmasambhava and Victoria in the final two episodes. The Doctor screaming hysterically in the last episode feels so utterly wrong it took me completely by surprise. 

Sexy Scot: Discretion is always the better part of valour when Jamie has an idea. The famous Troughton/Hines chemistry is in full swing. Their interaction isn’t just a myth or something for Frazer Hines to wax lyrical about at conventions, it’s genuinely some of the loveliest and most unforced chemistry that the show ever managed to conjure up. They’re made for each other, like two naughty schoolboys egging each other on and hiding behind each other when the going gets tough. The gag where Jamie falls under the Doctor’s hypnotic spell is perfectly timed. 

Screaming Violet: ‘If you need me just yell your head off’ is not the sort of instruction you should be giving Victoria. Her scream to end all screams is infamous. Taken as a whole, this is one of Victoria’s better stories insofar as she is fairly active throughout, asking questions, smartly reasoning things out and pushing the story on away from the Doctor and Jamie. So often she was left to scream at the monsters and tucked away in peril otherwise. This proves that she can actively drive a story with some confidence and Watling rises to that challenge. Episode three is a particularly strong instalment for Victoria. A shame the writers didn’t collaborate and see what Haisman and Lincoln were doing with her, I don’t think Victoria is treated as a character in her won right again until her swansong. Victoria’s repeated fears when under the spell of the Intelligence is very well done because the first time we hear it is sounds utterly convincing and just the sort of thing that Victoria would say. With each repetition it gets more unnerving. Is it Victoria in there anymore or is she simply a vessel of which to trap the Doctor? 

The Good: What’s surprising about The Abominable Snowmen is just how creepy so much of it is. It opens with the piercing screams of a man in terror, takes us through violent attacks, sibilant possession and evil mind games. It’s not a Doctor Who story that is famous for its chills (in the same way The Web of Fear, Terror of the Autons, Seeds of Doom or The Curse of Fenric are) but there is a disquieting atmosphere throughout this story that is expertly maintained by the director. Just check out the opening episode featuring the Doctor exploring the apparently deserted monastery. It’s a masterclass in suspense without the aid of music, just the expectation of something bad that may have happened and the Doctor exploring some very beautifully designed and well-lit sets. It’s the most extensive and expensive local shoot to date and it’s clear this is a show that is pouring all of the resources that BBC has into it at this point. Trust me this wouldn’t be the case come the end of the Troughton era where the money purse was tightening so it’s great to see location work of movie standard being lavished on the show. The Welsh hillside is a fitting double for the Himalayas, despite the fact that there isn’t a flake of snow to be seen. What’s important is that it is vast, scenic and very easy on the eye. The sense of desolation and that there is nowhere to hide on the hills is perfect for the story. Norman Jones refuses to let Khrisong become a cliché, instead presenting a warrior monk with consideration and integrity. I like how he reasons out his decisions and refuses to act violently just for the sake of it. His death in the final episode proves extremely touching, mostly because Jones has ensured he was a man of integrity throughout. I appreciate the efforts that Haisman and Lincoln go to to ensure that whilst this is potentially the most sedate setting imaginable, that things never get boring. A gaggle of Monks is hardly the most exciting prospect for a Doctor Who story but they are all characterised well and as soon as Det Sen is under siege they drop their moralising for a siege mentality. Thomni in particular is very sweet and aimable, certainly moreso than any character in Tomb of the Cybermen. The award for creepiest voice in Doctor Who goes to Wolfe Morris as the possessed Padmasambhava, and that is against some hot competition (Gabriel Woolf in particular). What singles Morris out is the agonised conflict that he imbues his character with, often whispering with absolute malevolence as the Great Intelligence uses him as a puppet but occasionally his real personality slipping through. It’s a script that is very generous in that respect, giving Morris the chance to really enjoy his sinister moments but provide shades of character too. His low chuckling in the last episode as the story reaches its apotheosis is particularly chilling because it almost sounds like crying too. It was certainly an era for bold imagery; I find the yeti control spheres arranged in a triangle a particularly memorable image, and also when the spheres are on the move. Using the Yetis on a chessboard is also a really fun idea. Any accusations of nepotism can be immediately squashed because Jack Watling is a perfect fit for Professor Travers; plummy indignation and fiery temperament all the way. He’s never entirely presented as a co-operative man, he’s often seen behaving selfishly to meet his objectives and yet Watling ensures that throughout we are always on his side because it’s a perfectly likable performance all the same. He’s not ashamed to admit when he is wrong and that goes a long way in Doctor Who. I abhor those characters that are introduced simply to be spanners in the works (think Ettis in Monster of Peladon) and unreasonably cause problems even when their objections are countered by the Doctor and company. Travers is much more than that and I can imagine this man having a life outside of the confines of this story, so much so that we get to see it in one story and hear about it in another. Are you kidding me with those telesnaps of Padmasambhava in the flesh? He's quite the most ghoulish thing the show has presented to date. The fact that he is supposedly a man peace but actually a mouthpiece for a malevolent entity makes him even scarier. It's very unusual to have such an insubstantial villain in the show, one that is controlling things invisibly. It's even more unusual to have that entity lose the day but survive at the end of the story, ready to regroup and strike again. Even the Doctor cannot say for sure that the Great Intelligence has been defeated. I but that put the wind up the kiddies, especially the thought that it can take over adults. I wonder if any of them studied their parents very carefully the night the final episode aired.  

The Bad: Because Padmasambhava is such a memorably chilling bad guy, it leaves the Abbot as a somewhat redundant character.

Cutie Pies: Should I condemn the Yetis to this section or not? No, not really. Yes, they are extremely cuddly and cute but in a way that is part of their appeal. So many Doctor Who monsters set out to frighten immediately with their appearance (of course they do, to take the opposite approach would be a very foolish thing to do week in, week out) that to have a ‘monster’ that is benign looking (they look like overgrown teddy bears) come up and snap your neck is all the more frightening. I do wonder if the designer was actually going for a more fearsome approach but the end result is an uncomfortable fusion of something silly and something scary because the Yetis look like something you might want to hug, but if you they will crush you to death in an instant. The Adipose unnerve me for the same reason; utterly adorable to look at but they are the remains of a person calcified into a lump of fat. I think the troll doll in Terror of the Autons was going for the same approach too, except that was so hideous looking that it was disgusting from the off. I really love how the Yetis can be stock still for an age (they are robots after all) and suddenly jerk into life unexpectedly. Also, how relentless they are in their pursuit because they never tire. It’s interesting that their redesign in The Web of Fear is supposed to make them more formidable, with glowing eyes and a shaggier, slimmer coat. It feels like the designer took a look at this and thought that they hadn’t been done justice (a bit like the Silurians and Sea Devils in Warriors of Deep but their re-invention made them look like they were grinning inanely all the time so you can see how this sort of thing can fail). However, Web has Douglas Camfield as director so matter how menacing the design was meant to be, they were always going to terrifying. It’s true that the actors fear of the monsters helps to sell a lot of their threat and given their loveable appearance that is doubly true here. There’s a sequence in episode four where the Yeti tears through the Monastery and the genuine anxiety exuded from the actors gives this sequence quite a punch.

The Shallow Bit: I want to do bad things to Frazer Hines’ Jamie. I had to say it eventually. I fear I may have said it before. And there’s something about corrupting a Monk that makes Thomni a viable option too. I’m a bad boy. Victoria is the only woman in this entire tale so unless you find Deborah Watling an attractive prospect (and why wouldn’t you, she’s quite beautiful), you’re doomed.

Result: You might have heard that The Abominable Snowmen is a bit of an overlong snorefest but that would be doing this six-part story a huge disservice. Considered menace would be a nice way of describing the atmosphere of the tale, because instead of going for something obvious and in your face (like Yetis invading the Underground in their next featured instalment) the writers and director take their time to generate an atmosphere of disquiet and some unusual psychological and conceptual horror. My one serious objection to this story is that it is a little lengthy to fulfil its plot remit, there is a good four episodes worth of material here that has been stretched to six and a lot of the slack is taken up with dossing about on the hillside and dicing with Abominable Snowmen. That’s cute in the early episodes but it does become a little repetitive in the last third of the story. However, that extra time does also afford for some shaded characterisation and a truly astonishing villain to emerge in the Great Intelligence, speaking through Wolfe Morris’ Padmasambhava. So, I’m in two minds as to whether cutting down to four episodes would actually damage the integrity of the tale. Maybe five episodes. It’s not a story that pushes the Doctor to the fore, or the companions, or the guest characters. The weight of all three is evenly distributed throughout, which is quite a rarity in Doctor Who. Between that and the fact that the monsters are so cute and the pace can be generously called measured might be why so many people are happy to forget about this one. However, it’s extremely competent (a word that has been evolved to mean something fairly derogatory but I mean in quite the opposite way) tale in practically every department; it’s stylishly shot, well-acted and has a story that constantly innovates. It is a base under siege story but because of the expansive location work it feels quite different from its contemporaries. I like it very much: 8/10

Monday, 27 August 2018

The Evil of the Daleks written by David Whitaker and directed by Derek Martinus

This story in a nutshell: Past, present and future combined… 

Oh My Giddy Aunt: A seminal story for Patrick Troughton who has been growing in confidence throughout the fourth season and who has now finally come into his own in a way that is a world away from his predecessor but definitively the Doctor. Troughton had what could only be referred to as a shaky start, tentatively feeling his way into the role (he was lucky enough to begin with Power of the Daleks, perhaps the strongest Dalek story of all but with The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace next his Doctor is characterised a little insanely for Troughton to truly make his mark). Come The Moonbase you have a director that is ready to crush the oddball antics, a delightfully subversive script in The Macra Terror that highlights the rebel in Troughton’s portrayal and then The Faceless Ones, which is where Troughton finally feels completely comfortable, having cast of the companions of his predecessor, butting heads with authority and revealing an insane curiosity for a mystery. The Evil of the Daleks sees a Doctor established and could very easily ride that confidence, which is kind of what happens in the first episode but come the point where he is putting Jamie through psychological and physical tests, we’re in much darker territory. Have we ever heard Troughton sound so scared as he does when he is first confronted with the Daleks? So authoritative when he commands Jamie to do as he is told? As devious as when he plays the Daleks at their own game? He’s quite brilliant throughout and backed up by dazzling guest actors and exciting dialogue, he gives what I would say is his second-best performance in his entire run (the zenith is in his swansong, Troughton really did save the best for last). This isn’t just an actor reacting to a script; this is a man who can reveal shades to a scene, bring the best out in his fellow actors (Hartnell, for all his strengths had a willingness to shout them down) and someone who is clearly relishing the role that he was born to play. He gets to show his pride and compassion for human beings, something that makes the audience puff with pride. With his ability to play people, to pick up clues and to manipulate his foes, Whitaker writes the second Doctor as the master of intelligence and not the whacky clown that has been portrayed as thus far. 

Sexy Scot: Never has that description of Jamie been more apt. Have you seen the telesnaps of this story? There’s no denying that Frazer Hines was extremely easy on the eye (another reason I think that he was favoured as the sole companion next Troughton) but it is also because Jamie displays every handsome characteristic you can imagine: heroism, chivalry, intelligence, a physical ability, anger in the face of adversity, autonomy and the ability to learn and grow as a person. It’s a beautiful showcase for the character and controversially (because this would probably be hotly contested) his best story as a result. Jamie, like the second Doctor took a while to establish but this is his breakout story and it also happens to be the one where he gets the most material, a chance to have a genuine fight with the Doctor (it’s very well scripted so the audience can see that Jamie is being baited whilst still being entirely on his side), to indulge in fisticuffs enough to sate even Jamie’s appetite for fighting, lust after several women and hold up the story as the identification character whilst Troughton is on holiday. Hines gives a masterful turn as the confused, angry charming Scot, a character from the past that may as well be from the present now because he is behaving much more like a sexy 60s geezer (albeit in with a gorgeous accent and a skirt). To be fair there was no way Jamie could have continued as a character in the same vein as he had been (‘The Phantom Piper!’) with everything having to be explained to him. The writers as good as give up on the approach of him being educated by the Doctor and simply acknowledge that he has experienced enough at this point to take everything in his stride. Come the next tale (Tomb of the Cybermen) he is cocksure about pretty much everything, which is how he would be portrayed until his departure. Is it realistic? Not in the slightest. Does it mean that he and Troughton can play off one another in an addictively mischievous and fun way? For sure, and I think the trade off is worth it. 

The Good: What we have with Derek Martinus is a director who is willing to go the extra mile to achieve some stunning visual results. Douglas Camfield, David Maloney and Graeme Harper are his own contemporaries that have that touch of magic that can turn pretty much anything they direct into gold. If you watch the surviving episode there is a quality to the direction that stands out immediately; the willingness to move the camera to suggest fluidity of movement, to shoot through the beautiful sets, giving the actors a chance to truly express themselves with extreme close ups, using a fresh original score to heighten the atmosphere, deploying moody lighting to get the best out of the detailed, beautiful sets. It feels as though he inspires everybody he is working with because they are all working their nuts off to make this as memorable a tale as possible. It’s one of the bets looking pieces of Doctor Who there is and that isn’t because Whitaker was playing it safe. Much of the Troughton era looks impressive because the writers focus their imaginations on one impressive set whereas Whitaker dares the production team to realise everything from a contemporary bar to a Victorian manor house to an alien planet and city, which they rise to the challenge to brilliantly. Some of the imagery; the TARDIS on the back of the lorry, Molly being hypnotised, the fight with Kemel, the magnificent appearance of the Emperor Dalek, is extraordinary. The acting talent on display is breath-taking, and you have one of the most dedicated and impressive of guest casts bringing to life some memorable characters. John Bailey and Marius Goering must be commended for their engaging interplay, Waterfield and Maxtible light up the story every time they appear, snapping and biting at each other. Bailey is almost too good at convincing us of Waterfield's parental anguish and his appealing good nature means you are rooting for him all the way despite his actions that rival the Doctor. I also find the characters of Mollie, Ruth and Terall highly attractive, this may have something to do with my love of period drama but these three Victorian characters are written in a snappy and riveting manner. Rowbottom’s Molly is a delight, and would have made a far more suitable companion than Watling’s Victoria. Indeed, Ruth Maxtible is far more pro-active too (if less immediately likeable than Molly) and after Ara from the Underwater Menace and Sam Briggs from The Faceless Ones it really feels like we are attending the auditions of ‘next female companion after Polly’ this year. Much like The Power of the Daleks, Evil is a story that dares to do something different with the Daleks, once again peeking at this very familiar staple of the series from a refreshing psychological angle. Their plan, to test a human being so they can see what emotions and instincts they have that allow them to defeat the Daleks and then to rip those abilities away from the entire human race probably doesn’t hold up to scrutiny but it does serve to highlight their differences and show what makes these creatures uniquely evil. They know they have faults and they are determined to make everyone else as corruptible, that's pure villainy. I love the scenes with the Doctor explaining away Jamie's irrational behaviour to a confused Dalek, feelings such as remorse and forgiveness lost on the metallic meanie. The story is so good at highlighting why they are such good monsters, their absurd but terrifying appearance (somehow looking so right gliding through the hallways of an Edwardian Manor), their ruthless lack of conscience, their trigger happiness, their relentless scheming... it almost seems a shame they are being set up for destruction. 

Result: Season four is one I have never really had much time for in the past and in my latest marathon of the show I have come to appreciate what a pity that is because it has a great deal to offer. It is striving to be a much more entertaining show than in the past (where the word worthy would be much more appropriate), it’s reaching for iconic moments and imagery (the regeneration, the Dalek factory, the Cybermen on the moon, the Emperor Dalek), it has three of the most intellectual sixties stories in its midst (Power, Macra, Evil) and two of the shallowest too (Smugglers, Underwater Menace). Season four begins with the old regime in place, and ends searching for the Troughton base under siege formula; it’s far more inventive than season five and far more stylish than season six and it has the best viewing figures for the era. It sees a retiring Doctor bow out less than gracefully and a new Doctor hesitantly try and make his mark, which means it is a series that is always trying to prove itself. It’s such an odd cookie but breathlessly entertaining and unusual. Come The Evil of the Daleks all of the elements are in place and the show is not only firing on all cylinders but is ready to take off into orbit. A stunning Doctor and companion, a confidence in storytelling and direction, fine production values and a feeling that this is a triumphant send of for the old administration (where the show would lean on the Daleks whenever it was in trouble) so we can usher in a wealth of new monsters and terrors to come. Amazing in its simplicity and yet full of twists and intrigue, The Evil of the Daleks has a storyline most stories would kill for. David Whitaker’s script masters comedy (the humanised Daleks screaming "Dizzy Doctor!"), period drama (Jamie and Terall's vicious slanging match in front of Ruth, begging them to stop), mystery (what has happened to the TARDIS? What the hell are the Daleks REALLY up to?), intimate struggles (the Doctor and Jamie are tested to breaking point), horror (the deaths of Kennedy and Terall are given shocking gravity), epic confrontations (the Dalek civil War) and still fill the story with action. It is a mature script, bursting with clever dialogue and exchanges. Dudley Simpson is finally let off the leash and delivers one of his all-time best scores; dynamic, exciting and full of character beats. In the four seasons and manifest of episodes that have come before this there has been only one story that has come anywhere near as close to eclectic as this (The Daleks’ Masterplan) and with its ability to explore the past, present and future this is a story that explores the concept of Doctor Who like no other. The Evil of the Daleks is something very special indeed: 10/10

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Ravelli Conspiracy written by Robert Khan & Tom Salinski and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: When the TARDIS lands in a house in Florence, Italy in 1514, it isn't long before the guards of Guiliano de Medici arrest Steven and Vicki. To rescue them, the Doctor has to employ the help of the house's owner - one Niccolo Machiavelli. But can he be completely trusted? Guiliano confesses to his brother Pope Leo X that he has angered the wealthy family of Ravelli and believes the newcomers may be part of an assassination plot. But when the Doctor arrives an already tricky situation starts to spiral out of control. As the city rings with plot and counter-plot, betrayal and lies abound. The Doctor and his friends must use all their ingenuity if they're not to be swept away by history. This conspiracy is about to get complicated...

Hmm: I smile as soon as I hear Peter Purves’ First Doctor. It’s such an affectionate portrayal, it doesn’t sound anything like Hartnell but then it doesn’t have to because it is somebody else’s interpretation of a character he was very close to when he worked on the TV show. The good humour, burning intelligence and petulance shines through and those are all authentic traits of the first Doctor. The first Doctor always sparkled in historical comedies such as The Romans, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters and you can just picture Hartnell having a lot of fun with a script as witty as this. The Doctor is constantly being mocked that he cannot control the TARDIS properly, something that would hound him until the New Series where it became less about his inability to get people home or to certain planets and times and more about the adventure of them travelling together. When Doctor overshoots by 12 or 13 centuries who can blame his companions for their cynicism. It’s rather lovely when the Doctor introduces himself and it is clearly a title rather than a name, that the person he is talking to does the same thing. The Doctor calls him ‘impudent’, which is a real pot kettle black moment. I was pleased for the end of episode two because the Doctor was running rings around everybody until that point, essentially charming his way into a position of power and knowledge. Finally, somebody is pointing the finger at him. There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of part three where the Doctor argues hotly in court and you can just picture Hartnell giving his all to that scene (think of his magnificent ‘I hate fools!’ in The Crusade). ‘What foolish assassin would allow himself to be murdered by his own instrument of death, ay?’ says the Doctor as he agrees to drink the cup of hemlock (you know what I mean) to prove his innocence. A dangerous business, but then the first Doctor was never afraid to step into danger to sort things out (the end of episode three of The War Machines). The Doctor scoffs at the idea of plans within plans but that basically becomes his default setting in future incarnations (particularly his 4th and 7th). Besides, why would he be so shocked when he is dealing with Machiavellian machinations?

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven is a awarded the first cliff-hanger and delightfully it isn’t a useless moment of jeopardy but a choice that suggests exciting things ahead in the plot (kill, or be killed). Would Steven become an assassin to save his own life?

Alien Orphan: Rather wonderful Vicki plucks for any historical character of the period when confronted by Pope Leo X. It’s a dangerous business, history, when you’re not in full view of the facts. She seems like somebody who might be involved in the plots of the day, simply because of her clear intelligence. In a delightful moment Vicki has to quote a poem and she gives ‘Daisy Daisy’ a whirl, which is greeted with an enthused response. Poetry, politics and horse riding…is there no end to her talents? She’s a fine and swift negotiator. Every Pope needs his consort and that makes Vicki the bearded lady (don’t ask).

Standout Performance: Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien together make a masterful narrative pair. Individually they have an excellent judgement of timing and pace, and when to stress the drama and relax into the narration. Lisa Bowerman bounces between the two during this story and in doing so the narration takes on a stride at times that is really easy to jump in and join them in. Because the script takes on an almost Donald Cotton style omnipresent tone during the narration (seriously, go and read his novelisations), it means we’re palling up with the narrators and watching the story unfold with them. They’re always one step ahead because they know the details but it always feels like O’Brien and Purves are providing an entertaining ride. I’m so pleased to see a further Khan and Salinski script for this pair on the horizon. I want to put the emphasis on Purves, who makes the material bounce for both dramatic and comic effect and whose interpretation of the first Doctor just dazzles me.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What you call art and vanity, I call glorifying God almighty. You would do well to remember your debt to your creator.’
‘Compared to his brother, maybe. As a sour plum is sweet compared to an unripe lemon.’
The Doctor is described as an ‘ageing turnip.’
‘If I’m guilty, I will carry out my own sentence!’
‘I am in love with him!’ ‘With Machiavelli. With that funny looking creature?’ ‘That devious, manipulative, clever, profound, intelligent and extraordinary funny looking creature – yes!’
‘Will it take long? It sounds like you’ve got rather a lot to confess.’

Great Ideas: Guiliano is a despot ruler, murdering indiscriminately to satisfy his bloodlust. His brother knows this but hopes a position of authority will teach him wisdom. How many more corpses must be endured before his schooling is complete? His brother wishes to depose him but there is no way he can do so at the moment. The writers paint an exquisite picture of the Medici palace, one that I can imagine Barry Newberry conjuring up with ha’penny threepence. There’s an allusion to homosexuality that is so subtlety done that you might miss it, but it feels perfectly in place (as much as racism in The Daleks, domestic abuse in The Keys of Marinus, incest in The Crusade and mass murder in The Myth Makers and The Massacre). Machiavelli was a very influential man in the Florentine Republic but when the Medici came to power he lost his position and he’s been scheming to get it back ever since.

Standout Scene:
The genuinely laugh out loud moment when one character throws themselves sexually at another in complete abandonment of the chaste ideals of the time. Mind you given Nero was trying to bone Barbara at every opportunity and the lustful glances the Perfect Victim gave Susan…perhaps I’m wrong about that. However, this overt, base and pointed in the direction of a member of the clergy!

Result: ‘The year is 1514, a wonderful vintage of time to taste and savour…’ Backstabbing, plots, torture, religious persecution…you can see why Khan and Salinski thought they could mould a great Doctor Who story in this period. The fact that they weave their tale of deception into a terrific character comedy surprises and delights. What you have here is a story that doesn’t skimp on historical detail, that plays to its regulars strengths and that trots along at a giddy pace with lots of twists and turns in the plot. If the average quality of Big Finish’s Doctor Who releases were of this standard I think people would be crying out for an even more saturated audio market. Khan and Salinski have an excellent grasp on dialogue and plot, which means the elements that we usually lean on when those qualities are absent (the score, the production, the performances) merely serve to emphasise how well written this story is rather than supporting it entirely. It’s very easy to skip over the importance of Lisa Bowerman, director of an entire catalogue of audio adventures now and often responsible for the stories that head back into the early years of Doctor Who. But she is masterfully good at her job, brings the best out of her scripts and her actors and can conjure up an atmosphere of comedy, drama, horror or whatever is asked of her seemingly at ease. She’s become my favourite Big Finish director (and if you want to experience her work at its finest then check out A Thousand Tiny Wings, it’s magnificent) and so reliably good that I rarely mention her now. That’s an oversight and Ravelli sees her at her irreverent best; pacing the narration brilliantly, allowing time for the actors to relish the dialogue, using sound design to evoke wonderful images and never forgetting to punch through the comedy with dramatic moments when the situation calls. The Early Adventures don’t seem to get the same sort of attention as the many of the other ranges (particularly the Main Range or the Companion Chronicles and certainly not the over-hyped new Series stories) but sometimes that isn’t a bad thing. It means they have been quietly doing their own thing, experimenting and building a range of stories that can pretty much do what they want. Sometimes that means pushing the boat out and doing something that would never have been attempted at the time (An Ordinary Life) and sometimes it means aping one of the style of the time and delivering a shot of nostalgia (The Wreck of the World). The Ravelli Conspiracy does both; it’s a Hartnell historical through and through with intriguing historical characters and lots of fun stuff for the Doctor, Vicki and Steven to do (so far so the Myth Makers) but it’s told in a contemporary style with pace and shot with smart wit and astuteness. It’s been my favourite of the Early Adventures to date, an effortless listen and a rollicking good time to boot: 10/10

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Conquest of Far written by written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: Earth Alliance, the future… Fleet commanders receive their orders from the President of Earth. Operation Far is ‘go’. As soon as the planets are suitably aligned, the attack will go ahead. The Doctor and Jo arrive on the planet Far. The Doctor wants to attend the grand opening of one of the human race’s greatest achievements. A huge Hyper Gateway built to make travel around Earth’s great empire more convenient, bringing relief to many starving outer colonies. But they land in the wrong time period, long after the Gateway has been in service, and the Daleks have conquered Far! It’s the middle of a war and a deadly game is underway. When everyone has an agenda, betrayal can happen at any time, from any side. The endgame is approaching and maybe this time no one will survive.

The Mighty Nose: The difference between what Tim Treloar is doing with the third Doctor and what David Bradley is doing with the first is worth talking about. Whereas I feel Bradley is doing an impression of William Hartnell playing the first Doctor (and so there is a distance between his performance and the audience) rather than trying to ape the character itself, Treloar is going for a simpler interpretation of Pertwee’s Doctor. Occasionally he is so on the money with his impression I forget that isn’t Pertwee playing the part and the rest of the time it is close enough that I simply buy that this a mock up and let the story play on undistracted. There’s real love to how Treloar attempts to imbue the character with Pertwee’s charm, impatience and anger. It is a performance that has clearly been studied rather than just knocking off a quick interpretation. I think he is very good indeed. You an imagine Pertwee taking a trip to far and giving a few pointers on how to build the gateway in some throwaway cheeky suggestions to help stall famine in the universe. Of all the Doctors, the third was certainly the most moral (I think Malcolm Hulke had a lot to do with that?). A known saboteur of Dalek operations, he is. I really enjoyed the moments at the beginning of part three where the Doctor drops his diplomatic act and loses his cool. That’s a new look for Treloar and he really gives the thin material some welly. Is he putting on the Pertwee lisp? Because that’s some dedication to your duty. He doesn’t care what happens to him but he pleads that his allies take care of Jo. There always was something special between this pair and in that moment I really felt it. He’s very aggressive with the Daleks when they have been defeated, he basically gives them the finger, in the politest possible way of course. He even gets a little moral diatribe in at the climax, in pure Pertwee style.

Dippy Agent: I’m sorry that Katy Manning objects to the fact that fans call her ‘dozy’ and ‘dippy’ when she is playing Jo, perhaps that is a little unfair to the actress who tries to imbue as much spunk as possible into her performance. It is however entirely fair on the character who comes across, on occasion, as the most naïve and useless of all the Doctor’s companions. In the first few scenes Manning is playing the part with a cartoonish, childlike voice that really accentuated that this was an older woman playing a younger one. Jo’s Uncle that got her the job with UNIT once visited the death amps from World War II and even after all those years you could still feel the death and despair in the air. It’s when Manning goes for moral indignation that the old Jo we know and love emerges, almost as if she suddenly remembers how to pitch the character. Stamping her little feet against the injustices of the universe. Jo is interrogated, insulted, tortured and generally abused throughout this story. I can’t think of another story where she is treated so badly. It’s like she’s wandered into a New Adventure. Jo gathers a lot of spunk as the adventure continues, she’s separated from the Doctor throughout, asks all the right questions and drives the story in her own subplot. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t inventive characterisation of a companion (I would expect nothing less proactive from assistants such as Sarah Jane, Leela and Romana) but for Jo Grant this is much more passionate than Jo is often written.

Great Ideas: The last time the Doctor was on Far they were building a hyper-spatial gateway on the surface. It’s a super booster for hyperspace travel, built to bring relief to the many starving outer colonies. The Daleks have been fighting for every inch of territory over a hundred-star systems. The Daleks have created an enormous robotising transmitter dish on Far which can be turned on any attacking force and can be used to enslave an entire army.

Audio Landscape: ‘I’m going to give myself loads of dialogue where I can shout a lot as Daleks! Bwahahahahahahahaha! All shall languish in the thrall of my mighty Dalek voices!’

Isn’t it Odd: It almost feels cruel criticising a story like this with it’s by the numbers narrative, thin characterisation, unmemorable dialogue and predictable twists. Oh wait, I just did. No need to slaughter it any further then. ‘We are the Daleks, we do bad things, we scream exterminate, we are starving the universe, we will chase you, we have a massive army hidden away…’ The Daleks should never, ever be this foreseeable and banal. They aren’t the bogeymen of the Doctor Who universe in stories like this, they’re just cardboard monsters going through the motions.

Standout Scene: The end of part three is supposed to be a climactic moment where the Doctor is walking into a trap. Like the Doctor has never walked into a trap before?

Result: The sheer hubris of Briggs deciding ‘I quite like Planet of the Daleks so I’m going write and direct sequel’ is almost enough to see him through with this one. Planet is such a gloriously ripe piece of Doctor Who, uncompromising in its traditional nature, that anything that tried to ape it, especially if that something is written and directed by Nicholas Briggs (who is practically the love child of Terrance Dicks when it comes to churning out traditional stories), is going to give you an instant shot of Doctor Who. Like Who heroin, it’s going to give you an instant glow of fanboy. Briggs has become the single auteur of Doctor Who now, having written and directed more stories than anybody else. Is his ego so monstrously swollen that nobody else can be trusted to realise his work? Or is it simply that he is a writer that likes to express himself in other ways? When, as Sandifer pointed out recently, Big Finish is releasing such a monstrous amount of content but it is being produced by such a small pool of writers and directors it does seem to emphasise the boys club nature of the company that the same man can perform so many duties within the company. The fact that Briggs is also acting within the production stretches this vanity project to its limit. The Conquest of Far is built up of so many Doctor Who clichés (starving colonies, ridiculous technology, running around jungle planets, a Dalek army, a secret weapon) and so many Big Finish clichés (Daleks, Daleks, Daleks…seriously how many times can they wheel out these metal meanies for another climactic showdown?) that you practically don’t have to listen to the details, just let the wave of Doctor Who hit you and carry you along. If you’re aware of basic storytelling on any level then there are no surprises in The Conquest of Far, it follows a very predictable plotting pattern (the biggest mystery is what secret the Daleks are riding and even that isn’t as revelatory as in other stories) and takes the regulars from one danger to another with predictable repetition. This exists to exist, to tick boxes and fulfil clichés. It’s possibly the most perfunctory of all Big Finish stories, and that’s against some stiff competition. We’ve got the stage now where Big Finish has used the Daleks so much that they have utilised plague planets, gone corporate, sung, gone Soviet, appeared on the bottles of squash, turned into a toy army…they have been beaten into every shape imaginable. So whilst a newbie might find the idea of a gun which turns resistance groups into Robomen an innovative idea, I’m afraid to a BF novice this is small fry. And yet it is imbued with energy thanks to Briggs’ direction, Treloar and Manning are giving it their all, Jamie Robertson provides a terrific score and it’s hard to kick a puppy that is trying so hard to impress with something so commonplace. I’ve said this before, if this was your first Doctor Who audio you might be mightily impressed. It feels authentic. It’s exciting. It has Daleks screaming Exterminate a lot. But speaking as somebody who has sat through what feels like an entire lifetime of audio stories now this kind of throwaway confection doesn’t cut the mustard. Despite my tone, I had fun with this but it was entirely down to the efforts of everybody but the writer. Which is an odd thing to say given who the director is: 5/10

Monday, 20 August 2018

Red Planets written by Una McCormack and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: London, 2017. Except... it isn't. Berlin, 1961. But it isn't that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong. While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern-day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and 'right', which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy. Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way... But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality. And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?

The Real McCoy: The Doctor considers the 1960s the golden age of music, film and television and a perfectly splendid place to put Ace down for a while. He’s far grumpier about 2017; melting ice caps, seas of plastic, species after species disappearing into nothing. He seems to subscribe to the ideal that the 60s was a brighter period for the 60s, a post war glow that everything was going to be alright before everything went horribly wrong. The Doctor sighs at another version of the Earth where human beings simply cannot get along. It’s easy for him to be cynical about these things. He denies everything as a matter of form. I’ve heard that there is a taste of the New Adventures about this and the way that the Doctor is condemned in episode three definitely brought back that ugly feeling of him being blamed for every wrong turn in the universe that that series books promoted.

Oh Wicked: Enters the story kicking and screaming, which as I have discussed a million times before isn’t Sophie Aldred’s forte. Maybe when she was younger and on television she convinced as an aggressive teenager with a pleasingly physical performance but in later years she merely sounds like an older woman standing in front of a microphone trying to sound like an aggressive teenager. The effect isn’t quite the same. Because Ace has been separated from the Doctor and Mel and sent off on a mission by the Doctor this has the feel of a New Adventure. You know where the Doctor treated his companions more like subordinates than friends.

Aieeeeeeeeee: Mel is a absolutely terrifying as a Soviet drone, spouting propaganda and sounding every bit the Russian Nazi (I realise that is a contradiction in terms). What’s a shame is that this robotic propaganda machine is very soon replaced with the Mel we know and love. She’s corrupted by the timeline but instead of being a willing participant in it (which would have been so interesting) she instead tries to puzzle out the core timeline in her head and questions this fresh history that has been dumped there. Had Mel been the villain of the piece, spreading the Soviet ideal, it would have been a deliciously dark new spin on the alternative universe timeline. Unfortunately, McCormack isn’t that brave. Langford is still on top form regardless, she’s the strongest actor in the regular cast by a country mile. She doesn’t overplay the dialogue like Aldred or misunderstand it like McCoy, she gives a consistently dramatic and subtle performance. Everything changes in the timeline and yet everything falls into place to create a Melanie Bush in this timeline? Surely that’s a little too much of a co-incidence.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You should all by playing with your IPads and worrying about petty politics!’
‘There’s always someone who wants to be free and always someone willing to use force to stop them.’
‘You’re just another thug in a world of thugs.’
‘One false move and Europe comes tumbling down…’
‘I think we’re talking to the future.’

Great Ideas: The Berlin Wall was taken down when Germany reunited in 1984. Germany became part of the International Communist Republic of Mokoshia. Communism didn’t collapse in the 90s, it spread throughout Western Europe. 100 years of comradeship later and the peace, love and understanding that sprung from these changes is rife. England is now the British Commune, the Queen abdicated and lives as a normal citizen now. After initial dissent a coalition was formed and the People marched on the West (with a lot of tanks in tow). The whole of Europe unified under the flag of Mokoshia.

Musical Cues: I’ve come to expect more from Big Finish than a recycled score. This shares the same composer as Static, and it shares a lot of the same cues as well. I think in a range that offers very little in the way of bonus content for a shortish story at a high price the least you can expect is original material within. Static’s music was very effective (that’s why it’s repetition here is so blatant) but I would suggest that if the choice of composer cannot yield a first-hand score that Big Finish think about using somebody else. At least the music in the last episode is halfway to convincing you that exciting things are happening.

Isn’t it Odd: I don’t mind if a plot doesn’t make immediate sense, after all who wants all the answers up front. But the first scene in Red Planets is so confused and obscure I stepped into this story with a huge frown on my face. How this new world is presented in the first episode isn’t through its characters but a massive info dump from Mel and the Doctor trying to catch up. I feel that McCormack could have been more imaginative in how she painted this world, entangling the regulars in some action so that the reality of the altered Earth could be eeked out slowly. There’s a lot of suspense that is squandered by handing out the answers immediately. Whatever happened to an episode one full of mystery? I though Big Finish could indulge in that because the new series couldn’t (whose episodes reveal the nature of the story and where they are usually before the pre-credits sequence). I really want to feel like these seventh Doctor/Ace/Mel stories are evolving the characters or pulling them into a cohesive whole and bringing out new shades as a team but with a story like this where they are separated throughout it feels as if they are trying to achieve the opposite. It’s a stark contrast the sixth Doctor/Constance/Flip combination, which has gelled far more effectively and progressively. Entire episodes of exposition and chatter, with a spark of energy at the climax because a cliff-hanger is required. Ultimately this story is terribly plot driven but I didn’t feel that it was personal enough. I question whether Tom Macrae pushed the domestic angle too much in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel but at least he attempted to show the impact of an alternative world on the characters that it was foreign to. McCormack presents an alternative world and the only person who really objects is the Doctor, and the seventh Doctor at that, and he was never going to be an adequate identification figure. ‘It’s worse than that…we’re running out of timeline!’ probably looked better on the page than it sounded in reality. The reason the timelines diverged is a stray plot point in a narrative cul de sac…it’s not the revelatory moment it should have been. Because the bomb is introduced late, there is no time for any character fallout. So it’s all about restoring the status quo rather than the story having any kind of impression.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three where the two plots, mostly disconnected until that point, finally come together in a dramatic moment. Beware your ears, there’s plenty of screaming.

Result: ‘The International Ideal that Unites the Human Race…’ There’s a great idea at the heart of Red Planets that attempts to shift the very old hat idea of a parallel Earth along and that is that Mel’s memory has been corrupted by this timeline and she remembers the edited version of her home world. That has the potential for some seriously powerful drama. The trouble with Red Planets is this Soviet inspired version of the Earth never truly convinces, it isn’t given enough colour or detail to truly come alive. So unfortunately we have a companion lost in a perverted timeline that fails to convince. A problem. Another idea that should have been pushed far more than it is the intriguing notion that the new timeline is a more productive, prosperous one. There is the odd sly dig at how unscrupulous culture and politics are in the real 2017 but it could have been a much angrier attack on the world we know and love. With the same premise, Robert Holmes would have killed this subject matter (think The Sun Makers). There’s a strong role for the Doctor in this, condemning aforementioned alternative timeline, but McCoy’s performance veers between dangerous and embarrassing. He occasionally sounds like he is in complete control of the story but more often gives the impression he has only just looked at the script. It’s a common complaint of mine that his unorthodox acting choices leaves a very inconsistent taste in the mouth. Occasionally he’s completely in sync with the script and for my money in those stories he’s the best audio Doctor, but those stories are few and far between and the result is often like this. Awkward. You’ve got all the elements of a spellbinding Doctor Who story; an intriguing premise with room for racial and political commentary, a narrative split between three regulars, an SF subplot that affects the main action, a Doctor who doesn’t like what is happening at all and isn’t afraid to say so and companions who are impacted by events. This should have been a gripping, emotional, intelligent ride. Instead it’s wordy, overly expository, awkwardly plotted and lacking a spark that would really bring it to life and connect with me. What you have is a story that is attempting to press all the right buttons but never kicking into gear, a story that is half way there to achieving it’s aim of creating a talking point but never having the nuts to slaughter its target. You’ve got Jamie Anderson’s lively direction to help (but in such a wordy script he’s not given much to work with) and a star turn from an increasingly wasted Bonnie Langford to enjoy, at least. I don’t know if it was my imagination but the episodes felt very short, and the last episode felt particularly plot heavy without much effective wrap up. An extra point because the last 15 minutes upped the dramatic tension coniderably: 5/10

Friday, 10 August 2018

The Story of Extinction written by Ian Atkins and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it About: Civilisations rise and fall – and few planets have seen this happen more often than Amyrndaa. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria join a survey team to find out why on the planet where everything is suited to creating life, nothing lives for long...

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor often casts an excited eye on the activity around him; he’s the observer, taking in every detail, assessing, quietly. If you’re a data archaeologist you would only have to spend a short amount of time in the Doctor’s company to realise that he could be a massive help. I love the idea of the Doctor as a monster spectacle portent of doom – Troughton especially because he gets het up in the most huffy puffy of ways (Hines captures it well here). A bit like Davison in Snakedance, trying to warn everybody of their folly feels like spitting into the wind. He tries to play surrogate father to Victoria but he’s not really that sort of person.

Young Scot: It always felt that Jamie developed an affection for Victoria simply because she was a pretty damsel in distress. Of all the female companions that he travelled around with it was with Victoria that he clearly had the most time for. Polly was far too enamoured with Ben (and with good reason) to register and Zoe was like the brainy little sister that got on your nerves to him. When Victoria left it was a moment of heartbreak for the Scot. There was a real connection there, and it feels almost like a break up when she decides to leave the TARDIS, and Jamie. This audio is punctuated with scenes of Victoria teaching Jamie how to read in some very sweet scenes and serves to remind how the companion chronicles can add shades to existing relationships. If Victoria spent time with Jamie, patiently teaching him language and grammar, those are gifts that are incalculable. He learns in a very blunt way, arguing that things should be pronounced a certain way and questioning the inconsistencies of announciated grammar. It’s easy to forget that Jamie is a companion very like Leela, an uneducated warrior because Hines quickly developed him into a much more fashionable character. It’s in moments like this where the similarities between the two are highlighted. Jamie is a fighter but how can you fight knowledge?

Screaming Violet: She’s never lied to a constable before and if her father knew, he would be appalled. She references Alice in Wonderland, the writer giving some attention to the literature that Victoria would have read. It is very easy to slip into the habit that Jamie and Victoria are contemporary characters because they are often portrayed with such brio and I’m glad that that did not happen here. Highlighting her prim and fusty Victoria values is part of her charm. Victoria is still shocked that she talks so freely about alien planets as though that were a normal thing to do. The fear that she felt when facing the monsters was a fear of loneliness; Victoria doesn’t think that Jamie ever felt it or that Doctor understood it. Her father trusted the Doctor, and trusted him with Victoria.

Standout Performance: Frazer Hines is almost too good for these audio stories now; extremely comfortable in his urgent narration, and perfectly capturing the Doctor and Jamie.

Great Ideas: The Doctor is right, intelligent monsters are the scariest. Especially when they are hiding in plain sight. I like the idea of the pages of a book unfolding into something spectacular and creepy – it feels like a deleted scene from The Mind Robber. A monster that lives in the stories we tell. A story that can adapt, evolve, grow murderous. You become so captivated by the story that you forget everything else. Even the name is genius: the Storyform.

Audio Landscape:
Data archaeologists specialise in information; how it is being used and what it says about a civilisation. It’s a rare discipline and this planet must have a fascinating history for it to need so many data archaeologists.

Standout Scene: The cliff-hanger is particularly good because the menace springs from an unexpected source but one from which if you have been paying attention should be obvious. It’s a tricksy idea, a monster built out of knowledge but I thought it was pulled off quite adeptly here thanks to a sympathetic sound designer and terrific support from the actors essentially reacting to words coming to life.

Result: ‘V is for Victoria…’ An unexpected gem, quiet and characterful. If I went in to a companion chronicles expecting something as unassuming as The Story of Extinction I might be put off by the sheer lack of drama that of the first half of the story but that gives plenty of time over to the characters and on that front it scores very highly. Victoria has never been written for this adeptly on audio before and it feels particularly appropriate to listening to a story that treats her character so sensitively in the wake of Deborah Watling’s death. I’ve never been the greatest fan of her performances on audio in her later years but this proved to me that she has the stuff as long as the script gives her the right opportunities and the director gives her the breathing room to simply act. I was quite surprised at how close I felt to Victoria here, a character that has never been one of my favourites and just how it exposes that season five, for all its sunny repartee between the regulars, missed some opportunities to do more complex things. I liked the subtle use of menace throughout this story too with a very conceptual nasty that gets the creative juices flowing when you think of the many ways it could have manifested. This isn’t a story that is going for all out chills but instead wants to quietly dazzle you with its ideas, reach into your head and use your knowledge disturbingly. The direction almost fights against the drama at times, going for a gentle approach but this actually works in the story’s favour, adding a warmness to the character scenes (in particular Victoria teaching Jamie) and providing an easy listen overall. Does every Doctor Who story have to pitched at 11? Do we need overblown histrionics every week? Can Big Finish produce works that take a mild, intellectual approach to it’s writing and direction and still be very worthy of a listen. I think The Story of Extinction proves that they can. How those moments where Victoria was teaching Jamie to read was made a vital plot point was inspired. And you cannot say that the truth isn’t in the title: 8/10