Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Skin of the Sleek written by Marc Platt and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: On the planet Funderell you can walk on the ocean. The surface holds you when you move, but if you stand still, you sink. Lights shift in the fathoms and great shapes move beneath your feet - schools of giant electric eels known as Sleeks. There is no solid land and the only locals are the Wavewalkers, hunters who live in floating villages. But recently some strangers have arrived, pursuing their own distinct agenda. When the Doctor and Romana lose the TARDIS to the deep, they need help. Which makes finding a fellow Time Lord on the planet very useful. The fact that Time Lord is Sartia, an old friend of Romana's, is even better! But this is a planet of secrets. Be careful when you explore its depths. You may just drown.

Teeth and Curls: A much more sombre turn from Tom Baker and I have to be honest he does tend to give his best performances when his Doctor is in the shit. When Romana and the Doctor are reunited in episode two you get a palpable sense of relief from both of them, which is more of a connection than I have felt from them in the rest of the stories of this season put together. With the cameras buzzing around their heads, the Doctor is suddenly aware that he cannot be as flippant as usual and curses himself after being caught on film accusing Romana of murdering a deity. As the story progresses, Tom’s performance becomes darker and more gripping. I would love to see more stories with him pitched at this level of panic and anxiety because I was very impressed at how committed to the role he seemed. I am a huge fan of the flippant fourth Doctor of the Williams era but after so many season of that level of facetiousness, it’s nice to finally get some meat.

Aristocratic Adventurer: It is mentioned that K.9 hasn’t recovered from Brighton beach yet, which seems to suggest that most of this entire season has taken place before The Leisure Hive. That would make sense of why so much of this season is season seventeen in tone but not why Lalla Ward has been in such a spectacular mood for the entirety of the year. It’s extremely refreshing then that Marc Platt remembers that she is supposed to be a character in her own right rather than a grumpy cipher that follows the Doctor around like a black cloud. Lalla Ward seems so much more relaxed in this, a tale that delivers an old school friend for Romana to interact with. Sartia calls her ‘Mana’ and has a natural chemistry with Romana, you can feel the history between them immediately. Romana mentions a ‘grade nine sociological enclave’ which places this squarely in the Christopher H Bidmead universe of science fiction. This is Romana’s Aliens of London, where she’s asked to account for leaving the Academy in such a hurry by a loved one back home. Sartia is very quick to pull out a staser which should be all you need to know about her character. She’s a rotten one. Romana would always try and think her way out of a dangerous situation, instead of murdering. Romana is furious when she discovers that the Doctor has taken her punishment instead of him, but in a way that suggests that she is genuinely concerned for him and is touched by his gesture. Apparently, Romana was the tutors favourite at Prydon, a sickening, prize winning perfect girl who had it all. To be fair that does marry up with the snooty Romana we met in The Ribos Operation. Had Mary Tamm still been alive perhaps this story would have been given to her to showcase how much the character has changed since meeting the Doctor. With Lalla Ward in the role, it makes even more of an impact. Spoilt, sophisticated and everything landing in her lap, she was quite the school swot by all accounts. Or at least from the point of view of her competitors.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You are keeping our heads above water…’

Great Ideas: It’s very novel to have a story that starts in a society so different to one that we recognise, with its own customs and unique form of dialogue, and we are forced to catch up before the Doctor and Romana arrive explain to put us in the loop (or to have this world explained to them). We are literally thrown in at the deep end. Because this is a two-part Tom Baker story we can afford to let the story breathe before the regulars arrive and it is almost a full ten minutes before they turn up, there is no great hurry to propel them into the story unlike when there is only fifty minutes to tell the entire tale. Using Eamon as a newsreader means we have an outsiders perspective that isn’t the Doctor’s to explain the nature of Funderell and there’s a seer on the planet that gives us little titbits of what is about to occur in the story. Platt is finding unusual ways to approach his story. Even the surface of the planet is different to anything we have ever experienced before – a planet where you can walk on the surface of the ocean but if you’re stationary the water will drag you underneath. There’s a terrific visual of the TARDIS being pulled down under the depth, giving added depth as the Doctor and Romana attempt to reach the safety of the ship. Funderell feels like an exotic and dangerous place to visit. All records of the planet Funderell are closed, which leaves a whacking great mystery at the heart of the planet. An apocalyptic superweapon? A missing piece to a star chart that will reveal the mysteries of the entire universe? All will be revealed, I’m sure. On the entire surface of Funderell there is only one village, which could in no way evolve on its own. It was put there as a defence by the Time Lords, with transduction barriers placed to protect them that have decayed. They have been forgotten for centuries.

Isn’t It Odd: What is the deal with giving yokels on an alien world West Country accents? It worked somewhere like Metebelies Three because the people there were supposed to be from Earth (although why they should ship the entire population of Cornwall off to another planet I have no idea). I suppose there is no reason why the people of Funderell shouldn’t have West Country accents…but it is such a tired old cliché that you would have thought the director might have avoided it. It’s another story where the cliff-hanger really has no place in the story and the monster feels thrown in to give a moment of peril for the companion to scream at and the story a chance to pause to adhere to the format. It’s the most throwaway of moments that is literally throw away second into the second episode.

Result: ‘Romana, you killed their God?’ How can you fail to enjoy a story where that line features? There’s a drive and ambition to The Skin of the Sleek that really impressed me. Marc Platt isn’t interested in telling a 90-minute nostalgia fest with dreary returning monsters for no reason other than ‘we haven’t featured them in Big Finish yet’ (seriously check out all the other finales of this range). Instead he wants to create a fascinating new environment for the Doctor and Romana to have an adventure in, a truly alien world packed with detail and danger. The structure of the story is intriguing too, allow the tale to set up a handful of characters and situation before the regulars arrive, eschewing the usual buffoonery around the Doctor and Romana joining the story and throwing them straight into hazard and giving Lalla Ward something to do other than bark at the Doctor by reuniting Romana with an old school friend who, perhaps inevitably, knows far more about what is going on here than she is letting on. Tom Baker is extremely good here, giving the sort of intense performance we rarely get in this range and I would definitely welcome more of this kind of panicked characterisation for his Doctor. When he growls, you really pay attention. The story leads to a predictable cliff-hanger but the moment is still satisfying when it comes because it reveals much about how Romana was perceived when she was at the Academy. Actual character development for the regulars! I’m not complaining! Ken Bentley’s direction is a cut above anything else he has done in ages in this range, but then he has a great location to bring alive in The Skin of the Sleek. A story of riches, pleasingly innovative for a range that uses considers that a dirty word: 8/10

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Last Chance written by Guy Adams and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: Trying to spare a few creatures from extinction, the Doctor bumps into an old acquaintance on the African plains – Lady Christina de Souza. They are about to find themselves on the endangered list…

Mockney Dude: A very pleasing take on David Tennant’s tenth Doctor and probably the best interpretation of him in the Tenth Doctor Chronicles. Put him up against a good villain and the Doctor always shines and this is a particularly loathsome one that taps into the Doctor’s most sensitive subject, being the last of his kind. Guy Adams writes him as a bubbly and fun character with a tough interior and keeps throwing witty descriptions of his lifestyle throughout the story. It’s very nice when it appears that the Doctor is calling Lady Christina his friend that it transpires that he was talking about the rhino all along. This is always going to be a love/hate sort of thing then. I’d forgotten that it was the Doctor who had said no to her, not something that usually happens when he has shared an adventure with somebody. Trust the Doctor to travel the world and collect endangered species and prevent them from going extinct. The Doctor treats safety in the same way that most people treat cannibalism, we’re aware that it exists but we have no wish to try it. In the face of difficult decisions, the Doctor always reaches for a gadget. Below his affable and cheery exterior there is a heart as solid as rock. The Doctor is used to running: some people join a gym to get this done but he just sticks his nose where its not wanted. He admits that he is dying, which sets this story during his extended regeneration in the End of Time. It’s nice that he got to sort things out with Lady Christina before he goes. I guess he really did go and visit everybody. I wonder how Amelia Ducat was doing.

Rich Bitch: Featuring the much-anticipated return of Lady Christina de Souza, this story re-introduces Michelle Ryan to the world of Doctor Who. When I say much anticipated, I mean as sought after as more episodes from the 60s and 70s going missing. I have a friend whose least favourite Russell T Davies era story is Planet of the Dead and I don’t think he is entirely alone in that assessment. I found it deeply unengaging and Ryan’s Christina de Souza was one of the reason why. Unconvincingly high-born, smug, barely breaking a sweat and lacking even basic chemistry with David Tennant, this was a character that seemed design to get on your nerves and yet she was packaged as somebody that we were supposed to admire. Even want to continue travelling with the Doctor. And whilst Big Finish are determined to cash in on the New Series in every way, shape or form, the return of Lady Christina in her own box set based on the very lukewarm reaction of the audience at large is pretty baffling. Who with half a brain cell wanted this to happen? Were people lobbying it for it? Featuring in this one-off story is fine, it’s a celebration of the entirety of the tenth Doctor’s era after all. But a whole season of adventures spearheaded by Ryan’s icy cold and calculating character? It defies belief. Give it time, we’ll be seeing the adventures of the stewardess who gets sucked out the door in Midnight before her untimely death soon. Tales of a Hard-Nosed Stewardess that Met the Doctor Once it could be called. It’s no less fanciful than what is happening with Lady Christina.

She likes stalking big prey, the wealthier the better. She’s not used to hearing the word no in her life and she wasn’t going to take it from the Doctor again. Because we have access to Lady Christina’s inner voice (thanks to some sympathetic narration) it means we get to experience her doubts about her self and the Doctor and as result she seems so much more human and so much less of a caricature. She’s somebody who has spent a lot of her life hiding her emotions. Emotions are power and she doesn’t believe in revealing sides to herself that people could later use against her. See in that simple sentence alone it gets us closer to the character and more on her side than we did in the entirety of Planet of the Dead. If there’s one thing that she learns about the TARDIS in this story it is that she loves a corridor. I really liked how she was thrown into very dangerous situations and we get to experience her fear and panic and see how she intelligently works her way out of those problems.

Standout performance: What’s interesting is that Michelle Ryan doesn’t really play the character much differently to how she did in her debut. She’s still as haughty and insulting. But it’s tempered with a lot more humility and a affable personality, which brings out a much gentler and warmer side to the character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Stupid people do like a tusk.’

Great Ideas: Imagine being as ugly as the Deagle where mirrors would rather shatter than reflect his image? His latest pastime is that he is the last of his line and he likes that because it makes him exclusive. He knows there are other species in the universe that are facing extinction and has developed an obsession with hunting done the last of each species and staring them in the eyes and sharing a duality of loneliness before blowing them away. Give the Doctor is (unofficially) the last of his species, the Deagle has an obsession with tracking him down and mounting his head on the wall of his toilet.

Standout Scene: The Deagle getting his comeuppance at the nasty end of a far more effective predator than he was really is his just desserts.

Result: The return of the infamous Lady Christina to Doctor Who! Straight off the bat this has several elements to it that Planet of the Dead lacked; a terrific villain (someone who thinks he is the alpha male of the universe), a decent use of the ‘last of the Time Lords’ idea, a worthy social commentary (although nobody would ever cover it with as much aplomb as Jac Rayner did in The Last Dodo) and some sparkling lines between the Doctor and Lady Christina. I’ve lamented her return in the review above but what Last Chance does achieve it to give the character a second crack at the whip and lo and behold when she isn’t written by Roberts & Davies she’s perfectly tolerable. I like the location hopping that takes place in this story very much, taking us to corners of the globe that Doctor Who has never touched before. I also though this story featured the strongest narration of the four, very witty and dry in places with some intelligent factual description thrown in for good measure. It’s chatty and omnipresent and gives Dudman the chance to inject some life into the narration, rather than just stating facts. One of the most annoying things about Planet of the Dead was that both the Doctor and Lady Christina were competing for ‘smug git and gittess’ of the year award, and their prickly interaction that was supposed to soften over time lacked the genuine chemistry of when this was tried previously in The Runaway Bride. Here they have a mission to complete that let’s you buy into the pairing with much more likeability, globetrotting to save species from extinction. Who couldn’t like a pair that had that on their agenda? Last Chance is very nicely written (I’m coming to find Guy Adams synonymous with a certain level of quality) and achieves something that I would have thought impossible: it gives Lady Christina a agreeable voice and whets my appetite for her upcoming box set. Given I was seen delivering the most spectacular eye roll (you know in the way only a cynical long-term fan of anything can) when I heard about that box set, this story has done some pretty marvellous repair work indeed: 8/10

Friday, 27 April 2018

Wild Pastures written by James Goss and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: Strange things are happening at the Wild Pastures Rest Home. When the Doctor calls on the Nobles to investigate, he doesn’t expect Sylvia to be the one to step up. Soon, they’re in too deep, and the Doctor and Sylvia will need all their faculties to get out alive.

Mockney Dude: It’s not that the Doctor ever went in for grand plans, especially these days but just for once he had put something together in advance. The seventh Doctor would be appalled that he has gotten out of the habit. The Doctor adores Wilf and the fun that they have together. The Doctor and Wilf share a love of naughtiness, of cute furtiveness, which is probably why they get along so well. The Doctor might be a Time Lord but Sylvia isn’t impressed, a man across the road bought himself a knighthood from the back of the Radio Times! At one moment the Doctor gives Sylvia and thousand-year stare that cuts through all that niceness and it makes her shiver. His anger flares like a wild fire even when he’s debilitated. Ultimately it isn’t Sylvia that got some rest in the car home…it’s the Doctor!

Matriarch: I said to my friend Jack the other day (a guy who I met through this very blog and who I have a debate with on practically a daily basis) that I was really looking forward to listening to this release because I love me a bit of Sylvia Noble. He couldn’t comprehend this, seeing her as the ultimate sourpuss of the Doctor Who universe. I disagreed and we went on to have quite the conversation about how she was written and portrayed, Jack taking the stance that Sylvia never truly showed any love towards Donna and me saying that that was the point. That she does love her but that love is expressed in dissatisfaction, hopelessness and general combativeness. It reminded of Russell T Davies talking about the nature of mother and daughters in a Toby Hadoke podcast from Big Finish, that eternal struggle where if only they could figure out how to work together they would be a formidable force. My mum and sister were always at war growing up, never quite finding common ground way into adulthood and so I recognise this emotional warfare between Sylvia and Donna and that how sad it is that the only way they seem to be able to communicate is through displeasure with each other. It’s sad, it’s human, it’s complex and it feels very real to me. The moment in Journey’s End when she defends her relationship with her daughter and the Doctor berates her for never praising her is key. The Doctor can’t understand it either. But Sylvia will protect her daughter until the day she dies, even if she can’t stand the sight of her half the time. Ah, mothers and daughters.

Wilf is far too much of a free spirit for a retirement home. Sylvia can complain her way through anything and the Wild Pastures retirement home gives her plenty of reason to moan, from the colour of the wall to the filthiness of the cutlery. She has standards, its clear. She thinks if anyone deserves a holiday, it’s her. She doesn’t quite trust the Doctor because he acts like he is everyone’s best friend all the time and you can’t be nice to everyone all the time. Sylvia discuses foreign workers in a ‘seen but not heard’ sort of way that exemplifies the casual racism of the middle classes in this country perfectly. That that becomes an important plot point later makes it a doubly impressive moment. There’s a moment where Sylvia thinks she has been forgotten in the care home and that she is starting to lose her marbles. It must be something that everybody goes through when they are left to rot at last chance saloon. She’s a prisoner, passing helpless days of loneliness. Other people scare but not Sylvia Noble and so whilst there had been a report of ghosts being seen in the not too recent past, she didn’t believe in them. She’s never let a man intimidate her…the bigger they come the higher their centre of gravity! I don’t think I could have loved her more at this point. She’s vicious with the Doctor when it comes to trying to rouse him at the climax (‘Don’t you ruin my life as well!’).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re not dragging Wilf off to Venus, he’s not unloaded the dishwasher!’ – RTD Doctor Who in a nutshell, from the extraordinary to the mundane.
‘She always comes up here for a nap after Lorraine Kelly. She exhausts her.’

Great Ideas: The Wild pastures brochures were all about promoting a youthful way of life for the nearly dead but the reality is a bunch of institutionalised old cronies sitting around on plastic sofas watching television until their time is up. That sounds like the reality for some care homes, trying to write off the elderly. The thorns on the Saga plant contain a neuro-toxin which extracts memories and experiences as well as a lot of vicious enzymes that break down the left overs of their victims. They take the best of the elderly in the home, their memories, and then leave them a shocking blue puddle of nothing. All the nursing staff are identical clones. Low level, low intelligence and best of all, low cost. When it is suggested that humanity has not come up with a better arrangement to deal with the elderly than what Solutions offers, keeping their memories intact but draining off the useless body, it has to be said that he has a point.

Standout Scene: All the different names that Doctor calls Sylvia as his memory fades is very, very funny. Ethel indeed. Just when you think the Doctor is going to take care of the climax as he wakes up to have his big speech, he didn’t count on who is his companion in this story (or rather that he is her companion!) and Sylvia takes the reins and is more than a match for the villains. Remember it takes nuclear devastation and the loss of everybody she loves to bring this woman down. She’s terrifying!

Result: ‘Do you know what I see here? A bunch of sad old people and a company that doesn’t keep an eye on them…’ Surprisingly thoughtful and funny, Wild Pastures would have made a delightful mid-season four adventure. I wouldn’t want to lose it but this could have taken the slot of The Unicorn and the Wasp, the sort of placing before the season arc starts getting really forceful. The care home setting for this story and the subject matter that springs from it is something that is quite close to my heart. The idea of being led to one these places and abandoned, feeling trapped and without hope is something that is facing someone in my family at the moment and James Goss captured that feeling of obsolescence really well. And having it experienced by Sylvia Noble, somebody who is in full control of her faculties and can cut through crap and tell you exactly what the situation is makes for riveting listening, especially since even she starts to feel isolated and that she is losing it. What I love about Sylvia Noble here (aside from Jacqueline King’s ever reliable performance) was that the story did not need to be told in the usual companion chronicles format with an emphasis on internal narration but instead it’s practically all told through dialogue because Sylvia is never ever short of an opinion or two. In that way it is packed full of character work and we get a real insight into her stance on the Doctor (a teddy bear with a glint in his eyes), Wilf (naughtiness personified) and Donna (what’s the point?). With King refusing to shy away from her more unlikable characteristics, this story feels the most authentic of all. It leaves Dudman with less to do, but then this box set shouldn’t be a one-man performance show. As outstanding as that performance is. It provides some variety. Saying this she becomes the Doctor’s saviour before the end of the story and proves that that steel can be put to phenomenal use when she is threatened. Thoughtful in its subject matter, an intriguing alien plan, terrific characterisation and some typically smart James Goss dialogue, Wild pastures is massively enjoyable and the best of the set so far: 8/10

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Backtrack written by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: When the TARDIS crashes in the vortex, Martha and the Doctor find themselves on board the time-ship The Outcome, where the host offers temporal cruises at reasonable prices. But time travellers must never cut corners. Dangerous forces have been unleashed, and Martha finds her medical skills put to the test as she deals with some lethal fall-out. Time is running out, and the clock is ticking towards disaster!

Mockney Dude: Martha makes a very good point that site-seeing through time is exactly what she and the Doctor do but this was his period for mentioning the ‘lost’ Time Lords at every opportunity and so he points out that not only does he know what he is doing but also that his people were very good at keeping an eye on this kind of time travel tourism. They had spoken about the Time War once but Martha had seen how much it hurt him to talk about the death of his planet, his family. The Temporal Travel Regulatory Body is the best the psychic paper can come up with this time. Does the Doctor wear glasses to trick people into thinking he is cleverer than he is? That would make a lot of sense. He’s certain he’s been to 1066 before, a few times in fact and he is very aware that he had to get out of a part of the Tapestry that would have raised a lot of questions. The Doctor can’t use the TARDIS this time because the Outcome is leaking temporal energies that means he daren’t even open the doors.

Dazzling Doctor: If Martha Jones had learnt anything in her time with the Doctor it is how a situation could possibly go from bad to worse? Their original deal had been one trip in the TARDIS, but things had gotten away with themselves. Back when her mum and dad were having their first rough patch, Martha had suggested a cruise for them to rekindle the old magic. There’s something very The End of the World about Martha being exposed to so many alien races in a confined space. Martha is mostly used in the form as a doctor in this story, which is a good tester for her career to come. Mind you she is so daft at one point that she inoculates everybody but not herself, which is cardinal error number one in these sort of cases. 

Standout Performance: Surely having Jon Culshaw (mimic extraordinaire) and Jacob Dudman (minic par excellence) in the same story is taking us into an alternative universe of Who parody? They're both brilliant, of course.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time itself is in agony and we’re slap bang in the middle of it!’ – to be fair to Elliot this is exactly the sort of crazy, over the top line that would be screamed before the credits kicked in. ‘We’re going to the end of the universe!’ ‘She’s my daughter!’ That sort of thing.
‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face!’ ‘No, I’ve had bigger noses.’

Great Ideas: You never star directly at the vortex without eye protection because it can do all sorts to you. All the best conmen are like human psychic paper. Tachyo-kentic energy is bleeding from the ships drive has sped up the life cycle of fungus that is evolving into something deadly. An alien virus in Earth’s past would wipe out everything from 1066 onwards, a catastrophic alteration to the Web of Time. The TARDISes Cloister Bell rang because it could detect the stress that the timeline was under.

Isn’t it Odd: I mention it the BBC Novel The Last Resort a fair amount because it is a novel of rare madness (it really divided opinion at the time) and non-linear experimentation (the narrative was basically a linear plot that somebody planted a bomb under and put the pieces back together haphazardly). However, this time I am mentioning it because it also dealt with the idea of time tourism and so that is the currently yardstick that I have to judge this kind of story by. The Doctor playing the Emperor of Egypt and McDonalds turning up across history, that sort of thing. It monstrously imaginative. Backtrack doesn’t even take hold of it’s premise and do anything remotely creative with it, which is the cardinal sin of a writer that promotes any idea with creative worth.

Standout Scene: Imagine the visual of a gigantic flying saucer appearing above the Battle of Hastings. That would be enough to distract Harold long enough for someone to get off a shot to the eye.

Result: Disaster! Matthew J. Elliot, a writer to whom I have had allergic reaction akin to tropical skin rash (with a three for three dud rate with Maker of Demons, Zaltys and The Silurian Candidate) has been let loose on one of my favourite eras of the show. In series three terms then surely we can expect something like Evolution of the Daleks, poor writing being supported by decent execution? And poor, sweet Martha Jones, a companion who is much underrated and barely (if ever) used by Big Finish getting her first real exposure in a script by a writer who has struggled to adapt to the demands of Doctor Who. The fates have been surprisingly merciful a fourth time around and Elliot has crafted what is his most accomplished script to date; an authentic story that doesn’t stick around long enough to get on your nerves. At Main Range full length his faults as an audio writer are exposed but forced to tell a faster paced story and he delivers an adventurous escapade that manages to divert and even thrill in a few places. The characterisation of the Doctor and Martha is spot on in that they say all the right things, but it’s a little too perfect overall. They say exactly the right things like going through a checklist of the sort of stuff they mentioned in the early part of series three. Martha’s almost a Doctor, just one more trip, Last of the Time Lords, etc, etc. But there are some charming lines for both them and they are both at their gleeful best, clearly loving this extended ‘one last trip’ around the universe. The plot keeps the pair of them a little too stationary when it promises something more potentially time hopping in the opening scenes – time travel tourism for goodness sakes – but we are confined to running around a ship that is running that scheme and we’re treated to some weird technobabble that makes the Sleep No More creatures seem plausible in comparison. But Helen Goldwyn keeps the narration coming thick and fast so we can’t focus on the less successful elements for long and I danced along to the fast pace of the tale. I had finished this before I realised and that’s not something I could say for Elliot’s other stories. Mercifully above average material and we can consider that a miracle, this is essentially a lot of running round but running around in a pacy, smiley sort of way: 6/10

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Helliax Rift written by Scott Handcock and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Daniel Hopkins thought he knew what he was letting himself in for when he joined the top-secret UNIT organisation as its latest Medical Officer. Racing about the countryside, chasing strange lights in the sky? Check. Defending the realm against extra-terrestrial incursion? Check. Frequent ear-bashings from UNIT’s UK CO, the famously no-nonsense Lt-Col Lewis Price? Check. Close encounters of the First, Second and even Third kind? Check, check, check. But he had no idea what alien beings were really like. Until the day of the Fallen Kestrel. Until the day he met the Doctor.

An English Gentleman: There’s a lovely moment in the opening episode where the Doctor addresses a canine as a very good dog and a homo sapien as a very good human in the same breath, suggesting that he sees them as one and the same. Well it made me chuckle. Having never officially been on staff, the Doctor no longer had a modicum of authority. We never did get to enjoy a proper fifth Doctor UNIT story so it’s fascinating to see that they treat him with all the respect as the rest of the universe, a youthful imitator of the white-haired authority figure he used to be. The suggestion that the Doctor might be sexist is outrageous, unless you’re Steven Moffat and the Doctor is from the sixties (gratuitous but thoroughly worthy dig inserted). As scientific advisor he can be arrested for desertion of duty, to be forced to stay. It’s worth remembering just how commanding the fifth Doctor has become on audio, a far cry from the squeaky voiced youth he could be on television. Davison’s voice is gravellier, sure but he still retains enough of that energy and enthusiasm to authentically be the fifth Doctor but with a steel that means when he is angry you really sit up and pay attention. The scenes inside the Doctor’s mind are gorgeous and Davison plays the gentle Uncle guiding the alien to a calmer play perfectly. If there is an innocent under threat, he would always stand in the way.

New Recruit: Daniel stands between the Doctor and a bullet and so he is left in his custody for the duration of the story, prompting an invitation to the TARDIS for the medical officer, not an opportunity offered to many. The military mind is disappointingly functional, and he doesn’t respond to walking into the TARDIS when the facts speak for themselves. Drawn into the Doctor’s lifestyle, he’s smart and quick to improvise and provides a humane counterpoint. He’s not ungrateful about rubbing shoulders with the Doctor, but there is plenty on Earth to keep him busy. You know, all those other alien invasions we weren’t privy to in the 80s.

Standout Performance: Blake Harrison is not a name I have come to associate with drama but knockabout comedy, so this was my first exposure to him in a serious role. It’s a cute character and he has a certain northern charm about him, even if the accent does slip more often than it should. It’s a good thing he never met the ninth Doctor or we might have been in regional heaven. I felt the Harrison grew into the role as the story progressed, he’s a nice foil to Davison’s Doctor without ever become a character that blew my socks off. He’s certainly no Harry Sullivan.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why are you slicing up aliens in your cellar?’
‘UNIT aren’t monsters, Doctor. But they still have a lot to learn.’

Great Ideas: The opening episode gets started immediately with a story already in full swing, UNIT hunting something and the Doctor in the vicinity. Listen to it as a back-door pilot for the fifth Doctor as an alternative to Castrovalva, but a Doctor that is unencumbered with companions and the story assumes we know who he is and his previous association with UNIT. A bit like Rose, with the ninth Doctor showing up during a story that has been playing out for a while even before the audience joins in. Seriously listen to episode one with that in mind and it’s a really interesting attempt to introduce this Doctor in a very gentle way. Would UNIT shoot the Doctor in the back if he chose to walk away from an alien incursion? What appears to be a base where aliens are being studied and dissected is in fact a place for them to recuperate and where the human race can learn from them. It’s rather like the anti-Torchwood, not exploiting aliens for technological and biological advantages but creating a place where they can be safe and looked after. A faked alien crash landing with a diversionary tactic so the occupant could be taken to the facility that is helping the aliens. It is searching for its child, captured by the facility. It’s like a hospital where the patients are kept against their will. The Barvin, Selachian and Mim are mentioned but I’m sure there are more recognisable aliens are being contained. It wouldn’t be a UNIT story if some innocent grunt didn’t bite the bullet.

Musical Cues: If the story is supposed to be getting off to a gripping start then it is somewhat hampered by the music that suggests something light and frothy, with the military drums there to suggest a parody of a 70s UNIT tale.

Isn’t it Odd: I’d almost like to lose the cliff-hangers in this story and have it as one long two-hour tale because they really don’t add much to the mix. It’s literally a case of having to cut up the action because that is the format that the audios have chosen but I don’t mind them shaking it up bit when the story justifies it. They are moments of jeopardy (never my favourite on audio because they are hard to convey) and they spring up out of nowhere. It feels like the story is bouncing along very nicely and then BAM…title music. And I’m left scratching my head to the disruption. There’s a huge and sudden info dump at the end of episode three that is extremely inelegant. These details could have been scattered throughout the story had the character been introduced a little earlier and the audience could have done some of the work but instead a massive character arc descends in the space of two minutes that we had been completely unaware of until that point. It’s a vital part of the plot too so it’s not even something that can be excused as a throwaway piece of character work.

Standout Scene: I like the idea of the alien characters all being let loose from the facility to prey upon the hapless humans who have been treating them. It reminds me of the Buffy episode down in the Initiative where all the trapped monsters were set free. Has Scott Handcock been watching Buffy lately?

Result: The Helliax Rift cuts to the chase immediately and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a 1980s UNIT story with the fifth Doctor seamlessly dropped into his old role as scientific advisor. The thing is there were relatively few (well, one) UNIT stories in the 80s so its quite novel to see how it might have played out if the early 70s formula was still in play a decade later. It’s an alien invasion but it’s told almost entirely from the point of view of the UNIT soldiers that are investigating it. It feels like a story that should quite dull because there is very little incident of plot progression in the first half but the interaction between the characters kept me on side and it’s directed with a lightness of touch that mean it never felt slow or uninteresting. English countryside, an alien diversion and lots of talk of sweet army tea…it’s like the Doctor never left UNIT. There’s even a left-wing organisation that could have come straight out of a Malcolm Hulke script…a hospital that is looking after aliens for their own good, under confinement. Weirdly it’s probably the most UNITy UNIT story you could imagine and it doesn’t feature any of the characters that we have come to associate with that sub-genre, besides the Doctor. Instead we have medical officer Daniel Hopkins who rises to the role of the Doctor’s companion in this story and as played by Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame is a little subdued at times but ultimately very charming. Russ Bain’s Lieutenant Colonel Price is our stand-in Brigadier and he’s a little shouty but carries the authority of a man with the fate of the country in his hands. Best of all is Peter Davison’s Doctor, simply a delight in Scott Handcock’s hands; authoritative, witty and just generally lovely to be around. Like Tegan I have taken a complete U-Turn with Davison’s Doctor on audio, compared to my opinion of his Doctor on screen. The Helliax Rift is far from perfect, it’s a little too plot light and then it all comes one great gush of exposition before heading into the busy final episode but it’s another enjoyable main range adventure in an unprecedented run for the range in recent years. The difference between Justin Richards trad and Scott Handcock trad is that this has all the elements of a Doctor Who story but it is assembled in a very engaging way. To sum this up I’d say it’s Doctor Who-lite, archetypal and very cute for it: 7/10

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Taste of Death written and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: The Doctor and Rose sample the high-life on resort planet MXQ1, run by the famous Bluestone brothers. It has everything: exotic beaches, luxury accommodation and extravagant dining. Something’s cooking in the kitchen, and it’s to die for…

Mockney Dude: How like the tenth Doctor to take Rose to the most luxurious planet in the galaxy, if you buy into the idea that this one long date around the universe for the pair of them. And how like the Doctor to sniff out a mystery on the one place where you can be sure to relax entirely. His banter with Rose is cute, in fact it’s cuter than it was between Tennant and Piper at time because that irritatingly smugness isn’t there in Dudman’s Rose. He’s very thin so he hardly looks like a great lover of food. It’s a good point…how the hell did he fit into that pinstripe suit? The whole thing would barely fit my leg. He thinks there’s no one better than angry slaves to bring down a bad guy.

Chavvy Chick: What is it about Rose taking on a role in a kitchen undercover? At least this time she’s the head chef instead of dishing up chips. Unfortunately, her cover I exposed due to the fact that she is skinny. Rose’s reaction to the return of the Slitheen is the biggest eye roll in the galaxy.

Standout Performance: Uncanny. That’s how I would describe Jake Dudman’s performance as the Tenth Doctor (and Rose, who he gets a good flavour of too but that’s a less impressive feat). We’ve become accustomed to the idea of actors being recast in Big Finish, essentially all the lead actors who played the Doctor have been in the Companion Chronicles but it’s got around brilliantly by having the stories told from the point of view of various companions, giving their take on a particular Doctor. Dudman achieves a great feat, not only does he sound like David Tennant in the role but he captures the essence of his performance too. Wide eyed, full of wonder, excitement and blazing anger. It’s a formidable turn that makes easing into a series of tenth Doctor stories without Tennant very comfortable. He’s an adept narrator too.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So much evil in the name of profit.’

Great Ideas: Resort planets are for once in a lifetime holidays and they are extremely expensive. Several chefs have left the restaurant without a trace. Lots of people going missing, a large number of fat people about gorging on food (but the restaurant setting does disguise that quite nicely for a while) …it could only be the return of the Slitheen! I still adore these reptilian nasties that were the first vivid monster of the new series. You know, one that stuck and had several other appearances. Can’t deal with the farting? Davies might have overplayed his hand with that but it’s good to remember that children are supposed to enjoy this show as well and introducing them to an idea like monsters that will literally flay their victims and wear their bodies, Hannibal Lecteur style, needs a little toning down of the more graphic content to make it work. They’re a comical race, which some people have trouble getting their head around, but not always and it was in the darker moments of World War Three, Boom Town and their appearances in Sarah Jane Adventures that impressed me the most. Although Margaret’s delivery of ‘the telephone is actually RED!’ still makes me howl to this day. Plus, their plan in Aliens of London is still one of the most audacious and ambitious attempts to destroy the Earth. I truly love that story for its scope and its personal attack on politics and the Slitheen were the catalyst for that. The Brula are a slave race, utilised by the Slitheen. They’ve brought a crop over from their home world (see how I go out of spelling Raxicori…oh whatever) which they are secreting in the food. The kindest of families from Raxicorcopha-oh bugger this are buying the livers thinking they are coming from the bluestones, when in fact they are being supplied by the Slitheen.

Audio Landscape: Reaching back into the misty depths of the sixties and the first Dalek story, the monsters of Doctor Who have been highlighted by the glorious sounds effects that come with them. For the Slitheen it is the pulse of electricity that comes with them unzipping and stepping out of their suits. It’s distinctive, unique and you can’t ask for more than that.

Result: Really fun, Big Finish have a really good hit rate when it comes to the tenth Doctor because his character really suits the sort of frothy fun that they like to serve up for the new series. They’ve acquired a new super weapon too in the form of Jake Dudman, an outstanding mimic who brings the tenth Doctor to life with absolute authenticity. The last time I heard a Helen Goldwyn directed story it was the superlative Time in Office and The Taste of Death confirms that she’s a natural at bringing audio drama to life, and this time she is working from her own material too so it’s a very personal piece. She’s clearly got a good handle on the Tennant years, the fun and frolics as well as the social commentary and its particular brand of personal characterisation. The resort planet is just like one of those gimmicky worlds that Russell T Davies loved visiting, having the Doctor declare it’s amazing and then just when you’re about facepalm he would add lots of depth and detail to it that surprised you. And nothing screams Davies era madness more than those pesky Slitheen who are back for another round of profit-mongering chaos. I really enjoy their appearances, but then I’m a mad fan of the Graham Williams era, and they feel as though they have sprung straight out of a Douglas Adams script edited tale; all biological quirks, social commentary and crazy imaginative schemes. Their plan involves slavery and mass slaughter and yet somehow this is the lightest of tales. I don’t know how they do it. How bizarre it is to look back at series one with a sense of nostalgia now. And that’s essentially what this story is. It isn’t going to blow you away with originality (indeed in SJA’s The Gift the Slitheen were using food as a weapon) but instead take you back to a time when Doctor Who was a very different beast to what it is today. Whatever you think of the Davies era will determine your enjoyment. It’s one of my favourites in Doctor Who’s entire run so I lapped it up. The one truly surprising element is Dudman, playing multiple roles and the narrator and giving each one his all. What a find: 7/10

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Sweet Salvation written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Eleven has the authorities in the palm of his hand and an entire world held to ransom when the Kandyman cooks up a deadly confection containing a secret ingredient. In a last-ditch attempt to prevent disaster Liv teams up with a desperate criminal, and the Doctor must decide whether Helen is still his friend.

Physician, Heal Thyself: For doubting Helen because of a quirk of technobabble, the Doctor behaves like a bit of dunce. And that’s never a good thing. He does lots of Doctorly things like dash about trying to save lives, talking at a pace where the plot doesn’t need to make sense and confront the villain. But there’s no real sparkle or wit or intelligence to what he’s doing or saying. Like everything else, he’s going through the motions.

Liv Chenka: When they get to know her people generally like her.

Helen Sinclair: As soon as she is reunited with the Doctor the facility falls into hell and they are on the run for their lives. It’s like she has never been away. She’s convinced that she saw a spark of humanity in the Elven but it’s clear he was manipulating her all along.

Standout Performance: Mark Bonnar is still trying to give his all as the Eleven. But I think this has ultimately been quite a thankless part, inconsistently written and I’ve rarely gotten the sense that writers have a handle on the individual characters. They are all sharply contrasted, the various iterations of the Eleven, but I think that was ultimately the point. To have lots of different voices going at each other in a garbler of madness. For me it got tiresome halfway through the Doom Coalition series so to have it bleed into the next set wasn’t exactly welcome. That he was written out here (for now) was. A shame to lose Bonnar because he’s such a good actor but I think this could have been a really powerful acting exercise that was a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Sorry! I’m sucrose intolerant! Really intolerant!’

Great Ideas: How do you convince a bunch of angry prisoners to walk quietly into their dorms? The silk of the spiders has psychoactive properties and subdue their prey, cocoon it with a web that literally soothes it into submission. The Kandyman has been using in his food to keep the inmates in check and now he and the Eleven are taking that process and are going to subdue entire worlds with his mind controlling confection. The Kandyman’s expertise is in giving people what they want and giving those in power what they want at the same time. He’s built up quite a CV as an enforcer for several regimes. Androgums ripped the Kandyman apart and the Elven put him back together like humpty dumpty using the finest spun sugar in the quadrant.

Audio Landscape: It was cute to hear the Kandyman’s original voice and I love the idea that this bio-mechanoid ends every adventure melting away and betrayed. God bless him, always the stooge and always winding up a bit gloopy mess.

Musical Cues: The music is working hard to try and convince the listener of Helen’s duplicity, but I wasn’t buying it for a second.

Isn’t it Odd: The final line of the previous story was extremely strange. Without any warning or context, the Doctor declares that Helen is suddenly not to be trusted. Admittedly she is in an unusual situation and to be found in the company of the Eleven but that’s no reason for the Doctor to suddenly act as though she is suddenly working against them. It feels like they were trying to manufacture a cliff-hanger for a cliff-hangers sake rather than this is anything that has naturally sprung from the events of the previous story. It’s an interesting conceit, for sure, but had we seen any evidence ourselves away from the Doctor, then it might have carried a bit more weight. The Kandyman and the Eleven setting out to revolutionise the universe? It does sound like really bad fan fiction, doesn’t it? Perhaps if Helen had featured in all of the stories of this set and her relationship with the Eleven had been allowed to evolve naturally then the shock she received in Sweet Salvation where she discovers she was being used all along might have hit home. Instead we only re-joined them in the first half of this story as much of a highlight as their scenes were, it’s simply too soon to reverse all that good work to convincingly get under the skin of the listener. ‘I’m not bad because I’m broken!’ he declares, ‘I’m bad because I’m me!’ Well, what a revelation. The Eleven is a nasty piece of work just because he is. That was a revelation worth waiting 22 instalments for. Psychological examination of that depth is available in any tenapenny Doctor Who story. If this is where he gets off the bus, the Eleven’s climactic statement of madness lacks any finesse whatsoever. And in his final moment he becomes what he has essentially always been, a collection of silly voices babbling inanely. I’m not putting the Eleven on my final fantasy Doctor Who villains team. Long story short, he was a bit naff.

Result: The epitome of okay, with nothing that really thrills or insults. I’m not too sure about Ravenous to date because it has done very little to establish itself and like Doom Coalition's first set it has barely begun to explore the idea behind it’s title. There has been four hours of material so far and where has it gotten us? Right back to where we were at the climax of the Doom Coalition set with the Doctor, Liv and Helen off on their adventures as the huge reset button is pressed. In that respect this has been a coda to Doom Coalition because the main function is to find Helen and put the Eleven out of the way for good. It does both of those things, with an unconvincing run-around that tries to promote Helen as a villain. Ravenous 1 adds in the Kandyman to try and spice things up and truly ghoulish plan to try and control the universe with confection but it plays out so matter of factly that it’s clear that this is just a silly scheme for the Doctor to foil before the next segment of this great epic can continue. I sound cynical but within 240 minutes of material you might expect for the bare bones of the series we are in to have emerged or at least some of those elements to intrigue us and be going on with. What’s disappointing is that because Helen is just Helen and they jog off to the TARDIS at the end that there isn’t a fresh idea in the whole set. An existing line up of regulars, Churchill, the Eleven, the Kandyman; all old characters thrown in to make a party. How to Make a Killing in Time Travel is the most unique story of the set, and it’s easily the most throwaway. I’ve heard the accusation that Big Finish produce plenty of dodgy fan fiction and it’s not an allegation that I agree with on the whole but after listening to Ravenous 1 with it’s severe lack of invention, I’m concerned. Let’s hope the next set innovates more, finds some kind of identity of is own…or even actually kick starts the arc. All we get is a reference at the very end of the story. Well cheers. Sweet Salvation is pacy, well-acted, with some nice lines but it’s a bit like going to a Chinese buffet. You’ll find that you’re shovelling it down and once you’ve finished you’ll struggle to recall a thing about it. This isn’t actively offensive like The Silurian Candidate or wildly exciting like Static, it’s smack bam in the middle in the world of Doctor Who humdrum. A shame to end this set on such a routine note: 5/10