Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Exotron written by Paul Sutton and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: 'The Farakosh attack us - and my Exotrons defend us.' On a distant colonial outpost of Earth, a group of terraformers is under threat from the planet's most fearsome predator: the giant carnivorous Farakosh. All that stands between the colonists and a grisly death are the Exotrons - huge robots equipped with devastating firepower, designed by the outpost's leader, Major Taylor. But all is not as it seems. How are the Exotrons controlled, and where did the colonists find the resources to build them? The Doctor wants answers and Taylor is reluctant to provide them. Meanwhile, outside the compound, the Farakosh are massing…

An English Gentleman: He notes his objection to the gunning down of an innocent Farakosh. Hilariously he is carried off by one of the Exotrons like a mother cradling her baby! A spy undermining Earth’s terraforming projects? He is quite skilled in telepathy and convinces the Corporal that he hasn’t found him. The Doctor is willing to suit up inside an Exotron in order to save two races on the planet and he says that he will miss Peri.

Busty Babe: Peri is enjoying her time on this planet, studying the plants. Her knowledge extends to insects communicating with vibrations.

Great Ideas: The Farakosh were the top of the food chain before they arrived and started terraforming the planet. They usually don’t attack unless they are provoked. The Major is controlling the robots through a cerebral link. Paula had an affair, not Hector. The Farakosh think that they are communicating when they erect their rigs. The Exotrons are shells and inside each one is a fatally wounded soldier.

Audio Landscape: A quiet wind, scraping at the soil, the Doctor’s telepathic communication, an animal cry across the wasteland, the Pylon crashing to Earth on top of a groaning Farakosh, a machine gun, the mechanical footsteps of the Exotrons, loved the little fanfare that introduced the announcements, soldiers doing manoeuvres, screaming generals, the babble of voices in the net.

Isn’t it Odd: Did we really need two stories concerning a bunch of they aren’t what they seem to be robots in a row? I’m all for stories with a thematic link (like the trilogies to come) but it seems a little unfortunate to place two stories side by side with similar covers, the same episode length and a pretty similar narrative as well! Rather than screaming this is the new era of Big Finish it kind of gives the impression they are out of ideas, which of course is not the case. As a good friend once said to me it seems that every script that Paul Sutton writes has to have a romantic angle – that’s not a complaint on my part but he was turned off this story because of the Mills and Boon angle. Although I do have to admit the divorce antics of this story lacks the finesse of Evelyn’s beautiful romance with Rossiter (and to some extent the Doctor) in Arrangements of War and Thicker Than Water). Christian turning up in the Exotron net was so predictable I was hoping they were going to subvert that cliché and have him genuinely be dead…but no. And then to top pile up the clichés he even sacrifices himself after Paula has had had a heart to heart with her ex husband. This really is trite.

The cliffhanger to part one (aside from being pretty similar to the first cliffhanger of this stories next door neighbour) brings up a point I have wanted to discuss for a long time – the pointlessness of having an action scene at the end of an episode. I can name countless stories that have gone down this route (just look at Slipback which had a ‘Peri nooooo!’ every five minutes but Big Finish is very guilty of this too!) and it pretty much never works. For me unless they are really good examples of the type audio dramas should not sound like TV story soundtracks without the pictures – the best of this medium exploit the idea that there are no visuals and take you on an imaginative narrative exploration. Having Peri or the Doctor screaming ‘noooooo!’ as something awful approaches has very little impact because we can’t see what the hell they’re getting in such a tizzy about! Audio cliff-hangers should be embedded into the narrative, moments that shock or drama and branching the story off in a new direction. It’s a very cheap thrill to end an episode on a moment of jeopardy that you know will be happily resolved in the next episode and this is a particularly dreary example. Episode two is another example which sees the Doctor climbing inside the Exotron suit and crying out in pain whereas (for me anyway) the shock moment that the Exotrons are hollow shells and full of near death soldiers was a far more satisfying moment to end the episode on.

Notes: The new regime is clearly trying to play about with the long established (and in some cases tired) Doctor companion set ups. We get a solos Sixie followed by a fifth Doctor and Peri (sans Erimem) followed by a solo McCoy story. Before long Erimem and C’rizz will say goodbye (one of those was premature and the other was long overdue), Charley has hopped from one Doctor to another and far greater emphasis is placed on Nyssa, far less emphasis on Evelyn and some intriguing Brewster-esque experiments on the way. Aside from the lack of my favourite Big Finish companion (love you, Ms Smythe) and the unfortunate dumping of Erimem most of these innovations do shake up the schedules and make for decent listening. Trouble is where do we place Exotron in terms of canon? Is it set before Eye of the Scorpion or afterwards?

Result: The fact that I have spent much of this review discussing its chronology, the quality of cliff-hangers and plot similarities to other stories goes to show just how much interest I had in the actual story. Not a lot. Poor Barnaby Edwards, such a skilled audio director and lumbered with this uninspiring script from the usually reliable Paul Sutton. I’m not sure why Peri was included in this story, she really doesn’t contribute anything at all and it would have worked just as well if we had had three solo Doctor stories in a row. I read recently an opinion that every Doctor Who story should feel special – the person who wrote that seemed to be suggesting that every story until the current administration of Big Finish was special which I disagree with whole heartedly – but I do agree with the sentiment in its most basic form. Exotron doesn’t feel special, it doesn’t even feel remotely interesting, it’s a cobbled together story of ideas I have seen better elsewhere and has the feel of mid season padding than an important part of the opening salvo of a spanking new era of audio storytelling. It doesn’t inspire great performances, there wasn’t any memorable dialogue and it doesn’t leave the debut director any chance to show his mettle…its just sort of there: 3/10

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Urban Myths written by Paul Sutton and directed by Barnaby Edwards
What’s it about: In an expensive restaurant somewhere on Earth, three gourmets plan their evening. First item on the menu: the death of the Doctor.

An English Gentleman: Hah! I would love a full length story told like this with the Doctor behaving hideously out of character. Its wonderful to see the usually prosaic fifth Doctor pondering ‘whoever he was he probably deserved it’ when an innocent is shot down. He keeps a secret cache of weapons underneath the console! He must pop to Earth and get a consignment of his terrifying weapons to the Brigadier. Guns down somebody right between the eyes like an respectful villain and is appalled that he will have to get the blood out of his shirt. The CIA know the Doctor is something of a subversive but painting as this much of a bad ass seems completely out of character.

Busty Babe: Peri is serving as a waitress in the restaurant…and proves quite good at the job! Her perkiness is just perfect for the hospitality industry. She screams with joy when they take out a settlement. Genocide is the lesser of two evils and they have to make these sorts of decisions all the time! Peri wonders if the exaggerated claims virus is a common complaint amongst men. Hahaha! The Doctor promised that Peri would worked until the end of the week in return for use of the facilities and walks off and leaves her to her duties with a smug wink!

Standout Performance: Peter Davison seems to have great fun taking on these various character destroying interpretations of the Doctor. Its nice to see him let of the leash and really chew the scenery, he’s usually such a contained performer. Steve Wickham has such a recognisable voice and he always goes for whatever role he has been given with real enthusiasm. I loved his naughty gluttony (he talks about food like a slinky woman has been presented before him) and despairs quietly at his teams inability to blend in without mentioning that they aren’t suspicious every two minutes.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Common amongst amateur fisherman, you know!’

Great Ideas: The Doctor’s death is being discussed by a bunch of CIA agents in an Earth restaurant! Peri is the waitress and the Doctor is the chef. In the course of gathering information from the planet Poity all three members of the CIA were infected with a benign strain of the Tuloz virus which causes the sufferer to make wildly exaggerated claims. The antidote they have served them over each course of their meal has neutralised the virus, hence the story becoming more realistic (and less fun) as the story continues.

Audio Landscape: Screaming cruelty in an insidious little hole, a restaurant ambience, murder and pain and terror, a car alarm.

Standout Scene: My favourite version of the story was the first that had great fun with making the fifth Doctor as nasty as possible. Oddly he’s even scarier than the sixth Doctor when he behaves inappropriately because it feels so…wrong.

Result: I have seen this sort of thing done before (The X-Files was probably the most successful attempt with its comedy gem Bad Blood) but this is another delightful burst of sunshine that wont take up too much of your time. I’m not sure if the writers have got this quite the right way round as they seem to be injecting their one part stories with the shits and giggles that their main stories are lacking! This is a nicely constructed little comedy, written with some flair and with two bright central performances from Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant. What more could you ask for: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/95-Doctor-Who-Exotron

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