Friday, 16 February 2018

Ghost Walk written by James Goss and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: This is a city of ghosts and no-one knows them better than Leanne. Twice a night she leads tourists to visit the most haunted sites - the Hanging Yard, the Witch Pool, the Screaming House, and, of course, the Catacombs. Leanne’s realised the ghosts of the city are real. Something’s lurking in the Catacombs - an ancient force that has been growing in the darkness for centuries. Sabaoth is returning and they must be stopped before they devour the world. Leanne knows this, because a ghost told her. A ghost called The Doctor.

An English Gentleman: ‘Because I’m the Doctor. I’m the link you really shouldn’t click!’ It’s a glorious entrance for the Doctor, stepping out of a tense moment in a ghost walk and declaring he is a ghost. He’s an advocate of the universe, acknowledging there are some things out there so strange that they translate into bad things in our perception when they are nothing of the kind. He tends to babble when he is nervous. Saying that he acknowledges that any being that feeds off the life force of sentient beings is one that they might not have the capacity to get along with. The Doctor’s insistence that he died in the catacombs makes for a brilliant cliff-hanger, I love how understated it is and how it is so much more effective than another tedious moment of jeopardy of the kind we know won’t bring down any of the regulars. I’m guessing this is the only time the Doctor will ever be described as an inner ear infection. There’s a glorious suggestion that the Doctor only kept K.9 around to allow him to talk aloud without looking silly. The Doctor simply cannot get his head around how many beings out there cannot appreciate how wonderful just being alive is instead of always wanting more. He thinks the Earth is a very nice planet and worth saving over and over.

Maths Nerd: ‘Can we wait a few more minutes? The Doctor specialises in last minute rescues!’ Even when he’s terrified for his life he manages to fire off a crack at Tegan’s expense. Upon learning that his punishment for stealing a loaf of bread is banishment to Australia, remembering that Tegan is from there, he doesn’t really fancy that. He finds the Earth very dull and has no idea why the Doctor keeps coming back here.

Alien Orphan: In a moment of uncertainty, Nyssa states that she misses Traken where everything made sense. Nyssa’s psychic potential is explored once again, a talent that I feel could be exploited a lot more on audio now there is the time to lavish on deepening the regulars. On Traken they recognise fear but are taught not to feel it. A saucy madam with herbal remedies that give the impressions she is a witch, Nyssa is devastatingly beautiful enough to turn the head of even the clergy. It feels like the quickest romance in Doctor Who history but in relative terms to the story Nyssa has been in Matthew’s company for some time, certainly enough time for him to offer her a life of quiet contentment over that of giant frogs! She’s drawn to his kindness, but she understands it isn’t a practical plan of action giving she is leaving in a few days.

Mouth on Legs: ‘Death won’t stop Tegan.’ Can you imagine anything feeding into Tegan’s hatred of travelling in the TARDIS more than stepping outside and straight into a pile of mushy bones. Tegan finally gets to return back to her own time…just not entirely in the way that she imagined.

Standout Performance: When Shabaoth finally found a voice I was certain I recognised it. What a fine, silky menace that Stephen Grief has to his voice, and whilst it is treated in a similar way, it is a million miles away from the part he played in the fifth Doctor audio Primeval, many moons ago. Fenella Woolgar has also been employed by Big Finish before and her brilliantly down to Earth turn as Leanne couldn’t be more different than her star turn as Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp in series four.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s eaten an entire TARDIS. It probably has indigestion.’
‘The voice in my head is questioning my sanity?’
‘Wait. You’re trying to make me less scared of a ghost by telling me it’s just a ghost. EVEN THOUGH I AM SURROUNDED BY GHOSTS?’
‘Sometimes, when we’re confronted by terrible things… We smile. It’s called being alive and making the most of it.’
‘This is how the world ends Leanne. On a rainy day.’

Great Ideas: I want to share a story with you about a ghost walk that I went on some ten years ago in Edinburgh, whilst visiting with my then partner and mum. It was a really stormy night, I remember, and we spent an amiable half an hour in a tavern before the walk, which I spent belittling the whole idea of ghosts. This was like striking a match near an explosive with my mother, who has long been involved in a spiritualist group and a familiar debate between us. Nothing could have prepared me for the most chilling experience of my life when I was down the catacombs. It was an oppressive, dank place and the guide was overly theatrical, just as Leanne is here. But as he spelt out the terrible crimes of a man who had committed terrible acts and been hung put to death in the very spot we were standing I can vividly recall my entire body turning to ice, as if I had stepped into a freezer. A deafening whine filled my ears and I collapsed in the middle of the group. Appalled, embarrassed and very scared, I was taken outside wherein I finished the tour but my whole body was taut and I had a cold sweat for the rest of the night. I have never mocked the supernatural since. I don’t know what happened but I am not claustrophobic and the effect came on so suddenly and appallingly, I have no rational way of explaining it. The opening scenes of episode one brought it all back to me, a memory I had pushed away over the years. Maybe it was the Doctor all along.

Something in her surroundings is upsetting the TARDIS. The Peter Cushing gag made me chuckle. The alien feeds on life and the TARDIS is a living entity and the noises they heard where its cries for help, attempting to activate the HADS. Once it has consumed the energy of the TARDIS it lays dormant, gathering enough strength to build a physical form. It projected its soul to Earth, inducted energy from its surroundings and then built itself a new body. The alien's retained some worshippers to guard the place and ensure it's not disturbed as it begins to grow itself a corporeal shell. These caretakers will protect the site for as long as the entity wishes them too – months, years, centuries. Leanne’s evening tour is called ‘The Catacombs of Death’, and it baffles me that an adventure series with the insane titles of Doctor Who would avoid a title of such dynamic melodrama. Tegan walking around the dead console is precisely the sort of atmospheric stillness that 80s Who lacked, it’s precisely the sort of uneasiness that greeted Donna in Turn Left when she faced a similarly cadaverous TARDIS. And the malevolent voice that menaces Tegan is eerily similar to that of the one in The Doctor’s Wife. Sabaoth has the ability to send other peoples spirit ahead in time to act as an anchor, a stepping stone for him to follow. The whole of concept of Schrodinger’s Ghost is wonderful, the Doctor might be a spirit wafting through the catacombs but until his body is found he might have either suffered Sabaoth disembodiment or death. That’s some smart writing. There are distant galaxies – far out in space and time. Whole sectors of space that are dark. No suns, no life, no energy. Drained. Like they were born and died unimaginable aeons ago. Only there hasn't been enough time for that to happen... Imagine a creature that turns a whole cosmos dark, and then leaps on to the next. It’ll arrive exhausted. It’ll take time to regrow. But it will. That’s Shabaoth. In an unexpected moment, Sabaoth offers the Doctor access to the TARDIS to let him leave rather than face the destruction of the Earth. It really helps to make him less of a one dimensional nasty. The Doctor isn’t dead: back in the 17th Century he bricked himself up and went into a healing coma. He interfaced with the ship’s telepathic circuits to projected his consciousness into the future.

Audio Landscape: Saboath’s materialisation is very dramatically realised, it’s a memorable culmination of his machinations.

Isn’t it Odd: This time I’m here to contradict my own criticisms of the past, so the only thing that is ‘odd’ is me. I’ve often jeered at and derided cliff-hangers where regular characters are placed in positions of danger, supposedly fatal ones, when we know exactly how they are written out of the series on television. It seems an entirely fruitless affair, there to serve a purpose of providing a cliff-hanging moment rather than to genuinely convince us that they are about to meet their maker. The fact the cliff-hangers are something of an outdated mode of breaking up a story into acts is another matter entirely and I often question whether they are necessary to a story aside from aping the classic series format (and given plenty of them are unconvincing in this manner). However, I tip my hat to the end of episode, which proves that if you are going to do this sort of thing, do it with the sort of momentum of an entire episodes build up and with the kind of conviction that it plays out with in Ghost Walk. Nyssa is last seen gasping for air as she is drowned as a witch and Adric gets up close and personal with a noose. What makes this work so well is that the episode begins with these set pieces in place and the remaining 25 minutes is a suspenseful journey to show how they got there. I know Adric well die at the hands of the Cybermen and that Nyssa will leave the Doctor on Terminus, but for a moment their safety was a real matter of concern as they face the reaper in extremely vivid situations. And the fact that we don’t return to their stories for an episode and a half rather does add weight to the reality of their demises.

Standout Scene: ‘You’re rather fun to have around’ says the Doctor to Tegan as he thinks she’s going to die. It’s the sort of line that would have worked wonders on television and made sense of the Doctor keeping around this angst-ridden harridan that is always complaining about their adventures. Of course this line goes even further on audio, because Tegan is genuinely fun to have around these days. Leanne is on the periphery of the story for much its length, only for the audience to discover she is the most important person in the entire play. She’s the vessel and it’s a terrifyingly real moment when she realises that her part in Saboath’s plan.

Result: A complex, eerie adventure with plenty for each of the regulars to do, Ghost Walk is the sixth high scoring main range effort on the trot. To my mind, James Goss has always been one of Big Finish’s best writers and he’s crafted a more substantial than usual plot, taking in lots of different time periods, a whole reef of guest characters and fascinating central premise in the Lovecraftian creature that is manipulating everything. Despite this, he never loses track of the story he is telling or the impact it has on the central characters. I really like how the Doctor tries to piece together the nature of the creature in the first two episodes, using his unique viewpoint to give at an academic rather than catastrophic perspective on its behaviour. To Tegan it’s a monster that has consumed people and TARDISes, to the Doctor it is a helpless creature following its biological imperatives. That’s a creative new take the idea of an energy sapping creature. Sabaoth turns out to be one of the more insidious nasties that the Doctor has encountered, but not entirely unsympathetic. Nyssa turns the head of the clergy and is drowned as a witch, Adric gets to play with his fists and go down for thievery and the Doctor and Tegan share some enchanting scenes that are enhanced by the formidable relationship between Peter Davison and Janet Fielding that spills into the story. Goss’ dialogue is truly excellent; intelligent, probing and best of all always revealing new shades of character. Dialogue is one of the best weapons of the audio writer and at times Big Finish productions treat it as merely descriptions of action rather than a tool to tackle ideas and to colour in characters and situations. Goss has a brilliant grasp on his plot and characters and so the rest is down to the actors, who fly with a script as good as this. All of the cliff-hangers are clearly handled too, which I address above and left me hungry for the next episode. It's not an original threat to the Earth, but the presentation of the story is very much so and I found Ghost Walk to be an extremely valuable effort in a range that is once again proving that it can spearhead the Doctor Who releases: 9/10

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Kingdom of Lies written by Robert Khan & Tom Salinsky and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: On the planet Cicero Prime, the kingdom of Cardenas is divided, with the whole population forced to swear allegiance to either the effete Duke or the fiery, hard-edged Duchess. This is a situation both parties have grown tired of. What use is half a kingdom when, thanks to a carefully engineered murder, you could have it all? Surely, neither of them would be rash enough to summon the deadly off-world assassin The Scorpion to help with their problem? And surely, this terrifying figure wouldn’t arrive wearing a long cream coat and striped trousers…?

An English Gentleman: In a mistaken identity plot of almost Shakespearean design, the Doctor is erroneously taken for the legendary assassin the Scorpion and has to play along as though he is there by murderous design. That this should happen to the most ingratiating of Doctors is really funny. It’s a pleasing turnabout from the Doctor’s situation in The Romans, where he was mistaken for a hired assassin but wasn’t aware of it until it was far too late. There’s also a pleasing element of The Myth Makers, which sees the Doctor and his companions working for opposing sides of a conflict, in effect working against one another. They do say the old stories are the best. He’s described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing because he really doesn’t give off the air of an assassin. Fast forward to Resurrection of the Daleks and he truly lives up to that description. He’s described as being the man who would do anything to prevent himself from taking a life. When it comes to it when the Doctor has to play his part as a pacifist, he’s very convincing, but he’s more than happy to pull the trigger when he has a fiendish plan up his sleeve. I love how he plays into his character in order to fool the Scorpion that he wouldn’t take her life.

Maths Nerd: Adric, always quick to learn who is in charge and to take their side (often if that means appearing to oppose the Doctor), slimily realises he is in the stronghold of the Duchess and swears allegiance. He’s a slippery one. A willing martyr indeed, or at least a role he plays very well. He thinks getting arrested is an extremely annoying habit of the Doctor’s.

Alien Orphan: ‘He kills for money – I murder because I like it!’ Make way for Nyssa the Destroyer, famed apprentice of the Scorpion. To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement. Her grandiose turn as this malignant novitiate gives Sarah Sutton the chance to get her tongue around some delightfully improvisonal (for Nyssa) and hyperbolic dialogue. When being handed a rifle and told to shoot Adric, I’m not sure how Nyssa managed to resist.

Mouth on Legs: ‘The loud, annoying one…’ Tegan considers the TARDIS a clapped-out piece of junk that the Doctor has no idea how to operate. The problem is…she’s not entirely wrong. If there’s one thing she’s learnt about flying this bucket of bolts (you only did it once, madam, let’s not exaggerate) its that a swift punch usually kicks the navigation system in gear and where it needs to be. She does like to compare the TARDIS with a 747, an entirely fruitless affair given their relative sophistication. Only Tegan would be gobby to a defensive drone and suffer a couple of bolts flung her way for her trouble. When somebody finally has the guts to ask if she enjoys travelling with the Doctor she initially responds no, then yes, then that it does have its compensations. I wish somebody had asked that on screen. She’s very quick to point out that she and Adric don’t travel the universe ‘like that’, dismissing any idea of hanky panky between them. The very idea. Tegan is the least served regular overall and that is a shame because she’s by far the most likeable and funny these days, as exemplified when she grabs a piece of masonry and clouts the toughest assassin in the galaxy with it. I love her reckless abandon and tough commentary, the two things I hated about her on the telly. Now they are directed through humour, which serves the character so much better than angst.

Standout Performance: Unbelievable that Big Finish should secure the services of Patsy Kensit and only make use of her for one episode. Is this going to be a recurring character? In an impressive guest cast she is the most prominent ‘name’, even if her character ultimately doesn’t inspire much confidence as the assassin that everybody has been expecting. She wasn’t exactly the most threatening of characters, even if she does live up to exactly the kind Liza Goddardish style assassin of the kind I would expect in the early eighties. All massive hair, overdone make up and over stressed threats.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve left a trail of stinking corpses behind me!’ would be an appalling line if it was coming out of anyone’s mouth other than Nyssa, wherein it becomes hilarious. This is the sort of line that Matthew J Elliot would include in his scripts in deadly earnest.
‘We persuaded the Duchess that we were assassins and that we would assassinate her assassins before those assassins struck!’

Great Ideas: I liked the very quick character shorthand deployed that reveals that the marriage that divided the kingdom of Cardenas is loveless through both participants arguing that they are the focus of the crowd’s cheer. It’s the ultimate expression of a marriage that has failed, a painted line that bisects the kingdom in two and which side you support determines which side of the line you inhabit. The Duke and Duchess name their horses after each other, The Cunning Little Vixen and Dead Man Walking, suggesting just how much love is lost between this pair.

Musical Cues: Andy Hardwick scores The Kingdom of Lies and it is a perfectly good score, if you play the music suite track in isolation you can hear this is the work of a fine musician. However, Hardwick has been scoring Doctor Who audios since the days of Zagreus and I have lost track of how many stories have been heightened by his musical stirrings. My problem is that the music isn’t really that different from what he was delivering in Zagreus, epic sweeps and subtle emotion underscoring. I can kind of predict what he is going to do with the score and that means it lacks a freshness. Unlike a composer like Jamie Robertson, Hardwick’s music just isn’t chameleonic depending on the material.

Isn’t it Odd:
‘You’re listening to a Big Finish adventure…’ says Nick Briggs in that ominous tone of his at the beginning of the story before the first scene fades in…was there any doubt that we were that made such an innovation necessary after 234 main range releases? The resolution to the first (pretty decent) cliff-hanger is so blasé that you have to wonder why the Doctor reacted so dramatically to the situation in the first place.

Standout Scene: In a wonderful moment of dramatic understatement, the Doctor attempts to prevent a war by suggesting the royal couple try counselling. Davison’s delivery of his ‘third person in this marriage’ speech is so arch it’s the funniest he has been, well, since Time in Office. The fifth Doctor really is getting the most charming material of late. ‘Oh, I give up!’ The Ainleyish anagram is fiendishly good, a twist that I never saw coming a mile off.

Result: A delightful set up involving the Doctor and Nyssa opposing Adric and Tegan in a conflict to assassinate their captors spouse, The Kingdom of Lies emerges as an amusing and winning tale of (unrequited) love and (domestic) war. Adric, Tegan and Nyssa are turning out to be a fantastic combination on audio, really raising the entertainment levels of the stories that they feature in. They are forced into roles they are unaccustomed to and the plot keeps on pivoting on their improvised attempts to keep up appearances. Khan and Salinsky’s script is extremely theatrical and the performances of the guest cast react to that with Jonathan Firth and Charlotte Lucas in particular delivering heightened, but diverting, turns as the Duke and Duchess. You might notice a few less than subtle nods to Charles and Di along the way, but then Doctor Who has never been shy of the odd political dig in it’s long history and it adds a subtle extra layer to the story that is playing out. It’s an entire kingdom that is boiled down to a few characters and so the scale of the adventure is quite modest and I didn’t get a true sense of important details that might have made this planet one of the memorable ones that the Doctor has visited. But when you have characters behaving in such a calculating and deliciously fraudulent manner what matters minutia? How does the Doctor give the illusion of assassinating his employers rival without actually getting blood on his hands? Will the Order of Alzarius come up trumps with a stratagem to wipe out the devilish Duke? Sarah Sutton gets the opportunity to do something very different as Nyssa adopts a ruthless guise, still offering up surprises after featuring in a prolific number of stories. Had something else been dropped from the schedule then this would have been the Christmas adventure (instead of the most bone chilling release in years featuring a companion death) and given its frantic pace, witty dialogue and whimsical tone it might well have suited that spot. If the story drops the ball a little in the last episode with the appearance of a much vaunted but disappointing assassin, the tying up of the plot elements is satisfactory, with an unexpected twist a sly dig at 80s Doctor Who. After a string of disappointing seventh Doctor releases and three dark themed sixth Doctor stories, it’s down to the fifth Doctor to pick up the mantle of most entertaining stories again in the wake of Time in Office. The Kingdom of Lies won’t win any prizes for novelty, but it’s exceptionally well made (Edwards directs brilliantly, as ever) and acted and it could just put a smile on your face. Given plenty of Doctor Who stories have the reverse effect, surely that is something to cherish: 8/10

Friday, 9 February 2018

Shadow Planet written by AK Benedict and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Troubled? Anxious? Tormented by self-doubt? Come to Unity, the psychic planet! From our therapy centre beside Unity’s idyllic shores, the Unity Corporation can help you overcome all your problems. How? By using a patented combination of technology and Jungian psychology, we can bring you face to face with your shadow self. The hidden you. The dark you. The you that no-one knows… Rest assured: the process is perfectly safe. Nothing can possibly go wrong. And that’s guaranteed!

The Real McCoy: Maybe what he might find if he undergoes the process will be scared of him. That might seem a pretentious line coming from the mouth of any other Doctor. You can do a lot with a safety pin, an umbrella and an optimistic outlook. of course the Doctor had a lot of this worked out before he had even arrived, Unity had been on his list of things to tidy up for some time.

Oh Wicked: There’s a very one-note approach to how Sophie Aldred is playing Ace these days, like she is perpetually the teenager of season 25; angst ridden, petulant, super cute and violent. It’s a particularly odd slant given this is set during the Hex period, where the character was seen to grow up considerably. Listen to her in the first scene, over stressing every line of dialogue, making every little thing in to a drama. The Silurian Candidate featured an interview with Aldred where she confessed she didn’t have a clue where in Ace’s timeline that the story is set and I think it is the job of the director (it was Ken Bentley in both) to point that out to her so she can adjust her performance fittingly. Can you believe that Ace of all people is this keen to take on her shadow self? I know she’s reckless but of all the Doctor’s companions (aside from maybe Leela and Tegan) she is the one who would probably have to face something quite ugly and revealing. This is the kind of psychological exercise that the Doctor is always putting her through and she often had an extreme emotional reaction to. I think she would try and avoid any further introspection. When Ace’s alter ego is revealed, I just don’t feel Aldred has the acting chops to pull off this kind of this kind of character workout. It’s not risky enough to be disturbing or silly enough to be amusing, it’s just Aldred putting on a flat voice.

Sexy Scouse: Trying not to sound like a broken record, the inclusion of Hex in this release is very similar to the fifth Doctor story featuring a solo Nyssa, it takes a character that became a little tired on audio in days gone by (especially that nonsense with ‘Hector’) and feels invigorates them because of the distance of their previous audio. I was never bored of Philip Olivier’s performance, which was always smashing but it became clear, post-Death in the Family, that there was really a narrative reason for him to be present after that point. And he was never going to get a better leaving story. Shadow Planet features the Scouse stud before all the dramatic revelations about his mother turned him against the Doctor, young, fresh to TARDIS travelling and enjoying his adventures. It reminds me of the return to the early Charley Pollard in The Light at the End, a chance to remember them as enthusiastic companions of the Doctor. He wont ever be able to look at his shadow again in the same way, in fear that it is up to no good.

Standout Performance: I’ve long been a huge fan of Belinda Lang of 2.4 Children fame. I know she has had an extensive career in theatre and tying her to a television series is probably focussing on the wrong part of her body of work but her role as Bill Porter really made up a formative part of my childhood. I have such happy memories of watching her struggling with the absurdities of life (and there were some damn crazy stuff happening in that show) and laughing myself silly throughout my teenage years. To have her feature in a Doctor Who story is a huge plus, just for the memories she stirs up in me. Her terrific performance, this time, is just a bonus.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘See you on the other side of you!’
‘You can’t expediate the process of self-knowledge!’ ‘But you have, you Malcolm have made a fly-through for the soul!’

Great Ideas: Using a combination of technology and psychology, they have harnessed the rare potential of the psychic planet of Unity, helping people to overcome their shadow selves and be reborn. The process manifests your shadow self, not your bad side but your buried side. The idea is that you are able to meet your inner self externalised and try and overcome the anxieties that normally lay inside you. That’s a hugely powerful idea for a Doctor Who story, one that must surely dredge up feelings of unease in it’s audience because we all have anxieties buried deep that we try and push away and ignore. The thought of them being made flesh and having it out with the better half of you is quite unsettling. Your misgivings and uneasiness projected onto an android. The planet is being exhausted, it can’t replace its psychic core quickly enough to meet the demand. The Doctor knows the planet as Umbra and when the ancient Umbrians walked its land and went into the woods with their shadows. The planet is literally cracking under the pressure of the greater volume of procedures. The shadows are being held in the holding bay, melancholic prisoners. An integrated personality makes use of all aspects available. It’s precisely the moral the Doctor was mooting in The Happiness Patrol; happiness cannot exist unless it’s side by side with sadness. It’s a moral worth repeating. I like the idea of the moths being a representation of the planet, expressing itself through nature.

Standout Scene: It seems very right on for the seventh Doctor to reach out to an entire planet and try and heal it, by doing what McCoy does best…perform! Some soul searching and a little song and dance. It’s quite magical to watch this impish Doctor put on a show for a world.

Result:
‘There are times when we should be glad of our shadows…’ The Doctor should have told them about the appalling scientific experiment featuring the mind of evil! Any attempt to extract your shadow self is a dangerous and life-altering procedure that is bound to have profound psychological consequences. I do have to question why these two-part experiments seem to feature some really juicier ideas, attempts at meatier characterisation and moments of high drama when the 4DAs which feature exactly the same format seem entirely devoid of these attributes. How can you get it so right on the one hand and so wrong on the other? And whilst it is glorious to feature some main range stories that don’t outstay their welcome at just an hour long apiece, the irony is that most of the ideas in these stories would support longer adventures! Saying that, the narrative shorthand approach seems to be paying off dividends and Shadow Planet moves along briskly, with a tremendous concept at its core. It never outstays its welcome. There’s a fine guest cast in this story that makes up for the unimpressive performance of Sophie Aldred, who had the chance to shine in this adventure but instead continues to prove that perhaps audio is not her forte. If it feels that I am picking on the actress, I apologise, but this is a review website and that means highlighting what I feel to be the good and the bad in a production. I have praised her in the past (A Death in the Family and many of the Hex stories) but of late I’m getting this uncomfortable feeling of an older actress attempting to capture that teenage angst of her character in the 80s and the result is a very unpersuasive performance. And given this is the return of Hex after a few years, shouldn’t this feature him more? Can you imagine how this story would have played had the seventh Doctor had to confront his hidden self? It might have been a truly probing, disturbing tale (ala Amy’s Choice) but instead we are privy to the shadow Ace and Hex who aren’t significantly different to their usual selves (perhaps a little more despondent and uncaring but that’s about it). The story takes a very Doctor Who like approach (and you can’t exactly blame it for that) of Time Lord versus planet and whilst that’s very engagingly done, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is one time we should have ditched the science fiction and dived head first into the world of psychology. I’ve been a lot harder on this story in this summary than reflects my true feelings, which were positive and any Doctor Who that attempts to grapple with a big concept like this deserves a lot of praise. I liked this, but I wish that I loved it: 7/10

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Alien Heart written by Stephen Cole and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa stumble across a trail of ten destroyed worlds, all of them obliterated by means of some utterly monstrous but utterly unknown device. The planet Traxana would seem to be next in line to suffer the same fate. But when the TARDIS lands on an outpost on Traxana’s moon, Nyssa is carried away by a tide of giant green arachnoids, leaving the Doctor behind… And the coming menace is closer than he thinks.

An English Gentleman:
Peter Davison plays the Doctor as such a thoughtful fellow that it might quite the impact when he loses his rag and dishes out some moral retribution. The quote below is delivered passionately and I really sat up to pay attention.

Alien Orphan: I can recall criticising the constant barrage of Doctor and Nyssa stories around the time of the Masquerade trilogy, wondering what on Earth there was still to say about the pairing after such a wealth of adventures. Especially when the stories that gave them their juiciest material (for me that was Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty and Circular Time) seemed to be a long way away. Now Nyssa has appeared in a prolific number of multi-companion stories too, whether that’s with Adric and Tegan, just Tegan or Tegan and Turlough. It seems whenever there is a fifth Doctor adventure, Sarah Sutton is invited to the party. And why not? She’s a very reliable performer and does tend to bring the best out in the fifth Doctor. And it’s certainly been long enough since her last solo trilogy for this tale to feel novel for her inclusion. Big Finish have mined Nyssa in a number of extraordinary ways, far more than I think her creator would have envisioned when she was created and she has been afforded more dramatic and revealing material than Eric Saward ever encouraged. Is she anybody’s favourite companion? Not many, I’m sure. But I have a warm place in my heart for Nyssa, ridiculous amounts of technobabble (of which she suffers terribly in this story) and all.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This outpost marks the end point of a trail of obliterated worlds. Untold numbers of living creatures gone! Unique and intricate histories and eco systems undone! Freedoms fought for, loves, hates, sacrifices wiped from the fabric of the universe by some monstrous, degenerate weapon!’
‘Daleks kill with surgical precision…why would you leave a thirty-year trail of anomalous vandalism behind you?’

Great Ideas: The TARDIS proves allergic to spatial temporal anomalies and tries to avoid it but is drawn into the heart of the trans-dimensional shockwaves regardless. If they materialise in a zone of unstable matter then the TARDIS will be destroyed. Sometimes I forget that Doctor Who is supposed to be science-fiction (I know, absurd, right?) because it airs on the side of science fantasy and character drama with science fantasy trappings. It’s only when I am bamboozled with this much technobabble in quick succession (delivered with skill by the most technical Doctor/companion team imaginable) that I remember how far we have come from this sort of dry science. Space dust is all that remains of ten worlds, including Varga (Mission to the Unknown, appropriate for a Dalek story). Cole played out this scenario previously in The Apocalypse Element, except the threat was universe wide in that and the devastation threatened to be absolute. It’s still a remarkable image though, the mystery of the destruction of almost a dozen worlds. The trail of anomalous particles leads to a forward base on a planets moon to aid tactical military operations. Human beings testing terrible weapons to further expand their empire. All very Death Star. A tidal wave of green arachnoids that can carry you off in their wake…Alien Heart isn’t afraid to throw a lot of vivid ideas at you in the first five minutes. IAs somebody who often complains about overdone continuity I rather enjoyed the fact that they are mining from Lucanol, the element the Sandminer was hungrily eating up the ground for in The Robots of Death. Seven nests of cell spiders underground, each nesting hundreds of the creatures. The cell spiders were spawned from Dalek DNA. The Daleks are creating weapons to bring down the Movellans once and for all. The spiders will be used to freeze time around Traxana, thousand mile an hour winds will force their way down into the bedrock, all life blown away. The Daleks plan to infest key strategic worlds throughout the galaxy; Earth and Gallifrey included.

Isn't it Odd: When you have the use of the Daleks, it seems a little coy to wait until the story is nearly over to announce them. And when they’re on the cover of the release, it’s hard to maintain the surprise of their involvement. Especially when you introduce a heartbeat sound effect. Phoebe is such a relentless thug(ess) that I couldn’t really take her seriously. She treats Nyssa akin to how Missy treated Clara in the opening episodes of series nine, but in that case we understood the character of Missy. Phoebe just seems to be a big bully because the story needs some kind of villain(ess).

Result: Stephen Cole, now there is a name I haven’t heard in a while. In his time, he was the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat of Doctor Who, controlling it’s output during those bold, innovative days of the wilderness years. He wrote a handful of averagely received (but I thought were solid and occasionally impressive) novels and contributed a number of okayish audios in the early days of the Big Finish trilogies. It’s a name I have come to associate with competence, and I don’t mean that in an ugly way. Alien Heart sports a number of strong dramatic ideas (destroyed worlds, a super weapon), an interesting period of time (the Earth Empire pushing out in to space) and for a while looked set to have the same kind of hard bitten tone as Cole’s superb PDA, Ten Little Aliens. But this is a story that fails to get into orbit thanks to an overreliance on technobabble (which, if you enjoy it, knock yourself out), a predictable splitting up of the Doctor and Nyssa to open out the story and a lack of characters to care about to make this story leave some kind of impression. If you’re a big fan of running up and down corridors and characters attempting to make scientific waffle sound dramatic then this could be right up your street. You have to admire Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton greatly for attempting to give this material some welly, but they are fighting a losing battle. In the first handful of scenes my interest was piqued considerably but somewhere in the middle of the second episode I was waiting for the story to end. Not even the inclusion of the Daleks could lift a story that tucks the story into the fold of continuity that was dealt with in Destiny of the Daleks. I feel that everything we needed to learn about the Dalek/Movellan war was contained to the season 17 adventure. Even the Doctor states that the war is long over. So, when the big twist that the Daleks are destroying entire worlds is revealed in the opening scenes, the only surprise can be why they are doing so, which seems to be just because that’s what they do. Try hard as I might not, I expect a little more from a story than that. But who knows? Maybe Dalek Soul (released with this story) is linked to Alien Heart in a way that sheds new light on the story: 4/10

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Subterranea written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The TARDIS is going underground. When the Doctor and Romana find themselves buried beneath the surface of an alien world, they're soon swallowed up by a giant burrowing machine. This is where the inhabitants of this planet live - in huge, constantly moving, Drill-towns, chewing up the fuel and resources of the planet in order to survive. But something else lurks in the earth. Something that feeds on the Drill-towns. Something that is relentless and will not stop. The Silex are hunting.

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor is described as ‘pink face’ by one of the mole-like miners. It’s kinda cute. Out of the two of them, Romana is the least conspicuous. I’m not suggesting that every Doctor Who story should shed revealing new light on his character or probe deeply into his thought processes, but I do think that each adventure should at least offer more of a take on the character than a handful of witty lines and a few intelligent observations. It’s called Doctor Who, he should dominate proceedings and contribute a huge amount of personality. These 4DAs seem to reduce the character to a handful of quirks and let Tom Baker do the rest. When he’s given a big role in proceedings he usually makes the material very palatable but in the case of a story like Subterrenea, that is trying to tell quite a large-scale story in a short space of time, his input gets swallowed up just like the TARDIS at the beginning of this story. As a result the story feels as though the Doctor is a guest in his own series, which is strange given that Tom Baker can be such a dominating presence.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Is Lalla Ward mis-remembering Romana as some kind of outer space inner time bully who sulks her way around the universe giving people hell for no reason? Somebody have a word with her, would you? She’s not quite as grumpy in this piece as she has been but Ward does still have a tendency to stress her dialogue in a negative fashion like she has gotten out of the wrong side of bed. It’s a bizarre phenomenon because Ward has been playing the part prolifically for many, many years now and aside from this season, she’s been playing it accurately and authentically. Even in her first season with Tom Baker (and the novel adaptations) she was light of mood and great fun to be around. I feel as though it needs to be addressed now, with perhaps some motive for Ward’s caustic portrayal.

Great Ideas: K.9 is busy reading human philosophy, probably not very smart for the Doctor to allow him to do that because he will be more prissy than usual! I really like the idea of the TARDIS being swallowed whole by a great underground excavating machine, it’s the sort of arresting opening that these 4DAs could do with more of. Steam engines that gather their fuel by digging through mineral deposits, with the owe being extracted. There used to be hundreds of drill towns ploughing the strata. The Silex take down whole ships, dismantle them, take what they need, and turn them into more like themselves. Have we reached a point now where Doctor Who is in such short supply of new monsters that we have to start inventing ones that are similar to ones from the past? What’s next? The Doctor and Romana visit a planet caught in a deadly warfare where the mutated remains of the species is placed inside robotic shells and those super beings are elected as the rulers of that world? The Silex were created in the last war to turn feeble men into machines who could fight. But they were betrayed by their creators who attempted to deactivate them and so the destroyed them and poisoned the surface of the planet.

Audio Landscape: I fail to see the logic in introducing a great stompy, heavily modulated villain in an audio story. This is the sort of monster that would make an impact rendered in CGI on television (think of the Pyrovilles) but just becomes a cacophony of horrible noise on audio. It’s hard to make out the dialogue and it’s quite unpleasant on the ear. Sometimes on audio less is more and these Cybermen wanabees are terrifically lacking in menace.

Isn’t It Odd: When asked why they moved underground the answer given is that there was a war ‘or something’ and the surface was poisoned. Even the character saying the words acts as though she can hardly believe it and I was just waiting for the moment in the climax where the populace is taken up to the surface to discover that it is perfectly habitable. I’ve seen this tick played too many times in science fiction. I’d like to say that Miss Wagstaff’s defection to the Silex and betrayal of everybody was a shocking revelation but in a story where she has pretty much just been introduced it is hard to have a reaction to such a speedy twist about her character. And given we haven’t explored the horror of the Silex yet, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about the cliff-hanger where they are (apparently) all about to swallowed into certain death. Had this been a four-part story we could have spent more time getting to know Miss Wagstaff and give her treachery more weight and spent a little time behind enemy lines too so we could witness just how nasty the Silex are and what awaits our heroes as they are dragged to their doom. These condensed stories really are their own worst enemy sometimes.

Result: There’s definitely some merit in trying to capture the spirit of Dickens in a space opera set underground on an alien planet and if I were to point at a writer to tackle that brief Jonathan Morris would be my first port of call. He employs a lightness of touch, is capable of turning his hand to both fruity dialogue and social commentary and is adept at creating a vivid population of characters. Add in some retro technology, ridiculous names and a sense of the underdog pushing against their oppressors and you have Subterranea, a story with more than a touch of Dickens about it. However, something is sorely lacking from this story that means the Dickens allusion can only go so far, and that is a dense, protracted plot. This is a Fourth Doctor Adventure, which means it’s only two episodes long and has to skip along, setting up the world, the plot and the characters in a few scenes and resolve everything in an hour. Dickens would have barely gotten past describing the first scene in that time. It’s an intriguing setting, and well realised for the most part and the opening few scenes suggest something that is going to be quite heavy on ideas and truly in the spirit of season 18 but the whole piece is reduced to the stock Doctor Who scenario of a slave species bringing down their oppressors, and is fraught with the humour that this period of the show lacked. The second episode tosses out any literary pretentions and devolves into your bog-standard Doctor Who versus the Cybermen adventure (without the Cybermen). I’m at a loss at how throwaway so many of these 4DAs are, very rarely aspiring to be more than a decent listen rather than something enduring. It’s not even as though Morris isn’t trying here, he’s put a lot of work in getting the details right (the setting, the characters) but the story is so run-of-the-mill that it leaves a frustrating taste in the mouth anyway. You could stick this on and convince yourself that you have listened to a perfectly reasonable Doctor Who story, as on a scene-by-scene basis it is amusing and exciting, thanks to the actors and the director. But in narrative terms it is cruising from a to b to c without any stimulating diversions along the way. Subterranea plays out like so many of this range, formulaically and this season has been particularly guilty of that. The sausage machine of undemanding, nostalgia fests continues to churn. A major rethink is needed, and with the box sets coming let’s hope there will be something a little more substantial in the offing: 5/10

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Silurian Candidate written by Matthew J Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The year is 2085, and planet Earth remains on the edge of a nuclear precipice. At any moment, either of two vast rival power blocs, to the West and the East, might unleash a torrent of missiles, bringing about the terrible certainty of Mutual Assured Destruction. But there is another way - or so Professor Ruth Drexler believes. Hence her secret mission deep in Eastern bloc territory, to uncover a hidden city, never before glimpsed by human eyes: the Parliament of the Silurians, the lizard people who ruled the Earth before humankind. There, she’ll encounter a time-travelling Doctor, who knows the Silurians well. A Doctor on a secret mission of his own.

The Real McCoy: Mel sticks up for the Doctor, pointing out to Ace that if you had lived for 900 years that you would probably have a few loose ends dangling that needed tying up. Perhaps he should be commended for being the first Doctor to bother actually attempting to tidy them up? The Doctor’s loose ends mostly seem to be old battles unfought. He’s a lot more secretive these days, says Ace, which highlights that this is a long time after Mel left him the first time around. So why oh why haven’t these stories capitalised on that fact before? I do appreciate the writer seemingly attempting to do something with the idea that time has passed and the Doctor isn’t the same man that Mel recognises from before, but this manifests itself in a very bizarre scene in the console room where she is insidiously attempting to extract their destination out of him in an insidious way and he remains frustratingly and pointlessly vague. It’s very awkwardly handled because both of them feel out of character. The Doctor was all about brooking peace between the Silurians and the humans. Why now is he so invested in handing over the planet to the reptiles out of some moral duty because they never officially surrendered it when they went in to hibernation? And when the Silurians have shown little but contempt for humanity in the past, why would he fall on their side so completely? Is it just because this the seventh Doctor and he’s supposed to behave controversially? He’s his usual amiable self until the story calls for him to behave outrageously, claiming the Earth as his own and

Oh Wicked: Remember Ace, when attempting to manufacture a moment of danger at the cliff-hanger, you’re not supposed to punch the air with delight and project positive exclamations. Her reaction to being menaced by a T-Rex? To dance with delight! Mel ponders what this unfeeling Doctor has done Ace. Made her a bit stupid by the looks of it. Bizarrely she does it at the first and second cliff-hanger (‘Cavemen! Brilliant!’). After all this time, she still doesn’t trust the Doctor.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel wonders if all she is to the Doctor is a big heart, a way for him to experience his adventures emotionally. When did he stop being able to do that himself? This is an interesting idea, and again it is nice that Elliot remembers to ditch the faux season 25-ness of these stories and try and engage with the regulars in a dynamic way and AGAIN it is fudged by bringing up the idea and failing to apply it to the story in any meaningful way. How does Mel have the right to be so angry with the Doctor for somebody being shot at the climax when it is precisely what she did previously in the story?

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Better safe than mown down by a firing squad.’
‘You’re not going to tell me that resistance is futile, are you?’ ‘No…but it is.’
‘I was hoping the Silurians would have some wifi based equivalent…’
‘Willy Wonka! Finally, I’ve realised who you remind me of, Doctor!’ is a very odd line in the middle of an exposition scene.
‘The Doctor says I’m as honest as the day is long, and we’ve been to some planets with some really long days!’
‘Spunky! I love it!’

Great Ideas: I remember seeing the beautiful cover for The Silurian Candidate and thinking that this was going to be the renaissance seventh Doctor story to drag this run out of the mire. Big Finish covers have become much more artistic and striking in the past couple of years and this is one of the best. Reading the blurb, my expectations only grew. I think stirring memories of the seventh Doctor Silurian comic strip from the Doctor Who magazine were mixed in somewhere too. There’s rather a lovely moment where we appear to have come in at the end of one of the Doctor’s tales of the past and have missed the bulk of the story when it fact he has only been thinking to himself and muttered the climax to his story to Ace and mentions it is a shame that she wasn’t telepathic because she could have heard the rest (and given that story is The Key to Time it would have been a damn sight more riveting than this). It’s that kind of smartness that this story needed a lot more of if it was going to tackle the sort of weighty themes that it does. Unfortunately, the next scene plays the same trick and attempts to make us laugh at it, thus gutting the original elegance of the idea. Ruth is heading down into the hibernation chamber to obtain the technology to send the human race up in to deep space – that’s a tricky proposition because it suggests fucking up the planet and then abandoning it for pastures new. Which makes Ruth seem a little selfish and defeatist. At least she is looking to hand the data over to both sides of the conflict, rather than ensure survival for just her people. But surely in a war to be handed a loaded gun like the hibernation technology, it would just escalate the conflict? The first side to launch, the first side to conquer the stars, the first side to abandon the planet and send down a devastating series of missiles to wipe the other side out?

Audio Landscape: I’m trying to accentuate the positives in a generally abysmal tale but even the soundscape fails to ignite in The Silurian Candidate, at that is usually something you can rely on with Big Finish. It’s surprising how effective action sequences can be on audio when they are well paced, well described and authentic sound effects are utilised. The action in this tale struggles a lot, inoffensive sounding dinosaurs and limp guns providing little tension that is made up with the actors barking hysterically to stress the peril they are in. They sound like actors in a studio trying to convince you really hard that they are in desperate circumstances, a sure sign that the writing and direction isn’t up to scratch.

Isn’t it Odd: The Matthew J Elliot continuity machine is back in session: Daleks, Cybermen, Fenric, The Fires of Vulcan, Gallifrey, the Hand of Omega, the Key to Time (specifically the climax and The Androids of Tara), Bloodtide (but given this is a Silurian story, it’s predecessor on audio should be mentioned), two hearts, the plots of Dr Who & the Silurians and Warriors are regurgitated and plot points from The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment set up. Let’s optimistically suggest that Elliot is attempting to provoke potential new converts to Doctor Who that have stumbled across Doctor Who thanks to The Silurian Candidate to explore the rich annals of its history. Or pessimistically suggest that he’s an over-enthusiastic fan that cannot resist having his characters spew up continuity references as though they are a gaggle of Doctor Who fans waiting in line at a convention signing. Elliot truly struggles to write realistic dialogue between people without laying on too much exposition, over stressed politics (be it gender or social based) and awkward jokes that fail to hit their target. Dramatically, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the first episode, which fails as a scene setter because there is no substantial information given about the setting or the characters. It winds up being a lot of wandering about searching for some kind of plot that has failed to show up yet. It’s where a classic Doctor Who story would normally be in part three of six, padding rather than development. And there’s something very strange about experiencing the city of the Silurians with the Doctor casually explaining everything rather than the companions experiencing it (and the wonder that comes with that). It turns this into an intellectual exercise (without much intellect) rather than an emotional one, which is distancing. In fact both the Doctor and Ruth chat away about their intentions so nonchalantly, it is as though Elliot has no clue how to dramatise a story. Ruth talks about the Earth being a lost cause before we witness it. The Doctor talks about handing over the planet to the Silurians without any context that would make this revelation…well a revelation! Show, don’t tell is the key to good drama but The Silurian Candidate never stops yammering on about it’s intents. What about a little atmosphere in the Silurian Parliament? The characters walk about as if they are taking a stroll around the supermarket. Remember Bloodtide and how it so expertly built up suspense around the horror of the Silurians reveal? When did the main range become this neutered of tension? Bloody hell, by the end of episode two there have been two separate, long winded explanations about who the Silurians are for the benefit of both Ace and Mel. Get on with telling the bloody story, Elliot! You shouldn’t be vomiting up explanations before the story has even engaged in first gear! You have to question a script that drops a revelation about the Doctor wanting to hand the Earth to the Silurians and then fails to mention it again for half an hour. When Ace brings it up, the idea has been drained of any dramatic worth. It’s more like ‘oh yeah…that.’ It’s seriously damaging that no serious emotional connection is made to the setting, the scenario or the characters. The revelation that he is the Silurian candidate fails to inject life in to the story because, even at the climax to episode three, the implication of this is incomprehensible. ‘When I go up…everyone goes up!’ The story essentially boils down to a Donald Trump wannabe being so full of hot air that he takes out the heads of both sides in the conflict. How very subtle. The Doctor’s solution is to put both the Silurians and the humans to sleep with an alarm clock that will wake them up at the same time, essentially pausing the story and allowing somebody else to deal with the hard choices. What an odd thing for him to do, exempting himself of responsibility and letting the tension play out at a later date.

Result: The Silurian Candidate has already earned itself something of a reputation…so my primary thought when sticking it on was ‘can it possibly be as bad as people say?’ Technically the first two episodes are the better half of the story because they innocuously feature the Doctor explaining gallop loads of continuity to his companions as they wander about the Silurian Parliament. The dialogue is frequently troublesome, there is no sense of pace or tension and the set pieces there are to break up the waffle fail to hit their mark…but there is nothing outright offensive (simply inept) about the first half of the story. It is the model of a story struggling to gain any kind of momentum, however. Episode two ends with the threat of nuclear war but since I haven’t spent any time exploring either side of the conflict, we should I give a damn? The Silurian Candidate flaunts themes of racism, devastating war and dangerous scientific developments but there is no attempt to engage with those ideas dramatically or thoughtfully. It’s a story that plays out with such sledgehammer incompetence that it’s quite painful to witness the potentially dramatic notions squandered so wastefully. Truthfully, the story could begin with episode three because that is precisely where the narrative starts. The story takes a huge lurch into the world above for its latter half and you might think, given the slovenly nature of the first two episodes, that this would be for the better. Enter Chairman Bart Falco, the first true allusion to Donald Trump in the world of Doctor Who. There was a throwaway line in a new series story, but that was just a sly dig. This is an out and out parody of the man; tactless, bullish, impolite, ruthless, racist and entirely one-note. I couldn’t believe in this man taking a central role in a dangerous conflict for one second…and before anyone says it no, I can’t believe Donald Trump has been handed that lofty authority either. The Trump comparisons are obvious; his blameless behaviour and how he points the finger at everybody else, his obsession with his own self-image, his ego that is so vast the only piece of literature he has deemed to read is his autobiography. And as for the accent…it brings up the question of why the director would allow such an offensively poor Australian accent to be used when the actor is British and the character would have been just as belligerent had he used his own accent. Bart Falco reduces the story to a cartoon, because he behaves in such a boorish and over the top way. Any attempt to study politics in wartime are corrupted by this most unconvincing of characters. The whole story becomes a reaction against him, rather than the scenario that is playing out. Warriors of the Deep might have had a manifest of problems, production wise, but at least it had a dramatic backbone inherent in the script. The Silurian Candidate fails to ignite as drama because it fundamentally fails to understand what drama is, instead of allowing the audience to experience he story, it instead chooses to explain everything, often before anything has even occurred. I genuinely appreciate that Big Finish are pumping some fresh blood into their output instead of the same names cropping up time and again, in terms of writing and direction. With that you also have to examine their output critically and find out whether a particular talent is worth sticking with. Maybe there is a wealth of praise for Matthew J. Elliot’s stories out there but I haven’t found it. However, I have read plenty of intelligent criticism of his output. Like Frank Cotterell-Boyce in the new series, I just don’t think this is a writer that is suited to realising Doctor Who. All the script editors over the years have stated that it is a very hard show to get right and not everybody can do it, not even highly respected writers away from the world of Doctor Who. I would suggest that Elliot is one such writer and script that is this tensionless, obvious, repetitive, exaggerated, unfocused and wasteful is all the evidence that you need. This is his third crack at the whip, and that talent should be refining, not regressing. I’m actually a little distressed to see a fourth story published in the upcoming schedules. I want to give a shout out to Bonnie Langford, who gives the best performance in this ghastly mess and is really trying to put some weight behind the appalling characterisation she is given. To her credit, at moments she almost succeeds. What’s astonishing is that there was a time when people said Doctor Who was too good for Bonnie. That’s reversed now, with scripts of the quality she has been handed of late she is far too good for Doctor Who. Please somebody recognise that you have a relatively untapped performer who is willing to go the extra mile and give her a vehicle akin to The Fires of Vulcan or The Juggernauts. My final point is what is the point of calling this story The Silurian Candidate when they barely feature? It would be more accurate to call this story Bart Falco Go Boom. Incomprehensively maladroit, I couldn’t connect with a story that held me at such an emotional distance from the main action and instead only offered me two hours of explanations: 1/10

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Blood Furnace written by Eddie Robson and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Ace and Mel to a recently reopened shipyard in Merseyside. It's 1991, the hardest of times - but now they're shipbuilding once again, thanks to the yard's new owners, the Dark Alloy Corporation. A miracle of job creation - but is it too good to be true? While the Doctor and Ace go in search of an alien assassin at loose in the yard, Stuart Dale, discoverer of the near-magical Dark Alloy material, has an extraordinary proposition to make to his old college friend, Mel. But who is the Corporation’s mysterious client? Who does she really represent? And what's the secret of the Blood Furnace? Seeking answers, the Doctor and friends are about to find themselves in very deep water…

The Real McCoy: Ace’s Uncle and a bit of a shipping enthusiast, according to Mel and the way McCoy is playing the Doctor (like a drunken old uncle who bumbles from one scenario to another) these days he might as well be! Listen to the scene at the end of episode one where the Doctor explains what has happened to Ace – McCoy literally sounds as if he has just been handed the script and has had one Scotch Whiskey too many. It’s inexcusably bad. The Doctor gets off a sly dig at the Dominators that made me chuckle, so I suppose he isn’t all bad. He’s never heard of the Orgium though and wonders if their boast to conquer half the galaxy is just hyperbole.

Oh Wicked: Ace discovers they are in Merseyside and sates categorically that nothing interesting is going to happen here. One, that’s not the way a decent companion should behave – I remember when she used to bounce out of the TARDIS looking for danger in every shadow. Has she become the latest version of Tegan? Two, this is where Hex was from. You would think that this would warrant some conversation about their former companion who, in the day, claimed to have a massive impact on their lives. The last time they were here was Afterlife, where they picked up Thomas, Hex’s alter ego. This all seems to have been flushed down the tube to create the ‘season 25’ vibe that these stories with Mel have been aiming for.

Aieeeeeeee: Finally after five stories with this team somebody has decided to shine the spotlight on Mel. You have to question the logic of bringing this team together if not to reveal new facets of their character or to highlight them against one another. Instead it seems to have been an amusing ‘what if Mel and Ace had kept travelling together?’ exercise with very little thought behind why that would be entertaining, amusing or revealing. It’s proven to be none of the above, just a little stale. Ace has regressed to being a child, the Doctor seems to have lost his chess playing skills and Mel, whilst good with a computer, is about as bland as she was during her time in the TV series. They aren’t complimenting each other and it is very frustrating because all three characters have proven to work very well on audio. So it’s nice to see a little character building take place. If it’s riveting enough it might begin to justify this wonky set up. Mel meets up with her old boyfriend from college who has done rather well for himself since they split up, creating a new steel alloy and making a ton of money. It’s a promising start that looks set to tell us a little about Mel before she met the Doctor. Trouble is, there isn’t very much chemistry between Bonnie Langford and Todd Heppenstall, they play the scenes like two people who have never met before. I realise that meeting an ex can be awkward, but there has to be some of that spark there that proves this was a couple in the first place. Stuart was offered a job in the Middle East after he graduated and Mel was happy in Pease Pottage…and long-distance relationships are awkward. When Mel decides to take Stuart’s offer of a job and stay on Earth it feels very sloppily written and played, not a patch on her original leaving scene in Dragonfire. It’s almost as if the story is willing us to believe she will be back in the TARDIS at the end of the story. It fails to be touching or revelatory, just something that happened. I realise that Mel is supposed to be a computer whizz and a bit square, but she has also always been portrayed as being highly emotional, occasionally hysterical (especially on TV). So why is her interaction with Stuart so cold and unfeeling? Why does she sound less than impressed when offered a great job? Has she had an unmade story between her TV stint and now where she met the Cybermen and had an emotional inhibitor inserted in her heart? And how about the reason why Mel chooses not to stay behind at the end? 'I'm happy doing what I do.' Wow, that's probing stuff.

Standout Performance: Julie Graham is a formidable talent and brings all the gusto and gumption that she can to the role of Carolyn. It’s not her fault that she is saddled with an unconvincing and underwritten character. Remember when she got to eat the scenery (and practically everything else) as Ruby White in The Sarah Jane Adventures? That was how to write a really tasty part for this charismatic actress.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I once met a Sontaran called Harold!’

Great Ideas: The Orgium have control over matter that no other race has ever achieved. The conquered half a galaxy. They’re an old, old civilisation, geared towards war. Yadda yadda yadda. There’s so many old, old civilisations geared towards war out there I’m surprised there are any inhabitable worlds left in the universe. Their technology isn’t anything that we would recognise as technology. Stuart and his company have been building a spaceship all this time, which is news to him. The Orgium want to conquer races that develop in ways that offend their culture – it’s an overly simplistic view of xenophobia but at least they do have a reasonable motive. With the Orgium virus, every piece of equipment with an electronic circuit could be destroyed. Imagine if the story had started with that happening and dealt with the fallout of a world without technology?

Isn’t it Odd: Nothing much else is happening in The Blood Furnace so an exploding console will have to do. It is linked to the plot, but as a secondary jeopardy that is explained much later, which means this feels like a very arbitrary moment of peril. After all we need a moment of false jeopardy, don’t we? I really love the idea of a race of beings that can manipulate space time with language, it’s an intriguing notion and one that has potential for some imaginative scripting. A shame then that Doctor Who has already explored the concept as well as it is every going to be in The Shakespeare Code with the Carrionites and that the ability manifests itself here with poor Julie Graham being forced to get her tongue around some bizarre alien language which fails to have any impact on me intellectually. The English language is a beautiful thing and this was a chance to indulge in some witty and imaginative wordplay…instead Robson opts for making the villain sound like she is making up a bizarre language. The Orgium’s attempt to conquer the Earth is over before it even began because the development of digital technology so fast that the planet will be intolerable to them within a matter of years. Hence the destruction of the worlds technology. But since we know that the digital age raced onwards because of stories set in the future (I very much doubt that The Blood Furnace will be responsible for wiping from existence every Doctor Who story set post 1990s on Earth…if it was, how embarrassing for those stories), this entire invasion tale has been a big fat waste of time. Technically the Doctor didn’t have to do anything at all.

Seriously, who is listening to these stories from the production team after they are complete? This is the second trilogy featuring this trio and a third has been commissioned already. Sometimes it is time to cut your losses and admit that something isn’t working out. I’m sure Sylv, Bonnie and Aldred all enjoy working together but that’s not really a reason enough when these plodding, characterless stories are the result. For me I’ve rated this run of stories since A Life of Crime 4, 5, 2, 5, 4…so unless The Silurian Candidate turns out to be an absolute masterpiece of epic proportions (reviews have suggested otherwise, but you never know) it will be my least enjoyed consecutive run of stories for one set of regulars since the trilogies began. I realise this is entirely subjective and that there may be a wealth of people out there loving this stuff, but the reviews from reviewers I trust (not the ones that are plastered all over the Big Finish pages, the entries chosen from sources who seem to think every release is a masterpiece) suggest I am not alone in my criticism.

Result: After a cosmic heist in space, a historical, a quirky SF sequel and an oddball drama, this was a chance for the seventh Doctor, Mel and Ace to enjoy an urban setting and a touch of realism. After the New Adventures and some of the better 7th Doctor audios (the Fearmonger, the Harvest, Damaged Goods) you would expect that he would take to a down to Earth setting like a duck to water, a chance to get personal with the guest cast and indulge in some gritty storytelling. The Blood Furnace delivers none of this, and my expectations went sadly unmet. I’m having a love/hate relationship with Ken Bentley at the moment, and it’s possibly because he is now the most prolific Big Finish director of them all (with well over 50 stories under his belt). I find his work varies depending on the quality of the script, so in the recent Doom Coalition series which he tackled he was handed a huge epic, full of incredible set pieces and really winning individual stories. He directed the life out of them, and the result was a polished, engaging, exciting must listen. In the same breath he has directed the first six 7/Mel/Ace stories and with scripts that have been a little half-hearted, the resulting direction has been too. It doesn’t seem to be a problem with Barnaby Edwards or newbies Jamie Anderson and Helen Goldwyn. They all have the ability to inject life into even the most underwhelming of scripts. The Blood Furnace feels tired from the outset, like the director knows he’s seen all this before. The setting is reasonably well developed in the script but I don’t think that was translated with any vitality in the final piece. The soundscape is adequate, but I never felt as though I could shut my eyes and whisk myself away into this story because it was struggle to visualise what was happening. I struggled with the casting of Todd Heppenstall too, playing an old flame of Mel’s but lacking any of that spark with Bonnie Langford that would have made this work (check out The Waters of Amsterdam to see how this thing can be made to sing). Ace is given a reasonable role, but she’s the only one of the regulars I could really believe in. The aliens are a cheap Carrionite rip off, with nothing to differentiate them from a handful of other Doctor Who aliens and the only truly distinguishing feature is Julie Graham, who struggles gamely with an blandly written villainous role. Worst of all is Sylvester McCoy, the most dangerous of the Big Finish Doctor’s because he can swing anywhere between purring menace and toe-curling hysterics. This is clearly a script that he hasn’t studied in any great depth and he wanders through the story sounding a little lost and a little drunk, despite the Doctor supposedly putting lots of little plans in place. He sounds at sea in his own series. It’s the ambivalence that a story like The Blood Furnace drives out of me that reminds me why I struggled to return to main range to get reviewing again. It serves no real purpose, it’s a story that is just there: 4/10