Tuesday, 30 April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 April 2019

Gallifrey Time War 2: Collateral written by Lisa McMullin and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: As the scavenging Sythes descend on Ysalus, Narvin discovers how far his people will go to protect their interests. The universe is discovering that no place is safe from the fury of battle. Every victory in the Time War comes at a price, and too often it is the innocent who will pay…

Madame President: ‘You must see that this act is utterly reprehensible!’ We’ve heard Romana at the edge of sanity before with the ridiculous actions that her people have committed but this is the first time that she has been truly trapped beyond the ability to act, railing as outrageous, genocidal acts are being rained down on worlds. She’s completely impotent and if she shows signs of resistance then good ness knows what fate would befall her. She has to stand back and watch a world that she has a grudging respect for transforms into something morally ugly, fascistic and unrecognisable. That’s a great dramatic standpoint for the character. The Doctor and Romana once had dinner with Albert Einstein…let’s let that sink in for a moment. Romana tries to save some people on Ysalus, when it becomes clear that she cannot save the planet. Is that something else that she picked up from the Doctor when they made excursions into history?

Rassilon: Terrance Hardiman made an instant impression in the first story of this set but has been pretty quiet in the first half, his influence spreading and his presence felt but not experienced. He considers a world where its people have no desire for peace is one that needs putting out of its misery. The fact that that world is of strategic importance to the Daleks barely gets a mention. Perhaps he enjoys playing God just because he can. How far is Rassilon willing to go to stop the Daleks? It’s a pertinent question and I’m pleased that Romana says it out loud.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It is not a decision that should have been taken at all!’ Am I the only person who comes over all wibbly when Lalla Ward gets bossy?
‘Start at the beginning…’ ‘Said a Lord of Time? How disappointing.’
‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe.’
‘If we are to save anyone, we cannot save everyone!’
‘This is Co-ordinator Romanadvoratrelundar’ ‘Easy for you to say…’
‘Save the flirting until after Armageddon!’ Always good advice.
‘To destroy it at the point of genesis? That is something new and terrible!’
‘The planet will cease to exist 47, 000, 000 years ago.’
‘Where are you going?’ ‘To tell a 100,000 frightened children that they are about to have never been born.’

Great Ideas: The time breach on Ysalus has been breached. A race is planning an invasion of that world to harvest the mineral stream, enough to fuel an invasion of half the temporal vectors. The Daleks need this fuel to oil their war machines. The plan is to use a chronium blast to fire a hole through the core of Ysalus, reducing the planets gravitational field. Will this course of action reduce the number of enemies that Gallifrey faces…or make them more? It’s the ultimate gesture of power; a hostile world combusting and an invading species sent screaming in space. The Time Lords have the power to remove planets from actuality, to delete them from existence. Now forgive me but if there were such things as the Guardians in the universe I think they should be putting an end to that sort of thing. Nobody should have that kind of power. Rassilon wants to remove Ysalus from time and space at the very moment of its origin.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s bizarre because we don’t set foot on Ysalus in the first half of Collateral and yet the situation feels more urgent and emotional than when actually visited in the previous story. I think that’s because of Romana’s increased presence (Lalla Ward can make anything sound suitably apocalyptic) but also because we are up close and personal to the Gallifreyan officials who are making these decisions and can see just how badly the tide is turning morally as they do.

Standout Scene: It’s interesting to learn that the only reason the Daleks are looking for mineral seams on other worlds to fuel their time travel is because the Time Lords torched their oil fields? I swear if you look back far enough and you can see that the Time Lords are the instigators of every devastating act in the universe. It makes that scene in The Ultimate Foe all the more powerful. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt. It’s fascinating when Eris points out the primary mission of the Time Lords is the preservation of history, past and future. Those days are long past mate, aside from some honourable exceptions such as yourself. When it transpires that the Daleks were never a threat here but this entire escapade on Ysalus has just been a grand gesture of strength on the part of Rassilon…well it’s clear that he has complete lost control of his senses.

Result: ‘Rassilon is going to destroy a planet at its genesis! Void all the people who were ever born and whoever will be born for the spectacle of it? This isn’t War! This is genocide by superiority complex!’ Where has Lisa McMullin been hiding? She has an excellent grasp of quotable dialogue and she recognises how to suggest the temporal stakes have been raised without resorting to hysterics, which has tripped up many a Gallifrey writer. ‘Where is the line that we will not cross?’ is the premise of this story, one that pleasingly gives Lalla Ward some smashing chances to rail against the Time Lords and drive home the calamity of the situation. I love the scattershot plotting that Gallifrey excels at which shows Romana reacting against her attempts to evacuate Ysalus before she has a chance to set that plan in motion. Everything feels heightened and fraught but it never descends to the angst or hysterics of the more amateurish Big Finish stories. After two relatively cold and clinical pieces its nice that a writer goes for the jugular and the heart with a story that shows people being truly affected by what is happening. Without that personal connection there is a troubling distance between the epic storytelling and audience. Needless to say the veil is drawn away from Rassilon’s schemes and it has become clear that the greatest threat comes from Gallifrey itself and not the Daleks. The Doctor revealed as such in The End of Time, that things had gone too far and that they had gone to extreme lengths to save themselves. Seeing this happen through Romana’s eyes is quite something and few people blaze as brightly when they are pushing against tyranny than Lalla Ward. I was genuinely very impressed with this instalment and I’m sad that it has taken three hours to get to something as vivid as this. Surely the premise of Romana versus Rassilon is enough to whet the appetite of anybody? I can’t see this ending well for her…: 9/10

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Partisans written by Una McCormack and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When the world of Ysalus becomes a strategic target for the Time Lords and their opponents, Gallifrey takes an interest in the planet’s civil unrest. But the CIA and the War Council each have their own strategy. And, as good intentions only make things worse, the true horror of the Time War will be visited upon the people of Ysalus.

Madame President: There’s a delightful chemistry between Romana and Narvin these days that is borne of years of tension, rivalry and now friendship. He’s gone from the person that she cannot trust at all to the only person she can trust completely. That’s some fair development between two characters regardless of how long they have been working side by side. I like how she can gently mock him for his cynicism and age, whilst still entrusting him to have taken all the paranoid precautions he is famous for. If Romana is the Doctor then Narvin is her ultimate companion, even more so than Leela. She likes to try new blood for field work because some senior officials are getting a bit too long in the tooth for it (yeah, Narvin). She believes that they can win the war without destroying everything in their path and becoming like the people they despise.

Narvin: How wonderful to have Narvin, the seasoned (let’s not say old) CIA agent partnered with a young wanabe with no experience of field work whatsoever. He’s appalled at the idea that Eris might take notes on their mission. It’s a great story for Sean Carlsen, this. I loved the scene where he gets to express his shock at how far the Time Lords would go to win the war (let’s not forget that Narvin himself would have been delivering these sort of bombshells in the first few series of Gallifrey) and then his panic as a fellow Time Lord is shot to death over and over and then how he has to try and reason with a primitive mind and explain the concept of the Time War and Gallifrey to her to save his own life. It’s a script that gives Carlsen a lot to play with and he is more than up to the challenge.

Standout Performance: ‘We’re all working towards the same goal to ensure the right-side wins…’
‘And the deaths of several million people are considered acceptable collateral?’ ‘Yes, given the wider context…’

Great Ideas: Romana is afraid of intervention in the timeline on Ysalus. One day it will be of considerable strategic importance but in the time zone that they are visiting it is of no importance to anyone. Someone is meddling in its history. The planet is in the middle of a major war, the worlds first major global conflict. On one side a bunch of rather nasty ideological puritans and on the other side another nasty bunch of xenophobic imperialists. The collapse of these sides leads to a global government committed to pacifism and the exploration of space. If life ends on Ysalus instead the way is open for the Daleks to take the planet and all its resources. It has an abundant supply of a mineral oil that is rare that the Daleks need for their form of time travel. CIA have been collecting information of the planet for some time now and its time for Narvin and Eris to push the planet (and the War) in their direction and to help history take its rightful course. Have the War Council been raising Brax’s shelves or did he take more with him than Romana suspected? Would the Time Lords end all life on a planet just to aid the war effort? Do I need to even answer that question? The idea is to make the Daleks think that their own interventions on Ysalus have been a success, wait for them to turn up in the future and wipe them out. Typical Time Lord plotting, over complicated and dizzying. A temporal freeze can pause a whole world in a moment of time, caught in a moment before history changes for the worst. The people survive but don’t exist, not until they are unfrozen after the Time Lords have made the alterations they choose.

Isn’t it Odd: The trade off to losing Leela, Brax and Ace from the series means that a series of newbies step into the fray and bolster the numbers and the comparison between the two is not in their favour. It’s not that the performances are terrible or that the new characters aren’t well defined (to be honest it’s a little hard to tell at this point) but just that a cast list that includes Louise Jameson, Miles Richardson and Sophie Aldred (okay maybe not that last one) is packed with talent, colour and shade. This new bunch are just starting out and are nowhere near as rounded or interesting. I figured there would be a twist in the tale somewhere. This story has several and the least impressive is the idea that the fascist organisation that Narvin thinks are trying to destroy the other side are actually the benevolent faction. For a story that is written in such an intelligent way that really is an obvious twist.

Standout Scene: I was quite surprised when the story dared to have a character shoot a Time Lord over and over, running through their lives. It comes to a point where the villain of the story is begging for their final life. It’s the most shocking moment in the story, and it’s treated as a throwaway moment in the grand scheme of the story. It quite turned my stomach. The ending is…ambiguous. It’s either audacious to refuse the listener a coherent conclusion. I can’t help but think that this will be picked up before the end of the set so I will defer judgement until then.

Result: ‘We are fighting for the whole of Time!’ Your opinion of Partisans will depend entirely on whether you prefer the story set on Gallifrey that deal with political machinations or the stories set off world with all kinds of temporal jiggery pokery. If it’s the latter, you’re in luck but if it’s the former you might feel like the promise of the first instalment of this et made false promises. We have never really had a story like this before, where the stakes are so high that our heroes have to head to a world and interfere with its political development to ensure that in the future it won’t be a stepping stone for the Daleks in their aim to bring down Gallifrey. It’s a huge concept but it’s brought down to a comprehensible level thanks to an informative briefing by Romana and some enjoyable interplay between Narvin and Eris, the old hand and the new boy. Add in a presence from the new fascist Gallifrey to oppose their mission and turn the planet to a more sinister purpose and you have a delicious premise for a story. I was unconvinced by the situation presented on Ysalus because in classic Doctor Who style (or should that be in economic audio style) it is reduced to a few speaking characters trying to suggest an epic conflict happening elsewhere out of sight (hearing). However, the suggestion that the planet could be pulled in one of three ways; Romana’s hope for a peaceful future, the Time Lords hope for a strategic post or the Daleks’ mining facility for their time travel exploitations means that there is an underlying tension to the story regardless. Una McCormack has written an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one. I respected the writing, appreciated the performances but I didn’t really feel anything because this is all realised conceptually. That’s an interesting approach, an experimental one and it does suggest the enormity of what is happening in the wider universe. Ysalus is a world that is talked about in great detail but experienced in scant moments. Sean Carlsen excels: 7/10

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Gallifrey Time War 2: Havoc written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Rassilon has returned – summoned back from the dead, to lead his people through their greatest crisis.  But the Time Lords will reap what they have sown, and the consequences of this resurrection will determine Gallifrey’s fate. And in among the schemes and strategies of war, Romana and Narvin are losing friends and allies, as they become ever more isolated… In the aftermath of Rassilon’s return, Romana finds herself at the heart of the War Council’s machinations, with the High Council, the CIA, and the Lord President’s new security force all vying for control. But then, a mysterious stranger arrives in the Capitol itself. And they bring a terrible warning from the future…

Lady President: Why, when she has repeatedly done everything in her power to save Gallifrey, at times at the potential cost of her own life, is Romana’s integrity still being called into question? You can understand completely why the Doctor wanted to get away from this infernal planet and why Romana (once she had been corrupted by the Doctor’s way of life) didn’t want to return. Romana is hired as the Co-ordinator of the CIA, a role she never sought. Most of Romana’s family were what humans would call bohemian types. This isn’t the first time she has encountered Rassilon and she knows exactly what he is capable of. Romana talks about resisting Rassilon and fighting the future. But we know that that doesn’t happen. We know where this ends. Does that mean the ultimate path of the Gallifrey audio series is to watch Romana’s downfall?

Narvin: When Romana shows such affection for Narvin, it reminds me of how far they come. Narvin admits that they have been doing this for a long time now (let’s not even get started on how long Carlsen has been playing in this series) and that he is so tired. You can understand. Gallifrey seems to lurch from one terrible crisis to the next. If it isn’t Pandora, it’s alternative universes or the Daleks or bonkers Romana’s from the future with portents of doom. There’s always something. His father was an engineer and his life was unspeakably dull. Sometimes Narvin wishes he had followed in his footsteps.

Standout Performance: Kudos for the inclusion of Lucy Robinson, whose Mayoress Chrissy Wickham from The Thin Blue Line still makes me grin from ear to ear.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Something ancient has returned and it echoes through the citadel like a cloister bell…’
‘If we become a tyranny how are we any better than the Daleks?’
‘All is lost. Our world is coming to an end and we have no way out’ – an ominous warning from the future.

Great Ideas: The bravest thing that could be done to the Gallifrey is to strip it bare of all the things that make it so popular and see if it can stand on its own legs without old favourites Braxiatel, Leela and Ace propping it up. Produce Scott Handcock was very courageous to start excising all of these crowd pleasers (in the most memorable and exciting of ways) in the first Gallifrey Time War set but it has the left the series without a core cast of characters to lean on and thus we enter the second set with only Romana and Narvin and growing sense of dread at the ever encroaching Time War to guide us. I think it is rather exciting, although I wouldn’t want the status quo to be shaken up forever. The destiny of Gallifrey was to maintain order in the universe rather than messing around in its sewers warring against mechanised vermin and squabbling amongst themselves like children. Rassilon is aware that previous allies of Gallifrey have turned their backs on them in their hour of need and this something he won’t let pass. He wants to invade those worlds and use them as pawns in this ghastly temporal war. I suppose the idea of ghosts from the future heading back to avert some terrible catastrophe first cropped up in Day of the Daleks but really all of the Doctor’s historical adventures were in this vein. When somebody travels the ebb and flow of the Time War to warn Gallifrey of it’s future, that’s possibly the most extreme interpretation of that idea. The Chancellery Guard is to be absolved and its guards sent amongst the existing agencies. The Drylands precedent is an archaic law that grants the Lord President the opportunity to create a militia. Even the War Council are starting to feel like a means to an end.

Audio Landscape: The previous set took place on a myriad of locations and felt especially atmospheric in its direction. This in contrast feels like a stripped back Gallifrey with minimal sound effects and music. The result is the focus is on the script and the actors, a sensible move in this new shakeup.

Standout Scene: Once Trave is revealed, his death is certain. Rassilon reacts like a frightened child, ordering his execution rather than investigating his crime. Trave knows about the War, about Rassilon and what he will do to Gallifrey.

Result: ‘From this day forth, all worlds that do not declare themselves allies of Gallifrey are enemies of Gallifrey!’ The question on everybody’s lips is what happens to Gallifrey if the odds are tipped against it in such an extreme way? To survive the Time War what do they have to become? And does Romana’s free spirit vision for home world hold any weight in climate of warfare? Havoc is a slow burn story that takes quite a while to get going but when it does the implications it highlights are dramatic and far reaching. The problem is this series settling down after a major reshuffle in the previous set and at first I was adjusting to a Gallifrey without all the staple characters I have come to expect. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a delight to listen to Lalla Ward and Sean Carlsen, but the absence of Louise Jameson and Miles Richardson is uncanny. That’s good, it should be, times are dangerous and the last thing Gallifrey should be doing in this climate is resting on its laurels and playing it safe. I’ve read criticisms that the Time War is a creative cul-de-sac for Big Finish and it is something I have levelled at the company in certain cases (mostly the eighth Doctor range). However, if there was ever one avenue to explore the possibilities of the war to end all wars then the planet that was at the centre of the conflict is certainly a viable option. With so much Time War merchandise being delivered from Big Finish it makes this just another in a long line of stories to handle the theme where I feel giving it exclusivity would add to its lustre and make it feel less of a tired setting. By suggesting that nobody should fill in the gaps of what happened on Gallifrey between the end if the classic series and beginning of the new is absurd, and even with the endgame on screen for everybody to see in Day of the Doctor there is still plenty of dramatic leverage in seeing how we got there. There’s a feeling of The Invasion of Time about this opening instalment, that Gallifrey is adjusting to a war footing and that the wrong people are in power and those that put them there are paying the price for their misjudgement. Terrance Hardiman makes an instant impression, although he doesn’t really feature until the end of the story. Rassilon is a tricky character to take on (even Donald Sumpter tripped up and the less said about Don Warrington the better) but Hardiman earns his stripes by playing the part as though nobody else’s opinion has any relevance. He attacks it with unquestionable authority and that makes him a rather terrifying prospect. The mystery of who the temporal figure is far more interesting than who it turns out to be but again the suggestion of why he has travelled back is enticing. I’m heading into this set with guarded optimism. I trust Scott Handcock a great deal, I trust this cast and I trust Gallifrey to provide consistent entertainment. Perhaps the range should be rebranded with a new fascistic logo for Gallifrey: 7/10

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Odds Against written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor, Liv and Helen have landed near an abbey housing the gateway to the dimension in which the Ravenous were originally imprisoned. But their plans to enlist the inhabitants’ help in defeating their pursuers are disrupted when they stumble over a dead body. Strange creatures roam the corridors and something monstrous may be awakening beneath their feet.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor doesn’t trust the Eleven but he does trust his fear and selfishness. They are the Eleven’s enemies’ enemies and that means they are uneasy allies for the time being. A formidable foe is the perfect ally. Is it just me or does everybody else enjoy it when the Doctor is in the dark about the alien race of the week, as he is here with the Ix? Or is that simply another clue to their ultimate identity? How very unlike the Doctor to admit that he has no idea what to do. Does he always leave it to the last second deliberately?

Liv Chenka: I think it is perfectly natural for Liv to be suspicious of the Elven when he has a bit of a turn in the TARDIS, especially given everything they have been through together so far. He’s hardly been what you would call an ally. Why is it always her who stumbles on the surprise villains?

Helen Sinclair: I feel Helen has been a little neglected in the past four stories, often falling into obscurity next to Liv. Perhaps it is because she had such a strong showing in Ravenous 2. It’s worth remembering your characters in the midst of all these temporal shenanigans.

The Eleven: Imagine this. I have been a new relationship for nine months and have introduced my partner to the wonders of NuWho, which he lapped up all 11 seasons in about three months. I’ve always listened to the audios with earphones in and for once I decided to review a story with the speakers on whilst he pottered about the house. He had never experienced a Doctor Who audio before and this was an interesting first reaction. Everytime…and I do mean everytime the Elven opened his mouth in any incarnation, Ludo laughed his head off. He was astonished that anybody was given the greenlight to play a part in such a pantomimic fashion. And that is my problem with the Eleven. The idea behind the character is a fascinating one but the execution has been an abysmal failure, at least in this household. I can’t take him seriously as a villain or an ally. He’s a great big cartoon character who has been given too much importance and over exposure. When you study how many appearances he has had he hasn’t been as omnipresent as you might think but if a character isn’t working for you over ten appearances is nine too many. The Elven is quite appalled that with all the knowledge he has about the Ravenous at his disposal that all he has done is set a trap for the Doctor. He’s only been working with the Doctor through fear of the Ravenous but now he knows better it is time to step out of the shadows.

Standout Performance:
John Heffernan. More please. Can’t he join the crew instead of the Eleven?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Surrender humans! Death is certain!’ ‘That’s a statistical inevitability at least, thanks for reminding us.’
‘If you’re planning on killing us, just kill us! Don’t send out warnings in advance.’
‘My my what a handsome devil…’ ‘Shut up Nine!’
‘These temporal mash ups are always hard to remember’ – that’s covering it with a line!

Great Ideas: It’s a fascinating question that has been raised before in Doctor Who (The Two Doctors, but in a very different way) but never explored in any great depth. If you have various incarnations and something catastrophic happens to one of the earlier ones and you are following the adventures of one of the later ones…what happens to them? Do they wink out of existence? Do they feel the echoes of that event down the regenerations? The Ix only exists in their abbey, they are the children of the breach. It brought them there, keeps them alive, they feed on it and through the Time Lords they control it. The Abbey, the forcefield generators and the robotic servitors were provided by the Time Lords. They sit atop the dimension rift, guarding the gap between realities. They control the point where two realities meet, a room where either side of which is the dimension beyond. They manage the ebb and flow between the two with the aid of the Lock. They can sweep the contents of either universe straight into the other, which is what happened to the Ravenous. It was pleasant that the Nine was rewarded for his selfish act at the climax.

Audio Landscape: Did I hear the sound of the 70s TARDIS scanner opening instead of the spangly TV Movie one? Is the TARDIS feeling nostalgic? Best robot voice of all time. Very retro. Given that they are supposed to be stitches in time, the sound like the aural equivalent of nails down a blackboard. So that’s either a very effective interpretation or a painful listening experience, depending on your point of view.

Isn’t it Odd: Where the Ravenous a little difficult to hear in the opening scene? 12 hours to build up the biggest threat ever to the Time Lords…and they are barely audible? The Nine is terrific fun, far more enjoyable to spend time with than the Elven and so the idea of his demise in the pre-titles sequence does not please me. The covers are strikingly unimaginative in this set. I’d say the first was the best but even that failed to give us a decent view of the Ravenous. The rest have been montages of the various actors that appear. Contrasting these with the main range leaves them decidedly in the dark (and it’s nice to be able to say that the main range is doing SOMETHING better). Tom Webster took care of the latest Mags trilogy and all three of those covers are very striking so I can only guess that they were going for a deliberately paired back look here.

Standout Scene:
I loved the reveal of who the Abbot really is, especially with who it is revealed to. Talk about timey wimey. There was a whopping great clue in there too, which I completely failed to spot.

‘Best we don’t forget the Ravenous…they are why we are here after all…’ says the Doctor at one point, a reminder from the main man of what this series is supposed to be about throughout all the distractions. Given that these boxsets tend to be as epic as possible, it’s rather enjoyable that at climax to the penultimate Ravenous set that the cast list is pared down to just the main characters. It has an economy to the storytelling and allows for the Doctor, Helen, Liv, the Elven and the Nine to interact more than usual. John Dorney has assembled a rather jolly plot too, one that seems to be going in a predictable direction and then pulls the rug out from underneath you. The scenes between the Nine and the Eleven were particularly fun…it’s probably the most timey wimey material you are going to listen that is not written by Steven Moffat and Jonathan Morris. There was some wonderfully clever wit in the dialogue in those scenes. Finally, we have a story that mixes the standalone (as this appears to be at the beginning) with the arc plot (a lot of the elements of the previous stories in this set come into play here) and a story that climaxes a box set on a positive note. That last point is something of a miracle because finishing on a high has been a real problem with these four-story sets for some considerable time. A shout out for Ken Bentley, who has been with Big Finish for many years now, and despite the uneven nature of the storytelling manages to realise this set with real energy and confidence. I have been a bit all over the place with my praise and criticism of Ravenous, but any series that has such a huge input from John Dorney is always going to be worthy of encouraging comment. This is all plot plot plot and if you like your Doctor Who emotionally charged you might feel a little short changed but I thought this was very well paced, and that it led to an appropriately furious climax. I really enjoyed this story, and this boxset as a whole: 8/10

Monday, 22 April 2019

Devil in the Mist written by Cavan Scott and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS deposits the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and their android ally Kamelion aboard a prison ship. A ship with just one prisoner: Nustanu, last warlord of the Zamglitti – monstrous, mind-bending mimics able to turn themselves into mist. A ship that's in trouble, and about to make a crash-landing... On a planet of mists.

An English Gentleman: Okay I’m going to say something that might stun you rigid because it is the anathema of my position when I first started reviews many moons ago. If you head over to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide and read up my astonishingly amateurish (and yet buzzing with enthusiasm) reviews from the fifth Doctor’s era you will find a 20 something fan who thinks he knows it all railing at how the show could have ever have cast such a bland actor in the role of the Doctor and saddle him with such an irritating harridan. I’m talking, of course, about the fifth Doctor and Tegan. It feels very strange to be writing this but here in the depths of the main range I have to admit that the Peter Davison and Janet Fielding team is now my favourite of the lot, certainly as far as the stories of the previous few years are concerned. I’m not taking back my position on their TV adventures, but what Big Finish have done is refined both characters (the fifth Doctor is much more experienced and authoritative these days and Tegan now has a sense of humour and a willingness to learn) and the relationship that has built between the actors spills into the stories with an alarming amount of enjoyment. It feels like they belong together, the tension between them is amusing rather than tiring and she often gets to puncture his pomposity with hilarious results. Long may they continue in this vein. The Doctor let’s all kinds of waifs and strays into the TARDIS but given one of his latest companions allied himself with The Black Guardian and the other with the Master, you have to wonder if this incarnation of the Doctor isn’t a little too much of a bleeding heart to his detriment. He’s astonished to learn that the TARDIS has external sensors. It’s important to remember that the Doctor is just making it up as he goes along. He warns that he might regenerate because of the extent of the damage to his body. When the Doctor says about getting back to the ‘old girl’ for a second I wondered if he was referring to Tegan. I love the grace with which the Doctor accepts his potential physical disability. It’s a wonderfully positive message for those who cannot walk for him to accept that this is just a different way of living your life. I’m not sure how he is going to deal with all those corridors at speed though. He goes from place to place trying to make the universe a better place and when he needs some help the universe says no. Tegan just doesn't think that is fair.

Mouth on Legs: Early into this story and Tegan says ‘I’m sorry’ to Turlough, proof conclusive that this is not the same woman who appeared with him on TV. The very idea. Now Kamelion has joined the TARDIS she has somebody else to be suspicious of instead of Turlough. Given that he was working for the Master, she suspects he may murder them all in their sleep. Didn’t Tegan and Turlough meet a Bovine race in the comic strip? Along with the woodlouse inspired Tractators this was certainly a ‘talking animal’ friendly period of the show. ‘Is she always like this?’ somebody asks. A question Tegan must be used to hearing. She doesn’t like snakes, which is especially unfortunate for an Australian. It’s Tegan who asks the pertinent question of what is wrong with the wildlife on the planet.

Over the Shoulder: He’s not as gobsmacked as Tegan at talking Hippos given one if his best friends went by that name. He’s not sure it is wise to apologise to Tegan when she is angry.

Kamelion: One of the biggest casualties of the era was in not seeing the potential in Kamelion, the robot that can turn into anything and anyone. Imagine a string of guest stars appearing in different stories in season 21 in the guise of Kamelion. It’s strikingly unimaginative to introduce such a character (that never really needed to be represented as the cumbersome robot) and shove him in a cupboard until his exit story. How very Big Finish to take up the challenge of challenging that decision and exposing the android’s potential. It’s important to remember that this isn’t Kamelion’s first TARDIS and so he has an intimate knowledge of how the systems are supposed to be (the Master’s) rather than the old rust bucket that he is stuck in (the Doctor’s). He patched himself into the TARDIS information files by means of the telepathic circuits which means he’s now a far more useful walking box of exposition than the Doctor ever could be. Much like the real robot, Kamelion malfunctions more often than he works, although to be fair he is put through the wringer here. Robotics and water don’t make a healthy mix (remember K.9 when he took a dip on Brighton beach?). There are some lovely scenes that are experienced from Kamelion’s point of view. After the Master’s influence was broken it was only natural that Kamelion would latch onto the next strongest personality in the vicinity. Kamelion suggests that he is a monster but the Doctor assures him he is not and in the TARDIS he is safe and at home. When his actions are his own, Kamelion is genuinely surprised.

Standout Performance: Jon Culshaw is a brilliant choice to bring Kamelion to life because not only is a he an authentic mimic but he’s also a great actor as well. He manages to blend both of those worlds together here to create a unique spin on the android, partly a mimic of Gerald Flood’s interpretation but still recognisably Culshaw. He’s been something of an ambassador for the show in its wilderness years, making us laugh until our sides hurt with his impressions of the classic Doctors on Dead Ringers and keeping the show in the public consciousness and so I’m pleased he’s finally been rewarded with a big role in the spin offs of a show he clearly adores. I might have groaned a little when I heard Kamelion was being dusted off for this trilogy (I think I might be getting a little cynical as I approach 40) but as soon as I heard about Culshaw’s involvement I knew everything was going to be alright. He’s rather sweet in the final episode when Kamelion is crestfallen at his actions. He reminded of D84 in Robots of Death, a very touching turn by a robot.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Last one to the TARDIS washes Turlough’s socks!’
‘The snakes will just have to hiss off!’

Great Ideas: As a way of splitting up this top-heavy TARDIS crew and giving them a chance to explore their relationships, I thought splitting the ship in two during a crash (as a defence procedure) was a really inspired idea. Even if it is very similar to the climax of The Burning Prince episode one.

Audio Landscape: Listen to that damage as the ship crashes into the planet. It’s an audio tour de force as the ship splits in two and embeds itself into the carcass of a new world. The jungle planet (complete with river and wildlife) is conjured up with real atmosphere. By story’s end you might feel as if you have visited this unnamed planet too. I found myself trying to come up for air during the river sequence.

Isn’t it Odd: It is interesting that JNT wanted rid of K.9 because he made things far too easy for the Doctor on the travels (he seemed to know everything about everything plus he could bite when provoked) and yet a few years later chose to introduce Kamelion who essentially would fulfil the same function? It feels very strange to see Cavan Scott’s name on a release without Mark Wright. Has their partnership come to an end or is this just one of those occasions where one writer wasn’t available? It’s a shame that Kamelion is found to be under the control of a nefarious element in his first story in decades, rather than use him in an original way it is the case that he is the ultimate puppet of whatever despot they happen to encounter. I would rather see the creative ways that a shapeshifting companion can be utilised than him turning coat at every opportunity. Makes him no more use than Adric.

‘Why does everything on this planet want to kill us?’ Some of the best Ken Bentley direction in years, Devil in the Mist is an immersive audio that really puts you in the companions shoes in this survival tale. The plot is slight but this is more the sort of story that you enjoy in a moment by moment basis, with each danger conjured up with frightening authenticity. It’s a good character tale too and in a range that seems to have forgotten that that is an important element of a Doctor Who story (especially on audio where we need as much substance as possible to compensate for the lack of visuals). It feels like the ‘welcome to the TARDIS’ tale that we were denied on television for Kamelion and gives the android a chance to show what he was capable of and to give the crew (specifically Tegan) a chance to rest her fears about The Master’s latest weapon of choice against the Doctor. It has nice, short episodes that feel well paced and the plot (thin though it is) drops enough curveballs to keep you interested until the climax. Admittedly the first episode is by far the best but I would happily take an amiable audio without much of a narrative than some of duller stories of recent years that have too much story that simply isn’t very interesting. I can’t imagine this being anybody’s favourite main range release, but I had fun with it and thoroughly enjoyed the use of all four regulars. Turlough hasn’t been utilised for years and Kamelion gives this a very novel feel, Tegan continues to make very good sense and the Doctor faces a potential disability that brings out the best in him. A nice start to the trilogy: 7/10

Sunday, 21 April 2019

L.E.G.E.N.D. written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Over years of study and research, the Brothers Grimm built a compendium of folklore: stories of witches and wizards, magic and morality, strange creatures and treacherous forests…  Professor Marathanga does much the same, on a universal scale. But her methods are rather less rigorous, using technological shortcuts to fill her intelligent database – L.E.G.E.N.D.  When worlds collide, the TARDIS crew discover that fairy tales can become real. And the Doctor’s latest companion is put to the test. Will the Eleven be an asset, or one more monster to defeat?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Paul McGann tries to inject some life into proceedings, sometimes a little too enthusiastically given the story isn’t working half as hard to keep us interested.

Liv Chenka: If it were up to Live the Eleven would be tied up and locked in a cupboard. Don’t get her made. When asked to imagine meeting one of the people who inspire her she embarrasses Helen by saying that she does.

Helen Sinclair: Here’s a chance for Helen to wax lyrical about something and for Liv to be in the dark, this time about the Brothers Grimm. Not just the fairy tales that have made them so famous but their other work too; lexicology and linguistics, the things that Helen admires above all else. The Doctor says that he could wake up Helen with one of the conventions of a fairy-tale such as kissing her.

The Eleven:
Think Missy in series 10, the Eleven is less of a grandstanding villain these days and more of a disturbed anti-hero who has teamed up with the Doctor and chums for his own unknown motives. I guess when the going gets tough and the stakes are higher than you can manager, to pal up with your former enemy of some repute is always a smart move. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Eleven and I’ve hardly been quiet about it either but this is a much better use of the character than as a Master like supervillain. He always was a bit comic book and one note and this gives him the chance to show off some new facets. It’s usually pretty fun when a previous villain turns ‘good’ (think Scorpius in Farscape or Spike in Buffy). Liv doesn’t trust him, naturally, and the feeling is mutual.

Standout Performance: Tanya Moodie fails to make much of an impression of Marathanga but I feel a lot of her efforts are hampered by the irritating modulation they have put on her voice. It means there isn’t much chance for her to give a nuanced performance when every word that comes out of her characters mouth sounds like nails down a chalkboard.

Great Ideas:
Professor Marathanga amassed an enormous database of universal folklore drawn from many times and places drawn from an archive dedicated to the myths of Gallifrey. The Ravenous are officially listed as a clan of creatures that devour the lifeforms that exist on Gallifrey. The existence of the Times lords is open to speculation. L.E.G.E.N.D. has total control of the biomatter that flooded out of Marathanga’s ship. A powerful device that is being overwhelmed by a myriad of stories. It thinks it is creating the world in the way it should work, fuelled by the imagination of fairy tales.

Isn’t it Odd: There are two entirely unrelated storylines taking place in this story that seem as disparate as you can imagine for the longest of time. ‘I’m not an enchantress but I come from the future’ – you have got to give Hattie Morahan some credit for saying a line like that convincingly, but it’s the sort of line that would trip up any actress. When the climax comes down to ‘remove the plasma down to its constituent molecules…’ and you have a tale that trades creativity for technobabble.

Result: Far less focussed than the previous two stories and as such far less interesting to listen to. What happened to Matt Fitton’s sharp plotting of Deeptime Frontier? Here he’s plumped for two disparate storylines, one with an irritating comic book villain (unlike the previous story where that was supposed to be the case) and one with two much technobabble and not enough interplay between the Doctor and the Eleven. Helen and Liv and how Fitton characterises them is by far the best thing on display here but I question whether this is a story that really needs telling at this juncture. I remember the Doom Coalition set was really gearing up to its final set at this point but Ravenous is continuing its efforts to cram in as much standalone adventuring as possible. It wants to be a sci-fi adventure with fairy-tale trappings but we just had exactly that with the Salzburg tale in the previous set and there was no way it was going to best that (to put it bluntly Fitton is not as skilled a writer as Dorney) and comparisons were inevitable. I’m really struggling to take to the Ravenous sets as an interconnected whole because of the awkward structure of the arc which has led to the running story stopping and starting to allow standalone adventures to squeeze in between. There has been no chance to gather any momentum, or when they do in stories like Deepspace Frontier it is then put on hold for several tales before becoming relevant again at the end of the set. It's all very bizarre. There was an element of this in Doom Coalition too but that marathon felt far more like all the storytelling was heading in the same direction. However, I would like to point out that thus far I have scored Ravenous the following - 7, 8, 7, 5, 7, 9, 10, 4, 8, 9 – so regardless of whatever faults I might find in this series as a cohesive piece there have certainly been more than enough skill involved in the individual instalments. It just feels like this ‘season’ wants to have its cake and eat it, and it’s making a bit of a mess of it. I think the worst aspect of L.E.G.E.N.D. is that it has a premise that is really fun (mad computer makes fairy tales real) …and it, well, isn’t: 4/10

Friday, 19 April 2019

Companion Piece written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: When the evil Time Lord known as the Nine comes across a rare and valuable item floating in the space-time vortex, his acquisitive nature means he can’t resist the urge to complete the set. Soon a wicked scheme is underway. Only the Doctor’s friends – past, present and future – will be able to stop him. But without the Doctor around will even the combined skills of Liv, Helen, River Song, Bliss and Charley be enough to save the day?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Rather wonderfully the Doctor shows up to save the day expecting to find his companions locked up and in need of rescuing and instead finds they have already taken care of everything and are waiting for a lift. If that was the point of the story then it was a point well worth making.

Liv Chenka: Where Charley decides to accept the situation, Liv is as defiant as ever and always looking for ways to escape. Liv is the smart one, the one who figures out what River is doing and the one who gees everybody up to take a crack at escaping. There’s some heavy flirting between Liv and River in the last few scenes, which was unexpected but not unwelcome.

Edwardian Adventuress: Is it a delight to hear Charley back in the fold after all these years? You bet your ass it is. India Fisher sounds a little reserved at first (and I’m not surprised, she started off this whole audio adventure for the eighth Doctor and now she’s being dropped in the middle of somebody else’s series) but she’s soon back in full on pluck mode. Charley knows she is a time paradox and recognises a rogue Time Lord when she sees one. The gag about Charley switching cells between the eighth and sixth Doctor’s was a riot and I love the fact that she has no idea why. She realises that the Doctor doesn’t just need her, he needs all of them.

Hello Sweetie: It seems to be John Dorney’s intention that River is seen as mother of this little collective of companions, and that she speaks for them. That seems fair since she is the only person to have actually married the Doctor. Any friend of the Doctor’s is a friend of hers. She has a high tolerance to torture, but screams alarmingly when she’s in pain. River is a smart cookie and she’s responsible for bringing a specific number of the Doctor’s companions together with the skills to escape. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, River is so much more tolerable on audio out of the hands of her creator. The sexual angle is brought down to a less creepy level, she’s smart without showing off, witty without being smug. Alex Kingston is playing the same character but she feels so much more refined.

Bless Bliss: It’s a surprisingly merciful encounter with Bliss where she is merely unmemorable rather than actively annoying. She manages to hold her own amongst some strong personalities, which surprised me.

Standout Performance: When Frazer Hines, Katy Manning, Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward and Matthew Waterhouse turn up for one-line cameos I just knew this was going to be a whole barrel of fun. Matthew Heffernan is infuriating as the Nine but the point is he is supposed to be. I found myself alternating between finding him annoying and genuinely very funny so I think he got the mix just about right. His ‘you hang up’ scene with himself is delightful. Who on earth was the older female companion that I didn’t recognise? Looks like a hidden spoiler for the upcoming fourth Doctor schedules.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I find the whole chronology so confusing! How did you get out of E-Space again?’ asks the Nine of Romana II!
‘Like I always say…faking it’s a waste of time!’
‘They’re amazing all the time…this is just a drop in the ocean.’

Great Ideas: The Nine is never sure which is which between Helen and Liv, a complaint I remember making when they first started travelling together. In a glorious moment of meta continuity, the Nine mentions that he couldn’t have taken Adric out of time after he left the Doctor, at least not without a shovel. Well, I laughed. When talking to Charley he says he is in no hurry to pick up ‘that maniac’ and I think we all know who he means. Gloriously, River suggests that the Doctor’s companions are even more impressive because they survive these adventures without the ability to regenerate. She says they are the most impressive of collectives and putting a dozen of them all in one place is very foolish. If you conspire against the Nine he will order his drones to fire. If that means execution then so be it.

Isn’t it Odd: I could have done without the Nine’s cameo in the pre titles sequence because it would have been much more a surprise when the police box turned up to save Helen and Liv and the Nine emerged. It takes everyone quite a long time to figure out that the Bliss the Nine invades is from before she met the Doctor. Given that she doesn’t know who he is surely that’s a given. Oh wait, I just thought it could a Bliss from another dimension given how she was introduced in a whole bunch of Time War, timeline altering madness.

Standout Scene: Was that an appearance by Katarina in the climax? I love the fact that she has appeared so briefly in Doctor Who that in order for us to understand who she is her most memorable line has to be utilised.

Result: Fanwank of the highest order and a huge love letter to the companions of the Doctor; past, present and future. It’s extremely adept that so many classic Doctor Who companions should cameo and then the story focuses primarily on the eighth Doctor’s audio companions. Having Charley, Liv, Helen, River (and even) Bliss interacting and combining their talents to bring down the Nine is terrific fun. The last time I saw the companions of the Doctor spotlighted this well was in The Stolen Earth and whilst this doesn’t quite top that for sheer glorious wankery, in its own quieter way it is just as good. The Doctor is absent and I think with the advent of the companion heavy episodes like Blink and Turn Left, the box sets of Charley Pollard and River Song and extraordinary number of companions he has amassed over the years that the stories don't always have to be directly about the him. And for a show called Doctor Who that does show how much we’ve moved on. The supporting characters are more than strong enough in most respects (I'm sure we could all point out one or two companions that DON'T work for us). A big thumbs up for the Nine who was written in a deft and witty way here, loving his entanglement in Doctor Who history and having fun collecting companions as playthings. I hope he returns soon. What I really liked was the celebration of what it is to be a companion of the Doctor, the bravery of facing the danger without regeneration, confronting things that outside their sphere of understanding and remaining loyal to a man who has uprooted them from their normal lives. These guys are special and this is an hour dedicated to saying that. There are a number of Big Finish stories that are a chore to get through, this was a story that wanted to keep going: 9/10

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Deeptime Frontier written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Stranded on a desolate world by a dead TARDIS, the Doctor and his friends are trapped, surrounded by creatures from Time Lord nightmares – the Ravenous… Elsewhere, on the edge of the vortex, a Gallifreyan research station takes on board an extremely dangerous artefact. Are the Time Lords sowing the seeds of their own destruction? And if one Ravenous creature rattles the Doctor’s nerves, what will happen when the whole clan is hunting him?

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor’s own experiences of the circus haven’t reassured him that the Ravenous are safe because they look like sinister clowns, something that is supposed to be amusing. ‘I’d settle for any degree of kill’ says the Doctor, choosing an extreme method of dispatching the Ravenous here. I’m guessing that Time Lord race memory of these creatures is buried really deep and terrifies. He’s frightened, in a constant state of fight or flight. He disapproves of how the Time Lords used to strut around the cosmos like Gods. He can’t make mistakes like the ones on the Time Skiff when his friends’ lives are in danger. Even the good Time lords are burdened with that Time Lord arrogance.

Liv Chenka: Hooray for Liv who is now asking Time Lords upfront if they are evil to save the hassle of acting surprised later. She’s been at this Time travel lark long enough now to ahead of the game. She’s looking for escape routes as soon as the going gets tough. Man, she’s good, this one. Liv makes the (very accurate) observation that the Time lords don’t play at all well with others.

Helen Sinclair: Helen decides to stay with Liv when the Doctor heads off to draw the Ravenous off their scent. Am I reading too much into how much these two always want to stick together?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time Lords always manage to give the most terrifying things such pretty names.’
‘If you’re not absolutely certain you’re top of the food chain you have to watch your back.’
‘This universe will be our hunting ground again!’

Great Ideas: Deeptime Frontier begins with a sequence that is far more gripping than the entirety Seizure on the previous set, which a good sign. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing particularly novel going on here, Gallifreyan scientists on the edge of the vortex involved with dangerous artefacts have bitten off far more than they can chew. But it is presented in an excited, dynamic fashion all the same. There is a lovely cheat at the beginning where you think the Doctor and co are entering the story (even the music is in on this) and it turns out to be some Gallfreyan high official materialising on the research station. The station has been built next to a vortex fissure so they can mine dark chronons. There are an infinite mass of dark chronons in the vortex, an unlimited supply of raw TARDIS fuel. Essentially Gallifrey could overhaul its entire power system, but the old fossils in the High Council are resistant to change. The Matrix is always predicting doom and gloom and if anything were to happen to the Eye of Harmony, this would be a back up power source for the entire planet. Sounds great in theory. The Ravenous look uncannily like a circus clowns, the tradition evolved to look like them to try and neuter the fear and sublimate the deep race memory of the Ravenous. The Ravenous are a family, or rather and extended family that call themselves a clan. As usual with these epic length adventures they originate in the misty dawn of history, the Old Times of Gallifrey. The carried out monstrous attacks on the earliest Gallifrey pioneers and according to the Matrix they were trapped in a bubble dimension and lost in the vortex. Pact mentality was their strength: one is a threat, but more than one and they are truly terrifying. The Doctor casually mentions that old TARDIS are sent to a furnace that takes them apart atom by atom. Given that our TARDIS has always felt like a sentient piece of hardware that is something that makes me quite sad. Imagine a graveyard of dying TARDISes waiting to be put to death in the flames, one molecule at a time. The Ravenous have the ability to appear and disappear at will. There were atrocities on both sides of the Ravenous/Time Lord conflict. They weren’t just one family to begin with, the Timer Lords attempted to wipe them out but allowed one clan to survive, imprisoned to salve their collective consciousness. They have a bad habit of doing that sort of thing. Have you noticed? Time Skiff Alpha Nine was on Yalta Prime, an early colony that Gallifrey deigned to help. Rasillon planned to arrive in style and bring a new dawn of enlightenment to a primitive world. He ordered a Time Skiff to appear in the atmosphere, which was supposed to be an awe-inspiring display. The ship never arrived, only one week later, destroyed. The Ravenous never attacked they merely showed themselves to the Time Lords and this caused them to react in apoplectic fear, made mistakes, killed themselves. They are Ravenous but they can delay gratification if the banquet is worth waiting for. The mining project weakened the Ravenous prison enough for one to break free. It reached out doing what any starving wounded predator would do – it found easy prey.

Isn’t it Odd: Like Dark Eyes, like Doom Coalition, Ravenous is stretching back into Time Lord mythology to earn its stripes and make it seem as huge as possible. Haven’t we had enough of this sort of thing by now? What with the Time War spreading through Big Finish like a plague, so much of what they release that is Doctor Who related is tied up with the Time Lords and their multiverse spanning history. And it always seems that the eighth Doctor is tangled up in it.

Standout Scene: ‘What if they’re hiding in the very thing that you’re mining…?’ And with one line the Ravenous become a genuinely ominous, terrifying force. Once you learn that the Ravenous look like freaky clowns, it makes the taunting and the laughter much more menacing.

Result: ‘The Ravenous play with their food…’ Deeptime Frontier makes Seizure feel even less relevant because it is practically the same story being told but in a far more engaging manner. I really enjoyed the opening 15 minutes with the Doctor, Liv and Helen turning up unexpectedly in a typical Doctor Who setting (a research station in the vortex). Because of the nature of these 16-part epics, we don’t always get a sense of individual adventures and whilst I have some questions about just how loosely this arc is being told, it has been nice to enjoy some good old fashioned ‘episode one’ arrivals in the Ravenous series. I’ve been asking for information about the Ravenous for over eight hours of listening so it’s great that we’re finally given their backstory and a picture of their ugly mugs on the cover. To be honest we’re handed so much information here that you could practically begin your Ravenous experience here (although you would be denying yourself the gorgeous Christmas two parter from the previous set, a Big Finish highlight in recent years). Paul McGann throws himself into the role of a frightened Doctor with real panache, he’s not an actor who is afraid to take risks and he’s still backed up by one of the strongest set of Big Finish companions. I enjoyed how much of this was conveyed through the concepts and the performances at first, rather than assaulting us with a barrage of sound effects. There was an element of disquiet about the story that very few Doctor Who audios achieve. What we have here is another race with terrifying abilities that the Time Lords have pissed off by trying to shove them out of existence and now they’re out for revenge. Oh wizard. The Time Lords really are turning out to be the biggest villains in Doctor Who, aren’t they? Suddenly this themed series has achieved crystal clarity, which was something it desperately needed. It makes me very positive for the rest of the set. My favourite Matt Fitton script for some time: 8/10

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Battlestar Galactica Season One

33 written by Ronald D. Moore and direct by Michael Rymer 

What’s it about: Every 33 minutes, the Cylons are coming… 

Commander-in-Chief: I’ll never forget when I first clapped eyes on Edward James Olmos and I practically recoiled at such a battered looking unattractive man and thought ‘are they really going to push this hulking monster at the front of such a gorgeous ensemble?’ What a lunatic I am. I was thinking with my eyes and not my brain, and it’s something I am sure plenty of people do. Over four years I was consistently wowed with Olmos’ enormous dignity and authority in the role, astonished at how much pain and anguish he could express without ever descending into the hysterical angst of the rest of the cast. I was awed at how safe I could be made to feel just by his presence and how the reverse was true every time the series threatened to remove him for good. He’s magnificent in the role, but quietly so and that’s even more impressive.

President: Is this the closest we will ever see to the President being in complete control and working with the newly formed government to try and think of their way out of a tricky situation? Throughout the series Roslin will be surrounded by vultures from the press and her own elected government questioning her every move but at this point, after the fall of humanity, she is seen completely focussed and amidst a bustling team that is trying to make sense of the civilisation they have left. Why is that tight little smile of Roslin’s so satisfying? For whatever reason it is her reaction to a baby being born that gives the climax its heart.

Firecracker: Look out for the moment where Starbuck gives Lee a pep talk about how he should be behaving as the CAG and not everybody’s best friend. There are times in Battlestar Galactica’s run where it didn’t behave at all like all the other shows around it, to its favour. This scene as presented in Star Trek would be humourless and to the point. Instead, Starbuck and Lee both laugh at how ridiculously serious things have become in the moment. A sermon becomes a beautiful character beat of familiarity.

Traitor: James Callis must have felt as though all his dreams had come true when he scored the role of Gaius Baltar, the man that everybody loves to hate. The series never loses track of this guy or fails to give him interesting things to go through. Despite the fact that he exhibits the worst of humanity and behaves in the most appallingly selfish and is sitting on a steaming pile of hubris that defies description, I just can’t bring myself to condemn him. He’s that character that most shows don’t dare to show – the one who acts as the audience identification figure in the darkest of ways. What would you do if a person who is out of your league offers themselves to you? Would you spill security secrets? I’m willing to bet the larger percentage would. What would you do if you had inadvertently condemned humanity to its doom? I reckon you would stay button lipped and try and make the best of the situation? If someone was pointing a gun at you and giving you the choice of death or a signature on a hit list? The fun with Baltar is putting him in impossible situations and making him squirm because in each and every one you have to ask yourself what would you do…and the answers might not always be as comfortable as you think. In glorious moment of panic the Olympic Carrier shows up with the one man that can prove Baltar is a traitor and he goes into a head spin trying to convince everybody that the Ship has been taken over by Cylons. There is nothing more satisfying than watching Gaius Baltar get a sweat on and watch how he wriggles out of it. Baltar might repent for his sins to have Amarak killed, but he would say anything to save his skin. 

Sixie: Does Six genuinely love Baltar or is she just playing an elaborate Cylon game with him?

Chief Engineer: Galen, so fresh faced and enthusiastic. Just like in DS9 Ronald D. Moore loves to torture the Chief, and poor Galen would be hit throughout this series more than most. It makes it more impressive the way he gets up, always bruised and broken, and carries on. In the first series I love seeing him this carefree and free of angst.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If we make mistakes people die. There aren’t many of us left.’ 

The Good: The tension in the early scenes is palpably drawn with the crew forced to man their stations every 33 minutes as the Cylons make a reappearance. This episode asks the question of how human beings would react if they couldn’t get any more than half an hours sleep and be forced to be on their guard constantly and looking over their shoulder. The answer? Fatigued, angry, paranoid, in shock. A huge strength of this show is that it will present a situation and go through the whole gamut of emotions with its vivid and distinctively different cast. Sometimes their contrasting reactions make for the most dramatic moments. The visuals of the Cylon fleet attacking is unlike anything that we had seen at the time. Babylon 5 had similarly chaotic space battles but the CGI was at such a primitive stage at the time that it is hard to watch now without wincing. Star Trek (particularly DS9) staged some impressive looking large-scale space battles where the technology used was top dollar but there was a certain etiquette to the conflict that meant the battles had an air of politeness too them. Battlestar Galactica married both, the madness of the B5 dogfights with the style and visual sumptuousness of the DS9 ones and the result was (still) some of the best effects driven space fights we have ever seen on the small screen. Just watch the insanity as the Cylons appear en masse and swarm through the raiders. It’s hard to take in their sheer numbers and the epic sweep of their advancement. It’s like a human being trying to hold back a tidal wave. The title sequence deserves a mention because I have never seen a show before or since that offers such a tantalising glimpse at the episode ahead. At times, these quick cuts constitute spoilers and so it’s astonishing the show got away with as many twists as it did. However, you could always do what my ex used to, stick your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes and go ‘lalala’ until it goes away. I love how consequences are a huge part of this serial and how we can never forget that the bulk of humanity has been wiped out and that the people left behind are trying to cope with picking up the pieces. A small moment with Dee means everything where she tries to find out if any of her friends or family have survived and we realise in an astonishing visual of photos of a multitude of lost people that thousands of people are going through the same thing. The number that is listed in titles is ever present and ever changing, often decreasing. The show scores some of it’s most uplifting moments when that number increases in size. The re-imagined Cylon centurions are a thing of beauty but the thing that impressed me the most in this episode was how after Helo has detonated a pair that were pursuing him relentlessly through the forest, I actually felt a pang of sympathy for the one that is trying to rag half it’s body along the forest floor, rather pathetically. It’s a potent mixture of SF and horror. The idea that the Olympic Carrier has been compromised by the Cylons is a very real one and given their insidious activities elsewhere it is exactly the sort of ploy they would use to infiltrate the fleet and take them out from within. This leads to one of those impossible situations: trust that they just happened to make it or assume they are the enemy and shoot them down. What would you do? I literally stopped breathing when Lee eases his ship next to the Carrier and can see no activity in the windows. Surely there would be people looking out? The question is we never know and that is the sort of moral ambiguity I like. 

Soundtrack: Worthy of its own section because the music for this series is so good it practically has a life of its own. I genuinely believe that Battlestar would lose a large percentage of its atmosphere and pace if Bear McCreary had not stepped up to the mark and scored the series. When it comes to a television having such a distinctive sound, I can only think of Murray Gold on Doctor Who of somebody who embodies the character of a show so completely. But where Gold is all bombast and dark fairy-tale, McCreary delivers a distinctive theme to practically every character, scores the battle scenes like they are simply the most dynamic footage you can imagine and delivers a chilly sound of desolation and hopelessness throughout the series, with occasional bursts of optimism and even religious fervour. The man is a genius and I’m regularly dragged to the edge of my seat by the music alone. Listen out for the bells that tinkle whilst Six invades Baltar’s mind, you’ll be hearing a lot throughout the show.

The Shallow Bit: Helo, soaking wet, exhausted, battered. Helo is always gorgeous.

Result: There’s nothing more tense than a ticking clock and Ronal D. Moore has centred an entire episode around that keeps resetting every 33 minutes. It’s a genius idea that ensures that several times in the episode we are on the edge of our seats waiting for the Cylons to emerge. Everybody is exhausted, edgy and trying to come to terms with the insane situation they have found themselves in and at the same time they are being pursued by the Cylons every half an hour. It’s a situation where lives can be lost because nobody is at their best but every life lost is another brick lost in the foundation of rebuilding humanity. It’s desperate and desolate. And it’s completely gripping. Because the show is so rooted in its humanity, because it is so fresh and interesting, visually distinctive and bursting with character this is a situation in which this show can thrive. Not many TV series would kick start with an episode as without hope as this one, but when has Battlestar Galactica ever pretended to be like the other shows? This is a show that wants you to feel the situation that its characters are going through but it doesn’t cheat its audience and make everything good at the climax and this episode has a simple but suspenseful plot that asks tough questions about the lengths you would have to go to to make sure the remaining human can keep going. By taking such a risk with the defeatist tone the show earns its first huge surge of hope at the climax, a gorgeous moment that sees us out with a positive touch. Baltar continues to be one of the most riveting people to watch on television and this is only the start of his incredible journey. 33 sees a show confidently striding from expensive miniseries to its first season and its one of those rare hours of television that doesn’t put a foot wrong: 10/10

Water written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by Marita Gabriak 

What’s it about: Explosives tear through the water tanks and leave the last of humanity with nothing to drink… 

Commander-in-Chief: God bless Adama making a gesture and trying to make Roslin feel like the President.

XO: Watch as Saul looks longingly at a bottle of liquor in his locker. This is a character that goes on a transformative journey more than most. At this point he’s an angry drunk who is one situation away from snapping. I really wasn’t very keen on him at this point whereas come the end of the series he was one of my favourite characters.

President: Again I love how this show bucks the trend. The President makes a rousing speech about everybody’s dedication and tireless effort and in any other military themed show this would be taken as read. But Galactica precedes this scene with one where Roslin admits how tiresome all the empty platitudes of these speeches are. Both Roslin and Adama awkwardly go through the motions and then privately confide that all this official nonsense really isn’t them. In a private moment between them there is a hint of the relationship that will develop between them, discussing their love of books. As ever it is the incredible humanity that Mary McDonnell brings to the show that gives it its warmest moments and her reveal that she keeps the name of the Olympic Carrier in her pocket so she can learn from her own mistakes humanizes the President even more. 

Apollo: Lee is haunted, understandably, by his decision to follow orders and destroy the Olympic Carrier. It’s nice that things that occur in previous episodes that were hard to go through aren’t just arbitrarily forgotten about. 

Agethon: You would think that two Sharon’s would be hard to keep track of but Grace Park does an excellent job of differentiating between the two whilst at their core being the same person. One is a Cylon infiltrator on New Caprica that is sent in to reproduce with Helo and the other is completely unaware of her status living on board Galactica but is starting to suspect that something is very not right. After discovering an explosive in her bag she heads back to the armoury to return it only to discover that this has happened many times before and that she might be responsible. It’s incredibly difficult to display two personas in one scene without convincingly giving the game away to the other characters but Park achieves it with cool confidence. You can see the sleeper agent in her eyes preventing Sharon from revealing that she has found a water source, but what comes out of her mouth is her humanity fighting through.

Secretary: Billy’s rosy red cheeks whenever he is in the company of one suggests that the Laura is right when she tells him he doesn’t know anything about women. I really love his awkward relationship with Dee. She smiles, confused, at his dreadful compliments but still seems to love the attention.

Slippery: Gaeta. Such a quiet, unassuming character in season one. Watch out for Gaeta. He’s slippery, that one.

Cally: Look at that big huge smile on Cally’s face when the raptor comes into land and everybody is celebrating. That’s not something we will see very often. 

The Good: I love the fact that the very commodity that the fleet needs so desperately is falling freely on New Caprica. The first frames of this episode are fluid running through every cavity, dripping from hair, running from the sky, rolling down buildings. It’s a haunting tease of the days gone by where this element so necessary for human survival was so readily available. The idea that the explosives are hidden away on the hull of Galactica and ready to explode was enough for me to catch a breath. I hate how this show has the ability to suddenly pull the carpet from under me with a twist to a point where I’m not breathing anymore. When I say hate, I of course mean love. Gabriak chooses to shoot some scenes from the POV of the characters, almost like we are watching an episode of Peep Show. Given the documentary style nature of the camerawork already I’m pleased this wasn’t a repeated exercise because you don’t want to disorient your audience completely with how you are shooting your episode. As a one off it is quirky and unique. When the investigation of the ruptured tanks begins it is always nice to have a character who KNOWS what has happened because the drama comes from having their fears confirmed and trying to stay buttoned lipped. Again, numbers become very important – one third of the fleet will run out of water in 2 days, that’s 16,000 people. Having the investigators come up to the stand in front of the leaders of the fleet isn’t exactly a trial but it sure feels that way when the Chief is giving his finding. But then he knows something they don’t know. There’s a convincing rhythm to these scenes, and it’s great to see Roslin, Adama, Lee, Tigh and Baltar all sitting side by side and trying to both uncover the details of the explosives and sort out solutions. It’s very convincingly drawn. Can you imagine the paranoia when the people discover that the Cylons look human and can infiltrate? 

The Bad: ‘Ready to extend the water boom’ – talk about pre-empting what is coming. Baltar and the card game seems like an irrelevant subplot unless they were going to suggest a romantic spark between him and Starbuck, which is obscene to even think about. It’s terribly well-acted and shot but it feels irrelevant compared to the importance of the water storyline.

The Shallow Bit: The chemistry between Sharon and Helo is undeniable. It’s all they can do during one scene to prevent themselves from clawing each other’s clothes off. I can remember thinking this was all unnecessary padding when I originally watched the first season. Little did I know where their liaison would lead…

Result: Combine my favourite DS9 writer with one of my favourite Buffy directors and you have an episode that scores high on both fronts. Water is the episode where it is revealed that there is a Cylon aboard the Galactica. We know who it is, but the main characters don’t and much of the drama here comes from Sharon’s struggle to both fulfil her mission and sabotage the fleet and to remain loyal to her friends and try and aid them in the discovery of new water. The scenes surrounding the bombings are lethal viewing and watching all of that water vent into space and hearing the amount of people that will affect in such a short period of time really drives home how vulnerable this last gasp of humanity is. This is a production team and cast that is utterly committed to convincing you that this is all happening for real and given the imagination behind the premise of the show it is astonishing that they pull it off to such a degree that you feel what they are going through. Some might say it is too dour and realistic for its own good and indeed the Network had concerns in the early days that it would pick up an audience. But because they were able to hold their nerve and deliver a uniquely thoughtful show, it found not only a core fan base that adored it but extreme acclaim from critics too. Water continues the success of the miniseries and 33, with only the card game sequences feeling inconsequential. The final image of Boomer walking through the corridors of Galactica having gotten away with almost wiping away humanity and then saving its ass proves that there is a hell of a lot more drama to come with this character: 9/10

Bastille Day written by Toni Graphia and directed by Allan Kroeker 

What’s it about: What is in the mind of Tom Zarek, a political prisoner who has taken control of the only hope for harvesting water? 

Apollo: What is up with Jamie Bamber’s walk? I kind of hobbles when he is walking fast and I have never looked into why. Perhaps, like Jon Pertwee on Doctor Who with his mimsy run, it is just an unusual way of walking.

Vice President: I think it is highly respectful to give Richard Hatch such a pivotal role in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, given he was the star of the original show. It provides a link between the two in a way that there really isn’t anything else aside from the show’s mythology. Zarek is a fascinating character from the off but as a political opponent of Roslin would become even more so as the series develops. He was such a rip-roaring adventure hero in the original show, I think it’s beautiful how he adapts to the new series by giving such a cynical, gravelly performance. 

The Good: I remember when Star Trek Voyager set out on its merry way in the Delta Quadrant and there were some questions that needed to be ask like how they would continue to fuel the ship, where they would get their water from, would procreation be acceptable, etc. It was all done in such a sterile way you would have thought they were talking about the latest technobabble anomaly they had come across. There was no passion in the debate and no real hard questions being asked. It was a matter of survival, it should have been tough dialogue and even tougher choices. Battlestar redresses the balance by doing just that and the big dilemma this week is that the drilling and refining of the water they have discovered is ugly, potentially hazardous work, and the only real option is to send in prisoners who have committed serious crimes to risk their lives. That opens a whole can of moral worms. The effects shots of the prison cells all lined up in a row gives the impression that these people are kept like battery hens. Isn’t it gorgeous that the prison ship looks like a tatty old model from the seventies? Just when you think Starbuck has come up with an ingenious plan to save everybody, the reveal hits that Zarek wanted the ship stormed all along. I’m not sure if that makes sense from a political point of view (Zarek’s name would be tied to a prisoner massacre) but it does make for a few moments of suspense in an episode sorely lacking in them. The series is promising an election and a democratically elected government. I can’t wait. 

The Bad: It’s unusual to have a show where there are two concurrent storylines taking place entirely independent of each other and Battlestar would only repeat the experience again in season two and for half a season. There’s a danger of preferring one to the other (I am a huge fan of the fleet action where most of the main cast are, and tend to have less interest in the New Caprica scenes that feature only two or three of the main cast) or testing the viewers patience in the long wait to see how one will impact the other. It is great to see the effects of the Cylon attack on New Caprica and the scenes of the deserted city are eerie but it does feel that the show takes an awful long time to get to the point with these scenes. For at least half a season they feel like some bizarre coda to the miniseries. The insinuation that one of the prisoners will take Cally away to have some fun with her is so unremittingly ugly that it feels (for once) like the show trying a little too hard to be near the knuckle when it doesn’t need to be. It certainly adds nothing to the episode. It muddies the water even more with what this episode is trying to say about the prisoners, of which it doesn’t have a clue. 

Moment to Watch Out For: That beautiful moment in Adama’s quarters when he asks Baltar if he really has a Cylon detector or not. It’s his first moment of defiance against the Cylons and Six screams in his ear as a result. Cutting back to the silence of Adama’s quarters is like whiplash.

Result: Nowhere near as successful as previous episodes because it throws away its dramatic potential quite early on and never quite manages to grasp it back again. The question of whether to send hardened criminals to die to mine the water to save humanity is an excellent one for debate but just as the episode garners sympathy for the prisoners in this unfortunate situation it turns them into an aggressive force that is trying to take over the fleet. Had they been portrayed as victims and forced into slave labour, this might have had some legs for moral debate but they behave so brutally they can only be seen as the enemy for much of this instalment and practically deserve their intended fate. We have the introduction of Tom Zarek to enjoy, but he’s the only character in the prison storyline to escape with any dignity. The best thing about Battlestar (and it was something I used to level at DS9 too) is that it has such a rich core of characters that every episode, even the weaker ones, have moments to savour between the cast. Here we have Baltar playing a dangerous game with a nuclear warhead, Sharon’s relationship with the Chief brought into the light, Billy’s obsession with Dee given more attention, a lovely moment when Starbuck and Tigh agree on something (it’s extremely rare) and Lee holding Roslin and Adama to a promise of an election in 7 months. Without the balls to engage in intelligent debate or the stifling atmosphere of a really good hostage drama, this falls between several stools and is, at it’s best, a collection of half decent character beats and promises of better things to come. A gutless episode: 5/10