Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Star Beast written by Pat Mills & John Wagner (adapted by Alan Barnes) and directed Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: 1980 AD! In Yorkshire, the authorities have dismissed reports that an Unidentified Flying Object was seen plummeting towards the ground… moments before the explosion that destroyed the Blackcastle Steel Mills. After all, Blackcastle is the last place on Earth aliens would ever want to visit… Local teenagers Sharon and Fudge know better. ’Cos they’ve found an actual space alien hiding in the allotments. He’s their alien. Their secret. And his name is… The Meep. He’s not the only alien in Blackcastle, though. His pursuers, the terrible Wrarth Warriors, are on his trail, along with their unwitting accomplice: The Doctor!

Teeth and Curls: ‘I’m the Doctor, for the fourth time…’ The opening episode plays out a little like an episode of season 22, with the Doctor only joining the action at the last minute. Unlike season 22 the gap left by the Doctor is filled with a pair of colourful, funny kids Sharon and Fudge, and it’s so enjoyable in their company that you barely notice he is missing until Tom Baker shows up with his effervescent presence. The Doctor is still carrying his maracas when he leaves the TARDIS and manages to convince that they are deadly dangerous grenades. For a moment I wondered if the fourth Doctor’s latest companion was going to be his stomach (well he has to have somebody to talk to) but I suddenly remembered its gurgling extremities were a very important plot point. Listen to how charming the Doctor is Mrs Higgins. What an old sly boots. One of the best ever cliff-hangers reveals that the Doctor is a living, breathing, trembling…bomb! The aliens think the Doctor is on his way to Earth to help the Meep, calling him his accomplice. Which seems a very odd sort of thing to say about such a cutie wutie little creature. In true Pertwee style he builds a Fizzgig out of a steam iron, a hairdryer and a good strong torchlight. This is the first time he has used a 58 bus to escape from aliens. Utopias never last, admits the Doctor, sadly. Some of the lines Tom Baker gets away with in this are extraordinary (‘That wont of done my old coccyx any good!’). Beep the Meep plans to make the Doctor suffer a level of pain no mortal has ever endured. It’s one of the few times when I believe it might happen.

Politically Correct: How refreshing it must have been to have a black female companion palling up with the Doctor In the comic strips. How remiss of the TV series to refuse to follow suit until its revival in 2005. Sharon as written was plucky, opinionated, moral and a whole heap of fun. Rhianne Starbuck steps into her shoes brilliantly, giving a very honest, down to Earth performance amidst all the madness of this story. Sharon is the first one to come into contact with Beep the Meep and its her decision to keep him and not share her discovery with the authorities. At least she admits that later in the story, whilst trying to throw her life away and stop Beep. Technically everything that happens in this story is her fault then. Sharon works especially well in this adaptation because she has such delightful interaction Fudge. There’s the spark of romance between them but things are kept very much as antagonistic friends and they bounce off each other in a very entertaining fashion. Sharon is fostered by the Davises, posh folk with pampered grass in their garden. She’s never met anybody like the Doctor before and she trusts him implicitly.

Genocidal Fluffball: Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to introduce to one of the best villains to have ever graced a Doctor Who story. A monster whose legendary viciousness and severe lack of remorse has left him miles ahead of even the most celebrated of bad guys. He’s cute, he’s fluffy, he’s going to pluck your eyes out with a blunt penknife…it’s Beep the Meep! He’s such an incorrigible little fluffball, trying to convince that the aliens are after him because they are hunting him for his pelt. He claims to be the last of Meeps and that he alone escaped the slaughter of his species. The Most High is not a common pet that likes to be stroked. He pretends that he wasn’t to protect Sharon but in reality he is keeping her around in case he needs a hostage. Before the Most High leaves this planet he intends for there to be atonement in blood. He’s a genocidal maniac wanted half the universe over.

Standout Performance: I cannot believe they have managed to secure the services of Angela Rippon to play the part of the newsreader. It was probably drawn as a bit of current affairs fun in the original script but all these years later to hear her reading the dialogue that was put on the page decades ago is a beautiful touch, and an example of the lengths that Big Finish goes to to ensure authenticity. You could not listen to this story without wanting to applaud Bethan Dixon Bate who brings two equally memorable characters to life. To have to take on the mantle of Beep would be pressure enough but she’s also a delight as the prissy and particular Surgeon. Like The Iron Legion, voice modulation cannot break the performance (and trust me many an actor in a Big Finish has fallen foul of that) and in both cases here it actually strengthens the characterisation.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I wonder if there’s anything up down below…’
‘John Craven is not here!’
‘It’s the Wa-zock!’
‘They said it was better done whilst Meep was still alive!’ and ‘You’re the Meep who knew too much!’
‘You’re evil!’ ‘Oh, what took you so long?’
‘The other Meeps bullied me and called me little ears.’
'I'd hate to explode at an inopportune moment.'

Great Ideas: A starship is hanging in geostationary orbit around the Earth precisely where you wouldn’t expect to find one. Inside Beep the Meep’s spaceship is described as being ‘like inside of X-Wing, only better…’ High praise indeed. There’s a gorgeous joke at The Daemons expense (Tom Baker even mimics ‘science, Mrs Higgins, science!’ in exactly the same way Jon Pertwee said it. Far away on the other side of the universe on the planet of the Meeps lived an idyllic species happily living their lives. They were a co-operative society living in a Utopia. A black sun pulled the paradise planet into its sphere of influence. The Meeps became horribly mutated, a mutation of the soul. The black sun itself is a sentient malevolence and part of it is inside the engine. What the hell is a Grundian Blood Nog?

Musical Cues: It’s fabulous how Alistair Lock takes his unforgettable Beep the Meep song from The Ratings War (available in the extras and I definitely recommend you give this a listen on your external speakers with some unsuspecting person around – I did with my other half and he fell about laughing. Once again I tell him that the audios I review are sophisticated, intelligent tales. Once again he shakes his head despairingly) retooled.

Standout Scene: There’s a lovely moment when Sharon berates Fudge for still being a fan of comics to which he responds ‘that’s proper artwork.’ I’m sure there have been many an adult Doctor Who fan that has been tucking into their graphic novels and facing similar recriminations from their partner/family. Let ‘that’s proper artwork’ be all the excuse you need! The first moment we hear things from Beep’s perspective I punched the air with delight. Not only does Alistair Lock manage to explain what is going on entirely through the production but his thoughts are just so damn funny.

Result: ‘Don’t be angry, Doctor! I’m only a little Meep…’ Alan Barnes deserves a huge amount of credit for the adaptation of the comic strips. I had them at my side whilst listening for some visual references and it is clear that he has a massive love affair with these stories. Understandably given he was the chief writer of the Doctor Who comic strips in DWM for years and di some sterling work. He’s managed to take the essence of the stories, which were told in far more economic terms on the page, integrate all the ideas and the characterisation but add some much-needed depth and extended dialogue. He’s pulled them into a much more coherent narrative for audio. And some of this stuff is very very funny. I’d go as far to say that this boxset is some of his very best work on audio. I don’t know if it has something to do with the length of the scenes, the speed of the plot, the general bounciness of the dialogue or because the productions were just so good but these comic strip adaptations both flew by for me. They come in at over 4 hours but such was my enjoyment they felt like they whizzed by in half the time. It’s clear that the actors are having a whale of a time telling The Star Beast and that sense of infectious fun is extended to the viewer. Beep the Meep is an incredible creation, utterly juvenile and yet terrifying and hilarious at the time. In terms of style these are far more like the Graham Williams style material but the sort of storytelling he would have like to have told with a limitless budget. Very witty and very creative. It has been crafted by one of Big Finish’s best directors and best sound designers so it is no surprise to me that the end result is this polished. I’ve only ever given a box set perfect scores once before (the Fifth Doctor boxset) and this also deserves that accolade. It’s not often that I would beg to anybody but Big Finish…please please please please do more. I would love to hear more of the Doctor, Sharon and Fudge: 10/10

World Enough and Time written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: When it comes to bringing down corrupt and exploitative regimes, there is no-one quite like River. Until she arrives at Golden Futures and discovers that someone else has already taken on her job. Someone with almost as much style and panache as herself. The Doctor is about to get the shock of his lives.

Hello Sweetie: ‘Do you often sleep armed?’ ‘Always.’ Another strong showing for River, who is becoming increasingly enjoyable and well rounded on audio. River recognises the Doctor immediately this time around and is unsure why he is acting so out of character. But whether she is talking about him not sniffing out the mystery at the heart of this tale or the fact that he is a corporate sell out I couldn’t tell you. She will always take a compliment from the Doctor. it struck me that this one of the first times that River has encountered the Time Lord where she can just lock horns with him as an equal without all the extraneous baggage that comes with them meeting out of order. She’s not a portent of the future (The Silence in the Library), a mysterious figure of unknown origin (the first half of the Matt Smith era) or someone who needs to be put in the right place at the right time (The Husbands of River Song). Listening to Sixie and River waxing lyrical verbally together is a triumph. There’s one thing that River cannot imagine – that the Doctor has sold her out. When the Doctor asks if people like River and himself are ever truly happy she says there is only one way to find out…before heading off to do something outrageous and save the world. She’s always happy to see the Doctor AND champagne. They both admit that the other is remarkable.

Softer Six: The ultimate version of that description, a romantic slant on the most acerbic of Doctors. He’s often bluffing his way through the universe with words and bluster, knocking out his opponents with his impressive vocabulary and acidic wit. This time he is stumped at his encounter with the mysterious River Song, a woman who seems to appreciate all the things about him that everybody else highlights as unattractive. When he bought his way into this firm he had no idea it would be such hard work. Given the Doctor has never really done a hard day’s labour in his life (not even on management level), this has all come as a bit of a shock to him. When you own the company and you can’t figure out what is going on behind the scenes, you know you are with a sinister lot. He considers River a remarkable woman and he’s not a Doctor who is afraid to say it. When he finally gets to shrug his coat back on he calls it his old friend. River thinks it is his dressing gown and says that she likes it, much to the Doctor’s surprise. When people agree with him he finds it unsettling. Even on his darkest day River cannot believe that the Doctor could be part of something as obscene as this operation. How many worlds have been consumed whilst the Doctor has taken up his position here? How rare to hear the Doctor saying that he has been played for a fool. Enigma may go down with some people, but not him. There’s a feeling that this is at the end of his tenure, probably not long before The Brink of Death and that he is slowing down. He’s always thought that holidays were boring. He’s always been suspicious of new builds; he prefers his planets to feel lived in. Whilst he’s not very good at running a company, he is very good at running. Anyone who says that the sixth Doctor has lost his edge might want to take a listen to the line: ‘Before I was going to stop you. Now, I’m going to wipe you out!’ The Doctor’s sleeping partners solution is really rather ingenious. Is this the earliest example of the Doctor having a snog? I really thought that the Doctor might be able to keep his memories in this story, so it’s a shame when the climax plays its hand and wipes his memory of the first woman that has turned his head in this incarnation.

Standout Performance: The relaxed chemistry between Kingston and Baker is a revelation at parts. Finally, somebody has tamed old Sixie.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You could have a golden future here at Golden Futures!’
‘I’ve measured out my life in coffee breaks.’
‘Am I imagining it or has America put on weight?’
‘I’m too old for this’ ‘You’re not even halfway there, Doctor.’
‘Can someone call HR? My personal assistant has just pulled a gun on me!’
‘Oh River I’m so happy I could kiss you!’

Great Ideas: Imagine working in a department where you get to approve and endorse dreams? I think that would just about be my dream job. There are 10,000 pods and inside are sleepers enjoying dreams hand crafted by dream artisans. People dreaming their lives away if they have the money. The little snippets of people’s dreams swerve from disturbing (a man who has reclaimed his dad family) to hilarious (‘I’m going to be a unicorn!’). The odd nightmare slips in but the autocorrect usually steps in and resets those. A multidimensional lifeform that is leeching off people’s dreams. A copy of the Earth in a hyperdimensional gateway. How any writer can throwaway an idea like dimension welders is beyond me. Goss has such an arsenal of ideas up his sleeve that this is just one of many. Earth is going to be destroyed and Elysium is going to be put in its place. As soon as the Earth is consumed they will release Elysium onto the market as the hottest piece of real estate. The creatures in the pods feed of potential energy: roads not taken. Whilst the Doctor has been here he hasn’t been out in the universe, righting wrongs and saving worlds. That’s had a cost that has allowed them to built the second Earth. Speravore larvae drifting at the fatty end of the time vortex feeding of old dreams and other debris.

Standout Scene: When the Doctor gets to step out of the shadows and ask who has been eating the sleepers. It might feel like it makes River redundant in her own series but its actually quite the reverse. Sixie is all puff in public whilst she is behind the scenes bringing this system down.

Result: ‘Congratulations Doctor, you own 51% of the planet Earth…’ When Colin Baker joked that he should be kept on a retainer by Big Finish and work in their studios every week, ignoring all other work, I had no idea that that would turn out to be true. I’m joking but how he steps into other ranges is becoming prolific (Dark Shadows, Jago & Litefoot, Bernice Summerfield, Drama Showcase). The reason for this is not only because he was an early supporter of the company but mainly because he is an extremely talented man with some serious acting chops on audio that can turn his hand to practically anything. If you would have told me that his encounter with River was going to be the most flirtatious and outwardly romantic (she really does have a dazzling effect on the prickliest of Doctors) I probably would have laughed in your face. We all know that Alex Kingston can turn her hand to romantic drama (did you ever see her in ER?) but its Colin that surprises most here; gentle, bewitched and flirty. I thoroughly enjoyed the setting too; delving into the world of a corporation delivering dreams to a rich population. The second series of River Song is turning out to be more confident and surer of itself than the first. Bizarrely, even though the Doctor is utilised just as much as he was in the first set, it feels like the writers have a much better handle on River’s character and Alex Kingston has adapted to acting her character on audio at this point. Out of the hands of her creator, she’s remarkably easy to be around. James Goss chalks up another winner; creative, quixotic and alluring. The only downfall is the climax, which tips over into the usual sort of OTT villainy when the set-up had been so expertly handled. That’s a minor complaint in a story that is overall rather bewitching. I love the cover too: 8/10

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Five Twenty-Nine written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River has made a terrible discovery. Billions of lives hang in the balance. But if she can save just a few, then it might just help her solve the conundrum of Earth’s destruction. But how can she win when survival becomes a race against time itself? A race against Five Twenty-Nine?

Hello Sweetie: It cannot have escaped peoples notice that I am not the biggest fan of River Song. She reminds me of the worst excesses of humanity; too smug, too knowing, too violent and too amoral. Often, she is written as a male fantasy lead rather than a strong female character in her own right and often she is portrayed as somebody who cannot exist without the Doctor. I’m certain she would bomb in the Bechdel Test. Alex Kingston’s performance veers between quietly masterful and insanely self-knowing and superior. Which is why when stories like Five Twenty-Nine come along I am absolutely delighted because I am proven completely wrong (by my own standards) and River is made to sing. I love those few occasions were some restraint is apparent in her writing, she’s an active female protagonist and that the mystery that surrounds her character is made to work. The Silence in the Library, The Pandorica Opens and The Husband of River Song are all good examples too. Here River is a warm, kind, intelligent, funny and poignant presence. And nary a mention of any other character to make her relevant.

When asked if she is married she admits that that is rather complicated and its best to go with Professor. It’s not that Rachel is so distant from a child that unnerves River, it is that she is so close to a child that she cannot think of her as a robot. She keeps expecting to find something wrong with this world but everything has turned out to be perfectly normal. I love the fact that River feels that her word is important enough for this family to up sticks to safety and she’s told in no uncertain terms that the world of somebody they don’t know isn’t worth anything. River is attached to a sense of being right about this and this terribly normal bunch question that. If she doesn’t save everybody then what was the point of her coming here? She has to accept that sometimes you lose and sometimes you just have to lose the best way you can. Dorney really does go to town questioning all those certainties about River and then tearing them down. It’s not that I don’t want River to succeed in life, just that there is far more drama when she is improvising and desperate rather than complacently confident about everything. The crushing inevitability of the world dying and River not being able to save anybody really up the stakes of what these stories can do with the character. She simply cannot understand people who surrender to the inevitability of their deaths. To her, refusing to fight isn’t an option. She has to say sorry for not being more help as she leaves these people to die.

Standout Performance: I’ve heard both criticism and praise of Salome Heartel’s performance of Rachel and my opinion is very much in favour of the latter. It’s not like she would be choosing to play the part as an awkward synthetic if she wasn’t playing an awkward synthetic but surely the point of the character is that the performance as a human being isn’t quite right.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You have to make sacrifices for what you want.’
‘I don’t want to give up!’ ‘You’re not, you’re just changing the fight.’
‘It was always going to happen eventually.’
‘Who’d have thought it? My family. The last humans.’

Great Ideas:
After the bombshell cliff-hanger of the previous story, I was very surprised at the low key, intimate nature of the first 20 minutes of this story. There’s an aching sadness to admitting that you cannot have a child and it’s still there when the only option is to resort to a synthetic child, something that mimics the real thing but can never quite match up. The faintest contact with Five Twenty-Nine and you’re dead. What’s intriguing is that this is essentially an hour of set up, the end of the box set. River is heading off to see if she can stop it because she has already seen its effects.

Standout Scene: The moment when Rachel’s parents can see a way for her to survive the apocalypse, even if it means they have to die. That’s when you realise that it doesn’t matter that they she is synthetic; this is the love of parents. It’s massively touching.

‘Whatever it is, it’s starting…’ Astonishingly good, and the standard that these River Song stories should hold themselves to. Too many audios go for sound and fury, an action story told without pictures and not enough aim for this kind of intimate character drama, the sort that can affect you far more than a million Dalek soldiers invading ever could. I’ve always said when you strip back all the bluster and tell a truly economic story that the results are often unexpectedly powerful and Five Twenty-Nine is no exception. I love how subtly it begins with an apparently idyllic situation presented before slowly, quietly stripping away the smiles on the characters faces and revealing the horror of what is really going on. How the air of disquiet blew through the halls of this family home was very effectively achieved by the cast. Even when Doctor Who dared to show the end of the world through the eyes of a normal family (Spare Parts) it took place on its sister planet and there was a Cyberman presence to keep things escapist. This story plants River in the home of a nice, normal family and we never leave their side as the world falls to pieces around them all. Seeing the apocalypse from a domestic point of view is absolutely stifling. The entire cast is excellent but Kingston is particularly strong, delivering the sort of performance I would have loved to have seen on television had they dialled back all that self-assuredness. Every now and again Big Finish releases a story that transcends its range and standouts out as being especially affecting. John Dorney did it with Absent Friends before and he’s done it again here with Five Twenty-Nine. If proof was ever needed that a River Song series would be worthwhile, this story has single-handedly proven that it is. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong: 9/10

The Unknown written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: A planetary anomaly. A scientific impossibility. A mystery to be solved. Of course, River Song expects to be consulted. She expects her valuable knowledge and experience will help the crew of the Saturnius unlock the strange phenomenon that has appeared in Earth’s solar system. But what River doesn’t expect is a stowaway. An infuriating little man, calling himself the Doctor.

Hello Sweetie: If there’s one thing she knows, its prison etiquette. For once she hasn’t a clue what is going on and she’s not used to that. How very refreshing, River could have used a little more of that on the television. She has a reasonable amount of knowledge when it comes to temporal anomalies. In one of the few moments to actually grapple with the idea of the seventh Doctor and River meeting, he questions her principles and she tells him to grow up and face the reality of the situation. Thank goodness the Doctor is amnesiac in this story because if he wasn’t and he was questioning anybody else’s principles after what he has done in this impish incarnation it would be most hypocritical.

The Real McCoy: Is it a smart idea to try and tick off every incarnation of the Doctor for a meeting with River? It cocks up television continuity, for sure. In The Silence in the Library the inference is that the tenth Doctor is the youngest version of the Time Lord that she meets. And yet, for marketing purposes it is certainly a good draw and was probably the salvation of these sets in their early days. The idea of one character meeting every single Doctor is cute and seeing how she gets along with each version. In concept it’s fun but flawed, so, I guess the success of this experiment comes down to the individual quality of each release.

Standout Performance: McCoy and Kingston together had no effect on me at all. But I fear that is down to the distance that the amnesia brought to the script.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Reality is fracturing, Doctor Song, and it’s taking our minds and our memories with it…’
‘You were happy to eat it when it wasn’t complaining’ is the wittiest line in the entire script, and it involves something that is a complete side issue from the plot.

Great Ideas: Long range scans show that this planet is riddled with temporal anomalies (if you look up from the surface you can probably see Voyager from Star trek flying over to check it out). Time seems to be in flux on the surface. The Earth government rushed the Saturnius into operation, a ship that can withstand entering damaged space/time. It’s based on hyperspace technology, the shield shifts the ship out of physical space without being affected by local conditions. Temporal anomalies aren’t in physical space though and the shield should not work at all. A planet riddled with anomalies, a shielded ship and the TARDIS makes for an explosive combination. That’s three bodies half in and half out of physical space causing casual fracture. Three objects colliding linked both to physical space and the vortex: a multi-dimensional singularity. There is a potential extinction event with the shockwaves rippling through the vortex and physical space. Temporal division is when people are divided into copies. That’s rather a tasty idea, an army of temporal duplicates.

Isn’t it Odd: This really is what a Doctor Who script would be like before if it were written by Brannon Braga. A bunch of ridiculous technobabble disguising itself as drama (because it’s certainly delivered with plenty of gusto). Mind you when River attempts to play the tenth Doctor in Steven Moffat’s hands and boil the science down to its simplest level for her audience I think I actually winced out loud. There must be a happy medium between the two. I don’t think it would have been so bad if this story had taken hold of its huge SF ideas and explored them intellectually. What this ultimately boils down to is some crazy shit happening and people going ‘No!’ and ‘Argh!’ a lot. Hmm…the idea of selective memory is very cheeky indeed. It means the Doctor and River can remember things when the plot needs them to (like the sonic screwdriver) and forget about things when it needs to too (like either of them remembering meeting one another). His last scene where the Doctor absent-mindedly finds himself of the Amazon and rivers for no apparent reason sums this story up perfectly.

Standout Scene: River rediscovering the TARDIS has more emotional impact than her rediscovering the Doctor. It’s a terribly well realised scene. ‘I can see the stars again!’

Result: ‘Can we do this without the need for a physics degree, professor Song?’ Amen to that. It feels more like an episode of Voyager than…I was about to say Doctor Who but of course this isn’t Doctor Who and at this stage in the game the River Song series can emerge with whatever formula it wants. Let’s just hope it isn’t like Voyager because temporal anomalies, amnesia and reset buttons all get tiresome very quickly. The key point in this episode is that the seventh Doctor was never going to remember River because his head is in something of a fog. If there’s going to be no impact to the character, what is the point of meeting them? This story has the get-out clause firmly in place before it has already began. Perhaps Big Finish should be brave in a Terrance Dicks/Robert Holmes fashion and just decide to fuck continuity and tell the stories they want to tell. Rather than slavishly adhering to continuity like this and ultimately damaging their output because of it. This should be rather more fun than it ultimately turns out to be; it’s got big science fiction ideas in it and interaction between the seventh Doctor and River. The former is handled in a sterile and unapproachable fashion and the latter is treated as exactly what it is; a marketing strategy rather than exploiting the situation for its dramatic, romantic or humorous worth. If you paused to ask the question ‘is this story worth telling?’ I think you would find about a third of Big Finish’s output wanting, and this release would be added to that list. It’s a handsome production, well-acted and directed but the two things that would ultimately make it worth listening to – storytelling and characterisation – are lacking. The best moment is all set up for the next story, which tells you everything you need to know. I know Guy Adams is better than this: 5/10

Monday, 27 May 2019

The Movellan Grave written by Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What it about: When an archaeological dig in 1980s England finds a Movellan power pack buried amongst Iron Age artefacts, the Doctor and Romana have no choice but to investigate. And what they discover worries them very much indeed. A Movellan ship is buried under the ground. Soon the robotic enemies of the Daleks are making their way to the surface, but they are not the biggest threat humanity faces. Because on board this ship is the greatest weapon the Movellans have ever devised. A weapon that could stop the Daleks forever... and anything else that gets in their way.

Teeth and Curls: He’s living at 107 Baker Street these days. The Doctor thinks Mork and Mindy is a less than accurate account of extra-terrestrial life. He’s the sort of fella that would give a cabbie an extra three pounds and tell him to invest wisely.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Romana is astonished to have three channels and three choices on British television. Three? Yep, that's all I got from Romana in this story. Gosh, they're doing her justice.

Great Ideas: When it comes to black holes you’ve just got to have been there otherwise they’re just not funny. A Movellan power pack is unearthed, dated back 2000 years. It’s an intriguing opening and gives a good reason for the main storyline to get started. It has exactly the same sort of opening as Resolution, excavators digging up something alien that turns out to be more trouble than its worth. Humanoid in appearance, aesthetically beautiful but robots, slaves to logic and lacking all emotion. Their mission is to create a weapon to defeat the Daleks.

Isn’t it Odd:
The Movellans have overcome their need for a power pack? They’ve overcome their need for power? They’re robots!

Standout Scene: The cliff-hanger features the Doctor trapped in an airlock and running out of oxygen. A bit like that cliff-hanger in The Ice Warriors without the drama. A bit like the cliff-hanger in Frontier in Space without the suspense. A bit like that cliff-hanger in Shada without the wit.

Result: +++++ STOP START +++++ REVIEW WRITTEN BY THE SAME COMPUTER THAT SPITS OUT 4DAS +++ The curse of the 4DAs trips up another reliable writer, this time Andrew Smith. How a writer who contributed towards the season that this story is apparently set in could fail to capture its tone or style so spectacularly boggles the mind. Big Finish has an obsession with picking over Doctor Who continuity like a vulture over a corpse and the poor bird has only got the scraps like the Exxilons and the Movellans left now the really juicy stuff like the Wirrn and the Zygons have been used up. It smacks of desperation on the part of the writers of this range, using an element of the past to dredge up some interest because ultimately without it this would be a hollow, shallow action adventure of no consequence whatsoever. I don’t understand why the revelations about the Movellans are packaged in this way because we already know all the set up about them from Destiny of the Daleks. Let’s take a step back and consider what workmanlike means because I often use it to describe these fourth Doctor stories – it suggests a competence, a reliability and that at least some effort has gone into making the piece entertain. Half the time these hour-long vignettes feel like they have been plotted by a computer; fitting together to form the most predictable pattern it can. Even the performances seem listless and drained of any vigour. The Movellan Grave is so tedious it saps the life out Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, two of the sunniest performers in Big Finish’s arsenal. It’s a story that is about a race of cold, emotionless robots and so the cast have no choice but to deliver monotonous performances, except the one Movellan that sounds like you typical ranting Doctor Who monster. His name is Chenek, which is as vanilla a name as a Doctor Who villain could have. I’ve tried to review this story three times and each time it has left me cold and desperate to turn it off. Avoid at all costs. +++++ REVIEW ENDS +++++ START STOP +++++: 2/10

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Night Witches written by Roland Moore and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: When the TARDIS materialises north of Stalingrad in 1942, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly are captured by the Night Witches, an all-female unit of flyers tasked with disrupting the German forces nearing Moscow. They suspect that the travellers are spies - part of the Germans’ Operation Barbarossa. Despite their pleas they are locked up while it is decided what to do with them. Polly, however, is receiving strange looks from the pilots and clearly unnerving them. When the TARDIS crew discover why this is, it becomes clear that they’re about to get far more involved in the war than they could possibly have imagined.

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor is not saying that he is to continue teaching his companions how to fly the TARDIS, just that she is a stubborn old girl and she likes going where she likes going. He speaks Russian but it is clearly not his mother tongue and so it is very easy to identify him as a spy. Even at this early stage of his life it must be tiresome for him to constantly have to prove that he is not. A man who looks like a tramp and a guy in a skirt, they really are the unlikeliest group of spies that you could imagine. The Doctor cannot feel pity for somebody that was willing to sacrifice one of his friends at the drop of a hat.

Handsome Scot: This story is much more about Ben and Polly and Jamie is relegated to being the Doctor’s sidekick and seeking out food. But given Hines’ double duty playing both the Doctor and Jamie perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Hines flitting between the two characters continues to amaze me.

Lovely Lashes & Able Seaman: ‘Be lucky, Duchess…’ Ben is asking for trouble by suggesting that Polly isn’t bad for a woman driver. I like it how Ben refers to previous adventures to give context to where they might have arrived this time round, it helps to think of their escapades as a continuing series of adventures. They’re straight out of the TARDIS and having a snowball fight. It’s always worth remembering how much fun this pair were to be around. It might have been nice for Ben to have had a romance on the telly, or at least to catch the eye of somebody and make Polly jealous. His gentler scenes in this story bring out a softer side to the character that was rather appealing. Maybe they should have been braver and had the Duchess and the Sailor get it on. The chemistry between them was unquestionable. In a great moment Ben makes a slip and accidentally mentions that they travel in time and his companion wants to know how the conflict ends. It’s lovely seeing these characters cocking up in history because we so rarely got the chance to see that on screen. Polly expresses the very dark thought that if they had gone with the Doctor and Jamie, at least they would be dead too. Ben genuinely thinks he is going to die at one point and thinks of Polly before he prepares to go.

Standout Performance: I can’t help but notice that, whilst sounding very like Michael Craze, Elliot Chapman has much more humour in his portrayal of Ben Jackson. Craze played up the aggression and suspicion in the character much more where Chapman has a lighter air about him. I’m not complaining (because I might even prefer the character this way) but it is noticeable. I also enjoyed Anneke Wills playing Tatiana as Polly at the climax as she tries to convince her ‘friends’ to take her with them by slipping in under the radar.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They say that if you meet your double, one of you die!’
‘Meanwhile the German tanks were making their inexorable way towards the Night Witches base…like an unstoppable force they were coming.’

Great Ideas: A tank being pointed right at the TARDIS and fired! What is it about the Second World War and the second Doctor that feels perfectly authentic, especially given that the historical stories were phased out during this time? Could it be that the mammoth ten-part story The War Games has identified the little clown with this devastating conflict irreparably. Given Polly’s doppleganger it is perfectly plausible to think that Polly is a spy that has come to take her place. An honest answer is given when asked if they can beat the Germans: no, because they have more power, more weapons and more troops. You have to remember that the outcome of the war was far from a foregone conclusion and I suspect the majority were of the opinion that the Germans would ultimately win. I really liked how Ben was able to escape to help Polly because he had made a friendship with one of the Night Witches. It makes the earlier scenes between them have more impact.

Audio Landscape: There’s some handsome action in the first episode, which is perhaps a little too over described when Helen Goldwyn conjures up the dazzling sound design Toby Hrycek-Robinson to plant us right in the action.

Musical Cues: There’s a terrifically atmospheric score, which is more about creating an air of disquiet than mimicking a new series full orchestra soundtrack. There are moments where it sounds remarkably like the second assignment of Sapphire and Steel.

Isn’t it Odd: What is it about turning up places where exact duplicates of the Doctor and his companions feature? It is a bizarre phenomenon that reaches from the Chancellory guard on Gallifrey to Cranleigh Hall. Let’s not beat around the bust it usually leads to an interesting performance from the actor chosen to play the doppleganger and it’s a fun convention. But the frequency with which it happens beggars belief. It’s almost as if the TARDIS – that can witness all of time and space in an instant – deliberately seeks these people out. The Doctor even says as much. The joy of audio is that Anneke Wills doesn’t have to play this character and we can still believe that she is the spit of Polly. The idea that somebody would be the spit of one of the Doctor’s companions and sounds just like her too is stretching credibility.

Standout Scene: The end of episode one, which features a lovely (if predictable) cliff-hanger where Polly appears to be dragged out of the wreckage of a plane. In a moment that I found fascinating rather than dramatic, Polly bursts into tears at the thought that Doctor and Jamie have been killed by the soldiers. It really hit me that so much of season four is placed for entertainment value rather than dramatic value (but then what else can you do when you are faced with the terror of Professor Zaroff’s killer Octopus). I would have liked some stories in this vein where the stakes were high. When you watch The War Games it goes to show just how much high drama can be mined from both the era and the WWII. Very sweetly, Ben tells Polly he will look after and nothing will happen to her, realising they are now stranded here.

Result: ‘If you betray us, Ben and Polly will be executed…’ The Night Witches were a corner of history that I knew nothing about and I have to say I’m very pleased that Doctor Who took the time to educate me about them. Russia’s involvement in WWII may have been well documented but I certainly wasn’t exposed to any of that literature at school or in any subsequent movies or novels I have read so much of this material came as a refreshing take on a well-worn period. And how nice to listen to a Doctor Who audio that favours atmosphere over action and gives over time to characterise its guest cast with care. It’s always nice when we head to another part of the world because there is a chance to hear some different accents to the norm and the Russian actresses all give very impressive performances. I’ve read criticisms that not a great deal happens in The Night Witches and it is true that it is a little short on incident given its two-hour running length but I found the production, the performances and the interactions between the characters more than compensated. Elliot Chapman and Anneke Wills in particular shine in a story that affords Ben and Polly some decent character development and Hines’ second Doctor continues to excite. Episode three was my favourite with the two Londoners apparently marooned in World War II and having to come to terms with what that means. At times it is like Troughton is really taking part, it’s truly the most loving recasting Big Finish has happened upon. The dialogue is naturalistic and helps to make these characters seem real and how nice to avoid the pitfalls of so many historicals that dive into your typical Doctor Who SF nonsense instead of leaning on the drama of the historical setting. The Night Witches isn’t the best Doctor Who historical or even the best Troughton era audio, but it is a superb production, beautifully acted and written with care: 8/10

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Iron Legion written by Pat Mills & Jon Wagner (adapted by Alan Barnes) and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: 1979 AD! Led by the terrible General Ironicus, the mighty Iron Legion – robot veterans of the Eternal War – have come, seen and conquered the English village of Stockbridge! Caught up in the mayhem, the Doctor pursues the Legion back through the great Dimension Duct to their place of origin – an alternative Earth where Rome never fell… But can he survive the horrors of the gladiatorial Hyp-Arena long enough to uncover the terrifying secret at the heart of the Galactic Roman Empire?

Teeth and Curls: ‘Eccy Eccy Eccy! Ogg Ogg Ogg!’ Why does Tom Baker sound more like the Doctor of his television period in a story which isn’t a part of a range that is trying to capture his television period? This is a hugely assured, charismatic performance with the sort of animated material that brings out his younger self. I hate to render the role of the companion defunct but Tom baker was right when he suggested that his Doctor could go it alone in the universe! He spends this story dancing from one peril to another, witty and effervescent and commanding the audiences attention all on his own. He’s been all out of jelly babies ever since he took off from Zagger Six so a quick trip to England to the local shops is just the ticket. Hearing Tom Baker talk about his old enemy WOTAN makes this worth the admission price alone. The Doctor thinks nothing of decapitating a robot before breakfast just in case it blows a fuse over his non-terrestrial nature. How like the fourth Doctor to wake up facing the horrific Ectoslime creature and doff his hat and say ‘hello there!’ Very Creature from the Pit. How glorious that he manages to save himself from being drunk by telling as particularly good joke. His relationship with Morris is instantly charming, refusing to be frightened of the cyborg and telling him he is beautiful and talking in his broken English. Worth just hear the Doctor say ‘keep up mate!’ It’s a good job that each TARDIS carries a few spare dimensions as standard and the Doctor uses one to his advantage at the end of this tale. ‘Bye Bye Magog!’

Standout Performance: Huge kudos to Brian Protheroe who has the thankless task of bringing the broadly written Ironicus to life. I listen to a lot of audios and so I hear an awful lot of voices and it is the ones that make me pause, drawing attention to themselves due to the inflection, the performance or the delivery that really stand out. I kept being drawn to Protheroe in The Iron Legion, he was still the boastful bully of the comic but he managed to make some memorable out of that role all the same. A shout out to both Joseph Kloska and Toby Longworth as Morris and Vesuvius, two difficult roles to play who manage to walk the fine line between humour and pathos very effectively.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What an interesting salad, you should give it a name!’ ‘Great Caesar!’ ‘Oh, that’s a good name.’
‘Oh I say my trident! You’ve melted it!’ might just be the campest thing I’ve ever heard in a Doctor Who story. And that is up against some pretty stiff competition.
‘You’ve heard it before I can tell.’
‘I couldn’t help but notice your head seems to be erupting.’
‘Well said Viv Bytheway!’
‘Not to me, you prannet!’ I don’t know what a prannet it is but I can only imagine it is the most heinous insult in this universe.
‘Empress of the Empty Dimension and Queen of the Big Zero!’

Great Ideas: I never used to have much love for the Doctor Who comics. It was a part of the magazine that I just couldn’t get my head around. A story told in static pictures? How does that work? More fool me. I waited until I had pretty much exhausted every other option when it came to exploring Doctor Who and then I bought one that came recommended. The first eighth Doctor graphic novel. I loved it, and there was a surprising amount of energy and momentum that could be built up with static pictures and dialogue. I was especially surprised by the intense characterisation that could be packed in an eight-page instalment. So, I bought another. And another. Eventually I had an empty wallet and the entire collection. My favourites were split into three periods – the 4th, 6th and 8th Doctor’s eras (with a huge mention for the latter day 10th Doctor stuff too). I had less joy with the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 11th Doctors but that was more down to the style of the artwork and the writing of those eras. The lack of budget meant that for once Doctor Who was as big budget and unlimitless as I always imagined it to be. The Iron Leigon was a particular delight. Bursting with wit, beautiful artwork and a crazy imaginative story, it really leapt from the page as one of the most memorable adventures the 4th Doctor had ever had. An alternative Earth where Rome never fell but instead developed a sophisticated technology and robot legions and conquered the galaxy is still one of the best ideas to ever have been dreamed up by any writer of a Doctor Who story. It made for a visually stunning comic strip and it makes an equally imaginative audio setting. The dimension duct is what allows the Iron Legion to travel to other worlds and conquer. The twist that the Emperor of this false Rome is nothing but a child works even better on audio. Eccy the Ectoslime creature has acid drool that he uses to liquefy his victims before he drinks them! What a way to go. The people of Stockbridge are being offered as sacrifices to the Malevilus, five hideous siblings from galactic mythology. Four evil brothers and most foul of all their sister Magog! Somehow their legend crossed the dimensional divide into Gallifreyan records. The Bestiarus are beast men genetically engineered super soldiers created by orders of the mad false emperor. They smashed everything in sight and had to be contained, that’s why they turned to robot technology. The General murdered the Empress when the Emperor was but a babe in arms.

Audio Landscape: The opening is double punch of madness featuring robot Romans attacking rural England and it could have been terribly confusing but Alistair Lock is on hand – not a name I see enough attached to Big Finish releases – to make sure that it is perfectly comprehensible. There are sequences that are told from the robot legionnaires point of view. Did Lock manage to get a recording of Magog transforming in real life? It sounds so real.

Musical Cues: Lock provided the first score for the Big Finish story I heard – Oh No It Isn’t – and his music for The Iron Legion is every bit as memorable. I love the dramatic militaristic theme for the Legion approaching, it gives the story an immediate sense of pace and excitement. The comical cues were a delight.

Standout Scene: The concept of having a commentator announcing the cliffhanging endings to try and lure back the punter in the next episode is a genius one. What a fantastic way of being able to tell the listener what is going on without having to resort to having the actors describe their every move (although there is a fair amount of that here too). This is cheeky beyond imagining, and very funny. I don’t quite know how or why but in both comic strip and audio form, the Death of Morris is very affecting. ‘Morris get to Rust in Peace.’

Result: ‘My Doug! And he’s more than stupid enough to lead a rebellion!’ I don’t think a first episode of a Big Finish adventure has ever flown by so quickly with its stunning central concept, terrific soundscape and musical score and star turn from Tom Baker who fits into this barmy comic strip world perfectly. The strip bounced from one hugely creative idea to another with stunning artwork from Dave Gibbons making the transitions in the plot seamless and visually stimulating. Alistair Lock takes his place on audio and more than does the story justice, creating a number of immersive soundscapes and a fully realised alternative Earth. The Doctor slips effortlessly into this broadly drawn world, a perfect prototype of who he would be at his glittering best in the Williams era and he is aided by two desperately sweet robots and a mouthy pair from Stockbridge making this a jolly team effort. I would have liked to have seen more from this five but perhaps they work so well because they are in this story and wouldn’t bring much to something a little shadier. How the story saves its secrets for the end of episode three is dazzling, a flashback to the past that reveals how things have come to be such a bloodthirsty mess. This the story where the Doctor fights a massive slime creature by telling it a joke, makes friends by simply being kind, flies a skimmer through a huge window with robot companions, and uses a herd of robotic elephants to save the day. I have heard many a 2-hour Big Finish story that has felt like it has stretched a simple story to an interminable length but The Iron Legion is one of those tales that fits perfectly into the four-episode format with plenty of incident, twists and turns and engaging characters to see the distance. I might be giving this full marks because I love the source material so much, because it made me smile from ear to ear throughout thanks to its sunny content or simply because it captures the innocence of childhood so spectacularly and excitingly. Briggs and Lock need to get together again soon. Bring back Vesuvius!: 10/10

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Scream of Ghosts written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: When the Brigadier and Jo are called in to look into a breakthrough in the field of portable communication, the Doctor has to stay behind with communications problems of his own – a strange signal coming through the TARDIS console that’s burned out its circuits. When Benton approaches the Doctor with an odd story about an old friend, the Time Lord realises his troubles and the Brigadier’s investigations may be connected, and hot-foots it in pursuit. Soon they discover that terrifying sounds are walking in the woods of the English countryside... but what lurks behind those sounds may be even more dangerous...

The Mighty Nose: He wishes the human race would cotton on to wireless technology. The Doctor is an impossible man but the brigadier wouldn’t have him any other way. To hear the third Doctor doffing his cap at Oliver Harper was a lovely touch. It reminded me of him name dropping Ian, Barbara and Susan in Planet of the Daleks. There’s a lovely moment where Jo has absolute faith in the Doctor when everybody else doubts him. It suggests that winning chemistry between him and Jo without ever dwelling on it for too long. He loves the idea of spaceship that keeps moving as long as you keep on applauding it.

Dippy Agent: After Liz, Jo is getting quite used to women in authority. She knows what it feels like to be general dogsboddy but still introduces herself proudly as the Doctor’s assistant and tea maker, brow mopper and asker of all the right questions. The most important woman in the whole world, according to the Doctor.

Stiff Upper Lip: The Brigadier gets exasperated by the amount of times he brings a crisis to the Doctor’s attention and yet he continues to play about in the TARDIS. The Brigadier’s car has a roof, which to Jo makes it one up on Bessie. When the Brigadier states the name of the organisation that he works for he simply gets the response: ‘what a mouthful.’ He’s been an unwelcome guest more than he’s had hot dinners but this is by far the rudest eviction he’s ever had. The Brigadier of these audio stories is much more in the vein of the season seven and season eight version of the character rather than the comedy sidekick of the latter Pertwee seasons. He’s incisive, intelligent and just a little bit chauvinistic. Insane is what he’s paid for. I loved the line ‘I may be without my scientific advisor but I’m not without my intelligence!’ When did his life become full of preposterous nonsense like protecting himself against fire extinguishers.

Sidekick: John Levene might be the most alarming oddball in real life, but nobody charms like Benton in a Third Doctor Adventure. Having him involved in this story is rather novel. Benton is never going to set your world on fire but he provides a lot of warmth and authenticity to the story. He’s talking with people all over the world after realising that his mates are a pretty small group and confined the UNIT canteen.

Standout Performance: Rosalyn Landor played Brenna Odell in the Star Trek The Next Generation episode Up the Long Ladder. A piece of television that exists in its own bubble of awfulness. It was very useful when the Doctor finally meets Caldicott because until then she was just a one note bossy scientist with very little shade. In steps the rudest Doctor you are ever likely to meet if he comes up against a stiff authority figure and sparks fly. ‘I’d rather like both us to survive this conversation!’ Manning is still putting on that weird baby voice. It's distracting at times, and convincing at times.

Sparkling Dialogue: ’Who is it that’s talking and who is it that’s threatening?’
‘A television begging for it’s life?’

Great Ideas: The Pertwee era really has become my go to era for comfort Doctor Who. I’m saying it is all happy go lucky and reassuring viewing (The Mutants – eeek!) but simply that it is an era that I grab for first whenever I need to escape from the day and indulge myself in pure honest-to-goodness Doctor Who. There are a number of reason for this and it might explain why these Third Doctor Adventures are clicking so well for me. For one there is Pertwee’s glittering, masterful portrayal of the Doctor. Far from perfect and often irascible and accusatory, he’s nevertheless a rock-solid Doctor who manages to bring out the drama in any situation and who charms his way through the era, becoming ever softer and more human. Then there are his three companions – Liz, Jo and Sarah – all three of which are a delight to watch and who in very different ways show the range of the Doctor Who companion. UNIT provides stability and some grit in the early years and buckets of charisma and comedy in the latter years. Terrance Dicks creates the Doctor Who formula (he intends to go somewhere nice, ends up somewhere horrible, gets entangled in the situation, sorts it out – with difficulty- he departs) and learns over five years how to shake it up. His very clear and reliable plotting is a guiding hand through the era. And finally Barry Letts, possibly the greatest contributor to the show and a supervisory moral force, willing to attack politics, religion, history and always imbuing the material with a respectability and ethics. It’s a terrific fusion of all these things and some experimental directors and musicians, fabulous alien designs and plenty of excitement and humour. Even the worst of stories have something to recommend them. If I am perhaps inclined to be kinder to a particular era because Big Finish choose to honour it, perhaps this will explain why.

Ever since the Doctor upgraded Jo’s radio all it plays are weird, alien sounds. A signal is coming from space that sounds awfully like a scream. Jo’s reaction to a mobile phone is an absolute scream. Caldicott’s mobile telephone is way out of Earth’s frame of technology in this period and so the only rational explanation is that she has been receiving help from elsewhere. The Doctor winds up in a data network comprised entirely of solid sound forms. The Vardans are obsessed with two things; gathering knowledge and acquiring new territory. They are a telepathic race and brain waves are just another way for them to travel. Osgood retired after the Devils End business but that doesn’t stop Jo turning to him in crisis.

Musical Cues: ‘Music Concrete. A form of experimental music that often uses recorded and manipulated sounds to achieve atonal, challenging, melodic forms.’ I’ve always said talking about music is like dancing about architecture, it is impossible to capture the depth of the experience. However, the Doctor has a god go here and explain why so many of the early black and white Doctor Who scores were so eerie, and effective. Another shout out for Briggs’ score, which is overly dramatic, atmospheric and occasionally completely tuneless noise. A synthesis of all the Pertwee musical styles.

Standout Scene: ‘I suspect we’re looking at an invasion of Earth.’ This is set during the third Doctor’s era. What an incredible surprise. I love the moment when the Doctor realises that he has underestimated the Vardans. He assumes that the want to take over the Earth because that is exactly what aliens do at this point in the series. The fish they want to fry is Time, something the third Doctor era shies away from.

Result: It’s actually fairly easy to pull together a nostalgic third Doctor adventure; an earthbound setting, a threat to the planet, the UNIT regulars and an authoritative Doctor. However, it takes skill to utilise those elements in a way that entertains and doesn’t feel tired and an exercise in nostalgia for the sake of it, which Guy Adams achieves very well with The Scream of Ghosts. It’s one of those rare occasions where a Big Finish story utilises sound as an integral part of the story rather than just being the medium in which the story is told. If you’re savvy you might guess who the villains of the piece are by the authentic use of their soundscape from the TV series. A lot of the enjoyment here comes from the full cast nature of the story with the Doctor, Jo, Benton and the Brigadier all contributing well and written recognisably. They form different pairs throughout the story and each one works. The plot is interesting but perhaps a little thin for a two-hour story. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing without much pace of development but when the big twist hits it is a doozy. The third episode was massively enjoyable, taking place mostly inside a simulacrum where the villains are finally revealed. This is one villain that was poorly realised on TV that has been snapped up by Big Finish and given brilliant treatment. It has been commented that Treloar doesn’t really sound like he is doing an impersonation of Jon Pertwee but I would counter that he was never really doing that anyway. His is an impersonation of the third Doctor with elements of Pertwee. The Scream of Ghosts sees him flying in the role, having to deliver a great deal of exposition and carry much of the story. Treloar is the Doctor for me now, and he carries the same authority and good humour as Pertwee did. This story is a great deal of fun to listen, but possibly a little too long for its own good but it pulls itself together for a rousing climax: 8/10

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio Landscape: Those howls. Christ, those howls.

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

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

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

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

Here's What Soldeed Thought...

Sunday, 19 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 May 2019

No Place written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Primord written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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