Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The Moons of Vulpnana written by Emma Reeves and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: The Doctor has returned Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus, to her native world: Vulpana. Not the savage Vulpana that Mags was taken from, but Vulpana in an earlier era. The Golden Millennium – when the Four Great Wolf Packs, each devoted to one of the planet’s four moons, oversaw the height of Vulpanan civilisation. A time when the noblest families of the Vulpanan aristocracy found themselves in need of new blood… A golden age that’s about to come to a violent end!

The Real McCoy: The Doctor has designed new and interesting technology to stop Mags from killing him. He once stopped six different alien incursions between breakfast and elevenses.

Werewolf in Space and Time: This should have been a chance for Mags to truly shine. It should have been the story that took the singularly unique factor of her character and really bring out into the (moon)light. Instead it the wolfy nature is dealt with so cack-handedly that she is a character that descends into ridiculous melodrama and horror movie clichés. If this is what we could have come to expect had Mags joined the team after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy then I’m glad it never happened. Poor Jessica Martin has no hopes with this script. It’s one that turns very quickly into a Doctor Who version of Twilight that sees somebody with an uncontrollable bestial nature having to stave off the attentions of lovesick puppies. I wish some restraint had been applied. There is a great story to be told about a companion who turns into a monster (remember when Izzy turned into Destrii in the comics?) but Reeves writes so obviously, with so much angst and so little emotion that I was shaking my head at the melodrama rather than involving myself in it. Mags is so suspicious of the Doctor’s motives that she considers him looking for her in the TARDIS as the equivalent of a hunt. She’s very sensitive about the wolf inside of her and threatens to rip his throat out for exposing that side of her. Mags doesn’t have a home because her people were driven from Vulpana years ago, refugees who were persecuted for being different. She had forgotten how beautiful the full moons are. Her people are intelligent and sophisticated, their sense highly evolved. She’s not shallow that she would leave the Doctor just because a fellow wolf has doffed his cap at her.

Standout Performance: I couldn’t tell if the actors were sabotaged by the script or simply giving terrible performances. Perhaps the latter accentuated the former. Either way I find it hard to remember a Big Finish story quite this poorly acted.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Is it fun being fought over like a piece of fresh meat?’
‘What’s your secret, bright sisters?’
‘They’ve released the prey!’ ‘You mean they’ve let them go?’ Oh Mags…
‘The Outlander may taste unusual but flesh is flesh!’
‘Not your precious moons again!’
‘Your fake moon killed hundreds of people!’
‘My Mooooon!’
'I die like a Vulpanan!'

Great Ideas: There was a thousand years of peace and harmony on Vulpana, for a millennium the Vulpanans were left alone to develop their civilisation. On Vulpana breeding is the only thing of importance. The Vulpanans get to examine their prey before they are released into the wilderness. In a laboratory, a Vulpanan is looking to find a permanent cure for their condition. There’s a fifth moon, a dark moon. It shields itself from the other planets and hides behind them.

Audio Landscape: Those howls. Christ, those howls.

Musical Cues: Listen to the isolated music track. It’s rather glorious. It gets completely lost in the horror of the production.

Isn’t it Odd: Both Sylvester McCoy and Jessica Martin overplaying their first scene together to point of pure ham was not an optimistic sign. I’m very confused about the consistency of these stories. In The Monsters of Gokroth, Mags was refused to let somebody extract the wolf side of her, admitting that it was a part of her identity and yet at the start of The Moons of Vulpana she’s really excited about the idea of being cured. Why would you introduce a character in one story and then skip ahead to what is clearly a fair while into their relationship and not explore these two getting to know each other better? The dialogue in the scene after the title music is pure awkward SF exposition. Martin and McCoy struggle to make this sound like a natural conversation. ‘What do you do when you’re too freaky for the freakshow?’ is not a line any actor should be handed. Listening to McCoy attempting to subdue a bunch of werewolves is the most embarrassing thing since Capaldi turned up on a tank with an electric guitar. The werewolf voices are somehow more irritating than all those monster voices in the previous story. There really should be a ban on these sorts of modulations, they are difficult to understand and hard on the ears. Hardly the sort of thing a company releasing audio adventures should be endorsing. Listen to the dialogue of the werewolf Queen trying to pimp out the shaggy boy folk of the pack to Mags and tell me that this is a well written script. Was anybody surprised that the prey that the Vulpanans hunt turned out to be people? It’s written as if it should be a shock but directed as though it’s an afterthought. Does Mags really think that the Doctor just dumped her like a piece of ‘space trash?’ Has she learnt nothing from their adventures together? Yes, we get it, there is something up with the moons of Vulpana. The bloody story is called The Moons of Vulpana. Why does the Doctor spend three whole episodes looking up at the orbs in the sky and going ‘oooh, there’s something not quite right there…’ Get to the point. The Doctor and Mags escape in the TARDIS in episode three and I was hoping they would head off into another adventure, never to think of Vulpana again. Wishful thinking. The mystery of who built the fifth moon…isn’t really a mystery. Even if it is presented as one. The last time a marriage was suggested at the end of part three of a werewolf story was Loups-Garoux. The comparison scarcely bares thinking about. Once the villains true identity is revealed, he’s clearly not the same character he was in episode one. From lovesick whippersnapper to mad scientist in the blink of an eye. He goes on and on in the last episode, saviour and condemner. It’s a psychological battle that could have been quite interesting if he wasn’t presented like your typical Doctor Who ranting villain.

Standout Scene: The end of episode one. Seriously, the end of episode one. Was that even directed? It sounds like McCoy was left at the mic whilst everyone went out for lunch and he provided the wolf howl himself. It’s beyond unacceptable for a company that has been producing audio drama this long and so prolifically to produce a scene as appalling as this.

Result: ‘So the mighty new lord of Vulpana is scared that girls might laugh at him!’ Atrociously written, this is a lead weight of poor quality and hopefully the lowest the main range will sink for a long while. You know you’re in for a tiresome experience when episode one – historically the most exciting and attention grabbing of the four – is this unconvincing and lacking in interest. Jessica Martin, who was so impressive in Gokroth, delivers an feeble performance, which sabotages any chance of positive character development, makes the scenes between her and McCoy flat (and he’s hardly at his best here either) and listening to her struggling with the horrific dialogue ‘Doctor, I don’t know much about off world etiquette but here on Vulpana we do not use such epithets!’) was akin to a form of Chinese water torture. It feels like a script that has been written by somebody who doesn’t understand how to form a sentence. There’s an odd, stilted quality to the structure of each line, a leaning on exposition, favouring angst and melodrama over more naturalistic conversation. How did anybody think the hormonal competition between two Vulpanan pups trying to win Mags would be intriguing listening? It’s agonisingly long too for such an eventless story, filled with endless painful dialogue scenes. I don’t believe this was written, script edited or directed. It was created out of an amalgam of other audio stories, spliced together from previous recordings. I jest, but I do have to question the talent of people who can produce and charge for this kind of material. Vulpana would not be on my list of tourist spots I’d most like to visit in the universe. Let’s prey that we don’t get a sequel. By making her homecoming so thoroughly tedious, any chance to Mags making a mark on audio has been squandered. How any story that bangs on for over two hours can feature so little of what we call ‘events’ is beyond me. The Doctor keeps visiting Mags, asking how she’s getting on and popping off to ponder over the moons. This happens over and over again. By the end I was screaming at the speaker ‘get to the bloody point!’ A very good friend of mine was listening to this story whilst driving and said he had to turn it off in fear of driving himself into a tree to end the torture. That feels like a fitting epitaph for The Moons of Vulpana. I’ve read reviews elsewhere (Blogtor Who, Who Review) and they are praising this story to the high heavens. Maybe I’m the one at fault but clearly my critical faculties are in a completely different place to theirs. Avoid: 1/10

Here's What Soldeed Thought...


Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Creeping Death written by Roy Gill and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: London, 1952, and a deadly smog envelops the capital. But something even more dangerous - and alien - is hiding within the mists. When the Doctor and Donna get lost in the fog, they find a motley group of Londoners trying to make their way home. Very soon, the stakes are raised, as death creeps along fume-choked streets, and not everyone will make it out alive...

Mockney Dude: The Doctor and Donna have been brilliantly characterised in this entire box set but it’s The Creeping Death that featured them together the most. Gill writes for both beautifully, treating them as equals and allowing them both to have their opposing views but work together very effectively. They respond to the material by giving highly charged, charismatic performances. The Doctor is dead excited to be showing Donna her history because there is always something new to be discovered. He loves a little cinema. ‘Isn’t the NHS marvellous?’ states the Doctor, pre-empting its existence. The Doctor manages to figure out the year by finding out what has come out on the cinema. If only he had an encyclopaedia of all film releases he would never have this problem again. The Doctor is like Tigger when he’s got an idea. I love how succinct the Doctor is when he confronts the aliens of the piece, he simply tells them this world isn’t right for them and they are going to have to let it go. Never let it be said that the tenth Doctor talks too much, sometimes he can be very to the point.

Tempestuous Temp: Like Planet of the Ood, Donna leaps from the TARDIS with huge expectations about where the Doctor has taken her only to be assaulted with inclement weather. She realises her Gramps and Nan are out there in 1952 and it most be early days for them. Why do so many people keep mistaking Donna for a bloke? She thinks she’s indestructible, but her adventures with the Doctor would test that. Donna says it how it is when it comes to the smog, it isn’t a frustration as the Doctor describes it, it’s a tragedy. At first I thought Donna celebrating gay rights in the 50s was a bit corny (I really need to question what that says about me) but I loved the moment when she shoots down the Doctor with the line ‘we do our best. Sometimes it’s a bit messy but we still try.’ That sums up humanity perfectly. All Donna asks is that Doctor does as much as is allowed. Not to break the rules, but to bend them slightly. She objects to being called the Doctor’s understudy, and of course there’s something on her back. She’s here to watch the Doctor’s back and she won’t let him forget it. I could listen to Donna’s stories about her legions of friends until the cows come home. She really does bring the series down to earth in a very amusing way.

Standout Performance: The unmistakable Helen Goldwyn being able to let loose on the fruitiest of characters, Alice Aiken. The story might have been a little too serious if it wasn’t for her prostrations and objections. You’ve got to love a theatre luvvie!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The weather around here is taking a turn for the worst.’
‘Humans burning up their planet I don’t know why I’m even surprised.’

Great Ideas: Somebody screaming in the poisonous fog…sounds like the pre-credits to a Doctor Who story to me. How terribly sweet to have a gay romance taking place in the 50s, where such things where not only frowned upon but prosecuted. The smog was a combination of weather, geography and sheer bad luck. A cyclone trapped the smoke and as the temperature dropped people started reaching for their coal, piling more onto their fire and making the situation ten times worse. The creatures have come to earth because they are drawn to pollution. The Industrial Revolution was like sending up a beacon to the Fumifugium. They watched, waited and encouraged more technology pumping smoke into the atmosphere because it is life to them.

Standout Scene: I admire a writer that can toss in a dinosaur at the climax, seemingly at a whim. This is Doctor Who after all, you can do ANYTHING. Donna’s comment about it being able to roar made m howl.

Result: ‘Go on I know that face. How’s the world going to end this time?’ This an atmospheric character tale, not quite as immediately arresting as the other two stories in the set but one that rather creeps up and envelopes you, like the fog. I really enjoyed how both the Doctor and Donna were given a surrogate companion in this story; it’s always great to see David Tennant’s Doctor being charming with a new friend and its proof again that Donna could more than hold up the series without her best pal around. The Great Smog that hit London in 1952 and killed 12,000 is a well-documented historical record that I’m surprised the TV show hasn’t exploited before (isn’t it awful when historical tragedies can be exploited for drama…but that’s the world we live in). David Bishop wrote a terrific little novel (Amorality Tale) set here and it pleases me no end to think that the Doctor and Donna could bump into the third Doctor and Sarah at any minute. It doesn’t go down The Fires of Pompeii route of having the Doctor and Donna on opposing sides of the tragedy, each with their own agenda, but instead shows that they have learnt from that experience together and work together to save as many people as possible without breaking the laws of Time. I thought that was a very mature approach because it could have been so easy to copy that very successful formula. It’s much harder to write two people working together than opposing one another and Roy Gill manages to make it very engaging. There’s a natural chemistry between all of the cast (I swear Tennant and Tate bring this out of people because it has been the case with all six of their stories so far) and given we only know them for an hour I was impressed with how well I knew these characters by the story’s close. A strong Roy Gill script, more evocative direction, great acting = another winner: 8/10

Saturday, 18 May 2019

One Mile Down written by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Donna and the Doctor take a holiday in the beautiful underwater city of Vallarasee. Things have changed since the Doctor last swam through. Vallarasee is now enclosed in an airdome, with Judoon patrolling historic sites. Now, instead of tourists wearing breathing-helmets, native Fins are forced to adapt. But leaks are trickling into the dome. The Judoon must be persuaded that disaster is imminent, or thousands will be trapped, as the waters rise...

Mockney Dude:
‘Oh I’m so sorry I’ll let them drown in their hotel rooms after settling their bills!’ Queuing is something he doesn’t generally have to do. The last time he came here he swam through the Temple of Light by himself and he was the first offworlder to do so in a thousand years. Donna marvellously tells him to get over himself. She’s always there to puncture his bubble. He doesn’t like robot announcements because he likes telling people what to do. He’s a traveller, not a tourist and so he refuses to take the guided tours. Being arrested is brilliant because it is the best way to meet the people in charge. Brilliantly he tells Donna to not let his arrest spoil her holiday (which is his way of saying continue to investigate).

Tempestuous Temp: Remember that glorious moment at the beginning of Turn Left that saw the Doctor and Donna drinking in the sights of an alien bazaar. To me that remains the highlight of their time together and one of the best examples of the Doctor and his companion revelling in the joy of travelling the universe and being together. That’s the feel that beams from this audio with Donna being shown another wondrous location and simply loving it. They will always meet in the little shop, of course.

Standout Performance: Nicholas Briggs as Clo. It astonishes me how he can still turn his voice to new characters and variations on a theme. We’re extremely lucky that Big Finish is headed by the man who brought many of these alien creatures voices to life. It gives the stories a feel of legitimacy. Clo is such a sweet character, beautifully brought to life by Briggs who convinces as a young Judoon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Robot Rights!’
‘The real Vallarasee, the underwater city, it’s coming back!’
‘Children living in helmets so that we can have a day out’ – I like the social commentary here, suggesting that a species natural habitat has been irrevocably changed to allow access to tourists.
‘Clo’s just arresting the city!’

Great Ideas:
‘Come to Vallarasee, the Great Lost City! Sunk in history, beneath the waves. Visit the coral cathedral, peruse the starfish allies, dine on the best seafood cuisine…’ I love underwater locations for the very simple reason that I love water. Swimming in it, messing about in boats, the lazy afternoons on the canals in Venice, the excitement of walking through the domes at the Sea Life Centre. One of the few times I merited Voyager with a strong mark for a non-event episode was during a thrilling underwater escapade. Doctor Who has the budget to pull this sort of thing of these days so it is a shame that it has to be restricted to audio (imagine the visuals if this episode had been broadcast) but it does allow for some highly atmospheric sound design. The ‘firs’ do all the planning on Vallarasee and the ‘fins’ do all the tricky stuff (manual labour). It would seem that things don’t change, even on underwater worlds. There always has to be a class divide. A giant underwater glass elevator takes you down into the city, an entire underwater landscape encased in an air bubble. Love can spring up in the most unexpected of places during the Russell T Davies era, an air breather and a water breather defying the odds and enjoying a relationship is something he would heartily approve of. And pointing out that there are ignorant people who disapprove ticks the homosexual reference.

Audio Landscape: The sequence of the dome cracking and the water leaking in is unforgettable. I didn’t need any explanation from the characters, Howard Carter had made the sequence perfectly clear through the sound alone.

Standout Scene: There’s a moment when the water pours in and Patricia is panicking as she tries to fight the tide. For a second I was gasping for air, such was the terror in the performance. I know her lover would find her eventually and that moment was a relief rather than a damp squib.

Result:
‘This is the Doctor. On behalf of the Judoon platoon on the lagoon…’ Jenny T Colgan has captured the heart of a really good Russell T Davies script in One Mile Down. Strong characterisation, social commentary, pop culture references, a vivid setting, an emotional core and some lovely ‘visuals’. Oh, and the Judoon, who need as much exposure as they can get. They got the formula right with the first box set (a down to Earth contemporary tale to kick things off and an exotic outer space adventure to follow) and it looks like they are mimicking that formula here to equally diverse effect. Sometimes when Big Finish puts out a story on an alien world with lots of modulated voices it can feel like an assault of weirdness and turn me right off but Colgan and Bentley avoid that by writing and casting some great characters that really sell the location. It often feels like the Doctor is trying to take down capitalism and this time he has to topple a particularly insidious tourist trap in order to save lives. His condemnation feels very right and gives David Tennant a chance to rail against something which brings out that magnificent blazing fury in him. Clo the junior Judoon is like a Disney character implanted into a Doctor Who story and he’s an utter delight. Even better is the sound design, which allows for some epic sequences of the water breaking in. I really felt that I was there trapped in a sinking ship. The climax of the story features a huge shift in the setting and reminded me of Gridlock in its triumphant mood. It’s a story featuring robots, Judoon, fish people, a city sinking under water, the Doctor and Donna. What are you waiting for? A pleasure to listen to: 9/10

Friday, 17 May 2019

No Place written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: It's ‘Haunted Makeovers!’ The home improvement show with a spooky twist. The Noble family are hoping to cast out a few spirits along with the old bathroom suite. Presenter Justin joins Donna, Wilf, Sylvia and the Doctor for the latest edition of his reality TV series. Of course, Justin knows that any supernatural phenomena can be faked. Ghosts can't possibly be real. Can they..?

Mockney Dude: Fascinating to hear the difference in David Tennant from one box set to another. I only listened to Death and the Queen a few days ago and lamented that certain fans might be turned off by the exuberant squeaky voiced Time Lord that springs from that story. No Place sees Tennant deliver a much more sombre affair, especially at the climax where he is explaining away the plot. I like both approaches but it’s fascinating to listen to the two stories in quick succession since it gives you an idea of his audio range. The Doctor and Donna having to pretend who need to be a couple who are looking for a haunted makeover is worth the price of the admission alone. Especially with all the booping on the nose they keep doing. Donna suggests that he is terrible with time.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna literally fell into the Doctor’s lap and they have been inseparable ever since. Donna might be taking the piss when she says that…but it’s kind of true. Justin states that in reality the world is very boring, which is exactly what Donna used to think until she met the Doctor. The Doctor calls her ‘snuggle bump.’ ‘Go on, do you thing where you’re disgusting and lick it!’ says Sylvia about the latest gross looking substance to emerge from a story. Donna says jokingly that the Doctor is the love of her life and then realises the truth of that statement. I love how she can swing from being so mocking to being deadly serious. Donna loves reality TV because she loves a bit of drama.

The Nobles: Sylvia as the disgruntled mother in law is horrifically plausible. It’s a role that she doesn’t have to put any effort into. The story doesn’t suggest that Wilf is a medium but just that he can get a feeling about places. It is probably because he is so sensitive to other peoples needs and feelings. I didn’t think that I could be made to love Wilf anymore but Cribbins transfers to audio and he’s even sweeter than he was on television. Wilf has felt a disquiet like this before when he was a soldier and he knew there was going to be a fight that day. Sylvia thinks the world can be put to right with a cup of tea. Well, she’s not wrong. Wilf has unerring faith in the Doctor and knows that he would never hurt anyone. Like me, Wilf can watch a good fire for hours. They banned Sylvia from the Post Office, although we never find out why. Maybe its best left for the imagination.

Standout Performance: I’ve enjoyed Joel Fry in several shows, especially his take on autism in Trollied. His character Leighton was one of the sweetest people you were likely to meet on television. It’s great, then, to see him playing somebody completely different here; a no-nonsense reality TV presenter with an obsession with decking and disproving the supernatural. Jacqueline King is so utterly charming in real life, that it is hard to believe she is the same person as icy matriarch Sylvia Noble. Mind if there was ever anyone I would want to organise people in a crisis, she’d be at the top of my list.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Doctor is like that. He’s dancing between us and the stars.’ Wilf’s love for the Doctor is one of the best things to come out of the entire show.
‘A piano bit me’ might be the best line in anything, Ever.

Great Ideas: It just goes to show there are lots of ways to tell a Doctor Who story (I had a friend who claimed it was simply the same story week in, week out). The last story I listened to was Primord, which took it’s time setting up its characters and location. No Place in comparison jumps right in with both feet (it is an hour shorter so it rather needs to) and introduces us to everybody via the reality TV presenter whilst the programme is running. The Caretaker who tried to burn the Community Centre down was little more than a kid. They’ve been doing this show for years but mostly its broken down heating systems and concealed drafts rather than genuine supernatural activity. What’s needed is an electrician, not an exorcist. What people call a haunting is often a shared delusion provoked by environmental factors and malicious gossip.

Audio Landscape: Audio is ripe for horror because so many of your senses are deprived. If all you can do is react to sound it is a great chance to let all that fall away and then suddenly sneak up on the listener with an aural attack. That’s something Carter remembers to great effect here.

Musical Cues: Howard Carter is still the finest musician to grave Big Finish’s door, even superseding Russell Stone these days given how long he has been providing music for and the touch of class that he adds to every production he is involved in. I still think he’s finest achievements took place on the Jago & Litefoot series. Here he gets to provide the jingles for the Haunted Makeover TV series and gets to scare the living daylights out of us as the show goes disastrously wrong.

Standout Scene: I guessed the twist about Justin early on but for once it’s all part of the fun. It didn’t detract from the overall experience at all.

Result: Cheap reality TV going horribly wrong is a great premise for a Doctor Who story and setting it during series four with the Nobles elevates it even more. It’s following the Ghostwatch pattern and the Inside Number 9 boys had a good stab at haunted reality TV gone wrong last Halloween (I still can’t believe they got Stephanie Cole to slit her own throat) but No Place has David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King as its secret weapons. A fascinating one off, told entirely from the point of view of the presenter with the Doctor, Donna, Wilf and Sylvia pretending to be one great big happily family as the community centre around them threatens to murder them all. I like the idea that the presenter is a cynic and the Doctor and co are the believers, it’s an unusual slant on this kind of TV show and just the thought of the Doctor and Donna pretending to be loved up makes me smile but when it’s played out I was laughing my head off. As I said for The Dread of Night recently it is hard to make an impact with horror Who these days because so much ground has been covered but Howard Carter has performed miracles with James Goss’ haunted house script. Chalk on the blackboard, wallpaper tearing, dripping, screams, crackly old recordings and an old piano are all used to great effect. This is hilarious, moving and scary in equal measures. It’s a very confident piece of work that was a joy to experience. Very like series four then: 9/10

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Primord written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Prisoners are escaping from incarceration all around the country and UNIT have been called in to aid in the search. But the Doctor is unwilling to agree to the Brigadier’s request for help as he and Jo have opted to take a holiday – they’re going to visit his old assistant Liz Shaw, now working in Cambridge University. But, unfortunately for Jo, the Doctor can’t relax for very long. Soon the Time Lord and his friends are facing an old enemy – creatures they’d long since thought they’d put to ground. The Primords have returned – and this time the danger may strike very close to home.

The Mighty Nose: ‘You might enjoy the prospect of gallivanting about across the countryside searching for absconded ne’er do wells but Jo and I have rather more salubrious plans…’ The Third Doctor is really rather easy to capture in script form; a dash of arrogance, the odd name drop, some bizarre domestic technobabble, a moral lecture and moments of eye-popping drama. Add in a drop of comedy and you’ve got it. The Doctor suggests that they are off the clock whilst they are in Cambridge…bless him for thinking that. The Doctor is delighted to be reacquainted with Liz. There always was a sense of them being equals rather than Doctor and companion. Much like Sarah and Rose in School Reunion, the Doctor is in a lot of trouble when Jo and Liz get together. He admits it was a pity to lose Liz back in the day but had that not happened then he would have never have met Jo, and he wouldn’t have wanted that. He thinks they are bot impressive, intelligent women in their own ways. They are both extremely important to him. I really enjoyed this dialogue, it never strayed into over celebration but stresses the relationships. Scenes with the Doctor and Liz doing experiments in a scientific base just feel right, don’t they? ‘Good grief use your brain man! If you have one!’ sounds 100% Pertwee to me. He’s so smart he could do experiments in the UNIT canteen and still get the desired results.

Dippy Agent: I’m not sure why but Katy Manning seems fit to open this story playing Jo with a baby voice not that far removed from the time when Mrs Slocombe was dolled up like a baby doll on Are You Being Served. I know Jo was occasionally a little childish but I think this is misremembering the role slightly and had I been Briggs I would have asked her to tone it down a little. Interestingly, it settles down after a while. It’s almost as if Manning was so excited to be playing the part again that she got carried away and then found her authentic Jo voice somewhere near the end of episode one. There’s no tension between Jo and Liz. Indeed, she grabs her in a huge hug as soon as she sees her. Sometimes when the Doctor gets started on technobabble it all sounds like gobbledegook. The Doctor suggests that Bessie couldn’t be in finer hands than with Jo. Is he insane? She’s been locked up enough times to know that somebody always comes to the rescue eventually. Manning has recovered herself entirely when she gets to stick up for the Brigadier and his actions surrounding the Silurians. When she realises that the Brigadier has the situation in hand she pops off to save the Doctor. That’s her job.

Doctor Shaw: Liz was originally supposed to be UNITs scientific advisor until the Doctor arrived. Imagine if she would have had to have dealt with the Autons, Silurians, Ambassadors and Primords on her own? She would have been fantastic. Daisy Ashford doesn’t sound entirely like her mother (nor should she) but I found the idea of her playing Liz a touching one at first and then before long I was simply enjoying her in the role. A note perfect impression? No. An accurate rendition of Liz Shaw? Yes. I miss Carrie John’s presence in the audios very much (remember The Last Post?) but having her daughters presence in these love letters to the era is a wonderful thing. Liz’s fiancé Michael has been turned into a Primord and she has managed to control his behaviour through temperature regulation. Things developed between them when they were studying the liquid. Michael was the one who named them Pimords. It wasn’t until Liz got infected and became a Primord that her priorities changed and she started working for those who wanted to study the liquid, instead of opposing their work.

The Brigadier: Let’s get one thing out of the way: nobody could replace Nicholas Courtney. I know that might seem an obvious thing to say but I have to get it out there that I adored his portrayal as the Brigadier and found him one of the biggest comforts throughout the entire run of classic Who. There was something about Courtney’s deadpan humour, absolute stiff upperlipedness and unerring loyalty and devotion to the Doctor that made him such a joyous constant in the show. A lot of his appeal comes down to Courtney’s twinkle (because some of the time he was written as a dimwit). Imagine the Brigadier without that sparkle, we’d have another Walter Skinner from The X-Files, a deadly serious head of operations with a chip on his shoulder. However, if they were ever going to recast the part then Jon Culshaw is one of only a few actors that I would give a pass to. His mimicry of Courtney is astonishing. At times I felt I was genuinely listening to him and there is something about that sardonic tone and no-nonsense attitude that takes you straight back to the 70s no questions asked. It’s a remarkable performance from Culshaw, bravura even. There’s a fantastic scene where the Brigadier condemns Sharp for threatening to inflict genocide on entire nations and he is silenced when the General reminds him of the Silurians. Moral outrage suits the Brigadier very nicely. There’s a moment in the last episode where the Brigadier faces up to Liz and it reminds of the wonderfully icy relationship they set up between them in Spearhead from Space. The Brigadier isn’t one for big goodbyes but when he thinks this might be his last stand he admits it has been nice working with the Doctor and that he is a splendid fellow.

Standout Performance: For a second I thought that Big Finish had acquired the services of Judi Dench. They’ve secured John Hurt and Derek Jacobi so it isn’t out of the range of possibility. Bethan Dixon Bate is not a name I know but it really does sound uncannily similar to Dench. And how much does Michael Troughton sound like his father?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Practically everybody knows a bit more about science than you, Jo.’
‘I never thought I’d save the world with frozen peas!’

Great Ideas: UNIT has done its job only too well because now all threats to Earth have been defeated they are now being seconded. Why would the military possibly be kidnapping criminals? The green slime from Stalman’s Inferno project has been found and stored. It is capable of turning any man into a savage murdering beast. I really enjoyed the cliff-hanger to episode one, it demonstrates exactly what I was saying in The Monsters of Gokroth. It looks for all the world like Liz has unleashed a Primord on the Doctor and that is because we are seeing (listening) to the story from his point of view. The story then switches to Liz’s point of view after the reprise and we can see that he was in no danger whatsoever. It’s a lovely subversion that completely shifts depending on whose narrative we’re following. After Stalhman’s project fell through there was a lot of worry about the liquid. Nobody was sure what it was. It reacted with heat but beyond that it was a blank page. Liz started to ponder that there might be an outbreak when they weren’t around to stop it. It’s one of the oldest substances on the earth and there was enough recovered to analyse and eventually they called upon Liz to try and study it. Sharp thinks that he can use the liquid as a form of viral warfare. Drop a cannister in another country and watch the mutation spread. The resulting Primords will either wipe out their fellow countrymen or infect them. It would decrease the population considerably for a successful attack.

Musical Cues: Briggs really knows how to capture the feel of an era through its music and he’s done a sterling job here. It’s half Dudley Simpson (dramatic scene changes) and half Malcolm Clarke (atmospheric tuneless piercings). If I shut my eyes, I could almost see the grainy location work.

Standout Scene: I was a little of suspicious of Liz from the start but the moment she played her hand was well timed. What could be worse than developing the liquid from the Inferno project into a weapon? Has Liz Shaw really gone over to the enemy? The end of episode is revelatory. Nobody could possibly have seen that coming.

Result: As a sequel to Inferno, re-introducing Liz Shaw and having her meet Jo Grant and the recasting of the Brigadier, Primord really could have felt like sheer wankery. Instead John Dorney has written a script with a very plausible scenario, taking probably the weakest element of the season seven climax (the monsters) and exploring them in a very frightening way. The additions to the range feel very positive; bringing Daisy Ashford and Jon Culshaw into the mix makes this feel like an authentic full cast drama (which, in really it is nothing of the sort with all the recastings) and we get a fair rendition of Liz and an excellent one of the Brigadier. There’s a terrific, adult feel to the story that really feels like it is a natural extension of Pertwee’s debut season. I especially enjoyed how it held back its twists and relaxed into the setup, building up the tension over time. Very like Inferno, then. The idea that an unfinished story element from a previous adventure could be used as the springboard for a sequel is not a new one but it is done particularly well here, especially when you realise what the Primord liquid is being used for. Trust somebody in the military to think of such a diabolical application for the supernatural substance. John Dorney is one of Big Finish’s most prolific of contributors and you might be forgiven for thinking that because his talent is spread over so many ranges and releases that it might start to dilute the strength of his stories. Not one bit of it. Like Jonathan Morris, he seems to have an endless stream creative storytelling inside him and even now, years after his introduction to Big Finish, he is still delivering memorable goods. His name is synonymous with quality. Primord isn’t a story that is trying too hard to show off but instead knuckle down and capture its era as authentically as possible. It reminds me of the best of the Terrance Dicks script edited period; intelligent, full of character and with some really dramatic ideas at its core. This story could happily have nestled in season 8. Or should that be season 7.5: 9/10

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The Monsters of Gokroth written by Matt Fitton and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: The people of Gokroth live in fear of the monsters in the forest. Creatures with scales and fur, teeth and claws. But worse than these, perhaps, is the strange doctor who does unspeakable, unholy work in the high castle on the mountain… A doctor who is about to receive a visit from an off-worlder. Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus. A native of the planet Vulpana… with a monstrous secret of her own.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor will provide his expertise for nothing more than a good cup of tea. When the next best thing is somebody offering their help for half their food supplies, it seems even more generous. Helping people is his vocation. After trying to set straight a stray Nazi scientist from another timeline, it feels very natural for the Doctor to hunt down a werewolf and help her to explore her bestial nature. Every now and then he gets an urge to revisit old business, which suggests he is at the tail end of this regeneration. ‘Ears and eyes open, mouths closed’ is good advice in any Doctor Who adventure. He’s a genius and he never passed any exams. He doesn’t even break a sweat at the thought of holding back an entire army of monsters on his own. When asked where Ace is he simply replies ‘somewhere else…for a while now.’ He’s getting old but he’s not too old for new adventures and travelling companions.

Werewolf in Space and Time: I’m going to start to sound like a cynical fan if I don’t turn my acrimony around regarding Big Finish’s desperate need to plug every continuity gap, explore every possibility not taken on television and generally cross every t with a Judoon spaceship and dot every i a Sontaran scout ship. They’re obsessed with playing fan service rather than delivering completely original content, which is a fair route to take when you are trying to get the fanbase of a show to part with their hard earned cash but when it comes at the exclusion of all truly original storytelling to the exclusivity of fanwankery I cannot help but make (admittedly token because who at Big Finish is listening to the protestation of one man) objection. Do I like the idea of a trilogy featuring ‘what if Kamelion had had a bigger role in the series?’ followed by ‘what if Mags had followed the Doctor?’ To be honest I hadn’t given either possibility much consideration but if I had the former would have excited me far more simply because there was so much untapped potential there. Mags was a brilliant one of character who worked a treat in the setting she was placed in (I don’t think anybody can forget her slavering transformation into a punk werewolf) but does she immediately spring to mind as companion material? Not really. Having said that I’m more than happy to be proven wrong…

The monsters are the reason that Mags came to Gokroth. Mags has been asked to place her trust in people too many times. She handed it to the Captain and look how well that ended for her. Lately she hears the wolf inside her all the time and sometimes she feels like a slave to her nature. To remove the wolf would be like losing part of her. When it comes down to it and she has to make a choice, she cannot extract her animal instincts. She had to leave the Psychic Circus because her changes were becoming more and more unpredictable and it was becoming too dangerous for the others and the audience. That would be one hell of a circus experience, seeing the audience torn into and murdered (just as long as it isn’t you). She thinks she is a freak on every planet but the Doctor insists she is simply unique. She feels that she cannot live around people because of her condition.

Standout Performance:
I question the logic in casting another actress that sounds alike to Jessica Martin because there were times when I found it hard to differentiate her from Victoria Yeates. It’s an mature turn by Martin all the same and she has a very natural attitude for audio (I would argue far more natural than Sophie Aldred, who I am pleased to say is for once being kept away from a McCoy trilogy…oh wait) and a pleasing dynamic with Sylvester McCoy. Martin’s natural deadpan delivery and investment in Mags is by far the most impressive thing about this tale.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You can control the wolf.’

Great Ideas: The cover has a very similar aesthetic to the few stabs at gothic horror that Farscape attempted. It’s rather gorgeous and is saturated with colour and interest. The whole trilogy has enticing covers. When she got posted to station Zeta she thought the research would be ground-breaking but all she found were egos willing to put ethics aside. She thought she would be curing disease but the station was all about genetic manipulation. They took humans who were dispossessed and used them, splicing them with alien DNA. Eventually she freed them, hundreds of creatures.

Isn’t it Odd: Some very typical horror elements in play; a town under siege by monsters, a curfew, a morally questionable scientist and her disfigured assistant, using wolfsbane to disguise scent, a circus entertainer with a menagerie of creatures, a hunt through the forest, flame wielding natives seeking out the monsters. However, there are few concessions made to the fact that this is set on an alien world. For all Matt Fitton’s weird SF names for characters and the setting, this could just be set in a medieval village. Sure use the clichés…but subvert them in some way. I question these cliff-hangers that feature horrible slavering monsters going ‘raaawwwwwrrrrrr!’ not only because they have been done to death by now (seriously, you could compile a top 100 list at this point) but because of the severe lack of imagination in doing so. We know the Doctor isn’t going to meet a sticky end in The Monsters of Gokroth and we’ve not come to care enough about the original characters come the first cliff-hanger so really it is just a lot of noise before the credits to create a pause in the action. John Dorney is the master at conjuring up decent cliff-hangers, he understands that moments that create a fork in the plot (revelations, subversions) are much more intellectually exciting than hearing an actor do his lungs in and the other actors cowering in fear. I skipped ahead to the next episode hoping that there would be something substantive to the cliff-hanger beyond false jeopardy…but there wasn’t and it’s dealt with in an instant. Mags was never going to kill the Doctor, otherwise this would be a very short trilogy. All the scenes of the slavering monsters grunting and groaning are a little hard on the ears, and probably the sort of nonsense any fan who hasn’t given Big Finish a go would imagine these audios sound like. My other half kept walking past the door, frowning. I try and convince him that I’m discussing substantive audio work. The sweet character work where Sylvester McCoy gets to reach out to Jessica Martin’s Mags brings out the best in him but the scenes of him screaming at her as a werewolf see him at his humiliating worst. Poor Andrew Fettes gets lumbered with the Condo (well, Igor) role of speaking like a tomfool with slurred speech. There’s some sympathy to be elicited from such a role but as written he’s just a lurching simpleton. Almost as bad as all the hysterics elsewhere as various actors have to snarl and gurn and scream their way through the story. After a while it just becomes as agonising as white noise. The twist at the end of episode three is actually quite a surprise but its delivered as though somebody is reciting what they need from the supermarket. One character screams ‘It’s ALIIIVVVVEEEE!’ Of course they do. ‘Look at what unites you rather than what sets you apart’ – does the Doctor really try and talk (shout) down the situation with that argument?

Result: It’s like somebody has watched The Brain of Morbius and taken out all the inventiveness. It’s as blatant and as cliché ridden as a Doctor Who gothic horror story could possibly be without any of the creativity that you would expect from a series that can take you anywhere in anytime. The first episode is the superior one because the atmosphere is fresh and the return of Mags is novel and I really liked how Sylvester McCoy was kept in the shadows for the most part to allow the story to breathe. The idea of Mags coming to a place packed with monsters to fit in is very sweet and I enjoyed the dilemma of her having the choice to extract her bestial side. It automatically gives her more depth than the companions of the recent seventh Doctor trilogies. I found it really difficult to listen to at times because of the assault of monstrous voices and effects. It had a disorienting effect on me, at once convincing me of the horrific nature of the creatures that populate the story but so unpleasant it refused to allow me to get any entertainment from it. As usual with these two-hour long stories there isn’t enough plot to fill up the running time and as such we fill the time with endless scenes of Mags transforming, the monsters on the attack and false jeopardy cliff-hanger. After listening to the tighter, one-hour stories in some of the recent box sets reviewed it is feels even more obvious that the four main range stories are often swollen beyond their ability to fulfil their premise. It’s no wonder that two two-part stories are starting to creep back into the range. The regulars are strong and the dialogue mostly works, but there are far too many scenes of creature attacks being explained (‘they’re going to fight and we’re caught in the middle!' is a cliff-hanger ending). Not needed when there is a soundscape that is doing all that work for you. How do you rank a story where the character work is enjoyable but the story itself is seriously lacking? Fitton’s scripts usually work in the other direction and I’m still hoping for another The Wrong Doctors from him, one that marries both seamlessly. This is pure gothic horror without much concession for the fact that it is sent in space. This story could just as easily be told on Earth with a few tweaks and swapping the monsters for circus freaks. The twist is actually pretty clever but it is such a monstrous experience to listen to by that point that I think it its effect was completely lost on me. I’m looking forward to more of Mags but that’s pretty much all I took from this: 5/10

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Dread of Night written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When a grieving household offers the TARDIS travellers shelter from the weather, the Doctor, Chris and Roz find themselves exposed to even less hospitable conditions. A sinister presence stalks the house, plaguing its inhabitants… and only the truth can free them.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor categorically states that Chris and Roz can handle the people side of their investigations and he will take care of everything. If there was ever a sentence that could sum up the nature of the New Adventures as far as the Doctor is concerned then that is it. Chris and Roz expect the Doctor to vanish into the ether and to operate in the shadows. He might be juggling empires, timelines and realities but this is still the Doctor and he always has a Jammie dodger in his pocket for an emergency. You just know that in a locked house horror story that the impish seventh Doctor will turn up in a cupboard at some point to scare the life out of everybody. McCoy aces the moment where he has to ask the nurse a terrible question to get at the heart of the mystery. Sometimes he is simply terrifying in the role, scarier than the monsters he faces. Listen to the way he asks Anabelle to join them for tea. Creepy bastard. He admits that he doesn’t belong anywhere. ‘Show me your true self…’ The Doctor agrees to give his grief to the creature, because he has watched planets burn and whole races fall, the screams of a civilisation, the sobbing of a tiny child. He has so much grief to feed on.

Moody Copper: Roz suspects that they will run into trouble…what on Earth gave her that idea? I enjoyed the fact that Roz has been at this long enough (and her career as an adjudicator must have helped fuel this) that she can spot and comment on the clichés a mile away. Imagine Roz in a frilly dress? No, I can’t either but I would pay to see it., It’s a shame there weren’t separate covers for these releases just so that could be mocked up. It’s a story that allows Roz to be an investigator, something she proves to be very good at indeed. Aliens she can fight but an imaginary friend requires more imagination than Roz is willing to give. Despite knowing the conventions of a horror story, she still finds menace in her own shadows. I would have thought the Roz would have had a stronger stomach than she does the moment they discover the bodies of the staff.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Chris states that he doesn’t need prying eyes watching him change but he is a blond muscle hunk so what does he expect? Chris delicately tries to bring up the matter of Roz’s family and goes on to touchingly admit that Roz and the Doctor are his family now. She cuts him down before he gets too schmaltzy (which is 100% Roz) and says that the bond between them doesn’t need to be spelt out.

Standout Performance: ‘There’s nothing simple about grief. I know how it can grasp the human heart’ – if Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor was pitched at the level he delivers this line at for 80% of the time I would be declaring him the ultimate audio Doctor. Sometimes he gives a line reading so utterly perfect you have to wonder why it is so rare.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘He’s looking right at me.’

Great Ideas: You could build an entire story around the idea of conceptual co-ordinates. Take me somewhere happy/sad/intellectual/morally debatable, etc. A new century and era always brings about a certain apprehension, and here they are on the edge of the 20th Century. Strange, you would think it bring a sense of renewed optimism, that everything could be reinvented. But then these are based on the New Adventures after all, where cynicism is the order of the day. Sandy is Anabelle’s imaginary friend and she has come out to play. Isabelle Price is the not the new mistress of this household, she’s Annabel’s imaginary friend.

Audio Landscape: This is a creep fest and so all Joe Meniers tricks come out to play. For the most part he is very successful. I jumped out of my skin at least twice.

Isn’t it Odd: I suspected the nurse from the start but I suspect that is supposed to be the case. It’s a shame that all that carefully drawn atmosphere almost goes out the window once the culprit is revealed. The performance is a little too hysterical for my tastes. It’s the only weak spot in the story but it’s enough to drag it down from perfection.

Standout Scene: Chris and Roz confronting the creature for the first time. My hands were frozen above the keyboard, such was the intensity of the performances. And the first creature attack made me jump out of my skin.

Result:
‘For an imaginary friend…’ ‘It’s not that imaginary…or friendly!’ A crisp script, great performances and direction and a refreshing twist on a Doctor Who horror tale, The Dread of Night tops off a generally excellent box set. This reminded me a little of Night Terrors (imaginary creatures brought to life) and little of Night Thoughts (trapped in a creepy house in a domestic nightmare) but it has an atmosphere all of its own. I’ve seen the premise done before (The X-Files Scary Monsters for example) but this concentrates on a few characters, a claustrophobic location and sticks the Doctor, Chris and Roz in the mix. I’ve been genuinely impressed with their characterisation in the entire set. The first story highlighted the Doctor, the third Chris and now it’s Roz’s turn to take to the spotlight. I’ve been critical of Yasmin Bannermen’s performance but this was her most assured turn yet, thanks to some very strong material. I got a touch of the edgy space cop here that I haven’t before. Do these stories typify the New Adventures? Not really, despite some nice high concept ideas they are far too condensed and economically told to embrace the bloated, extreme nature of the books at their most experimental. But given I was never the biggest fan of those books in the first place that isn’t really a problem for me. I appreciate the merits of the NAs, and their influence on the new series (which I feel took their strengths and applied them to much tighter, less showy storytelling) but I found they strayed too far into graphic violence, emotional torture and convoluted plotting. The best of them are the best of Doctor Who but the worst of them…well. And the ratio of good/bad is probably 1/4. What this audio box set has proven is that New Adventures characters can be excised engagingly from the range and applied to economic story of the week audio adventures with a little more maturity and depth to them than your standard Big Finish output. I thought this set contained three extremely good tales and one disaster and that’s a much better average than your standard NA. I would be very happy to hear more. The Dread of Night polishes off the set on a high; it is genuinely creepy and after so many stabs at horror from this company that is no mean feat at all: 8/10

Death and the Queen written by James Goss and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Donna Noble has never been lucky in love. So when, one day, her Prince does come, she is thrilled to have the wedding of all weddings to look forward to. Though the Doctor isn’t holding his breath for an invitation. And her future mother-in-law is certainly not amused.  But on the big day itself, Donna finds her castle under siege from the darkest of forces, marching at the head of a skeleton army. When it looks like even the Doctor can’t save the day, what will Queen Donna do to save her people from Death itself?

Mockney Dude: ‘No man’s ever going to be good enough for my Donna…’ The Doctor manages to turn up at every single one of Donna’s date with some irritatingly fact or declaration. Way to kill the romance, Doc. If you don’t like David Tennant at his all time most energetic and squeakiest then this might not be the audio for you…but it is completely authentic to the era. Donna wonders if the Doctor is going to ruin all of her weddings. It’s a distinct possibility. She has a point when she says that whenever she threatens to have a day that is all about her that he somehow manages to make it all about him. Why is it when the Doctor is a portent of doom that nobody ever listens to him? He admits (but doesn’t want Donna to know) that some people aren’t worth saving. The Doctor is happy to admit that he isn’t happy about Donna leaving him to go hobnobbing amongst royalty. There comes a point with most of his companions where he is blissfully happy with them and there always comes a time where it seems they have had enough or they get a better offer. He wonders why he never gets the chance to catch his breath between those unhappy departures and the next friend that walks in on his life. Donna asked for the Doctor to be silenced but not in a permanent way. I’m sure there is a corner of fandom who would punch the air at that request. He doesn’t do revolutions on a Tuesday.

Tempestuous Temp: ‘Don’t you start with your Web of Time whatnot…’ There’s that immediate sense of the enormous dash of fun that tenth Doctor had with Donna. It felt, for a time, that all was right with the universe as these two knocked about from one exciting destination to the next revelling in the sheer freshness of everything. It’s only been captured by one or two TARDIS teams (think the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane and the fourth Doctor and Romana II). The romance between Donna and Rudolph feels very convincing, very quickly and that’s mostly because she so easily falls for the charm of all the wrong men. Donna is so blasé about her duties as Queen that she sounds the War horn just for a laugh, almost sending them to war. She’s not the favourite of her Mother in Law, which is the understatement of the century. When a cloud creature begins raining death on people Donna does her usual schtick of reminding the Doctor to stop being a smart arse and get on with saving people. God, I love her. She can joke about the fact that she has an entire armed force at her disposal but when the shit hits the fan and they are sent to die in her name, she refuses to fail to acknowledge that that is exactly what is happening. One of the strengths of the companions of latter day Who is that they acknowledge people who are looked down and upon and remind that they are people too. Donna does it with her maid in this story, telling her to stop thinking of herself in terms of her position. She might a pretty bumpy track record when it comes to men but even she is not marrying Death. The one thing nobody will get marrying Donna is a bit of peace, so Rudolph had completely the wrong idea. Who hasn’t wanted to call their mother in law an evil old prune? She essentially tells her potential spouse to grow a pair and to get in touch when he does. What a woman.

Standout Performance: It would be hugely remiss of me not to mention how stunning Catherine Tate is in this release, just as she always is when the spotlight shines brightly on Donna. I love how she refuses to play for laughs but instead manages to be very funny whilst still focussing on the dramatic elements of the script (of which there are many). Alice Krige also makes a great impression, understandably. It’s a very classy cast overall.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve got an army!’
‘Fancy a quick trip round my ramparts?’
‘Hello Death…is it me you’re looking for?’
‘For Donna, I do!’
‘I’ve had worse first dates. Death here’s just asked me to dance’ – me too Donna, me too…
‘And when you get a chance, look up the word Republic.’

Great Ideas: I almost spat out my coffee when the Doctor dares to suggest that sonic screwdriver isn’t a magic wand that can just make things go away. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts are nodding away in agreement as that is exactly what the device has become in the new series. Admittedly it was even worse during the Matt Smith era. Nowadays Jodie Whittaker is brandishing it as if it as a weapon.

Isn’t it Odd: If I had one complaint it would be that the pre-titles sequence feels a little rushed a bit sloppily edited. It feels like Donna being the Queen is supposed to be a huge reveal but given we have had no chance to apprise ourselves of the situation, figure out where we are, why the Doctor is so panic stricken or how Donna has become the Queen it feels like a twist a twist has been dropped in our laps with no context whatsoever.

Standout Scene: There’s a terrific scene where the Doctor/Donna chemistry is at its height (basically the whole story) when they are both talking at each other but not listening to each other and having completely separate conversations. They bounce of each other so well, these two. I know that’s a given these days and celebrated but it’s always worth remarking on it because it isn’t always this effortless between regulars on this show. Or charming. Or funny.

Result:
‘Death is staring at me!’ A story that looks like it is going to be the knockout comedy of the set and turns into something far darker and more disturbing and doing the one thing that is guaranteed to get me rivetted to the speakers; putting Donna Noble through the wringer. I really loved how I was completely lulled into a false sense of security in the quirky and witty opening ten minutes and how quickly the story turns on a sixpence into murder, domestic violence and madness. It reminds me of a Donald Cotton script but gets to the point far quicker than ‘episode four.’ Donna has always been unlucky in love and this time she picks somebody that makes Lance look like a real winner. Their relationship goes from charming to disturbing to downright homicidal. It’s a story that manages to take place over a fair period of time but squeeze convincingly into an hour; painting a convincing picture of the royal setting, throwing in some action, a fascinating mother/son relationship and more witty lines than you could shake a stick at. David Tennant and Catherine Tate are held in high regard by fandom and you only have to listen to this story to understand why. It’s a chemistry rarely matched between two actors in the show and Death and the Queen sees them at their height. There’s even some gorgeous twists in the climax that I never saw coming, delivered by Tennant and showcasing the tenth Doctor at his dazzling best. The media’s darling was the so for a reason…he’s pure charisma. And we were very lucky to secure the services for Catherine Tate for an entire years’ worth of stories, and now additional audios. Energy, wit, surprise, darkness; this is wonderful stuff: 10/10

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Sins of the Father written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the mining colony Callous, Elliot King struggles to meet the demands of its governor, Teremon. The odds are stacked against him, and his options are running low. The world that once promised dreams now offers only despair. A wild Ood stalks the forests, carrying an antiquated phone. The caller promises much – he claims he can change the world – but he always speaks a devastating truth. He is the Master and the Ood will obey him... but to what end?

War Master: He laughs his head off whilst he is being tortured, screaming as though the electric volts are tickling him. Teremon tries to suggest that the Master will be responsible when the peacekeeping forces arrive and people start to die and rebuts her with an argument that I have long held to be true. If you make a decision, own it, don’t try and foist the blame onto others. When she suggests she has his life in her hands he asks her to prove it and kill him. It’s an interrogation where he is in complete control. When confronted with a cattle prod he considers his torturer has a seriously limited repertoire. He had a timer hidden away in his upper left molar that was designed to dissolve once it went off. There’s something horribly sinister about the Master waiting to put his Endgame in place by enjoying torture as a form of entertainment. He’s an intricate planner, rather than reactive. He’s been getting ahead of the game. Cassie’s father was a strong man that he knew would oppose him and so he had to dispose of him. Being the Master of course he had a plan B. He never planned to get captured by Teremon but if he did then he put a second scheme in place to get the Swenyo out of the way. How he plays with Teremon before killing her reminds me of how Missy would behave, but without the irritating smugness. There’s a War going on out there and some colleagues of the Master are building a lot of battleships and they need a great quantity of Swenyo. There are some things in the universe that even the Master won’t condone. He will wipe out entire civilisations but protect a rare and beautiful flower with the threat of death.

Standout Performance: It takes the Master over four hours before he even utters a threat and yet he’s a menacing figure throughout. That’s the power of Derek Jacobi in the role. Some people have decried that it was a failure on the part of the producer to keep the Master in the shadows so much in this box set but I think it was a stroke of genius. Jacobi has been given a chance to play nice, which is just as chilling and a quirky hallucination and it is only in the last twenty minutes of this tale that he emerges as the Master that we know and love. It means he’s able to give a strong, multi-faceted performance that utilises one of the finest actors we have in this country to his full potential.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Send your boys in. At least they have a decent right hook.’
‘A father doesn’t want to need their child. It should be the other way around.’
‘The answer to the question you never asked, the question you should have asked…my answer would have been no.’

Great Ideas: It is a fact that when people are given a path to a fortune, that they tend to get greedy and want more. Cassie isn’t immune, neither is Teremon. The Governor is willing to use lethal force to find the Swenyo, whether she believes Cassie knows where it is or not. She calls in a peacekeeping force to quell any civil unrest and take over (did nobody learn anything from Farscape?). Teremon is one of those fabulous super bitches that turns up in Doctor Who and its related spinoffery occasionally who is completely irredeemable and gets off on her own sense of importance. Another human constant is how we choose a side and when that goes pear shaped we duck our heads under water and pretend that the bad stuff isn’t happening. Cassie calls out the people of Callous for choosing greed and to stand up to Teremon, and then for hoping that everything we be okay when the peacekeeping forces arrive. She shames them into helping her to hide and I’m pleased that somebody has the nerve to stand out in the crowd and act. I wondered why the Ood wouldn’t fight for Cassie…and that is because they are waiting to obey the Master. It was the Master that told Teremon that Martine had all the Swenyo in the first place. The thing about weapons is that it is not enough to have them. You have to make sure that the opposing side doesn’t. Otherwise it is all just a lot of shooting and dying. The Master has poisoned the well of Swenyo so the Daleks cannot utilise it whilst he hops off with the entire supply.

Audio Landscape: The Ood have been an audio triumph in this story, in performance and general execution. In the first story they were a chilling ghostly presence in the wilderness delivering the phone calls. In the third they proved an amusing counterpoint to Martine’s madness. And here they make for a terrifying chorus of death as they turn on the colonists. The mileage that Doctor Who and it’s related stories have gotten from these creatures has been extraordinary.

Standout Scene:
Cassie’s breakdown when she realises that her new home and opportunity on Callous has turned out to be anything but. I’m not usually a fan of screaming on audio but since we have followed the lives of Cassie and Martine for four hours I felt the hysteria was justified. She’s broken, and Maeve Bluebell Wells portrays Cassie’s despair brilliantly. She cannot comprehend why her brain conjured up her dead father rather than Martine, but that is because in her head Martine isn’t really dead.

Result: ‘He is the Master and we will obey him…’ Ultimately this is a very bleak piece of work, but what do you expect from a Master story where he wins the day? I’m not sure why I expected some kind of happy resolution for any of these characters when they have been spelt out as pawns of one of the Master’s plans from the start. Let’s just say that things don’t end well for anybody and so if you’re a defeatist this might be perfect listening for you. It’s a hugely satisfying ending to a consistently strong box set. It’s rare for Big Finish to release a four-story set where the material across the entire four hours is as excellent as this. No part of Master of Callous was flawless but as a piece of work it hangs together remarkably well. The Master emerges and reveals his dastardly plan and it is one of the few times where you can really see the blistering intelligence that lies beneath the malevolent exterior. Jacobi excels as you would imagine and after having to wait for him to play purely evil for over four hours it is simply delicious when it comes. Some things are worth waiting for and are even sweeter when you do. And scarier. Nothing about this set was obvious, which is a rarity for Big Finish Time War material. The third instalment is such a jarring interlude that the structure is unique, whilst still managing to tell a cohesive story. The lack of fanwankery is very refreshing (the Ood and the Master are both in there but they are used sparingly and originally) and it avoids the Big Finish shopping list approach that is seeping in to a lot of their work (ALL the Masters meet River, River meets UNIT, ALL of the eighth Doctors companions come together, etc). It’s dark and probing, allowing us to get close to these people before pulling the rug out beneath them and leaving them exposed, raw and desperate. A big two thumbs up from me: 8/10

Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Persistence of Dreams written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the mining colony Callous, Elliot King struggles to meet the demands of its governor, Teremon. The odds are stacked against him, and his options are running low. The world that once promised dreams now offers only despair. A wild Ood stalks the forests, carrying an antiquated phone. The caller promises much – he claims he can change the world – but he always speaks a devastating truth. He is the Master and the Ood will obey him... but to what end?

Martine: The relationship between Martine and Cassie strikes me as one of the more realistic to be portrayed in a Big Finish story for some time because it is able to develop and crack at a reasonable pace. It feels like a relationship that has been earnt because the time devoted to it, the efforts of the actresses and how it convincingly starts falling apart because of the stresses of real life rather than because of some cod SF reason. When they row incessantly in Martine’s head in this story (an effect of the Swenyo) it reminded me so much of me and my ex at breaking point. Through her hallucinations we get to learn so much more about Martine, but whether the people we experience are fact or Martine’s interpretation of them we will never know. She’s now the richest woman in the universe with all the Swenyo but all the good it is doing for her is to drive her batshit crazy with visions. Her Dad was proud of her for getting out amongst the stars but her Mum just thought she was letting them down and saying there was something wrong with their lives. Speaking us somebody who moved away from his family to a similar reaction, I know exactly what she has been through. It’s very cruel at the climax how the Swenyo convinces Martine that she is talking to Cassie and that she thinks she has the chance to say I love you. The Master cuts through that misconception with cruel honesty and is able to drop his kindly façade and give her the sort of dressing down I am sure he’s wanted to ever since he appeared on Callous.

Standout Performance: Whilst they were used sparingly but to frightening effect in Call for the Dead, this is where the Ood really come into their own. Silas Carson’s smooth voice makes a pleasing counterpoint to Samantha Beart’s more emotional delivery and I loved the scenes of the Ood trying to understand his companion psychologically. Beart really has to sell her hysteria and claustrophobia and she acquits herself beautifully. You really feel that you are struggling with her.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘People forget about me all the time. Perhaps I have that kind of face’ says an Ood!
‘Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind’ ‘I shall be very kind!’
‘The problem with a dead ghost is that however hard you try you just can’t kill him.’

Great Ideas: Cooking and eating Ood is something I never thought I would hear on audio. How very unpleasant.

Audio Landscape: It’s been quite a while since a Big Finish story has kept me on the edge of my seat through its soundscape alone but the opening few minutes of this story are so tightly directed with footsteps, breathing and screams all being used to chilling effect.

Isn’t it Odd: Calling an Ood ‘dood’. Just no.

Standout Scene: I’m still not sure who Jacobi was in the phantasms but the character he played was so much fun, whilst being horribly disturbing at the same time. The weird cockney accent towed the fine line between amusing and bizarre.

Result: Hallucinogenic and claustrophobic with a terrific pair of performances, The Persistence of Dreams is another vivid addition to this set. I can really relate to Martine’s personal and family issues, they reminded me of the worst of my past and so I felt a connection with her as she was put through the emotional wringer whilst exposed to the Swenyo. It’s a complete diversion from the rest of the set and stands out because of it. It’s not often that a Big Finish story allows us to get this close to somebody who is going through the emotional and psychological wringer because that is far too adult material for the regular Doctor Who ranges. Handcock doesn’t mind shoving your face in the mud for a while and Guy Adams is happy to make that happen. The dangers of the mineral that they are mining are laid bare in this instalment, with its ability to soak into your mind and dredge up the worst of the past but bring to the fore in the most disturbing way possible. Imagine the Master, who is an expert of the mind, being in control of an element that can bring people to their knees with the worst of your memories. Samantha Beart has a tricky task of holding up much of this instalment which is packed full of weird, angst ridden, emotive material but she handles it very well, only occasionally relying on hysterics (which is my worst kind of audio experience). Silas Carson was even better in the somewhat thankless role of the Ood character, who is effectively one note but manages to find some real nuance in his role. The direction stands out too with some sequences really telling the story with no dialogue whatsoever. Baffling, challenging and different: 8/10

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Glittering Prize written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the mining colony Callous, Elliot King struggles to meet the demands of its governor, Teremon. The odds are stacked against him, and his options are running low. The world that once promised dreams now offers only despair. A wild Ood stalks the forests, carrying an antiquated phone. The caller promises much – he claims he can change the world – but he always speaks a devastating truth. He is the Master and the Ood will obey him... but to what end?

War Master: When you’ve travelled as far and wide as he has you tend to pick up all kinds of knacks. It is hard to believe that he comes from a race of sickening do-gooders, although if you head on over to Gallifrey at the moment you’ll see that they aren’t doing much good these days. The Master claims that he isn’t just an open but a boring one. He’s betraying the trades description act there. He should be sued for the defamation of his own character. Such is my suspicion about the War Master that when he asks a character for afternoon tea and she starts munching away, I was convinced that she had been poisoned. There’s a glorious scene where the Master addresses the entire colony and I was taken way back to the sequence in The Daemons where he did a similar thing with the village of Devils End. Being perfectly charming and yet free with dark criticism. He’s a terrific public speaker. When he talks about humans squabbling over lumps of rock being pointless, the Master has pretty much written off a third of Doctor Who adventures. Because the Time Lords have telepathic centres, the Swenyo soaks into his brain and tugs at his soul. They wait until the end of the second story to reveal that this is a scheme that ties into the Time War, allowing the story to set up on its own terms before tying it into the greater Doctor Who narrative. Only the War Master could respond ‘what fun’ at being threatened with torture.

Standout Performance: Was it my imagination or did one of the actor’s sound REALLY like Captain Jack? Sometimes when listening to Big Finish audios I catch wind of a voice that dances upon my memory. Once Pippa Haywood appeared and started applying the pressure for more money as Teremon I knew I recognised that voice. The Brittas Empire played a big part in my formative years, it was one of those shows that was so enjoyably goofy and screwball that as a kid I couldn’t resist it. The outrageous and mentally unstable Mrs Brittas was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show. Here Haywood acquits herself beautifully, giving a performance of studied greed and having taken the crash course in ‘how to play a Doctor Who villainess’ by suggesting threat in the most innocuous of lines. She’s terrific.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Have you just taken control of the colony?’ ‘Me? I’ve just made a suggestion…’
‘Cowardice runs through you like Swenyo through the mine!’ It’s not a great line but it reminds me so much of dialogue from The Monster of Peladon that I had to smile anyway. And Jacobi doesn’t falter with it. What a pro.
‘If you promise not to scream…ill take your gag off’ Brrr…

Great Ideas: It’s taken a year but the mine is working and they have freighters queuing up from beyond the asteroid belt. How refreshing to have a set that is telling a sweeping story over an extended period of time. Things that were set up in Call for the Dead are already being paid off. Let’s hope it continues in this vein. Callous is now a rich colony at full potential. When money is involved people tend to get greedy, those who are producing it and those who want a cut of it. Apparently, there isn’t a machine that cannot be discombobulated if you turn off the Wi-Fi. The purer the sample of Swenyo, the more feedback it will cause for the systems, effectively guiding the Ood to the best seams of the mineral. Swenyo is a material that enhances the mental interface between machinery and operator. The Ood have telepathic control of the drilling equipment. Imagine what would happen if they found a sample of absolute purity? Is the mineral itself begging to be found?

Audio Landscape: Both the sound effects and the music suggest pure bombast when Teremon arrives on Callous. It’s a wonderfully exciting moment that suggest the things are about to get ugly.

Standout Scene: The most chilling idea of all time: The War Master as an entertainer at a children’s party. Can you imagine?

Result: ‘Right now, not to far from here, there is a War raging. A War so fierce that people are called upon to sacrifice not just themselves but their entire history!’ Those who felt a little short-changed by the lack of Jacobi in the first story will be overjoyed to hear that he gets a much bigger slice of the pie here. It’s fascinating to see what the Master gets up to when the Doctor is not around, this must be how his time is spent when he is not facing up to his greatest adversary. Jacobi is such a convincing silky menace, here slipping his way into everybody’s good books with a phrase here and a suggestion there. He’s subtly manipulating the entire colony and because everybody else’s motives are so extreme and obvious he is able to do it invisibly, and with some kudos thrown his way. This is a more obviously told tale than the first now the setup has been organised but I found it gripping in exactly the same way that Power of the Daleks is. This is a colony with its own problems and people who are exploitative and willing to go to extreme measures to earn money and gain power. The Master is (at the moment) almost a secondary menace compared to the lusty desires of the humans involved. Pippa Haywood’s Teremon is a force to be reckoned with but the Master doesn’t even break a sweat when she appears on the scene to take charge. How he is celebrated as the saviour of this colony is the most chilling aspect of this story because you know he doing all of this for some dark ulterior purpose that will exploit the colonists in a much nastier way. He’s just waiting to make his move. Very like the Daleks in Power. This feels very different from the first story but an effortless continuation of where it left of. The War Master is proving to be a stamp of quality for Big Finish: 8/10

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The War Master: The Master of Callous: Call For the Dead written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the mining colony Callous, Elliot King struggles to meet the demands of its governor, Teremon. The odds are stacked against him, and his options are running low. The world that once promised dreams now offers only despair. A wild Ood stalks the forests, carrying an antiquated phone. The caller promises much – he claims he can change the world – but he always speaks a devastating truth. He is the Master and the Ood will obey him... but to what end?

War Master: Derek Jacobi kicks off the story by narrating as the Master and I truly think a petition should be in place that every Big Finish story should start in this way because his voice just oozes quality from the first syllable. You know you’re going to be in for a good time with Jacobi featuring. It’s a voice that oozes charm and menace, like a dark honey. You know when the Master turns up in a Doctor Who story having already set an entire plan in motion and it reaches its apotheosis when the Doctor appears? This is just like that; we’re seeing one of the Masters immense schemes at work and this is all the leg work that he does long before the Doctor shows up. However, the thing that worries me with this set is that the Doctor isn’t billed and so perhaps this is going to be one of those instances where the Master corrupts and gets away with it. Let’s find out…

Standout Performance: Good grief, I haven’t heard Barnaby Edwards put on a cod French accent since the very early days of Big Finish in The Marian Conspiracy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Even in fairy stories the good people don’t always win…’
‘One day you will hear it and you will obey…’

Great Ideas: When they founded a colony on Callous, that did not include the mineral rights because IMC wanted to hold onto them. Naming IMC instantly places this story fairly contemporary with Colony in Space so we know quite a bit about the tie period already. Now the mineral rights are granted on Callous to the colonists, in perpetuity. What the people know is mining here drives people crazy, as the bonkers Ood can attest that roam the wilderness. Even IMC abandoned hope of exploiting the rich seam here. Apparently, there is something ancient and evil in the mine, the stuff of legend. The colonists are sitting on a wealth of Swenya and it would be a crime not to capitalise on it…although doing so might just drive you insane. Callous is a business prospect is something of a contradiction, people are scratching as living on the surface when underneath their feet is a fortune in minerals that they cannot mine. When the colony was founded it was supposed to be a haven for artists but nobody knew that the Earth Gov would collapse. ‘Off you go robot! Bring me some luck! Make me rich!’ When has a character that so badly wants to exploit and undermine ever have a happy ending? What is it about the Ood that makes them so expendable? They manage to be both creepy and sympathetic at the same time, which is a hard balance to get right.

Standout Scene: Kudos to James Goss for the stirring concept of the ringing telephone that isn’t connected to anything that the Ood attempt to deliver to the colonists. Every time the phone rings I my blood ran cold, like a portent of doom. ‘The call is for you…’ Imagine getting a call from the War Master telling you to commit suicide? He’s such a smooth talking, hypnotic fella you would have no choice but to obey. Remember when the Beast took the staff of the Sanctuary Base to task and spelt out all of their foibles? This is precisely what the Master does on these calls but far more insidiously. He bores down into your character, exposes your darkest secrets, spells out your ugliest traits. There’s something about phone calls on audio…they freaked me out in John Dorney’s Absent Friends and in Jonathan Morris’ Static too.

Result: There was a strong feeling of both the New Adventures and Power of the Daleks from this first adventure. Let me explain that. The New Adventures spent a great deal of their time building an impressive and vivid future history and would often feature the Doctor in stories waiting in the wings and pulling strings but not having much exposure. Swap him out for The War Master that is exactly what you have here. Power on the other hand featured a colony world with a new, apparently exploitable commodity, which if they stepped back and examined they would realise it would lead them to their doom. In both cases it is a strength in Call for the Dead, a story that bravely chooses to eschew most recognisable continuity elements (a very rare occasion for Big Finish these days) and paint its own picture of the future with some fresh, original characters. I was more impressed with this than anything, just how novel it feels to have an almost entirely original story that still feels like it takes place in the RTD era of Doctor alongside the Pertwee future history developed by Malcolm Hulke. The story is in no great rush and so we get a chance to see this world sketched in some detail and introduced to the characters in a way that feels natural and unforced, getting a clear idea of their motives. Imagine getting that call from the Master that spells out all of your ugly traits and imagine if it was the Master that was played by Derek Jacobi? You’d be reaching for the gun before you know it. That was the most sinister idea in this slow burner, but it was one that really got under my skin. If you’re going into this expecting it to be a big campy space opera with the Master chuckling a lot, hypnotising people and juggling the fates of worlds then you are going to be disappointed. But if strong, character led drama in a vivid SF setting with disquieting moments is your thing then you will be in for a treat. This is exactly the sort of thing that Big Finish would be producing more frequently if they weren’t such a factory line these days, mature storytelling that has been crafted rather than forced. Not exactly enjoyable (we’re talking suicide after all) but riveting: 8/10

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Gallifrey Time War 2: Assassins written by Matt Fitton and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Pushed to the brink by Rassilon’s actions, Romana is thinking the unthinkable. A new threat has breached Gallifrey’s defences. And its target is clear. A race of assassins has evolved at the heart of the Time War, dedicated to one purpose. The Sicari are coming for Rassilon…

Madam President: Romana has served Gallifrey for a long time and defended her academy from all manner of attacks and she wants it on record (even to Rassilon) that she is actively seeking other methods of fighting the War. If not by diplomatic means, then any other methods at their disposal. Surely it makes sense to keep all their options open rather than naturally moving onto a war footing. It’s worth remembering that Romana has been at this sort of thing for a long time now and has picked up more than a few things along the way. How she displays tactics for counter espionage here impressed me. She has learnt to think like the enemy and to give them enough to make it feel like she is mistakes when really she is seeding that information and a few steps ahead. Romana accepts that this is not the Gallifrey that she fought for and that she no longer has a home and needs to travel back out into the universe. She’s running from a Presidential assassination attempt and will in all likelihood never be welcome home again.

Narvin: Romana always wondered how far Narvin would follow her and it seems that killing the President is the bridge that he refuses to cross. Rassilon knows that Narvin is loyal to Romana and so they go on a mission to try and win him over with extravagant promises (his regenerative powers restored) and important positions. I was never convinced that he could be turned, not after everything that he has been through with Romana. Would that all be for nought?

Rassilon: I love the fact that Rassilon is so convinced by his own superiority that even when he is under attack he won’t run to safety or cower. What a fabulously arrogant despot. He has an entire arsenal of weapons to protect his person, some of which we have heard about during the long run of classic Who. Rather wonderfully he laughs his head off at the assassination attempt and declares those who stood up to him and attempted to kill him are exactly the sort of people he needs by his side in the Time War. Facing a regeneration, he welcomes the change as another step towards Godhood. What a guy. With Ollistra and all the other game players off world he feels that Gallifrey has been left dry of talent.

Standout Performance: I’m sure that the creators of this set would want Terrance Hardiman’s name to be emblazoned in this section of the review and in truth he is quite superb in the role of Rassilon. I prefer the scenes where he gets to underplay and try and corrupt Narvin because Hardiman’s purring voice really sells this nightmarishly nasty version of a Time Lord of mythology. However, I want to sing Sean Carlsen’s praises again for what is turning out to be a consistently excellent performance as Narvin. He’s a character who has never had it easy and this set is no different and I loved the suggestion that he might turn on Romana in this story because of the terrifying actions she wants to take. Carlsen makes you wonder which way Narvin is going to jump and that’s exciting with a character that I’m invested in. It goes without saying that Lalla Ward is fantastic. But I’m going to say it anyway.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I imagine spending your entire life sitting on the fence must be extremely uncomfortable.’
‘It seems I’ve found the bridge you wont cross.’
‘You’re going to make Rassilon’s first true regeneration a public spectacle?’
‘You’re terrified of him Livia…precisely how Rassilon likes it.’

Great Ideas: There is no neutral ground in the Time war anymore, stand with Gallifrey or face the consequences. That is what the events on Ysalus have proven. The Matrix has shown thousands of races fleeing from potential battle zones. Training camps are being set up across the cosmos (I believe we visited one in an appalling Matt Fitton penned eighth Doctor story once). Cardinal Ollistra has been given special dispensation to move ahead with projects. How nice to see all of the ranges merging into one here, with Fitton contributing to all three it feels perfectly natural that he should tip the wink to both the War Doctor and the eighth Doctor War stories. For once it feels like they are all inhabiting the same universe. And it’s fascinating to see so much material we have already enjoyed being set up in this series. This is where it all began after all. Livia has been behind the President throughout this entire series but Roman can see the cracks in her armour now as the chess pieces have been moved to extreme positions. How long before the Daleks can use flotsam from the vortex to breach Gallifrey’s defences? There is talk of trying to find their previous allies but Braxiatel more than covered his tracks before skipping Gallifrey (leaving multiple false trials that lead precisely nowhere), Ace’s history cannot be tracked from her biodata and her time trace is blurred and contradictory (much like her appearance in so many ranges, goodness knows where she is supposed to belong anymore), and all evidence points to Leela being deep within the Time War. The Celestial Intervention Agency is to be disbanded. The War Council has delved into as many of the Sisterhood of Karn’s secrets as they possibly can and have a broad understanding of resurrection now. We learn that Ace is safe on Earth and time locked but how much Braxiatel left of her memory intact is anyone’s guess. Leela has appeared at several temporal co-ordinates. The Sicari Collective are borne of a universe that live in fear of the Time Lords. They were always going to come for Rassilon.

Audio Landscape: The realisation of the Sicari was a little underwhelming. I could barely understand what they were saying.

Standout Scene: The moment Romana contemplates the unthinkable…the assassination of Rassilon. Have things really gotten this bad? I was literally gritting my teeth with tension as he realises that she is going to betray him and calls her out on it. When the hell did Gallifrey become the temporal equivalent of Game of Thrones?

Result: ‘This isn’t Gallifrey, not anymore…’ Exciting and climactic, although I’m not sure the set has justified such an approach. This feels like the end of a terrific arc with exciting things being promised for the future and lots of fun details coming together. However, this set has been the epitome of a slow burner with two stories that were all set up and no pay off and two stories that kick start the idea of Gallifrey gone rogue in a riveting way. My point is you probably could have excised the first two stories or at least truncated them into one tale and gotten to this point even sooner because it frustrates me that as soon as this set starts getting really good…its over. However, kudos for avoiding the one duffer syndrome; there is usually one story in a set of four that compares terribly to the rest and the biggest complaint I can make is that the first two instalments are only above average. Can it be treason to have the Lord President executed if it is no longer the Gallifrey they swore to protect? Is Rassilon the only one that the Time War has corrupted? Interesting questions are raised around this grey morality. The story doesn’t scrimp on discussing these points in depth, looking at how Gallifrey has evolved and how the series regulars have too. It’s a refreshing study and features some of the best Matt Fitton dialogue I’ve heard in a while. More fantastic scenes for Sean Carlsen. More fantastic scenes for Lalla Ward. A star turn by Terrance Hardiman who is so cool as Rassilon that he wont even raise an eyebrow when his life is in danger because he is so assured of his dominance. I found myself discussing this series with a friend who has never heard it but has dipped his toes into the War Doctor stories with mixed results. The Briggs and Barnes approach to the Time War is all high concept and no heart, and relatively few consequences. Handcock’s Time War is less showy but with a narrative that builds and develops into something impressive, with tight character moments and smart dialogue. I know which approach I prefer. I’m looking forward to hearing more and after a bit of a wobble in the middle series of Gallifrey, I’m right back in the zone with a series that has caught a second wind: 8/10