Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Gift written by Rupert Laight and directed by Alice Troughton

This story in a nutshell: Never look a gift horse in the mouth...especially when it is from the Blathereen.

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: Like The Curse of Peladon where the Doctor was mistrustful of the Ice Warriors because he had only encountered their aggressive side before, Sarah Jane is initially mistrustful of the Blathereen and their apparent good intentions. When aliens from a particular planet have tried to murder over and over again it is perfectly natural to build up a prejudice against them.  Sarah is suspicious until the Rakweed is produced and she is seduced by the idea of curing the world of poverty and doing some lasting good for the planet. She isn't too bothered about the fame this gift would bring her but the good she could do for the world. She is a genuinely altruistic individual, a rarity in science fiction. Mind you she learnt from the best. I'm pleased that her paranoia keeps her cautious though, wondering if she has been tainted by alien attacks into think that every charitable act has a darker meaning. If she had simply accepted the Rakweed without comment I would start questioning whether she was fit to protect the planet. She's been a reporter creating the news for so long that Sarah is a little afraid of making the Rakweed public and becoming front page news herself. When she realises that the Rakweed is dangerous she has a few cutting words for Mr Smith. For Sarah Jane this is two pronged attack; the possibility of losing her son and the planet she has sworn to protect. When her sons life is in danger, Sarah Jane means business and she takes up arms against the Blathereen (okay it is only loaded with vinegar but it would have the same effect on the creatures as a bullet would on a human). As is often the case Sarah tries to give her foes a chance to redeem themselves but true to their nature they press on and have to be dealt with. And this story has a particularly messy solution. And yet she still apologises and thinks there should have been a better way to end this. The final grinning shot of Elizabeth Sladen made me blink away tears...she looks absolutely beautiful.

Sarah's Gang: Rani is the one who soothes Sarah Jane's concerns and convinces her that the Blathereen coming to dinner might be fun. Clyde, as ever, displays hidden talents. Let's get him signed up to Masterchef if he can lay on a banquet that satisfies an alien delegation. What isn't surprising is Clyde trying to sneak K.9 into school to help him with his exam, against the dogs will. There is a real effort to give Luke some development before he takes a sabbatical from the series. In his last three stories before his presence on the show is reduced we experience his first proper argument with Sarah Jane (Mona Lisa's Revenge), his first illness (the Gift) and his first nightmares (The Nightmare Man). Note the gorgeous chemistry between Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony. That is just going to get more potent next year. Kudos to Tommy Knight too, who truly convinces that he is on the brink of death as the infected Luke.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We absolutely adore foreign food!'
'Shepherds are a delicacy on this world?'
'We might not be able to use text books but nobody said anything about a super intelligent robot from the year 5000.'
'Small as Earth is it is still a useful plot of land.'
'Disintegration successful' 'You don't say.'

The Good: Talk about hitting the ground running... The Pharos Institute is a staple of this series at this point, first appearing in the season one finale and being utilised right up until the season five debut. Isn't it wonderful how this episode initially convinces you that this is going to be another Slitheen pantomime? Cue audible groans from a certain portion of the audience that can't stomach an alien with problems with their gaseous odours. It quickly evolves into something quite different that just happens to involve characters in the Slitheen costumes, Laight subverting your expectations by having the Blathereen turn up and save Sarah Jane and her friends. How nice for this show to continue to take elements of Doctor Who and give them extra layers of back story. I realise that most of the time the reason for this is because the costumes are available from Doctor Who and it is an economical way of ensuring an alien presence in the show but it has the brilliant side effect of inducing excitement from Doctor Who fans who enjoy the appearances of the Sontarans, Judoon and Slitheen. The Sarah Jane Adventures has managed to take all of these races and given them additional depth. Especially the Slitheen/Blathereen, a race that is built for a child friendly programme and that have appeared in more episodes of this series than in the parent show they sprung from. I really enjoyed them in Aliens of London/World War Three and Boom Town but I have to say the race has been utilised far more successfully in this series where they can run with the more juvenile aspects without apology. Their method of trying to turn the planet into cash is catchy and it is rare to come across such a cheeky race (most of them are played for scares) that just happen to murder people in their wake. The long shot of the baby Slitheen running an entire length of corridor is gorgeous, brilliantly unapologetic. This is how this species should have been treated all along, not packaged as the latest big bad but as characters in their own right. It is amazing how much more palatable they are as a result. Mind you thanks to some rehearsal, the costumes have been perfected at this point and look striking and convincing on screen. Not only that but the series has managed to attract names as impressive as Simon Callow and Miriam Margoyles to play Tree and Leaf, outstanding actors of a calibre that you would not expect to find doing voiceover work for a programme on CBBC. It is their vocal talents that make the perfect finishing touches on these characters and what allows us to be fooled into a false sense of security as to their intentions. The idea of Slitheen bounty hunters from Raxicoribophalibatorious is an engaging one, and I would have enjoyed subsequent appearances had this turned out to be a genuine offer of help from Tree and Leaf.  The first episode of The Gift is a complete change of pace for an SJA story, focussing on comedy and character drama and leaving the scares for the last five minutes. It is hard to tell how much of what they tell Sarah and her friends about their planet is true but there is some intriguing back story about Raxacoricofallapatorious. Apparently the planet had quite the reputation before the Slitheen bribed their way into power and spoilt things. What the Blathereen are offering is an end to poverty with a plant that can grow in the harshest of conditions. It's a world shaping gift that would fundamentally change things on Earth forever. Would it cause the planet to be even more overpopulated? Would current societies in the grip of hunger become a powerful presence? Would our perception of the Third World change forever? How wonderful that this show can get me thinking in such a a story about big baby faced aliens offering a present of a flower. Between them, Rupert Laight and Alice Troughton manage to turn the Rakweed (on screen little more than an inoffensive flower) into a frightening prospect, foreign pollen spitting into the atmosphere and causing mass multiplication and infecting the human race with a poison. Watch out for the glorious POV shots of pollen heading off to do their dirty work, we ride on the back of the spores as they exit the attic and soar out into the world. The swelling music, the spread of flowers, Luke's hideous rash...the story takes a turn on the dark side. Isn't it bizarre how this show takes hold of the more childish aspects of Doctor Who (the Slitheen, K.9) and makes them work? I love Rani's assertion that K.9 makes a 'right racket!' Have you heard him on those outtakes of old 70s Doctor Who stories? You might think that the make up for an alien plague on a children's programme might err on the side of caution but SJA goes all out to show how unpleasant it is. Luke is sweaty, pale and covered nasty swellings and blotches. For once Mr Smith's fanfare is appreciated and I clapped when his screen slid away to reveal his air conditioning unit to deal with the Rakweed spores. Very nicely done. Listen to the screaming sounds of the flowers as they begin seeding on Earth, like fingers running up your spine. Using the Earth as a fertile ground for their harvest of Rakweed is a brand new kind of threat to the planet and I thought I had heard them all by now. Sarah's parting shot, to exacerbate the Rakweed in the Slitheen-Blathereen's stomach and cause them to explode, is both well thought through and enjoyably messy. The reaction to the glooping has to be seen to be believed. I bet that was incredible fun to shoot.

The Bad: Was it my imagination or did Darren Mullet play his part as though he had just wandered on the set by mistake? Clyde's sneaky tactics to pass his test with K.9 amuses but I felt that it ate a little too much screen time in the second episode. I had some pretty abrasive teachers at school but Miss Jerome is in a league of her own. Mind you she does get her comeuppance as the Rakweed leaves its blotchy marks on her (a great shock moment). The news report that shows the infection has spread to other parts of London and I could have done with more of that sort of thing because this plague really feels at times as though it is restricted to one school and one attic. Luke's infection clears up in seconds...hmm.

The Shallow Bit: How Tommy Knight has matured. From archetype in a smock to a stylish teen in the latest gear, he has come a long way in three short seasons.

Result: 'We are sure our Rakweed will change your planet forever...' Guess who's coming to dinner? A delightful season finale that manages to successfully hoodwink the audience into thinking it isn't going to be the usual end of the world escapade...before pulling the Rakweed out of the bag. The first episode is my favourite, jettisoning the tension and concentrating on some lovely comedy and character work as the Blathereen come to tea. Alice Troughton deserves a great deal of kudos for managing to realise both the playful and the serious aspects of Laight's script, pulling off everything from a farcical dinner sequence to a mini plague in London. Troughton's direction is somewhat overlooked and it is worth noting her contribution to The Sarah Jane Adventures, bringing to life some of the most atmospheric stories (Eye of the Gorgon, The Mad Woman in the Attic, The Eternity Trap) and never once letting the show descend into a pantomime. A shame that this would be her last contribution to the show but it is a nice adventure to go out on, one that allows her to show how versatile a director she is. In comparison to the unique tone of the episode one, the conclusion plays along similar lines to any other contagion story (albeit toned down a little for the target audience) but I have to give the actors credit for convincing about the severity of the epidemic. Another example of the high standard of this show, The Gift is not the best SJA series finale (The Lost Boy & Goodbye, Sarah Jan Smith take those honours) but it is filled to bursting with memorable scenes, great dialogue, fantastic character interaction and some well achieved scares. All told it is rather wonderful: 8/10

Bernice Summerfield and the Triumph of Sutekh: The Pyramid of Sutekh written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Professor Bernice Summerfield, archaeologist and adventurer, has discovered a Pyramid on Mars. Inside she finds her old friend the Doctor is fighting a battle with the Osiran God Sutekh. One he is losing.

Archaeological Adventurer: I do wonder if in this case it might not be wise to drop Benny's glib nature and have her act in a genuinely scared manner for once. This time she is facing the God of Death animating the Doctor, who is attempting to kill her. I know listeners who find Bernice unbearable because of her 'laugh in the face of danger' attitude (hey Tim) and usually it works wonders but  sometimes, sometimes it would be nice if she could drop the sarcasm and just be very, very afraid (think Just War or The Draconian Rage). By the end of the story she reaches that point and even sheds a few tears but anybody who was expecting Bernice Summerfield Takes the Piss out of Sutekh might have all their fears met in the first half an hour. There was a moment when Benny mentioned Jason and remembered the vast, sprawling range that spawned these box sets. I do miss those days when Bernice existed in her own world, regardless of whether a Doctor Who influence increases sales of her appearances or not. Lisa Bowerman really goes for it during the scene where she is trying to convince the Doctor that he is a good man, it took me back to that wonderfully powerful moment in Shadow of the Scourge where the two characters dwell on the best things about being alive. Bowerman has that same kind of manic energy. Bernice is absolutely selfless in her desire to destroy the pyramid and Sutekh within it, even at the cost of her life and the Doctor's She understands the consequences to the universe if she fails. The Doctor would understand, it's just the sort of theatrical, self sacrificing tosh he loves.

The Real McCoy: Remember that funny scene in Crime of the Century when the Doctor dashes out of a party and opens a safe only to discover Raine inside? This story subverts that amusingly but this time it is Bernice opening up a sarcophagus on Mars and discovering the Doctor inside. 'I bring Sutekh's death to all humanity' coming from the Doctor should be rather frightening, but McCoy does rather mumble the line. McCoy often (as in always) struggles with bringing hysterical lines to pass and so I fail to understand why anybody with even a passing knowledge of his Big Finish performances would offer him up such lines as 'SUTEKH WANTS ME TO KIIIIILLLLLYOOOOOOOU!' It beggars belief. Sutekh belittles everything about the Doctor, his lifestyle, his home, his companions, the very universe he lives in. McCoy can be quite frightening on audio, go an listen to Master again or A Thousand Tiny Wings. Sometimes he makes it sound effortless. And sometimes he adopts a bizarre sing-song voice that makes it sound as if he cocking his head from side to side as he says the dialogue. Like he is taking the piss. It's a weird delivery, oddly off kilter and distracting. Not scary, just off-putting. Take the Doctor out of the story and replace him with a plaything of Sutekh and it leaves you with a Bernice Summerfield story with a gurning Sylvester McCoy villain. Make of that what you will.

Oh Wicked: One and half lines only. Bliss. It's as though Handcock is as bored of the character as I am.

Standout Performance: Gabriel Woolf. Unmistakably Sutekh; silky, charming and deadly.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Doctor, I think this is beyond me. A pyramid of dead Gods...'
'The best entertainment conjure horror as well as awe.'

Great Ideas: For once we have two established elements that go together like fish and chips - Bernice's archaeology credentials are beyond repute and Sutekh hanging out in a tomb in Mars is his raison d'etre. What's odd is how it has taken this long to bring these two plot elements together, not that it has been done in the first place. Bernice is trapped in the most powerful tomb in the universe with dead Osirans - a potent image which is hauntingly portrayed by Lisa Bowerman.  Death nourishes Sutekh and so near to warfare he can gain strength with every life that is taken. He's one of the most grandiose villains the Doctor has ever faced and if big, melodramatic lines didn't form on his lips it would be terribly disappointing. Anybody that can remember how terrifying the Servicer robots were in Pyramids of Mars will shudder at the thought of an entire army of the buggers coming to life. The Doctor thought he had killed Sutekh long ago but he had only destroyed his physical body, his consciousness survived and with the activation of the pyramid the flesh looms can spin him a new body to free him and bring forth carnage. At his height he can snuff out a world with one breath.

Audio Landscape: Force walls, the power coming on, booby traps, gunfire, marching Servicer robots, mummies sparking and fizzing, the TARDIS cloister bell, firing on the pyramid, the time/space tunnel, emerging from water.

Musical Cues: More magic from Steve Foxon, who has been on Big Finish's payroll for many years now and is still providing very exciting scores. What The Pyramid of Sutekh needs is a crushing, oppressive, menacing score that enhances the feeling of the walls closing in on Bernice and Foxon achieves that admirably. I especially liked the cue when the mummies come to life. Very chilling. It's a minimalist score but I don't mind those when it adds to the disquiet.

Isn't it Odd: A familiar bugbear of mine to anybody who frequents this blog regularly is how Big Finish shamelessly plunders Doctor Who history for old villains to re-emerge for a second attempt to conquer the universe/bring down the Doctor/revel in mass murder (delete as applicable) in a desire to drive sales and appease fans who fell in love with the show through the classic series. It's a fair enough marketing strategy but I would probably gauge the success of bringing back these nostalgic elements as partial because there are as many stories that do something unique and innovative with those elements as there are those that drop old monsters into a story for the hell of it just to promote the ringing of cash registers. Let's see how Sutekh fares, a villain so memorable that nobody has had the nuts to bring him back for a second outing before. Benny facing the twin guardians of Sutekh did make me groan (lifting entire scenes from classic Who is another sin this company can be guilty of from time to time). Both this set and the previous one open with Benny having a apoplectic reaction to finding the Doctor in an unusual place - surely they aren't all going to start like that? Wasn't the point of the Doctor, Benny and Ace going off together at the end of the last set established so this sort of set up wasn't necessary again? Whilst Woolf aces the lines, there is only so much tension you can gather when Sutekh is gabbling away to himself whilst the Doctor hides in the shadows to elude him. Surely a psychological battle of wills would have been more effective rather than the Doctor's stony silence? It's about the only way they could get away with bringing Sutekh back, to suggest that he never died in he first place. Does it gut Pyramids of it's ending where the Doctor defeats a living God? Possibly, but what else could they do? What is especially odd about this script is that you have three very strong characters in the Doctor, Benny and Sutekh and they barely spend any of the story interacting. Instead huge swathes of the story are spent with them talking to themselves. Is there some kind of universal law that states that three such powerful personalities cannot appear in the same scene? It makes this less of a drama (because there is little exchange of conflict) and more of a series of speeches that mesh together into 60 minutes of Bernice, the Alan Bennett Monologues. It's an unusual technique and not really as effective as strong contact between the characters because there is no chance to build relationships. Sutekh sure brags a lot but and I can't be the only person who wanted to see a little less talking the talk and little more walking the walk.

Standout Scene: The very idea of Sutekh manifesting himself a body to tread dust and darkness in the worlds of the universe is terrifying and Scott Handcock directs this scene with absolute precision, stressing it's importance.

Result: 'You will not be without me for long. Just look up towards the stars and you will see me as I pluck them out one by one...' Something very strange occurred to me about a third of the way into The Pyramid of Sutekh. I had come in at the end of the story. Not the end of this story but rather the climax to the box set. That is, this is the first story of the Bernice Summerfield and the Triumph of Sutekh box set but in all respects it is the conclusion of the story within it. The plot is already in full swing with the Doctor hanging out in Sutekh's pyramid under his influence and ready to hunt down and kill Bernice. How did he get there? How did she find the pyramid of Mars? I guess those all important questions are going to be answered throughout the rest of the set. It's an arresting way of setting things up but I just hope it isn't going to leave us without a conclusion in the fourth instalment because surely it doesn't get more climactic than the Doctor trying to kill one of his friends? On the plus side this story does manage to generate a certain claustrophobic atmosphere within the most powerful tomb in the universe, Gabriel Woolf excels at bringing that silken menace to the party and Ace barely features (oh miaow). On the other hand this is essentially a re-run of Pyramids of Mars episode four, which was the weakest instalment of that story by some margin complete with puzzles, death threats, robot mummies a possessed Doctor and a self assured companion. If you are going to bring back an old foe and play about in the classic Who toy box then this is a reasonably engaging way to do it...but I do question why it is necessary to so slavishly mimic the inspiration for this set when there is probably a more remarkable story to be told about Sutekh's backstory. Here he is the ranting (well no, purring) villain that he was in Pyramids...a Davros (the story, not the character) style introspective might have been a more fascinating place to start. He's all mouth at the moment, I can't wait to see him actually inflict his gift of death on a grand scale. Not without it flaws but perfectly entertaining for what it is. Certainly a vast improvement on the opening to the previous 'Worlds of Bernice Summerfield' set: 6/10

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Secret History written by Eddie Robson and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Steven and Vicki to the Italian city of Ravenna in the year 540 – besieged by the army of the celebrated Byzantine general Belisarius. Caught up in the fighting, Steven ends up on a boat bound for Constantinople, the heart of the Roman Empire. Rescuing Steven, however, is the least of the Doctor's problems – because he shouldn't be mixed up in this particular adventure at all. Someone has sabotaged his own personal timeline, putting him in the place of his First incarnation... but who, and why? The truth is about to be revealed – but at what cost to all of the Doctors, and to the whole future history of the planet Earth?

An English Gentleman: The Doctor manages to convince Vicki and Steven in record time that he is a younger version of the Doctor, partly because he is such an amiable fellow that it is hard to distrust and partly because these companions ask intelligent questions. Listening to this story is almost enough to make you weep, Davison instantly raises his game when he is paired up with two such fine actors for his companions and it makes you wonder just how his era would have fared had he been travelling with characters of the calibre of Steven and Vicki rather than the drudgery of Adric and Tegan. The Doctor ponders that all of his problems back in his first incarnation seem to start with somebody wondering off...although that has been a problem throughout all of his lives, let's be honest. Does the Doctor have the weight of history pressing down upon him? During his first incarnation it would often seem to be the case. The difference between what the Doctor and what the Monk do is that the former cares about the consequences of his actions and the latter is relying on the knock on effects of the consequences of is actions. Saving one life could change everything, what a position to the overtly moral fifth Doctor in. The Monk suggests that the first Doctor was much more decisive man and would have made the impossible choice that the fifth refuses to make, the inaction of which results in calamity for the timelines.

Alien Orphan: Vicki manages to boil the setting down to the emotional level and wonders how people managed to live in these times, never knowing if they were going to be conquered and ruled by somebody else. Vicki is appalled at the very idea that she might be expected to perform services of a certain nature for anybody, men of status or otherwise. Vicki is the past mistress at poking her nose in other peoples business and being exactly where she shouldn't be and Robson captures that mischievous streak in her nature perfectly (and oddly enough when acting up like this Maureen O'Brien sounds just like a teenager again).

Aggressive Astronaut: I love the dramatic irony of Steven being paired up with the Monk but being completely unaware of who his companion is. Of all of the Doctor's companions to land on their feet when swept away from the Time Lord I think that Steven fares better than others. At times during his tenure he had to hold up entire adventures and learn to cope on his own. How cool is the notion of Steven as a chariot rider? He's used to handling much more sophisticated equipment than a horse and there was excellent scope for comic mileage in fitting him for this role. For once Steven has doubts that he will be rescued, he knows that his Doctor would risk anything to find and help him but isn't sure that his stand-in would do the same.

Standout Performance: I want hand out praise to Peter Davison, who is clearly stoked at getting such a rich script or Graeme Garden, who once again aces his role as the Monk. However it's Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien who are going to get the plaudits this time around because they capture their exact voices from the 1960s in such a way that you would swear this was recorded when they were still playing the roles in TV. It's uncanny. Whereas Wendy Padbury and Katy Manning are noticeably older in their delivery, these two are utterly authentic.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'No man should trust himself around beautiful women.'
'Sometimes we need conflict. Often it's pointless and destructive, yes but it's also how tyrants are defeated.'
'Imagine Roman spaceships! Imagine how cool they'd look!'

Great Ideas: Much like the early Hartnell adventures, The Secret History starts educating as soon as the Doctor and company land in the selected period of history. The Astardi were exiled here in their form and blended into the world around them, sealed in stone and exiled here by those who resent their power. If the Emperor of the most influential Empire in the world is working under alien influence...well it could mean devastation for the established course of history. Staged like a true historical adventure of the early sixties, the Doctor and Vicki are separated from Steven but the plot conspires to bring them together at a dramatic point. In this case it is the chariot race but it could just as easily be the Doctor rushing in to Ian's trial by combat in The Aztecs of Barbara spotting Ian in the arena in The Romans. When there is money on the chariot racing, even the sick will forced to ride on. At this point in the Doctor's life the Time Lords are new to his very unique style of mopping up evil in the universe and when they spot a discrepancy in the timelines big enough they are ready to pounce on his and cauterise the wound to the timeline. Imagine the very idea of the Monk taking on the role of the Doctor and all the havoc he could cause wandering through his timeline and making alterations to his decisions. He could do a great deal of damage and have a great of fun. Listening to him advise the Emperor in all the worst ways is a great endorsement of the Doctor's lifestyle. The Monk genuinely thinks he is building a better universe but he is motivated by his love for somebody he has lost and that clouds the judgement. Mind you anybody who wants to rewrite the entire universe is clearly suffering from a monumental God complex in the first place.

Audio Landscape: Smashing on the door of the TARDIS, an excitable crowd, doors opening, the creaking deck of a ship, seagulls screaming in the sky, a horse screaming, an owl hooting, whinnying, cheering at the chariots, coughing patients, the Time Lords descending.

Isn't it Odd: As much as I was hoping that this story was going to be the one that introduced the idea of the Locum Doctors with some skill, the pre-credits sequences is as awkward and as unnaturalistic as the other two stories (but at least it gets straight to the point rather than labouring it like the first two). The feeling in this story seems to be less 'let's go along with this guy and hope that he proves himself to be the Doctor' and more 'he is the Doctor and we're stuck together so we may as well have an adventure together and see what happens.' It's not great but it's the more desirable of the two options. When we discover that the other stories in this trilogy were just 'practice runs' for the Monk's plan in this story the writer is as good as saying that those stories were irrelevant as he ploughs on and does something intriguing with the formula himself. It's the equivalent of having three Master stories in a trilogy and the bearded wonder making a grand speech in he final adventure declaring 'those last two schemes of mine were never meant to defeat you Doctor, they were just practice runs for this - my Masterplan!' I cannot believe that a trilogy that was designed to see in the 200th release of Main Range adventures was structured in such a retarded fashion. Should the Monk's actions in this story really be hinged upon his reaction to an event in the long defunct eighth Doctor adventures? I liked Tamsin and her inclusion in the range but an obscure reference to her being the sole motivation for his meddling in this story seems a little underwhelming. If you aren't aware of their relationship from the other range I could imagine you feeling mighty short-changed. I am aware of it and even I find it a little unfathomable. The story definitely switches to an eighties story in the final episode, the Doctor coming up with a less than clever technobabble ending to defeat the Monk. A shame because everything before that was rather smart.

Standout Scene: Savvy listeners will be aware that Graeme Garden played a vital role in the final season of eighth Doctor adventures, a villainous character from the Doctor's past who sold him out to the Daleks. Whilst his name has been left out of the credits, JNT 'conceal the mystery' wise, Garden has such an instantly recognisable voice that it is easy for the regular Big Finish to put two and two together. Especially in this adventure, a historical with time meddling aplenty where there is somebody influencing events in a very cheeky way. I really enjoyed that the reveal of the Monk wasn't a big cliffhanging moment but rather dropped in halfway through part three where there were enough inexplicable things happening that the uncovering of this meddlesome foe provides a perfect explanation for. It feels part of the structure of the story rather than something that has been included for shock effect like so many appearances of the Master did during the 1980s. It might sound like a criticism but the story that has been presented is strong enough to survive without the shock appearance of the Monk but I mean it as compliment in the best possible way. His inclusion adds colour and charm to the piece but it was doing very well before we found out who Quintus really was.

Result: The most assured of the Locum Doctors adventures by some margin but it's isolated nature renders the other, lesser adventures in this trilogy as something rather irrelevant and even addresses that they are. It's less of a culmination of the trilogy and more of an example of how good all three adventures should have been. The treats are manifold though; a rich an engaging historical adventure in the style of a Hartnell story, a challenging and engaging guest cast of characters affording excellent roles to the cast, the surprise return of an old villain that works beautifully well in this context and with these companions, the surprisingly charming team of the fifth Doctor, Steven and Vicki and typically gorgeous direction from Barnaby Edwards. It strikes me that the last time Eddie Robson and Edwards teamed up they produced magic (Fanfare for the Common Men) and this isn't far off reaching the same standard. Certain contributors to the main range (Morris, Dorney, Robson, Edwards) can always be relied to generate the best results and I wonder if perhaps they should be left in charge of a range that is shockingly inconsistent month in, month out. The last episode opens on the most glorious of conceits and plays about with it successfully to justify the awesome return of a baddie from the past. Appropriately enough, removing the Doctor from the action has the adverse effect of reminding us why we need him there in the first place (Turn Left did something very similar). The Secret History isn't the best of the best as far as Big Finish is concerned (and it's a shame that Rob Shearman couldn't have been tempted back to write the celebratory release because he is still the writer responsible for the ultimate audio knockouts) but it's a stonking good audio all the same from the ever reliable (and showing no signs of exhaustion) Eddie Robson. I was educated, entertained and surprised. The only story of this trilogy I would heartily recommend: 8/10

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Fate of Krelos written and directed by Nick Briggs

What's it about: There are dark skies on Krelos… and something gigantic is descending. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela set off for some fishing in the mountain pools of Krelos. K9 has interfaced with the TARDIS and has reactivated the architectural configuration from the days of the Doctor’s second incarnation. In passing, the Doctor notes it could do with a good clean. And there’s a familiar piece of material snagged on the console. Far up the mountain, an aged explorer is in trouble. Will the Doctor and Leela be able to save him and his planet? And what is it that K9 has discovered in the TARDIS?

Teeth and Curls: 'I'm just a freckle on the nose of eternity!' The Doctor is in the mood for a holiday, which can only mean that bad things are on the way. Doctors four and six both have fishing in mind when they want to relax, is that because they have such loud and explosive personalities that when they look to unwind a little quiet time of inactivity is the best possible medicine? He hasn't seen the food dispenser in years. The Doctor misses some of the ergonomic features of his old control room from when he was in his second incarnation, seeing it again makes him all nostalgic for those days. He remembers Jamie fondly, a brave and fierce soul. He doesn't quite know what happened to his friend but figures he must have died in battle. You cannot argue with fate. Nick Briggs gets quite a tough rap for his 4DAs but it has to be said this pensive moment from the fourth Doctor is quite touchingly written and played. Don't think the Doctor doesn't think about going back and preventing the fate of Krelos but he recognises if he does anything of the sort he will be as bad as those high minded meddlers in the Celestial Intervention Agency. Listen to how the Doctor growls with disgust at the thought of somebody attempting to wrestle control of the TARDIS from him.

Noble Savage: Leela cannot see what the point of fishing is if you are not going to kill and eat your catch. She has developed a playful relationship with the Doctor, so much so that she can tease him into admitting that he has materialised the TARDIS in the wrong place. Leela reminded me of Donna in this story, acting as the Doctor's conscience. She understands that the Doctor is wise and clever in his observation that fate is determined but she knows in her heart that it is wrong to stand back and leave people to suffer. And she isn't afraid to tell him. Leela knows that the Doctor could rustle up an army in a moment, all those lives he has saved, all those who honour his memory.

K.9: Important enough this month to feature on the cover, there is an unnatural feel to the scenes that feature K.9 right from the off in The Fate of Krelos that puts the listener on the alert during the TARDIS scenes. It's clear that he has been tampered with in some way and John Leeson's subtle performance (how he can find subtleties in a character like K.9 is astonishing) suggests that something is wrong without the script overtly stating it. When it comes to his master, K.9 will fight any outside influences to warn his best friend. Even though he is the cleverest dog that the Doctor knows, interfacing with the TARDIS is likely to scramble his brains.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's as if the dead of Krelos have risen...'

Great Ideas: Check out the synopsis on the Big Finish website. Somebody was having a laugh, surely? 'In passing, the Doctor notes it could do with a good clean' - what an enticing snapshot of the story to come! Whilst I take issue with the method of which the Doctor and Leela are so rapidly brought up to speed with the fate of Krelos (we don't get to experience much of the world before it is devastated), the way the planet is depicted as thriving and then apocalyptic is potently handled (told through the Doctor and Leela's staggered reactions).

Audio Landscape: Explosions, a ship descending, flames, snoring, the old hum of the TARDIS, a biting wind, falling down the mountain, dead fish floating on the surface of lapping waves, snapping tendrils.

Isn't it Odd: Briggs loves telling his stories through action, doesn't he? Whilst there is nothing wrong with that approach this is such a tasty idea that you have to wonder if this should have been less adventure and more intelligent exploration of his very tasty ideas.

Standout Scene: There is an astonishing moment between the Doctor and Leela in the TARDIS where they argue over the situation and bring their unique perspectives to the fore. I was blown away by this scene because it is precisely the sort of tension that this range usually avoids. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson really go for it too, finally given the chance to get their teeth into something juicy and emotional.

Result: 'It is a terrible sight in the light of three moons...' I can see precisely what Nick Briggs was going for with The Fate of Krelos and to some degree he has succeeded but I think that is mostly down to his work as a director rather than a writer. There is a disquieting atmosphere to the whole piece that is world away from usual fluffiness of this fourth Doctor adventures and it genuinely feels as though it is building up to something spectacular. It isn't quite the Lucie Miller of this line but it is certainly along those lines. I love the idea of the Doctor and Leela going on holiday and causing a chain reaction of devastation because of that but I don't know if this was subtly written enough to explore the idea. The first episode is quite bluntly plotted to ensure that by the time we reach the climax we are dead certain of what the writer is trying to say. It's rather like being bonked on the head with the Doctor's mistakes rather than learning about them naturally. The concept isn't explored imaginatively or emotionally, it's simply presented to you and you are left to make up your own mind as to what you think of it all. However the atmosphere is unnervingly maintained throughout, helped no end by the curious use of K.9. What really stood out to me in this story was the very natural chemistry between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson and how so much of the story was told through the eyes of the Doctor and Leela. Over three seasons the characters and actors have developed a fine rapport and since Briggs has become intimately acquainted with both the actors and their roles the net result is a story of terrific interaction (with some surprisingly touching moments). Surprisingly dramatic and eye-opening, I hope the second half can keep up the feeling of dread: 7/10

Saturday, 11 July 2015

We Are The Daleks written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The year is 1987, and Britain is divided. In Bradford, strikers are picketing and clashing with the police. In the City of London, stockbrokers are drinking champagne and politicians are courting the super-rich. The mysterious media mogul Alek Zenos, head of the Zenos Corporation, is offering Britain an economic miracle. His partners wish to invest – and their terms are too good to refuse. While the Doctor investigates Warfleet, a new computer game craze that is sweeping the nation, Mel goes undercover to find out the truth about Zenos’s partners.The Daleks have a new paradigm. They intend to conquer the universe using economic power. The power of the free market!

The Real McCoy: This is precisely the sort of thing I think they should have been doing in 1987, a contemporary setting and a Doctor and companion team that are actively driving the plot in smart ways. Instead what we got was a clownish Doctor looking like a tramp bouncing around a quarry with a reject from Dynasty, trying to pull off her explosion of ginger curls and avoiding rainbow bubbles littering sad skeletons over the surface of the planet. After the PR fiasco that was Trial of a Time Lord the show needed to remind the audience that it could be taken seriously again and this kind of sharp characterisation for the Doctor and Mel would have been just the ticket. I love the idea of the two of them working independently to uncover the mystery of War Fleet and the Xenos Corporation, the Doctor dressing as a businessman and doing the capitalist bit and Mel's technological knowledge being brought to the fore. Listen to how McCoy growls that a Dalek is a bubbling lump of hate, he sounds as though he loathes to even mention them. When the Daleks don't offer him a reception party he is appalled, he expects to be expected! Does the Doctor have a right to complain if he isn't interested in politics? Does the Doctor know better than the average man on the street? The Daleks think that without the Doctor their enemies will give up all hope and stop resisting, they have truly bought into the myth that he is symbol for their cause. Alone and defenceless, that is when he is at his most dangerous. He gets by with a little help from his friends.

Computer Programmer: The Doctor suggests Mel avoids bumping into somebody she knows since they have landed one year into her future - it could lead to some awkward questions. Mel, a computer programmer from Pease Pottage scores 'fairly adequate' at computer games. But then she doesn't like to be the sort of person that is good at computer games.  It would seem that 'have you tried turning it off an on again?' is the standard IT response the universe over. In Mel's experience things that seem too good to be true usually are. Mel never gives up, she never surrenders and she is smart enough to think outside the box and play the Daleks at their own game, by refusing to behave in a way that a character in a computer game would. The best computer hacker there is, apparently. She can't see an international network catching on somehow and declines Brinsley's offer to try it out.

Standout Performance: Mary Conlon gives Sheila Handcock a run for her money as most terrifying impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in Doctor Who. Her closing line is just perfect. Prime Minister of the Daleks? She has all the credentials.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Ambition is not a dirty word' - the 80s in a nutshell. Mind you 'All we want is a deal' from strikers to the management is another familiar trope of the decade. 'Would you a Prawn Cocktail?' from a Dalek pretty much completes the eighties love-in.
'Daleks invest and return!'
'Given we offer full employment and prosperity, even a trade unionist would be hard pressed to find something to moan about' - Skaro, living the entrepreneurial dream.
'Good grief. Who needs Daleks when you have politicians?'
'You're taking innocent children and using them as your killers?' 'They enjoy it. They find it amusing. Addictive. They are as good as Daleks.'
'People don’t care. They don’t care if their petrol is provided by an oppressive regime, or if their oranges are grown by a country with apartheid. They just want to be allowed to get on with their lives' - a frightening truth when it comes to the masses in a progressive society, I'm afraid.
'Too much hate will kill you, every time.'

Great Ideas: How's this for potent imagery? A skyscraper slap bang in the middle of London in the shape of a Dalek. Bang, there's your story right there. They popped it there just to get the Doctor's attention, assuming that he would be up to something terribly devious. There is a new computer game on the market which is taking the world by storm and it is utterly anachronistic. An automatic conveyor belt producing a mass market product, 100% productivity and no human labour to hamper profitability, that's the capitalist way. The Daleks are manufacturing the games on another world and sending them to Earth. In the future the Earth will be competing against thousands of other worlds in the intergalactic market and it is going to survive in the cutthroat market of universal capitalism it is going to need financial investment, which is what the Daleks are offering. The Daleks will deal with the UK and the UK will act on behalf of the Earth, naturally. It's always fun to see the show pushing the Daleks out of their comfort zone of simply gliding around killing people and having the Daleks get a strategic foothold in the UK rather than punching their way through with military might is just as terrifying as their suspect benevolence in Power of the Daleks. In both cases they are exploiting humanity's greed to achieve their aims, a powerful statement about our need to always come out on top. The vision of the UK's future as glittering skyscrapers, palm trees and swimming pools (basically the image of Paradise Towers before it fell into wrack and ruin) is the capitalist dream. The reality is that under Dalek subjugation the Earth will become factories and ruins and chain gangs, the sort of future we saw in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Day of the Daleks. Warfleet isn't simply a game but a direct interface between humanity and the Dalek war, the people playing the game are guiding Dalek drone ships against their enemies. Somehow I think that if the kids knew the reality of the situation, they would be even more hungry to play. Warfleet is the ultimate computer game where humanity is free to kill without being killed. It's terrifying. Celia is a stand-in Margaret Thatcher ('you can't negotiate with rebels'), the mouthpiece for a whole generation of industrialists that share the Dalek ideals. Brinsley playing the game and crying 'Exterminate' with joy is a supremely chilling moment, a moment when you realise that with very little coaxing humanity can be made to behave just like the Daleks. I wish we could put Celia's supposition to the test - that the majority voice of Britain would accept the Daleks offer to turn their world into a productive, industrialist landscape. I'm almost willing to bet she is right if it meant a guarantee of food in their mouths, power for their devices, heat and light for their homes. What's even cooler than a skyscraper in the shape of a Dalek being built in the middle of London? Mel transporting said skyscraper to Skaro! A giant Dalek shaped building appearing in the city? Reminds me of a visual in Asylum of the Daleks...  If the Daleks are brainwashing people to behave like them...what happens if that technology is turned back on them? All that Dalek rage and paranoia, raged to the power of ten. So much fear an anger they will literally blow their tops. Poor Michael Fish, embarrassed for the rest of his career by the Daleks.

Audio Landscape: There's no denying that Wilfred Acosta captures that energy and excitement that comes with the best computer games. The pacing helps too but the music and sound effects combine to make the action scenes explode into life with some punch. Cars passing, music thumping, cafe atmosphere, writing on paper, protestors, lift descending, water fountain, Dalek heartbeat, drones firing, extermination blasts, playing Warfleet, ships screaming through space, exchanging fire, growling taxi driving off, an explosion in a building, the internet dial up connection.

Isn't it Odd: Because they are essentially characters in a computer game, the Thals are not given much characterisation beyond what you would expect in that scenario. They're violent and reactionary and lack shades of grey. 'We must fight to the last Thal!' is the sort of dialogue we're talking about here.

Standout Scene: I really enjoyed the revelation that whilst the Daleks scheme is typically overcomplicated, it is a plan within a plan to leave Skaro undefended and open to attack. You have to give it to the anti-Dalek league, they think big. Plus the end of part three deserves a mention, just because it's so fucked up to hear Mel crying out 'Exterminate!' like a crazed Dalek.

Result: 'It is our new paradigm! To extend our influence through economic power! The power of free market!' Remember when I said that Jonathan Morris had written the type of giddy and creatively fertile Dalek tale that Douglas Adams might have concocted in The Curse of Davros? Well he's done it again in We Are the Daleks, possibly even moreso because this has a very intelligent point to make about the worst aspects of humanity and uses humour as skilful weapon to get that point across. Human greed, or rather capitalism can be both our salvation and our downfall depending on how far we let it dominate our lives and the Daleks exploit that need to have more to gain a foothold on Earth and have their wicked way. The terrifying truth that Jonny Morris has uncovered is that if you strip away our humanity and focus on our capitalist nature ('the favoured elite rules and the rest of the inhabitants become a slave labour force'), we are the Daleks. Elitist attitudes, computer games exploding on the market, worker strikes and a vision of chrome and glass...somehow Morris manages to out eighties the Doctor Who of the period and offer a peak into a world where ruthless capitalist ideals thrived, both as a dream and a nightmare. If I'm making this sound too dry then comfort yourself in the knowledge that We Are the Daleks also flaunts the gloriously offbeat premise of a computer game that is directly plugged into the Dalek War that has taken Great Britain by storm. In fact I think I would have preferred it if the story had taken a less entertaining and more scathing approach to it's psychological exploration of our baser instincts but there's no denying that the swift action and bouncy dialogue provide a rollicking good time. We Are the Daleks kicks off a new trilogy with great verve, it's wildly entertaining but like the best Doctor Who stories it also has something to say. It's a delight to have Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford back together again too, both the Doctor and Mel get a strong role in this unusual and quirky story. Score one for the main range: 8/10

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Something Borrowed written by Phil Ford and directed by Ashley Way

What’s it about: On the morning of Gwen’s wedding she wakes up heavily pregnant…

Hunky Hero: Proving his sexual loyalties to be divided he moves from Gwen to Ianto on the dance floor. Daring to publicly expose his love for Gwen is just wrong and hanging onto Ianto but pining after Mrs Williams makes it look as though the butler is jut a stopgap. Either way Jack comes off looking like a right bastard.

Welsh Babe: This is the week that Gwen is getting married so naturally something terrifying and otherworldly had to befall her. Heaven forbid this show attempted a straight drama at any point! Mind you Gwen’s reaction to her massive stomach is perfectly timed by Eve Myles so for once it’s a gag that is given some time to brew and is pulled off with surprising success. Personally given the amount of flirting (and we’re talking about the eye locking equivalent of dry humping) that Gwen and Jack have done over the past season and a half she doesn’t deserve to be tying the knot with somebody as fabulous as Rhys. Beyond watching the film Alien and panicking a great deal can you even imagine the psychological ramifications of having a giant alien egg incubating inside your stomach? Did I just write that sentence? I feel sorry for Gwen’s father having the knowledge of Torchwood dumped upon him on her wedding day. Surely there was a better time to have this conversation? Gwen and Rhys’ assembled guests comes to no more than 30…surely they know more people than that? Unbelievably Gwen looks shocked (but not in an unpleasant way) when Jack lives up to the cliché and comes rushing in to stop the wedding – was she hoping he would whisk in and sweep her off her feet? What a cow. I think it is supposed to be a boost for his ego Gwen’s speech about Rhys being the only man who is willing to marry her when the possibility of being impregnated by an alien exists makes it sound as though she has settled on the one man daft enough to see past all of her flaws. Of which there are many. The scene between Jack and Gwen in front of the mirror made me feel physically sick – how could she say those things to somebody else on her wedding day? She’s the sort of woman that gives marriage a bad name. Had it been Gwen who was the zombie I could forgive them but as usual the heroine of Torchwood is proven to be morally corrupt. It doesn’t matter that Gwen and Rhys get married and are smiling all over because this episode has proven that her heart is still alienated. Wouldn’t it have been nice if just for once this show could make an expression of monogamous love? Jack and Gwen are so apparently obsessed with each other they even have a moment together on the dance floor in front of all the assembled wedding guests. The idea seems to be that this is the two of them looking longingly into each others eyes for one last time before she heads off to her husband and never looks back. But all that should have been tied up long before the wedding. Its not bittersweet, it adds a touch of dirtiness to the proceedings. And that’s annoying when this could have been really heart-warming stuff.

Big Softie: Entirely selfless to a point, Rhys doesn’t care how much money they have poured into the wedding because he just wants to make sure that his bride is safe.

Jack’s Gang: Owen admits that weddings aren’t really for him but I think the truth might be that he finds it awkward being around Rhys given he was screwing his bride just one year earlier. He would do well to keep his distance, if only to maintain a modicum of respect. Tosh might be as dull as dishwater (is dishwater really that dull?) because any character who is as nice as she is isn’t exactly going to set the screen on fire but the writers have latched onto a sense of forlorn sadness that she will forever be a spinster in season two that does make you feel for her. Whilst she is congratulating Gwen on her wedding day there is a bitter sentiment behind the smile. I rather like that. 

The Good: The zombie attacks are very nicely directed, the film sped up to give it a real sense of frenzied violence. Gwen’s mum and dad (with understated performances from Sharon Morgan & William Thomas) are so damn normal. I was half expecting them to be as wild and melodramatic as their daughter. Nerys Hughes turning up was a surprise (can you imagine more ideal casting for Rhys’ mother?) and the unspoken rivalry between the two sets of parents is beautifully observed. The gag of the alien baby acting like a ticking time bomb that threatens to go off during the ceremony provides a number of moments that are both tense and funny – not the easiest of combinations to pull off. Bodies with guts ripped out discovered, a zombie attacking the wedding party and leaping through a window, Gwen packing a gun away in her bouquet and blowing away a zombie version of the mother in law - just a normal day in the life for Torchwood! Its all completely gaga but for once that’s okay because this is a comedy so everything being turned up to madness factor ten is expected, rather than a nasty surprise. Jack screaming ‘get back you ugly bitch!’ at Rhys’ mother shouldn’t be funny but it really is. The alien scalpel has been well established earlier in the season as being about as reliable as a chocolate teacup which makes Rhys’ attempts to cut free the alien baby at the climax very anxious.

The Bad: Most shows would open on a sexy and stylish night club to introduce Gwen’s hen do but not Torchwood. As if to accentuate that Wales isn’t a hip place to hang out we wind up in a cheesy wine bar with a tiny dance floor with a wealth of middle aged women grooving their thing to some pretty horrendous music. Yes this is sexy stuff. Upon closer inspection the make up for the pregnant stomach is decidedly rubbery looking. Talk about immaculate conception – how could anybody (least of all those who saw her only the night before) buy into the idea that Gwen has suddenly fallen heavily pregnant overnight? Its one thing to ask the cast of Torchwood to believe in these truly bizarre concepts (like the many sex-obsessed aliens out there) but quite another to expect the periphery (let’s say ‘normal’) characters to do so as well. Its exactly the same venue that Sarah Jane had her (almost) wedding at but I better not start comparing the two shows again because it might expose my favouritism between one show and the other (hint – look at which section of the review this sentence is in). I realise her hormones are unbalanced but Gwen telling her father that the baby isn’t Rhys’ is one of the stupidest things she has ever done. Are they saving money for something spectacular at the end of the season because Tosh and Banana Boat are bonded together in what looks like a web of black refuse sacks. Rhys going at his zombie mother with a chainsaw is insane, almost as crazy as Jack blowing her up with a gun the size of Wales.

The Shallow Bit: A lot of sentences in these Torchwood reviews start with ‘only Torchwood would…’ Only Torchwood would have one of the grooms guests seduced, have his hairy blamange of a gut exposed as a gorgeous babe kisses him all over and then have said babe turn into a zombie and literally eat into him. Bleugh. Although it is odd for Torchwood to shy away from the guts on display as it does here. Don’t tell me this show is developing a sense of good taste?

Foreboding: Did the handling of Gwen’s pregnancy here encourage Russell T Davies to have her experience the real thing in the next season?

Result: A Torchwood comedy? Aren’t they all? Actually there is something enjoyablyShaun of the Dead about this black comedy featuring zombies crashing Gwen’s wedding that helps it to pass muster. My only real complaint is the lack of subtlety in any respect (which can be found even in the best of zombie features, especially The Walking Dead) but then why change the habit of a lifetime when that is this shows modus operandi? I’ve noticed that I write these Torchwood reviews with a really sarcastic tone but in many ways I think that is the only way you can approach a show that happily features a bloodbath on the lead characters wedding day and turns the mother in law into a slavering zombie. Phil Ford’s record is decidedly schizophrenic; he’s the meat and potatoes writer on Sarah Jane, occasionally producing magic but more often than not turning out solid, if unspectacular scripts that are buoyed by confident directors and his one joint credit on Doctor Who is perhaps one of the strongest ever adventures since the series returned (The Waters of Mars). I had no idea what to expect from his Torchwood scribblings and to his credit he has tried to do something very different and quirky whilst still remaining focused on a tone that is undeniably Torchwood. The pregnancy storyline defies belief but there are some fun moments along the way (especially involving the duelling parents) although the dialogue is nowhere near as witty or clever as it should be for a wedding episode. Everything bubbles along quite understatedly for the first 30 minutes (or as understated as an episode with this premise can possibly be) but all hell breaks loose before the end and soon we are back in madder than a box of frogs Torchwood territory. Above average Torchwood, which makes this pretty middling television for any other show: 6/10

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Mona Lisa’s Revenge written by Phil Ford and directed by Joss Agnew

This story in a nutshell: The Mona Lisa steps from her painting to claim her brother…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: ‘Seems like no-one wants you around, Sezza! Even your son…’ Wow, how much does Sarah Jane remind me of my mum during my teenage years when she comes down on Luke like a ton of bricks about his room. She’s a tad over the top about what is essentially a messy room but I can remember my mum having to tell me that she was disappointed in me (the ultimate weapon of mothers, that statement) because I refused to take responsibility of my own space (oh and I seem to recall the odd mouldy cup in there like Luke does too). It’s a nice reminder that Luke is growing up and getting a little out of control (as most teenagers do) and as a mother you can’t hold onto your precious little boy forever. This isn’t just enforced development for the sake of it, it’s a touch of foreboding for his departure from Sarah Jane’s daily life in The Nightmare Man (only two stories away). This makes his passing a little more natural and a little less sudden. Its unbelievable that a show in the CBBC schedule would feature a scene as touching as the one where Sarah Jane discusses the pain of losing her grip on her son. But then that is this shows raison detre, the ability to throw in genuinely adult (or should that be adolescent) issues whilst dealing with monsters from outer space. If Elisabeth Sladen is going to take a rest for a story than having her trapped in a painting is certainly more imaginative than her investigations into supernatural goings on at a nearby hospital (although the glimpses of that in Mark of the Berserker were fun).

Graphic Artist: Watch Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony in this story, especially in part one. Whilst Tommy Knight remains as likable as ever it is clear that the real acting talent in this team belongs to Rani and Clyde and there is a real sense that they are completely stepping out of his shadow to take dominance over the show. When Clyde talks about art being in the soul and that it is something that captures your soul and not your mind its another reminder that there is much greater depth to him than you would perhaps see on the surface. He admits that as a child he used to draw for company because he never had any siblings and this is the first time he has felt that he could actually do something with his art when he leaves school.

Boy Genius: Its nice of Luke to think of what’s good for Clyde rather than bowing down to his image and putting his work in for an art competition is the start of a promising trend where he looks out for his friends best interests rather than the other way around.

Journalist in Training: Rani’s impersonation of the Mona Lisa is hilarious. Anjili Mohindra’s comic timing is impeccable.

The Genuine Article: ‘You can’t fake this kind of class…’ Your reaction to this story is probably going to be based around your opinion of Suranne Jones’ turn as the Mona Lisa. Jones is hot property these days and its great to see that this show continued to acquire the services of some quality actresses to bring its characters to life. Mona Lisa is loud, crude and brutal and it gives Jones the chance to go over the top and have great fun in the role and yet at the same time she manages to find some real pathos in the villainess at the same time. She’s a brassy northern painting brought to life and she’s packing a Sontaran blaster stolen from Clyde’s painting. She’s been hanging on a wall for five centuries and its driven her slightly kaka, all she wants is to knock some heads together and have some fun. The way Harding fawns and lusts after Mona Lisa adds a layer of complexity to their relationship, she can exploit him with her expressive sexuality. There’s a clever notion in play that Lisa cannot exist outside of the gallery and step into the outside world, she’s trapped within the confines of the building and all she wants to be able to walk free like any normal person. She might be a dangerous lunatic who is jealous of the woman who inspired her creation but there is a lot going on beneath the surface of all the bluster. Like all good Doctor Who/Sarah Jane villains (Sil, the Master), she has a penchant for giggling like loon when things go her way.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Nothing stays perfect forever…’
‘Her most detailed personal profile can be found on where she lists her interests as salsa dancing. She says she is ‘open minded and willing to try…’ ‘Thank you Mr Smith!’
‘That enigmatic smile that everybody bangs on about – wind.’
‘This sultana blaster…’ ‘I think you mean Sontaran’ ‘Whatever…’ – this isn’t subtle dialogue but the performances are just delightful.

The Good: Finally a great use of the Millennium Centre! Instead of posing as a space station from the future, an alien hospital, a building for Amy to grow old in or an underground Silurian debating chamber, here it is utilised as an art gallery (much like it was in Vincent and the Doctor) and as such we can wander around its vast and splendid corridors as the public services building that it actually is. Jeff Rawle and Suranne Jones are broken out before the credits kick in, its another terrific cast for a Sarah Jane Adventures following on from an appearance by Donald Sumpter in the last story. Sam Watts’ amusing classical musical score is another winner for the composer, highlighting the quality of the art and the look of the story. There’s a lovely role for Haresh in the first episode who gets to be more than the monster breathing down Clyde’s neck. Instead he is proud of something the boy has accomplished and played far more likeably as a result. Phyllis Trupp is one of those comical characters that is touched by tragedy and its played to the hilt by Lisa Sadovy, her unrequited love for Curator Harding a delicate thread running through the story and making both characters more interesting for it (there’s a touch of Revelation of the Daleks’ Jobel and Tasembeker about them). Showing he has a great eye for detail (I would never say that Phil Ford’s plotting is at fault), the very first shot of this story is the solution to the problem at the climax – a drawing of K.9. Its clear that the episode is building to a dramatic moment surrounding the Mona Lisa and I love how Joss Agnew captures the moment in such a blackly comical light, the unveiling of Miss Trupp captured in the painting. Its even touched with tragedy because she would love to harvest the affection that Harding has for the real painting and so putting her in its frame looking so plain and dumpy is really quite soul destroying for her. It also introduces the idea of the Mona Lisa being able to walk from the painting and trap others in oils which is phenomenal on anyone’s watch. Mona Lisa can also steal anything of use that has been painted in the gallery so soon avails herself of a Sontaran blaster from Clyde’s artwork. You’ve just got to love a show that is playing around with ideas that are this kooky. It reminds me of Doctor Who at its best. Watch out for the reference to Planet of the Dead. Sarah Jane being trapped in the painting with a look of fear trapped on her face feels like it has stepped out of Sapphire and Steel and proves to be one of the more conceptual cliffhangers the show has attempted. Without a method of time travel (occasionally circumvented in episodes such as The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith) there has to be a way to bring elements of the past and future to the show and extracting the Dark Rider from a painting is one of the more imaginative on offer. Suddenly the story becomes a romp around the art gallery as the kids are pursued by a highwaywoman packing flintlocks. The whole idea of the Abomination by Giuseppe de Cattivo is so captivatingly explained I (to my shame) actually looked it up online to see if there was such a painting/artist. Fortunately (its nice to know that I’m not an exclusive sap) others had done the same thing! Obviously I didn’t believe in the idea of sentient paint made from alien elements (or did I…?) but this is exactly the sort of myth that shows like Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures can build their stories on (like the Gorgon in season one). Kudos to Phil Ford for duping me so completely. Proving once again that the Sarah Jane Adventures recognises discretion where Torchwood dives in head first, Mona Lisa’s Revenge mimics the ending of End of Days with a slavering, horned beast being released. Instead of having it stomping over Cardiff in a ridiculous fashion it is all achieved with glimpses of its hands and silhouette and subtle lighting making the effect far more frightening. We never get to see the whole of the Abomination but the glimpses on offer are more than enough to make you sweat. This show would never take the obvious route of having Miss Trupp and Harding fall into each others arms at the climax and it undercuts the romantic possibilities with a cracking insult (‘you art tart!’).

The Bad: Unfortunately the painting of Clyde’s that is getting all the recognition really isn’t that good.

Result: In turn Mona Lisa’s Revenge is inventive, colourful, surreal and exciting. Most unlike a Phil Ford script, this feels more like something that Gareth Roberts would put together if he had taken enough mind altering drugs. By the time the cliffhanger kicks we’ve strayed pastSapphire and Steel territory (policeman trapped in paintings) into the sort of creativity that has always made Doctor Who such a treat for is audience (the Mona Lisa breaking free of her painting and re-imagined as brassy northern psychotic that can pull any resource that has been captured in oil from a painting). Its absolute madness but played engagingly by the cast and injected with some slick touches by director Joss Agnew who judges the tone of the piece with absolute precision (because as exaggerated as this is it could have dive bombed into caricature of the show I recognise). There’s even space for a twisted love triangle between Lisa, Harding and Miss Trupp which makes all of their characters more interesting because of it and a burgeoning distance developing between Sarah Jane and Luke pre-empting his departure in a few stories time. My one complaint is that the second half doesn’t quite have the snap, crackle and pop of the first and things lead to a slightly underwhelming conclusion. But the energy levels are high, the gags are relentless, the cast are at the top of their game at this point (Mohindra and Anthony rule) and the whole piece is elevated by the lighter than usual tone. Kudos to Suranne Jones who manages to go wildly over the top and make me crack up whilst still finding subtleties to exploit within the character of Lisa: 8/10