Saturday, 29 September 2018

Signs written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips. Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch. But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…

Hello Sweetie: The opening scene of Sign contains a ruse that seems to suggest that River is going to have some kind of alternative death to the one which was on screen. It’s a similar problem to the one that the classic Doctors have with Big Finish (and all of the televisions companions). They have already been given a beginning, middle and end in their television adventures and so Big Finish is merely filling in the gaps (and hopefully enhancing them along the way). To suggest that this is where River gets off is fruitless, it’s false tension, because we know that she is going to end up plugging herself into CAL and losing her life. A shame, because otherwise this was a pretty arresting opening. The Doctor has so many faces and she finds all of them infuriating. River is pretty annoyed to be dying. She wakes up having forgotten and then she remembers and then she wishes she had never woken up. I can imagine that is what a lot of terminally ill people go through each day. River genuinely believes this is the Doctor in her company and so we get a very intimate rendition of her boundless affection for him. Recently I found the inclusion of a plot driven brain tumour in The Dispossessed an extremely tasteless experience and especially how flippant the dialogue was about how easily it could be cured and how the revelation about it was dropped with relatively little reaction. James Goss shows how a real person would react to a terminal illness here, by having River express anger and frustration and desperation. It’s quite subtly done, which I weirdly through putting her through this terrible ordeal I felt closer to the character than ever before. I was like that with Clara too; generally, a character I couldn’t warm to but when she was put through the physical or emotional wringer (Dark Water, Last Christmas), it was easy to empathise. In the previous story River was praised for her deductive capabilities but it is in this story where she really expresses them. She considers the Doctor to be her idiot and if there is another iteration of the Doctor to get to know then there is another life to live. When her gloves come off and she confronts ‘the Doctor’, River’s nasty side emerges and Kingston is impressively frightening.

Standout Performance: Samuel West has quite a tricky job to perform here and he handles himself with great aplomb. He has to try and convince that he is an incarnation of the Doctor that we have never met before and sell that Doctor to River, a woman who knows him intimately well. I really liked that he didn’t try and make him too confident or cocky or even too eccentric. He generally convinces because he is up for anything, he’s by her side and he encourages her to do what she does best. I thought it was a rather impressive turn, and given this is a two hander it is rather important that they get the chemistry between the two characters right.

Great Ideas: The SporeShips are like doodlebugs, flying out into space and dropping onto worlds and obliterating life. They are one of the great mysteries of the cosmos….along with all the others. Nobody knows very much about them, or how long they have been at this. Are they doing all this at random? Or by design? All the worlds they have landed on are now dead it has never been spotted that the SporeShips have never ‘attacked’ a planet without life on it. None of the boring worlds. That’s not random, that’s a plan. Are the SporeShips attempting to wipe out civilisations that are getting out of control? Somewhere in the Dark Time a race glimmered into existence and they flourished and brunt brightly. But they’re time was over so quickly, it turned out that their great universe that they felt so proud of was only theirs on loan for a little while and they felt jealous. And so their last of creation was to create the SporeShips and they didn’t want anyone else to enjoy their universe. Or are the SporeShips the leftover remnants of the weapons that destroyed the last universe, or that they’ve slipped back from the end of this one. Let’s posit a race, the first people. They sowed a range of species on different planets and then stepped back and left them to develop. They’re using the spores to thin out the worlds that are developing in the wrong way.

Isn’t it Odd: As soon as this fellow pretending to be the Doctor states that maybe they should pop off and leave this population to the fate of the SporeShip – that some events are fixed points in time – I knew this could never be the real deal. The Doctor has used this excuse before but only when he was sure. To abandon people on a chance that this is a fixed point, without even trying, is not like the Doctor at all. I really liked, however, how like the Doctor he ultimately turns out to be. From a race of indolent people, a reactionary, a revolutionary.

Standout Scene: River delivering a speech about the SporeShips to the many iterations of the Doctor. It’s quite a surreal moment when you realise who the applauding audience are.

Result: It’s almost a shame that the second the Doctor gets involved in the action that the interest levels of this box set improve exponentially. I say almost because to have something worth listening to is a godsend after the first two instalments. However, I do think that this series should have had time to establish itself before introducing elements of Doctor Who into the mix because now it feels as though it has been a bit of a failure and it needs the support of big brother to make it through the finish line. Look at The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, both forging their identities before introducing the Doctor into their worlds. Whilst Signs isn’t quite what it first appears to be, it carries all of that Doctor Who baggage with it and a borrowed relationship from the TV series. A lot of the substance here is because so much groundwork has been done in the first place. Now, stop being such a pessimist, Joe and tell everybody why this one was a winner. It’s a two hander, very nicely written with some juicy dialogue, a twisty turny plot and a surprising climax. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Kingston and West and even though we know that this cannot be the Doctor (Unbound aside, Big Finish would never be given permission to start making up new Doctors) there is enough substance (the mutual respect, the flirting, the shared history) to make it feasible. If it was unconvincing then River would look stupid and that’s something that should never be allowed to happen, not in a box set that is supposed to be convincing us that she can work on audio. The SporeShips are the first great idea of the set, a genuinely intriguing mystery for River and the ‘Doctor’ to solve that has serious consequences if they don’t. There is something of the Hoothi about them but that’s a pretty fearsome foe to get your inspiration from. If the first story was your bog-standard Benny and the second was your traditional Doctor Who story, then Signs is the first tale that aspires to be something with a little more initiative. It’s also infused with a passion that the first half of the set lacked, a passion in the writing and a passion between the characters. Alex Kingston delivers a very strong performance, raising her game as the material offers her more opportunities. You can always rely on James Goss to bring something fresh to the table, and he doesn’t disappoint. It feels like a story worthy of the character: 8/10

Friday, 28 September 2018

I Went to a Marvellous Party written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song always enjoys a good party, even when she’s not entirely sure where or when the party is taking place. But the party she ends up at is one where not everything – or indeed everyone – is what it seems… Being River, it doesn’t take her too long to go exploring, and it doesn’t take her too long to get into trouble. The sort of trouble that involves manipulating other civilisations, exploitation, and of course murder. River is confident she can find the killer. But can she identify them before anyone else – or quite possibly everyone else – gets killed?

Hello Sweetie: This is exactly what I was expecting to see when I approached a River Song box set, her travelling in space (and the future) and being set in some indeterminate point in her timeline, hob-nobbing it at all the best parties. Speaking as somebody who has been manipulated her entire life by events and villains, River is appalled at the idea of a ship that is playing the game of manipulating planets as though they were a computer game. There is a mention of Melody Malone and how River has the most impressive of deductive minds. That’s some claim to make in a script that she now has to live up to.

Not Bill: Bertie makes a reappearance in this story, and it’s clear that he had full knowledge of the previous adventure before they even embarked on it. Who is this mysterious man from the future pretending to be an archaeologist from the past? For once River is the one without the answers, which is quite a refreshing reversal. His organisation comprises of the great and the good from across the galaxy. The people who really make things happen, the true rulers of the universe.

Standout Performance: Even the performances in this story lack energy. Scenes of exposition in the middle of the tale are delivered with all the excitement of somebody doing their online shopping over the telephone.

Sparkling Dialogue: Functional as hell.

Great Ideas: Manipulating economy and society development is a dangerous game. It’s a complex skill, knowing to nudge and how far. When they should discover fire or the silicon chip. How their markets should be formed. Who should win a particular election. Eliminating free will and playing God.

Audio Landscape: Bentley’s direction of the first two stories has not been to his usual standard. I didn’t get a sense of a genuine period setting in The Boundless Sea and I Went to a Marvellous party was a chance to immerse the listener in a glorious party atmosphere but it feels subdued and lacking elegance for the most part. Back when he was a newbie on the seventh Doctor trilogies his direction was the crème de la crème but of late there is a predictability and lack of focus to his work. And I’m shocked at how lackadaisical the performances are here, even Alex Kingston sounds pretty bored by events.

Isn’t it Odd: I think River needs a constant companion rather than eventually teaming up with people on these adventures. Whilst the latter does give her the chance to mix and match who she is talking to on a story by story basis, the former would give her the chance to develop some rapport with people and prevent her from talking to herself to let the audience know what is going on. There is a very good reason why the Doctor has a companion. Exposition, questions, elucidation.

Result: Somehow this is even less dynamic than The Boundless Sea, so we’ve gone from stifling a yawn to actively staring at a watch. Remember what I said about the last story being safe…well can you imagine a more careful pair of hands than Justin Richards when it comes to Doctor Who stories? This was his chance to break free of the customary mould and deliver something spectacularly imaginative. He’s written a murder mystery on a spaceship. Doctor Who has been doing that for donkey’s years. Gosh, Blakes’ 7 was doing that in it’s first season. It’s so lacking in inspiration and originality – Richards himself has written several murder mysteries in the past and much better examples than this (The Medusa Effect would be my recommendation) – that I was hoping that it was going to be some kind of ironic comment on predictability of the genre. But no, it is just a murder mystery on a space ship. Terror of the Vervoids did it better. It might have been a bit frivolous and phallic but it had a plot that was bursting with ideas, red herrings, fun characters (all of whom seemed to be guilty of something) and lots of incident. You see? I’m discussing a Doctor Who story instead of I Went to a Marvellous Party because this story is so ordinary and prosaic. River Song is a marvellous anomaly of time travel, sex and a domestic attachment to the Doctor. She’s a firework of ideas (even if occasionally misconceived) and surprises. To have her take place in a story this commonplace is like fundamentally misunderstanding what the character stands for. I couldn’t even be arsed to write about the details of the plot because they are just so mind-numbing. It would be a waste of my time. Richards, once the twist master of the novel line, fails to generate any bombshells. And this is a damn murder mystery! The best thing I can say about I Went to a Marvellous Party is that it is mercifully short, which is a blessing: 3/10

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses. But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River. Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?

I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve put off reviewing this series until the last possible moment. But it has come to a point now (four series in and with more to come) that if I don’t get on top of this there will be far too much material and I will never bother. And the truth I am genuinely interested to see what Big Finish have to say about River and how she will be handled by writers other than her creator. God bless Big Finish, they have become the retirement home of all those characters that the TV series has exhausted or simply moved on from. Whether it’s Churchill or Lady Christina or old Doctors or New Earth or River or Missy…this seems to be where all popular TV characters come to die. I know I have made the joke before but I swear it won’t be long until Big Finish tackled London Investigation’N’Detective Agency (LINDA for short). There are two ways of looking at this. Big Finish are giving these characters a whole new lease of life and a chance to breathe in a brand-new medium, offering a chance for these characters to take the lead role rather than playing sidekick to the Doctor. That’s the optimists POV. Alternatively, you might think that Big Finish are the ultimate leechers of any half popular figure from televised Doctor Who, cynically cashing in on the New Series logo and spreading the talent of their best writers thinly (and producing their most mediocre work because of it) amongst a multitude of unnecessary ranges. At the very least these new ranges could be handed to fresh writers to the company as a chance to open out their writing pool, which has become extremely insular. Do we need the further adventures of Lady Christina? Was everybody deeply fascinated about the continuing meetings between Churchill and the Doctor? My opinion lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the early spin of successes of Big Finish was the Dorian Gray series. A dark, emotional, complex series with a central protagonist who is ageless and thus the series can jump up and down his time stream, switching genres and tones. With bite sized instalments, stunning production values, a terrific central performance from Alexander Vlahos and most importantly of all script writing of a very high standard this series really stood out as a hard hitting, adult and deliciously exciting avenue for Big Finish to explore. Why are you talking about Dorian Gray when this is a review about River Song? Because River has as confused and complex a timeline as Dorian and one of things that began to emerge from the reviews that I was reading was that this series has the opportunity to dip in and out of the various moments of her life. That’s pretty exciting. It means it not only attempts to enhance the TV stories that she appeared in (and boy do some of them need it), not only does it give fresh writers the chance to tackle the character at various stages of her life but it also means the series has a chance to be unpredictable, diverse and imaginative with where it sets its stories. If you don’t like the idea of a Melody Malone adventure, hang on because Madame Kovarian is back in the next story. If you’re not keen on that idea, she’s romancing Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. Whilst Big Finish have perhaps taken the idea that River has met every Doctor to its extreme (and now with her meeting every iteration of the Master it’s like the fanwank cannot stop gushing) but you have to admire their attempts to keep this series fresh and interesting, and in how they appeal to regular Doctor Who fans whilst doing so. It kind of reminds me of another Archaeological Adventurer that Big Finish has on their books with a rich history that they can dip in and out of and in which they have in recent years added elements of Doctor Who to keep people interested.

Hello Sweetie: So why was I so reluctant to pick up this set and give it a whirl? Well, River herself mostly. I’m of the opinion (and you can shoot me down in flames like this) that River was at her best in her first story (the Library where she was a genuinely interesting portent of the future) and in her last (Husbands, where River’s timeline came full circle, she was at peace with herself and had finally come to realise that she wasn’t the be all and end all of the Doctors life). Everything in between ranged between entertaining (I enjoyed her appearances in series five on the whole, even though the continuing mystery of her identity was dragged out far too long for no decent narrative reason) to the toe curlingly awful (much of series six where the series became so obsessed with River and her timeline that the show got lost up its timey wimey rectum). Come A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler I just wanted her to go away; she was turning the series into something nonsensical, smug and overtly sexual in misogynistic way. Mostly because of River, series six is a no-go area for me. I simply cannot bring myself to watch the majority of it again. The scene where she is murdering people and the Doctor is visibly turned on by it might just be the nadir of NuWho. Forget the Moon being an egg. None of this is entirely the fault of Alex Kingston, who is a powerhouse in the role but she can only say the words that have been given and if Steven Moffat chooses to write her as a vacuous, violent, deeply self-satisfied space bitch then that is the performance that she has to give. At times I think that even Kingston lost herself a bit in the role, expressing an over confidence when a subtler interpretation might have made the character more palatable. It’s interesting that I highlight her first and last appearances as her best because I think they highlight precisely what I am talking about. In The Library the mystery of her character is raised and it is long before the series has become obsessed with the character, and in Husbands it is after the series has fallen out of love with the her. And in both Kingston is much less overt and in your face and far more reticent in the role, whilst still maintain her charisma. The question is…which way are the audios going to go?

In a bland direction, apparently. River comes highly recommended as an archaeologist. For once there is a damn good reason for River to be pushing her gender in peoples faces. If that makes it sound like I don’t like strong women, nothing could be further from the case. My point I that strong women don’t have to point out that they are strong women, they simply are strong women without any kind of label. She’s stuck in the early years of the 20th Century where women had to work damn hard to prove themselves in any kind of academic field and River simply runs rings around the lot of them (but then with her knowledge of future events, like Bernice, why wouldn’t she?). She’s had her fill of travelling and just wants peace and quiet to finish her studies (year, right). River did love her husband and she died for him for him many times. Life has been cruel to her and she can be very angry about that. You might call that revelatory dialogue but there’s nothing there that we didn’t already know.

Standout Performance: It just goes to show what good writing can bring out in an actor. I had no clue until about halfway through this story that Bertie Potts was being played by Alexander Vlahos himself, who I lauded so much praise just a few paragraphs ago. Potts is a desperately tiresome character; a sexist, arrogant man who turns on a sixpence when he opens out to River and suddenly starts treating her with respect. I would have had more respect for the man had he maintained his misogynistic ideals throughout, it would have at least have shown some consistency of character. Vlahos struggles gamely to give him some element of likeability, and fails.

Musical Cues: A huge swelling orchestra of a score…but let’s be honest River was never going to be introduced in any other way than the most dramatic way possible. In fact, the theme is rather good. It begins wistfully before gaining melodramatic momentum before bursting and suggesting a life full of fun and adventure.

Isn’t it Odd: Can you imagine anything more obvious than explaining the ability to travel the stars and the web of time through HG Wells? Or to sum it up with ‘Space is big.’

Result: I don’t know what I was expecting from a River Song series…but the last thing I was expecting was something this safe. The opening fifteen minutes are incredibly lethargic and slow to get to the point. We are introduced to a number of secondary characters, none of whom are especially relevant (let’s call them fodder) or interesting and River taking a backseat and simply hanging around and studying is hardly the most dynamic way to introduce her character. I can imagine Colgan figured the idea of River resting in a period setting would equal an atmospheric listen but there’s a lack of detail in the setting (both in the writing and the direction) that separated me from the story. I’ve always said that with any new series I will give its pilot a watch and a chance to impress in some small way. An idea, a character, a twist, a line even. Something that makes me sit back and raise and eyebrow and think ‘this is worth sticking with.’ The Boundless Sea serves as a pilot for the River Song series and whilst it certainly wasn’t incompetently told or directed, there was no point where I had one of those wow moments. For the most part my reaction was ‘meh.’ River comes up against sexism in the early 1900s. River digs about for things. River finds an unexpected treasure. River unearths deep dark secrets. River wins over her sceptics. If this was a Bernice Summerfield script I would be rolling my eyes at the tiredness of it all (Benny uncovers civilisations every other week) but as the opening punch to a brand-new spin of it is astonishing in its lack of audaciousness. And it’s lack of danger and thrills. Amazingly, I found myself longing for some of Steven Moffat’s irritating timey wimeyness to liven things up…or at least some smug one liners! The dialogue is functional rather than crisp, the characterisation was predictable rather than exciting and the plotline was mundane rather than riveting. Perhaps Big Finish just isn’t good at kick starting their ranges? I don’t think that is necessarily true (say Dalek Empire and Cyberman both opened with something pretty memorable) but the wave of new ranges lately have meant that the novelty of such things has worn off and it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd. And this just doesn’t cut the mustard. Ah well, things can only get better: 4/10

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The Highest Science written by Gareth Roberts (adapted by Jacqueline Rayner) and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Highest Science. The pinnacle of knowledge and a terrible weapon. A legend – nothing more. Sheldukher. The most wanted criminal in the galaxy. Evil to the core and hungry for power, whatever the cost. The Chelonians. A vast military power, pledged to eradicate human parasites wherever they are found. The Doctor. An ancient and wise Time Lord tracking a temporal fluctuation that endangers the universe itself. Some things should never meet, but as Professor Summerfield is about to discover, the universe is full of coincidences.

Master Manipulator: He’s an expert in doo-dahs (that bleep of course) that track down Fortean Flickers. Sometimes Benny wishes the Doctor wouldn’t treat the universe as if it was all his personal responsibility. The Doctor walks from the TARDIS and is immediately shot at – it pretty much sums up his life (and certainly the end of his life in this incarnation). When he is alone he reveals that searching for the Fortean Flicker isn’t his own motive for coming to Sakrat, that he had an interest in the secrets of the Highest Science all along. The Doctor has the perfect weapon when it comes to war: diplomacy. This is script that puts the Doctor first and foremost, which is unusual for the New Adventures and he gets to pratfall his way through the disparate strands of the narrative, making silly jokes, striding amongst his enemies and generally holding up a mirror to how ridiculous everybody is. He’s a little bit magical in that sense, in how he can convince you this story is a decent one when he is around. It’s worth listening to this just to hear McCoy delivery his Irish accent. He’s quick to tell Sheldukher that he was rrrrrremembered and rrrrrrreviled. Too late is something he will never accept. He’s crossed the timelines so many times in the TARDIS that he is now extremely sensitive to temporal disturbances. His head fuzzes up and he wants to be sick. Listen to the Doctor growl when he warns of entering his mind and how nobody is ready to face that, He’s right, I certainly wouldn’t want to root around in this incarnations diseased brain. He once had to convince a deranged dishwasher that it didn’t want to take over the universe. It’s a shame we aren’t listening to that story.

Archaeological Adventuress: Given that this comes directly after Love and War and that Big Finish have already made the adaptation of that story, I was surprised at how relaxed the chemistry between the Doctor and Bernice was. They have only just met in relative terms and literally only just started their adventures together in the TARDIS and yet there is no sense that they are feeling their way in…more that they are just sort of already there. I get it, Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman have been working together since 1989 on Doctor Who related projects and there must be a very relaxed feeling between them (she has even directed him on a fair few instances). That’s where the director should have stepped in and reminded them that this is the start of their journey together (in character terms) and that they should be a little more tentative and less certain. The Doctor never warned her there would be running, which is something that she never does. Nothing is going to make you feel more ancient than listening to the music that is popular with the kids these days. That must be even more of a problem when you are a time traveller. Halfway through the story there is such a dearth of Bernice you have to wonder why they chose this story to adapt. It’s almost not worth Lisa Bowerman’s time showing up. Benny’s scenes, rubbing shoulders with the equivalent of a space hippy, are the weakest in the play.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When do I get to meet some monsters?’ ‘Never hopefully.’

Great Ideas: Left unchecked, Fortean Flickers can do terrible damage to the Web of Time. Have you ever come across a word somewhere or heard a place name for the first time and then seen it everywhere? It’s the chaotic forces of coincidence that snowball breaking the link in the chain of causality. The Fortean Flicker moves things and people out of place and out of their natural order. The Chelonians consider humanity to be a dangerous parasitic infection. How charming. The project is the ultimate development of the gene laboratories on Checkley’s world. It has the potential to grow, to outthink all other forms of life. Checkley’s world was settled in the year 2190 and the selected site for the proposed scientific frontier; a place where experiments and weapons of war could be conducted and built. In 2389 Sheldukher removed the project from the gene laboratories and destroyed its creator. It was predicated that he would use the project to find the planet Sakrat. The whole citadel is a trick, a trap.

Isn’t it Odd: I always rather liked the Chelonians in the novels, squat, upright turtles with a taste for war and since they were written and created almost exclusively by Gareth Roberts there was a twinkle in how they were written, knowingly masculine and a bit ridiculous for it. It reminded me of how Robert Holmes could treat the Sontarans, especially in The Two Doctors. However, there is something a little flat about their translation to audio that I cannot really explain. Maybe it’s because they are treated in a deathly serious fashion, maybe it’s because they are treated with irritating voice modulation or maybe it is the performances that fail to capture the ironic aggression of the creatures. I’m not sure but these scenes were pretty interminable, especially since they don’t really have any great impact on the main story. The Fortean Flicker feels as though it wants to a massively witty Douglas Adams idea style idea that is introduced and then goes on to have some profound impact on the plot in a very witty, silly, smart way. What it actually turns out to be is a an excuse for the writer to jam together completely disparate plot lines that fail to cohere and have a ready-made excuse for why they are there. Not on my watch mate. It’s like Gareth Roberts is saying ‘it’s funny how things happen’ and then a load of unrelated things happen and then he pops up at the end again and goes ‘see, I told it’s funny how things happen.’ That’s not hanging a lantern, it’s sloppy writing. How bizarre that this should split into episodes as though it was a TV story. The (very short) pre-titles sequence makes no sense out of context and isn’t brought up again until 40 minutes into the story. I was baffled by the lack of interest that Rayner managed to ignite in the titular secret, especially given they have three episodes of build up to play about with. The Highest Science sounds interesting but ultimately amounts to very little. The idea that this whole affair has been to ensnare Sheldukher might have generated some tension had he been a character worth investing in in the first place.

Standout Scene: Astonishingly the story ends with the Doctor putting the entire affair on pause and just leaving…a stunning lack of imagination on the original writer’s part. He suggests that there cannot always be a happy ending with all the loose ends tied up but there are far more effective ways of dealing with an inconclusive ending. Here it just feels as though the writer could not think of a way out of the situation so he just had the Doctor flicking the pause switch and leave. He suggests he might come back and tidy things up but for now this is the best he can do. Do you know what this means? This a Doctor who is out of ideas. Monstrous.

Result: I can remember gobbling down The Highest Science in prose form because after a spate of books that were attempting violently beat Doctor Who into a new adult shape it felt like somebody had remembered that the series can also (and should) be fun. The New Adventures were in danger of turning the Doctor Who universe into a dreary, angst written, violent depiction of misery and high concept pain. Actually 80% of them managed that rather adeptly. So, this book with its silly warlike monsters, gags flying off the page and much warmer Doctor without that fizzing cocktail of adolescence burdening him (Ace) felt like a return to normality. Maybe it’s my age that’s changed my perception because this time around I found the high drama of Love and War compelling and the low rent comedy of The Highest Science bored me. I think it’s more about how these two stories were adapted to audio and how they were realised. Not only does this audio feel utterly disposable for the most part, it also lacks any real comedy or drama for much of it’s run time. The script is kind of bland and the story is delivered in a very po-faced way with the comedy coming from the performances most of the time rather than the script. And when the performances are this compensatory, it’s hard to find the chuckles. It makes me want to go back and read the book because I genuinely remember chortling away to that but I’m starting to wonder now if that was just because the author adopted a frothy tone, which was extremely welcome at the time. The plot feels like a bunch of random junk thrown together but since the writer as good as admits was his intention he should at least be prepared for the audience backlash. The most notorious criminal in the galaxy, space hippies, warlike turtles, a terrible mythological weapon and some travellers from England. There’s no reason why these elements should feel so oddly juxtaposed, this is Doctor Who after all but the discordant way they rub shoulders and the lax way the plot is resolved makes this feel as though it is being made up as it goes along. The climax is particularly detestable. Sylvester McCoy was the most fun thing about this story; an impish, dazzling, unpredictable turn from the least consistent of the audio Doctors. There’s something of the showman in him coming out here, most as if he knew the script was lacking and needed a little extra Doctor razzle dazzle. My biggest problem is that I didn’t care about any of the thinly written guest characters and so it was hard to maintain interest in the mysteries and dangers of the story. Everyone felt underwritten and overplayed, which is quite a feat. This is the fifth New Adventures themed audio I’ve heard (Shadow of the Scourge, The Dark Flame, Damaged Goods, Love and War) and I would say it’s the weakest – The Dark Flame was pretty appalling on every level, but at least it wasn’t inoffensive or bland. I’ve always said Doctor Who can survive anything (even being truly abominable like Time and the Rani because stories like that are just so damn entertaining) but being vanilla. I would have adapted Head Games rather than this. Now that would have been a REALLY fascinating listen. The fact that they managed to condense a novel into a 2-hour play says everything about the denseness of the story at hand. Come the last episode I had lost all interest in what the highest science might be: 4/10

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Love and War written by Paul Cornell (and adapted by Jacqueline Rayner) and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: On a planet called Heaven, all hell is breaking loose. Heaven is a cemetery for both humans and Draconians - a final place of rest for those lost during wartime. The Doctor arrives on a trivial mission - to find a book, or so he says - and Ace, wandering around Joycetown, becomes involved with a charismatic Traveller called Jan. But the Doctor is strenuously opposed to the romance. What is he trying to prevent? Is he planning some more deadly game connected with the coffins revered by the mysterious Church of Vacuum and the unusual Arch that marks the location of a secret building below ground? Archaeologist Bernice Summerfield thinks so. Her destiny is inextricably linked with that of the Doctor, but even she may not be able to save Ace from the Time Lord's plans. This time, has the Doctor gone too far? 

The Real McCoy: ‘Sometimes he way cool and really sweet…and sometimes he’s angry and big. Like it’s really important on the cosmic scale…’ Don’t you just love the idea of the Doctor sitting alone in the TARDIS listening to the universe whispering to him. He recognises that Ace won’t forgive him after his actions in this novel long before he even makes his move. He’s offered the mercy of Death, or a slow murder over ten years but he states powerfully that he would never surrender to either option. He can’t win, whatever he does he loses something. It’s weird to hear him admit that perhaps there are alternatives that he hasn’t thought of. ‘There are huge things happening on this planet and much of it I don’t understand yet’ – wow had the NA Doctor been written more like this I probably would have warmed to him a lot more. Somewhere halfway through the novel run, his Doctor had every story sown up before they had even begun. What’s more important; winning or feeling good about yourself? Because one doesn’t always lead to the other. He doesn’t want to be alone and he doesn’t want Ace to be stuck on this planet in a position of danger. Those two things are a dangerous mix. The Doctor soon learnt that you can’t do deals with Time. The decision that weighs on the Doctor is a huge one because he knows if he goes through with it that Ace will never forgive him. The Hoothi prefer to let people do their work for them and then only make the finishing touches to their plans at the last minute. Ace tellingly points out that that sounds like a Time Lord she knows. She has been travelling with the Doctor a long, long time and finally he sees the true emotional consequences of his actions, of playing the grand chess player. He can’t reason with Ace, he can’t make her understand. His actions turn her into a rabidly angry young woman that he is scared of. Benny on the other hand thinks that he is like every other man, thinking that the ends justify the means. It has occurred to him that he might be wrong, but not this time. 

Oh Wicked: It would hardly come as a great surprise to anybody to hear that I have a few problems with the character of Ace and Sophie Aldred’s continuing portrayal of her. However, my distaste came long before her prolific Big Finish adventures. The rot set in in the New Adventures where she was either portrayed as an angst-ridden teenager who hates the universe and everything (including the Doctor) or portrayed as an angst-ridden adult space marine (don’t ask) who hates the universe and everything (especially the Doctor). What’s interesting about the audio adaptation of Love and War is that in Sophie Aldred’s hands and with a little tweaking from Jac Rayner, the portrayal of Ace far less 90s reactionary and far more like natural character development from what we saw on television. She’s much much more likable here than she ever was in the books. The anger that Ace always seemed to wield is still there but it’s tempered by humour and humanity. Bravo. Aldred genuinely softens the material and makes the developing romance in this story count, just as she did in A Death in the Family. Future writers take note – play to her strengths she enhances the material.

Ace always told herself that if she had money she would give it to people who needed it. That’s very interesting given where Russell T Davies suggested where she ended up. Ace is insanely protective of the Doctor, even to the point of putting her own life in jeopardy. If she has to die with him just so he doesn’t have to die alone, she would do it. Flashbacks to Ace’s past are vital to give her decisions in this story some substance, I was very pleased that Jac Rayner took the step to have her engage with her mother. It’s a relationship that has long been alluded to but never truly experienced. I think I held my breath during those moments. Mentions of Liam (The Rapture) and I loved how similar to Jackie Tyler Audrey was, always entertaining men and not focusing on what is important. It just goes to show that Andrew Cartmel really was passing the baton to RTD. The inference is that Ace behaved so appallingly at school not only because she was an angry kid at an angry time, but because she was trying to get her mothers attention. She very tentatively asks the Doctor about the people that he travels with and whether he chooses them, admits that she is falling in love and is having difficulty in choosing between staying or going with him. She tells him she will never, ever leave him. She wants Jan to join them in the TARDIS, to travel alongside them. Bless Ace when she makes the decision to head off into the stars with Jan never to return. As if it was every going to be that easy. And I like the fact that she asks him to marry her, with Ace it was only ever going to be that way. The engagement is brief and throwaway but the meaning behind it is massive. Especially since Ace thought getting engaged was something that she would never do. It was always going to be with someone a little rough and ready, someone with an edge. It’s rare (especially in Doctor Who) for a romance to develop realistically over one story but Love and War is an exception, partly because of its three hour running time so it has the time luxuriate in Ace and Jan and their burgeoning relationship and partly because Ace walks into this story raw and burnt in love and it’s a natural to cling on to the first man who takes a shine to you when you are that vulnerable (The Green Death was another, which has a similar sort of running time). Ace is so angry with the Doctor for sacrificing Jan she warns that if he lets go of her wrist that she will kill him. That’s how bad things get between them.

Archaeological Adventurer: Enter Bernice. This is HUGE. It’s Bernice Summerfield’s first story. It’s the time before all of the other stories she has experienced in the hands of Big Finish, of Virgin, of the BBC. This is where she entered the Doctor’s life, and ours. She’s been a character I have laughed with, cried with and despaired at at times. She’s the ultimate spin off companion, besting Evelyn and Lucie and Fitz and all the others because she simply keeps on going. Even when her adventures with the Doctor ended, the novel line continued with Benny as the protagonist. Even when the novel line ended she was picked up by Big Finish and a wealth of stories both on audio and prose emerged. She’s unstoppable, constantly evolving. It’s even gotten to a point now where releases celebrating her anniversary are coming, where we are looking back at the early days of Bernice Summerfield with a feeling of nostalgia. Unlike Ace she has the ability to keep churning out fresh stories but never feeling stale. She evolves. She dazzles. Bernice, and Lisa Bowerman deserves a lot of the credit for this, is absolutely addictive. Here in Love and War she joins the Doctor at a turbulent point in his life, she’s the outsider observing the breakdown of his relationship with Ace. As such it’s not a story that is all about the new companion (which is often the case) but one where Bernice is pretty much the outsider. There would be plenty of time to explore this character in full later, at the moment she is on the periphery of all this emotional drama and commenting in her usual good-humoured way.

She’s an atypical archaeologist because she’s as interested in the ale as the cup. Actually, that pretty much sums Benny up rather well. Bernice calls Ace ‘very interesting’ but she has no idea what kind of relationship they are about to enter in to. Benny would spend as much time being terrified of Ace as she would being her friend. It was quite an uncomfortable dynamic (and not in a good way) that would see Ace threatening and abusing Benny, which meant I was entirely on Bernice’s team whilst Ace alienated me completely. Here they are written with a lot of humour, and it’s an approach that makes the dynamic between them sing a lot more mellifluously. Benny is pretty blasé about the TARDIS being a time machine, you would think she would be perfectly excited about the chance to go back experience the times of the artefacts that she has discovered. What’s more surprising – that she was at military academy or that she was a failure? She talks about the Dalek War and her mother’s death, about being sent to military academy as an orphan. Both Benny and Ace found themselves on a remote outpost. She faked her qualifications, and threw herself into work that she perhaps didn’t deserve to do and found out that she was in fact very good at digging up and exploring the past. Benny’s diary was always a wonderful device, whether in prose or in dialogue and it makes it’s first appearance here. It gives Bernice a strong narrative voice, it allows her to reference the past and it gives the character a distinct level of consideration that Ace sorely lacks. Ace spits at the Doctor and Benny that they are a ‘fake mum and dad’, a dysfunctional relationship that lasted far, far too long in the books.

Standout Performance: Seriously, listen to Sophie Aldred narrating the opening sections of this story. She’s excellent. This is what I really call playing to her strengths. It’s what every writer and director should be doing with the long-standing Big Finish regulars, investigating previous stories (it’s not like those stories aren’t there to listen to) and identifying their strengths and weaknesses, avoiding the latter whilst emphasising the former. Since this is Rayner and Russell who have prolific experience with Aldred, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they have captured her character (and shaped her performance) at its best. By the end of the story she is screaming her head off like a wailing banshee again and given what Ace goes through in this story I would almost say it was justified, but it just isn’t Aldred’s forte. I swear she must have to take lozenges into those Big Finish booths the amount they have her balling and wailing and caterwauling. Whilst it might be a little predictable to have space gypsies in the future all voiced by Irish actors, it’s so nice to hear a high number of Irish accents in a story (I think The Settling was the last time it was this prominent).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Deep in the butterfly tunnel of the space/time vortex…’ – The New Adventures could verge on the pretentious at times, but at times the prose was quite beautiful too. It’s worth remembering that.
‘If I get burnt, I get burnt, don’t I?’ – Prophetic words, Ace.
‘Would you say that it was worth sacrificing one person to save the entire galaxy’ ‘It depends on the person, I suppose.’
‘The fields of Heaven are thick with meat, Time Lord. Meat we can use. Billions of unstoppable soldiers, enough to conquer Gallifrey through sheer force of numbers.’
‘Were we ever mates?’
‘Why did you treat her so badly?’ ‘Because I had to.’

Great Ideas: Heaven is one gigantic graveyard. Without going into all the details, a lot of effort is made to make this feel like a thriving world with its own culture, traditions and myths. I truly felt I was entrenched in a world that existed before the Doctor visited and one that would continue to turn long after he has gone. Trust me that isn’t always the case, especially in a Big Finish story. You can transfer your mind completely into Puterpsace where it can live on for a time. Millions of years ago the Time Lords were doing business with the Hoothi, the master strategists of the galaxy. Nobody knows how they evolved or if they were artificially created; they’re fungoid creatures that live off decayed matter. These were the days where the Time Lords had interests of their own, planets where their influence was felt. The Hoothi got involved in a war and introduced their dead soldiers into battle, infesting the bodies of their slain foes and use them as pawns in their affairs. The Time Lords had been negotiating with the people of that planet and the Hoothi damaged that plane and full-scale war was the result. Biological agents reduced the planets population by two thirds. The Hoothi took all the dead into their silent gas dirigibles. Silent deadly and invisible to tracking systems. The Time Lords sent an ambassador to the Hoothi home world intending to stop them from interfering in their affairs. The Hoothi used him as a host and attempted to attack Gallifrey. It didn’t last long; Time Lord biology is more advanced than theirs. When you can find them the dirigibles are vulnerable, full of explosive gases. The Time Lords went on the offensive, attempting to time lock their world. The Hoothi fled into the galaxy and it was thought they had decided to search for easier prizes elsewhere. But they haven’t and their here on Heaven.

Isn’t it Odd: Fancy putting the title music 12 minutes into the story. As it takes on the structure of the novel, I would have disposed of the music altogether. Give it a unique feel. I’d forgotten how obsessed the NAs were with Cyberspace at the time. Not a fault of theirs, everybody was obsessed with it at the time. It does make a certain section of the story seem a little dated though. The Travellers rubbed me up the wrong way but I recognise that this is a personal thing. I was brought up by a woman who was obsessed with spirits and the power of the moon and precious minerals with healing powers. I always took a more scientific, less romantic approach. So, the Travellers and their happy go lucky, free as a bird spiritual lifestyle turned me off a bit. However, I can absolutely see why Ace was so dazzled by them and their lifestyle and that is far more important when it comes to the story. She’s always been a travelling hipster so when like meets like expect love to blossom. There’s a chance that you might find Ace’s hysterics in the last hour a little too much to bear. Aldred gives it her all, but essentially, it’s an awful lot of shrieking in the best EastEnders style.

Standout Scene: That final scene between the Doctor and Ace. Hoo boy. It’s either the zenith of a complex relationship that has finally erupted into outright conflict or the embarrassing depths of soap opera that the series can plunge. I’ll leave that for you to decide. But it’s sure a lot of shouting.

Result: A story that feels the most like the early days of Big Finish; with Jac Rayner having a heavy presence in the writing, Gary Russell overseeing the project and Bernice Summerfield dominating proceedings. I would have gone the whole hog and had Alistair Lock of Russell Stone provide the music and sound design. It’s a terrific throwback, and I’m pleased to say that the results are just as stunning as much of those early years were for Big Finish and for the same reasons. Confident writing, great casting, marvellous performances and a sense of everybody pulling together to create a memorable product. I was talking with a friend of mine about the novel adaptations the other day and how they seem so much more substantial and nuanced than your regular Big Finish releases (and therefore a crying shame that they sold so badly and preventing further adaptations from taking place) and when I stopped and thought about it a second it seemed obvious that these were a cut above the rest. They are essentially a second draft of an already popular story (naturally Big Finish have only chosen to adapt well received Virgin novels and not acknowledged stinkers like The Pit and Deceit), a story that has already been fleshed out in detail in prose. Whilst I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible for having to plough through a novel and extract its guts but cut away all the extraneous flab that wouldn’t work on audio, the guys responsible for adapting these stories (and it is the cream of the crop as far as Big Finish is concerned: Jac Rayner, Jonathan Morris, John Dorney) have the advanced template of a story to enhance. They SHOULD be good because they are damn good stories being given an extra polish. I really liked how this was told, much like a novel in progress, with dialogue scenes enhancing scenes of extended prose. It could be as dry as dust but Rayner is too colourful a writer to ever let that happen. McCoy and Aldred take hold of what were uncomfortably dark characters on the page and give them shades of humour, remorse and humanity – having their dialogue spoken rather than being read makes all the difference. And Lisa Bowerman is as magnificent as ever, taking Benny right back to the beginning and delivering a more enthusiastic, less mature take on the character who is addictive to hang with. It’s one of the best ever Ace stories; taking hold of a troubled character and making a lot of sense of her torment. The scenes in Puterspace might be padding, but it’s vital character work that makes sense of a lot of choices in stories that stretch long before and long after this story. Ace coheres into a tragic character here, rather than a reactionary one and I don’t think I have ever felt more involved with her. All those things that used to irritate me terribly with the NAs take on new meaning when brought to life on audio; an obsession with Owls, cyberspace, angst and chess. The Hoothi are a terrifying foe and like all the best Doctor Who monsters they have a great hook (that they can planet seeds inside you and eat you alive) and how everything builds to that incredibly dramatic and emotional climax is masterfully handled. Things are almost too quiet until bam, there’s’ no going back for the Doctor and Ace and all hell breaks loose. My one complaint is that this story is perhaps a little too long, Damaged Goods was a much tighter, less sprawling story but given that every scene of Love and War is so well written and performed that even that is a token objection. These novel adaptations are ridiculously good. Big Finish sit up and take note. This is how you write stunning audio drama. Not churning out a factory line of mediocre stories obsessed with nostalgia and New Series continuity. There were only 12 NA/MA adaptations and it feels like a lot of time and attention and care has been lavished on them. If this was the Big Finish standard, we’d be in exceptional form. As it is, they are a benchmark of quality that considerably raise the average of the company’s output. Love and War is the work of several Doctor Who giants; Cornell, Rayner, Russell, McCoy, Aldred, Bowerman. It’s to their credit that it is as powerful as it is: 10/10

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Dispossessed written by Mark Morris and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: The Doctor, Ace and Mel are caught in a forever night. After crossing the threshold, a strange world awaits them. An army of tortured souls. A lift that leads to an alien landscape. An alien warlord, left for dead, and willing to do anything to prolong his life… it’s all in a day’s work for the Doctor. But when his companions become victims of the desperate and powerful Arkallax, the Doctor will have to do battle in a psychic environment where he must make a choice. Save his companions… or himself.

The Real McCoy: I’m looking for some kind of substance in the Doctor/Mel/Ace dynamic and I’m coming up blind. There’s just nothing. Three characters rubbing shoulders and going through the motions. Their first TARDIS scene couldn’t sound more generic and less interesting. It’s frustrating because there is clearly some potential in this trio (you could catch glimpses of it in Dragonfire – especially the class differences between Mel and Ace and how middle class was tentatively judging lower class and how lower class was biting back) but it has been ignored in favour of ‘wouldn’t it be nice if the Doctor, Mel and Ace travelled together.’ That seems to be the goal of this endeavour, that this combination could have happened without anybody asking what the consequences of that line up would be like for the characters, allowing them to grow or to even provide some dramatic contrasts between them. Comparing to another ‘sisterly’ dynamics, this has nothing on the genuinely fascinating Peri/Erimem dynamic, it fails to capture the warmth of the Tegan/Nyssa chemistry (the Peterloo trilogy) or the interest of the Flip/Constance relationship (which you can tell is massive step up from the characterisation here because you can justifiably call it a relationship). My question is this…you have established Big Finish characters that have already proven their worth tenfold so why by bringing them together are they yielding so few results? It’s baffling. McCoy has been doing this for too long now, listen to how the Doctor can barely muster any enthusiasm at the first cliff-hanger to exclaim his friends name. it’s almost as if he knows that northing truly bad is going to happen to them.

Oh Wicked: Ace’s first rule of combat is always getting in your retaliation in first. I appreciated Mark Morris writing for Ace as though she was a character from the eighties, so many writers forget that. She might sound mega naff, but she does at least sound authentic. Sophie Aldred got to shout and shout and shout and shout and shout and shout and shout…and we know hoe much that plays to her strengths as an actress, don’t we?

Aieeeeeeee: Mel has never liked tower blocks, recalling her days wandering Paradise Towers. This encapsulates what I’m saying perfectly about the writers failing to capitalise on the chance to say something incisive or powerful about the characters. I could imagine a writer like Robert Holmes turning Mel into a social piranha, and making her distaste for tower blocks a comment on the middle class looking down on their lesser affluent contemporaries. Tower blocks as functional dirty places, full of poor people clinging on to what little space they have. Mel could sit back in her ivory tower of a 4-bedroom detached with a wraparound garden and turn her nose up at the stench of poverty. It wouldn’t be a particularly likable slant on Mel but who the gives a fuck about that? It would be believable and characterful and making a social point. It would be dialogue with substance. Instead Mel just rolls off some continuity about a previous story, which is the easiest trap for a writer to fall into. Unbelievably Mel is reduced to a pitiful screamer in the last episode. After all the development those early Big Finish stories gave her she is actually regressing to the one dimensional characterisation she had on television.

Standout Performance: Listen to McCoy at the start of episode four as he is possessed by Arkallax. I don’t think he’s been this excruciating since Unregenerate.

Dreadful Dialogue: McCoy practically chokes on ‘We must be trapped in a chronologically locked stasis bubble’ whilst delivering no drama to the line.
‘We’re not going to get anywhere by being shrinking violets, are we?’
‘They’re coming straight towards us!’ ‘And from every direction! They’re cutting off our retreat!’ – I was groaning out loud at these blatant visual signposts. Big Finish script editors should be much, much better at removing these sorts of blatant stage directions from dialogue. All of this could be done with some skilful editing, the voices of the dispossessed getting closer and closer and surrounding the characters.
‘I refuse to die while I’m waiting for a lift!’
‘You make me sound like a common psycho!’

Great Ideas: Arkallax was appointed Commander of the Seventh Battalion. In the instant before his ship was reduced to atoms his consciousness abandoned its life-shell and I transported itself here. The Jalfreeth exist on a physical and mental plane. They are first and foremost creatures of consciousness. They create their life-shells simply for the sake of convenience, in order to interact with the physical universe. When they choose they can disengage from the physical and become creatures of pure consciousness – moving across vast distances, interacting with the technology they have created to establish their own realities. The Jalfreeth are a powerful psychic race. Warlike. Ruthless. They cut a swathe through the Jovic Cluster, absorbing the mental energy of hundreds of worlds, and destroying them in the process. There was word they were coming, so at least their enemies were able to form alliances, defend ourselves. It still took the combined force of over thirty planets to stop them. The Jalfreeth commander wouldn’t accept defeat. For him the choice was either total glory or total annihilation. When the war turned against him he hit the self-destruct button. His entire fleet, our fleet, and a bunch of planets in the immediate vicinity. As well as creating an impenetrable bubble using the mental energy of those it has drained, the technology has converted what’s left of them – their physical forms – into hunting units, destined to prowl this tiny kingdom that it’s created in a vain search for new energy to absorb. The Dispossessed. Way to make the idea not scary, making the slavering zombies of this story a quirk of alien technobabble.

Musical Cues: What an unusual; musical style this story has, and how refreshing it is to get to say that. You can usually pin a certain musical voice to the score provider but I haven’t explored much of Joe Kraemer in the Main Range to be able to develop a specific quality in my head. Saying that I’m not sure the music in The Dispossessed is to my tastes very much, being very much of the season 24-Keff McCullouch, high camp synthesiser style. It took me quite a while to get used to it in a story that is supposed to be scary, feeling like Paradise Towers does; a contradiction of tones. Also, I’m still hearing cues from Static. At the end of episode three the music kicks into high gear and in a very memorable way. I wish it had been more like that throughout.

Isn’t it Odd: The first scene is probably what everybody who dislikes science fiction imagines all Big Finish stories sound like; people with treated voices delivering bombastic performances (there was more than a touch of Klingon about these two) and speaking melodramatic lines (‘Engage the Armageddon Protocol!’). I’m not saying it’s bad, per se, but it feels flatly directed, overwritten and ill-explained. Maybe I am saying it’s bad. Ruck has a speech so lengthy in episode two when the explanations start coming that the actor is practically out of breath by the end. Dialogue can be delivered in chunks, but this is a particularly awkward example. It’s quite jarring to have scenes of the dispossessed lurking out of the shadows rubbing shoulders with jolly hockey sticks scenes between Isobel and Droney. They feel like they have leapt out of (tonally) completely different audios. ‘Oh the Doctor is brilliant, he’s got mental energy to spare!’ says Mel to the guy who is clearly the villain of the piece and has clearly been mopping up everybody’s mental energy and turning people in zombies. Has characterisation really plummeted this low? Arkallax is hardly Edward Grove, is he? When he turns out to be the villain of the piece after all, I can’t imagine anybody was floor by the revelation. Ultimately, he is a big laughing building with teeth. Subtlety just doesn’t come into it. The last episode is pure b movie

Standout Scene: A moment to really make you sit up and pay attention is Mel and Ace realising that the mountain they are climbing is hundreds of thousands of burnt bodies fused together. Be very, very careful when giving a character a brain tumour for no other reason than a plot point and then skipping over the characters reaction to it in a single scene. Speaking as somebody who has had to deal with that sort of thing up close and personal of late I found the inclusion beyond distasteful. To have a character mocking brain tumours and primitive medicine (‘he could zap that baby right out of your head!’) defies description.

Result: ‘Oh, I know what exactly you are, Arkallax! You’re an ailing consciousness hooked up to a defective life support system, that in protecting you has made you its prisoner!’ When you compare the first episodes of Red Planets and The Dispossessed you have a pair of stories that are diametrically opposed in their approach and yet equally unsatisfying; one explains everything up front and spoils the opportunity to present a mystery and the other keeps you in the dark (hoho) and fails to generate any interest because there is no substance to what the characters are going through. As a result, I was waiting for the penny to drop, for the writer to inform me of the backbone of the story rather than losing myself in its atmosphere. There are superficial similarities to Paradise Towers; the juxtaposition of dark writing and a disco score, a High Rise, McCoy clowning about in this society, the emphasis on lifts, the villains banging on about how hungry they are and the story is even name checked on one occasion. There certainly wasn’t much here to distinguish itself as an individual story, unlike Stephen Wyatt’s High Rise homage. I’m not sure dialogue on audio is Morris’s forte because much of what the characters said in The Dispossessed sounded scripted and awkward, like people speaking words written for them rather than characters speaking naturally. I had a similar problem with Plague of the Daleks. His skill lies in prose and his words fly off the page much easier that way. What Morris does extremely well is pluck big scary ideas from his imagination and there are a number of strong, creepy notions at the heart of The Dispossessed. The imagery occasionally took my breath away but I wonder if that is because on a scene by scene basis I was so disappointed, that moments of grotesque horror could burst forth a repulse more effectively that way. Perhaps if the regulars had been better served I might have had an easier ride with this one (because ultimately it is just trying to tell a decent creepy adventure rather than turn your world upside down) but the characterisation is so functional and McCoy sounds utterly unrehearsed (I realise the writers don’t get rehearsal time but his line readings make it sound as though he’s never seen the script before in his life) and left me with my head in my hands in despair in how he played certain scenes. Unoriginal and painfully embarrassing in parts, this is your average Doctor Who run-around weighed down with far too many audio schoolboy errors to pass muster. Somewhere in the last episode I just surrendered to how bad this was, and started to enjoy it on that level. To my mind the weakest story since The Silurian Candidate. My expectations for the 7/Mel/Ace stories are pretty low and this still managed to disappoint me: 3/10