Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Perfect Prisoners written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: The Doctor, Ann and K9 are hot on the trail of the Syndicate, and straight into trouble. After contending with killer robots and dangerous aliens, the clues lead straight to a machine that can literally make your dreams come true. A device that in the wrong hands could lead to misery for billions. But who’s the real villain here? And what exactly is their master plan?

Teeth and Curls: You know the stakes are high when the fourth Doctor calls in the authorities, since this Doctor always likes to go it alone. It was his predecessor who liked the back up of the forces. He likes to think of himself as a freelance trouble-shooter, whatever that means. They have barely started looking into the Syndicate and between them they have saved multiple planets whilst the SS have been twiddling their thumbs. I love the fact that there is a trail of murder in their wake and the Doctor has no clue that it is Ann who is doing most of the killing. I was waiting in anticipation to see how he would react to the news. There are many records of the Doctor opposing oppression wherever he finds it. It’s always better to threaten the Doctor’s companions rather than the Doctor himself, they only have one life to lose. Except this time his assistant is a lot deadlier than she appears. The Doctor genuinely believes that things can always be resolved peacefully and that there is no justification for murder. Which means the second he realises that Anya has taken lives that she is no longer welcome in his life. It’s really sad when the Doctor calls K.9 his best friend, realising that he can no longer include Ann in that list. The Doctor is never more dangerous (especially the fourth Doctor) when all the odds seem to be against and so the apparently suicidal act at the end of part three is brilliantly predictable in its unpredictableness.

Bobby on the Beat: This might not make me very popular but I think that Ann as a psychopathic Time Agent who will literally ring an alien’s neck with her bare hands is far more enjoyable to listen to than the sweet, grumpy PC Ann Kelso who has been travelling with the Doctor. There’s nothing particularly subtle about her characterisation in either but the exposed sleeper agent at least behaves in an unpredictable manner. Since this season has been a huge love letter to The Daleks’ Masterplan it feels quite appropriate that a relation of Sara Kingdom’s should make an appearance too. No wonder the Doctor has struggled to control the TARDIS lately, Ann has been practicing and wrestling control from him. Trenix was in witness protection because he had given evidence against the Syndicate’s associates, the Sinestran’s and he had been hidden in Earth’s past to try and keep him safe. He was traced so Anya was sent in, given a false personality and memories of her were implanted in police officers so they would accept Ann Kelso as one of their own. I love the fact that I was having a moan about how insubstantial Ann’s character was earlier in the season…when that vacancy of information was a plot point waiting to be sprung! Anya proves to be far more dangerous than Sara Kingdom ever was, ruthlessly destroying the Celation cloud when the Doctor is busy trying to be diplomatic. Anya attacks K.9 in the TARDUS and there is no coming back from that in my eyes. ‘I think you need to get a new dog!’ indeed!

Standout Performance:
Astonishing how much more engaging Jane Slavin is as Anya than she ever was as Ann. As soon as she drops the northern accent and starts murdering people she suddenly becomes somebody who is really fun to be around. I’m not sure what that says about me. Tom Baker’s performance when he confronts Ann about who she really is quite took my breath away. This is how good he can be when he is given powerful material. At one point I wondered why Hannah Bartholomew had wandered into the story. Hunt’s voice is so distinctive.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘Of course something’s the matter! You don’t think I would cry out in pain if everything was fine, do you?’
‘The perfect prisoner is the one who doesn’t even realise he’s in a prison cell.’

Great Ideas: Zephon was never a true member of the Syndicate, he was just a despot with delusions of grandeur. The Sinestrans were all murdered in custody, a mass killing by the Syndicate. If you’re going to raise the stakes substantially in a season then this is the way to do it: by taking everything that the Doctor and Ann have encountered so far this year and brush it aside as insignificant compared to the horrors to come. Zephon’s files led the Doctor and Ann to Robaras, an automated factory world where another Syndicate member was trying to poison the local solar system. Technix have computer augmented brains that make them more logical than people. Their minds run at a rate that cannot be comprehended. As a result they see patterns that ordinary human beings do not. The Dream Machine is a device for retouching reality. Sometimes reality isn’t good enough. Reality itself doesn’t change, it is how people perceive it to be that alters. I think a machine like this would be in huge demand if it were real. Imagine all the things about people’s lives they could change their perception of? Mind you if everybody was walking around seeing a very different version of reality it would get awfully confusing. They are expecting near universal uptake when this thing hits the shelves. In the wrong hands these devices could be quite the tool for despotism. The Celation nebula is a sentient cloud of gas that moves through the outer spirals of the milky way that can manifest itself into a human form. Zaal has had the Dream Machines implanted into people as chips and has been playing a long game. He’s used them to make sure the Syndicate have forgotten that the system is already under his control and then used Anya to wipe them all out so he would be the only one left with the knowledge. Those Technix, they do like to think big and fast. He would be in control of everybody with nobody to stop him. Some of the deaths of the Syndicate members are very imaginative. Malpha shattering seems a particularly painful way to go.

Audio Landscape: I loved hearing all the different voices for the delegates in the Syndicate. Particularly Celation. It astonishes me that after all this time that there are still new modulations to be found, and it feels like a lot of care has been given to this bunch.

Isn’t it Odd: The story opens with ten minutes of energetic action and for a moment I wondered if I had put on the second part of this story first (it wouldn’t be the first time). I’m not averse to being kept in the dark for a little while whilst action rumbles on at the beginning of a story as long as the writer puts everything into context at some point. Fortunately, around the 10-minute mark there is a catch up between the Doctor and Ann where all is explained. ‘The Doctor will be in the clutches of the Syndicate!’ is possibly the most predictable cliff-hanger we have ever had. It’s what this season has been leading up to and it hasn’t exactly been secretive about it. As soon as the Syndicate start arguing amongst themselves and bumping each other off I figured they might take of the Doctor’s work for him.

Standout Scene: One of the most insidious examples of slavery that Doctor Who has ever featured comes in the scene where Ann discovers malnourished factory workers hooked up to the Dream Machine and believing they are being well paid and treated extremely well. To exploit people is one thing, to make them believe they are living in luxury whilst doing so is unbelievable tyranny.

Result: There’s a truly great scene at the end of the first half of this story where the Doctor is finally exposed to the truth about Ann and realises that he is completely out of his depth. It’s such an unusual moment in the 4DAs (he’s usually so unflappable) and I had absolutely no idea where the story was going to go next. What a lovely feeling. And how nice for a season in this range to genuinely understand how to structure a finale and pay off so much of the season that has just played out. The first half of this story is all set up as you would imagine, but with lots of interest with the various exotic members of the Syndicate and the ever-confident Ann coming out of her shell to the Doctor’s suspicions. Not a great deal actually happens but it’s builds up the suspense and introduces a number of fascinating ideas that come to fruition in the second half. Thank the Lord that Nick Briggs admits that they have been pushing the nostalgia element in the 4DAs and now it is time to push away from that and do something a little more original. Whilst this season has been as mired in continuity as ever, it has certainly played about with those elements in a fresh way and just how tightly plotted the series has been as a whole is a brand-new approach. The second part flies off in a completely new direction with the Doctor having to join forces with his enemies to defeat his companion! That’s novel. I never believed that John Dorney would take things quite as far as he does with Anya and she truly is a formidable force to be reckoned with. It was an incredibly brave creative call by building this entire season around a character who doesn’t exist but it has paid off in spades. And Dorney is also right that the first half of The Daleks’ Masterplan seems to promise big things are going to happen with the Technix before they are ceremoniously dumped in the second half by Dennis Spooner so it’s nice to see them reach their full potential here. That’s the perfect kind of continuity, taking something that was neglected in the series and giving it more substance. The story ends with a clever piece of sleight of hand by the Doctor and there’s still plenty of work to be done after the last scene, and I liked the emotional sting of the Doctor turning his back on his new ‘companion.’ It would be wrong for Anya to travel in the TARDIS after this and so it leaves this run of stories as a unique narrative, and one that is worth returning to. Unbelievably, this season has just gotten better and better. The first series of 4DAs that I would wholeheartedly suggest you listen to: 9/10

Monday, 18 February 2019

Fever Island written by Jonathan Barnes and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: Jason Vane is England’s suavest secret agent, and today he’s on his deadliest mission yet. Tracking down the evil Okulov... before he destroys the world. The Doctor, Ann and K9 are, in contrast, finding their own mission a little hard to complete. A strange storm in the vortex has swept them back in time, back to Earth in 1978 and a strange place called ‘Fever Island’. A place where their worst nightmares are about to come true...

Teeth and Curls: He finds it helps to grin as broadly as he can when he starts to worry – which is what Elisabeth Sladen always used to say about his character and how Tom Baker accentuated the alien characteristics. The Doctor decides that Fever Island sounds a little ominous but let’s be honest this sort of title is like red rag to a bull to the Time Lord. What is it about the Bakers (Tom and Colin) bursting into poetic exclamations that just sounds so right? He’s met one or two evil geniuses in his time. The Doctor couldn’t sound any less interested in Jason Vane’s latest adventure, almost as if he knows that he has stumbled in on somebody else’s turf and is willing to back off and let him have the limelight. Tom Baker has always talked about the wit of James Bond villains and how that is the sort of wit that he enjoys in Doctor Who. It’s fitting then that he gets to play the bad guy in this story and ham it up as Okalov, Jason Vane’s nuttiest opponent. It’s a great opportunity for Tom to play something completely different and to go to town with it. How funny to hear the Doctor telling Jason Kane that he is a piece of fantasy and pure escapism. I almost wanted him to throw the compliment back at him. Does that mean that the Doctor dreams of being an insane supervillain? Sounds perfect for the fourth Doctor.

Bobby on the Beat: There’s a reason I have managed to fill an entire paragraph with commentary about K.9 below where Ann’s section remains bare. After the bombshell that was dropped in the previous story it is a shame that she has reverted to her previous irrelevance. It would have been quite nice to have a knowing sleeper agent in the TARDIS ala Charley Pollard or an assassin ala Turlough.

Metal Dog: How cute of K.9 to ask the Doctor and Ann what it is a like to dream. We come to accept K.9 as the Doctor’s companion and therefore give him all the emotional affection we would a person and so it rather sneaks up on me when I’m reminded that he is merely an automaton. Oddly asking this sort of wistful question, like Data from Star Trek, makes my heart go out for him more. Perhaps it is John Leeson’s lovable voice that imbues the character with such personality and warmth. The thought simply popped into his circuits and the Doctor is delighted at a gap in his dogs’ knowledge for a change. How is it that hearing John Leeson cry ‘Danger Master!’ takes you right back to the 70s effortlessly in a way that a thousand prequel/sequels to 70s never could? He wants to understand the power of imagination and fantasy, words that have been planted into his brain. His computer brain is vastly complex and leaves him susceptible to malign influences.

Standout Performance: It’s a wonderful cast all round, but huge kudos to Gethin Anthony as the silky-smooth Jason Vane and Carolyn Seymour who impressively plays two roles imperceptibly in the story.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The scarred man still lives on Fever Island!’
‘Imagine the world shaped to the fantasies of a psychopath of some frothing demigod? Imagine the nightmares that would be unleashed?’

Great Ideas: Jason Vane faces assassins and despots at every turn and is trained to kill with the scantest of resources. After the war, the Commordore was recruited by the Kremlin and for three decades she has been their puppet at the heart of British intelligence. Imagine if this sort of twist had been revealed about M? It would shake the Bond universe to its core. The mist on the island is from another dimension. They created an aperture in the fabric of reality and subsequently the mist started coming through. All the clues were there to point out why Vane wasn’t at all who we thought he was and I thought the reveal was very nicely handled, with Anthony’s performance altering perfectly when the bombshell is dropped. Of course there was military funding involved in this madness.

Musical Cues: I love it when the music gets in on the twist, dropping away when the spy genre is stripped away.

Standout Scene:
For once the cliff-hanger isn’t some faux danger that we know won’t kill the Doctor but instead a complete change of personality that suggests a really avenue to explore in the second episode. I always applaud writers who take a different approach with these pauses in the action, making the twist a narrative shift rather than the story just holding its breath in the middle of an action sequence. In one of the funniest moments of the range, K.9 blasts the Doctor a second time just to make sure that he’s back to normal.

Apparently Doctor Who can turn its hand to anything, any genre or style, because of it’s malleable (lack of) format. Even James Bond. As Lance Parkin discovered in BBC Books’ Trading Futures and Jonathan Barnes realises here, the campy spy thriller genre is a brilliant hat for Doctor Who to try on and have a laugh with. Fever Island has all the hallmarks of a parody Bond story; a suave hero, a sadistic super villain, an unusually exotic location, ridiculously melodramatic danger, one liners, a stylish music and the Doctor. Hang on…the Doctor? What’s really impressive is how this works as both a Bond tale (or rather a Vane tale) and a Doctor Who story, exhibiting all the fun and frolics of a really good Graeme Williams tale and aping popular culture like a really good Hinchcliffe tale. There are some wonderful breaks in the conventions - the M substitute turns out to be a traitor, Vane’s narration can be heard by all and sundry to their disgust and the villain of the piece turns out to be…well that would be telling. A really fun script, very sure of its tone and with enough content to keep me entertained. This is a fourth Doctor season that hasn’t dropped the ball since it’s opener, is that really a possibility? I’ve dolled out 3, 7, 7, 7, 8 and 8 so far which automatically makes this the best average for a season of Tome Baker stories, whilst not being perfect. Some of the other seasons have had stronger individual stories but I am really enjoying how consistently entertaining this run has been. It’s avoiding that feeling on nonchalance that has plagued this range since day one. Long may John Dorney continue to script edit. Fever Island is a perky piece, very silly but blissfully enjoyable with every member of the production team in the know about the mood they are trying to create. Keep fantasising: 8/10

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Time’s Assassin written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: The true identity of the Director has been revealed and he wants vengeance upon the Doctor for past crimes... But the Director is not the only danger to the crew of the TARDIS. Deadly experiments are coming to a head, and everyone’s life is at risk. However, the greatest threat is yet to come. The Syndicate’s plans are in motion... and no one is safe from them. I loved the Doctor’s response to saving the people trapped in no-time, to give them the space/time vortex to swim about in. The TARDIS comes to the Doctor’s rescue without him even having to ask. His reaction is delightful.

Teeth and Curls: It’s heartening to hear that when people are told that the Doctor is the sworn enemy of the Daleks, they automatically think he is okay. He doesn’t want the villain to explain his nefarious plot because he is so over the top he doesn’t think he can bear it. How wonderful to hear the Doctor call somebody a ‘deluded, pathetic imbecile!’ I laughed until my sides hurt when the Doctor, right at the end of the adventure, suddenly remembers that Ann exists. Clearly it isn’t just me then.

Bobby on the Beat: In possibly her best moment yet, Ann loses her shit when she is trying to rescue the Doctor. Something is seriously off with her in this story. Perhaps it is a little bit early to suggest that she is acting out of character but she is pushing away from the simple bobby on the beat and becoming somebody quite obsessed. I don’t think anybody was prepared for the moment where she murdered somebody in the pursuit of her mission, but at least it was something surprising. The twist that she is a sleeper time agent is a good one, and it does explain away quite a few of my complaints about the character. Let’s see where they go with this one. I actually felt rather sorry for Zephon. She isn’t the first companion of the fourth Doctor to murder her way through adventures, but this is the first time a murder is used to reveal new shades about a character. It’s really rather well done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I knew that frilly face was familiar!’
‘A basement full of monsters and you the worst monster of all!’
‘You can never have enough power to be safe!’

Great Ideas: Zephon’s father was once involved in an interplanetary incident with other high-ranking officials from various solar systems. A top-secret conference. His father was executed because the Doctor meddled and took his place. It’s as somewhat skewered sense of history (isn’t it always when there is a personal stake) but it does have a grain of truth to it. Zephon’s family were disgraced and the information about what happened was passed down by the Delegate from Celetious. You can understand why Zephon has a personal stake wanting to bring the Doctor down. The Zephon species are so arrogant they name everybody after the same thing. A man who only makes ethical weapons. What an alarming prospect. Imagine you could send all of your enemies into a fixed continuum bubble hidden away at a constant remove, a permanent couple of minutes in the past. Holding back something in time permanently…not existing anywhere. The Doctor’s DNA might be the key to making this insane prospect possible. All Elmore is doing is causing untold damage to space time.

Isn’t it Odd: Oh why not? Why not The Delegates from The Daleks’ Masterplan? There was a time when you could take in Big Finish’s output and point to the number of instances where they have used TV series continuity. Nowadays the reverse is true. You can point at a few stories that they haven’t provided a sequel/prequel/alongside story for. Pyramids of Mars? The Age of Sutekh! The Ark in Space? Wirrn Isle! Curse of Fenric? Gods & Monsters! Even when you get into more obscure stories like The Invisible Enemy and The Horns of Nimon. Have a go and this game, it’s really quite fun. This pilfering of Doctor Who’s continuity has gone beyond 80s Who’s propensity for wank, it has gone beyond fan service. Glimmers of originality abound but the company does tend to be a machine churning out fan service storytelling these days. The fourth Doctor range is particularly guilty in that respect, but the 8th Doctor and Lucie Miller range was just as culpable. What’s wrong with provided guilty pleasures for fans, I hear you ask? Nothing at all and I’m not saying that all of these examples are especially bad ones. My issue is that if you are pouring all of your energy into old continuity then you’re spending any time building up anything new. Which means you get remembered for picking over the husks of classic Who rather than created a bold, new version of the show to proud of. When the result of all your hard work building somebody up for a big return is ‘In the name of Zephon, die Doctor!’ is it really worth it?

Standout Scene: I wonder if they should have chosen somebody other than the Doctor to vaporise during the cliff-hanger because it must be obvious to a blind spielsnape that he isn’t utterly vapourised because there are three and a half other stories left in the set and I think some people would have something to say if Tom Baker doesn’t appear in them.

Result: ‘The single most powerful organisation for mayhem and terror the universe has ever seen!’ You’ve got to be careful when you advertise your Syndicate like that because you have to live up to that kind of hype. This is bonkers, insanely over the top and featuring a villain who speaks in every villainous cliché turned up to eleven. He’s rubbing shoulders with people turning into Varga plants and trying to kill everybody and a nutty as squirrel shit fella who thinks he is Chen, Guardian of the Solar System. The whole story is a Daleks’ Masterplan wank-fest but you don’t need to be a big fan of that story to get something from this. Guy Adams keeps the madness frothing, the twists coming thick and fast and gives Tom Baker a chance to waltz wittily through proceedings, treating nobody with any great respect. Is this the sort of thing that Big Finish should be indulging in? As far as I’m concerned it should be shining a light on new ideas and characters and giving the continuity a rest a little but if you are going to indulge then this is probably the right approach – not holding back and drowning the story in past references and ensuring there is plenty of energy, enjoyable exchanges and surprising moments. Bask in the insane performances of a cast who have realised that this is a licence to go a bit crazy and let themselves go. Relax into a story that is happy to suggest big things are coming whilst unleashing chaos on Kembel. Ever wanted to hear the Doctor trapped in a Chronon wave front with no way back? Well now’s your chance! The soundscape for these sequences is something else and you might just feel like you have snorted line by the time the story has finished. Ann Kelso is the weak spot again, but only in the first episode. Something massive is revealed about her in the second episode that goes some way to explaining why she has been so ill defined until this point. This is doing exactly what a mid-season story should, paying off the earlier parts of the season and promising things for the latter half whilst providing a mercilessly entertaining ride: 8/10

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Hunting Ground written by AK Benedict and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The Doctor arrives in present day Iceland and receives a frosty reception from Inspector Yrsa Kristjansdottir when he becomes the chief suspect in a murder enquiry. But the Doctor knows that the real killer is of extra-terrestrial origin. Joining forces with Yrsa, the Doctor goes in pursuit of a ruthless alien that is hunting humans for sport. Yrsa unearths a dark conspiracy which reaches back into her own past. Determined to expose the truth and prevent further deaths, the Doctor and Yrsa soon find themselves running for their lives, prey on the hunting ground.

Softer Six: The Sixth Doctor is seldom travelling on his own so it is always a bit of a novelty when he is. This is a story that wants to introduce you to him from the point of view of the guest cast, or more specifically Ysra, and he’s an immediately mysterious fellow. Turning up out of the snow in the guise of a hiker who found a body. All the best mysteries live in the forest. He doesn’t go out of his way to pretend that he is a regular person, banging on about imps and trolls, but then perhaps this (one of the most alien incarnations of the Time Lord) has simply forgotten how to blend in (that coat). On the patchwork planet of Algernom he can blend in with any surroundings. Why would he report a crime if he was the main suspect? He’s never drawn attention to himself in this life or any other (pants on fire). He doesn’t always have to have the last word but it is so very satisfying. Yrsa only has to spend an hour with the Doctor to know that he is a world class expert in trouble. Leave him alone in a police station and he’ll tinker with the printer until it starts singing. The Doctor really enjoys the vistas of Iceland, a place where the strange and the wonderful are not only believed in but welcomed. Forbidden knowledge is the most tempting of fruit and he cannot wait to savour it.

New Recruit: I find it very strange that a new bolshie police officer should be introduced and handed to the sixth Doctor as a companion when he already has one who has been waiting in the wings for some time; the wonderfully dry and witty DI Menzies? People have been lobbying for more Menzies for some years now and just as she is about to make her reappearance along comes a carbon copy of the character. I’m not saying that Amy Beth Hayes gives a bad performance, it just feels like a substitute when her character spec is so similar to Menzies. The more Yrsa knows about the Doctor, the less she feels she knows about the world. Wasn’t it a bizarre idea to set Yrsa up as the sixth Doctor’s latest travelling companion and then feature a story where, first episode aside, they barely interact?

Standout Performance: Colin Baker struggles to make his parts of this bearable. Yep, that says a lot.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Everything and nothing is alien in Iceland.’

Great Ideas: Valen is a frozen world in the anchor arm of the Syphello galaxy. Surely across the breadth of Doctor Who we have populated the universe a few times over by now.

Audio Landscape: The first cliffhanger cannot help but make an impact because it is an assault of sound as the wolves attack the Doctor and Yrsa.

Isn’t it Odd: The first episode is very strange in that it gets off on precisely the right foot; a great setting, a cheeky Doctor and a murder but then it fails to do anything of note for the next twenty minutes? There’s an entire subplot surrounding Yrsa and the secrets that her father kept from her but I couldn’t have been less interested. It’s not built into the story in a particularly compelling way (indeed at times it felt as if two completely different stories were taking place). You’ve got to hand it to the Doctor, he certainly likes to be prepared. The Hunting Ground achieves the impossible. It manages to feature a villain who apes but is even more inept than Tim Shaw. At the point where he admitted that he took away a trophy I thought there was some serious plagiarising going on…until I couldn’t figure out which was released first. The sixth Doctor is collecting companions like stamps these days. Is this really the time to be indulging in another (let me guess, those at Big Finish loved working with Amy Beth Hayes) when there are the adventures of Older Peri and Constance & Flip to get back to. Skipping from the snowy wastelands of Iceland to a bog-standard alien planet was a fatal error, it’s not a shift in the story’s favour. Colin Baker used to star in stories such as The Holy Terror, Jubilee, Doctor Who & the Pirates and Davros. Now he ends up in Lure of the Nomad and The Hunting Ground. This makes me very grumpy. There literally could not be less tension in the last episode if they had tried. Imagine if the Marfick’s had hung around in the TARDIS at the end too. What a TARDIS line up that wouldn’t be.

Standout Scene: People say that McCoy was the one who set up his adventures before they had even begun but Sixie has him beat here with a get out clause ready to bonk all three cliff-hangers on the head. Which rather leaves his reaction to them a bit baffling. Why would you be anxious if you knew you had the solution to hand?

Result: It’s a shame that the atmosphere that was conjured up in the first few minutes couldn’t have been maintained for the entire story, this would have made a very nice wintry detective story with extra-terrestrial undertones. Instead it becomes something a lot less compelling, a bizarre science fiction tale that relies heavily on the character of Yrsa and her backstory and unfortunately it just isn’t up to the task of pulling me through. It’s one of those stories where it feels like a companion is being set up (think The Rescue or The Bells of Saint John) but there aren’t enough interesting things going on away from that to make it interesting. The most bizarre aspect of this story is just how little mood there is to the piece because I thought the Icelandic setting would be ripe for scares getting lost in the snowy wilderness. Instead it is an extremely wordy piece, with little suspense when things are discovered, lots of treated voices and some very noisy action set pieces. There’s a pair of comedy administrative alien heads that fail to raise a laugh and yet we spend and inordinate amount of time in their company. It’s hardly a Holmesian double act. Or even a Sawardian one. It’s more of a Dominators sort of double act. They get less appealing every time they appear and yet the story never stops offering them up. The Hunting Ground caps off another year of main range stories on a disappointing note. Disappointing would be a good way of describing the main range titles this year, which seem to have started fairly well but haemorrhaged interest as time went on. There doesn’t seem to be any real passion or inventiveness in the range at the moment, nothing to mark it out as the flagship range of the company. Head over to the Early Adventures or the companion chronicles or spin offs such as Gallifrey, Torchwood and the Novel Adaptations and you’ll find all manner of standout storytelling and excitement. Sure, we get the odd bright spot like Ghost Walk or Muse of Fire but the standard seems to be lolloping great husks of stories like Lure of the Nomad, The Dispossessed and Warlock’s Cross. For those of you who hated series 11 be warned, I’m about to say something nice about it. This has elements of both The Woman Who Fell To Earth (the hunting plotline) and It Takes You Away (starting with aspirations to Nordic Noir) but it has about a tenth of the colour, imagination and enjoyment of them. Crushingly dull, this review is a poke in the eye to those of you who say I excuse any Colin Baker story and dismiss any Sylvester McCoy one. Two stories came out together this month and I know which is the stronger of the two: 3/10

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Night of the Vashta Nerada written by John Dorney and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it About: Funworld was set to be the happiest planet in the galaxy. A planet of joy, of euphoria, of laughter and delight. Except construction was marred by reports of a predator and then, a few days before opening, all communication ceased. Owner Georgia Donnelly is desperate to open the resort and has hired Amanda Steele's crew to find out what happened on the planet. They're the best. But even they might not be up to the task. Joined by the Doctor and being picked off one by one, they slowly start to realise that something terrifying lurks in the shadows.

Teeth and Curls: Rather wonderfully John Dorney does the precise reverse to The Silence in the Library with the introductions. There we had the Doctor and Donna being menaced and a group of strangers breaking into the scene. Here we are introduced to the main guest stars in the first few minutes, witness them in danger and then the Doctor makes his entrance. This incarnation always does like to announce his presence in a memorable way. For those of you who like to be able to squeeze these stories into some kind of timeline the Doctor states that he came to funworld after the rather abrupt departure of his previous travelling companion. So let’s assume that’s Leela. He’s certainly got the teeth of a predator. This is a much darker fourth Doctor than the one we are used to in the 4DAs, not afraid to call people stupid or to bring them to task for their behaviour and deeds. It makes you wonder why they go for the fun and frivolous fourth Doctor quite so much because the one who is a little bit scary and unpredictable is a lot more interesting to be around. When he says ‘that’s enough out of you!’ I certainly wouldn’t argue with him. Haunted houses always give him the heebie-jeebies (perhaps he remembers the time he visited Ghana in his first incarnation - I’m sorry I mean the dark recesses of the human imagination). He doesn’t show the slightest hint of fear at finding a roomful of skeletons, instead he gets straight to work deducing how they came to be in that state. I love the way he suggests that if your neighbour was being stripped off his flesh next to you that you wouldn’t stick around to watch, you’d be off quick as a flash. The Doctor has never met the Vashta Nerada before so this is something of a historic occasion. Interesting to see that if you piss the Doctor off enough then you’re invited in the TARDIS to safety. When Tom Baker’s Doctor is desperate and panicking, you know the shit has hit the fan. And you know that you have really gotten to him when he says he is saving your life ‘for some reason.’ When Peter Davison’s Doctor fails to save to anybody he howls his way into the TARDIS with a hanky and promise to med his ways. When Tom’s does he either winds up reciting a poem (Horror of Fang Rock) or just saying ‘oh well.’ What a bastard.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s paid to do something she doesn’t like…isn’t that the definition of work?’
‘Do you think you don’t get intelligent predators? What else do you think a human is?’ – he’s come quite a long way since his ‘homo sapiens’ speech in The Ark in Space.
‘Do you think you can kill the dark?’
‘The Vashta Nerada are known as the piranhas of the air!’

Standout Performance: Baker, who I seem to have spent most of this review praising to the high heavens, does some of his best work. It’s nice to say positive things about him on audio because I am usually a little harsh in the other direction. It's glorious to see Pam Ferris turning up in a Doctor Who too, an actress of some repute who doesn't disappoint in the slightest.

Great Ideas: There were so many things I loved about Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead that I seem to remember it took me the better part of a day to write the review and it came in at a ridiculous length (check it out). Still in my top ten classic and NuWho stories, it was a heady brew of drama, emotion, imagination and scares. I still think it is Steven Moffat’s greatest achievement in the series but that is bound to be a hotly contested opinion given how much Doctor Who he ultimately scripted. The Vashta Nerada were just one phenomenal idea in a story packed full of them but they were undoubtedly the scariest. Moffat has turned kids against statues and little kids and things under the bed…now he’s making them scared of their own shadows. It’s what Doctor Who does best, taking the mundane and giving it a horrific spin, and this was a particularly spine-chilling example. I can just imagine kids having so much in the playground on a sunny day trying to run away from their own shadows. The first third of Night of the Vashta Nerada puts the audience in an interesting position because we are way ahead of the characters (I don’t think they’ve heard the title). So it’s fascinating watching them trying to piece together what has happened to the 30-odd people on Funworld when we already know the answer and the kind of danger they are in. Vashta Nerada means ‘the shadows that melt the flesh.’ They usually breed in forests and they certainly don’t feed on humans. Because an entire eco system was wiped out when Funworld was built the Vashta Nerada had nothing else to feed on and rather than face extinction they turned to the only source of food they could find: the people. It’s not a single living being but a swarm that split into thousands of organisms and is only dangerous when they all come together. 'For your own safety please avoid Funworld' has a lovely ring of irony to it.

Audio Landscape: It’s been a long time since a method of dispatch has freaked me out quite as much as this. Not since people were melted to pools of liquid in The Holy Terror. The noise of skin ripping from flesh and the skeleton bursting free really (hoho) gets under your skin. The fact that it happens suddenly, without warning, merely adds to the effect.

Standout Scene: ‘I think you’ve got two shadows…’ Only Tom Baker could make that line sound quite so chilly.

Result: ‘It’s black and hungry and lurking in the dark…’ Finally, a Big Finish story that has some serious chills! Let’s not underestimate what John Dorney has achieved here because while you could write this off as a Troughton base under siege story featuring monsters from the new series that goes no way towards expressing how he achieves that with such economy and clarity. He has 50 minutes to create a vivid world, populate it with believable characters, re-introduce a popular monster, give the fourth Doctor a dominating role, kill off characters, find something substantial enough to say in their backstory to dig up some twists and bring the whole piece to an effective conclusion. 50 minutes. That’s a pretty tall order. To his credit he produces a terrific script, one with great opportunities for Tom Baker to growl a bit more than he’s usually allowed to (it’s startlingly effective) and some very eerie moments along the way. I found the Vashta Nerada to a much more effective ‘visual monster’ than the Angels in the first set, purely because the realisation is so much more effective and we learn more about their backstory. I’ve always said that there is no point in bringing back an old monster if you’re not going to add anything to their story. It would have been nice if Dorney had made them purely sympathetic monster who were just reacting to their change in circumstances thanks to human greed but instead they pose a much bigger threat than the confines of this story and they become a lot more like every other despotic race the Doctor has encountered. I really didn’t come to these Classic Doctors. New Monsters box sets with particularly high expectations (it was the height of Big Finish gimmickry on advertisement – although now it’s been superseded by all many of crossovers) and I certainly didn’t come expecting to hear one of Tom Baker’s best stories to date. I wish the ending hadn’t been quite as tidy as it was but I was impressed with how the suspense was kept right up until the last scene: 8/10