Saturday, 23 March 2019

The Jabari Countdown written by Alan Flanagan and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Arriving on a mysterious island, stranded with a group of mathematicians, the Doctor and his companions find themselves on the fringes of the Second World War. Trapped with only each other and an unknown threat, the group must work together to solve a puzzle greater than just one world’s war.

The Real McCoy: Chris and Roz figure that the Doctor presses buttons just for show on the console, an elaborate theatrical effect rather than out of necessity. He’s that impish little devil in this one, especially amusing as he adopts a pirate accent to try and explain why he is a stowaway. Amusing he introduces Chris as his manservant and Roz as his personal secretary. The other way around, surely? When the Doctor tries to explain where they have come from he sounds like a complete fruitloop. You would think that after all this time he would have some go-to explanations for every time period he finds himself in on Earth. Sylvester McCoy is brilliant during the climax of this story but it’s unsurprising given the Doctor gets such strong material. Succinctly working out who brought them to the house, growling accusations at the guilty party, desperately trying to figure out how to save everybody’s lives. I’m usually extremely critical of McCoy’s performances and so it’s wonderful to be able to shower him with so much praise. I guess it comes down to the quality of the writing. The Doctor is such a smart bloke, and how he puzzles out all the meaningful numbers is inspired.

Moody Copper: The Doctor calls a slap from Roz shorthand. I’m glad that Roz was the one to go back to the TARDIS and seek information about the Jabari. She’s a character that is often treated as a grumpy old copper but her best writers gave her a steely intelligence too. I’m pleased to see that passed over here and she’s already reached some interesting conclusions about their foe before presenting the data to the Doctor.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Chris is such a great big kid and he’s exactly the sort to want to play hide and seek in the TARDIS. I mean think about it for a second…hide and seek in a Ship where the dimensions shift! That means you might never be found should the TARDIS get in on the game and keep secreting your hiding place away! Infinite fun! Chris longs to be treated as something more than a well-muscled heavy, but the Doctor selects him for all the physical work. Chris has a very good point when he says if they were trying to think of an appropriate alibi would they seriously go for the ‘we travel in time and space’ route. His romantic goodbye with Eleanor feels earned, despite the fact that they have hardly spent any time together. Portrayed this well, I would very much like to spend more time with Chris…and I NEVER thought I would say that.

Standout Performance: I really love Janine Duvitski. Having appeared in two of my favourite sitcoms in strikingly different roles, she’s one of those British actresses who tends to get remembered for a particularly vivid role rather than a versatile character actress. But as this story proves, she’s extremely talented and she elevates the story whenever she appears. I loved the moment where she calls the Doctor out, thinking that she is just some dotty grandmother along for the ride. ‘With as many grandchildren as I have you get used to organising an army!’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Earth takes its time on too many things’ – never a truer word spoken but the NAs suggest that we get there in the end with the important issues.

Great Ideas: The house isn’t a house, it’s a spaceship belonging to the Jabari who conquer through mathematical infection. There’s no pattern to the worlds they have invaded, it’s completely scattershot. It’s almost as if they are avoiding certain planets where the infection won’t take. Alpha was seeking the best, recruiting people to save her world.

Audio Landscape: I listened to this in candlelight alone in my flat and there were a few times where I found myself looking over my shoulder to make sure I was on my own. Handcock directs the suspenseful moments really cleverly, recognising that less means more.

Isn’t it Odd: Doesn’t Alpha get away rather lightly given what she has put everybody through? I’m no sure I would be so forgiving.

Standout Scene: Chris’ sexuality has always been a malleable thing. He’s a guy from the future and he has never let somebody’s gender get in the way of finding them attractive. Not so much bisexual as pansexual. The reveal about Eleanor is a fantastic moment, not only because it says something profound about the sexual politics of the time (given how terrified she is of anybody finding out that she was once a man) but because it is at that moment that Chris chooses to show that he is attracted to her. It’s one of those audio moments when you want to cheer at the sheer beauty of the writing and the performances.

Result: ‘A mysterious island, a group of scientists, a dash of mathematics and a dollop of inclement weather…’ We’re introduced to far more interesting characters in the first ten minutes of The Jabari Countdown than in the entirety of Vanguard and its good sign that this will be a far more engaging and thoughtful listen. Trapping a group of characters in an isolated location isn’t just a staple Doctor Who set up but a recognisably dramatic construct stretching back to the birth of storytelling. And so it takes some skill to pull it off with this much dexterity, with a plot that constantly surprises and thrills. What Alan Flanigan has done here is take the essence of a base under siege story from Troughton’s era and run it through a sieve, thrown away all the fatty bits and presented it as a perfectly structured, beautifully characterised story in less than an hour. Not a second is wasted. It’s a fairly big cast but they're pretty vivid given most of them die before the hour is out, especially once their secrets are out. He uses the team of the Doctor, Chris and Roz well too, a story that is once again presenting them as a cohesive unit with a likeable seventh Doctor and friends. Chris is especially well written and Oliver gives his finest performance to date. Take a dash of Agatha Christie’s And The There Were None, add a pinch of The Chimes of Midnight, fold in a generous helping of The iterations of I and serve for 60 minutes with delicious performances and suspenseful direction: 9/10

Friday, 22 March 2019

Vanguard written by Steve Jordan and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The planet Vanguard was once ravaged by a war between its peoples: the Dauntless and the Intrepid. Now, robotic titans stalk the desolation, searching for survivors. Their mission: to end the war for one side or the other. But which side will the Doctor take?

The Real McCoy: Does it ever seem odd to you that wherever in the universe that the Doctor seems to go that, almost without exception, he seems to know the history of every planet and race? He understands the conflict between the Dauntless and the Intrepid the second he steps from the TARDIS allowing us to slip straight into the story fully armed with information. Maybe that’s why, for brevity. You have to wonder if the Doctor is losing his touch when he has to ask ‘any potential escape routes?’ The experience of knowing he is going to die never gets easier.

Moody Copper:
Listen how desperate Roz is to find Cwej when he is stolen away from them. Roz never behaved like that. The NA Roz would have appeared like she didn’t care and suggest that he can take care of himself, whilst simultaneously trying to work out how to help him.

Standout Performance: Connor Calland. Really giving his part some welly. I was so deeply uninvested in the situation that I didn’t care, but I appreciate the effort.

Great Ideas: This has to go down as one of the Doctor’s most unfortunate landings, the TARDIS materialising on a planet at war on a battlefield between two charging armies. When she says that she always takes him where he needs to be in The Doctor’s Wife, perhaps she could do so without, you know, shoving two armies in his face. What do you do when you are introduce to the sole survivor of a desolate war that ravaged a planet…and you were supposed to save everybody? A fully programmable bioweapon created by both the Dauntless and the Intrepid in their attempts to destroy the other side. This required hosts to incubate a strain of virus to carry to everybody else. It says something about the creation of super weapons during warfare that both sides never intended to create something this powerful but their meddling with science and unleashing of two sets of children loaded with virus created something more terrifying than either side could comprehend.

Result: We’ve gone from a story idea that nobody has tried to a story idea that everybody has tried. Think of any TV SF series and think of a time when they have done one of those ‘warring clans’ tales where everything comes good in the end. It’s a particular speciality of Star Trek and Stargate, but Doctor Who is hardly immune either. A few years ago this sort of tale was subverted brilliantly in the 4th Doctor story The Paradox Planet and Legacy of Death where the two opposing sides in the conflict are the same race at different points in their history. When I start comparing the current story unfavourably against the 4th Doctor Adventures, be scared. The performances are earnest but there’s no escaping the fact that there is little here that we haven’t seen before and there’s nothing to fill in gaps in interest like decent characterisation and skilful plotting. It feels like every box set has to have that one release that you could kind of do without, the one story that brings the batting average down. The one story that doesn’t aspire to be as strong as its fellows. Vanguard takes that trophy, even though it does give the Doctor, Chris and Roz equal share of the action. This is the kind of story that Russell T Davies was warning about in series one, set on planet Zog with the Zogs and the Zogettes at war and this time our only identification characters are a Time Lord and two space cops from the future. So nobody. It is trying to say something profound about war in the name of progress but it gets lost under a lot of waffle and misplaced angst. I’m really really pleased they didn’t open with this story. I may not have come back to the set: 3/10

The Trial of a Time Machine written by Andy Lane and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: After colliding with another time-ship in the vortex, the TARDIS materialises on Thrantas where it is arrested and forced to face trial. While Chris and Roz investigate the crime scene, the Doctor must defend his most loyal companion against a society where guilt has no meaning.

The Real McCoy: One of his moral rules is to never eat anything that can talk back. There’s much more of a suggestion of camaraderie between the Doctor, Chris and Roz than there ever was in the books. The Doctor of this period was an enigmatic fella who crossed the line more often than not when it came to his companions and despite the terrible things that he put them through they still came back for more. At times it felt more like they were his employees rather than his companions. It felt like he had hired two coppers to join him in the TARDIS because that’s what this big tough universe that he was facing needed. Scott Handcock has instead chosen to direct his writers to introduce a much more comfortable solidarity between the three of them that works to this series advantage. I love how he uses both Chris and Roz’s deductive skill to fathom where they are, playing one’s reasoning off against the other. He questions what he would do without the TARDIS. Listen to how emotional the Doctor is when he thinks the TARDIS is going to murdered. It’s not often that you hear him begging. Inadvertently, the Doctor turns this entire society upside down and wants to leave his legally minded companions behind at the climax to tidy it up and create a whole new legal system. He tells Roz and Chris that he trusts them to the end of space and time.

Moody Copper: I’m probably going to get stick for this (when have I ever shied away from that?) but I feel that Yasmin Bannerman is seriously miscast as Roz Forrester. That doesn’t mean that she is a bad actress and I have admired her work elsewhere a great deal. Roz was a tough as nails space cop with enough chips on her shoulder to serve them with fish. She was aggressive, bolshie and violent. Bannerman is far too gentle and easily persuaded in the role. I like her far too easily whereas I had to work to like Roz in the books. The result is that the Roz in the audios is fair too amiable to be very interesting whereas I found myself loving Roz in the end in the books, despite her nastiness because she was genuinely vulnerable underneath all that anger. It will be interesting to see if they can add that element of unpredictability and moodiness to Roz in these original adventures, but Bannerman has already adopted this pleasant Roz in the novel adaptations and it would be very odd to see a shift now. It’s amazing the things that Roz has gotten used to, like working with Chris.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Whereas Chris benefits hugely by having Travis Oliver cast in the part. One of my least favourite companions for a plethora of reasons (mostly being that nobody could be quite this green and this wet at the same time), Chris Cwej has been given a complete overhaul on audio. Oliver is likable, warm, funny and engaging. Go figure. There are some things that are universally wrong, that’s why he and Roz became adjudicators. Morality is relative, especially in the Doctor’s adventures. He and Roz are going to have to learn that if they are going to stick around.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Nobody likes to have an Overlord, no matter how pleasant they are.’
‘See you in 100,000 years.’
‘Society is better off so that’s okay.’
‘Did we do that to you? You are here with me of your own accord?’ – in a moment of rare poetry, the Doctor asks the TARDIS if she is a willing as traveller or considers herself a slave. Interestingly, we don’t get an answer.

Great Ideas: Is this a good idea, I ask myself? The New Adventures were a huge deal to a fair number of Doctor Who fans in 90s, especially when the love for the show had been all but abandoned by the BBC. However just as many people loathed the novels and thought they betrayed everything that the show was about and had plunged headlong into a series that thrived on violence, sex and swearing (the Torchwood of its day you might say) and confused, continuity destroying and mostly terrible prose. I was somewhere comfortably in the middle, and whilst I was never an avid reader of the books I did find the time long after they had finished being published to read through them all in some depth and review them and to reach a critical consensus. Some dazzling ideas were in there, some powerful characterisation and some very mature storytelling. Alongside some truly abysmal prose, agonising tweenage angst and some moments that felt so out of place turning up in Doctor Who books. Target novels these aint. Genuinely fantastic novels, seriously poor ones. Big Finish have done something nobody expected when they began adapting and releasing the more popular of the New Adventures. There is something electric about having a part of your childhood brought to life by the original TV actors as though they were actually broadcast during the nineties. I understand the appeal, even if Big Finish (who dedicated a fair whack of money on this venture with some pretty hefty casts) overestimated how popular they would be. Not wanting to call the venture a failure (because the results are pretty fantastic), they have no decided to head off into the unknown with two of the original New Adventures companions, Chris and Roj, and tell some innovative stories in the NA style. I applaud the attempt to try something both original and old fashioned like this but I question whether hour long stories are long to tell the sort of stories that in the NA’s own words were ‘too broad and deep for the small screen.’ Will this turn out to be another missed opportunity from Big Finish or will the quality of the releases be the salvation of the NA audio line? Time will tell…

The TARDIS has a form of sentience and if the sensors are sophisticated enough then it can be detected as a life form. According to Thrantasian law, the passengers in a space/time craft cannot be held responsible for the living creature at the crafts heart. Any self-aware species under arrest is entitled to representation. When asked about the TARDISes learning difficulties, communication problems, violent tendencies, allergies or food intolerances the Doctor answers no, yes, no, no, no. I’ve always wondered about our justice system and how, if the judge is in a particular mood, might sway the verdict of a hearing on a whim. To have light thrown on it so brightly and exposing the paucity of the legal system is quite an eye opener. On Thrantas the severity of the crime and thus the severity metered out depends on the impact the crime has on society in the short and long term. All things are known to the Magistrum, both past and future because it can see through time and understand the effects that a person can have on the timeline. Convicted felons are taken into appropriate hospitals and their brains are treated with electric shocks to reduce their intelligence, strength and reflexes. Punishing the felon and deters others, their IQ depleted depending on the crime they have committed. This society has inherited time travel but doesn’t really understand it. That it turns out to be a Time Being forced into slavery is a great twist.

Musical Cues: I’d buy an audio series just to listen to the Big Finish NA audio theme four times. Isn’t it fabulous? A fusion between the techno-madness of McCoy’s theme and the big brass band feel of the YV Movie. It’s one of my favourite things that Big Finish (or more specifically Howard Carter) have done.

Isn’t it Odd: Pull the TARDIS apart and scatter it through a billion years of history? Outrageous!

Standout Scene: There’s a gorgeous moment when the Doctor walks into the TARDIS and has a conversation with his oldest friend. It’s just Sylvester McCoy talking to himself but given the weight of 50 years of travel, it doesn’t feel that way.

Result: ‘A computer that can see through time!’ The TARDIS is placed on trial and the Doctor is forced to represent her. Just let that soak in for a little bit. That’s a phenomenal idea to kick start both a story and a new series of adventures for the Doctor, Roz and Chris. Andy Lane has written a smart, compact script with a terrific role for the Doctor and an excuse (if it was ever needed) for him to express his love for his time machine. You might think placing Sylvester McCoy in a role where he is forced to use lots of technical jargon at pace might be a mistake but this is the New Adventures Sylvester McCoy, you know the one who knows how to act. It’s a story with an awful lot of temporal bafflegab so prepare your brain before entering but if you’re willing to put in the effort it’s a damn clever piece of work. It baffles me that so many Big Finish Doctor Who productions go for the ‘action on audio’ route rather than using the time explore ideas through language (which essentially what the best of the audios do) and while The Trial of the Time Machine is very talky, high marks for doing something original with time travel that a show 50 years plus hasn’t attempted before. It’s a script to get you thinking rather than feeling, so it might seem quite a cold exercise to some. My biggest problem is that the stakes don’t feel particularly high, which could be down to the direction or possibly because I wasn’t really sure what the TARDIS was being accused of. But I loved the discussion and the dialogue really sells this world and its insane legal system as something compelling and convincing and quite disturbing. To answer the question of whether the original audios can be as ‘broad and deep’ as the NAs, yes and no. This has much more substance than your standard audio but it lacks the riveting characterisation of the best of the novels. It’s a damn good first effort though: 8/10

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Nightshade written by Mark Gatiss (adapted by Kyle C Szikora) and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Professor Nightshade - tea time terror for all the family, and the most loved show in Britain. But Professor Nightshade's days are long over, and Edmund Trevithick is now just an unemployed actor in a retirement home, fondly remembering his past. It's the same through the entire village of Crook Marsham - people are falling prey to their memories. At first harmlessly, and then, the bodies begin to turn up. The Doctor and Ace arrive on the scene - but, with the Doctor planning his retirement, it may be time for Professor Nightshade to solve one last case.

The Real McCoy:
Whereas Ace finds it grim, the Doctor considers the North characterful. The TARDIS food dispenser is all very well but sometimes you can’t beat a good British cuppa. The Doctor is starting to think that he is a selfish old Time Lord that is keeping Ace from better things, an ironic statement given what is about to happen in their lives. There’s not a day that passes where he doesn’t think of Susan. He’s in a wistful mood, thinking about settling down and retiring. Just for a few centuries, somewhere away from death. He calls his adventures ‘aimless wandering.’ Much like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in his first season, he questions whether he is a good force. It’s great to hear the usually sanctimonious and heartless NA 7th Doctor questioning whether he has the right to interfere as much as he has been. It’s Ace that snaps him out of that thinking, and it’s Ace who will condemning him for those faults in the not too distant future. He generally describes Gallifrey as a dreary hole. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare but its hearts are in the right places. How strange to hear the Doctor saying there is nothing he can do to help…could it be that he really means it when he suggests he’s ready to put down roots and stop meddling? He can’t quite help himself when a body presents itself. He’s terribly irritable at times, unusually so with Ace. He’s a scientist, philanthropist, explorer and general do-gooder. Waltzing in and telling people what to do is the story of his life. He’s furious when Ace comes blundering in with her nitro nine just as he was beginning to understand the creature they are facing. The Doctor agonises about getting involved again, about letting people down and getting them killed. There is a real feeling of the universe weighing heavily on him at the moment, almost as if he knows the momentous and out of character role he is going to be forced to play as Times Champion. It’s gorgeous listening to McCoy playing the ‘one day I will come back’ scene from The Dalek Invasion of Earth. He can’t seem to tear himself away from being the Doctor. He helps people, that’s what he does.

Oh Wicked: It’s interesting that they chose to adapt Nightshade because it marked the beginning of the end of the Ace that we recognise from the TV series before Love & War drove a huge wedge between her and the Doctor that never truly healed. Beyond the opening four Timewyrm books, this is probably the closest you can get to the Ace from the Big Finish audios normally. That’s because Mark Gatiss had no real interest in the ‘adult’ innovations that were occurring in the novels at the time, he just wanted to tell a damn good Doctor Who story. She thinks of the Doctor as her mentor, someone who is helping her to grow. She doesn’t mention the very strange way he goes about it. Discuss it with a therapist, love, they might say it is emotional torture rather than education. When you see that kind of treatment as cruel to be kind you have question the sort of bloke that Ace will end up with. She has to believe in the Doctor otherwise there is no point in going on. Like those Agatha Christie adaptations on television, the decision is made to remove the original ending of Nightshade and replace it with a much happier one where Ace leaves the Doctor to stay with Robin. It’s well set up, well written and well played. It’s entirely wrong when you try and fit it into NA continuity (or even if you want to listen to these adaptations in order) but as a statement of Ace’s growing maturity and the Doctor’s wiliness to let his friends go but continue travelling it is really nicely done. I never thought I would say this but I was rather touched by the idea of Ace leaving (something I have been asking for for ages!), and how maturely they both handled it. Sophie Aldred gets to really show how far Ace has come.

Standout Performance: A round of applause for Samuel Barnett, who has received plaudits for his work for Big Finish elsewhere and made a name for himself front lining the short lived by unforgettably bizarre Dirk Gently series in America. He’s fantastic as Robin, very different from Ace’s other squeezes (James Redmond’s Jan and John Dorney’s Henry) and yet shares natural chemistry with Sophie Aldred. He’s one of those characters that you could describe as sweet and down to earth but without the irritation and blandness that can come with those descriptions. Probably a little too safe ultimately for Ace, but for a while I was convinced this might actually work. And with only two hours to tell this story, that is mostly down to the actors.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Soon the people of this village are going to know fear…’ – listen to how McCoy says that line. Sometimes he can really get under my skin.
‘Sonic screwdriver! It screws things. Sonically.’

Great Ideas: I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts of Nightshade that were scattered throughout the story. They are lovingly created to capture the feel of those old pulp classics like the early Quartermass serials. At first I was wondering why on earth the story was opening on such dated and bombastic music but everything was soon made very clear. A being of incalculable age that the Earth may have formed around. Running through the planet, like a virus feeding off energy. It can’t feed directly and so it latches onto memory. Emotion makes the ghost creatures come to life. Just because it is torturing people, it doesn’t mean it isn’t just trying to survive like the rest of us. It’s just that it’s method or living and ours isn’t mutually compatible.

Musical Cues: An authentic season 27 score (can I say that?), Blair Mowat realises the best of the music from the late eighties (the emotion and excitement of scores like Greatest Show and Fenric) whilst completely avoiding the techno horror of other stories (the disco friendly McCulloch scores).

Isn’t it Odd: I can understand why people grew a little weary of listening to this one if they are used to the more robustly plotted nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who that Big Finish usually delivers. I reached the 30-minute mark and little had happened in terms of plotting. It’s very much a case of setting up the location, introducing the characters giving the limelight to the Doctor and Ace. In terms of events occurring there is little beyond someone watching telly and friends eating a fry up. In the novel the way that people’s memories were twisted and made black was quite graphic and disturbing, especially since we had gotten close to the guest cast and understood why the reappearance of those people were so torturous. It was what they wanted more than anything, and it was being used against them. In the audio we have barely begun getting to know the same people and whilst the visitations are still realised in a creepy way, they have none of the impact. I’m not sure we needed the hope in the TARDIS in the coda to explain away the fate of the creature. It’s gone, that’s enough. It’s a whole bunch of technobabble of the sort that the show really wasn’t interested in in the late eighties.

Standout Scene: It’s a long time coming to reach a moment of real terror, but by golly that cliff-hanger is worth waiting for. Those screams. It’s a shame that Carole Ann Ford is advertised on the cover because her involvement would have been a complete surprise to those who haven’t read the book. It’s one of the best scenes in the book, Susan’s surprise re-appearance, and it proves to be the case in the audio too. Torturing the Doctor with the regret of leaving his granddaughter. Sylvester McCoy unleashes a relentless anger at the climax and is quite brilliant. Who knew he had it in him?

Nightshade felt like the most truncated adaptation of all for me, so it loses points for gutting the novel of some of its more emotional moments but at the same time it felt exactly how the series might have done had it entered a 27th season, continuing the more down to earth feel of the previous season. So, it gains points for that. It was certainly far more involving and authentic the Lost Stories 27th season and I think that came down to Sylvester and Sophie and the director. What is it about these adaptations that they bring the most convincing and mature performances out of the regulars, in a way that the main range only very occasionally does? Is it that Sylv and Soph understand the importance of these novels to the fans and give it a bit of extra welly? The secondary characters lose much of their empathy and starkness in this version of the story, but the Doctor and Ace are superbly characterised throughout. What’s interesting is that even though the supporting characters like Robin and Edmund pale compared to their print counterparts, they are still a cut above what we would normally get in the main range these days. And the guest cast is excellent, doing some sterling work, especially in the second episode. I’m not sure if it is because some of the work is done for the person adapting the script already but there is an atmosphere to even the weakest of these NA adaptations and an excitement to hearing them brought to life. Scott Handcock has got a tricky script to bring to life here, one which has had a lot of the emotional power of the book excised and yet he goes for broke with his direction anyway, and the whole piece is dripping with an atmosphere of regret and remorse. It’s tangible. I really enjoyed the Ace/Robin pairing and don’t really have a strong opinion about the altered ending. I’m not sufficiently invested in the NAs to consider this sacrilege. I’m sure there’s a really good Big Finish audio out there waiting to be told about a Doctor Who actor who is dragged into a Doctor Who style plot and having to face Doctor Who style villains. That’s essentially what happens to Nightshade here. Although I suppose that idea was perfected in Galaxy Quest. Nightshade was far more interested in being a Doctor Who story than an NA, and usually I would say that is a good thing but having to structure this to fit in a recognisable Doctor Who narrative loses the fact that so much of the original novel was character driven. And ultimately there isn’t much plot, but there’s plenty of atmosphere and I was carried by the mood and the central performances quite a long way towards enjoyment: 7/10