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

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Labyrinth of Buda Castle written by Eddie Robson and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and Romana land in Budapest, intent on enjoying another holiday, but shortly after landing they find themselves too late to save the life of a man who has seemingly been attacked by a vampire. As they learn that this is the latest in a series of violent attacks, it becomes clear that they have stumbled onto something that needs investigating. Aided by a vampire hunter who is searching for Dracula, they look into the nearby Buda caves, currently being used for storage by the military - and find that the soldiers have problems of their own. Stalked through the tunnels by a monster, and up against an ancient evil, the race is on to escape alive - and foil the dastardly schemes of the maniacal Zoltan Frid.

Teeth and Curls: Do you get the impression that these season 17 audios are going to be chasing the City of Death vibe and a whole handful of them will open with the Doctor and Romana enjoying a holiday in an exotic location? The Doctor never has much use for money so he often runs out very quickly on his adventures and of course the trouble is you never know what currency is going to be needed. Is the Doctor a fiction? Many people have thought so, especially after he has performed his magic and left. He gets so few times to be properly disdainful these days so the presence of tiresome man is very welcome. Only the Doctor would attempt to hypnotise a vampire - he really isn't like other protagonists out there, is he? The Doctor suggests the locals on Gallifrey are terribly aloof, an understatement if ever I heard one. If he's told to stay out it will only encourage the Doctor even more, he's like a petulant child like that. Occasionally he dies but he always comes back different - this is the sort of ordinary observation the Doctor is making in this story. Hardly a great revelation, is it? The Doctor is the official cause of the villains death in this story but for once I think Tom Baker plays the moment unconvincingly. He's angry right up until the point where he says the word that will cause Frid's demise and then he seems unsure how to play the moment, sounding a little lost.

Noblest of them All: Radiates a keen intelligence and can spot an attractive woman when the man around her cannot. She wont talk down to people from a lower social standing, quite the reverse in fact. The Doctor is thieving her sonic screwdriver again. He's an old rogue for superior technology.        
Standout Performance: Mark Bonnar is making quite a name for himself playing sinister bad guys in Big Finish stories. Whilst his character here isn't a patch on the Eleven in Doom Coalition, his commitment to the role is just as striking. It's a very different kind of performance, showing his versatility even when playing the same kind of role. In Buda Castle he is all whispered threats and quiet menace, in Doom Coalition the Eleven is far more hysterical and unrestrained. A shame that he isn't given more to work with here, he's propping up a pretty empty part.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Dracula, ay? That's why you're threatening me with a stake. I thought perhaps you couldn't afford a knife.'
'I don't like what you're implying' 'I don't like what I'm implying but if I stop implying it, it wont go away.'

Great Ideas: Ummm....

Audio Landscape: An extremely crisp production courtesy of Jamie Robertson. He's the one sound designer/musician that I never have to check out in the credits because his work is pretty much flawless. Cocking a rifle, firing a shot, scream, footsteps, cafe sounds, a snarling creature, a ticking watch, bubbling vats, dialling a telephone, scream, a whistling kettle, a neck being snapped quite nastily, a waterside stroll, falling into water, bullets being fired, water rising, a fight between two women.

Musical Cues: More Dudley-esque music, bouncy and fun, nostalgic and contemporary. I would have Robertson score every 4DA if I could. Perhaps a slightly more exotic flair might have been appropriate though. Even Dudley upped his game for their sojourn to Paris.

Isn't it Odd: The revelation that Celia wants to Zoltan's Queen comes out of nowhere. It's the sort of twist that should blow your mind but there has been no kind of build up to the moment, no hints that this was her sole intention. It's like Agatha Christie revealing the killer to be...someone who hasn't been mentioned in the book to that point. A vampire hunter in love with a vampire? Buffy has made that old hat and there really isn't anything sexy about this. Frid's scheme is so unambitious it is barely worth mentioning. A planet of parasites that will head off to infect the universe, harvesting every corner of reality. Yawn. 'All of time and space shall be mine. I will know everything that ever was and ever will be...' blah blah blah. With as much Doctor Who as there is out there now there really is no excuse for villainy as banal as this. Even the way the Doctor defeats the villain is mundane. Unambitious, banal, mundane...have these become the watchwords for the 4DAs?

Standout Scene: The only scene that really stood out as justifiably season seventeen was the confrontation between the Doctor and Zoltan where the Time Lord is waxing lyrical about crossing paths with Deadalus and Pythagoras. It might be a tenapenny Doctor Who hero/villain moment but Tom sounds like he is having a whale of a time, even if it does mean the climactic confrontation comes way before the climax.

Result: This reminded me very much of The Cloisters of Terror last year, an uninventive spooky tale that is beautifully realised and you will forget all about as soon as you press stop on the player. It's Who by numbers, propped up by some fun performances and truly excellent sound design. It's really rather sad because The Labyrinth of Buda Castle features an unusual location, a splendid performance from Mark Bonnar as the villain and one of the best line ups of regulars the TV series ever aspired to and yet it fails to do anything out of the ordinary with them. I'm not saying this could have been another City of Death or anything but Budapest could certainly have been explored in more detail (frankly it could have been set anywhere), the gloriously named Zoltan Frid could have been much more frightening than the one-note mad scientist he ultimately turns out to be and punchier dialogue could have been handed to Tom and Lalla so they sound slightly less bored by the whole affair. Like so many fourth Doctor adventures, it aspires to be okay rather than exceptional. The only thing that truly stood out for me was Jamie Robertson's sound design, which salvages a lot of atmosphere. Eddie Robson is one of the most reliable pair of hands that Big Finish has, if you look at his spread of stories there is barely a dud among them. It would appear that the brevity of the fourth Doctor Adventures and their unambitious nature is enough to drag even this safe pair of hands into the quagmire of mediocrity. A shame because his 50 minute eighth Doctor Adventures were often sublime. Not offensively bad, just desperately average. Gorgeous cover though (again like The Cloisters of Terror). So unspectacular that Big Finish have only managed to find two quotes that mildly praise the story for their web page: 5/10

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Peterloo Massacre written by Paul Magrs and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: "They say there’ll be thousands pouring into Manchester tomorrow. From all over the county, north and south. It’ll be a piece of history. People will remember this!" Lost in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, the TARDIS crashes four miles south of Manchester, in the grounds of Hurley Hall – a grand mansion belonging to a local factory owner, a proudly self-made man. But while Hurley dreams of growing richer still on the wealth of secret knowledge locked up in the Doctor’s time and space machine, his servants hope only for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. His young maid Cathy, for instance, whom Nyssa learns is looking forward to joining the working people’s march to St Peter’s Field, in the heart of the city. There’ll be speeches and banners and music. It’ll be like one big jamboree… Or so she thinks. For the city’s establishment have called in their own private militia, to control the crowd. One of the darkest days in Manchester’s history is about to unfold – and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are right in the thick of it.

An English Gentleman: Even the Doctor is partial to twisting his ankle, something that is usually reserved for his companions. Tegan describes the Doctor as a 'posho', suggesting the title of Time Lord speaks for itself. It always serves as a good dramatic device when the Doctor knows about the truth about the horrors of history to come. There was a stifling feeling of Androzani about this story too, that the Doctor is swept along in the events despite trying to fight against the tide. He's just trying to get away but fate seems to conspire to force him to live these terrifying events. As time travellers they have to remember that they have to see things they were never supposed to see.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan has a bit of a problem with the class system of this time, specifically the class divide between above stairs and below. She fulfils the same purpose as Donna in Planet of the Ood, reminding the audience of the inhumanity of the slave trade and how rich men leech off the poor in order to build their business empires. Like Donna she's not forward about coming backwards about it either. She cannot understand how workers can be consider such a disposable commodity, how they aren't treated as people. Is she always this argumentative? Of course she is. There's an invaluable insight into Tegan at one point in this story that explains a little of why she is so abrasive in her attitude. She questions what she doesn't understand, probably a little too harshly but if somebody has the nerve to stand up to her then she finds that she learns something. This is Tegan's first real slice of brutal history - she might have visited the time of the Great Plague but she wasn't privvy to any of the suffering that the people endured at the time. This time she is right in the thick of it, watching as the militia charge the crowds and cause mortal wounds.

Alien Orphan: Not a princess but from somewhere a little more exotic than Cheadle Hume. Nyssa admits that she isn't very good with babies, something that will be rectified in the future as fans of the range are well aware of. From this vantage point it sounds like she is going to be a natural. Nyssa comes to the conclusion that she has had every handed to her on a plate in her life too but at least in her case it hasn't spoilt her character. The Doctor has taught Nyssa that they always need to try and make things better. Nyssa is as up close and personal as it is possible to be in this story, befriending one of the protestors, discovering her secret and narrowing avoiding being killed in her place. It is rare to see the daughter of Traken unleash her anger the way she does here which makes it all the more impressive. Nothing can placate her, she wants justice for the murder of Cathy's child and she will go to any lengths to get it.

Standout Performance: Peter Davison has been given some terrific acting opportunities of late, certainly in the last two trilogies but this has been his most mesmerising performance for many a year. The moral indignation of which he bellows at the yeoman on what has become a battlefield is a thing to behold. For once he has every right to size up the oppressors and judge them viciously.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It seems like rich boys dressing up and playing at justice.'
'Time travellers need to have brave hearts.'

Great Ideas: The TARDIS doesn't much care for the Industrial Revolution. Immediately Paul Magrs sets up a believable, flawed family unit for the story to focus on. They're a struggling working class family and one of their number is in touch with the protestors that are the catalyst for the bloody massacre that is to come. As soon as the 'speechifiers' are mentioned, I couldn't see this story ending well. There is an ominous tone to the piece as early as that. People are starving, poor and desperate and they are being pushed around by those who have a bit of money behind them. That's the nub of the complaint that the protestors are gathering for. The trouble with these peaceful protests is that they can so easily get out of hand or appear to be getting out of hand, the 'peace-keeping' forces feel threatened and violence erupts. It's catch-22 because you need to make something of a fuss to be heard but the consequence of your pleas being listened could be as extreme as mass murder. The story captures the unnerving atmosphere of a mass gathering turning into a riot a little too authentically. I felt as if I was part of the crowd, stifled, crushing, terrified. William forcing his father to face up to the truth of his actions is quite gripping.

Audio Landscape: Grandfather clock ticking, a cock crowing, birdsong, smoke billowing out of the TARDIS, thundering machines grinding in the factory, knocking, dogs barking in the distance, a baby gurgling, horses whinnying, pegs being hammered, singing, music being played, chanting soldiers, the marching hooves, the horses trampling the crowds, the people screaming, firing field guns at the crowds. 

Musical Cues: The music really stood out in this release as something a bit different from the norm, the beautiful choral moments connecting scenes in particular. I loved the booming bass of the factory scenes, making it seem like genuinely threatening place to work. Where Nigel Fairs' music was obvious and drowned out the action in Last of the Cybermen, he provides a startling and frightening musical backdrop to The Peterloo Massacre. He helps to build up a near intolerable feeling of tension leading up to the massacre itself.

Isn't it Odd: The revelation about Cathy and William...really isn't. But it does give the final episode some loose ends to wrap up otherwise it would be an extended coda after the massacre that wasn't really needed. Magrs has built his characters and the situation so well that this time is needed to deal with the regulars reaction to the massacre and to tie up the fates of all the cast.

Standout Scene: It might have been a manipulative move to introduce a baby just to kill it off in such an obscene way but that doesn't stop the moment being an extremely powerful one, especially thanks to Sarah Sutton's extraordinary performance at the end of episode three. How awesome for the regulars to be scoring acting opportunities like this. It just goes to show how vanilla so much of the main range is these days. The massacre is brutal and stark but the death of a child carries a weight all of its own.

Result: 'This city is about to go to war against its own people...' Unexpected, dramatic and different. The pure historical was in full operation during the first 100 releases of Big Finish Main Range but somewhere along the way with the transfer from Russell to Briggs the sub genre was all but wiped out. Hurrah to Paul Magrs then who has the chutzpah to tackle his difficult subject matter head on without a monster or a time travel twist in sight. He's always been one of my favourite character writers and a vivid cast was vital to make a story that dismisses science fiction work and fortunately he has assembled a collection of flawed, memorable characters to savage in this conflict. My buttocks were clenched early on thanks to an ominous tone and some truly haunting music but nothing could have prepared me for the massacre scenes themselves and the reaction of the regulars. Like The Massacre, it is a period of history that I had relatively little knowledge about and dramaticised in such a way I am not going to forget about the events in any hurry. I really want to applaud Jamie Anderson at the end of his first trilogy for his outstanding directorial work in all three stories. He's had three tonally diverse and challenging stories to bring to life and he has done so with real verve and skill. If there was ever an argument for fresh blood in the main range, Anderson is at the heart of it. It's very very rare for the main range to surprise me like this anymore and it's even more rare to provoke this kind of emotional response. Bravo to all concerned: 10/10

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Churchill Years: The Oncoming Storm written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Late 1939. Britain faces the might of Germany. Winston Churchill serves as First Lord of the Admiralty. But Churchill soon finds himself facing a more immediate threat than the looming Nazi menace. A ‘Stone’ with the most mysterious properties is discovered in the Thames’ sands, and soon oddly spoken soldiers are creeping round London ruthlessly trying to acquire it. Who are they? Can Churchill and his new secretary Hetty Warner defeat them? And what about the man in the battered leather jacket that Hetty meets? Churchill feels sure they can rely on the Doctor to help them! Except that this Doctor seems to want to stay hidden in the shadows…

Northern Adventurer: Well well well, a way of slipping in a new story for the ninth Doctor without the presence of Christopher Eccleston. Will wonders never cease. He bursts into the story, sonic waving and brave and saving the life of Churchill's secretary. He leads away the villain, sonic screwdriver held high like the pied piper leading away a rat. The mechanical soldiers are here because the Doctor is at war. Since the Time War is something that is being openly explored now, on both television and audio, it is surprising to remember a time when it was a mythical conflict in the genesis of the new series. Something to be whispered about in awe. In many ways I would have preferred for it to stay that way but I suppose you cannot keep promising more information, building up a picture and then never follow through and reveal what actually happened. The trouble is that the imagination of collective fandom is bigger than any one writer. How can it fail to disappoint? Although the moment where they meet is triumphantly realised, there is no welcoming smile from the Doctor. He's damaged and it is immediately apparent. Keeping in step with series one, the Doctor only has a peripheral involvement in the climax of this story. It is left to Churchill to save the day. It was an intriguing approach to the new Doctor, to have him so war torn that he encourages others to help themselves because he is too afraid to take action himself. At first it made him look ineffective but once the context arrived it made perfect sense. When it comes to saving Churchill's secretary the Doctor needs to live up to his name again, after an entire incarnation of trying to forget it.

Bulldog Politician: The calm patience for what Churchill is renowned is non-existent as revealed when he barks at his staff when things are not performed with ruthless efficiency. There's talk that Churchill will be PM by the end of the war, a position that the people seem in favour of. He thinks he will be able to handle the power of the sphere because he is exceptional, always one with his ego in check. He's not entirely sure that he approves of the idea of going teetotal - I rather like how he's a man of repute but he enjoys a vice or two. He's delighted to hear that the Doctor has arrived in their hour of need...and wouldn't expect anything to the contrary. He's not as healthy as he should but that doesn't stop him jumping into action when needed. Churchill refuses to back down even in the face of a terrifying alien menace, it's the kind of bollocks he is renowned for. It's that Blitz spirit that he injected into an entire nation. Winston is not above utilizing alien technology to help fight the Nazi menace, even if it means exposing himself to it to gain a tactical advantage.

Standout Performance: Ian McNiece is a really engaging narrator, dramatic and full of life. I'd say these stories were worth devising just to discover that.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Hitler's war effort will not be resting so why should we?'
'You'll fight and you'll win...as Winston Churchill, nothing more!'

Great Ideas: An alien sphere that has fallen to London and upon contact with one of the inhabitants plants technical information in their brain. The soldier that the Doctor is pursuing through wartime London is a rudimentary artificial intelligence. The purpose of the sphere is IA - Intelligence Augmentation. It has the ability to turn you into a demi God.

Audio Landscape: An air raid, sirens, waves lapping, seagulls, stepping in water, electric shock, footsteps on cobbled streets, the sonic screwdriver, an army vehicle on the streets of London, striking a match, birdsong, crowds, a crackling sphere of energy,

Musical Cues: Hearing the Eccleston theme tune is something of an anathema these days, albeit a very welcome one. It's not often that Doctor Who related products surprise and I truly expected this story (and series) to have a theme tune all of its own. Eccleston's era is kind of seen but not heard now in the wake of the three very popular Doctors that have come since (well two very popular Doctors and one who is at arms length with the public but gaining momentum) and so to enjoy a story set in that hugely exciting time for the show is a massive novelty.

Result: 'I will stand! I will stay! I will not move!' Slight but highly engaging in how it is presented, the opening salvo of The Churchill Years gets a thumbs up from me. I wouldn't want this to be the strongest story of the set because I started listening unconvinced that I was going to enjoy this set and thus I needed persuading about the whole Churchill approach before they started doing their best work. Fortunately that is exactly what The Oncoming Storm is, a perfectly confident piece of ephemera, a bit of fluff that allows the greatest politician this country has ever seen and a war damaged Doctor to come together and defeat an alien menace. Nothing more, nothing less. But with Ian McNiece providing sterling narration, some sturdy performances backing him up, atmospheric sound design and strong direction the whole piece crackles with self-assurance. I was helpless in it's wake. The story of the alien sphere that has the ability to turn you into a demi God of hyper intelligent proportions is neither here nor there for me, that's the sort of tenapenny Doctor Who tale that you can listen to in any range at any time. What works is the setting, the central character of Churchill and the fascinating idea of hopping from Doctor to Doctor in each story. It gives me great hope for the rest of the set. Colour me impressed, it proves that how a story is presented can absolutely take priority over the narrative. And contrary to my initial belief this is absolutely a Doctor Who story, not a Churchill story featuring the Doctor. It's all in the theme music. Bravo for pulling off what appeared to be a cash-in concept with so much audacity: 7/10

The Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff