Monday, 22 May 2017

Damaged Goods written by Russel T Davies and Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The year is 1987 and there’s a deadly new narcotic on the streets of London. As part of their investigations the Doctor and his companions Chris and Roz move into the Quadrant, a rundown housing estate. An ancient alien menace has been unleashed, a menace somehow linked to a local gang leader known as The Capper, a charmed young boy called Gabriel and his mother Winnie, the enigmatic Frei Foundation, and Eva Jericho, a woman driven to the brink of madness. As London descends into an apocalyptic nightmare, the Doctor must uncover the truth about the residents of the Quadrant and a desperate bargain made one dark Christmas Eve.

Master Manipulator: It says something about how relevant the Doctor was in his own series of novel adventures that it takes him ten minutes to turn up in this audio. The New Adventures were as interested as telling stories that featured the Doctor heavily or not and at times he could feel like a cameo in a Doctor Who range. However, as soon as the Doctor does appear in Damaged Goods (the audio), he is a major player and this the one adjustment that has been made that really stands out above the rest. He’s so much more likeable in this version, so much more dominant and Doctorish. In the original he walked about like a despairing ancient Time Lord, at a loss at how to handle the despair that filled his adventures these days. In the audio he feels much more in control, much more ready to engage with people and whilst melancholic in places, he feels like a keen observer of human behaviour and that he is there to help these people as much as he can. It’s a huge shift, and a very welcome one. As a result of his excellent characterisation, Sylvester McCoy gives a terrific performance, one of his very best as the Doctor. I would recommend this adventure just for a chance to hear McCoy’s Doctor at his powerful, dominating and yet heart-warming best. The image of the Doctor as a ghostly figure emerging from the shadows on a dark night being observed by a terrified child is a potent one. The Doctor has so many bad memories that if he started to cry he could flood the world. The Doctor was often making way for himself in advance in this period of his life and the lovely mention of a pools win for the family that lived in the flat that would allow him to do his work in the Quadrant made me smile. All these years and it still feels like he is starting from scratch every time. The Doctor admits he might not be at his best in a domestic setting like this (ultimately he is wrong) and that’s why he needs his companions to inveigle themselves into the lives of those on the Quadrant. My strongest objection to the novel was that the Doctor’s companions are treated more like his work associates than his friends…but here Morris smooths over that problem by allowing the Doctor a moment to explain why he needs his companions to head out and get close to people. Wherever he goes in the universe he has a habit of getting straight to the centre of power…and this place simply doesn’t have one. The Doctor embarrasses himself horribly when he says ‘wicked’ to a teenager, swearing that that was all the rage in 1987 (I nearly spat out my coffee at that one). His life used to be a lot simpler. Questions would be asked and he would be there with all the answers. Happy days, but dead and gone now. He misses the carefree life when he used to knock up gizmos from bits of this and that. The moment when the Doctor states that Mrs Tyler’s tragedy is an entirely human one and that he doesn’t have time for such things I saw a glimpse of that ruthless NA Doctor emerging. He condemns her, not outright but be refusing to comfort her. The Doctor is effectively useless when it comes to human understanding but is in his element when facing up to the N-Form. Bamboozling a piece of Gallifreyan war art, piece of cake. Comforting a grief-stricken woman, he wouldn’t have a clue. But at the climax he has to do both.

Ruthless Adjudicator: Yasmin Bannerman gives a perfectly fine performance…but she just isn’t Roz. The Roz I know is aggressive, unreasonable…a bit like Alfie Woodard from First Contact (that’s how I have always envisioned her). Bannerman plays the part earnestly, like a Doctor Who companion. I don’t get the impression she is a hardened Adjudicator. Frankly, she’s too nice.

Puppy Dog Eyes: In Travis Oliviers hands, Chris is much less the droopy eyed puppy that he could sometimes come across as in the books and is far more professional and able. He’s seen in this story mostly through the eyes of David Daniels, a gay guy who wants nothing more than to get inside his pants. God bless him for suggesting that maybe for once everything will be simple and they will have it sown up in a night. Simple? Doesn’t he know this is a New Adventure adaptation? David mistakes his misunderstanding over talk of their sexualities for Chris being innocent and new in town. I loved how Chris simply told David to ask him to snog him. That it is that simple. It sounds like he was going to too. 

Best Guest Cast: ‘The night I sold my child…’ It’s an astonishing cast of characters, whether you’re reading the book or listening to the audio. For the most part they are confined to one setting: the Quadrant and it is a literal interpretation of you don’t know what is going on behind closed doors. Well now we get to get up close and personal and find out exactly what and the truth is the truth of humanity: there is happiness, pain, loss, despair, sex, love and everything that comes in between. The story makes the observation that just because the people in the Quadrant don’t have much money it doesn’t make them bad people. There is sometimes a terrible injustice that befalls the lower classes on Council Estates. Davies would go on to prove his point with more alacrity when Rose Tyler leaps from an Estate to the TARDIS and prove such a delightful companion that the Doctor falls in love with her. I love the idea of the Doctor and his companions moving in to the Quadrant as a very dysfunctional family, simply there to help the inhabitants. In the novel it felt like they were there just to stop the N-Form and that the people they came across were just in their way. In the audio, it feels like they genuinely care and that they are there to make a difference to people’s lives. It really helps to sell the idea as a Doctor Who story. Populated within the Quadrant are Winnie Tyler (Davies does love that surname), a single mum who has struggled to put food on the table of her children and once made a terrible deal on a dark night to try and provide the best possible life for her two children (ahem). Gabriel, her son, goes through life looking very attractive to people because he is affected by a glamour, which allows those who perceive him to see something of themselves reflected back at them. 

Standout Performance: It is a story packed full of memorable performances, Denise Black stood out for me as the finest. She has performed in all sorts of Russell T. Davies series (most memorably in Queer as Folk) so this seem a very apt casting choice. The madness of Eva Jericho is a difficult part to play without going insanely over the top and Black resists, feigning a polite insistence that her horrific acts are reasonable. That’s much scarier. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Capper is dead…long live the Capper.’ 
‘The world’s more full of weeping than you could understand’ – that’s a line weighed down with so much heart-breaking subtext.
‘I’ve wasted my life sitting at that boys bedside unaware that a perfectly good replacement was on the rack.’
‘I’m not saving the world over the phone!’
‘What would any mother do? Any real mother!’

Great Ideas: Smile is an illicit substance that has found its way to Earth and whenever one of the inhabitants comes in contact with it death is never far behind. It kills people in a remarkably violent and inelegant manner. The Capper is a genuinely ghoulish and fearsome monster, quite unlike anything else that has featured in a Big Finish audio. A resurrected drug dealer, touched by sophisticated weapons technology and featuring the worst aspects of humanity and Time Lord society. He’s astonishingly powerful, but crude and violent with it. He’s quite simply terrifying and the performance and direction work in unison to make him so. Those people who are capable of casting a glamour are low level psychics. Why would the Capper being selling Smile at such a ridiculously low price? Unless he wanted the drug to spread as far and as wide as possible, so everybody has had a taste. Tribophysics (mentioned in Pyramids of Mars) is an ancient art dating back to the time of legend, a means of slipping between dimensions, which is very convenient when your home world is under attack. The time of legend might as well be named the time of war, and not just for Gallifrey. There were countless civilisations forging their way through the stars, all too many of them with a taste for conquest. The technology that has fallen to Earth might be a product of any one of those races and the Doctor thinks it is being carried in the Smile. The ideas have been altered ever so slightly but the emphasis is very much the same. This was one of the major strengths of the novel lines, the New Adventures (and by extension the 8DAs) in particular, they played about with huge, mind blowing notions and had the time to explore them in some depth. These books took the science fiction that Doctor Who could handle to another level. At their best, it was a level of sophistication that the series could only hope to aspire to and could rarely reach (simply because the shows purpose is to entertain). Steven and Gabriel are part of a telepathic gestalt, and one boy would always be stronger and their separation has made Steven even weaker, close to death. They need to keep the Tylers and the Jerichos apart because if the two boys come together now…boom! Torchwood being name checked took me completely by surprise and the Doctor’s comment (‘never heard of them’) is chucklesome. I question whether news reports would have been used to inform the listener about the widespread panic about the Capper bursting free if that wasn’t a regular feature in Davies’ Doctor Who to come. However, again, it feels right. I love the moment the newsreader succumbs to the drug, proving that he too was a user. Long ago the Time Lords were artists of war. They revelled in the beauty of dying suns and they built the N-Form, a sentient sculpture that kills without compunction. There’s a piece of N-Form in every gram of Smile and once it’s ingested it becomes a dimensional vent through which the N-Form can enter the physical world. A weapon from the past (the N-Form) being activated by a War from the future (a Time War that this Doctor knows nothing about). The climax of the story featuring Mrs Jericho as the dominant mind inside the N-Form, claiming the monster as her child, is perfectly gripping. The fact that every action she has taken is from a maternal instinct to have and protect a child makes her ultimate fate, how that instinct has twisted her into a monster, all the more heart-rending. Now she’s a mother to 11,000 children. A grotesque monster of a mother. Whether it was his suggestion or not, I bet Davies was thrilled with the new ending of David and Harry bringing up a pair of children. Again, given Davies’ other output on television, it is spot on.

Audio Landscape: Listening to the soundscape on this story. It’s like Big Finish know that they have gotten their hands on something truly special and have gone all out to make sure it is brought to life with as much care as possible. Crying in agony, the Tall Man’s muffled voice, a squeaky door, pouring tea, the Capper devouring its victims, a dog barking in the distance, traffic, siren, keys, a car pulling up, banging on a door and then kicking it in, smashing a window, firebombing a flat, explosives going off inside the fire, heart monitor, hospital atmosphere, Alfred choking and gagging, vomiting, destructive N-Form extraction, the ground tearing apart and the true terror of the N-Form emerging, making a cup of tea. 

Musical Cues: Howard Carter has long been my favourite Big Finish composer (although Russell Stone, Jamie Robertson and Fox & Yason also qualify with top marks) and this is one of the most impressive scores he has written. That means it is a very high standard indeed. The melancholic piano introduction gets me every time I listen to this. It screams subtly that this is going to be something quite distinct. The fresh, exciting title music gives me goose bumps, it’s one of the best versions of the original theme that Big Finish have produced (and they’ve had a fair number of stabs now). It’s a gorgeous melding of McCoy’s original and McGann’s to come, suggesting the placement of the new Adventures in between the two. I loved the apocalyptic score when the Capper tore free of its human prison and started attacking London. 

Isn’t It Odd: The subplot featuring Harry coming to terms with being gay and being assaulted and almost killed as he explores it is so watered down in the audio to be practically excised. It means the few scenes that are included from the novel feel out of place in the audio. They are typically well done for this production, but having one of his only scenes come after the theme music suggests Harry is going to be a major player in the story when that is absolutely not the case. It serves as an introduction to the Capper, I suppose.

Standout Scene: The twist that this story hangs on is rightly saved for the cliff-hanger. It’s a great cliff-hanger because it projects the story in a whole new direction that starts to make sense of Gabriel, of Eva Jericho and her son and why Winne Tyler is so protective of her children. One dark night she made a deal to protect her children, selling the sickest of them for a lump sum of money so she could look after the other two. It’s a stomach churning reveal and it comes with a bucket load of genuine emotion (regret, hatred, despair, hope). It grounds this story in real human misery in a way that Doctor Who very rarely touches. Eva Jericho couldn’t have children and had the money to buy the little boy. £30,000 was all it took. A business transaction. Who would have thought that that deal could go so wrong for the person buying the merchandise? The child was sick and has had nine painful years of treatments that has almost brought the Jericho’s to their knees. Eva Jericho in particular has been saturated in psychic misery, enough to induce madness and when she discovers that her sick boy is one of twins it sends her over the edge. The sequence of events where Eva Jericho poisons her husband’s dinner for keeping the truth from her and then turns up at Winnie Tyler’s house to exchange sons (or to return her damaged goods as the title is so horrifically revealed) are some of the most discomforting Big Finish have ever put out. The examination of madness, the implication of the sale of the child, the idea that a child can be returned so calmly as defective stock…it’s brutal human misery at its rawest. I was compelled and repulsed and I haven’t been made to feel that way on audio for a long, long time. A huge bravo to the performances in these scenes, which go above and beyond anything that I would expect in an audio drama. The small touch that Mrs Jericho is a racist and insisted on a white Anglo Saxon child, which is the cause of her calamity, adds further depth to her misfortune.

Result: An outstanding entry into the novels range and the Big Finish story of modern years that reminds me most of the main range at its densest when it producing works such as The Holy Terror, Jubilee and Davros. I had problems with the novel of this story because it was a truly ugly thing, one that focussed on the dark underbelly of domestic society in such a dark way that it made me feel uncomfortable that Doctor Who was tackling issues such as drugs, abortion and the disturbing psychological effects of loss in such an intimate and destabilising way. It was beautifully written, of course it was as it was written by Russell T Davies and the characters were painfully real in a way only he can write them but the story never felt quite like Doctor Who to me. It didn’t feature the Doctor, Chris and Roz…it featured a cold businessman and his two associates. What Jonathan Morris has done so adeptly is to take hold of that work of human cruelty and turned it into a much more accesible, slicker, pacier Doctor Who story. Whilst there is still the power of the original work and the stunning ideas, some of the more forceful characters scenes have been removed entirely or tamed to an extent so the story doesn’t feel like an emotional assault. As a result, Damaged Goods the audio is bursting with energy, creativity and humanity; scene after scene of memorable dialogue and fine performances and the whole piece culminates in an unforgettable climax. It’s a beautifully told Doctor Who story now and Morris deserves a lot of kudos for pulling that off. I’m not surprised it was nominated for an award, this is audio Who at its richest. All the ingredients are stacked up and slotted into place perfectly; unforgettable guest characters, sincere emotional interest, a fascinating science fiction concept fuelling the drama, a vivid Doctor, a plot that surprises and twists like a knife attack to the belly, genuinely frightening moments, stunning dialogue throughout and a climax that refuses to tidy things up after such a messy human ordeal has taken place. The director, sound designer and musician all deserve a great deal of credit for this story turning out as effectively as it does and the performances were all of a very high standard. I especially love the change that ties the N-Form into the Time War rather than just Ancient Gallifreyan history. Given this is written by Russell T Davies it feels right that this should be a prelude to the horrors to come to which he would thrust upon the series and deal with the aftermath. My favourite New Series writer and my favourite Big Finish writer in collaboration and what they pull off is a beautiful thing indeed: 10/10

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Vortex Ice written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of ‘exotic particles’, the Doctor and Flip arrive 700 feet underground, in a mine in Northern Mexico – only to run into a scientific expedition. Among their number, an exobiologist. They’re all on the hunt for alien life! Deep underground, the team finally uncovers a cave of vast crystals – like ice, despite the heat. And inside the crystal: something frozen. Something trapped in time. If only it were something simple, like a monster. But it’s far, far worse than that.

Softer Six: The Doctor and Flip are great fun together, concocting a silly cover story as to how they found themselves in the mine. If there is a Time Lord down the mine, there are quite a few candidates that he has no desire to meet up with. Proceeding with caution, then. Asking the future Flip whether the rest of the characters make it out alive or not is a violation of temporal law…but I’d probably be cheeky and just do it anyway. The temporal jiggery pokery that the Doctor has to explain in episode two is nothing to Colin Baker, he doesn’t even break a sweat. The Doctor leaping from the TARDIS and tempting the cyborg with tasty Artron energy is a lovely image. Ever the showman, he loves to make an entrance. The Doctor thinks his future self is the most rude, incorrigible, handsome and intelligent person he has ever met. It is the curse of the time traveller to know there are lives you cannot save and injustices that you cannot avert.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip continues to impress, asking lots of sensible questions about their location and the temperature. Jonathan Morris practically seems to acknowledge that they have finally figured out how to make this character work when he has the Doctor ask ‘you’re full of questions today, Flip.’ According to the Doctor, one of her most likeable qualities is her recklessness. Because she is so salt of the earth and friendly I can believe that Flip could get along with pretty much anybody. For me that is one of her best features. She develops friendships quickly with guest characters in her stories because they take a shine to her. Going back to her opening salvo of adventures I think that the majority of listeners would be appalled by a Flip meets Flip adventure, such was the reaction to her character. But now opinion seems to have mellowed considerably and it is an engaging idea to have her meet a future iteration of herself. To have your every characteristic mirrored back at you. Flip being told to let people die to maintain the timeline is a very powerful moment, because it is antithetical to her character to not at least try and help. Flip gets a valuable insight into the Doctor’s responsibility as a time traveller. For once it’s she who has the foresight and cannot do anything about it.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘I’ll explain later’ – we’re used to the Doctor saying this to chip his companions off so it is especially satisfying to have Flip toss the phrase at the Doctor in a similar way.
‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like when I come to the rescue.’
‘You did not set the TARDIS to vanish when you say hey presto!’ ‘No, it’s on a timer.’

Great Ideas: It’s fascinating to see a Main Range story being told in such an economic way (with regards to time) because Morris immediately cuts out all the flab of the first episode and has the Doctor and Flip meet the guest characters instantly (no overlong TARDIS scene here, unusual for this period of the series) and gives us a clear introduction of them. I have long complained that the Main Range stories are far too long and meander but Vortex Ice gets right to the point in a very engaging way. Much more like it. Trapped underground, you already have a claustrophobic environment. Over 100 miners were killed in an explosion in the mine years ago and their bodies were never found. Artron energy has been detected in the mine, energy that is only usually found in the brain of a Time Lord or a TARDIS. There’s oxygen and condensation to drink in the lower levels, so the trapped miners must have died of starvation. 100 years ago the miners dug up the remains of an alien spacecraft that had been under the ground for millions of years. A creature trapped in the crystal like a fly in amber. It is the pilot, half organic, half machine trapped in vortex ice, crystalline stasis. Within the ice the passage of time is brought to a standstill.

Audio Landscape: Falling masonry, creaking TARDIS door, sliding down ropes, cracking ice, a scream in the distance, lots of atmosphere down in the caves, the screech of a cyborg pilot, the secretion of vortex ice, freezing and cracking into place, time freezing around the Doctor and Flip.

Musical Cues: Listen to that 80s-synth slavered all over this story. It’s Vortex ice has gotten up on its hind legs from that decade and tottered along to the release schedules three decades later. It’s wonderfully authentic. There’s even a little snatch of the theme tune, Keff McCulloch style.

Standout Scene: It worked a treat in The Space Museum when the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki saw a portent of their future as museum exhibits…and it works just as well in Vortex Ice when the sixth Doctor and Flip come face to face with themselves trapped in the ice. Wearing the clothes they are wearing now, it is a shocking vision of what is to come. It was especially satisfying because I was sure it was going to wind up being the Master (especially when the Doctor sighed ‘not him!’). The last line made me laugh out loud.

Result: Trapped underground and with lots of nasty surprises awaiting them, Vortex Ice hands the sixth Doctor and Flip a punchy, engaging adventure. Some audios struggle to find one decent idea to hang their narrative on and Vortex Ice greedily has three and a mystery; the Doctor and Flip encased in the ice, the alien spaceship that was disturbed and Flip meeting a future iteration of herself…and the mystery of what happened to the miners to boot. Condensing a main range story down to two episodes has done them the world of good, slicing away all the narrative belly fat and paring the story right down the bone. It’s tightly plotted and there are surprises every few minutes or so. The guest characters didn’t exactly light my fire but there are simply there to service the plot and for the regulars to discuss the ideas with. A strong set up episode leads into a complicated but satisfying conclusion, giving Lisa Greenwood some really fun material to play with. Having the Doctors meet one another is old hat (and Sixie even got to meet himself in The Wrong Doctors to excellent comic effect) but companion squared is fresh and interesting. I’m surprised at how much effort Big Finish have put into making Flip work as a companion given it appeared she was written out very early on in her run, but I’m not disappointed because it is paying off in spades. She’s a lot fun and very likeable and Greenwood (who has always been very engaging) is finally getting the plaudits she deserves. You might need a couple of listens to this to get your head around the spaghetti junction plotting (I heard it twice) but it’s worth it because the resulting story is very entertaining. It’s my first footsteps into the main range since the last sixth Doctor trilogy and I’m pleased I did: 8/10

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Oxygen written by Jamie Matheson and directed by Charles Palmer


This story in a nutshell:
The Silence in the Library meets The Waters of Mars meets Deep Breath…but so much more than an amalgam of those adventures…

Team: The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are such a collection of oddballs when put together that at the beginning of the season I was wondering how that was going to pan out. Basically, the Doctor and Bill works, immediately in The Pilot so it was the addition of Nardole, who has been hanging around for a few years now (technically) on the side-lines. The Doctor and his companion have been enjoying adventures for the past five weeks and Nardole has been making little cameos in each story to remind the Doctor of his responsibilities but now it is his turn to join them in a story and their lives full time. Is that something that can be made to work? I’m pleased to say it is a categorical yes. Oxygen gels the three of them in a way I could have never foreseen and cements them as firm friends and potentially the greatest set of regulars in the Moffat eras. The solution was simple, apparently. Put them in mortal danger in a terrifying setting and watch them suffer but get closer as a result. Throughout you feel that bond between the Doctor and Bill as he agonises over what he has to put her through. Nardole’s humour and sarcasm is much needed in this setting, sometimes it is the only source of levity. At the end once they have been through the excruciating ordeal of thinking that one of their number has died, they come together for a cuddle. It should be twee but it feels triumphant. It feels like the show is celebrating their survival and the fact that it has three likeable, well defined characters spearheading the show once again. Bravo, is all I can say. 

Indefinable: ‘What if you’re wrong?’ ‘Well, we’ll be horribly murdered!’ I have to restate my love for the Doctor as the university lecturer, a role that Capaldi seems immensely comfortable playing. I love it when the Doctor’s academia is stressed and this is done in a way that grounds him on Earth and allows him to be utterly flippant within the role too (he’s supposed to be teaching about crop rotation and instead chatters on about the dangers of space). I’m loving this new approach in series 10, giving the Doctor a responsibility that ties him to the Earth. The Doctor so often freewheels about space and time and it does give the show a wonderfully anarchic and formula breaking premise but every once and a while (the early Jon Pertwee years, the Key to Time) it is good to give the Doctor a responsibility that focuses both the character and the show. It’s impossible to engage him the subject of staying on Earth when he wants to pop off somewhere though, he has all the answers. This is simply a wonderful episode for Capaldi’ Doctor whatever way you look at it. He’s witty and verbose in the first ten minutes, out thinking Nardole into a trip into space. He walks around the station like an animated corpse, horrified by the terminal action that has taken place. At times he’s the scariest thing there. And he’s dangerously intelligent in outthinking the suits and figuring out just what is going on, his brain working until it overheats and forces him to put his companion in terrible danger. And most importantly of all is his dealings with his companions; tender, smart, funny and concerned. Matheson is the ultimate Capaldi writer for me, he just flies off the page in his hands. Giving the Doctor a disability is simply the icing on the cake. Watching him calmly trying to cope with being blind and how it doesn’t affect his ability to heroically work his way out of the situation shows his strength of character. And says to the audience at large that a disability, whilst debilitating, should never hold you back. I can only think of one other time where the Doctor had to fight a capitalist system like this (the BBC novel Anachrophobia) and he walked away from that story in burningly intelligent form too. Although he is becoming something of a modern-day Kathryn Janeway, reaching for the self-destruct button when there is no other option. This is the antithesis of Smile though; the Doctor is given a logical reason for blowing up the station, he’s not just doing it because it feels like it’s the only option left to him. This time, the threat of pressing the button is enough to keep everyone alive. 

Funky Chick: Naturally Bill thinks like a modern-day girl and so when confronted with the idea of going to space she asks the Doctor if there are any reviews of hotspots (the space version of trip advisor). I thought that was very funny. It’d love to work my way through that review site. I’ve seen the ‘oh wow, I’m in space’ a few too many times on NuWho for it to be novel (Cribbins in The End of Time is still my favourite, his sense of wonder is wonderful) but it is still a trademark moment for any companion (it’s certainly more impressive than Adam Mitchell fainting). Bill isn’t being racist when she reacts badly to a blue alien, but I like the idea that she can be accused of being one. More references to Bill’s mother…she’s going to be in this series I tell you. 

Faithful Sidekick: The best use of Nardole since he was first conceived, bar none. For once he is actively engaged in the story and not just a cute presence on its outskirts. Even Mysterio, which did put him in danger seemed to have him along for the ride just for the fun of it. Matt Lucas seizes the chance to play something this dramatic in the series and the result is very surprising: Nardole is actually a character in his own right and not guest star of the week. What’s incredible is that we don’t learn that much about him still, it’s simply a matter of treating him seriously. Is he his sidekick or his jailor? Nardole says it is the Doctor who told him to insist that he stays on Earth but which incarnation did that? Or are we going to see the 12th Doctor tell him at the end of the year and set this whole thing up as a future version of Capaldi putting the season in place? That sounds like a very Moffat thing to do. The fact that I am asking questions about this means I am already more engaged than I have been with previous Moffat mysteries (the Impossible Girl in particular). I really love the fact that Nardole is knowledgeable about the universe and can chip in with useful suggestions and ideas. He’s not just quips and japes. I’ve been waiting for an ‘alien’ companion for some time, somebody like Romana who could talk to the Doctor on an equal level about the universe and what is contained within, I just never thought that person would be played by Matt Lucas. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Space is great, isn’t it?’
‘The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond.’
‘If we want to keep breathing we have only one option. Buy the merchandise.’
‘Please remain calm while your nervous system is disabled.’
‘Like every worker, everywhere…we’re fighting the suits’ – possibly Capaldi’s best line in the series.
‘Our deaths will be expensive!’

The Good:
· I heard Matheson take questions in a convention once and aside from being a fascinating speaker with lots of interesting things to say about his episodes, he pointed out that when it comes to Doctor Who that the characters are often sacrificed to ensure the plot can breathe. He even indicated some scenes that should have taken place in Flatline that would have allowed you to see apparently one-dimensional bullies like Fenton in a whole new light. I’d say in The Girl Who Died he went the other way, he gave his characters plenty of limelight but at the expense of a very slight plot. In Oxygen he seems get the balance just right – there are an abundance of very affecting character moments (the opening scene is a terrific and this story cements the team of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole like never before) but I don’t think anybody can say they are short-changed on incident and excitement in the narrative.
· Whilst the opening kick at Star Trek is a lot of fun (deliberately referencing Star Trek isn’t something I expecting to see on Doctor Who outside of the grotesquely indulgent Deep Space Nine parody Bang Bang a Boom on audio) but it’s making a very deliberate point too about how space is dangerous. This is one of those Doctor Who episode that features a setting that is out to get you straight off the bat. Matheson takes that danger and cranks it up to eleven throughout the episode but the very idea of traipsing around a space station with no oxygen is tense enough without adding malfunctioning spacesuits and dead eyed zombies. Other notable examples of settings that are instantly buttock clenching are Planet of the Daleks, Planet of Evil and Genesis of the Daleks. The scenes shot on the exterior of the station are outstandingly lit and filmed that they feel as though they could have been actual footage that has been taken and superimposed into a Doctor Who episode. I can’t think of an episode in recent years that has instantly planted me in its location so vividly as this. As if the setting wasn’t scary enough, the Doctor then proceeds to spell out the process of oxygen starvation in space, preparing the audience for what the characters (especially poor Bill) will be experiencing late in the episode. To have had the course of oxygen deprivation spelt out beforehand means we’re suffering along with her because we know what she is going through.
· How far can a show like Doctor Who push teatime horror on a Saturday night? Actually quite far, as it has proven to controversial effect before. It’s not a show that often gets under my skin but I’m quite hardly when it comes to television but there are countless times over its long history where you could point and wince ‘too much for children.’ Oxygen definitely counts and is probably one of the most frightening episode since the show returned in 2005 (for the record I would say that Midnight and The Waters of Mars, both on a psychological level, are still moreso). The character that is savaged by zombies on the outside of the station, screaming for help in her spacesuit that cannot be heard as they advance and murder her, is just your starter for ten. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover a corpse that is standing up, simply because the spacesuit hasn’t figured to have him lie down. That’s an alarming visual, especially the dead, oxygen starved fish eyes glaring out of the suit. For me, psychological horror is always much more effective and Oxygen features plenty of that too, particularly when it comes to Bill. We really get inside her helmet and experience hell with her. Or outside her helmet should I say as the suit decides to take it off just as the room is about to depressurise. You’re witness to some of the most accomplished direction on Doctor Who in an age when Bill falls unconscious during this sequence. Palmer captures the disorientation, the claustrophobia and the passing of time as Bill falls in and out of consciousness. It’s remarkably well done. I thought that would be creepiest moment of the episode but boy was I wrong…when Bill is told a few hours later that she is going to have to be left at the mercy of slowly advancing zombies and become one of them. The Doctor walks away from her, leaves her to her fate. That simply isn’t done. And Bill is left alone, screaming for her dead mum and for all intents and purposes dies. That’s a phenomenally scary sequence.
· The concept of oxygen being a commodity is an intriguing one and something that I have been thinking about for many years. ‘One day we’ll be paying for our oxygen and sunlight’ is something I’ve been telling people during debates about capitalism and politics for years (let’s not even pretend that those are my primary topics of conversation…they are usually ‘in episode three of the Androids of Tara, did you notice that Tom Baker let one off when he’s offered the throne?’ and ‘I know the cream cake is 300 calories but factor in the walk it took the shop and back means that once I’ve eaten it I’m in calorie deficit.’ But I do have my moments…) and the idea that something that is fundamental to us staying alive being something that you pay for has always fascinated and frightened me. So, to have that notion explored in an episode of my favourite show delights me. And terrifies me. Unlicensed oxygen is expelled to protect business interests, which means the station is actively working against the TARDIS crew for financial motives. Brrr.

The Bad: I wasn’t that enamoured with the guest characters. But they service as victims and a chance for the Doctor to bounce his ideas off of. And they fulfil that function perfectly well.

Result: ‘Bill I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?’ Oxygen is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. If there was any doubt that the series could reach the heights of its NuWho heyday then this was the proof. Whilst it was extraordinary, I can’t include Heaven Sent because it was such an unusual experiment. Oxygen is honest to God, nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who, refined and pitched to perfection. I mentioned in my review of Smile that FCB doesn’t write my kind of Doctor Who (that isn’t to say there aren’t others who find his tensionless sermons perfection itself) and in contrast Jamie Matheson writes exactly my kind of Doctor Who: bold, original, clever, tense, beautifully paced, characterful, funny and satisfying. In the Capaldi era his is the benchmark that everybody else is working to, just as Moffat was the standout under the previous administration. What you have is a threat on the inside (the oxygen suits that are working against you) and the outside (the dead-eyed zombies attacking en masse) and two companions that are allowed to be absolutely terrified. It’s the tensest the show has been in many years, probably since the Moffat era began. And it’s a formula for success that the show traded in for many years in the classic series that I thought had been long forgotten. Add in an already terrifying environment and you have a Doctor Who episode that ticks every single box when it comes to putting the willies up you (oh get a room). This is the bonding exercise that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole needed too, a race to survive together and a feeling that they are a group of friends working together. Each of the regulars gets their best moment of the season to date involving blindness, oxygen starvation and the killer line ‘Look at me!’ Oxygen holds back from being indulgent or overly spectacular like so much of this era, it focuses on a tricky situation with a small group of characters and some dastardly clever ideas. When Moffat makes the joke that he has finally figured out how to show run Doctor Who just as he is leaving is not only very funny in its self-deprecation but also quite true. Charles Palmer directs with exactness, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of the setting with the precision of scalpel. The performances are first rate. The music underscores rather than overwhelming the action. And the final scene is a doozy. I think Oxygen is a modern day classic Doctor Who. I genuinely got short of breath watching this: 10/10

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dethras written by Adrian Poynton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In the control room of a World War 2 submarine something strange has started to happen. As the ship runs out of control, its crew begin to fall unconscious... Finding the submarine in the last place they'd have expected, the Doctor and Romana are confronted by a mystery. Once fully populated, there are now only three men on board. And there's now also a chimpanzee. What has happened to the rest of the crew? What are the strange noises they can hear outside the hull? And most importantly, who, or what, is Dethras?

Teeth and Curls: Since bypassing the Randomiser the universe has been the Doctor’s to explore again. It’s put him in a very good mood. In contrast Romana sounds like she is ready to top herself. She thinks that the device is still need to help them evade the Black Guardian but the Doctor, mischievous as ever, decides that they can alternative. One journey with the Randomiser for her, one without chosen by him. He can’t decided whether he loves it when Romana agrees with him or not because she’s quite fun when she’s bossy. Just when you think the situation is impossible, the universe always finds ways to make it even moreso (that’s a Douglas Adams script, surely). The Doctor thinks up a quite ingenious method of escaping the damaged submarine on the spot, it’s a great example of his improvisational genius. Listen to how he growls ‘where did you hide the submarines crew?’ I wouldn’t want to be the wrong side of this Doctor when he sounds that venomous. ‘For a genius you really are rather thick!’ ‘You’re arrogant as well as stupid!’ Dethras just goes to show how effective Tom Baker’s Doctor can be when he is handed a script that fails to allow Tom Baker to indulge in crazy antics because there are so many gaps in the narrative to fill. This story has two episodes worth of dramatic content and he has to stick to the script. The resulting characterisation of the Doctor is as stripped back and effective as we have seen in a while.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re like sardines in a can!’

Great Ideas: What appears to be an abandoned submarine – far more in keeping with the tombstone that is season eighteen than jolly Victorian London and glossy 1920s Hollywood. Whilst this isn’t the first attempt at capturing the thrill of a naval vessel in space (Enlightenment), the concept of a submarine that is floating amongst the stars is a novel one. And novelty is something I need in this range. The Stargazer’s halo, a vast spaceship junkyard in a ring around a long dead planet. That’s terribly evocative and mysterious. I could imagine a whole series of adventures taking place in a setting like that. Some real science is brought into play at last, discussion about the pressures that a submarine can tolerate. If they are in space then why aren’t they floating in Zero-G? Dethras is known as the Einstein of evolution, the greatest mind on that subject in the universe. He vanished without trace, running and hiding from a universe that was unsafe. He achieved his life’s work and unlocked hyper evolution. He created an army of super soldiers, people who could hyper evolved into the highest form of human being. He sold his science, it was the only way of getting living subjects to experiment on. Flague refuses to be a slave again and is on a pre-emptive mission to destroy everything in her path in order to achieve that. She calls it a dream of peace but it’s a pretty chilling version of peace. Dethras knew the power of what he discovered and that it couldn’t fall into anyone else’s hands. Warriors that could be dropped into any environment and evolve and adapt to survive and prosper. Imagine that technology in the wrong hands? That’s why he tried to destroy his own work. One night he destroyed his research. The very presence of the Doctor and Romana means that the characters around them are evolving into smarter creatures, including a new latent telepathic ability. An unstoppable storm, ready to destroy the universe, the work of an architect that is looking for universal peace, using a science that never should have been unleashed.

Audio Landscape: Dethras features a very clever audio device of its characters being able to experience the memories of others, one that is captured chillingly because we experience it along with them. The creatures breaking in and the Doctor shattering the hull is one of the most buttock clenching sequences this range has ever put out. There were moments when I felt a Twin Peaks vibe in episode two, unnerving synth music underscoring the revelations. The flashbacks in episode two are quite gripping, giving real drama to the exposition.

Musical Cues: A disquieting, mysterious score that matches the tone of the writing perfectly. Robertson is perfectly in sync with Poynton, shying away from his usual orchestral bombast and focussing on the tight location and intrigue instead.

Isn’t It Odd: Should we be concerned with a cliff-hanger that spells out who the villain is even though we know absolutely nothing about him yet? I rather like the writers who don’t bother to create a moment of false jeopardy (because those rarely work when focusing on characters that we know can’t die in audio stories because they are written out in television ones) but a pivot in the plot so it can head off in a new direction. However, we are in command of none of the basic facts that make that new direction an exciting one so this cliff-hanger simply left me thinking ‘Dethras who?’ It’s not such a problem, because you’re about to find out with his reveal but you have to wonder if the moment could have had more impact had it been before.

Standout Scene: There's a reason why the previous stories in this series have felt more like season seventeen than eighteen...because this is the point where they decide to head to Brighton in The Leisure Hive!

Result:
One of many refreshing things about Dethras is that it constantly throws surprises at you, not everything is spelt out from the word go. I like to be kept guessing. It’s also chock a block full of tasty ideas from the unusual location reveal to the unique nature of the metamorphosis of several characters. There is a tenseness and claustrophobia that feels exclusive in this range and the strong layers of science fiction means that a story in series six can finally live up to its claim to take place in season eighteen. If you know what I mean. I was pleased to see Romana take a large chunk of the action. Lately it has felt like she is not only a companion to the Doctor but a peripheral element to the stories taking place but the character was always a dominating factor in her stories, thanks to Lalla Ward’s commanding presence. Ward has generally just been a bit grumpy this season (probably due to the lack of interesting material for her character) and it is nice to see her (and Romana) engaging in a story worthy of her. Check out my Great Ideas section, which is three times as long as is the norm for this range, Poynton is really trying to include as many fresh concepts as possible and the direction by Nick Briggs is just a step up from its normal level of effectiveness as though he knows he is onto a winner with this tale. The story is content to be dramatic throughout with no idiosyncratic characters for the fourth Doctor to indulge in his trademark witticisms with, just misguided people for him to condemn. There’s no real villain here, which makes the characters more complex than usual, just characters who are ill-advised and like the Doctor improvising because they believe they are doing the right thing. Dethras isn’t trying to redefine Doctor Who as we know it, it wants to get on with telling an involving, well plotted story where the interest levels are high. It succeeds admirably. Proof that a story of this denseness can be told in the one hour format: 8/10

The Silent Scream written by James Goss and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: On the set of a busy Hollywood movie in the late 1920s, a damsel is in distress! As cameras roll, she opens her mouth to scream and... nothing comes out. Nothing at all. It's happened again. The Doctor, Romana and K9 have arrived in a terrified Tinseltown. A new film is being made and several stars of the silent screen are viewing it as a potential comeback... but it may prove a poisoned chalice. Actors are vanishing and strange creatures stalk the streets. Something evil is lurking behind the scenery. Can the Doctor stop it when he doesn't have a voice? It's time for his close-up.

Teeth and Curls: I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t an accurate representation of the post-Shada fourth Doctor. You can point out that he is up to his scene stealing tricks in State of Decay until you are blue in the face but the truth is that Baker spent most of his final year in a big sober huff. I’m not suggesting he didn’t do fine work in that year, he’s too good an actor to suggest that. I’m just saying this grinning, excitable loon would be completely out of place should this story turn up between, say, The Leisure Hive and Meglos. Whoever knew that the Doctor is a huge fan of Hollywood stars of the twenties? He was passing in the era and simply had to pop in on Loretta Waldorf, for a signature and a glass of soda water. There is some fun in suggesting that the Doctor works in special effects and K.9 is his greatest triumph. The Doctor is spied and laughed at, apparently an eccentric Hollywood fop looking for a job. He’s dressed a little too pretentiously to be a spy, but then maybe that is the idea. Tom Baker is an anarchic presence when he invades the realm of the quack from the future, becoming the dominant voice amongst voices.

Aristocratic Adventurer: There is a mild attempt to explain why people like going to the movies, to escape the humdrum nature of their lives. K.9 asks Romana if she ever feels the need to escape to which she naturally explains that her life is full of thrills and spills. She’s clearly not been paying attention to her audio stories these past two season particularly well, then.

Great Ideas: Like the New Series episodes that have to get to the point quickly in order to have some fun with their ideas, Goss jumps straight in at the deep end with people who depend on their voices in their careers being stolen.

Audio Landscape: Hollywood in the 1920s has lots of exciting reference material and immediately the soundscape is something a little different to the norm, capturing the plastic jollity of tinsel town. The chorus of disembodied voices with the tape spinning in the background is a novel soundscape and you can see why this might have been pitched as a different kind of audio experience. I wasn’t too impressed with the only cliff-hanger, the sound of overlapping voices can be chilling but I don’t think this really cut the mustard. It becomes an intolerable noise very quickly. The Face of Evil episode three cliffhanger (‘Who am I?’) is still the best example of this, and possibly the attack on the Doctor in Death to the Daleks (‘You do not exist!’).

Isn’t It Odd: I don’t know if anybody has been paying attention but the creators of these audios profess to be Doctor Who fans, and extremely intelligent and observant ones they are too. Season Eighteen this is not. The TARDIS only visited the Earth twice in Tom Baker’s final year and that was only as a stepping stone to more imaginative worlds (Argolis and Logopolis). Meglos aside, there was none of the frippery of The Beast of Kravenos and The Silent Scream, the tone was far more sombre and subdued, beckoning the entropy that was about consume the universe. So why are the makers of season six of the fourth Doctor adventures insisting on creating stories that harken back to the lighter, more irreverent style of seasons sixteen and seventeen? Is this the season eighteen they wished had taken place? If you were looking for an authentic version of Tommy B’s final year, all clinical science and morals, then you might wind up very disappointed indeed. Unconvincing American accents have been the bane of many a Big Finish production. Who could ever forget the godawful Buffy wanabee Becky-Lee in Minuet from Hell? Or the dreadful Southern drawls trampling all over Renaissance of the Daleks? It’s baffling because America must have an even bigger acting pool than the UK (there are rather a lot more of them) and yet Big Finish insists on British actors Americanifying their voices in an awkward way. Pamela Salem is a wonderful actress but she cannot sound entirely convincing as an American…because she isn’t. It’s as simple as that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Salem was employed simply because Tom Baker wanted to work with her. Once the ghosts have stolen her voice, it’s something of a blessed relief. The drawling faux accents are especially galling in the climax. The plot is so light that I sighed and it evaporated into nothing before me. I’m not sure if you can even call this a plot in the conventional sense. The premise is already in operation when we join the story, the Doctor chats with a few characters to discover the truth of that and does a little jig with the sonic screwdriver and magics away the problem. This isn’t deductive, the answers are just handed out without any real effort on the part of the characters. Dr Julius is such a dreary villain that the Doctor cannot even be bothered to sound particularly angry when he tells him he is despicable.

Standout Scene: It’s worth listening to to hear the Doctor give his audition piece, a mash up of Peter Piper and She Sells Sea Shells…at least Baker is having fun. The Doctor losing his voice is a novelty, imagine trying to script an entire audio without the fourth Doctor having the use of his voice. But it isn’t really stolen, it’s just a bit croaky.

Result: The best Tom Baker audios are those that are allowed the time and space to breathe and the story a chance to build up some atmosphere. The original Philip Hinchcliffe set and The Paradox Planet stand out for me as the most successful examples. There have been some one hour winners (Iceni, both Sontaran stories, Drax) but on the whole they seem to stick to a pretty familiar formula; introduce the threat quickly, introduce a couple of quirky characters, a little witty banter, some dashing about, a less than spectacular reveal and an ‘is that it?’ climax. If you’re looking to kill an hour amiably but without any sense of challenge then knock yourself out. If you want to pay for something with a little more meat on the bones, for something that makes you consider its ideas or long for its guest characters to return because they were so winning, I’d say skip to another range. The Silent Scream ticks over nicely enough, there is a pleasantly weird idea at the heart of it (although it has echoes of The Idiot’s Lantern but with voices being stolen rather than faces) and it paces out it’s episodes enjoyably enough with Tom Baker in particular in fine (if not season eighteen) form. Will I remember anything about it after listening? Hardly. Will I want to re-visit it in the future? Never. At least half of this range has been consigned to the ‘taking up storage space unnecessarily’ section of my hard drive and The Silent Scream has joined its bedfellows. I’m still too frightened to face the Briggs two-part finale at the climax of series five, something tells me from the savage previews and his past form that this also occupy the same part of my hard drive. The Companion Chronicles, Dorian Gray and Torchwood ranges all seem to be able to drive real drama, excellent character work and haunting concepts into their stories so I’m not sure what it is about the 4DAs that they seem to revert to this easy, popcorn style Doctor Who. I have no doubt that there will be a couple of winners this season, there always is. Even that is an inevitability, but they are diamonds in the inoffensive rough. An hour of trad Who, misplaced in the wrong season. A shame, I was expecting something more substantial from Goss. He touches upon the reason why people watch movies in the climax (when people have nothing, they need dreams) and it’s a shame that he didn’t take it much further and embrace and celebrate the flicks: 5/10

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Beast of Kravenos written by Justin Richards and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: A stunning new star act is wowing the audiences of the New Regency Theatre. The modern mechanical marvel of canny canine charisma - the automated dog that can answer any question - the incomparable - the unbeatable - K9! The Doctor and Romana have returned to Victorian London and been reunited with their old friends Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago. However this is not merely a social visit. A terrifying crime spree is sweeping the capital, and the burglaries of 'The Knave' defy all logic. Something impossibly dangerous is taking place amid the fog. Only the time travellers and their friends can stop it... but can they be sure they're all on the same side?

Teeth and Curls: I remember when these fourth Doctor audios started up and I had terrible trouble disassociating Tom Baker the personality from Tom Baker as the Doctor. The line seemed to have been blurred, no doubt aided by the fact that he had been allowed to run riot with his persona in the AudioGo Nest Cottage series (for all of it’s strengths of imagination and creativity). Those early stories were so nuts and bolts Doctor Who and it felt like Big Finish were trying to clip Baker’s wings a little and bring him back down to Earth. That made his outrageous leaps of madness seem even more like an actor being indulgent. Somewhere along the line Baker has remembered how to play the part as he did on the television and recent stories such as The Paradox Planet and The Trouble with Drax have revealed an authentic fourth Doctor, deftly characterised and beautifully played by Baker. The trouble is this story is supposed to be set during season 18, which was the year Tom Baker was castrated on television and forced to rein in his dashing wit of seasons 16 and 17. There’s not sign of that here. He was an extremely dour, almost sour Doctor in this season. The one story that let him truly shine throughout (State of Decay) was written by an old hand (Uncle Terrance) who clearly didn’t get the memo that this season the Doctor was to be serious, dramatic, moody and constricted by real science (not the whacky science of the previous couple of years). So does this make The Beast of Kravenos an accurate representation of Baker’s Doctor or not? Yes and no. It’s accurately season seventeen but not accurately the year it is supposed to be set in. Baker has been doing these audios for too long now and is extremely comfortable in the role…if only somebody (writer Justin Richards or director Nick Briggs) had told him he was supposed to be under a black cloud. Whenever the Doctor is around it seems that everybody’s job gets a lot more difficult. Exciting, isn’t it? The Doctor finds it as annoying as Litefoot that Romana seems to know everything about everything. Quick can understand why Litefoot likes having the Doctor around, he’s the smartest man in the room at all times.

Aristocratic Adventurer: How unusual that the Doctor should have two such companions with the same name…the last time Romana met Jago and Litefoot she was in another guise altogether. She doesn’t care to be compared to a London bus.

Partners in Crime: According to Jago, K.9 is a modern mechanical marvel of canny canine charisma. But then he always did have a way of jazzing up the most bog standard of acts. Whether they have access to a nucleonic phase pulse generator is not the sort of question Jago tends to ask his auditionees. It’s quite unthinkable that their assailant could possibly be a gentleman in the eyes of Litefoot, more than likely a complete bounder.

Sparkling Dialogue: The incessant alliteration that accompanies Jago has grown tiring over the years. I prefer him to be written intelligently rather than predictably.

Great Ideas: Victorian London is one setting where K.9 might just appear to be a technological marvel. He’s also quite the wit, cracking jokes in the face of his audiences questions. The Knave, a killer who always leaves a playing card at the scene of the crime. The Doctor’s method of tracking down the Knave is to place a tracker inside a Gallifreyan jewel and have him steal it.

Audio Landscape: You had better hope after countless seasons of Jago & Litefoot that Big Finish have perfected the soundscape of Victorian London. I’m sure there are plenty of street scenes, theatre spectacles and gentleman’s study’s that could be called upon to copy and paste.

Isn’t It Odd: Series six of the fourth Doctor adventures should be aiming a little higher than an opening story that plays it quite this safe. It’s the first year that Briggs and Barnes aren’t writing for the range and I was hoping (given the intriguing roll call of writers) that we would be treated to a little novelty and experimentation. Richards is the ultimate safe pair of hands writer and Jago & Litefoot are the ultimate safe pair of hands guest characters. We even had a story set in this period with these characters just a few seasons ago. Colour me unimpressed that we should kick start a season so obviously. ‘Romana, someone’s stolen the TARDIS…’ thus ends episode one and I could barely be bothered to stifle a yawn. What, again? Lalla Ward delivers a perfectly fine performance but does Romana sound a little unimpressed by events or was it my imagination? She walks through the story observing, deducing but not really engaging with the story. It reminded me more of the first incarnation of the character.

Standout Scene:
The first time this story surprised me was the revelation of who the beast is posing as. But given that character vanished for a certain amount of time it was more of a ‘oh that makes sense’ reaction than anything.

Result: A traditional story featuring Jago & Litefoot and a baying beast in Victorian London…it hardly screams the fresh if clinical and innovative approach of season 18, does it? As I seem to say with every other fourth Doctor release, this is perfectly serviceable and if it was the first Big Finish you stumbled across you might be tempted to seek out more. Infernal investigations, the Doctor and Romana on the case with the most formidable combination in the annals of criminology by their side, K.9 saturated in wit and humour and the basic plotting of a Doctor Who story. It’s almost textbook stuff. Am I outrageous in wanting more from this range? Last year they proved it was perfectly possible with Jonny Morris and John Dorney’s output. The last time Richards wrote a fourth Doctor adventure I was in Colombia reviewing and in desperate need of a decent slice of Who to cure my home sickness. What I got was flat and uninteresting, a truly mediocre piece. This is a little zestier in its execution but in no way more creative or bold in its storytelling. At least with Benjamin and Baxter on board you know there will be some fun interaction but this is Doctor Who on autopilot, as though their inclusion is excuse enough not to try. It might as well have been written by Briggs. Even the revelation of who The Knave is can hardly come as a surprise given he is the only guest character to have been established beyond the regulars and the guest regulars. It’s a little like The Rescue in that respect. Richards wrote both Time Zero and Sometime Never…, novels that juggled complex, stimulating ideas and hanging on dense narratives. Why are his audios so simply plotted and lacking even basic invention? Completely unchallenging, very mildly diverting and simply not strong enough when you think there have been 40 odd releases before this: 5/10

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Knock Knock written by Mike Bartlett and directed by Bill Anderson


This story in nutshell: Bill and her uni mates are moving into new halls…and there is something creaking in the walls. 

Indefinable: After rising to such heights in Thin Ice simply by offering such a sterling interpretation of the Doctor, he’s redefined as a rather embarrassing grandfather figure in the first half of Knock Knock. He hangs around the house because he recognises there is a mystery here but the episode is primarily told from Bill’s point of view and, trying to get involved with her new house mates, he comes across as a bit of an embarrassing spare part. Capaldi’s Doctor is one that doesn’t really fit in contemporary tales and he’s often shoehorned into a different sort of role than we are used to to try and give him a purpose (the Caretaker, the head of UNIT, the professor, the guarder of the Vault and now the over protective Grandfather). I’m noticing those allusions to Susan, Mr Moffat. I hope this is leading somewhere. The little pause as the Doctor realises he has mentioned regeneration to Bill, a small moment of horror, like he knows it is imminent. Or maybe that was a small moment of despair from Capaldi as he recognises he is soon to give up his dream role. Either way, it’s the most emotive moment in Knock Knock. I wonder if there will be more moments like this, preparing us, throughout the season. Such a shame, he’s such a delightful Doctor now and has a companion worthy of him. Both Alison and myself figure it was the Doctor making the racket in the kitchen that attracted the kids but that doesn’t stop it being a very cute moment. Amusingly, the Doctor that woke up from his regeneration and couldn’t get on with anybody has developed a fine rapport with young people as he has mellowed. Doctor Disco has made the gang, blad. 

Funky Chick: Fancy using the TARDIS as a removals service! One of the most spectacular technological marvels in the universe and it is being used to haul boxes about. Cheeky Bill. She’s smart enough to recognise that she is walking into a horror movie with a creepy old house being offered to students at a bargain price. Whereas everybody else is happy to sign up immediately (it’s like they want to die), Bill has pause for thought. I like Bill dropping that she’s into girls, mostly, to avoid the attentions of a horny Scot. Bill has her own family references that keep popping up and I’m certain we will be meeting her mum before the end of the season and seeing what the Doctor’s involvement is in her death. Bill walks through these adventures carefully, genuinely afraid for her life. That might seem like a ridiculous observation to make but after 5 seasons of Doctor Who with Amy and Clara who essentially danced through the universe going ‘ner ner ne ner ner’ at everything nasty that came in their paths (with a few rare exceptions such as the Silence and the Dream Crabs) it is very refreshing to have a companion who isn’t afraid to be scared. They are, after all, our eyes and ears. If the companion is tough as nails and nothing bothers them then why should we break out in a sweat? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Hope is its own form of cruelty.’
‘If you could save the one who brought you into this world, wouldn’t you?’ – more indications that we are going to meet Bill’s mother.

The Good:
· The pre-titles sequence captured the horror of trying to find student lodgings very well. It’s not the sort of scene I would ever expect to see in a Doctor Who episode and as a result turns out to be some of the most original material in the whole piece. In fact, with the introduction of the house and the Landlord so quietly and creepily and the first murder, it is probably the best part of the episode as a whole.
· The eerie stuff that works: Pavel’s unseen murder to music, the creaking of the trees outside of the house, the Landlord tapping on the walls, communicating with the house and letting it know that it can feast, Paul pretending to be attacked and then actually suffering the fate he is mocking (that was very nicely handled), the knocking on the walls all around the corridor, Colin Ryan’s crazy eyed acting but for all the wrong reasons, the shutters sealing everybody in the building like the house was eating them alive (because that is genuinely what I thought at that point) and Pavel’s milky eyes staring out of the wall. Although that last one gave me flashbacks to Ursula the paving slab.
· Suchet is an actor I have longed to take a part in Doctor Who and he doesn’t disappoint. Of course he doesn’t, he’s one of the greatest talents England has produced. Mind you, Capaldi is up there too. They have a marvellous moment together when the truth is revealed. He works much better as a creepy old man wandering the halls of the house and tapping on the walls rather than a lost little boy desperately trying to keep his mother alive. Watching Suchet and the younger actors in Knock Knock is a useful exercise for any performer, how he underplays everything and makes each nuance stick compared to their histrionics and excesses. An actor of Suchet’s calibre knows that you don’t have to shout to get noticed. Just embrace the character, believe in him, become him. Whilst it doesn’t make sense in logical terms for Eliza to forget that the Landlord is her son, Suchet makes the twist work because you believe so completely in his character and the way he reacts to her. Other actors I long to see in the show: Maggie Smith, David Jason, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley.
· How nice to hear a Brummie accent in Doctor Who. A shame the actor who plays Harry is the weakest of the lot. Or rather the most OTT. It’s rather like Cotton in The Mutants. How refreshing to have a black actor taking a central part in the show…and what a shame it is probably the worst performance the show has ever seen. We won’t try that again for a while, then.
· The costume for Eliza really gave me the willies. If Robophobia is an unreasoning dread of robots, a dislike for the like but unlike then what do you call a fear of a wooden human? Hylophobia? Humlophobia? This story ends with a mother killing her son. I never thought a Doctor Who episode would ever take that angle and make it something that is suitable for family viewing.

The Bad:
* Bugs. I was expecting so much more given the set up. Bugs have had a long-standing history with Doctor Who and ickiness. Everything from the Cybermats that menaced around your ankles in the Troughton era to the overgrown nasties in Pertwee’s time (maggots and spiders), the killer insects that the Rani deploys on Lakertya (‘They kill!’) and the flesh crawling insects that suggest that Gabriel Chase is coming alive. I was hoping that it would be something a little more original like the wood itself was alive and the house was literally eating people. Whilst the effects are phenomenal, watching the bugs crawl all over the victims and eat them alive just didn’t get to me in the same way as seeing Pavel eaten by the wall. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen similar kinds of scenes on everything from The X-Files to Buffy to Smallville. It feels like Doctor Who is late to the party in this respect. Even the Doctor seems let down when he realises this is a species of alien insect at work.
* This had all the makings of a wonderful horror episode but for some reason Moffat doesn’t seem able to follow this genre through. Perhaps he feels that in a family slot the audience cannot handle a full-blown horror tale but he has to remember that Doctor Who has been pulling those off across the years from Fury from the Deep to Spearhead from Space to The Brain of Morbius to The Curse of Fenric. Hide followed the same formula as Knock Knock, presenting all the clich├ęs of a great horror and transforming into a love story at the climax. Knock Knock has the setting, the fodder and the right kind of director but instead of embracing the chills, it takes the domestic approach and winds up being a domestic drama with no murders. Colour me disappointed. Hide and Knock Knock both failed as horror stories for different reasons; the season seven attempt was hampered by a Doctor and companion who cut through the atmosphere with their childish excitedness but was generally very well filmed and freakish in its execution. Knock Knock features a much more convincing set of regulars who react appropriately to being in danger…but fudges it in the plotting stakes by failing to go through with killing off it’s teenage fodder and going all gooey in the conclusion.
* ‘The power sockets will not take your devices…’ and this is met with no objection? Bartlet clearly does not understand the yoof of today. This would simply not be acceptable. ‘I’ll just call the Landlord and sort it out.’ Yeah, right.
*It’s quite the relief when Harry is killed, so hammy is his performance. Even his death is crazy over the top.
* Knock Knock is one of those NuWho adventures that needed to be an hour long to give the story a chance to breathe. Like a horror movie it wants to set up the characters and the location (20 minutes), enjoy bumping them off in spectacular ways (10 minutes) and then provide an explanation and climax (10 minutes). You see the problem, by the time the story has established its cast and setting and it only has a brief while to scare the pants off you before it rushes the conclusion which undoes everything. Because nothing is quite what you think it is. The middle section needs to be three times as long (because that’s the meat and veg in a horror, the scary stuff) and a chance to scatter clues about the Landlord’s identity and real relationship with Eliza. Because throwing in the twist with a flashback at the conclusion cheats the audience. It’s not a twist anyone could have guessed because we only meet Eliza at the conclusion and there are no allusions to the fact that he is looking after anybody. It’s like Agatha Christie ending a novel with the killer being a character that we’ve never met before and hasn’t even been mentioned. It’s a cheat.
* What the hell happens to the bugs? Are they just roaming about the English countryside now, ready to strike again? How does a wooden alien bug re-constitute people? It’s an unlikely process that simply exists to give this episode a happy ending.
* The fireworks. What a timely co-incidence. Groan.

The Shallow Bit: New look Bill, dungarees and hair up, is gorgeous. Mackie is simply gorgeous.

Result: Knock Knock had all the trappings of a great mini horror movie and I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth because it didn’t follow through on its promise. To say I shouldn’t have walked into this episode with pre-conceptions is fair but the trailer, the preview reviews and the first fifteen minutes all convinced me that this was going to be the most chilling Doctor Who of all time. Instead it falls way short of that when it decides to morph into an undercooked character drama in the last third. My favourite scenes were in the middle section of the episode with victims in the walls and the house locking itself shut and bugs stealing their first victims. For ten minutes or so Knock Knock does live up to its premise and attempt to get under your skin (hoho). Like the last three episodes though, it comes undone (and this is probably the worst example) in its climax. In this case it is because nothing is adequately explained (What were the bugs? Why did the Doctor seem to take such an interest in them and then just walk away from them? How can Eliza forget about her son? How do they re-constitute people?) and all the characters depart alive and well. It leaves you wondering what the point of the whole episode was, unless Bill’s friends are going to be recurring characters. In which case I hope they are characterised with a bit more chutzpah than they are here. I don’t remember a defining thing about any of them. Gosh, don’t I sound like a moaning Minnie? What did I like? The direction was generally sound; pacy, atmospheric and (in the opening third) fun. I think he captured the juxtaposition between young (the kids and their search for student lodgings) and old (the house and its creaky owner) very well. It’s a bit of a thankless part but David Suchet is absolutely superb as the Landlord and works extremely well when he is just a creepy old man that seems to be killing off young’uns to feed the house. Certain scenes did generate a sweat and my friend Alison I was watching with did jump at one point. And the make up for Eliza is quite out of this world, reminding me of the Pyroville from Pompeii (like a human being but quite unlike a human being and visually disturbing because of it). And there’s the secret weapon of series ten of course: the Doctor and Bill. I think this would score a point lower if it was in the hands of any of the other regulars in Moffat’s time. Knock Knock wasn’t a great episode, but it was entertaining enough. I’ve said this four times now though, series ten has had four relatively unassuming episodes in a row. I think it’s time for a blockbuster…and its certainly time for Nardole to take a bigger role. A disappointing horror tale but a fair piece of entertainment, Knock Knock should have had the courage of its convictions and sent the kids to bed traumatised. It is following the form of so many horror movies of late by having a decent atmosphere but taking a dive when it comes to revealing the nasty. Mind, most haunted house tales don’t undermine their genre in the final reel. That really is boggling: 6/10

Friday, 5 May 2017

Thin Ice written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Bill Anderson


This story in a nutshell:
There’s something very large and very dangerous underneath the Thames…

Indefinable: ‘I know you! You’re the cheat! I love your work!’ How fabulous does he look decked out in Victorian garb? I’m not especially keen on the hoodie that he insists on wearing (Capaldi is never going to be down with the kids, an issue this episode touches upon amusingly) so I’m not sure why they bother. He’s not insulting people or trying to impress them with his electric guitar, this is the Capaldi Doctor at the height of his powers, engaging with history, protecting his friend and doing his best for a creature that is being exploited. Dollard really knows how to unassumingly present the 12th Doctor at his most heroic. Note that there isn’t a Flatline style speech about a man who fights the monsters or a Steven Moffat ‘I am the Doctor!’ style ego stroke…it’s just very strong, very engaging characterisation. Watching him entertaining the kids made my heart beat faster, some part of me wishes he could have had a younger, teenage companion because children bring out the best in him (remember that gorgeous scene in Mysterio in the High School?). He looks like such a cantankerous old git that the presence of children and his gentle way with them smooths over a lot of his craggier edges. The Doctor talks about diplomacy, tact and charm but when his companion is insulted in the most vicious way he uses his fist to do the talking. It’s a spectacular moment. How wonderful is the scene where the Doctor and Bill are tied up, back to back, as the climax approaches and they try and utilise the sonic screwdriver to escape. It’s the sort of scene that typifies Doctor Who, having played out many times over the five decades the show has been on air. It’s as glorious now as it ever was. The Doctor states that he serves to protect the human race, a glorious mission statement and specifically asks Bill for an order to act. A lovely element of this season is how the Doctor is tied to Earth for once, rather than the companion. There is an excuse to return beyond the ‘old life/new life’ dilemma faced by Amy and Clara in recent years. Plus there are pleasing echoes to the third Doctor era, especially how he is established in a professional environment on the Earth. I like the idea of grounding him (and as a result him constantly breaking the rules) very much. 

Funky Chick: ‘I bought a pie of that guy! A fish pie!’ Some might say that Bill earned her stripes in The Pilot and it is true that she made quite an impression, but I would reserve that honour for Thin Ice. In Dollard’s hands, she truly comes alive and has a genuine, dramatic presence in the story. As my close friend Jack said after the episode aired, it has been an age since a companion has questioned the nature of death in the show and had a trouble reaction to it. I don’t think it has truly happened since series four where there were several examples of Donna dealing experience outside the realm of normality (the death and torture of the Ood, London going nuclear, death camps). Amy and Clara waltzed through stories as though death was commonplace – and if anybody mentions Danny Pink that was completely different. He was in a relationship with Clara. It shouldn’t take that for death to haunt you. It’s easy to see why people are declaring Bill the greatest companion since Donna or perhaps the greatest companion yet…her approach to time travel might be one of naivete but that means we go on the journey with her and experience real emotions as a result. The horror on Bill’s face when she admits that she has never seen anyone die before is heart-breaking. She won’t have the Doctor tell her how to feel about death and she has some very pertinent questions about his relationship with the dead and his feeling about facing it. The scene is understated and rather brilliant because of it. This could have been hysterical and unsubtle. She’s low key in love with the TARDIS because she loves dresses and likes a bit of trouble. Bill steps on the frozen surface of the Thames with trepidation and excitement and once she is sure she isn’t going to fall beneath the surface she wants to try everything. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s a bad girl, this one. Always looking for trouble.’
‘Every choice I make in this moment, here and now, could change the whole future’ ‘Exactly like every other day of your life. The only thing to do is to stop worrying about it.’
‘How is that a screwdriver?’ ‘In a very broad sense!’ 

The Good:

* Some Doctor Who stories can swing a vote on their setting alone. Planet of Evil and Death to the Daleks might qualify. I’m not talking about their realisation, although that is an important factor too. I mean the very idea of the TARDIS setting down in a particular location. The London frost fairs have been mentioned in the series for some time now so I think it must have been stewing in the back of Moffat’s mind. It conjures up wonderful images in my mind before the episode even begins; mist swirling on ice, a collection of idiosyncratic entertainers, street urchins and a foreboding London back drop. Fortunately, the episode does not disappoint. Director Bill Anderson spends a lot of time getting the atmosphere of the story right and half the battle (for interest, of course) is already won. I wanted to explore this place. I wanted the Doctor and Bill to step on the ice and enjoy in the festivities. Remember when the Doctor and Donna stepped out into the bustle of ancient Rome? It’s exactly that feeling, that the TARDIS can take you to some truly wondrous places in the universe and how exciting to leap out and take in the bustling scenery that is exploding with life. It’s a sense of wonder that Doctor Who gets very right. I mean, who can’t get excited about the setting when the opening shot is of an elephant screaming out of the snow? 
* Should Doctor Who be engaging with racism wholeheartedly or merely touching upon it like in recent years? Of course it should, this stuff really happens and even though we might cough into our hands in embarrassment, still happens now far more than we care to admit. Whilst SJA’s The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith and Lost in Time and Doctor Who’s Human Nature threw light on the subject, Thin Ice is interested in shining a spotlight on just how terribly people can be treated for little more than the colour of their skin. It’s barbaric and it should be portrayed as such.
* How many Doctor Who stories don’t have a ‘monster’ as a central feature? By monster I mean a creature that is out to actively harm people. Zygons, Daleks, Sontarans, Toclafane, Sycorax, The Silence, The Giant Spiders of Metebelies Three…you all know the sort of nasties I mean. They are a staple of the show, one of the reasons that the kiddies (and some adults like myself) still get excited watching. So what happens when you remove that feature and replace it with a creature that is portrayed as something horrid but ultimately turns out to be misunderstood and it is the human characters that are the true monsters? It could be very twee if mishandled (I think The Beast Below struggles in that respect) but Thin Ice makes a very decent stab at this unusual approach. Where Sutcliffe might be a little too OTT to swallow, the portrayal of the creature is wonderfully done. It helps that the first half of the episode perfectly convinces you that the creature is murderous and that makes the later scenes of the Doctor and Bill stepping in and freeing Willy (sorry, the creature) particularly triumphant. Torchwood’s Meat dealt with a similar monster and tone and if you enjoyed this, it works as an effective alternative to this kind of morality tale. The two creatures don’t look dissimilar now I come to think about it. What I really love about Thin Ice is how Dollard refuses to acknowledge whether the creature is alien or terrestrial. The Doctor dismisses the point as moot, the important thing is that it is in chains. As the creature swims off into the ocean singing I almost felt like congratulating the Doctor and Bill for a good days work.
* Doctor Who fans can be a rum bunch. Watch the sequence where the Doctor and Bill explore the ice at night with the shadowy backdrop of London behind them. Falling below the ice, they walk through the Thames and encounter the creature. It is stunningly atmospheric. And scrolling through a Doctor Who review page comments section I read the objection from one observer that the whole episode was ruined because the diving suits the Doctor and Bill are wearing aren’t historically accurate. Stone the crows! If you were viewing Doctor Who for historical accuracy then you would have to examine the contemporary stories with the same critical eye and in that case pretty much every Doctor Who story aside from those set in the future (aside from those which were made within the 53-year period that the show has been on air and that year has now been reached such as The Tenth Planet) would fail. Simply put, objecting to a mere detail when the scene itself is so exquisitely realised is utterly counterproductive that I have to wonder why you are watching television in the first place. It’s a common condition amongst Doctor Who fans. I hate Mark of the Rani because there is a sign advertising a cream tea in the background of one scene…never mind that the location work in that story is some of the most stylish in the entire classic series. It’s a very strange affliction.
* The vault. Interest officially piqued.

The Bad: I do find it irritating that it only seems to occur when black characters are the incumbents of the TARDIS – it would be nice for a white character to face the same kind of prejudice in the future. Some unfortunate child performances mar. Kids either have it or they don’t in the acting skills. There’s very little middle ground. Sutcliffe doesn’t join the story until about two thirds of the way through, which doesn’t give him sufficient time to make his mark as a Doctor Who villain. We’d be denied the fun at the fair and the investigation if he had turned up any earlier and those are the best scenes in the episode. Besides, Nicholas Burns errs towards the theatrical and couple with a predictable motivation the character doesn’t exactly set the episode on fire.

Result: The best episode since Heaven Sent, almost 18 months ago. Admittedly there have only been 5 episodes in between (which I voted 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 respectively) but it has felt as though Doctor Who has been coasting for some time now, albeit coasting fairly entertainingly. Thin Ice scores on several levels for me; the atmospheric and playful setting, the unusual reversal of the creature being misjudged, the enjoyable characterisation of the Doctor and Bill (three for three on that score), the drama of asking the question of whether the Doctor has killed somebody and dealing with the emotional fallout of that and the astonishing production values. Countering that is the fact that there is nothing truly original happening here, it’s old ideas (jokes about wandering through history, exploitative villains, a deadly creature that turns out to be nothing of the sort, the Doctor’s chequered past) presented in a new way. But given they are presented so stylishly, who cares? Thin Ice is just shy of being an out and out classic because of this but it achieves what it sets out to do to a very high standard indeed. If this quality was the average week in, week out, we would be in really good shape. You could watch this with the sound down and marvel at the beauty of the direction. But then you would be denied Dollard’s exceptional ear for memorable dialogue, her ability to get inside Bill’s head in a very emotive way and miss out of one of the best presentations of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor yet. He’s effortlessly pleasurable to watch. I simply cannot re-instate enough how much I am enjoying Pearl Mackie’s performance and with each episode I am hoping she hangs around to bridge the gap between Capaldi’s departure and the new Doctor’s introduction. I love how she underplays the drama, she makes Bill’s reactions to the horrors that she faces really count. Whilst this is the most dramatically presented of the three episodes so far this season, they have all been fairly intimate tales. It feels like we are being escalated through the season, the stories becoming punchier as they go. If things continue in this vein, the finale should be explosive. All I’m asking for now is a plot with a bit of substance. Thin Ice is a story that is well crafted, well characterised and well filmed. Take a step out of the TARDIS and enjoy a night at the Frost Fair of Old London Town. One to savour: 8/10