Sunday, 22 May 2016

Technophobia written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: When the Doctor and Donna visit London’s Technology Museum for a glimpse into the future, things don’t go to plan. The most brilliant IT brain in the country can’t use her computer. More worrying, the exhibits are attacking the visitors, while outside, people seem to be losing control of the technology that runs their lives. Is it all down to simple human stupidity, or is something more sinister going on? Beneath the streets, the Koggnossenti are waiting. For all of London to fall prey to technophobia...

Mockney Dude: What I love about this pair more than anything else is that they are knocking about the cosmos for the fun of it, simply because they love being together and there are so many great things to see and experience out there. It's the same vibe that I get from the fourth Doctor and Sarah and the fourth Doctor and Romana II. He and Donna are not a couple...she helps him 'in the community' (and she makes it sound like a charitable act. He talks but its all geek to Donna. He seems more concerned with technology than human beings. Some of his best friends have been robots...and blokes. The Doctor is the last person you should give caffeine to, especially this Doctor. He's having fun to a point but when he suddenly turns cold and says 'no more' you really listen. He's the one Doctor who sends chills up my spine when he gets angry because he's usually such a jolly fellow and yet we have seen evidence of how far he will go when he is pushed to the limit (the climax of The Runaway Bride, The Family of Blood, The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars). He doesn't like aliens messing around with London, the most exciting city in the world. If there's one thing he doesn't like it's a know-all which earns him a scoff from Donna. He's adept at acting the fool, asking the right questions and generally causing a great distraction performing a sleight of hand that defeats the aliens. Like Tom Baker at his best, Tennant's Doctor can play the clown whilst being very clever indeed.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna Noble; Chiswick Cherubs, Tooting Temps and Wimbledon Wonders how wonderful it is to have you back. When you have a Doctor/companion combination that worked as sublimely as the tenth Doctor and Donna it is hard not to compare everything that comes afterwards to that magic. Perhaps that is what I have done, perhaps a little unfairly but this was my new series team. The one point where the show seemed to be aimed squarely at me and relationship between the Doctor and Donna (and the chemistry between Tennant and Tate) had a great deal to do with that. Donna was always brave yet vulnerable, sassy yet smart, human and yet pragmatic. She was somebody I could really believe in and I loved the fact that she wanted to travel the universe without trying to get into the Doctors pants. The question is whether Big Finish can replicate the success of this character and give her an equally sparkling existence on audio. On the strength of the reviews of this set and the opening story, the signs are certainly looking good. Tate is on dazzling form throughout and seems to relish the fact that she is playing Donna Noble again. She's the fastest shorthand in the West. She's dated worse than some of the robots on display...from what we have heard (and seen) of Donna's relationship history it looks like she has fallen in with quite a bunch of losers in her time. Perhaps it's time to meet one of them? She's learnt how to time travel responsibly; no sneaky peeking at Autumn collections of lottery results in the future but she might have nipped to Henriks for the latest Katie Price perfume. She wont make jokes when people are dying, she has more respect than that. Donna has always wanted to drive a bulldozer but then she has been trying to live up to the subtlety of such a vehicle all of her life so it is understandable. She's quick to refute the idea that she and the Doctor are a couple and that she is available.

Standout Performance: It's that ability that Tate has of throwing herself into the madness of everything and Donna clearly having a whale of time throwing out one liners...and then suddenly stopping and breaking our hearts with a line. Donna's 'I told him if he comes with us he would be safe' is a great example. Tate switches mood effortlessly, painfully. It's almost like she wants the audience to be unprepared for the emotion. That reminds me of Russell T. Davies work at it's best, a jolly romp until it stabs you in the heart. Niky Wardley's Bex with an X isn't the most memorable of characters but she works well with Donna, probably because Wardley and Tate have a long history of working together and a good friendship (Temps United). She's also sufficiently different from Tamsin for it not to be a problem that Bex is being played by an actress of an ex audio companion. See Beth Charmers, it can be done!

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Robots running amok? Donna, we're on!'
'Last time I saw somebody that jumpy they were standing on a supernova!'
'Always invoice for the whole day. Double time for the end of the world.'

Great Ideas: People are claiming that modern day technology is becoming too complicated to use. Well either I'm getting old (a distinct possibility) or this statement is very true but you only have to ask my husband about a recent tantrum I had about turning Amish after attempting to get to grips with the impenetrable library of music that is Apple Music. The Doctor states that technology is supposed to make your life easier but what about when the technology progresses to such a rate that it is more economic and reliable than human beings? Computers building computers - why does that send a chill down the spine? Super smart to neo-Neanderthal in minutes, that's why the technology is so damn complicated. You could make an argument that the glut of reality television and the media thinking for us has made society dumber so technology seems more sophisticated than it is. Kevin Jones the train driver - a very down to Earth character that made a great deal of difference in this era of the show.

Musical Cues: Damn, I love that version of the theme tune. I love it. It transported me back to season four all over again and gave me goosies all over. The score isn't hugely memorable in it's own right but what is memorable about it is the fact that it is a new series Doctor Who adventure that isn't scored by Murray Gold. It's fast paced, modern and skips you through the story, it's a decent stab at his style.

Isn't it Odd: Given that this is a story of technology that has run amok I thought the examples that we got lacked a little imagination. Hoovers? Looking at the technology that is around my living room right now I can already see a ceiling fan (catapulting off and chopping me in half), a fish tank (exploding and showering with glass)...even my computer (melting and gluing me to the table as the rest of the technology around me finishes me off). It's the sort of thing Davies would have gone to town with but Fitton is rather restrained. Plus the technophobia in the story is only really got to grips with in these scenes. It's not really the psychological explanation I was expecting.

Standout Scene: The one scene that really drove him the sinister nature of technology gone awry was set in the underground when you realise just how much technology reliant we are. Donna and Bex are surrounded by potential weapons.

Result: 'An alien? He looks like he works in menswear!' Technophobia both plays it safe and manages to perfectly capture that feeling of confidence and 'nothing can stop us' attitude that lit up series four like a beacon. It's a witty, slick and furiously paced audio and I was beaming throughout, mostly thanks to the punch the air reunion between Tennant and Tate. For once all the build up was worth it, this genuinely captures the magic between these two actors all over again. Thank goodness. Fitton manages to ape the Davies London obsession and create a nostalgic (when did series four become something to get nostalgic about?) invasion of England's capital, that feeling of madness gripping the city as another crazy alien stunt plays out. There's elements of The Lazarus Experiment, Partners in Crime and The Poison Sky...any of the contemporary Earth stories really but I don't think it was such a bad idea to ease everybody in gently before heading off and doing something crazy experimental. I really like the idea of an alien invader attempting to take over by making the human race thick; maybe they just needed to increase the screenings of Don't Tell the Bride and The Only Way is Essex whilst tripling the print run of the Daily Mail and their plan to make the human race stupid and conquer them could have been achieved with far less fuss. With all of the London's technology a risk the tale isn't perhaps as imaginative  or scary as it could be but that might be a timing issue, there is an awful lot to pack into 60 minutes. Contemporary London - check. The Doctor and Donna on form - check. Regular Joe's making a difference - check. Humour and pathos - check. There is certainly enough elements that work to self-assuredly call this an authentic throwback to the greatest new Who season of them all. The story as presented is worthy of a 7 but the magic brewed up by Tennant and Tate automatically elevates it a point. They are just brilliant together: 8/10

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Torchwood: Uncanny Valley written by David Llewellyn and directed by Neil Gardner

What's it about: What has made billionaire Neil Redmond emerge from his long seclusion? Captain Jack knows the answer, and is prepared to go to any lengths to prove it. A couple of years ago, Neil Redmond was in a terrible accident. His recovery has been long and slow, but now he's back and looking better than ever. Much better than ever. Dark forces have been behind Neil's transformation. Dark forces that Jack has been hunting for a long time. But Captain Jack's never been able to resist the darkness.

Here He Comes in a Great Big Tractor: You can count on Jack to do the wrong thing at the right time and you definitely trust on him following his libido wherever it takes him. When NJ proposes that they have a liaison I just knew he wasn't going to be able to resist. One thing you can say about Jack that is always consistent is that his head is led by his cock, even if it leads him into some awkward situations. And it doesn't get much more awkward than this, sleeping with the duplicate of an ex-lover whilst his disabled counterpart is watching and listening to every moan and groan. Jack probably finds the whole idea quite exciting, not only because he is playing about with the ultimate sex toy but because he is voyeuristically being watched at the same time. It was probably the best shag of his life. And NJ knows precisely how to press his buttons by promising him the best sex of his life without any strings attached. Hang on is this post-Ianto? I don't think it would matter to Jack either way. I reckon some part of Jack would love to indulge with NJ because it would upset Neil so much. I think underneath all that heroism and bravery there are some really ugly desires. The world is made of two types of people; those who like things to remain as they are and those who seek out new experiences. Jack is the latter. He's died so many times but he finds it is always the legs the mend together last. The one thing you need to get up and away.

Standout Performance: NJ is such a fascinating character and played with such restraint by Steven Cree that makes his actions all the more creepy. He's a ruthless, emotionless automaton supposedly and yet his every act seems to bring on an emotional response in people. He is very adept at manipulating people and bringing them to his will by giving them everything that they desire. By the end of the story he exhibits jealousy, rage, revenge, pity, envy...and he does it all without one raising his voice of showing a hint of emotion in it. That's a hard act for Cree to pull off but he does so without batting an eyelid. It astonishes me that Big Finish can edit stories together so well - Barrowman and Cree weren't even in the same continent when this story was recorded and yet you could never tell. Their chemistry is extraordinary, in either pairing. I loved the fact that NJ was beguiled by Jack because he is only the second man who knows about his artificial nature and he will do anything to indulge in him because of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Something physical. Urgent. Devastating.'
'Why are you doing this?' 'Because I can.'
'I don't like all this emotion, it's unedifying.'

Great Ideas: How can one man be in two places at the same time? Neil Redmond had a car accident and it was said that he would never walk again. Redmond went from being a man who suffered a terrible accident to being just about everywhere in the media. The idea that somebody would make an exact replica of you to go and live your life whilst you live the life of a cripple is perfectly cruel. There is nothing to say that Neil couldn't live his own live from a wheelchair perfectly well. NJ is an exact copy but somehow sexier, funnier and more charismatic than Neil was. He is the man that Neil wishes he could be and he gets hooked on the idea of live his life through NJ, experiencing everything that he experiences. Neil still has every desire...he just cannot feel anything anymore. Adding Jack to the already complicated relationship between Neil and NJ tips the balance and before long they are at each others throats. I love the very creepy idea of the perfect mirror image of yourself throttling the life out of you. It's sick.

Audio Landscape: Rainfall, buzzer, cocking a gun, ticking clock, car screeching on the road, mobile phone ring, crackling flames, smashing glass, rain falling, bones knitting together, NJ sparking, fizzing and popping.

Isn't It Odd: With so much emphasis put on the Committee on audio, you start to wonder why it was never mentioned on the TV. Still it is being woven so expertly throughout these tales it doesn't really matter. NJ is the work of the Committee. case by case Jack is blowing their cover and he wont stand for their interference anymore. There's hints that the Committee were invited to Earth...but invited by whom?

Standout Scene: The story dares to stray into the very prickly area of self-love. What would you do if you had a perfect replica of yourself to play about with? Would you be so bold as to take that leap and have a sexual encounter with somebody that is essentially you? Isn't that the ultimate form of masturbation? Ask yourself what you would do in the same situation if there were no repercussions whatsoever. I'd like to say I wouldn't...but in a very perverse way I probably would. Of course this is the tipping point for the story, where Neil and NJ's relationship takes on a much darker stance. Suddenly there are real feelings involved, they are practically having a relationship and Neil is deliberately sending out NJ to have sexual encounters with people. But is it because he wants to enjoy those encounters or because he wants to keep an eye on his new boy toy that has his face? It's a hugely self destructive path that ultimately ends with Neil trying to kill his alter ego when he cannot take handle his selfish lustful behaviour anymore. When it feels like NJ is deliberately trying to hurt him, which he is. And he's enjoying it.

Result: 'Who do you think invited them here in the first place?' Twenty minutes into this story and I couldn't figure out why it had had so many plaudits laid at its doorstep. Sure it was engaging enough but there was nothing there which suggested it was any better than your average Big Finish audio. And then NJ entered the scene and things became a lot more interesting. Suddenly this rather tragic tale of a man who has suffered a terrible accident took a much darker hue, highlighting some very complex feelings to do with disability, identity and sexuality. By the end it becomes one of the most complex audios, certainly in terms of character and definitely one of the most adult ones because it is willing to hold a mirror up to humanity and ask some hard questions. The answers aren't always pretty. That is one thing I always liked about Torchwood, it was never afraid to take a good look at the uglier side of humanity but it rarely touched upon it with the sort of clarity and complexity as Uncanny Valley does. Jack barely features for the first half of the story but he more than makes up for it in the second half, giving in to his baser desires one minute and proving stronger than I thought the next.  The real credit has to go to Steven Cree who gives an extraordinary double performance and isn't afraid to toss caution to the wind and head into some creepy and narcissistic corners with David Llewellyn's involving script. I was pretty blown away by his acting. Astonishing that these Torchwood audios have managed to tell some of the most significant audios by focussing on telling ambitious character tales in a very economical way. Other ranges take note. Uncanny Valley surprises because it is uncomfortable listening and impresses because of it too: 9/10

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Torchwood: One Rule written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What's it about: It’s been three weeks since the Mayor of Cardiff was killed by a shop dummy and the fight is on to see who will replace him. Yvonne Hartman is visiting the city to retrieve an invaluable alien device. She's in charge of Torchwood One, she's saving the British Empire and she doesn't care about local politics. But she is going to find herself caught up in that fight. There’s a bloodthirsty alien stalking the streets and there’s a special offer on at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It’s the 26th of March 2005 and it’s the day that everything changes.

I Wish I Hadn't Killed Her Off: Thus speaks the great Russell T Davies when he realised what a fabulous character he had in the shape of Yvonne Hartman, especially in the hands of Tracey Ann Oberman. She's probably the living embodiment of sass in the Doctor Who universe, River before her time without any of the outrageous sexism, overdone sexuality and crazy violence. With Yvonne, she commands your attention simply with her word and her attitude. The joy of these Torchwood audios is that it is a chance to re-visit old characters that worked extremely well without mucking up any of established continuity. It does as well to remember that Torchwood was initially set up in Doctor Who (back when arcs were there to add colour to a season rather than the beating heart that keeps them alive) and not an entity in it's own right and Yvonne was at the heart of that. She thinks that Torchwood Three is very retro and the staff are very cute. What an awesome idea, bringing Yvonne to Wales to comment on the state of affairs there. Her 'I'm from London' says everything you need to know about her patronising attitude. I couldn't help but wonder if she was going to get a rude awakening. When someone tells her she has a big ego she merely retorts that they are very observant - you've got to admire that level of self confidence. Yvonne is privvy to information about the sort of threats that are attempting to topple the Earth and it's terrifying. Torchwood keeps it quiet because it knows that the population cannot cope with that information. New Years Eve 1999 and Yvonne hadn't been working at Torchwood for long, the phone rang and she listened whilst the head of Torchwood Three killed his team one by one and raved about something coming and everybody having to be ready. It would be enough to drive anybody away from the organisation, rather than encourage you to keep fighting. Yvonne recognises that Torchwood has to be strong and ready and she is just the woman for the job. She's not the sort of person who calls for help whenever she is stuck and she has an ability to get people on side by simply charming them. Yvonne threatens to have somebody shot for suggesting that she is a drag queen. The only Queen that Yvonne has anything to do with is the reigning Monarch that she has tea with twice a week. She knew things had to change when she took charge of Torchwood London, she didn't understand why they had access to so much alien tech but they didn't utilise any of it. Of course Yvonne knows about the Committee. She's practically blaze about it. She has to make a choice between Barry having a nasty accident and getting his just desserts or having somebody in power in Cardiff in the palm of her hand. With a heavy sigh she realises for Queen and Country it is better to sell her morals and take the advantage. It's a cracking scene because you can see that Yvonne would do pretty much anything that will give her an advantage. But she'll still stab him in the leg for his troubles, for screwing with her. Wow.

The Crew: Ianto was a member of Yvonne's team in Torchwood London and her unusual method of staff relations might mean that she is responsible for all of his heartache to come with Lisa (I do wish people would stop referencing that terrible episode).

Standout Performance: Some top quality Welsh accents in this tale although if you aren't a native English speaker you might find some of them a little indecipherable.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Torchwood Cardiff. Excellent as an emergency backup system but they're not really professional.'

Great Ideas: I'd forgotten the sort of Doctor Who continuity that could be played about with in Torchwood and the mention of a Dravhan scanner really made me chuckle. Something or someone is killing off potential Mayors of Cardiff. Hardly the sort of emergency that Yvonne is used to dealing with. There's a wonderful moment where Yvonne examines the human condition, the ability to skip over traumatic events with the pointless humdrum of everyday life because that is easier to deal with. There was an invasion of Earth three weeks ago? Who cares when we are missing the latest episode of Strictly! Just like the government, Torchwood Cardiff and Torchwood London don't really get along.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, a hulking great monster growling, takeaway music, screaming panic, taking pictures on phone, rock bar atmosphere, bar fight, a bottle being smashed, sirens, throwing up, toilet, hair dryer, rainfall, Helen being torn apart.

Standout Scene: The reveal of the killer was a genuine surprise, especially because he was treated as such a joke throughout.

Result: A whirlwind tour of the best of Cardiff, featuring clubs, pubs and toilets. What is this? Unbound Exile, the sequel? No, it's a rough and ready character drama penned by Joseph Lidster and featuring the gorgeous Tracey Ann Oberman as Yvonne Hartman. She's hardly shown Cardiff at it's best (certainly this was not my experience of the city when I visited) but it gives her plenty to sneer at which is delightful to experience. There is a reason that the character section is bloated and the great ideas section is so empty, this is heavy on character and pretty light on plot (it's there but it doesn't dominate in the same way) and it gives Yvonne a chance to truly come to life in a setting that is out of her comfort zone. Oberman is so good that I would actively encourage the producers to give her another shot at this and I would love to see more of Torchwood London. I would suggest that Lidster is given the brief too as he clearly understands exactly what makes her tick, making her enough of a diva to be the same person that appeared in Army of Ghosts whilst including moments of humour and sympathy. It's a story that feels less robustly plotted than those that it follows but I don't think that is really the point. The idea is to stick close to Yvonne and to experience the story as she does and to simply revel in the awesome way she has of getting things done. Personally I consider that a very good use of an hour. The director drew more attention to itself this time around and it doesn't surprise me to see this was the work of Barnaby Edwards, always a reliable pair of hands. I liked how the Committee was slipped into the story too, during the moment of the biggest surprise. The Committee puzzle pieces are starting to assemble and it's clear they have been around for a long, long time. An intriguing one off and a very enjoyable one. Yvonne Hartman rules: 8/10

Torchwood: Forgotten Lives written by Emma Reeves and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: It has been four years since the Miracle, and Gwen and Rhys's lives have gone back to normal, very normal. They're raising their daughter (they've got pictures they'd be only too happy to show you), they're living in a nice house, and they're almost on top of the laundry. Captain Jack Harkness has been missing from the world and their lives for a long time. But late one night the phone rings, and they're summoned to an isolated part of North Wales. The Bryn Offa Nursing Home contains a dark secret, an alien threat, and someone who really shouldn't be there. Gwen and Rhys are about to discover that Torchwood stays with you for the rest of your life.

Welsh Babe: Ahhh Gwen, our identification figure (supposedly) through the first season of the show. Bizarrely that is the only season where I don't get on with the character. I found her too selfish, too enticed by the whole Torchwood world and too morally corrupt (flirting with Jack and sleeping with Owen) to be somebody worth investing in. It was when the writers decided to settle down the character, to focus on the positives of her relationship with Rhys (who she ultimately chooses over the organisation) and to allow her to show some genuine humanity (especially in standout episodes like series two's Adrift) that she found her place in the show. I think Eve Myles' performance improved greatly with each passing season too, from boggle eyed wonder and horror in series one to some haunting reflections in Miracle Day. It's nice to catch up wit Gwen ad Rhys after the Miracle to see what they have been up to. This is the first story to pick up the reins from where the TV series left off so I assume that there are no plans to do anything with the characters at the moment. She's unsure whether Jack is who he says he is...probably because she never thought he would be humble enough to let himself grow old. It would appear that no matter how much they reject the Torchwood lifestyle that it will always come back to bite them in the ass. Gwen always was pretty hooked on the lifestyle so it doesn't take her long to get back in the mode of taking charge and saving the world. Even Rhys notices it. She certainly remembers her strong arm tactics, learning from Jack in all the worst ways by brandishing a big gun and bullying her way to the truth of matters. If they want to warn Gwen off then stealing the mind of her daughter is not the way of going about it. Nothing would make her fight more. There does seem to be an uncanny link between Jack and danger, as soon as Gwen invites one in the rest of her family gets a healthy dish of the other.

Bulldog: 'Bloody Torchwood!' I love love love Rhys! In the first two series he was the everyman that cut through all of the organisations pretensions and pointed out how ridiculous they were, whilst still being a little bit in awe of what they do. Meat was a wonderful turning point for the character, where he was suddenly in on the secrets and taking part in the operations. He's earthiness is exactly what the series needs to ground it. He had me laughing before the title music kicked in in this audio. Rhys admits that he is working for Torchwood now - well he's helping his wife and the organisation seems to only consist of the two of them - which is a huge step. He's a little overdramatic when it comes to he threats.

Standout Performance: A huge round of applause to Kai Owen for managing to ride over the usual embarrassment that is produced when characters are possessed and instead managing to completely embody another character.

Great Ideas: One of the great strengths of the Torchwood audio range for Big Finish is that they aren't telling much of an arc story (beyond the mentions of the Committee that are running through all of these tales) and so they can dip in and out of the entire timeline of the series. The show had changes of regular cast so often that it is easy to pinpoint precisely where any particular story is set simply by who is taking part. The creators are not going for obvious choices all the time too. As well as featuring the main characters (Jack, Gwen, Ianto, Tosh) there is space to flesh out intriguing one of characters such as Yvonne Hartman and semi regulars such as PC Andy. The series is taking a similar route to Dorian Gray, the stories not following in chronological order and thus each is a terrific standalone tale in it's own right and offers something very different to it's neighbours. A great deal of thought has been put into what will make this series work on audio. It's suggested that the Committee caused the Miracle, giving the idea to the Three Families. Wheels within wheels. Nice to see established continuity and new continuity bound together like this. Has Jack really wound up in a nursing home in his late 2000s? There's a great deal of mystery surrounding this character and whether he is who he says he is. The story never shies away from the fact that dementia is hell, not only for those suffering it but for those who are trying to pick up the pieces. It's a generally forgotten illness because it is one that is put down to old age and very often we like to tuck the elderly away in this country and forget about our own dwindling mortality. Losing somebody, piece by piece, is absolute hell. You want to help them but it is difficult. Looking out, they think they are the ones that are making perfect sense. The Evolved are the only species that managed to resist the Committee. Mind swapping is the basis of their society. It is their gift, you treat everyone well because you could be them tomorrow. They want to bring their gift to the Earth, to eliminate judging of the weakest members of society because that might be you in the morning. They see potential in the planet, offering peace. It's a benevolent invasion, in the words of Terrance Dicks 'the worst kind.'

Isn't It Odd: The idea of Anwen being brought into the story in such a dramatic way is excellent, it's just a shame that the performance lacks any kind of delicacy. 

Standout Scene: People that want to make your world a better place because it is for your own good. Every planet needs a Gary, somebody who is willing to take a hit for those around them. He embodies the best of humanity. Selfless individuals do exist and he is the only person on planet Earth that is worthy of the gift of the Evolved. The fact that he is taken against his will away from a life he loves almost seems like a punishment for being a nice guy. Let's not try that then.

Result: Dementia is very close to my heart. I have relations that suffer and in my volunteer work duties I have seen the damaging effects of the illness, the resilience of the families that are dealing with a sufferer and how it can be managed. When the Sarah Jane Adventures tackled the subject in Eye of the Gorgon I thought it was superbly done and now it is Torchwood's turn to take on the same theme. If this had been the TV series (certainly the first two series) I dread to think what might have transpired - alien hosts eating away at the mind and turning the elderly batshit crazy probably. But in the freshly laundered Torchwood audio series subtlety and thoughtfulness are the new watchwords and the Emma Reeves has written an elegant script that takes hold of dementia and ensures that nobody comes out the side of the audio unaffected. It brews up some heady emotions, some that sneaked up on me. I loved the are they/aren't they nature of the nursing home, are the suspect experiments and alien involvement just the paranoid delusions of somebody whose mind is atrophying or are they a genuinely up to something sinister? Like the first two stories in the range there is nothing predictable about this tale, it sets up an interesting scenario and always takes a surprising path. I'm almost regretting the fact that I am going to have to head back to the world of Doctor Who, these Torchwood audios are truly blazing a path of quality through everything else Big Finish is doing at the moment. Great title too: 8/10

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Torchwood: Fall to Earth written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: The SkyPuncher is the first private spaceflight. But Ephraim Salt's visionary project has gone horribly wrong - the ship is falling out of the sky and there seems no way to stop it. Ianto Jones thought the flight would be sabotaged. The only problem is... he's on board.

The Fall Guy: 'This is what Torchwood does, isn't it Jack? Ruins everyone. Everyone it touches...' Was there something up with Gareth David-Lloyd's accent in this? At points he didn't sound much like Ianto. Has it been so long since he has played the character that he has forgotten how he is supposed to sound? No, that's a little disingenuous - it might do you well to remember Ianto is in a fraught situation and if he sounds a little more hysterical than usual...well that's just how things are when you are hurtling towards the Earth and leaking blood at a rate of knots. Whilst he's panic stricken about the situation he has found himself in, Ianto is still awed by the incredible sight of the Earth from space. Who wouldn't be? His reaction to driving a spaceship is equally awesome, practically screaming with delight. Mind, he is a delirious at this stage after being bitten by a man who he thought was dead. By the end of the story Ianto has every kind of insurance going, just to keep Zeynep on the line. Better check that credit card statement when you get home. Let's hope he's ticked the box for life insurance too, given what we know of his future. His family could be raking it in right now. He's not a martyr but Ianto recognises that his life doesn't matter when the SkyPuncher is going to take the lives of many people when it crashes down on Turkey. Did Ianto want to show off to his colleagues that he could handle the spy stuff by sneaking himself aboard the SkyPuncher? He wanted to impress Jack and the others by nearly getting himself killed? Unfortunately that is exactly the sort of behaviour that is recognised and celebrated in Torchwood. If you make it home, you're a hero. If you don't, they'll replace you with someone else. Zeynep spells it out in no uncertain terms, no company is worth dying for.

Standout Performance: It seems discourteous to other releases (and performers) to say that this kind of story relies on strong performances more but it is true, this two hander is being held up entirely by Gareth David-Lloyd and Lisa Zahra and they both impress. Especially the latter who is a newcomer to Big Finish as far as I can tell and manages to shows great moments of charm and humour as Zeynep whilst remaining professional and within the limits of her job as a phone operator.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Please speak after the beep. Beep.'
'I'll try to make my panic less sex pesty.'
'I can't think of anything worse than being on a plane that's about to crash.'

Great Ideas: Poor Ianto Jones, he never had much luck in life, did he? Only he could be bleeding to death on a spaceship that's falling out of the sky and receive a telephone call about claiming compensation about an accident at work. It's very contemporary to have story featuring a private space flight given Richard Branson's claims that he is going to make space travel a commercial business. Let's hope he gives this story a listen. Ianto has the ability to turn any computer in the world into one of the most powerful indexes on the planet with access to all kids of socially sensitive information. You've got to love an Indian phone operator that sticks to the script even when their potential customer is in dire straits. This was the first private space flight with lots of celebrity passengers, it was a high profile event. Ianto was dispatched to make sure that nothing went wrong. Famous last words. Now everybody is dead and something is very wrong with the ship. When you have little phone battery left on a space craft that is screaming from the heavens the next best thing is to search the bodies of the dead to see if they have anything that can help you. Not a pleasant task. Salt coming back from the dead (well he was never really dead but Ianto thought that he was) is a terrific shock moment in what was turning into rather a sweet character piece (albeit in a heart racing situation). It's a slap in the face reminder that this mission has been a dismal failure. The approach to the climax had to feature the SkyPuncher reaching the Earth and dealing with the fate of Ianto but who would have thought that his relationship with Zeynep would become as intimate as the ship tearing towards the very building she is calling him from. A trap by the Committee to bring down Salt's SkyPuncher? Zeynep dialling out to Ianto was never a mistake, it was a deliberately routed call. That I never expected. By keeping Ianto alive she has brought the SkyPuncher to Turkey, to the heart of Salt's Empire. In one violent swoop the Committee are going to bring down Salt.

Standout Scene: What an incredible journey we go on with Ianto and Zeynep. At the end of the story one of them has to sacrifice themselves and one of them can survive. It's an astonishing scene between two people that barely know each other but realise the decisions that they make are going to have huge consequences. Zahra's performance in the last scene took my breath away.

Result: 'You're flying a bomb at me!' A wonderfully simple idea, so well realised. The relationship between Ianto and Zeynep is beautifully observed by writer James Goss who has no other distractions but to focus on the pair of them trying to deal with a desperate situation. Given Big Finish is told purely through the medium of audio I am surprised that there haven't been more two hander experiments of this nature as scaling back the cast of characters can often yield terrific results. Look at DS9's Duet and Waltz. The Outer Limits' The Quality of Mercy. Or even Big Finish's glorious Solitaire. What plays out is a tense situation that gets more butt clenching as the story races home to it's conclusion but it peppered with some sublime moments of comedy (Ianto's 'hooray' when his dog is insured really cracked a smile and I couldn't help but laugh my head off when during a particularly fraught moment Ianto is put on hold while a chirpy message of 'your call is important to us...' is piped into his ears) and character throughout that keeps the piece from getting too fatalistic. By making this such an intimate drama, you are entirely focused on what is happening and it should serve as a reminder to certain writers that think that unwieldy plots and characters are the way to go. Scott Handcock doesn't have an easy job to do, bringing such a small story to life in a way that it rivets the listener for an hour. But this is the producer of the Dorian Gray series where economy and drama go hand in hand. He's the perfect director for this story and it keeps the attention throughout. Maybe I've got a taste for technology porn when it is placed in a space setting - I thoroughly enjoyed the Doctor Who release Scavenger too which in parts had a similarly desperate tone and a wealth of information about space vehicles. The core word of what makes this story work is restraint and that is not a word that I ever thought I would associate with Torchwood. I'm glad James Goss has managed to prove me wrong. I've been told that perhaps I am a little too free with my 10/10's but my personal scale is to ask the questions 'how could this be better?' and when I am stuck for an answer the score flows naturally from that (although the mention of Lisa from Cyberwoman almost made me change my mind): 10/10

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Torchwood: The Conspiracy written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Captain Jack Harkness has always had his suspicions about the Committee. And now Wilson is also talking about the Committee. Apparently the world really is under the control of alien lizards. That’s what Wilson says. People have died, disasters have been staged, the suspicious have disappeared. It’s outrageous. Only Jack knows that Wilson is right. The Committee has arrived.
Here He Comes in a Great Big Tractor: Well where has John Barrowman been hiding these acting skills? Aside from a few moments of near Shakespearean drama, there was always a sense that Barrowman was performing rather than acting. Something of the showman in him. Which made him perfect for Torchwood because it showcased every extreme imaginable. Sometimes the TV wasn't big enough to contain the ambition of the writers and the Barrowman's ego working in tandem. Audio is a very different beast, there's no chance to strut about, showing off your physique or portraying every line as though you are about to break into song. It's a contained medium, one where the story and characterisation comes first. And Barrowman absolutely aces it. He's focused and committed, he's left his showmanship at the door and he's delivering a rock solid performance.

Jack has been keeping an eye on George Wilson for some time and now he has appeared in Cardiff it was time to catch up with him. Torchwood keeps tabs on all of the conspiracy nuts, no matter how far fetched their theories are because one of them might be privileged to know the truth about extraterrestrials in some cases. I love the fact that Jack expects Torchwood to be this secret organisation and yet they drive around Cardiff in a black four wheeled drive with flashing blue lights that advertises their presence to all and sundry. Maybe he needs to re-read the definition of covert in the dictionary. He's happy to threaten people and pull strings if they come close to exposing the organisation. The idea of Jac being immortal was one of the best ideas that Davies ever came up with because it allowed the production team to torture the character in varied and spectacular ways (I think my favourite is still him being blown to pieces in the first episode of Children of Earth but for sheer nastiness the people lining up to take a slice out of him in Miracle Day's Immortal Sins has to take the vote) and it looks like the production tea behind the audios are going to keep up the torment. The Conspiracy features a gruesome moment where Jack is shot in the head unexpectedly. How can you not feel for him after that?

Standout Performance: What this story needed was a stand up performance from whoever played Wilson because his paranoid personality and wild theories are the sort of characterisation it would be very easy to send up. Or at least make a mockery out of whilst trying to ground him in reality. What a coup to score John Sessions then, who does no such thing. He plays the part as if he believes every single word that comes out of Wilson's mouth. There is a conviction there that comes from an actor that is one hundred percent committed to bringing this man to life with as much integrity as possible. I was really impressed, especially when the truth about his character is revealed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We've learned one very important thing about humanity. They love a lie.'

Great Ideas: Who are the Committee and where do they come from? Very good questions but it would appear they are in control of peoples lives globally in the shadows and the population doesn't have a clue about it. The powers that be want us to believe that we are all separate, self-controlling entities and that is where most of the worlds problems stem from - these might be the words of a conspiracy nut (albeit one who is privy to some very real facts) but anybody with a semblance of sense knows that their lives are governed to a certain degree. The Committee are the puppet masters, the ones who have been running the show behind the scenes throughout human history. For hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Was the narrative of the wars throughout history all a fiction? Were they all orchestrated by the Committee? Wars that were caused merely as a catalyst to give human beings the technology to systematically annihilate each other, or at least to keep the population under control. Doctor Who has played about with the idea of aliens having significant input into the progress of humanity for diverse purposes (the Daemons, the Jaggaroth) but this is the first time that it feels truly insidious, like we are being directed towards a dark purpose. The Enablers are the ones working in intelligence agencies and law enforcement, they are the Committee members amongst the people ensuring that events go according to plan. Wilson feels safe because he has enough followers listening to what he has to say. He feels if the Committee come after him it will only make him a martyr and belief in his campaign to expose them would only grow stronger. Skypoint was going to be the tallest building in the city but back then it was only half built (nice to see the audios blowing kisses to what BBC Books did with the series). When Wilson admits that he made it all up I deflated like a saggy balloon...the idea of the Committee and it's insidious tendrils reaching out into society and shaping the world was such an exciting idea. It felt like we had a permanent threat for Torchwood to butt heads with and bring down at last. So much of the show was the regulars self-destructing, being the threat themselves. They regulars were at their best when they had a genuine threat to try and tackle (The Stolen Earth, Children of Earth). If he just made it all up then how could he get so much of it right? Of course it had to be Kate that was feeding him the truth about the Conspiracy because she is member of the organisation. Obvious in hindsight but really well played out in this story. Kate is Wilson's adopted daughter, one of the Committee in deep cover for all these years, from childhood. Many planets fell to the Committee across the galaxy and (surprise surprise) Jack was involved with them at some point. He really does get about, doesn't he? He told the Committee that Earth was a barren wasteland, trying to keep them away. The big question on everybody's lips is why the Committee would want to find themselves exposed, why they would work so hard to make it happen. Is the Committee in every government, ever boardroom, every TV screen? How do we recognise them? What is their ultimate goal?

Audio Landscape: People chattering, applause, a hanging rope, sirens, telephones ringing, strobe lighting, cocking a gun, a ticking gun, birdsong, cafe atmosphere, Jack bursting through a door (why can't he just knock?), being slapped, laser fire in civil war, battle cries, gasping from water, sirens.

Musical Cues: A gorgeous mutation of the TV theme for audio, taking out the ohmyGodI'mgoingtohaveaheartattack nature of the theme but maintaining it's identity and bombastic nature. Exciting but not so over the top that it screams of trying to make an impact. I think the recognisable TV Torchwood theme would make my ears bleed on audio. Thumbs up to all concerned, it certainly got me geared up for the story ahead.

Isn't It Odd: I really don't have very much to complain about, which feels like something of an anathema with Torchwood.

Standout Scene: Sam hanging himself on Skypoint is far more graphic than I am used to on audio. That is my own doing, I have only really explored Big Finish's Doctor Who ranges which is for a family friendly audience.

Result: 'and I am coming for them...' This is my first exposure to Torchwood on audio although I realise that BBC Books have quite a history with the series. I cannot think of a better idea than handing a series that has the ability to dive bomb into sheer ineptitude to Scott Handcock and James Goss. The former is responsible for some of the most economically told and adult material Big Finish have ever released and the blame for some of the most gripping and thought audio dramas can be laid at the door of the latter. Giving them Torchwood seems like a perfect fit, I can imagine them toning down it's excesses whilst still staying true to the show we know and love and embracing it's quirkiness and willingness to experiment. I always found Russell T Davies did the majority of his best work when he was forced to rein in his love of sex, swearing and intense domestic melodrama (Doctor Who and Sarah Jane) because it forced him to be more creative instead. Torchwood allowed him to indulge his excesses and they were such extremes at time the show fell flat on it's face. Once he realised what the show could be without the tremendous torrent of abuse and sperm it transformed into something rather magical...and that is what the writers of this audio series need to focus on. Parts of series two, Children of Earth and the first half of Miracle Day contained some of the finest material to have been shipped out of BBC Wales. The Conspiracy turns out to be a remarkably robust first outing for Torchwood, a tale that manages to be told economically about a few characters with some lovely twists and turns but with far reaching consequences for both the range and the world. It introduces the concept of the Committee and has a great deal of fun with it, a sinister organisation and a conspiracy nuts wet dream. Wilson is a great character, well written and perfectly played by John Sessions and he plays beautifully against John Barrowman who seems much more convincing and comfortable on audio than he ever did on TV. I love the fact that this story focuses on the nuts and bolts of audio drama, a small but riveting drama amongst a four characters and an interesting story. Torchwood the TV series lead me to believe that it could only be played to extremes and I was expecting an overpowering soundtrack, the death cries of thousands of extras and at least one gratuitous bit of humping (just imagine that on audio?). Laying seeds for the future, telling a gripping story and using it's chosen Torchwood member very well indeed, I felt like applauding at the end. If the entire range reaches this sort of quality I could be in for a grand old time: 9/10

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Legacy of Death written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The Doctor, Romana and K9 have found themselves trapped in a temporal war. On Aoris, the past battles the future - and the future fights back! With both sides of the war now capable of time travel, the conflict is about to enter a deadly stage. As the pieces of history lock into place, there is little the Doctor can do. With more Time Tanks moving into combat, the endgame is approaching. The people of Aoris risk extinction at their own hand. Can even the Doctor save the same planet twice in the same day?

Teeth and Curls: He wont hear of anybody dismantling K.9. He tries to convince that Romana is the expert and that he just follows her about...whilst we know this is not entirely accurate when you watch stories such as Horns of Nimon you have to agree in this season it does start to have a ring of truth about it. There were always moments of drama in season 17, moments when the Doctor's facetiousness stripped away and he brought him the seriousness of the situation. When he calls Emberey a blind, cowardly fool you genuinely believe that the Doctor is dealing with a truly abominable man. Tom Baker always makes these moments count. And when it comes to condemning the other side for acts of murder he is just as succinct. If the Doctor is so against the idea (which he very much is) then it must be very possible to rewrite history and forge a new timeline. Baker is as venomous as Hartnell when delivering the same kind of speech as that in The Aztecs. Why when trying to escape to the public announcements about how a prisoner on the run do they never mention how strikingly handsome he is? Perhaps there is something to the legend of the Doctor if he is to end the war that inspired his reputation.

Noblest of them All: Romana doesn't appreciate being bowed and scraped and fawned at...which is a sign of a strong character.

Standout Performance: Try and get your head around this concept - past and future factions debating the rights and wrongs of fighting against one another. This mind bending idea is made all the more palatable when it brought to life by actors with the skill of Simon Rouse and Tom Chadbon. They really sell the material, there is a palpable feeling of hatred between the two sides of this war. Which is deliciously screwy when you think they are descendants and antecedents of one another.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We have not harmed a single living soul from your time!' 'Only because you daren't!' We you are talking about your ancestors, those words take on real significance.
'We are the product of your decisions, your short-sightness, your mistakes, your greed!'
'If you want to solve this worlds problems then take responsibility for them! Stop blaming your ancestors and start learning from them!' - a valuable lesson for all of us.
'You can't undo the mistakes of the past, you can only avoid repeating them.'

Great Ideas: Poor old K.9, only he would hang around for over a millennia and continue to follow the instructions of the Doctor. He really is a Time Lord's best friend. The story lends itself to environmental concerns, which feels very Douglas Adams. Things start to get very wibbly wobbly in the second half - the Doctor realises that Emberey's great discovery is what allows them to eventually travel in time, that if it wasn't for him that there would be no war. Rather wonderfully because the story is set in two time zones we can enjoy the Doctor's tinkering in the past and K.9 recounting the events in the future, thus skipping over the boring bits and getting straight to the juicy stuff. K.9 is such a tease, he fails to mention that the Doctor is back in future because getting to that point makes a good story. As I mentioned in The Paradox Planet, the two factions in this war have caused the very thing that they hate about their past and future counterparts. The future faction travelled back in time and kidnapped all the endangered animals and caused them to become extinct. And if it wasn't for the future faction sending their Chronauts back in time to steal the crystals, the people from era 14 would have been able to use them as a power source instead of fossil fuels. What is the greatest weapon you could think of to exploit during a temporal war...the Doctor perhaps? The universe doesn't like self-negating time paradoxes, the Doctor knows that from experience. Perhaps the participants in this war have been gorging themselves on too many Doctor Who stories - they seem to recognise that most of these adventures end by going up in a big bang. If era 24 had never declared war on era 14 they could have negotiated with them to give them the xenox crystals and the animals. It's an old moral (and season seventeen is laden with messages from the hideous blobs not always being threatening, fancy named drugs being bad news and never look a gift bull in the mouth) but stop fighting and start talking is one that the human race needs to learn over and over again. I loved how K.9's 1000 year reputation is dealt with at the last minute, leaving a final cute little twist to bow out on.

Audio Landscape: Circuits shorting out, fizzing and crackling, dripping, impulse setting one, the humming time machine, alarms, chanting, K.9's grinding engine, nose blaster, footsteps on gravel, crackling fire, time jumps, ticking bombs, birds shrieking.

Standout Scene: After Emberey discovered time travel he went missing and presumed dead and the people of the future never quite understood where he went. It turns out he went to the future where he was subsequently killed. There is something very neat about a story that poses a mystery like that that spans a thousand years and answers it with such murderous flair within seconds. That's cracking Jonny Morris plotting for you.

Result: 'Do you want to know who set this planet on a course of self destruction?' 'Yes, I want to know' 'Then look in the mirror!'  More than any other story in his run so far I was extremely impressed with Tom Baker's performance in this story. He's never given a poor performance but there are times when he is characterised as such that it feels more like The Tom Baker Show than Doctor Who. Morris characterises him beautifully in The Legacy of Death, giving him plenty to rail against (and you can hear Baker gnashing those teeth as he takes on both sides in this temporal war) whilst maintaining his sense of humour appropriate to the season. I was genuinely taken aback at how good he was here, which suggests to me that a fair amount of his material previous to this story in the 4DAs has been a beneath him as an actor. Strap yourselves in and prepare yourselves for a complicated ride in The Legacy of Death but never fear, as long as you engage your brain there is a huge amount of reward to be found in the conclusion to this temporal jigsaw puzzle. Don't expect a nice, easy linear ride but do expect some clever twists and plenty of action. Morris is too smart to leave any threads hanging and by the time the story is over he crosses all of his ts and dots all of his is although you might need several listens to get your head around everything. There's a strong message about talking and not fighting and accepting the mistakes from the past and learning from them but it doesn't hammer them home, instead it uses creative ideas to slip them into the narrative. That's very season seventeen. The first half was more entertaining but the second half was more dramatic and for Tom Baker's riveting performance opportunities I felt extremely satisfied with that shift in tone. If only all the 4DAs could be four episodes long: 8/10