Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The Dalek Occupation of Winter written by David K Barnes and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS lands in the capital city of a planet deep in the midst of an endless winter. The population are celebrating a new crop of candidates winning roles at the scientific research centre. Those who go there dedicate their lives to continued service and are rarely, if ever, seen again. Not everyone is happy to see them leave. As the Doctor, Steven and Vicki watch, the city leader – Majorian – invites onto the stage in front of the happy crowd their ‘friend who made all this possible’… and a Dalek appears. The people of this planet seem to be living in perfect harmony with the Doctor’s old enemies. But the TARDIS crew know this cannot be true. So what’s really going on?

Hmm: He objects to be treated as an old man. Steven doubts that anyone has called the Doctor a lad in a long time. It feels very authentic that the Doctor should investigate rather than react to the Daleks presence on Winter. He’s smart enough to see that the people here are safe and adjusted to their masters to know he has the time to ask all the right questions instead of blustering in with talk of conquering them. If there’s anyone who knows how to fight Daleks, it’s the Doctor. He is their sworn enemy. The fourth dimension is as child’s play to the Doctor as it is to the Daleks. You see the Doctor at his best not when he is opposing the Daleks but when he is trying to get through to the politicians on this world and facing their objections with intelligent debate. If you prove yourself to be unworthy of his attention, he has no qualms about telling you so. Leaving this adventure the Doctor is uncertain about their role and whether they have done any good, a situation that he is not used to.

Alien Orphan: Vicki admits she had a marvellous time in Ancient Rome until the Doctor burnt it down. It’s news to Steven, who is shocked to hear the fact (and would go on to use it against him in future historical adventures when he is plugging non-interference). When Vicki graduated, her father was so proud of her. If only he could see her now. The second you start wondering that Daleks aren’t all evil killers you’re in for a whole heap of trouble. Vicki is bright enough to know that her feminine wiles are enough to get the Doctor out of trouble when the situation arises. In her experience a lot of people get jittery when they turn up unannounced. You know that it won’t be long before the travellers opinions about the Daleks are highlighted as dangerous. It’s wonderful how Vicki so casually mentions that she has organised a revolution before.

Aggressive Astronaut: The Doctor wonders when Steven will learn to follow his example of not wandering off, which Vicki is astonished to hear. The Doctor is ALWAYS wandering off. Steven guesses that the Doctor is already whinging about him as soon as he is out of sight. Speaking as somebody who fought in the Dalek War, seeing Daleks being assembled is horrific for Steven. There’s a stunning moment when he deliberately tries to provoke one of the benevolent Daleks in order to show the colonists how evil they are. He almost gets a rise out of them too, proof that despite their apparently generous nature they are still the same ruthless killers underneath. Steven makes a speech here that is practically the antithesis of the Doctor’s speech in Genesis of the Daleks (‘Out of their evil I know must come something good…’). Everything they touch is evil, he insists. He lost good friends to the Daleks, which is bound to colour your view of them.

Standout Performance: I’ve said it before and no doubt I will say it again, Peter Purves’ affectionate portrayal of William Hartnell’s Doctor remains one of my favourite returning performances in any Big Finish line. It’s not that it is a perfect replica of Hartnell but that it is infused with the essence of him from a man who worked with him as intimately as possible for a couple of years. That shining intelligence, cheekiness (which is so often forgotten), twinkly mischievousness, tetchiness and authority are all present and correct. Purves has just captured something indefinably magical that summons up Hartnell at the height of his powers.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re the first person in our family that has actually mattered.’
‘The Daleks offer you friendship!’
‘You’re an old man, Doctor. I could break you in the time it takes to yawn.’
‘Enslave us and you waste resources. Save us and you have our gratitude.’

Great Ideas: Much in the style of the Hartnell years, the characterisation of the non-regulars is so strong that it takes a good seven minutes for the Doctor, Vicki and Steven to arrive. Winter is already a living breathing planet long before they arrive and it continues to be so after they leave. Some worlds in Doctor Who seem to exist purely to fill the story (Karfel), others, like Winter, feel like they exist outside of the Doctor Who universe. Winter is on the edge of the galaxy and its icy temperatures make it inimical to human life. The winters last for 500 years. There’s an element of The Krotons to this too, with selected citizens disappearing to continue their education. If the Dalek forces in nearby systems are depleted, they head to worlds like Winter for replenishment. By keeping this world happy and productive, the Daleks have a ready-made factory to swell their numbers. Is Winter a planet or a prison? The Daleks are the benefactors of Winter, ever since they came here 200 years ago. They helped the people settle here, built the city and fed them until they could pay their own way. They’ve never harmed the people of Winter. They are dependant on each other for survival. Karna is the one to watch out for. She’s the one who knows exactly what the Daleks are about; causing havoc and destruction out in the universe and yet she allows them to be mass produced on Winter regardless. A scheming, self-serving woman with a smile on her face and a knife behind her back who is bored with her life on Winter and wants to hurt somebody. Watch out for her. The story of how the Winter came to be a planet of Dalek production is fascinating; desperate pioneers abandoned by their own people reaching out to the Daleks to form an alliance. Although they are their captors, the Daleks pretended to be their friends. The illusion of freedom is given to replenish their forces. They kept their own people alive so the Daleks could slaughter millions. I’ll leave you to debate the moral implications of that one. Is there anyway of turning back when you have sacrificed yourself to evil for this long? Realistically the fate of this world, no longer in thrall to the Daleks, is left unclear.

Audio Landscape: Just listen to the moment where Vicki is introduced to the young of the Daleks. I haven’t been quite this repulsed by a soundscape in a while. Hissing, bubbling, squealing. The birth of pure evil is nauseating. A young Dalek mutant escaping and biting down on someone’s arm is as repulsive as it sounds. The Daleks aren’t used enough in terms of pure body horror and so it’s terrific to see a writer really exploiting them in such a memorably horrible way. ‘You’ve got to help me, it’s killing me!’

Isn’t it Odd: It’s a shame that the status quo on Winter has to be overthrown because it was such an interesting set up. Part of me wishes that this was one story where the Doctor did not win through and the Dalek production continued. It feels right that it is a moment of racism that exposes the Daleks to the people of Winter but saying that it is a very simple swing from the people producing these machines to them revolting.

Standout Scene: The astonishing revelation that the entire economy of Winter is making Daleks en masse. Steven’s horror that 10,000 are being made every week mirrored my own. A place that appeared so benign is perpetuating pure evil.

Result: ‘A perpetual wave of killing machines generated from the stunted ambitions of a people kept in ignorance, hmm?’ It’s almost a shame that the title advertises the presence of the Daleks (‘we love marketing’) because the cliff-hanger to the first episode is one of the best that Big Finish have ever put out. It tops of a nourishing first episode that shows novices exactly how this sort of introductory interlude should be done, setting up a compelling and convincing world, throwing in an engaging set of regulars and building to an incredible surprise. These are sneaky, manipulative, political Daleks of Power of the Daleks, much more interesting than when they are invading in great numbers. In fact with its scenes of Daleks on a factory line there is more than a touch of Power about The Dalek Occupation of Winter but what separates them is the bizarre dreamlike quality to this tale where a factory churning out war machines is performed by happy, willing workers. It’s a simple they help us and we help them morality on Winter but in steps the Doctor, Steven and Vicki who know what the consequences of the work that is being done here are. This is one of those Doctor Who stories that has so much potential when you hear its premise and it’s a spanking new type of Dalek story to boot. To put the travellers on a world where the Daleks are benevolent turns the nature of this kind of story on its head. Suddenly the TARDIS crew are the monsters that are trying to spoil the status quo. There is something special about these Early Adventures that I have a trouble putting my finger on. Maybe its how they so perfectly capture the eras they are aping or that the performances always feel a cut above the average Big Finish adventure. Dramatically, they often leave the main range in the dust. I think Lisa Bowerman has a huge part in why they are such beautifully crafted pieces. The Dalek Occupation of Winter is extremely well written and beautifully acted. As an audio drama, it sets the bar for how strong these can be. I was entranced by the work of Barnes, Bowerman, Purves, O’Brien and Hrycek-Robinson. Viewers in the sixties were lucky to have storytelling of this calibre and we’re lucky that similar material is being produced now: 9/10

Saturday, 15 June 2019

What Have I Done written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the battlefields of World War I, something is hunting in the trenches. Jack must try and save the life of a wounded soldier.

Here He Comes in a Great Big Tractor: Jack would save a soldier in the First World purely because he has nice eyes. In the trenches, Jack and his entire platoon were killed but he was the only one to walk out of there – that’s his curse during this time period when so many lives were lost. Jack is often both dishonourable and embarrassing. In a moment of frustration Jack admits that he would like to leave Ata to his fear and save himself. It’s a very human moment from a character who often comes across as more than that. He’s gotten so good at pretending that he’s not afraid, pretending that he is unstoppable that he has almost come to believe it himself. He’s a liar. He’s scared of everything, or losing everything, of being wrong. He’s scared of love and being open, caring that much. He’s even scared of death, which he thinks is stupid. Every time it happens coming face to face with the void – what if this time that’s it? Most people only get to face that thought once but he has to go through it over and over again.

Standout Performance: I’ve always suggested that Barrowman is much more of an entertainer and less of an actor and then a story comes along like this that blows my argument out of the water with a tsunami. He’s excellent, none of that showmanship but instead giving a concentrated, penetrating turn. And so, so different to how he played Jack in Piece of Mind. His monologue at the climax when he faces the creature gave me goosebumps. It’s been a long time since I have been this surprised by a performance in an audio.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How do we fight it?’ ‘We don’t.’
‘You have to take control of your fear.’
‘The universe is full of people trying to keep fear away with prayers.’

Great Ideas: There’s something out there on the battlefield and it can sense and feel fear. There must be plenty of that about. Jack watched one of them stalking the battlefield feeding off that fear, hunting during wartime, finding the scared and draining them. You don’t need much more than that if I’m honest. Other audios would go to great lengths to explain what the monsters are all about but this is a chilling concept the simpler it is kept. Dread on the horizon and a creature stalking the landscape like a vampire.

Audio Landscape: I’m not sure why I am more aware of sound effects when the stories are set in history than I am when they are set in the future. It’s the realism of it, it’s a soundscape that I could be a part of in real life and so my ears attune to it. When a story is set off-world with lots of science fiction beeps and whistles your mind tells you that this is a completely artificial environment. In the past on Earth, it’s very real.

Musical Cues: It’s one of the best original theme tunes that Big Finish has conjured up for a non-Doctor Who range. I especially love the electric guitar intrusion. The score is subdued, atmospheric, absorbing. It doesn’t try and overwhelm the actors, which shows some restraint.

Standout Scene: I loved the story of Ata’s brother. Such a beautifully told story, so authentic, drenched in regret.

Result: Completely different to the first story in this set and that tells me an awful lot about the potential of this series. It’s an anthology series, set during different periods of Jack’s life, much like the Dorian Gray series. Like Dorian, this is spearheaded by Scott Handcock and can veer between knockabout comedy and intense drama and everything in between. This is precisely what the River Song series could have been if it wasn’t so obsessed with the Doctor or in created grand arcs or plugging continuity gaps, hour long vignettes that explore the central character in some depth and reveal just how much life he has lived. This is a riveting drama set in the trenches of the First World War, a two hander between Jack and a soldier he saved. It’s intensely character driven (unlike the over plotted madness of Piece of Mind) and showcases the acting talents of John Barrowman and Atilla Akinci. Kudos to Guy Adams for stripping back all the distractions that usually pad out an audio and focussing purely on the relationship between the two characters. I truly wish more audios were like this. There isn’t a huge amount to talk about here because this is less about the details and more about experiencing this snapshot of these men’s lives. My suggestion is to wait until it’s night and find a quiet spot on your own and listen to this with headphones on. It’s an eerie, disquieting experience and one of the most personal Big Finish stories I have heard in some time. Guy Adams has become a name to rely on: 9/10

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Lives of Captain Jack Vol.2: Piece of Mind written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When the Sixth Doctor falls dying into his arms, Jack must carry on in his place. Is the universe ready for a whole new kind of Doctor?

Here He Comes in a Great Big Tractor: The face of the Doctor may change but the hearts stay the same. If you think for even one moment that John Barrowman is hamming it up as the Doctor or putting far too much theatrical gusto into his performance then I suggest you go and watch the sixth Doctor’s era all over again. If anything, he’s underselling it. He keeps saying the villains name because it is brilliantly funny and for no other reason. He’s not just wearing the Doctor’s coat, he’s rocking it! Hearing Jack call the sixth Doctor ‘chicken’ is worth the admission price alone. The Doctor thinks he is nothing but a braggadocios fliperdigibbet. Jack playing the sixth Doctor with a big gun, murdering his way through the universe isn’t that far removed from the Doctor of season 22. It’s not as controversial as you might think. First he slaughters the peoples of the universe with weapons, then he impresses them with his wisdom and then he is charming. A hard one to pin down. It is inferred at one point that Jack has had sex in the sixth Doctor’s coat (what an idea) because he heads back to the TARDIS and sings tacky seventies porn music as he walks through the door. When you’re as antediluvian as he is you learn to improvise per adventure. He makes it up as he goes along, even if he can make it appear as though he had it plotted out all along. He wants the address of the Doctor’s tailor so he can burn the building down. Jack berates himself that he wasn’t up to the coat. Saving untold billions is just how he rolls. Does Jack really offer to snog old Sixie?

Softer Six: At the point of regenerative collapse, the sixth Doctor falls into the arms of Captain Jack who absorbs all of that regeneration energy. He suggests that being the Doctor requires tact and delicacy and no guns. Wits are a far better weapon. A wandering philosopher in exile. A fount of wisdom and kindness. And above all, humble. This is the sixth Doctor describing himself! Yeah, I was laughing too. He believes a heightened vocabulary is nothing to apologise for. He can’t remember why he was dying, which is useful for not contradicting The Last Adventure. He admits that he is not the marrying kind but Jack has already met his wife (what a tease Goss is). In the great coat exchange, the Doctor rather wants to keep Jack’s because he cuts a dash in it. He apologises on behalf of the ninth Doctor for abandoning Jack – sometimes he’s not great at apologising so he is getting it in early. Several lifetimes early. When you’ve lived as long as he has its easy to forget the bits that don’t fit: see now that is exactly the sort of adherence to continuity I wish the River Song series would stick to. Not thinking up elaborate ways for the past Doctors to forget about her. Just telling the story they want to tell and letting the listener deal with the issue of contradictory continuity. If they like the story, trust me they will find a way of making it fit in.

Standout Performance: A lot of the fun of this release comes down to listening to John Barrowman doing a really hammy impression of Colin Baker’s Doctor. It’s as bonkers as that sounds and is both mildly irritating and really, really funny. So I’ll call that a success. In fact, it is more an amalgam of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor (but then it is supposed to be Doctor 6.5) and if those are your least favourite Doctors then you’re in for a world of trouble. In Barrowman’s charismatic hands, this is a wild ride.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Aggressive statuary. Have I done that?’
‘You can tell a bucket about your enemies from the quality of their soft furnishings!’
‘You? You’re not my Doctor! You’re a rail replacement bus!’
‘You and Davros sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G…’
‘Captain Jack Harkness! Amoral space adventurer!’

Great Ideas: It’s almost a shame that the Big Finish marketing machine was all over this release because the opening is genuinely arresting and would have been far moreso had images of Jack in the sixth Doctor’s coat not been plastered all over social media to try and encourage people to buy this set. Just why is the sixth Doctor dying in Captain Jack’s arms?

Standout Scene: Even funnier than Captain Jack doing a sixth Doctor impressions is the sixth Doctor doing a Captain Jack impression. Lordy lord. This is very funny stuff. You literally have a scene with Jack playing the sixth Doctor conversing with the sixth Doctor pretending to be Jack. What madness is this?

Result: ‘If you’re single and ready to mingle…’ I was initially perturbed by the cover that was released for this release, wondering if perhaps Big Finish had finally jumped the shark. It’s the sort of godawful mash up of continuity that Gary Russell used to perpetuate. I should have known better to trust Goss and Handcock, because everything they touch these days seems to turn to gold. If you can, check out the trailer that was release to co-incide with this release. It’s a blast. Piece of Mind is as insane, gaudy and continuity driven as the sixth Doctor era mixed with the confidence and charisma of Captain Jack. The story bombards with its big revelation at the beginning and then offers no explanation as to why Jack is suddenly behaving like a cross between the sixth and seventh Doctors. You’re expected to just go with the flow and enjoy the ride for a while. It’s one of Goss’ wittiest scripts, finally let off the leash completely and able to dive into complete absurdity. I haven’t seen Colin Baker comically matched with anybody this sublimely for years, not since the time the sixth Doctor came up against Banto Zame in The One Doctor. He and Jack make quite a pair. If you’re looking for a multi-layered plot then you’re going to be disappointed but if you come to this particular release with an expectation of outrageous farce and a comical look at both the sixth Doctor and Captain Jack then you’re in for a treat. I particularly like how they are contrasted against each other, pointing out each others flaws and ultimately learning plenty of each others strengths. Jack learns what it means to be the Doctor in a fairly profound way, which I didn’t expect from such an outrageous tale. I’m not I really paid too much attention to what was actually happening in the story, I was too busy falling for the irresistible chemistry between Barrowman and Baker. I can’t think of a Big Finish release that is quite this obsessed with sofas: 8/10

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Kamelion Empire written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Once upon a time, a people of great artistry and great knowledge ruled the planet Mekalion: the Kamille. For a thousand years, they prospered peacefully. Then came disaster, when their sun set forever. Facing extinction, the Kamille made the Locus, a device to sustain their minds; and fashioned shape-changing machines, to act out their wishes on the physical plane… Servants they called the Kamelion.

An English Gentleman: Tegan and Turlough are sceptical about the Doctor’s promise to take Kamelion home, because he promised both of them that he would do exactly that soon after they joined him on his adventures. This time he hits the bullseye first time. The Doctor argues for self-determinism and yet his argument is thrown in his face when it is pointed out that he involves himself in the affairs of others if he feels that things aren’t how they should be. He tries to counter argue that he gets out as soon as possible and leaves people to decide their own fate but the point is a convincing one on the part of Kamelion. Does he think he has the right to decide what is best for other races. As soon as he learns that he was a weapon of war the Doctor ends his friendship with Kamelion. Does the Doctor know his way around his own Ship? When questioned on the subject he tries to excuse the fact that he is lost by unleashing some dreadful technobabble hokum. You’re not fooling anyone, Doctor.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan, ever honest, thinks the sooner they see the back of Kamelion, the better. Or rather good riddance to bad rubbish. I really do relate to her these days. Turlough suggests that she once thought that way about him and she retorts that she still does. Miaow. We’ve not seen this shrieking harridan version of Tegan for quite some time, probably since Cobwebs.

Over the Shoulder: Tegan is pissed (how unusual) that everywhere they go reminds her of somewhere he has been before, only better. The old show off. One person’s morbid curiosity is another person’s keen sense of self preservation. If his life depended on it he would attempt to sell ice to Eskimos. Turlough is completely unsure about sacrificing himself for his fellow companions and gets on with it before he changes his mind. Maybe he does have hidden depths. At least when Turlough appears to bat for the other team we know that he is smart enough to not really mean what he is saying. That was never the case with Adric.

Kamelion: Kamelion would like to return to his home planet and the Doctor seems only too happy to oblige. It’s all done in the spirit of friendship but the Doctor is probably hoping that he will decide to stay given the amount of trouble he has been for them recently. He thinks Tegan and Turlough will not be sad to see him depart. Does he have dreams? You can always rely on Jonathan Morris to take a more intriguing angle than anyone and whilst the other writers of this trilogy have focussed on how he can be used in plot terms, Morris tackles him as a character. Some of the discussion in episode one about the nature of this creature, what he thinks and feels is thoughtful in the same way that Star Trek tackles this sort of stuff on a regular basis. He offers the answer that he was a soldier obeying orders not as an excuse but as an explanation. Kamelion using Tegan’s mind without her consent is a form of abuse, a rape of the mind. If there was ever a moment where he didn’t deserve to be a member of the TARDIS crew, this was it. Let alone stealing the TARDIS, threatening to kill them and being revealed as a soldier in a vast intergalactic colonisation. Kamelion is happy to deactivate himself and the Doctor isn’t going to stop, only provide him with a second option. He offers Kamelion the spare storeroom and will configure it as a zero room so he is free of all outside influence.

Standout Performance: Despite my reservations about how he has been treated as a character, I cannot fault John Culshaw’s portrayal of Kamelion. It reaches its height in this story, where he is forced to confront all manner of unpleasant truths and does so with calm, almost serene disinterest. There is something chilling about his sing-song voice, never wavering, always so calm.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Another Earth-type planet’ ‘Yes, they’re more common than you might think.’
‘It doesn’t matter how benevolent a dictator is. They’re still a dictator!’
‘An Empire that spanned galaxies and lasted a thousand years and it all ended in a matter of hours?’
'A civil war in more ways than one.’

Great Ideas: The Kamille once created Kamelion and his kind. Kamelion was sent to Xeraphis to serve as an ambassador of the Kamille. His function is diplomatic, which is why he can manipulate his form. The command signal from his home planet ended and he was stranded. Without a directing intelligence he entered a dormant state, until the Master came along. There were over 10,000 Kamelion ambassadors created. The Kamelion’s have built in weaponry. The green disc on their stomachs are a laser gun. The Kamille charted the entire landscape of this world, building great cities and founding colonies. They lived in peace for a 1000 years. There was a drop in solar luminosity and so they designed the locust, a device to house their minds without the need for their physical bodies. They built s vast fleet and sent the Kamelion’s out to discover other worlds. They took command of worlds driven by war and gave them peace and took people who would have destroyed themselves and saved them. As a last resort they neutralised species that threatened universal harmony: that’s genocide by another name. Kamelion was sent to Xeraphis as part of a Kamelion invasion force.

Isn’t it Odd: If the Kamelion Empire extended across the galaxy and ruled for a 1000 years then why has the Doctor never heard of it before? He’s travelled fairly extensively.

Standout Scene: Is this the first species on Doctor Who where their language is largely a form of profanity? Thank goodness that the TARDIS translation circuits can’t interpret. The end of part features the Doctor threatening to blow up the TARDIS with all of them on board rather than unleash chaos into the universe. I wish it had been directed more like the end of The Caves of Androzani episode three.

Result: ‘Witness the combined might of the Kamelion army!’ Why oh why do Big Finish keep leaning on the same writers to produce their scripts? Jonathan Morris, John Dorney, Matt Fitton, Guy Adams, etc. One extremely good reason is that they are proven assets and nine times out of ten they can deliver the goods. Jonathan Morris has been writing Doctor Who Big Finish scripts for over a decade now and as The Kamelion Empire attests, he hasn’t lost any of his aptitude for strong characterisation, an engaging dialogue style and plotting that refuses to go down the obvious route. He’s one of the few writers that you could give any set of regulars to and he will not only get their voices right (seriously, check out his resume) but use the time to explore a little more about them than the TV series usually afforded. He’s even managed to drag some interest out of Kamelion here, for goodness sakes and that is an impressive feat in itself as it has pretty much eluded everybody else. This is much less ‘how can Kamelion be a spanner in the works?’ and far more ‘where did this guy come from and how to did he end up where he was when we first met him?’ which is a much more fascinating approach. There’s a lot of discussion about whether he fits in in the TARDIS crew and definitive conclusion drawn about that. I could have told you that that was a foregone conclusion before this trilogy began (and because we never saw him again in the TV aside from his leaving story) which renders it pretty pointless but at least with The Kamelion Empire we have learnt about his origins. It wasn’t an entirely futile exercise. Kamelion once again proves to be far more trouble than he is worth but a ton of context and backstory is given this time which makes it much more satisfying. Morris gets Tegan and Turlough spot on; cutting with each other, smart enough to drive the plot and investigate and very observant when doing so. He always gets Davison’s Doctor bang on; more than older Professor of Frontios than the young whippersnapper of season 19. There’s also some shrewd direction from Ken Bentley (speaking of prolific contributors) and a dazzlingly authentic score (it sounds like Paddy Kingsland was involved). I mention all of these positives because the plot goes completely off the rails in episodes three and four. The second half of the story leaps back in time to the time of the Kamelion civil war and the last episode is set almost entirely in the TARDIS, allowing this story to be practically carried by the regulars alone. Unfortunately, I lost interest, the narrative was far more suspenseful when the regulars were exploring the aftermath of the events on Mekalion rather than when they were participating in it. For once Morris’ use of timey-wimeyness confuses rather than enhances the action and I’m not sure that Chaos was ever particularly convincing as a villain (just a ranting power crazed madman in the Eldrad vein). Even if the plot stutters and fails there is still a great deal to enjoy here; especially the intelligent discussion about self-determinism, the fine characterisation and the solid production: 6/10

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

An Alien Werewolf in London written by Alan Barnes and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: A space-time summons brings the TARDIS to the strangest place Mags has yet visited. A haven for the freakiest freaks and the weirdest weirdoes: Camden Lock, London, in the early 1990s. But there's a reason why former TARDIS traveller Ace has brought the old gang back together. She’s on a mission to rescue an alien being, held prisoner in a massive mansion… A mission that can’t possibly go wrong. Can it?

The Real McCoy: Has Sylvester McCoy forgotten how to act entirely? He’s singularly unconvincing making breakfast, let alone playing the spoons and making balloon animals. If this is supposed to be a Doctor at the end of his time in this incarnation then why is he behaving like the buffoon from season 24? When he’s dressed like he was in season 24? Did the script editor speak to all of the writers of this trilogy and get them all on the same page? When the script editor is the WRITER of this script you have to wonder how the depiction of the Doctor from Gokroth to Werewolf could be so different. Time Lords and Vampires have some ancient beef, apparently. Why this is a Doctor Who story baffles me because he really doesn’t have a great influence on events, popping up every now and again to provide a goofy moment but little else.

Werewolf in Space and Time: What was the point of bringing Mags back into the fold? Was there a juicy creative reason for doing so? Don’t get me wrong I think there is serious dramatic mileage in having a werewolf as the Doctor’s companion but the way that Big Finish has tackled it is the most obvious angle I can imagine. A Frankenstein’s monster tale followed by a Twilight tale followed by a story tale that pits werewolf versus vampire. It’s like a tour of the monster film rip offs (the titles of the three stories reveal exactly what they were going for). It would have been better to have really knuckled down and get under the skin of the character, to explore what the transformation feels like, to have her on the edge and a dangerous friend to keep close. Mags’ transformations have felt entirely expediated by plot rather than rooted in character. I don’t feel I know her any better than I did before, and I’ve even taken a trip to her home planet. The Doctor has brought Mags somewhere where punk is alive and she might fit in. I rather liked how she stepped from the TARDIS and instantly caught wind of the medley of smells in Camden, giving the listener a chance to really capture the scene. She’s lost control of her Vulpanan nature and she thinks that travelling in the TARDIS has only made things worse. I’m not sure having Mags, who has bestial tendencies herself screaming ‘you’re monsters, all of you!’ at a bunch of vampires is the most subtle way to bring her trilogy to an end. Other Mags leaves because she’s free of her transformation and Camden feels like somewhere she could fit in. The monster will always be there in Mags’ shadow.

Oh Wicked: She has a space/time pager that the Doctor left with her. This is a long time after she has left him and no longer goes by the name of Ace. I heard a comment recently that Ace was more of a middle class, BBC executive version of what a street kid would be like in the eighties rather than the real thing. That there is a distance between the reality of a punk kid from the suburbs and what Andrew Cartmel and Sophie Aldred delivered. It’s very apparent here with Barnes having Ace drop pop culture references in a very unconvincing way. She’s trying to sound hip and with it by mentioning Thriller and Brookside but it just doesn’t come off. Leave that sort of thing to Russell T Davies. This might have been a nice chance to see the Ace that was mentioned in the Sarah Jane Adventures, doing fantastic charity work. The story is sold on the idea that we are catching up with Ace long after she has left the Doctor and yet it’s like she is the same character we have always known. There’s nothing to indicate the passing of time and on the cover it’s the Ace from season 25. Ace turning into a vampire is completely wasted. I mean completely. Remember when she succumbed to the Planet of the Cheetah People and how beautifully that was characterised in Survival? Yeah, you get none of that. This is entirely plot driven and is discarded as soon as the plot no long requires it of her.

Standout Performance: I’m unconvinced about McCoy’s chemistry with Martin. There is a distance between them that prevents me from buying into the relationship. Martin is playing Mags in a very haughty, ‘I don’t really want to be here’ sort of way and McCoy is trying to manufacture warmth between them that just isn’t there. It’s especially highlighted with Aldred is around because she and McCoy have such a relaxed shorthand. In comparison it’s like the Doctor and Mags are like ex-lovers who can’t find a way to be around each other anymore.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What is this drivel?’ the Doctor says at one point. I’m with you, Doc.

Dreadful Dialogue: A good gauge of dialogue is to say it out loud and see how it sounds. I don’t think that was done here…
‘Nitro Ten. It’s one louder, I’m told.’
‘Vampires, are you sure?’ ‘The eyes and the fangs gave them away.’ No shit Sherlock.
‘Oh Doctor, I’m so gonna have you. You see if I don’t’ is not a line that should ever be uttered.
‘Check out the canines! Proper Lost Boys job!’
‘Wading in gore looking like The Cure on Halloween!’
‘Time Lord TV is about to hit the airwaves!’
‘So that’s what Rufus wants! To bring back the Dark Ages, vampirically speaking…’ – it’s troublesome when the plot has been so ill defined that you need to spell it out this broadly in episode four.
‘We’re Aussie soap stars! We can’t age ten years!’

Audio Landscape: A genuinely terrific score, well worth listening to in isolation. In fact the music for all three of these stories have been exceptional. Perhaps the main range should just be soundtracks from now on because the pesky stories and dialogue seem to just get in the way of the good stuff.

Isn’t it Odd: What on Earth has happened? When Big Finish stepped into the limelight it as largely acknowledged that the Sylvester McCoy stories were the rotten apples. In those first 100 releases there were a number of gems for the seventh Doctor but they were few and far between and there was a feeling of a lack of direction for the master manipulator, especially compared to what was happening with Sixie and Evelyn, the fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem and the eighth Doctor and Charley. When Nick Briggs and Alan Barnes took over the main range and the trilogies began things swung around for the seventh Doctor in a dramatic way. Suddenly with Ace, Hex and Klein at his side he had an almost unbroken run of stories over two years that were superb, with stories such as The Magic Mousetrap, A Thousand Tiny Wings and A Death in the Family some of the absolute best that Big Finish have ever released. This carried on into ranges such the New Adventures audios and UNIT: Dominion. It looked like Big Finish had finally found its love for the trickiest of Doctors. But over the past four years that interest, it appears, has completely waned and there has been a record number of duds releases time after time for Seven, that seemed to co-incide with bringing together Ace and Mel. Whilst there are other review sites out there that will continue to sing the praises of every Big Finish releases, despite the obvious inconsistency in quality, the general consensus is that the seventh Doctor has been struggling to find material of interest for a good 13 releases now. A Life of Crime (4/10 -, Fiesta of the Damned (5/10 -, The Maker of Demons (2/10 -, The Higher Price of Parking (5/10 -, The Blood Furnace (4/10 -, The Silurian Candidate (2/10 -, Red Planets (5/10 -, The Dispossess (3/10 -, The Quantum Possibility Engine (8/10 -, Warlock’s Cross (4/10 -, Muse of Fire (9/10 -, The Monsters of Gokroth (5/10 -, The Moons of Vulpana (1/10 - These reviews explain my opinion of the seventh Doctor stories in much more depth but with two stories in 13 to score higher than 5/10 and it’s obvious that I am far from satisfied. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor but it does upset me to see him being constantly delivered mediocre material. He’s a Doctor with plenty to offer if you tailor the story to his character but Big Finish seem to have forgotten how to do that.

So let me get this straight this releases biggest selling point is that it has Ace in it? Ace, who has appeared in umpteeny squillion seventh Doctor stories to the point of exhaustion? You’ll forgive me if I don’t get too excited about that. I was more excited that she wasn’t going to feature in this trilogy and that Big Finish were trialling a new companion with the seventh Doctor but like a bad smell Ace lingers on endlessly. The gag about somebody putting ferrets down their trousers falls flat. This is a script that is trying far too hard to be amusing. Barnes puts everybody in danger at the end of episode one and then like magic has everybody okay by the beginning of episode two and offers a token explanation of how they escaped through flashback. What now? Don’t get me started on the faux Australian soap. You can’t present material as corny as this when it isn’t any better than the story I’m listening to. Ace demands explanations at the beginning of episode four but I have to be honest I was none the wiser after the Doctor had finished. It tries to be a clever clever feint involving two seventh Doctors but it only serves to complicate this story even more. I’m told that Rufus is the villain of the piece but I could barely tell you who Rufus is, let alone what he is about and what he wants. A ton of exposition about the aliens delivered by dreadful Australian clich├ęs.

Standout Scene: I want to blame all of this on the writing but the direction is at fault too. The climax to episode three sees the Doctor turn his back on Ace and throw her to the monsters but it is directed as melodramatically and awkwardly as the mock soap opera scenes earlier in the episode. Has the main range thrown all sense of subtlety out the window?

Result: ‘So they’ll all know who you are? The weirdos, the Goths and the rebel MCs?’ What a great title. What a disappointing story. This is a really confused tale that tells you a lot of plot points but scrimps on the important details. Episode one introduces a lot of characters and takes for granted that we know who they are what they’re about. The Doctor goes on a mission for Ace without ever asking pertinent questions that might help us to understand why that course of action might have unfortunate consequences. All three of the ‘regulars’ are ineptly handled. McCoy is behaving like the joker from season 24, Ace is a carbon copy of her season 25 persona (when they are both supposed to be set way after those periods) and Mags is proving to be as much of a problem as Kamelion was, but with her Vulpanan transformation rather than being subject to everybody’s will. They gelled together so well in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and so I’m not sure why it doesn’t work here but then with a script that is trying a little too hard to be hip (with an emphasis on embarrassing contemporary pop culture references) I’m not surprised. Doctor Who isn’t a ‘cool’ show and when it tries hard to be one it usually falls flat on its face. This show is the stuff of battered police boxes, sonic screwdrivers and cravats. Not grungy East End locations, vampires and Australian soaps. It’s like some hideous middle-class version of the dodgy end of town or a socially inept geek walking the street in leathers and a cocky walk. The dialogue is too broad, too sanitised and in no way angry or wild enough. The socially acceptable side of punk, which is a contradiction in terms. An Alien Werewolf in London is a story about vampires that have managed to supress their mutation and conquer half of Europe. It features fake Mags. Turns Ace into a creature of the night. A fake Australian soap opera. Time Lord TV. Two Doctors. There’s far too much going on and none of it fits together contentedly. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a comedy, a drama, a horror story or even plain old entertainment. It fails as all of these. The guest characters are so ill defined and so badly written that I couldn’t get a handle on any of them, or what they were trying to achieve. Alan Barnes has written a wealth of Doctor Who stories now and script edited the main range for a long, long time. Creative exhaustion is inevitable after such a prolific run. That’s what screams from this story more than anything else, a sense of weariness and a lack of sparkle. The Main Range has been limping on, slowly dying for some time and it needs fresh creative juices pumping through it again. It’s time to hand the reins over to others and Messrs Handcock, Ainsworth and Reeves are just around the corner to breathe some life into it again. This might just be the weakest trilogy since they began. Mags deserved better: 3/10

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Power Game written by Eddie Robson and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Welcome to the Incredible Power Game, in which three brave Earthlings enter the Void Pit in search of strange gems to help return the alien Hostess to her home dimension. Today's contestants include Graham, Sadia... and Tegan, an air stewardess from Brisbane!

An English Gentleman: Only the Doctor could set course for New York and end up in York. Actually, that sums up Doctor Who rather well, doesn’t it? He promises The Eye of Orion, he delivers a wet weekend in Wales. He tells Turlough to be thankful it isn’t New New York. The pool has been back for months. Obviously, the TARDIS did not want to do without her. Or maybe she wants to try and entice the Doctor’s companions to stay with luxurious facilities. Had Colin Baker or Peter Capaldi been the incumbent Doctors during this tetralogy of adventures, Kamelion would be scrap by now.

Mouth on Legs: ‘I’m going to ask anyone if they can remember a belligerent Australian?’ says Turlough, forgetting that once Tegan is seen, she’s never forgotten. The last time Eddie Robson wrote for Tegan she was at her witty best but this time around even though he has placed her in a crazy situation that sparkle seems to be missing. Tegan sticks up for Kamelion at the climax, a most uncommon reaction for her.

Over the Shoulder: When asked if Tegan is his girlfriend, Turlough very quickly corrects the assertion by saying that they are housemates.

Kamelion: The signal that he uses to communicate isn’t too dissimilar to Wi-Fi. I’m guessing the big Finish are working towards the conclusion that Kamelion was such a thorn in the Doctor’s side that he had to consign him to a cupboard in the TARDIS before he was written out. Or maybe Kamelion himself will come to that conclusion. Either way each story thus far has managed to highlight a deficiency with the robot that has hampered the travellers on their adventures. This story sees the Doctor and Turlough looking for him, having already malfunctioned. There’s a little fun in trying to play ‘guess who is Kamelion’ in the same way that ‘guess what the segment to the Key to Time is’ was. He’s usually a benign and curious sort of fellow.

Standout Performance: Harriet Kershaw never convinced me as the Hostess of a game show. She lacks the charisma and personality of the usual sort that would be fronting this kind of show.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re looking for a robot that can disguise himself as anyone! We might have already walked past him a dozen times!’

Great Ideas: A game show that is hijacking the television signal and turning up during programmes unannounced. People are being taken and forced to take part in these games. The controllers of the game come from another Earth with different physical laws, one where evolution took an alternative path. The world is in the guise of a game show because that turns it into something that the contestants understand. All of the people who have failed at the games are dead, or at least its never confirmed that they are alive. It’s an energy-based lifeform and it is after special crystals to bring them into our universe with its different physical laws and they are able to refract light in a powerfully destructive way. Vast magnification properties. She’s making a weapons and selling them. Avarice, the most common of failings in a Doctor Who villain.

Standout Scene:
Kamelion randomly regains control of his systems where the plot requires him to do so. That’s lucky then.

Result: ‘Yet again it seems I must apologise to you…’ This is a fun idea from one of the quirkiest and most consistent of Big Finish writers but I’m not sure that it comes off and that’s entirely down to the execution of the piece. Big Finish are usually really good at playing up silly ideas like this one (Tegan appearing on a reality TV show featuring aliens) and have enjoyed success with idiosyncratic stories like Bang Bang a Boom, Max Warp, You are the Doctor and Other Stories and Robson’s own Situation Vacant. Power Game features witty dialogue and some lovely twists and turns but the energy and the fun factor is absent from the Power Game sequences. It feels like Ken Bentley was very uninspired by this script and as a result the most important aspect of the story lacks enthusiasm. Kamelion has quickly become tiresome too. Rather than using him as an exciting possibility, Big Finish are determined to display him as an irritating liability. With Kamelion and Mags getting the spotlight over the first 6 months of 2019 main range adventures it really feels like the current script editor is grasping at straws when it comes to selecting continuity elements to explore. The sooner Kamelion is bundled up in the TARDIS cupboard, the better. It’s a script with an intriguing premise, well structured and it fits well into its two-part length but ultimately the uncommon premise is merely smoke and mirrors for what is a very familiar type of Doctor Who story. And the ending is so abrupt I thought I had missed something in the climax. You’d be better off watching Bad Wolf: 5/10

Monday, 10 June 2019

Black Thursday written by Jamie Anderson and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 1902. Deep beneath the Welsh village of Abertysswg, men have worked the black seam for generations. Until the day of the disaster. The day that a blue box from the future materialised inside the mine.... and things would never be the same again.

An English Gentleman: I’m not sure that this is the TARDIS team that I would want to turn up if I was having this kind of disaster. The fifth Doctor is kind and helpful, sure, but then you have Tegan who always wants to leave, especially if things are hairy, Turlough who is always looking out for himself and Kamelion who is proving to be utterly exploitable. It’s not the first time the Doctor has had to explain the term ‘as right as rain’ but his back is feeling much better after being crippled in the previous adventure. The Doctor outright lies to a man who is dying, refusing to tell him that his son has already perished in the same accident. It’s the story’s most touching moment and another example of the fifth Doctor’s gentle humanity. The Doctor taking his friends into the future to show how the miners are remembered is really very sweet.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan is suffering from cabin fever but then again Tegan suffered from that in every other story on television so it’s hardly stunning revelation. How many times has she heard that they are going on holiday and they end up somewhere terrible? Tegan, ever ready to make a stand for women’s rights (and too right) is appalled when it is assumed that the Doctor is the Doctor of their party simply because he is a man.

Over the Shoulder: Somewhat authentically in The Kings Demons, The Five Doctors and The Awakening mould, Turlough is given nothing at all to do. He's always had a hankering to visit New York.

Kamelion: He doesn’t seem to get Tegan’s sarcasm, but then nobody else in the universe does either. He takes on human form in this story, which is something I have been saying he was made for donkey’s years. It’s clear to me that the overriding concept of Kamelion as far as Big Finish is concerned is one of dominance and control. He’s built to be used and simply too much trouble to keep around. The Doctor would have been able to skip town after an episode if it weren’t for his metal friend complicating matters and succumbing to the grief of a widowed miners wife.

Standout Performance: I couldn’t work out if Lizzie Roper’s Eira Hughes was a tragic or histrionic figure. Probably a little of both.

Isn’t it Odd: In The Kings Demons, Kamelion was able to play King John with a great amount of gusto and personality so why when posing as a human in this story is he so stiff and characterless? Is it because he was getting his florid acting style directly from the Master? That would explain a lot. The last minute soap opera twist felt entirely superfluous.

Standout Scene: The cliff-hanger is pretty creepy given it has been signposted. Kamelion takes on the guise of a dead miner and swears to get retribution for his death. I can almost believe that this moment was the inspiration for the story, because it was certainly the most effective moment and the only one that rose above the mediocrity of the rest. It feels added just to insert a little surprise in the climax.

Result: Sincere but inessential, Black Thursday was driven almost entirely by its phenomenal performances. By the end I was perfectly convinced that working down the mines must have been a precarious occupation and a genuine worry for the families of the workers. However why this needed to be a Doctor Who story baffles me. It’s another man versus management story in The Behemoth style but without Marc Platt’s gift for memorable dialogue and local colour. Jamie Anderson managed to squeeze a fair amount of character into this story as far as the miners and their family are concerned but a two-part story really isn’t the place for a four-man TARDIS team when they aren’t the focus and there really isn’t a great deal of plot to be had for any of them to engage with. The first episode is almost entirely a rescue effort on the Doctor’s part, the sort of thing that he would skip over in five minutes in a four-part story. It’s a short story and has to talk to broad assumptions that the management are corporate scum and the miners are all innocent victims where I prefer a little more nuance than that. Anderson had more time with Absolute Power to shade his characters and build his location, although I think I’m the only person who enjoyed that particular story. I didn’t dislike Black Thursday (as I said its heart is in the right place) but I’m not sure why I was listening to it in the first place. Kamelion is proving to be a complete liability: 5/10