Thursday, 7 November 2019

Trek 365 Day Challenge...

Where the hell have you gone? I’ve been asked in comments, on social media and via my YouTube channel. Recently I had a bit of a brainsplosion with regards to Big Finish and the varying quality of what they have been releasing and questioning whether I have actually been enjoying trying to keep up with the hideous number of releases and reviewing them all in some depth. So I decided to take a break, and it happens to be one I have been enjoying quite a lot. At the same time I figured that I had been discussing Doctor Who in depth for over ten years and whilst it will always be my first love that perhaps I was getting a little immune to its charms at times and focussing too much on the negative rather than the positive. So I decided to take a break from Who as well. Or at least reviewing it. It’s astonishing how much enjoyment I have had simply enjoying some of these stories rather than examining them. I wonder when I stopped doing that.

However, I am a creature of habit and I love writing reviews. There are few things that give me more pleasure than to sit at the keyboard and let language flow from my fingertips when discussing something that I love. So I have spent an incredible amount of time lately prepping for a brand new feature that will be appearing on the blog shortly. I wanted to challenge myself to do something new and I wanted to give myself a chance to look at something old and something new…

Hence my 365-day Star Trek challenge is about to begin. Those that follow my FB page are probably aware that I have been watching Star Trek a fair amount lately thanks to the absurd photos I have been posting. Don’t get me wrong I come not to belittle Star Trek, but to celebrate it to the hilt.
After an absence of posting nothing for a few months, I will be posting a review a day for an entire year. The something old is going to be looking at TNG, DS9 and VOY episodes all over again, ten years after I last reviewed them. Of the episodes I have reviewed so far I have had some surprising results. Some I’m found far more enjoyable than on my initial rewatch and others have been found wanting this time around. The something new is that I am always going to be reviewing TOS, the final two and half seasons of TNG and ENT. The reviews I have written for those series have been truly enlightening for me. I’ve found far more to enjoy in Enterprise than I thought possible (which before starting this was nothing) and TOS proves to be extraordinary television in every way that word can be used.

I’m going to be looking at the characters, the plot, the production, the funny bits, the dramatic bits, the performances, the music…I’ll discuss the episodes in as much depth as my brain will allow and at the end (as ever) I will summarise whether this episode is worth watching again or not (a hint, pretty much all of them are for a variety of reasons). And I will be hopping between the series randomly to keep things interesting. 

I’m also going to be more present on social media throughout this year long challenge, I would love to be able to engage more with the audience reading, to hear what you think and to add some fun and quirky elements to the haphazard viewing experience.

I’m 30 reviews into this challenge already and I’m in two minds whether to kick start it now or to wait until the beginning of the new year but this is just an episode on my scribblings over the past few months…

…I hope you can come on the journey with me.

Monday, 19 August 2019

The Famished Lands written by Lisa McMullin and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Trying to make a difference far from the front lines, the Doctor and Bliss arrive in the Vale of Iptheus, where the Time War is starving populations out of existence. The inhabitants have taken matters into their own hands – but are now on course for something worse. Bliss discovers exactly how the robot Enablers are helping the people, while the Doctor uncovers a terrifying secret...

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor thinks he has found himself a personal war to fight when he witnesses the slaughter of a dozen starving people. I’m guessing that in a conflict where he is struggling to do any real good that he needs to find these personal victories wherever he can. There’s an incredibly bizarre conversation where the Doctor tries to convince an Ipthean that he is not a Dalek and they do not come from Gallifrey. It does stress the point that the details of the Time War are all muddled up on these worlds but in execution it is a very strange conversation (the dialogue is really awkward). The Doctor feels compelled to tell the people of the worlds affected by the Time War that this isn’t a war against them, and that they are only fighting the Daleks. I’m sorry, Doctor, but I think the Time Lords would shit all over the people of these worlds if it lead them to victory. He’s going to have to abandon this kind of woolly thinking if he is going to make an impact in this conflict. If he keeps seeing the best of his people, he’ll never get to the point where he feels compelled to wipe both sides out. He’s very quick to throw out absolutes.

Bless Bliss: What’s the worst thing that you can do when you land on a world with no food…turn up looking as if you have eaten a lot lately! She’s never been taken to dinner at gunpoint before but apparently it is the only way to dine out in the universe. Had Bliss turned into a hideous skeleton warrior then at least that would be memorable.

Standout Performance: Interesting ‘starving’ performance in there. Just sound like you have a bad sore throat and you are phoning up work to make your excuses for not coming in.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you see people starving you feed, don’t shoot.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘What did you do to the Doctor? You didn’t laser him! Was that a transmat?’

Great Ideas: A pretty world but not a self-sufficient one. It’s a world that relies on trade with other worlds for its food supplies and the Time War has cut off most of its supply routes. The skeleton army are the people that have eaten the synthetic food. A planet of raging skeleton warriors, to fight against the Time War.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m starting to wonder if Russell T Davies didn’t do me any favours by suggesting that the Time War was a conflict so awesome that it could not quantified, or described in any great accuracy. He offered up tantalising hints and whispers, terrifying imagery without ever going into any great detail and leaving the rest to our imagination. When Steven Moffat took the brave step of actually showing us what occurred it was pretty disappointing to realise that at its apex it was just a shoot ‘em up between the Time Lords and the Daleks. With an ongoing Time War series that is adding ever more detail to the conflict, it is becoming more normalised and less inventive. Boiling down the great conflict to a planet that are suffering because their trade routes are cut off might pass muster in an earthbound historical conflict but in the great unknowable Time War it seems to reduce it to something so utterly domestic and unremarkable. I think my expectations of the Time War were placed in an unreasonably high place and Big Finish are never quite going to reach it. Ultimately, in my heart, I feel like this is a War that belongs in the mind and not in actual stories. ‘What on Iptheus’ – it is a rookie mistake to have people talking like they would on Earth but change the name of the planet. Look at that cover art. It feels like they have given up trying to front these adventures with anything striking. I find the argument that it was an accident that they created an army of skeleton warriors through attempting to cure starvation on the planet a pretty shallow one. Why didn’t they stop the abuse on their people and go back to the drawing board? No, instead they gave the food to more people and used it to create a terrifying force that would protect their planet. As ever, it is not case of what people say but what they do. The Doctor literally cannot do right for doing wrong here. He shows these people a little glimpse of the Time War in a hope that they will understand how serious it is and as a result they decide to all become skeleton soldiers to try and fight back. And then a few lines of ‘perhaps the Time War won’t reach you here’ and they are convinced to go the other way. This is really simplistic writing. The entire existence of this story is justified in the very final scene, a bargain made between the Doctor and the Time Lords where they want something in return from him. Fair enough, but it could have been any favour that he was asking that was more exciting than 'please don't cut off the food from this planet.'

Standout Scene: It’s very odd having scenes of the Doctor and Bliss delighted at their dining experience on a planet where starvation is rife. I realise that the produce they are eating is a marvel and could solve all of this planet’s problems, but tonally it is extremely jarring. Talk about white privilege. We also swing from a conversation about the implications of the Time War to the Doctor screaming and dancing in a drug induced state. These scenes just do not sit next to each other harmoniously.

Result: ‘Is there an army of giant skeletons standing in front of us?’ I admire a story that gets to the point quickly and The Famished Lands certainly does that, offering up a fresh location and a conflict in less time that it would take to boil an egg. There’s an odd tone to this adventure that doesn’t quite marry up to the subject matter. It’s a story that wants to delve into the idea that worlds are suffering because of the Time War, where starving people are massacred and yet the tone is somewhat jovial, the dialogue jokey and the regulars are treating all of this as though it is a jolly outing. I appreciate that this is far more linear and approachable story than Fitton’s debut, mind, and Bliss feels much more comfortable playing second fiddle to the Doctor than she did being the focus. Are these Time War adventures supposed to be hard hitting dramas or is there room for lighter, slighter romps? On the strength of The Famished Lands I would argue against that approach I the future. I don’t understand the point of such a story; it doesn’t have anything particularly revelatory to say about the Time War, it isn’t a stepping stone in an arc, it’s not a character piece that reveals anything about the regulars. It feels like the quintessential ‘let’s churn them out’ Big Finish adventure, the great sausage factory of audio adventures. The only thing that this story does particularly well is weirding me out; scenes rub shoulders that swing from seriousness to high farce and I was left wondering whether the Time War was infecting the story, forcing to the tenor to shift so dramatically. Is this a comedy or a drama or a tragedy? Beats me, Chief: 4/10

Friday, 16 August 2019

Emissary of the Daleks written by Andrew Smith and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: On the planet Omnia, a young man leads the Doctor and Peri through the battle-scarred ruins of a city. Among the rubble he shows them proof that their invaders and new masters, thought to be invincible, can be defeated. The proof is the blasted, burnt-out remains of a Dalek. But this is a Dalek-occupied world like few others. For one thing, there are few Daleks to be seen. And for another, the Daleks have appointed an Omnian, Magister Carmen Rega, to govern the planet as their emissary. Why are the Daleks not present in force? And can the Doctor and Peri risk helping the Omnians, when the least show of resistance will be met with devastating reprisals from space?

Softer Six: How things have changed. I have recently watched an episode of The Twin Dilemma for a new YouTube project of mine and was aghast to recall just how toxic the sixth Doctor and Peri’s relationship was at the beginning. I have been so spoilt by their continued adventures with Big Finish that I have practically been tricked into believing that they were always made for each other. I forget that what I am listening to is the kind of rapport that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant would have liked to have developed over time if they had had the chance. He’s the surrogate stepfather, the teacher, the mentor. And she’s the intrepid young botanist, exploring the universe and basking in his wisdom. And I say this without any hint of irony whatsoever, there is little that gives me more pleasure than listening to these two adventuring together; their warm, occasionally spiky and always caring relationship growing all the while. It’s something that Andrew Smith taps into in the first scene of this story. The Doctor is hardly surprised to find that the Masters turn out to be the Daleks and immediately sets about taking the lid off a dead one to make sure that the creature inside has croaked it. When he is accused of being the fugitive, the Doctor he cries out in a sing-song voice ‘hel-lo!’ There’s that rebel in him, that kicked off with Troughton. It’s been a while since he was last on Skaro, and it wouldn’t be long before he wipes the planet out.

Busty Babe: Back home in Baltimore Peri would wander the church graveyards and read the inscriptions. I didn’t realise she had so much emo in her. Peri is appalled that the resistance seems to consist of people with entire books stored in their brains reciting those volumes for other people to learn from. I suppose that’s what Martha Jones did in last of the Time Lords. Tell stories and build a resistance and support for the Doctor. Poor Peri resists the Daleks during interrogation and almost kills herself in the process, screaming like a banshee as they torture her to extract information. Nicola Bryant could always let rip a scream but this is something quite different. When Peri says ‘goodbye for now, Doctor’ it is in a fashion that she thinks that she will never see him again.

Standout Performance: You’ve got a fabulous performance here from Nicholas Briggs as the Dalek Supreme. One of the most prissy, clipped, bitchy Daleks in recent history. It’s scenes with Saskia Reeves’ Rega are fuelled by pure hatred. It’s rare to hear a prolonged humanoid/Dalek bitch fight of this nature (essentially, it’s a power struggle between them) and it’s gloriously entertaining to listen to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s my first time ruling a Dalek occupied world, Doctor!’
‘You will want your revenge on me and you will have it.’

Great Ideas:
Reading and writing is forbidden on this world. Omnia’s previous history was irradiated after the war. The calendar began again at the Masters insistence: Day One, Year One. I loved the dialogue surrounding the names ‘Magister’ and ‘Masters’, it’s almost as if Andrew Smith is taking the piss out of the Doctor Who traditional of hiding its central monster/villain behind a grand title. It might be a bit grisly for me to say but I really enjoyed the sequence where the Daleks massacred all of the insurgents in a sequence that recalled Blakes’ 7’s The Way Back. Just as those scenes started to get a little wordy, the writer cut through it all with a shocking flurry of mass murder.

Audio Landscape:
Some of the direction in episode one lacks finesse, a surprise from John Ainsworth. You’ve got an overly melodramatic score, lots of running about with people shouting and a dearth od sound design to back up what is happening. It sounds like a fan made production in parts, not a professional one.

Musical Cues: It’s a very strange score because for the most part I found it suspenseful and mood-inducing…and yet there were bursts of insane melodrama during action sequences that quite took me out of the atmosphere the rest of the score was generating.

Isn’t it Odd: Daleks started as irradiated mutations and the nuclei radiation at the heart of Omnia attacks their cell structure very aggressively. That’s the reason why there as so few Daleks on this planet. They need radiation shielding to land here, hence the psychological attack on the planet. It’s a shame that there is a physical reason that the Daleks are taking this stance because I think it makes them so much more exciting to be playing mind games to keep people in check. For them to have done this just because they can’t land on the planet and subjugate in force blunts that Whitaker-esque approach to writing for them. When I think it is just a smart thing to do, saving resources and getting the same results. I actually think that it would have been more intense for Rega to have killed her own son rather than disobey the Daleks. But I suppose the story had to come to a conclusion at some point and her speech to her people, knowing that she will persecuted after they have finished dealing with the Daleks, has a ring of truth to it. Her sacrifice at the end is too easy an answer to what has been a complex character.

Standout Scene: The conversation between the Doctor and Rega is fantastic because he comes to it with all those centuries of hatred for the Daleks and those who work with them and Rega is able to fight back with the knowledge of what the planet went through and the atrocities she has managed to stop by collaborating. There are no easy answers. She cannot be entirely condemned or entirely praised. It’s a morally grey area that Doctor Who rarely steps into. I also really liked the end of episode three, which isn’t couched in melodrama. The Daleks simply live up to their promise of punishing the Omnions if they try to resist them in any way. Half of the population will be exterminated. Not an exclamation of intent, just a cold, hard fact.

Result: The concept at the heart of Emissary of the Daleks is a really classy one. If the Daleks threaten to exterminate a planet full of innocents unless they stay in check, what good can the Doctor possibly do if stirring up rebellion will lead to genocide? It’s bizarre to have such a sophisticated idea emerge from this story because I cannot imagine a more stripped back episode one of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Peri are already on the planet that their adventure will take place on, meet a citizen who spells out the entire situation on the planet and then stumble on the rebels almost immediately. All in time to realise that the ‘Masters’ on this planet are the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest of enemies. It’s complete lack of intricacy is remarkable, and enjoyable. I was waiting for some twist to reveal that this is all some simulation, or a test scenario for somebody who might want to join the Doctor and Peri on their adventures. It’s pure, unsophisticated Doctor Who. Even the first cliff-hanger is utterly guessable given what you would expect from a traditional Dalek story. It’s almost like Smith is trying lull you into a false sense of security because something much more interesting starts happening in the trenches of episode two. The Controller was by far the most thought-provoking character in Day of the Daleks and we have a terrific equivalent in this story; a woman who has been given an exalted position by the Daleks and rather enjoys the power enslaving her people at their whim. John Ainsworth direction is mostly excellent, and he lets the performances and the dialogue do a lot of the work but during moments of action I feel like he took his eye of the ball. I’m not sure there is enough incident to justify a two-hour release but it would also be the work of a better reviewer than me to point to any individual scene as written and say that it doesn’t work. I don’t think Emissary of the Daleks is a seamless Doctor Who adventure but it takes an unusual approach to a Dalek story in that it barely features them and focuses on the psychological ramifications of one of their invasions rather than just the death count. I was impressed by the tough dialogue with no easy answers. Much like Memories of a Tyrant, it has substance and that makes this trilogy a real tonic after the gothic naffness of the Mags trilogy. I just wish it had been slaved to a more succinct, punchier narrative: 6/10

Thursday, 15 August 2019

State of Bliss written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Bliss has lost her home, her family, and her friends – an orphan of the Time War. The Doctor attempts to find out where things went wrong. Across a multiverse of possibilities, Bliss discovers the many paths her life could have taken – but do they always lead to the Time War? And if Bliss can save her past, will she destroy her future – and the Doctor’s?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Where does Paul McGann fit into a story like this? As an interloper in each of the timelines in a different guise. Does that make sense? Not really. Listen to him in the last scene. He doesn't sound particularly motivated by any of this.

Bless Bliss: This seems like the perfect time to talk about Bliss because she hasn’t been an enormous success as a companion in my eyes and its worth trying to find out why, Why does somebody like Adric fall into fan consciousness as a failure and Sarah Jane as a success? Does accomplishment equate to a companion being well defined, developed, well-acted and likable? My initial problem with Bliss is that she was rather foisted upon the Doctor thanks to a quirk of the Time War, rather than meeting him naturally. In that first series of Time War adventures she was side-lined a lot in favour of more interesting guest characters and I couldn’t get a handle on who she really was and what her stake in the Time War was. The second box set dropped and we had a story where we visited Bliss’ home world, a genius notion that should have had me on side from that point on. Despite being written with more humour and less mediocrity, I still found myself drifting away from caring about the character but now I think the issue is that Rakhee Thakrar plays the part with all the gravitas of somebody that has evening meal at stake rather than the entire Time War. She’s so casual about everything, reacting to huge, universe changing events as though she is still walking the streets of Albert Square. Trust me, this isn’t me condemning actors for appearing in soap operas, there have been plenty of examples of actors who have left from soaps to Doctor Who with enormous success. When I compare the chemistry of Paul McGann and India Fisher and Sheridan Smith, his scenes with Thakrar are flat and insubstantial. It’s the oddest of things, chemistry. There is no exact science to it but I do think that once it has been tested out and unsuccessful (as this has in my book) then somebody making this needs to step back from the production and say ‘this isn’t working, let’s try something else.’ Now perhaps those in Big Finish towers think that Bliss and Thakrar are a roaring success (good for them) but then they are clearly looking at these things from a massively different critical standpoint to me. What do you think? Am I the crazy one? Has Bliss snuck into the upper echelons of your favourite companions? Or is she to you, like me, an unmemorable interloper who is giving this potentially fascinating range a black mark? Explain to me why I like Flip so much and Bliss so little, because the performances really aren’t that different.

Bliss has an aptitude for applied quantum mechanics. Has she? Or is that in one of the alternative universes? In many of the realities, Bliss is so distrustful.

Standout Performance: Anjili Mohindra is one of my favourite performers out of all the Doctor related spin offs. But her turn here as Calla just goes to show how well defined and characterised Rani was in the Sarah Jane Adventures. In comparison, she is shockingly unmemorable here.

Great Ideas: A quantum visualiser shows an infinity of different realities. Time is breaking down. The barriers between realities are falling. Something is happening across the universe. With Bliss, Deepa can tune into alternative universes. We are in the here and now but the visualiser can show the alternative routes that can be used to get here. Just the past, not the future. In each one, there is a person who looks like the Doctor. There are technology parasites emboldened by the Time War. They strip planets clean. Deepa isn’t just opening windows to other realities, she can tweak them too, even walk into them if things aren’t going well. She has a quantum anomaly that allows her to enter them and keep things on track. Deepa as all of her possible selves at once – that’s the most exciting idea at play here.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s hard to pick Thakrar out of the crowd in this story. Which is a sure sign that something unique is not standing out. Had this story featured Evelyn or Hex or Erimem, I would have had no problem at all. There’s a scene where it seems Bliss will be killed as the oxygen is bled out of the Rover…but it had none of the required tension because Thakrar sounds like she is laughing, not asphyxiating.

Standout Scene: There’s an implication that Deepa changed Bliss’ timeline so that she would end up with the Doctor. That literally makes her the Sam Jones of the audios. An undercooked companion who would have been nothing without interference to her timeline, who is supremely irritating because she has been placed in the Doctor’s path. Well, there’s a thing. It should be a heart-breaking discovery. Imagine if this had been Evelyn or Hex or Erimem (sorry I keep mentioning them) – this would be revelatory. With Bliss, it’s another reason why perhaps she is so ill-defined.

Result: ‘This place is built on sand. Sand shifting from one reality to another!’ Remember Turn Left? Of course, you remember Turn Left, it’s one of the most memorable episodes of new series to date and a regular top ten poller. Huge, high concept ideas, an emotional rollercoaster with the whole of reality at stake…and with Donna Noble at its heart. Brilliant, bold, silly, funny, self-critical, vulnerable Donna Noble. You can cut through complicated ideas because you’re following the path of a character we know and love. I feel that is what Matt Fitton was going for in State of Bliss. A complicated, big stakes story…but this time it is with Bliss as it’s emotional core. Unremarkable, ill defined, stress-free Bliss who seems to cut a path through the Time War by behaving as though she is navigating a supermarket. By centring the whole premise around Bliss I found myself really not giving a damn about much of it. This feels like it is trying to be The Wrong Doctors all over again and whilst you think a story featuring the sixth Doctor and Mel would be the nadir of what Big Finish can achieve, their characterisation enhanced that story tenfold. Bliss’ increased priority here has the reverse effect. State of Bliss flies from one alternative universe to another, one protracted and underwritten dialogue scene to another, with no clear narrative running through it. I think writing confusing stories and trying to pass it off as a fault of the Time War is about as slack as these stories could possibly be. Matt Fitton has written some very effective adventures elsewhere but between this and The Conscript he really doesn’t seem well suited to the Time War. Ken Bentley does his damndest to make the incidents count and you could say that there are a number of dramatic moments, but I was highly unengaged with the whole thing. Pretty much how I have been across all nine stories I have listened to, aside from the stories written by John Dorney and Jonathan Morris. These Time War sets have form in positioning the best stories of the set first. I’m hoping that the reverse is true of the third boxset: 4/10

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

More Happy Who!

Three more instalments of Happy Who. I opened out the Facebook group to suggestions of stories to tackle and I was given a list of difficult tales to try and find nice things to say about...

Planet of the Daleks:

The Twin Dilemma:


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Happy Who!

I was inspired by a Twitter account to step back from my 30 year old complacency about Doctor Who and create a new series of videos highlighting the positives about a number of Doctor Who stories that I have savaged in the past. It in no way invalidates my original reviews but merely provides a more upbeat counterpoint to them, perhaps looking at them in a way that I didn't when I originally took them apart. It's just quick, three minute vignettes, as low budget a production as you can imagine (just me, my phone and my sofa) but hopefully it will give you the impetus to revisit some of these stories with me and perhaps give them more of a chance than you have in the past. Of course if you loved these stories all along, it's your chance to say I told you so!

Here's a quick video explaining what all this is about in a little more detail:

And here is where I have started, with The Dominators:

Saturday, 10 August 2019

The Darkness and the Light written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: With the Master’s plans near completion, his victory is threatened by the presence of his greatest friend and enemy: the Doctor.

War Master: He could watch an entire city burn to the ground with barely a flicker of concern but he only has to hear the opening bars of Dido’s lament and he’s in floods as tears. Does he really want the respect of the Time Lords? Does he really want them to sing songs about him in the Capitol as the man who saved Gallifrey? Just when the Doctor thinks he has seen the worst of the Master, he always manages to sink even lower. He had almost forgotten that there were times when he and the Doctor were friends and worked together. His ultimate aim is to use the Rage to reshape the universe in his image. The Rage is his ‘Master’piece. Even at his worst there is still some good in him. The Doctor and the Master are the perfect balance, the darkness and the light.

The Doctor: The Mater has come to the conclusion that the universe is far more interesting with the Doctor in it. I can’t help but think that if he had an opposing view and killed him for good that he might actually see one of his plans through to fruition. This might be one of the idler uses of the Doctor I have witnessed in some time. He does all the right things, says all the right things but it is all pitched at such a predictable level (he and the Master circle around each other, spit insults, I’m going to stop you, I’d like to see you try, I was always better at Gallifreyan hockey, I copped off with the Rani and you didn’t etc, etc) and lacked the sort of fireworks I imagined by bringing these two great actors together. The Doctor is there to witness the apotheosis of the Master’s great scheme and then to show terrific surprise when that isn’t what he was really up to…and then is in place to defeat him (not by doing anything especially clever, just because that’s what the Doctor does). It’s a lethargic use of the character. And it’s as if McGann knows because it’s not his greatest performance either. I wish the Doctor would just quietly tell the Master ‘look mate, you always lose, your plans always backfire, someone betrays you, your allies turn their backs on you, you miss a vital part in your plan…why don’t you just not bother. Save face.’ The Master knows a darker flame burns inside the Doctor.

Standout Performance: It’s difficult to write a script that trips up

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s monstrous. You are playing with the laws of nature as if they were a child’s toys. What gives you the right to do this? To conjure life into existence simply to use it as a weapon?’
‘Gallifrey will never defeat the Daleks with nothing but good intentions and two bleeding hearts!’

Great Ideas: Rassilon might have discovered the secret of immortality but the Master has created life itself. The Rage is a distillation of over 500 species, taking specific qualities from each one. Chief amongst those qualities is rage. A despite to destroy. The War Council agreed to this in principle because they wanted something, anything that would win them the War. The Time Lords have one catastrophic weakness when it comes to defeating the Daleks: compassion. A conscience. They need something as unsympathetic as a virus, all powerful. When put that way what the Master has been up to makes perfect sense. As usual it is over complicated and grandiose but it certainly makes sense of his actions in this set (never let it be said that the Master isn’t well motivated) and for specific purpose within the Time War. Thanks to the Doctor, the Rage has a little piece of Time Lord rage inside it. He hopes with time that because of that he will be able to control it in time. Fully matured it will have the ability to bend matter to its will, change shape to mimic any other creature, read minds, multiply itself, teleportation, maybe even short-range time travel. The Master is mining anti-matter from the moment of the Big Bang and feeding it into the Rage. The more knowledge the Rage acquires, the more dangerous it becomes. Because of this story there is a little piece of both the Doctor and the Master in everything in the universe, darkness and light. That reveal is the best moment in the story, but it’s treated as an aside rather than being what this story is about.

Isn’t it Odd: Can you imagine a more vanilla synopsis for a Doctor/Master story than that? I mean that’s ALL of them, isn’t it? The Doctor and the War Master crawling on their hands and knees in a grubby vent? This is the best use of these characters? The Master gets an ‘I am your father’ moment with the Rage. There’s almost a scene where Llewelyn explores the Doctor/Master dynamic from before they were adversaries but just as it threatened to get interesting, the Master cuts off the ‘moment’ before it becomes one. I’m glad the Master says he ‘almost’ plans for every eventuality because that is clearly not the case. Something always trips up his lunatic schemes. He turns on a sixpence when the Rage refuses to obey, and works with the Doctor to bring it down. It’s almost as quick as a turnaround as Terror of the Autons. I’m so bored of Big Finish wanting to have their cake and eat it, They want the New Series creations (River the War Master) to meet the classic Doctors and rather than take the Terrance Dicks/Robert Holmes approach of simply making continuity ad malleable thing for the sake of a story, they try and please fandom by restoring everything to its factory settings by the end of the story. The War Master first met the tenth Doctor, if he now meets the eighth then he needs to lose his memory. Amnesia is always their go-to explanation. It's all so obvious.

Standout Scene: Did anybody think that there wouldn’t be a moment when the Rage turns its back on the Master? His hubris knows no bounds and this downfall was always going to come.

Result: ‘The weapon. It’s been born…’ This is what happens when fans get their own way. As I mentioned in my review of the previous story this is a two parter where the Master is fully exposed and Derek Jacobi is given a considerable amount of material. The Master spells out his motives, has a showdown with the Doctor and pulls a rabbit out of his hat at the climax. This is a War Master story that is all about the War Master. And it’s predictable as hell, lacking interest in many areas and wastes a fine incarnation of this character on a banal re-tread of so many other Master tales. That’s the problem with the character, he’s been done to death. There’s no way of offering in terrific new insights into him because that has also been done to death. The absolute best approach with the War Master is to stick him in the shadows and to show the effect that he has on the people he comes into contact with. That is exactly why Master of Callous worked so well. We got close to those people and watched as their lives went to hell when his plans sprang into life. If you place the Master front and centre you get a story like The Darkness and the Light; a been there, done that extravaganza where the Doctor and the Master dance around each other and ultimately his plans are pulled apart effortlessly. It diminishes him as a character to have him this visible. Jacobi and McGann should have been sparring viciously. Instead they go through the motions. Some of the ideas are pretty exciting but when they are hung on a narrative this familiar, it’s just concepts hanging in the air. Ultimately the Rage isn’t anyway near as terrifying as advertised. Big Finish has had far more success with scarier monsters by applying some subtlety and toning down on the modulated voice. Sometimes less is more. A run-around, but one lacking passion: 3/10

Friday, 9 August 2019

The Missing Link written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On a desolate world in the distant future, the Master embarks on his latest scheme, aided and abetted by a team of brilliant scientists. But who is he truly working for? And in a universe at war, is there anyone left in all the cosmos who can stop him?

War Master: Imagine the Master running a facility that awards an ‘employee of the month’ where he congratulates them directly? What would you have to do to impress this evil fiend? The prime they are doing could have implications for the Time War but the Master has another agenda as well (plans within plans, he’s always had an overcomplicated mind). When the entire universe is going up in flames it takes a true genius to make it blaze even brighter. Is the Master working for powers within the War or is hiding from it? There’s an implication that he is running scared. Only the Master could be so utterly glib about genocide and then boast that he has kept the only member of that race alive and in full knowledge that they are the last of their kind. He won’t let the Time War make him feel powerless. Why does his facility work better when he is out of the building? Remember when Vorg asked Shirna to put her finger on a live circuit in Carnival of Monsters? There’s a much darker version of that that plays out in this story, but the Master’s victim receives far more than a little shock.

The Doctor: How could they resist the thought of bringing together Jacobi and McGann? Even if there is some lame technobabble explanation as to why the eighth Doctor met the War Master and doesn’t remember him when he meets him again as the tenth…the thought of bringing those two actors together is too enticing to resist. A man who is on the fringes of the Time War, battered, holding on for dear life. There is some very right about the Doctor turning up to save one of the Master’s prisoners, but only after she has already freed herself from captivity. Things aren’t looking bright for Alice and the Doctor turns up like a beacon of light, which is exactly what he should be. Where else would the Doctor be but trapped in a ventilation shaft? This isn’t the battle weary eighth Doctor from the recent Legacy of Time story so it must be set reasonably early into the Time War. He’s still got that Tiggerish charm, a way with the ladies and is up for the adventure. The Master calls the Doctor’s adventures ‘petty.’ In this incarnation it is hard to tell the difference between the blathering idiot he has become thanks to Alice and how he usually behaves. The Master really doesn’t have time for number eight.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All War is senseless but this War makes no sense…’ – there’s a very Russell T Davies-esque description of the Time War that is far more interesting than practically anything that has been told by Big Finish to date.

Great Ideas: When the Master has extracted their unique abilities, he usually disposes of the people who wield them. If you’re kept alive after your usefulness has ended, he must have a soft spot for you. The genetic skills that he has amassed are invisibility, super strength, levitation, luminescence, camouflage. Clearly the Master’s employees haven’t been working for him long enough to get to know him. One questions the logic of him creating a base only to destroy it before achieving his objective. Like he wouldn’t be crazy enough to throw it all away on a whim. This is the man who let half the universe blink away simply to hold the other half to ransom. God bless anyone who agrees to work for him. They’re less than dust beneath his feet. The Missing Link to the Master’s plan was a rogue Time Lord.

Isn’t it Odd: There has been an awful lot of grumbling that the Master hasn’t been front and centre of his own series (that work to glorious effect in Master of Callous) and to be honest I’m not sure a series where we follow the Master behaving like the Doctor and off having adventures would work. It’s far more effective to have him on the sidelines; prodding, poking, plotting and watch how his plans effect those around us. I don’t think the Master should ever be an identification character – he’s an evil sonofabitch – more a springboard to understand the characters that fall into orbit around him. Plus, it makes stories like this one where he is out in the open and working all the more vivid. I’d rather hold back Jacobi a bit to make his moments all the more delicious when they come. You can certainly have too much of a good thing and I wouldn’t ever want to get to the point where I’m tired of this most sinister of iteration of the character.

Standout Scene: For one fascinating scene the Master’s psyche is laid bare as Alice reads his mind and sees precisely what he thinks about the Time War and the Doctor…

Result: ‘Perhaps he can shed some light on this…’ What happens to all of these people that the Master collects for his nefarious schemes? Now it’s time to find out…in that respect this has been an intriguingly structured box set. Usually we come in at the end of all this, during the Doctor’s adventures and witness the Master turning up with all these madcap elements already in operation. This time we are looking at things from the opposite perspective, following the Master’s narrative with the Doctor popping up in ‘his’ adventure. Where we would usually begin is where the fourth story of this set is placed. Everything beforehand (whatever you or I might think of its quality) is a refreshing, never before seen, perspective. This is also the story for those of you who want a full-on story with the Master at the heart of the action. Essentially this is an hour worth of people saying ‘the Master is up to no good…but what is he doing?’ but to summarise it that way you would be missing on Paul McGann’s Tiggerish Doctor returning, a fascinating insight into the Master and his true feelings on the Time War and as previously mentioned the unusual backdoor exposure of one of the Master schemes in the making. There’s no great subtleties of characterisation beyond the central players but the performances are all fantastic and it paces along at a decent lick. I still question whether we needed quite this much set up – I think this would have worked far better as a three-part set – but at least we’re getting to the good stuff. The Missing Link is all foreplay, but I have to say it has gotten me very hot under the collar. Let’s hope the main event is explosive: 8/10

Monday, 5 August 2019

The Coney Island Chameleon written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When the carnival arrives on Coney Island, it brings with it the most incredible specimens that New York will ever see. Unfortunately for the acts, not all eyes on them are friendly. Enigmatic businessman TS Mereath has taken a shine to the Coney Island Chameleon, for example… and he will seemingly stop at nothing to acquire her.

War Master: The Master putting on a Texan accent? You can’t say that he doesn’t throw himself into every guise. He’s willing to offer $2000 for the chameleon, which is a considerable sum.

Standout Performance: I don’t want to be one of those people that cast aspersions on peoples accents especially since half the time when actors are called out on dreadful accents they turn out to be their own. So, I guess the diplomatic thing to say that some are more convincing than others. There’s one scene around the 30-minute mark where they were extremely unconvincing.

Audio Landscape: The direction was far more apparent in this story. New York was conjured up very atmospherically by Peter Doggart, although I might have been leaning more on the sound design this time around because the story wasn’t gripping me as much.

Isn’t it Odd: I really admire this ranges willingness to try new things all the time and to not just stick with the status quo. After its reception it would have been so easy for the producer to stick to the Master of Callous format and do something similar again but instead the War Master series heads of in a completely different, seemingly random (although I think we all know that when it comes to the Master that nothing is random), direction. The consequence of that is that there’s a 50/50 chance that you will prefer the new direction or not and right now this isn’t quite to my taste. These character vignettes, the Master travelling the universe to acquire weapons to fight the Tie War in the most diverse of locations. It does mean that we get to visit the Second World War in England and the New York carnival scene, proof that you literally have no clue what is coming next. With this set I guess its how these stories contribute to what is clearly going to be the two-part finale, a showdown between the War Master and the eighth Doctor. That’s where all the meat is going to be, this is two hours’ worth of set up beforehand.

Result: This really dragged, and the twist at the climax lacks the punch of previous attempts at this sort of thing. It might have been more interesting and less time consuming if this story and The Survivor had been blended into one, since they are essentially the same story, and have the Master achieve his goals in half the time. It would certainly make the first half of this set drag less. It would have been pretty unique to skip between two such diverse locations and to come to the realisation that the Master is collecting skilled people to fight in the Time War in both. Instead we have two separate tales, neither of which is distinctive enough to standout and because of their similarities one is bound to be weaker than the other. And The Coney Island Chameleon loses out. It’s not that the performances or the characterisation are unimpressive, I think my problem was I never found myself invested in these people that we dropped in on. It’s nice to see what the Master gets up to away from the Doctor and how he pieces his plans together, but his turn as the insidious Priest in the previous story was much more uncomfortable to listen to than his guise as the wealthy American businessman here. I was waiting for the story to take on dramatic turn as in the previous story, that all the ponderous talking was leading to something more memorable that promised much for the second half of the set but this really lack momentum all the way through. When the Master does finally show his true colours, I was hoping that he would kill the lot of them and get on with something more interesting, a sure sign that this hadn’t clicked with the characters. An unusual misfire for this range, which typically blazes a trial for the Time War Big Finish narrative. Let’s hope that things get back on track when the Doctor joins the action: 4/10

Sunday, 4 August 2019

The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords: The Survivor written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: At the height of the Second World War on the planet Earth, Alice Pritchard wants for nothing more than the fighting to stop, and to do her bit for King and Country. But when the village priest offers her guidance, her life will change in ways she could never imagine.

War Master: The idea of the War Master hiding under the guise of Reverend Magister is even more sinister than when Roger Delgado had a go because this iteration of the Master is such an insidious swine. When he asks how would somebody like to help with the ware effort, it is a double-edged question. One of his jobs is to make sense of the senseless, to try new techniques. They need more than just plain old science and he senses that Alice is gifted. When he talks about fighting in a war, they all think he is talking about the First World War. Isn’t it sick that the Master has a purpose now, a reason to seek out weapons of mass destruction. And that he has cart blanche to do whatever he needs to to get it done. He can indulge his taste for carnage as long as he gets results. There’s nobody trying to rein him in, he’s being actively encouraged. He thinks he has the ultimate authority, whether that is as a Time Lord or a man of the cloth. He could have taken Alice at any time but he wanted her to come willingly. His opinion of the Second World War is a condemnation on humanity.

Standout Performance: Listening to Derek Jacobi silkily talking around an innocent girl under the guise of religion is enough reason to buy this box set on its own. When you’re getting advice like ‘if a Priest asks you to do something, you do it…’ what sort of a chance does Alice have?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We are in a state of grace, my dear. This church wasn’t built by Gods, but they certainly like to think of themselves as such.’
‘Anymore feathers in your cap, Magister? How about provocateur!’
‘So everyone will just…burn?’
‘I can give you a fight that is playing out amongst the cosmos…’

Great Ideas: Meat eating is outlawed on the Earth at some point in the 22nd Century. The crystals are a mean of boosting latent telepathic powers. Alice is a legendary choronopsychos, a legendary weapon that fell to Earth from the Time War.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s always very easy to get impatient with these War Master sets and wonder why they aren’t getting to the point and concentrating on what feels like extraneous characters instead of getting right down the throat of Jacobi’s Master. I might have made that observation at the beginning of previous set too except getting close to those characters was the entire point of the series and proved to be an emotional rollercoaster ride. It got me thinking about whether the Master should be front and centre of this series or somebody who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes and turning up occasionally to make his presence felt in a dramatic way. Certainly the latter seems to be providing us with some shockingly good drama. So, whilst the first ten minutes of this story might have you wondering if you have wondered into the wrong series, my advice is to be patient and wait see where this takes you. You might just be surprised. This story is ultimately very like The Master of Callous but condensed down into one tale. It’s the Master, on a mission to find a weapon that will aid in the Time War, doing it his way with as much destruction as possible along the way.

Standout Scene: Because I wasn’t especially connected to anybody in the village, I was smiling as they were all wiped out. Or about to be wiped out. God knows what that says about me. To be fair, they were all willing to go along with the witch trial (or traitor trial) of Alice without exception. The Master is such a bastard, he traps Alice in a situation where she has to act in a violent way in order to escape with her life, and he squeezes until she finishes them all off…

Result: ‘Judgement for all of you!’ What a strange story to introduce the set with. For the first half of its story, The Survivor is a deliberately small scale, intimate piece about a group of characters that I cannot imagine will have much bearing on the rest of the set, a minor role for the Master and only hints about how this weapon will come in useful in the War effort. The Time War effort. It’s a bold move, not entirely successful because tonally it is unlike anything before in this series and it does feel like an insignificant tangent. It is a story that is mostly sold on its performances and character interaction but for once I wasn’t entirely on board with that either. These people weren’t exactly stereotypes but they weren’t far from it. If you’re telling a story set in rural England during the Second World War this is exactly the sort of people you would expect to find. And being predictable is exactly what this series hasn’t been until now. The real beacon of light is the War Master himself; Derek Jacobi is just so shockingly vivid that he lifts the story whenever he appears. Things turn on a sixpence in the second half and the pace, plot and suspense all rachet up. That’s where the character stuff comes in handy because we’ve seen the seeds of discord between these people before they erupt into paranoia and suspicion. Where this mostly stands out is in its direction. Scott Handcock ensures that things are very quiet early on so when the trial begins there is a sick feeling of dread that permeates the audio. The Jacobi heavy second half really sees the story firing on all cylinders, but the first half was a struggle. This story just goes to show how the Time War touches all manner of times and places: 7/10

Monday, 29 July 2019

Collision Course written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Fallout from the temporal distortions has now reached Gallifrey. To find the cause, Leela and Romana remember travels with the Fourth Doctor to the same world, at different times. The enemy is revealed, and it may take more than one Doctor to prevent the destruction of everything!

Mockney Dude: The Tenth Doctor showing up was a brilliant surprise and totally unexpected and was clearly supposed to be so since he didn’t show up on the cover. Bernice tells him that showing off is always annoying. The tension between the first and tenth Doctors is wonderful. Bradley’s Doctor is so unimpressed that he considers the idea of never regenerating!

Physician, Heal Thyself: The only Doctor who hugs all of his companions at first sight. He thinks the seventh Doctor had a midlife crisis – that’s why he inherited a gothic castle rather than a TARDIS.

The Real McCoy: ‘If you could turn your volume down on your trousers, that might help’ says the seventh Doctor to the sixth. Old grudges never go away.

Softer Six: The sixth Doctor gets to tell the fourth Doctor that it isn’t all about him. He thinks older and wiser heads can sort this problem out…until the 7th Doctor shows up. ‘Navigation?’ says the sixth Doctor to the fifth, ‘it took you nearly a year to find the largest airport in England.’ He’s appalled at the lack of a sense of location and so he decides to make a speech on behalf of them all…only to be cut of by everybody.

An English Gentleman: Amongst all those powerfully characterised Doctors, he’s just sort of there.

Teeth and Curls: He was yomping through jungles when Leela was still in leather nappies. The problem with Time Lords these days is that they are all so gadget obsessed and spend their time wandering the universe staring at screens instead of looking at what s around them. The Doctor likes it when Romana is bossy too, pondering how wonderful she is and what he would do without her. The Doctor respects Leela’s wish to call the spectre a ghost but he can’t help mocking her a little at the same time. Romana was quite unaware that the Doctor had any limits and thinks he is an impossible man. He can’t solve anything just by sniffing it (unlike the first Doctor and his extraordinary abilities in The War Machines).

Noble Savage: Leela and Romana. It shouldn’t work at all. One is a predatory savage with prized instincts and the other is a galactic super brain with political aspirations. And yet this is possibly the greatest pairing that Big Finish has ever developed because it brings together those very diverse strengths into a formidable friendship. And Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward simply sing together, two committed actresses who guard their roles carefully and provide a hugely entertaining counterpoint to one another. She wonders why people always build dull metal boxes to live in. Sweetly, in a moment where the Doctor is genuinely afraid, Leela says she will protect him. Leela is overtly emotional when she thinks the Doctor is vanishing from existence. She faces death how she lived, with a knife in her hand and strength in her heart. She’s magnificent.

President Romana: Bossy Romana = great audio. At least to me. The Doctor suggests she always tends to be melodramatic but she denies this. It’s more his style. She doesn’t think changing history is impossible, just ill advised. She knows she doesn’t even have to ask about Leela’s involvement, she will just be there for her. The one thing that all the Doctors agree is that Romana is the best.

Archaeological Adventurer: ‘I’ve had several’, says Bernice. She’s the mother of all the Big Finish ranges and so it seems only appropriate that she is there when all the Doctors come together to fight the Sirens.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Never underestimate how nosy a Time Lord can be.’
‘Did I ever tell how important it is not to tamper with history?’ ‘Several times.’
‘You know Leela, it’s been a strange old life…but didn’t we have fun?’
‘Time is Silly.’
‘I’d say you have an excellent nose when it comes to most things.’

Great Ideas: The causal fabric of the universe is breaking down. Or something. The Matrix is undecided as to the Sirens actual status but according to one account they were imprisoned by the Temperon, a benevolent creature of great power lost in the tides of the vortex. Leela thinks that Gallifrey has too many legends (she’s right) but Romana makes the excuse that it is an inescapable hazard of watching over eternity. The Sirens have broken free and engineered a colossal event in space/time and the ripples from which are spreading galaxy after galaxy. The structure of the universe is a delicate thing, the whole of time delicately balanced. One thing leading to another. As Time Lords they can view the whole thing, well most of it and right now it is falling apart. Great holes being torn through time itself, changing cause and effect. What the Time Lords planned to do on was so radical, so insanely dangerous that they hid it as far away from the universe as they could. The universe cannot contain two timelines and so one has to cancel the other out. If the changes are small then the differences iron themselves out, time getting back on the established as quickly and as simply as possible. If it is not a small change then the alternate timeline becomes either the dominant one or the entire fabric of reality falls apart and we are all erased from existence. The timelines are in chaos, so many alternative futures and pasts all co-existing. In the chaos all this they are remembering the events in those alternatives. It’s all happening. Leela is both dead and alive and never existed at all. Talk about existential angst. The Sirens feed on paradox energy, the effects of sabotaging the test flight are so immense that the potential alone gave them enough energy to act.

Isn’t it Odd: Wouldn’t it be awfully embarrassing if the Sirens of Time were responsible for the end of everything? Not the Master or the Daleks or the Time War. But a race of cosmic beings created by Nick Briggs to kick start the main range (an idea that apparently caused Paul Cornell to leave the meeting of writers in a fit of pique!). I would have hoped for something a little more…imaginative. But I guess the biggest surprise that the universe could offer us is to fizzle away in a moment of humiliation. There’s one dreadfully embarrassing moment when the Doctor screams and it just sounds like Tom Baker gurning in a studio. I’m sure all of the technobabble makes some kind conceptual sense, but I lost a handle on it halfway through the story. There’s a difference between writing a complex story and a story full of absurd complexities. Frazer Hines sounds a bit off in this story, unfortunate given how stellar he usually is in the Early Adventures. The huge climax seems to involve all of the Doctors coming together to…pilot a ship. It’s hardly the most climactic challenge they have ever faced.

Standout Scene: Let’s not underestimate the emotional power of witnessing two versions of the Doctor and Leela and Romana all dying. It’s stunningly acted by all parties.

Result: Satisfying, and pleasingly commemorative. Big Finish rarely misses an opportunity to wave a flag to get some attention with a marketable idea but this time around it was completely right for them to do so. 20 years of audio adventures and an immense back catalogue of adventures…where do you start celebrating all of that? Naturally some ranges and characters had to fall to the wayside (the los of Jago & Litefoot is particularly felt in part five) but I think that Matt Fitton and Guy Adams have done a sterling job in cherry picking enough important and established characters and ranges to highlight. Early on in Collison Course, I really liked the idea of Romana and Leela discussing the fact that the Doctor took them both to the same planet but at different times and how that turns out to be an important element of the plot. Watching both visits play out, side by side, is the best use of temporal jiggery pokery in the set. Given how many stories they have featured in, this manages to be one of the best 4th Doctor and Leela stories and that’s only for the first half an hour of Collison Course, which really is fantastic set up. It’s the best of this story, which devolves into a multi Doctor story but really doesn’t need to beyond the excuse to bring them all together for the party. It becomes a jolly bitch fight between the Doctors with some very funny dialogue. The Legacy of Time isn’t completely successful (I’m not sure that the plot holds together particularly healthily) but it remains the best Big Finish celebration by a country mile, getting all of its characters together for an almighty shindig that genuinely feels epic and, more importantly, celebrates those characters at their best. It leaves Zagreus and The Light at the End in the dust. The science fiction is there to explore the characters and any box set that brings together all of the Doctors, Benny, River, Countermeasures, Ace, Jo, Kate Stewart, Osgood, the Brigadier, Jenny, Charley, Menzies, Leela and Romana and celebrates all of their strengths gets my vote. Massive kudos for holding back on the Daleks, Cybermen and the Master too. This is a party about Big Finish and their creations (by creations I include continuing all of these characters lives after their TV span expired) and on that level it succeeds brilliantly. If they’re lucky, you might even want to explore these spin offs some more: 8/10 (8/10 for the set)

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Avenues of Possibility written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it About: DI Patricia Menzies is used to the strange, but even she is surprised when the eighteenth century itself falls onto her patch. Fortunately, she has the founders of modern policing to help with her enquiries. And when the Sixth Doctor and Charley arrive, they find armed and hostile forces trying to change Earth history forever.

Softer Six: The sixth Doctor and Charley stories were one of my favourite periods of Big Finish; when the trilogies were just kicking into gear and Barnes and Briggs were taking big risks. To have a companion hop Doctors from a later one to an earlier one was unprecedented and the air of mystery and suspense that surrounded the sixth Doctor/Charley relationship meant that things never got boring. On a purely performance level it gave India Fisher a chance to get her teeth into some really juicy material after coasting along endlessly in her latter eighth Doctor stories and she and Colin Baker developed a fine, warm and spiky rapport. Given how tediously long some runs can be on audio it seems almost a shame that these two didn’t have more time together. Always leave them wanting more isn’t a trope I would ascribe to Big Finish but in this case they gave you just enough to be desperate for more. To their credit they have only returned to the pairing twice in the intervening decade. Trust the Doctor to have friends in high places – this time it’s the Chief of Scotland Yard. His reputation precedes him but that is often the case. He’s the living proof that yes he really as wise and wonderful as everybody says. Even if he does say so himself. How the Doctor met Henry Fielding is a long story involving a Draconian Prince. It’s fairly obvious that as soon as Charley reveals the truth about herself that the Doctor will lose his memory of those events.

Edwardian Adventuress: There’s nothing a young lady wants more than to be scandalised and so Charley would read all the texts that her mother warned her away from. Both Charley and Menzies laugh in the face of ye olde gender politics and quite right too. I always loved how Charley refused to conform to what was expected of a young miss of the time. Instead she wanted adventure, excitement and danger. Boy did she get it. It took Charley some time to believe that the sixth Doctor was the same man as the eighth. She’s been at this game long enough to know when to switch into the old prisoner and escort routine. If the Sirens feed on time paradoxes then Charley knows of one very juicy paradox that they might find indigestible. Fielding tries to convince her to let the Doctor die but she refuses to let any man make that decision for her. That’s her Doctor and she’s going to save him no matter what the cost.

DI Menzies: I love the fact that the idea of the 18th Century crashing into her station doesn’t even cause her to batter an eyelid. Menzies isn’t irritated that somebody from the past considers it ridiculous that a member of the ‘weaker’ sex is in charge of the constabulary, she’s more wryly amused. ‘Things have moved on a bit since your day.’ I like the fact that Menzies is running the investigation and not the Doctor, she’s the one taking these huge ideas and trying to put them all in some kind of order.

Standout Performance: Colin and India, what a team. Fisher is especially good in her climactic moment.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time is not behaving as it should’ ‘And you’ve come to give it a slap on the wrist.’

Great Ideas: A number of temporal breaches have appeared in 1751, breaches leading to alternative timelines. They are all radiating from the same central point, like the fractures around a bullet hole. Something has shattered the fabric of space/time and has left it in an extremely precarious state. Without sealing the breaches the crack may get worse, or even shatter, which would cause incalculable damage to the timelines. The Sirens are creatures from the legends of Time Lords from the dawn of histry (isn’t that always the way?) and they make their presence felt here by screaming their way out of a paradox.

Isn’t it Odd: I don’t think it has escaped anybody’s attention that this story was originally to have featured Jago & Litefoot and it is a tragedy that circumstances have prevented that from happening. To have two characters step through a breach in time from the 18th century to the current day and for it not to be Jago & Litefoot is a positive crime. But Jonathan Morris is too strong a writer to let that sort of block stifle his creativity and he powers on regardless. However, there is an air of tragedy about the story because of it. The theme music kicks in almost seven minutes into the story – is that a record for a Big Finish? It’s a shame that there is barely any interaction between the Doctor and Menzies.

Standout Scene: ‘You brilliant, wonderful girl. You’ve made me into the biggest paradox of all!’ In a fantastic moment (I had chills) that tears down the pretence between the Doctor and Charley and gloriously celebrates those first few years where Charley travelled with eight, she spills the truth about her history with his future. It’s beautifully played by both parties and once again leaves me gagging for more with them. Damn you Big Finish.

Result: An insane amount of wibbly wobbly timey wimeyness has been chucked at this adventure and the fun comes from stepping back from trying to make logical sense of it and just going with the flow and seeing where the story takes you. It hands you the gorgeous pairing of the sixth Doctor and Charley and the return of DI Menzies for start and those are all reasons to party. Colin Baker and India Fisher are clearly thrilled to be back together and their chemistry is as addictive as ever. We’re offered a peek into a fascinating alternative world where history took a very different path (was the use of Brigade Leader deliberate to suggest that this was the same alternative world as Inferno?) and afforded a glimpse into the relationship between the Doctor another famous historical figure. Is there anybody he doesn’t know? The Avenues of Possibility is the story where we realise just far back this story stretches into Big Finish history and as the saying goes we’re going right back to the beginning (excluding Benny, of course). There’s such a clever use of Charley, a character you would think had been exhausted of possibility but she’s vital to the climax here, the very nature of her continued existence being the very thing that allows them to escape. She’s brilliantly characterised throughout this and Fisher delivers one of her best performances as a result. It's interesting to note that this was directed by Helen Goldwyn and not Ken Bentley and the sound design and music was a lot more memorable than the earlier releases in this set. Over complicated, but massively engaging despite that: 8/10

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Relative Time written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Disaster strikes inside the Time Vortex, and the Fifth Doctor is thrown together with someone from his future… someone claiming to be his daughter! Kleptomaniac Time Lord, the Nine, believes it’s his chance to steal something huge. But Jenny just wants her dad to believe in her.

Fair Fellow: There’s some contention amongst fans of Big Finish debating whether Peter Davison sounds more authoritative and in control of the part as an older man or whether he was at his best on the TV in his thirties. I am very much in the former category, there is something wonderfully gruff and temperamental about him these days, whilst still having that energy and lust for adventure that he always had. He’s a much more rounded character and one that is far less likely to be pushed around. Of course, there is bound to be a paternal element to a story that features Davison’s real-life daughter opposite him and this is one occasion where I cannot separate Davison the actor from Davison the father and brilliantly it is the one story where that works very much in the story’s favour. When he starts ranting that she is reckless, selfish and thoughtless you can really hear a father berating his child. I’m sure Georgia has never done anything that caused Davison to says such things, mind. The effect is really fun, especially when you know the connection. The Doctor is pleased to hear that things in the future won’t be so different from now, especially all the corridors and running. Some people like clean lines and neatness, a practically – that’s the Doctor responding to how retro the TARDIS looks. He doesn’t need flash bang gadgetry to get around the universe. The Doctor is willing to initiate Time Ram on the Nine, he’s suicidally determined to bring him down. When it comes to it, every father is happy to show off in front of his daughter.

Hello Dad: Jenny was a hugely popular character from a not very popular story. I’m not sure how they managed that. The Doctor’s Daughter often comes bottom of series four polls and yet I only really hear nice things said about Jenny’s relationship with the Doctor and Donna and general pleasing things about what Georgia Tennant brought to the role. I thought she was just fine, if a little one note, but I’m pleased to say that she comes across as far more likeable and fully characterised on audio. She’s delighted to see the Doctor again, and manages to spot him (and his TARDIS) almost instantly. Because she is banging on about knowing him, dying and not changing her face the Doctor wonders if she has escaped from somewhere. To which she explains that yes, she escapes from all kinds of places. He cannot understand how Jenny can exist because he doesn’t just give away his genetic material to just anyone. What are the chances of her bumping into two Time Lords in such quick succession? Jenny, a technological product of the Doctor, manages to talk to talk to the TARDIS, technology that is biologically slaved to him. She has instinctive TARDIS control because she takes after her dad.

The Nine: He tries the Tenth Doctor approach of making a grandiose speech of being a Time Lord and that everybody should be terribly impressed because of it and then ruins all of that by being, well, a bit rubbish. He’s still a lot more fun than the Eleven as far as I am concerned, deliberately annoying and failing far more than he succeeds. Less a villain, more a meddler. The Doctor and Nine don’t socialise, and he sounds pretty put out by that.

Standout Performance: You know when you recognise a voice immediately but cannot find the face in your memory that it fits. A little digging later and Thana, the deliriously enjoyable spaceship captain, turns out to be none other than Ronni Acona. Her voice should be recognisable to many who watched comedy in the mid-2000s, aping all manner of celebrities in Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression. This is a standout turn, camp as Christmas and full of glorious bluster.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you know ho that sounds to me? Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…you can’t have nice things.’

Great Ideas: There are fragments of temporal energy exploded all over the place. Timelines, time tracks, chronoplasm. They are caught inside it and one false move and it’s boom for them and potentially the universe. It’s nice to hear the mention of Vortisaurs, which takes me right back to the early days of Big Finish.

Isn’t it Odd: Jenny sounds a bit meh when she is talking about the plot. When the characters aren’t showing any great concern about what is going on it is best to sit back and enjoy and the interaction between the characters. I’m sure all these pockets of time are significant to the greater story but there isn’t the sort of cohesive momentum of plot through this set that you usually see in Big Finish. The technobabble is being dished out as a backdrop to find an excuse to celebrate various Big Fish ranges. I’m sure come the final instalment of this ‘epic’ that we’ll discover there was important information seeded in each story and in some magic spell of timey wimey it brings together all these characters and situations…but that hardly feels like the point of the set at all. It’s six stories featuring great characters who have had an extended life on audio.

Standout Scene: ‘I would be proud you know Jenny. I hope it is true. I’d be honoured to call you my daughter.’

Result: ‘Not interrupting Daddy/daughter time, am I?’ An entire hour giving the father/daughter team of Peter Davison and Georgia Moffat a chance to act against one another. This is such a cute idea and obviously too much for a ‘we’ll try anything’ company like Big Finish to resist. Matt Fitton has a prolific number of Doctor Who stories under his belt at this point and so his inclusion in this set was a must. He’s not my favourite writer, but he’s extremely capable and generally produces scripts that are at the very least entertaining but can occasionally fall into the excellent territory. I find he writes characters far more intricately than he does plot and that is very much the case with Relative Time. It features all manner of temporal shenanigans that all add up to nought in the end when what you are here for and the highlight of the story is the Doctor/Jenny and the villanous interaction, all of each are packed with lovely moments. I’m not madly invested in Jenny and I’m not sure how much I buy her emotional connection to the Doctor and so there was a feeling that I was being exploited here, much like in The Doctor’s Daughter. Davison is so good that he makes their scenes count, just as David Tennant was in her debut. The Nine is a delight as usual, a meddlesome villain who barely deserves the description but manages to be enjoyably sarcastic. This is weakest of the set so far but is more than listenable; it doesn’t have the dramatic tone of the first, the cleverly constructed plot of the second or the heart-breaking interaction of the third. This is probably more representative of what Big Finish releases on a month by month basis than those first three though; fun, entertaining, disposable. Professionally produced fluff: 6/10

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Sacrifice of Jo Grant written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: When pockets of temporal instability appear in a Dorset village, UNIT are called in. Soon, Kate Stewart and Jo Jones find themselves working alongside the Third Doctor, while Osgood battles to get them home. But this isn’t the first time UNIT has faced this threat. Only before, it seems that Jo Grant didn’t survive...

Good Grief: He’s clearly very distracted by his tussle not to notice that the Jo standing in front of him has aged about 50 years from the one who usually accompanies him. He thought she’d just had another night on the town with Mike. The Doctor assumes this is the Jo Grant that he travelled with and is astonished that she can follow the scientific gobbledegook that is flying around. I love how it refuses to shy away from how patronising the third Doctor can be. The Doctor suggests that they all stop for lunch in the local pub in the middle of the crisis, much to Kate’s astonishment. He seems to spend his time bouncing from one apocalypse to another. It’s a relief for him to see that Jo survives his company. The Doctor always thinks of something; its usually mad and shouldn’t work. For a time, not long after she bumbled into his lab he didn’t realise how lucky he was to have her but he know realises that Jo was always brilliant. He’s not sure he taught her anything important that she didn’t already know. He knows what he is supposed to do and what he’s not supposed to do but when it comes to Jo Grant he will always break the rules.

Dippy Agent: Jo wonders if Kate calls the anomaly ‘holes in time’ because she is present and, well, she’s a bit dippy. Jo is more interested in whether they will be visiting the nudist beach in Dorset than investigating the temporal anomalies. The Doctor used to go off on his own adventures with Jo whilst she was stuck back at HQ going through reported sightings of the Master. What on Earth do you do when somebody crops up and claims you took part in an adventure that you don’t remember that you died in it? That’s got to put a crimp in your day. Jo clearly isn’t a temporal anomaly because her continued presence hasn’t torn the world apart. She always feels like she should salute when she is introduced to UNIT officers, obviously something that was programmed into her by the Brigadier. Showing just how things have changed since her time at UNIT, Jo is astonished (and delighted) that they now rehome aliens that mean no harm. There’s a glorious moment when Jo dives straight into danger without thinking and Kate can’t help commenting on it. Jo knows precisely when the Doctor is lying, she knows him too well not to see it. Jo doesn’t want to tell the Doctor about her future but he assures her a bit of gossip is fine. Imagine juggling 7 children and 13 grandchildren! She assures the Doctor it is a wonderful life. The Doctor is sure that the world cannot spare Jo. She tries really hard to describe her time with the Doctor and she settles on absurd and exciting. There’s a moment when I really thought they were going to go through with Jo dying and I had goosebumps all over.

UNIT: I’ve not heard any of the UNIT box sets since they took their divergence into the New Series, not because I am not fond of the characters of Osgood and Kate Stewart but just because an oversaturated market has meant that I have had to make some savvy choices about how to spend my time. I’ve heard mixed reviews (like reviewers know anything about what I’m going to like?) and it does feel like they are opting for the nostalgia element rather than running with anything truly fresh. When the War Master, the Cybermen, the Wirrn and her from Mind of Evil all showing up this is clearly designed to marry New Who with classic Who. I’m sure they are perfectly entertaining but not one set has reached out and shook me awake enough to devote time to them. On the strength of this story, perhaps that is an oversight on my part. Listen to Kate Stewart as she talks about Doctor. She’s hardly at her most complimentary. Osgood always feels you can be surprised what you can do with junk. Was it my imagination or has Kate Stewart lost all sense of humour on audio? She hates being lost, she is a scientist and often reduced to a layman when dealing with this kind of case. She genuinely believes that it should have been her to sacrifice her life, rather than Jo.

Standout Performance: Well it wouldn’t be a Big Finish story if Nicholas Briggs didn’t play a part somewhere. Katy Manning deserves the spotlight that she gets here and Jo is typically wonderful; enthusiastic, emotional, likeable and capable.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can’t just walk off and have lunch!’

‘Please don’t tell me I’m five minutes away from watching a Brontosaurus knock a church over.’

‘He can face up to Daleks, Drashigs and Bandrils, but I think I’ve found the one thing in the universe that really scares the Doctor…’ ‘Not at all, I love children!’ ‘I was talking about responsibility.’

‘Jo, I’d tell you to stop trying to sacrifice yourself to save the planet but you wouldn’t listen. Quite right too.’

Great Ideas: You cannot start a story with a tagline of ‘we’re killing off Jo Grant’ and then fail to deliver upon it. What a way to kick things off. Slightly more amusing is the suggestion that Jo and Osgood are in a situation of mortal peril that turns out to be nothing more than a dramatic water slide. There are pockets of temporal instability are fluctuating with alarming regularity. The fabric of space/time is something you don’t want to poke great holes in and they could be looking at a potential extinction event. Must be Tuesday. Nothing screams Pertwee Who more than temporal jiggery pokery occurring in a cute coastal town. The gag about 16th Century peasants being stuck in the 21st recall both The Time Monster and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. People digging themselves out of the ground.

Audio Landscape: The sound effect for the time flow analogue. Nothing can ruffle your fan feathers more than a sound effect from the classic series.

Standout Scene: ‘Kate, how many people get a chance like this? If you don’t do this you’ll never forgive yourself…’ How remiss of Kate not to realise that this version of the Doctor has a close working relationship with her father. When he mentions his name, she’s in shock. That’s when I knew that we were in for a lot of feels. She’s tempted to make a call to him but is snapped out of it before she has the opportunity. The Brigadier never knew he was talking to, but to Kate it is the most important moment in her life. Also, the moment Jo finally says ‘I love you Doctor.’

Result: ‘Whatever I am Doctor, I learnt from you’ ‘Nonsense, Jo. You were brilliant from the moment you arrived in my lab…’ There’s holes in time that allow characters from the past to connect with characters from now. That’s the basic plot of The Sacrifice of Jo Grant but by describing it so you would doing it a huge disservice. It has all the emotional weight of Find and Replace and that story could be summed with a similarly basic plot device to allow the Doctor and Jo to communicate. What matters here is the feelings of everybody involved and the heft of nostalgia that it generates. Adams is right on the button with making you long for the Doctor and Jo to go off on adventures together again and in bringing together Kate and her father, it taps into a poignancy that is rare in Doctor Who stories. I was holding back tears at one point and that just isn’t like me at all. This isn’t just a celebration of Pertwee Who or the Big Finish UNIT series, it’s a celebration of Katy Manning and her glorious contribution to the series. She’s the glue that holds all this together. The link between old and new. And quite rightly Jo is characterised perfectly; bold, brave, silly, intelligent and quite barmy. Manning has long been a fine ambassador of Doctor Who and it is long past time somebody held her this high and shone a light on everything she has to offer. For those of you who like a lot happening there are exciting events (and time for a trip to the pub) couched in the usual Big Finish action set pieces but at the risk of repeating myself that isn’t the priority, and as this takes place over 50 minutes there isn’t much in the way of relevant explanation. I’m assuming this will all be part of some grand masterplan that is tied up in Collision Course at the end of the set. I gently chide Big Finish for going for the nostalgia jugular eight times out of ten these days but when they get it right they get it really right and Sacrifice summoned something deep rooted to surface out of me (my love of the Pertwee era, of the Brigadier and of Katy Manning) and left me both grinning and weeping. In these stories where your favourite characters think they are going to die it gives them a chance to say how they finally feel: 9/10

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

The Split Infinitive written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: A criminal gang appears to have recruited a member with time-bending powers. It’s a case for the Counter-Measures team – in the 1960s and the 1970s! The Seventh Doctor and Ace have their work cut out to save the day twice over, and make sure Gilmore, Rachel and Allison don’t collide with their past, or their future.

The Real McCoy: Gilmore isn’t sure that when the Doctor explains anything that it makes it any clearer. I know what he means. What lovely organisation exists in both the 60s and the 70s does he know? He’s talked a Dalek to death and so he can’t imagine too much opposition from an East End gangster. Like the proverbial bad penny the Doctor always turns up. One of the disadvantages of hanging with time travers is that things can get very complicated. The Doctor is not entirely sure who Punshon is but he’s certain he finds out in the future, or perhaps the past. Coming from any other Doctor this would unbelievably cheeky – pointing out that not everything has been explained but don’t worry you’ll find out by the end of the box set – but McCoy’s master manipulator has probably already listened to it.

Oh Wicked: I laughed my head off when Ace showed up and Gilmore exclaimed that things were about to get a whole lot worse. You said it mate. I suppose it couldn’t be an anniversary release without Ace showing up. Much as I am completely bored with the character by now – her Wikipedia page lists 129 stories featuring the character across different media and I’m sure some of them are missing – she has been a staple of Big Finish for 20 years now and that deserves recognition.

Countermeasures: There’s a glorious Archer feel about the Countermeasures team, a professional spy organisation steeped in 60s clich├ęs. There’s none of the explosive wit of Archer but that feeling of James Bond is there, cases coming from the most unusual of places and having to perform all manner of subterfuge to solve them. It’s headed up by Gilmore, Jensen and Williams, played by Simon Williams, Pamela Salem and Karen Gledhill respectively and they are exactly the sort of solid British actors who fronted these kinds of shows in the 60s. It’s an authentic, lovingly created recreation of the 60s Britain spy genre. Gilmore believes that without stronger evidence it isn’t really a case that belongs with Countermeasures. It’s not often that Rachel gets to bag out the destruction and she finds it a little bit exciting. Only Rachel truly gets her head around the temporal madness of this story; if they die in the past, they die in the present. Alison suggests they have had a bit more experience since Ace last visited and that they can look after themselves these days.

Standout Performance: You could highlight any of the performers here but Pamela Salem takes the crown for my money. And that’s just because she’s Pamela Salem and she has gloriously rich voice for audio.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘Elementary temporal theory. Time doesn’t stop existing because its passed. The events of that time are happening now. Just then.’

Great Ideas: A number of high-level institutes have been raised and ransacked in the last six months and no one has been able to figure out how. They have the best security that money can be but it has been proven worthless. Bob Kazon is a new thug in town with no past. There’s no trace of him beyond the past few months. He wears the cloak of the legitimate businessman but in reality he is brutal gangster. There’s’ two occurrences of temporal distortion afoot; one on the 60s where the Doctor sent Ace and one in the 70s that he is investigating. The temporal anomaly is drawing the two years towards each other, crunching time down towards a singularity. When the two ends of the time distortion meet they will act like a black hole, only in time. The Doctor won’t know the precise ramifications of what happened ten years ago until they have finished happening. The anomaly has manifested in human form suggesting it is somebody injured in a time travel experiment.

Musical Cues: I love the music from the Countermeasures series, all 60s piss and vinegar. Sometimes it feels like you are immersed in an Avengers story.

Standout Scene:
‘Retiring in their seventies but working in their 80s, that sort of thing…’

Result: ’In space/time terms, the 60s are being dragged towards the 70s!’ Devilishly clever and complex, The Split Infinitive manages to be both a fresh Doctor Who story and an effective Countermeasures one. I don’t pretend to know too much about the spy series (Big Finish’s output is so prolific that some spin offs have had to fall by the wayside) only that it features three gorgeous, recognisable characters and that it recalls the 60s in all the best ways. If the material is anything like this I may be trying out the four series in the future. My only experience of Countermeasures is their original outing on television and the audio The Assassination Games but I certainly saw enough potential in those two to suggest that the spin off has buckets of potential. This is the fourth story in Dorney’s Rocket Man narrative and they continue to deliver the goods, this time turning up when you least expect them. I love how this tale begins by apparently celebrating one element of Big Finish’s back catalogue and ends up glorifying in quite another. Two for the price of one and with any luck it will encourage those listeners who haven’t heard the riches of these two distinct elements will be hungry for more. That was probably the idea. But this isn’t just a marketing exercise with John Dorney at the helm. Very unusually for the seventh Doctor he explains everything as they go along…which is a blessed relief because this is an extremely complicated story. Ace gets to be young and bolshie and guide the action in the sixties with Gilmore making sound military choices, Rachel grasping the temporal mechanics and Alison there to remind our regulars just how far Countermeasures have come. Smartly plotted, with lots going on. Keep your wits about you and you’ll get a lot from this: 8/10