Friday, 23 March 2018

The Devil You Know written and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Time War has begun in earnest, and Romana must think the unthinkable. For a most dangerous mission, she selects the most dangerous warrior – the Master. But he will not be alone. Leela accompanies her old enemy as they begin an unusual interrogation. What does Finnian Valentine know? And can Leela and the Master ever truly be on the same side?

President Romana: The Doctor refused to help Romana in dealing with the Time War and so in desperate times she has called upon the only other Time Lord that she knows is capable of making the tough calls in wartime. Someone utterly ruthless who will get them the information they require, someone who will do whatever it takes…and someone who they can use as a scapegoat if need be. I love how the Master so off-handedly calls Romana ‘former President.’

Noble Savage: Because Jacobi had never played scenes with Jameson before I was a little floored when the Master recognised Leela so freely and then all those 4DAs where she and Beevers played off against one another coming flooded back in my mind. The Evil One finally serves a purpose. Leela found the old Master raw and honest, not hiding himself away as he does now. Her opinion of the Time Lords has really shifted over the years. Once she had a similar opinion to Finnian that they were terrifyingly inhumane monsters that played about with peoples lives but since she has become involved with Romana and Narvin she has a softer outlook on them now.

War Master: He is not the man he was. War has changed him for the worse, and he was pretty damn bad to start off with. The war has given him purpose and whatever it takes he will do in order to come out on top. He’s committed a great many crimes since he has been resurrected but the Time Lords have turned a blind eye because they need him. He does so enjoy a good old-fashioned threat. The idea that the Times Lords are offering the evillest version of the Master a pardon to head off into the universe to commit goodness knows what atrocities in order to secure him for a particular mission to help them win the war goes to show just how desperate they are. Admittedly this is very similar to the situation in The Five Doctors but there we were dealing with the cuddling panto chuckle and throw off the disguise version of the Master. Jacobi’s Master feels dangerous, which makes this bargain a heavy one. They are literally doing a deal with the Devil. What the Time lords think of him matters very little to him so he refuses their request. He won’t have his TARDIS taken away from him, not again. There is the scent of death about his TARDIS. Trying to navigate your way through a warzone undetected requires great skill. You’ve got love how jovial and calm the Master is before extracting a weapon and shooting both Finnan’s down without a second thought. He makes a very good point that when talking about Leela (who also kills) it is hard to judge who is good and who is evil. It all depends on your point of view. He happily admits that he would be considered evil and is willing to talk about everyone he’s killed and betrayed. The reason he turned his back on Time Lord society was all the pomp and ceremony, of having to do things a certain way. He has absolute faith in his ability to extract information from somebody because he is the Master. There’s no fun in killing somebody who knows that it is coming.

Standout Performance: Derek Jacobi has joined the Gallifrey series playing the War Master. No wait…let me say that again. DEREK JACOBI HAS JOINED THE GALLIFREY SERIES AND IS PLAYING THE WAR MASTER! To be honest I could have handled any godawful technobabble excuse for him to be brought into the fray because Jacobi made such an instant impression on me in Utopia and his take on the Master, whilst theatrical and brief, was one of the most chilling. Listen to the way that Jacobi plays his dialogue, like he is relishing every second of this. The extras reveal that this was the first time he reprised the role but he is so comfortable with it, so skilled at dripping malevolence with every syllable that you could never tell. Huge kudos to Bryan Dick who takes on a challenging character and manages to make quite an impression in a one-shot role. I didn’t feel anything for anyone in the eighth Doctor Time War box set, but here I felt a lot of sympathy for Finnian, twice over.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There has been enough death!’ ‘This is a War! There’s no such thing!’
‘Time to dispose of the evidence, don’t you think?’

Great Ideas: The two Finnian Valentines were once the same, at the heart of a temporal explosion whilst all the timelines shattered around him. He died in the explosions but copies of him were made that exist to torment each other. Two iterations of the same man, living very separate lives but they both ended up in the same place. He’s an experienced freedom fighter, a soldier and above all else he has knowledge of a weapon that could potentially end the Time War. The Time Lords saved his planet a couple of decades back when the Dalek occupation forces embarked on their first assault. Batting back and forth between the two Finnian’s talking to the Master and Leela respectively offers a very different slant on the story of what he has been through. The weapon is called the Possibility Canon and its located on a world in the Isop Galaxy. It can target reality, pinpoint specific moments in someone’s history so you can contain the effect. The Master spots this as a lie immediately. The real weapon is an unlimited energy source that could fuel the Daleks or the Time Lords for almost a millennia. Another lie. The perfect torture device sees the recipient being forced to live their entire life cycle in no more than 20 minutes.

Standout Scene: The Master doesn’t want to kill Leela because it would give the Doctor closure. He is still punishing his friend, even from a distance. Her fate, when it comes, is chilling to the core.

Result: ‘Trust me, I’m a Time Lord and I’m on your side…’ The best kind of character drama sees two people clashing in a very vivid way and bringing together old adversaries Leela and the Master proves that formula perfectly. Sent on a mission by the Time Lords to discover a superweapon that could bring the Time War to end…actually that is pretty similar to the recent eighth Doctor set in premise but to be honest it doesn’t matter why these two characters are forced together because the fireworks that ensue are so beautifully written and performed. Jacobi and Jameson are an ideal pairing, and it’s one memorable scene after another between them. Having them interrogate a different version of the same man individually shows their individual strengths and weaknesses and there are times where the Master’s charm is far more effective than Leela’s tunnel visioned approach. I also really enjoyed the assertion that from the right point of view, Leela could be considered evil and the Master good as their methods are similarly homicidal. Their motives could determine how fate sees them. I think the War Master is characterised outstandingly here, entirely honest about his willingness to do whatever needs to get done, open about the people he has murdered and betrayed. He’s charming because of that openness and that’s terrifying. Handcock remembers and has remembered throughout this entire set that the only way to make your ideas bounce is to channel them through strong characters and I have really loved how the plot has often taken a backseat to exploring who these people are and how the War is affecting them. This is the sort of Time War that Russell T Davies would write, powerful and creative ideas but always making us feel something whilst exploring them. It’s the most restrained story of this set so far but because it is so focused on the three characters and their interaction I was rivetted. If I thought the previous story had a bold climax, wait until you see what happens here: 9/10

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Solider Obscura written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Braxiatel has always planned for contingencies. As hostilities escalate, he takes Ace into a deadly region of spacetime – The Obscura – to locate an ancient research station. But Ace is about to learn more about Irving Braxiatel than anyone should know. Some soldiers are ready for this fight, but some will not make it through the first round.

Born Again Brax: ‘Do you know how many battles I’ve fought? How many plans I’ve made? How many deaths I’ve caused? Next to me Ace you seem ever so small!’ I loved the moment where Brax snaps at her and says she has been coasting her way through this mission with little but wisecracks. He’s far less enamoured with her sarcasm than the Doctor is and he is isn’t afraid to let her know. Brax is pretty much always wonderful but when he is addressing my own personal issues with a long overused character, I’m simply delighted with him. He’s not sure he can trust her with top secret information about the weapon and he asks that she trusts him to guard that knowledge. There’s an element of danger to Ace working with Brax because we have seen him do terrible things in the past to people that he professed to care about. Where does that leave someone like Ace when the stakes are this high? Ace can’t imagine Brax with a gun, it just doesn’t seem subtle enough. Danna taught Braxiatel everything he knows, including how to exploit a dangerous situation to his advantage. Given his Machiavellian machinations in the Bernice and Gallifrey ranges, from heartless to downright psychotic she certainly taught him well. Why is everybody so suspicious of him all of a sudden? Even he is paranoid that Danna has betrayed him when she fails to shoot a Dalek at close range. The truth he isn’t prepared to admit is that his mentor has gotten old and lost her edge. I fucking love Brax when he is put on the spot and has to improvise and I was creasing up when he was trying to convince the Daleks that Ace was the secret weapon (Armed Computer Entity). When they suggest he is lying to them he is affronted at the very idea that such a thing is possible. When Danna speaks to Brax after her murder it is unclear whether it is a manifestation of his guilt or the effect of the temporal energies in the Obscura.

Oh Wicked: Ace is serving as Brax’s companion these days, which works a lot better than most of her stories with the seventh Doctor these days. It’s a similar set up with a morally ambiguous Time Lord to bark at but Ace is a lot older and wiser these days, and Aldred plays it as such. It’s a much more appealing take on her character than I am used to these days because it gives Aldred the chance to tackle the subtler aspects of Ace’s character, rather than having her shouting her head off all the time, which is the bane of her performance. It’s just a really fun dynamic between her and Richardson and I wouldn’t mind more stories of this ilk between the two of them. The Doctor sent her to Gallifrey for a reason and she wants to do her bit. As such she’s eager to take her part in the Time War. Dodgy landings and mysterious locations makes this feel like old times for Ace. She learnt most of what she knows from a freelance Professor. She’s not without pity when faced with a Dalek in distress. Are the Obscura energies making Ace paranoid or is it just the case of working with Brax? Ace’s silence in the final scene is deafening. Amazing how effective she can be when she just shuts up. She respected Brax at the start of this.

Standout Performance: Prepare yourselves because I’m going to say something that is going to stun you rigid…Sophie Aldred is simply fandabbydoozy (TM The Rapture, for its sins…) in this story! Seriously! I know I bang on about how much Aldred struggles in the role of the younger Ace that she keeps being portrayed as in the 7th Doctor audios but this script is a different kettle of fish altogether. She’s given some challenging material and she rises to the occasion magnificently. The climax featuring her and Brax in the TARDIS is extremely raw and I truly felt the weight of her experience with both the Doctor and Brax weighing on her. How annoying that she seems to be jettisoned from the series then, just when somebody has figured how to make this character work.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m sick and tired of Time lords treating people like chess pieces!’ ‘Well maybe that’s the only way we win.’
‘The way he screamed…just like that damaged Dalek. If that’s what this War will do to us…’

Great Ideas: Just look at that cover. When I commented that the cover of the final instalment of the eighth Doctor Time War set lacked skill, this is the sort of work I was looking for. Ace looks amazing dressed in more sophisticated clothes than usual and overall it looks like a still taking from an actual episode. One that I could get quite excited about. Back in the Dark Times of Gallifrey there were many Temporal Wars. All that remains today are the many broken battlefields and the largest of these is an area known as the Obscura. It’s sealed off in a fold of space time because it’s so oversaturated with temporal energy it would be incredibly foolish to enter it. So paradoxical is this region that it is impossible to look at it. Even the slightest glimpse at the Obscura is enough to shatter your mind. Danna was Brax’s mentor and one of the finest military strategists that Gallifrey has ever seen. There’s the broken and twisted remains of nearly 300 Daleks in the hold and if they aren’t dead on arrival, Danna soon takes care of them. 12 years ago they started to arrive on the Obscura and they look…different. Daleks with wings? That’s novel. They have attempted to graft all kinds of technology onto themselves in an attempt to steer themselves through the Obscura. You’ve got to give it to the Daleks, they never truly give up until they are dead. For the Daleks to corrupt their purity like that they must have been desperate. Danna has been testing on them and has discovered that their pain threshold is remarkably high. I love the idea of Daleks sacrificing themselves like sheep being driven across a minefield, travelling the Obscura in the hope of a safe path so they can activate their beacons and guide the others. The Obscura is the biggest tear in space and time and this station has formed a frame gateway to a thousand dimensions. If an invasion is imminent, this station would be the perfect launchpad. Danna guarding the weapon is a form of retirement for her as she doesn’t do so well in peacetime. After Brax showed a Dalek a few pages of a book about the Obscura it couldn’t stop screaming. Brax wants the Daleks to be interested in the weapon…will you come into my parlour said the spider to the fly.

Audio Landscape: A massive point in its favour is how the Gallifrey Time War set isn’t reducing the conflict to scenes of Daleks screaming EXTERMINATE with a crossfire of gunplay but instead taking a far more intellectual approach. The John Hurt and eighth Doctor sets had the irritating ability to reduce the war to all sound and fury, signifying very little. Soldier Obscura has far more atmosphere for holding back on the sound effects. Sometimes less is a lot more. When the Dalek comes to life singing deranged nursery rhymes, it’s all the more chilling for the previous restraint.

Standout Scene: Brax’s solution to the problem of Danna’s age slowing her down. Holy fuck! I always knew he was like the Avon of Doctor Who, the anti-hero who was willing to do anything to get results…but oh my word. This takes that moment from Orbit when Avon hunts Villa through the shuttle and takes it up a notch further. Gripping stuff. Also, the ‘welcome to the mind of a coward, Ace!’, which is just astonishingly raw in it’s mind rape of a beloved character. He violates her mind with violence in a way that even she can’t conceive. It might be Brax’s vilest act yet and if the Doctor ever found out…

Result: ‘And I’m not prepared to lose…’ Bubbling with superb ideas and imagery and featuring terrific chemistry between Ace and Braxiatel, Soldier Obscura continues to raise the game of the Gallifrey Time War set. The Daleks are attempting to annexe a gateway to a thousand dimensions in order to launch the Time War, the battlefield of a previous temporal war tucked away in paradoxical madness. That’s the sort imaginative lunacy I have been looking for and I love how this is a story that sees temporal conflicts of the past and future collide. You would think that the Time Lords would have learnt not to stoke the fire so much these days, given they have the proof of the destruction and loss of life of wars gone by. One thing this set is getting very right is the perfect mix of both character and plot. I need both to secure my attention and more often than not it is the character side of things that is absent in order to fill the running time with a ton of ideas and exposition. I think Scott Handcock focuses on thrilling character drama as a necessity (again ranges like Dorian Gray have honed this instinct) and he’s ensured that his writers have made interaction and growth a priority in Gallifrey. Ace and Brax just work, it’s like her relationship with the 7th Doctor taken up to eleven because Brax makes no secret of the fact that he will do whatever it takes to secure his goals and there is an underlying feeling that she is expendable if it comes to it. It feels dangerous, which the dialogue between them is witty and enjoyable. The ideas feel bolder and more creative too, I feel the Time War is being portrayed on a much greater canvas and with some truly twisted notions. Something akin to a Joss Whedon style finale is brewing, I can tell. Each story is introducing big concepts but not following through with them. I have a feeling the finale of this set is going to see these ideas come together and make quite a dramatic impact. Solider Obscura (great title) is another one of the puzzle pieces, but it’s very well written, features very good character work and kept my interest throughout. I’m surprised about how much we learnt about Brax as he is usually such an obscure character and he STILL manages to surprise me despite that. More gold: 9/10

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Gallifrey: Time War: Celestial Intervention written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Temporal Powers are under threat. It is only a matter of time before the Daleks attack. Now CIA Coordinator, Romana must protect the interests of Gallifrey, while dealing with demands from President Livia and an increasingly powerful War Council. As allies are whittled away, the Time Lords are drawn into a conflict they can no longer avoid…

President Romana: There is a notable difference between the Romana of the Gallifrey sets and the Romana of the 4DAs and it’s not in the way that you might imagine. Here Romana is caught up in a terrifying temporal struggle that threatens the extinction of her people. The 4DAs see Romana having jolly adventures in time and space with a space vagabond known as the Doctor. So, which would you imagine would feature Lalla Ward at her peppiest and most agreeable and which would feature her as a grumpy, angry harridan that is struggling to control her mood? Because if you’ve figured this out it should quite the reverse. Ward is back on form here, sounding thoroughly engaged with the material. Regardless of what I have thought about Big Finish’s handling of the Time War (not a lot so far, I’m reserving judgement on this set until I have completed it), it certainly seems to be bringing the best out of the performers. Like they are happy to take their place in new series canon. Sure, there are moments in this where Romana loses her cool (especially when she sees an injustice of humanity in the Time Lord response to seeking aid from them) but there is a huge difference in how Ward plays those scenes (bold and sassy) than how she plays her grumpiness when acting alongside Tim Baker (which really feels like she doesn’t want to be there). I love the idea that Romana has been deposed as President (a role she has held in spin off media for some considerable time now) and has taken place as the Head of the CIA. It’s true that there is an element of humour in the notion of the CIA accusing the War Council of secrecy when that appears to be their stock and trade. Something that Romana learnt when she was president was never make promises that you can’t keep. It’s nice to see Romana can still step into action when she needs to, with the twofold motive of heading to the Death Zone of rescuing Leela and wanting to know what the War Council is up to. Romana is going to fight the Time War in her own way. The War Council might gather an army but she is going to gather information and intelligence.

Noble Savage: It’s fantastic how far Leela has gone up in Narvin’s reputation over the years. Once bitter enemies, they are now close allies and trust one another because of the hardships they have been through together. I really like how you can watch the development of this relationship across the entire Gallifrey series. It was one of the few salvaging features during those tricky fourth and fifth seasons. When Romana asks her to careful in the Death Zone, she answers where is the fun in that? Given she was one of a few companions not to wind up on the Death Zone, it feels appropriate that this should be her chance and given her USP as a warrior I can’t think of a place on Gallifrey where she would be better suited.

Narvin: The last time ha asked Leela to go on a mission for him she pinned him to the wall with his ow chair. Nice to see they are still getting on so well.

Standout Performance: Is Louise Jameson ageing backwards or something? I can’t detect the age in her voice at all. Lalla Ward acting all bossy and moralistic is always fantastic value.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘War has not been declared!’ ‘With all due respect that is pretty much a formality.’
‘You make it sound like I am the one bartering with lives!’
‘It may come as a surprise to you Narvin but the people appointed to the War Council are rarely the most generous and kind hearted of Time Lords.’

Great Ideas: Earth has been added to a list of planets that cannot protect themselves. Gallifrey setting itself up as the grand protector of all the lesser planets is about to become embroiled in a conflict where they join them. Only half the quantum shields on Gallifrey have activated but then at this point it is hoped that they will never be needed. Ever since it was established, the War Council has been doing its damndest to operate behind closed doors. Gallifrey has avoided all out war with the Daleks for so long, despite skirmished, but now it feels inevitable. One of their drones has picked up security images of a facility hidden deep within the Loom forest, and only because it malfunctioned. The Daleks have annexed Monan and are gearing up for War. The facilities that have been uncovered are part of the response to the upcoming conflict. A Dalek relic has been discovered drifting through space near Phaedon and it is soon announced that Gallifrey has lost all contact with the Warpsmiths. Is this their first move? I loved Romana taking the piss out of whatever ridiculous Time Lord superweapon that the War Council might be working on because that is exactly the sort of (old hat) McGuffin that inspired the Doom Coalition and eighth Doctor Time War stories. 5000 is all that’s left of the Warpsmiths and their planet has been completely destroyed by the Daleks. This development has real impact because this species has appeared in Gallifrey based Big Finish releases going back as far as The Apocalypse Element in their opening salvo of main range audios. If the Time War wanted to get my attention, this was the way to do it. Fascinating to see Gallifrey discussing granting the Warpsmiths asylum, questioning whether that would be worthwhile because they will be taking in their weakest elements. I only hope that the rest of the universe is as kind when Gallifrey flees and requires help. Livia, for all her leadership qualities during peacetime, lacks the nerve for War. Because their vote counts, the War Council demand that their projects remain secret in order to grant their permission for the Warpsmiths access to Gallifrey. Typical Time Lord duplicity. In the Death Zone they find an interdimensional gateway and cargo ships filled with Time Lord caskets. Gallifrey needs the best minds working towards a solution, peaceful or otherwise. Imagine an army ten times larger than any they have ever known, led by the greatest military strategists in Time Lord history. Or a society populated by their greatest scientists and philosophists. Project Revenance is raising the best of the Time Lords from the past back from the dead. A desperate measure for a desperate people.

Musical Cues: Top marks to Ioan Morris for his score throughout this story, which never overpowers the action but really helps to build that feeling of dread that gathers momentum. I’m fascinated to see what he might do with a more action-oriented release.

Standout Scene: Listening to the exile Warpsmiths begging the Time Lords to take mercy on them and grant asylum is a humbling experience. Once a temporal superpower, reduced to such handouts, it’s a vivid way of showing the effects of the Daleks now they are mobilised for war. Rather than simply show mercy, the Time Lords bureaucratic in their response.

Result: ‘Why would the War Council need to make multiple trips into the Death Zone?’ God bless Scott Handcock, who has managed to do two things simultaneously with this box set. Not only has he managed to make the Gallifrey series feel hugely relevant again, but he’s also managed to do a take on the Time War that is both interesting and worth investing in. The two things compliment each other very well; a series that was long starting to run out of steam since its fourth season and a tapestry of backstory from the new series that (rightly or wrongly) hasn’t been explored in any great depth. With the previous two Gallifrey sets Handcock has established a strong and extensive cast of characters and now they can be utilised across a four-story box set in a narrative that feels appropriately epic and dramatic thanks to the Time War backstory. There’s a lot of detail in the world building on Gallifrey and the surrounding universe and vivid cast of characters that gives this series substance. It has all the relevance that the recent eighth Doctor Time War series lacked. What’s more it has Handcock himself directing, which automatically gives this series weight and punch. I’m not just praising him for the sake of it, go check out his credits. He’s a proven asset to Big Finish, creating their superlative Dorian Gray and Torchwood ranges, which have both received terrific acclaim. There’s a genuinely ominous feel to Celestial Intervention with the Time War feeling that it is about to kick off big style. It reminded me a lot of Call to Arms from Star Trek DS9, the feeling of inevitability of an oncoming war that our heroes cannot hold back any longer, despite their efforts. Given that this is mostly a lot of chatter and very little action, the feeling of momentum is all the more impressive and we have David Llewellyn to thank for a script that introduces a lot of the players and the main conflict but doesn’t lose track of anybody. It’s a return to the politicking of old, which was always a series strength, with efforts to depose the latest President and replace her with somebody more able to guide the planet through warfare. If this is the standard of the set, we’re going to be in great shape indeed. For the successful blending of Big Finish and New Series continuity in such a seamless way, I’m very impressed. And ultimately Gallifrey Time War practically promotes itself with the lead performances of Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Sean Carlsen, Miles Richardson and Derek Jacobi. A phenomenally talented cast: 8/10

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

One Life written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: As the full force of the Time War crashes down around the Doctor and his friends, a desperate battle for survival ensues. But not everyone is playing the same game. Ollistra is after a weapon that could end the war in a stroke and she’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to take it back to Gallifrey. Even the Doctor. Surrounded by Daleks, and on a tortured planet, only one man can save the day. But he doesn’t want to fight.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Because I spend a lot of this review having a moan I want to take the opportunity to say something complimentary and that is that Paul McGann excels throughout this set and gives one of his most energised performances to date. It’s a shame that he couldn’t be given material worthier of his talents, but I appreciate the effort he goes to so show a Doctor on the brink of War, trying to push it away and then desperately trying to deal with it as it catch up with him. Ollistra will miss this incarnation because the boyish enthusiasm had a certain charm. It’s quite amusing that the Doctor imagines that the renegade that the Time Lords have been looking for must be him. Ollistra calls his ego monstrous for believing that, and you have to agree with her on this one. Wonderfully every single cadet at the Academy had a better psych evaluation score than the Doctor’s. The Cloister Bell only stops every second Wednesday given the Doctor’s lifestyle. He does nothing by the book, which Ollistra points out at every turn. He almost never has a plan, an approach that has done him perfectly well so far.

Standout Performance: I love Jacqueline Pearce, really I do, but she does insist on playing every line in this set like she is the greatest villainess the universe has ever known. Surely the whole point of morally ambiguous characters like this should be that they don’t like to advertise the fact?

Great Ideas: An abstract chronology of the Time War from Gallifrey’s perspective in constantly in flux. A weapon that can remove itself from history. The Daleks hit Tenacity with a reversal wave, de-evolving the planet. The base broke up because they were sending Tenacity back to a time before the base existed. One of the greatest Time Lord weapons that has ever been devised (what, another one?) was on board the Theseus when it was attacked. The Daleks have used a quantum causality generator to split a single ship into several parts. Multiple versions of the same spacecraft spread out to form an impenetrable wall, back and forth through time, encircling a disintegrating star system. Quarren, with just right adjustment could alter reality with just his mind, rewrite the very nature of time itself. Is this really much different from Doom Coalition in that respect? A superweapon in the shape of a person (Kahleera) that can cause devastating temporal and spatial consequences with an impact on Gallifrey’s future in the Time War. It’s the same bloody story! Experiencing a planet shifting in time would be exciting…but that’s exactly what happened in the first three stories in this set. Dorney writes it a little more poetically, but the idea is a little overused now.

Isn’t it Odd: On purely aesthetic terms, the cover for this release is quite the least inspiring I’ve seen for some time. A stock shot of Paul McGann, which is repeated twice, a bunch of actors who don’t even look as though they are in character and a few Daleks floating about. I don’t think I have seen a cover cobbled together with as little imagination since the early days of Big Finish. I know I said I wanted the Time War to be this unknowable thing in my last ranting review but I wasn’t talking about the Time Lords discussing a bunch of might-have-beens in the first scene. It’s trying very hard to be hauntingly prophetic but just about all they can say for sure is that something is amiss with a graph that shows Gallifrey’s journey through the Time War, something looks bizarre, nobody knows what it is, we might speculate that it its this thing, but we can’t say for certain but it in all likelihood will be the end of Gallifrey unless we figure out what it is. Now get on that! With that kind of assignment, I would quit. As I feared, early on Ollistra spouts some cliché about morality being twisted in wartime (that’s possibly the least original observation this set has made) before the Daleks turn up and start shrieking. For the Daleks to work on audio these days after their severe overuse in every range you can imagine they have to be guided be a creative, original hand that can (somehow) show us a fresh side to the creatures. Track four literally begins with them screaming ‘EXTERMINATE TIME LORDS!’ over and over again. How terribly original. The tacked on scene with Rupa is panfully awkward. 'Oh hello, we don't know you and we haven't just had an adventure with you and we haven't just seen the love of your life erased from time...but how are you? Did you ever find a boyfriend and have children?' 'No, I never found the right person. Why am I telling you this?' 'Oh never mind, we're off. Bye!' I mean seriously do you want to get a bigger hammer so you can smack the message over my head some more?

Result: As you might be able to tell from my impassioned tirades I have been less than impressed by the Time War box set. Quite apart from reducing the War to something transparent and approachable, it has been a series of four stories that form a set for no other reason than the stories follow each other and end on cliff-hangers. One Life attempts to address that by revealing there were elements of all four stories that form an arc but rather than building some momentum into that arc it has been a series of adventures with a writer coming along at the end and going ‘aha! You see how these are interconnected!’ It’s all very unsatisfying and it’s a shame that these couldn’t have been released individually. I could have warned people away from The Conscript if they had. I’m not saying that it is impossible to tell a gripping Time War story featuring the eighth Doctor (The Starship of Theseus, hello) but I am definitely wondering if I am not the target audience for this kind story. To me with the resolution made clear on the television and the fallout of the Time War having little impact on the series afterwards (aside from a personal cost for the Doctor), spending time sketching out (lifeless) detail of the conflict seems to be a creative dead end. Unless those events are going to have gut wrenching impact on the Doctor or his companion, this is simply a documentary series featuring the Daleks and the Time Lords going at one another. I’ve heard it said recently that we are extremely lucky to have the worlds of Doctor expanded in such detail. I agree, we’re incredibly lucky. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say when we personally feel it has gone too far and unfortunately the Time War gets less worth investing in with every minute of this set. What does this all this have to do with One Life? It’s not a bad story, as it goes. It’s trying to make the war personal for one of the characters and it has seeded that character throughout the set to try and make some kind of impact. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that much of an impact on me in the other stories (much like Bliss or any of the supporting characters) so that twist lacks the punch it probably should have had. But by all means put yourself through this all over again to see how Quarren’s arc was laid out in the previous stories, I’ll give that a miss. At least we are viewing the Time War through a fresh pair of eyes and his attempts to try and live a regular life are quite touchingly handled by one of the best writers of this kind of emotional drama on Big Finish’s payroll. The performances are all very nice and there was even a moment where I felt a serious twinge of regret for Quarren and his doomed lover. However, that small, personal story exists in a bubble within the problematic framework of the Time War that I have detailed above, so the second we come away from these two characters, everything feels flat again. Unless hearing Daleks chanting EXTERMINATE or learning about the latest in a long line of Time Lord superweapons is Doctor Who porn for you. The Doctor and Ollistra indulge in verbal duels but the dialogue again barely rises above stock war movie cliché. And Bliss is our new companion. Oh bless. To say I’m not thrilled about the second set would be an understatement: 5/10

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Conscript written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Cardinal Ollistra has a new tactic to persuade the Doctor to join his people’s fight. With his friends locked away, he has been conscripted alongside fellow Gallifreyans to train for the front lines of battle. Commandant Harlan has a reputation – his camp’s regime is harsh. He believes the Time Lords must adapt to win this war, but the Doctor is not easily intimidated. Can there be any place for dissent when the Time War looms so close?

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor never was an easy student, they say he sent Borusa mad. I can see the logic in telling this kind of story, forcing the Doctor through punishing Time Lord military boot camp to make him military ready for the full force of the Time War. But surely if there was anybody who has been used to conflict his entire life, it is the Doctor. He’s spent his entire lives battling evil and confronting the terrible corners of the universe. He’s stakes at an all-time high kind of guy about four times a week. Surely he should be leading the training, especially in how to deal with the Daleks. He meets up with them maybe five times a week and has tackled them in every way imaginable from magnetic cores to human factor madness to ice volcanoes. I’d say he is the ultimate authority on the Daleks. Taking even all of this into account…I thought the whole point of the Night of the Doctor was to show how the eighth Doctor wasn’t ready to take on the sort of responsibilities and hardships that the Time War would foist upon him. That he was too amiable a chap. So what is the point of telling this kind of story if we already know that he won’t make it. And even taking all of that into account…this is the Doctor! The most rebellious, childish, downright anti-establishment Time Lord in the universe! Of course he is going to fight the tyranny of military discipline! Of course the Doctor starts to get people on his side against the odds…that’s his thing. That’s what he’s been doing for the past 1000 years. Although his dialogue to his fellow military cadets about not allowing the Time Lords turn them into Sontaran clones is so heavy handed. Causing a food fight? Is this really what we’ve come to?

Standout Performance: What can one say about Rakhee Thakrar? Utterly unmemorable, for a start. When you already have eighth Doctor companions that are as vivid as Liv and Helen it seems unfortunate to replace them with Bliss. She was given a few lines of backstory in the previous adventure but apart from apparently having more gumption than a scientist on a research mission should, I’m not detecting any real character or motive for her existence. Thakrar says the lines with all the lackadaisical flatness like she was still in Albert Square. I really can’t see that much of a difference. In the extras you can hear what a genuine pleasure it was to hang out with her and how lovely she was in real life and that’s just fabulous. But without handing her a gully formed character with strong motives and opinions and a personality Thakrar is just bringing audible cardboard to life.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Because that’s what it means to be Gallifreyan these days! To be part of the Time War! Forget who you were! Your staser is your best friend!’ – this cod dialogue has been ripped from any war film.
‘You’ve got thirteen lives today!’ ‘Never let a Dalek live!’ ‘When they cry exterminate!’ ‘Don’t be late Regenerate!’ – I literally cannot unhear the Time Lord war chant as they are being put through their paces. Words fail me. And bugger me if they didn’t repeat the exercise again later in the story with fresh lyrics!
‘Are you the weak link? Weak links break chains!’
'There’s no glory to dying in battle!’

Isn’t it Odd: I couldn’t take any of the dialogue that came out of the military Commander’s mouth seriously, it was so horribly cliched. I wanted to quote the entire lot in the section above but I would be writing out half the script above. Is this really the Gallifrey that was introduced in The War Games? If we look over the shoulder of those Godlike beings that put the Doctor on trial would we see a number of Time Lord guards that were driven to their absolute obedience in a Time Lord boot camp like this? I very much doubt it. Gallifrey has never felt more like Earth and less tangibly foreign. The moment the military Commander started barking on about polished boots I just couldn’t take him seriously anymore…and that was his first scene. The story is reduced to the Doctor defying authority and making a ozone detector rather than a staser canon.

Result: I want the Time War that Russell T. Davies promised me. You know, the one that could barely be spoken about the atrocities were incalculable. The one that fucked with all of time and space. The one that rewrote entire histories. That was conceptualised through nightmarish imagery like the Nightmare Child. Big Finish are happily reducing the supposed Greatest Conflict of all Time to something akin to a bog-standard war movies that depict the First and Second World Wars including innocent refugees being caught in the crossfire and our heroes being put through their paces in boot camp. I just never imagined it would be this...recognisably human. What next? A story set in a prison on the other side of the conflict or a rousing drama about trying to rouse a bunch of deserters? This isn’t supposed to be War as we understand the term but utter devastation, complete destruction, wholesale slaughter. It should be beyond my comprehension. The Conscript was very much within my comprehension, a soporific little tale that sees the Doctor being put through his paces in Time Lord military camp. Even if this story was set on Earth during one of the world wars I would find it hackneyed and obvious at every turn. The clichés pile up until I couldn’t take anymore. Matt Fitton says in the extras that because it was John Hurt’s Doctor that was close to the action that Paul McGann’s incarnation has to be shunted off to the side-lines of the Time War because he cannot have a major part in the conflict yet. Nick Briggs follows this up saying there are infinite number of stories to be told on the fringes like this. Oh God why? Because he happens to enjoy the often thoroughly boring genre of war stories, which unless they are handled with a great deal more adeptness than this can be smeared in cliché? Does that mean we’re going to visit every planet that was corrupted by the Time War? Every civilisation? Cross dimensions that the Time War threatened? Given we know precisely where this conflict is going my major questions is this…what is the point? Is this just an excuse to churn out Big Finish material with new series influences or is there a seriously valid creative reason to bring these stories to fruition? I feel like we are going to go round and round in circles being told this is the BIGGEST THREAT TO THE UNIVERSE OF ALL TIME, listen to lots of Daleks screaming exterminate, see some people sweat blood and tears and witness some temporal fuckery. But guess what…you can do all of that if you just watch Day of the Doctor! The Starship of Theseus worked because it began as a regular Doctor Who adventure and twisted into something much darker and more interesting. We saw the personal effects of the conflict. I need a justification for every story to be set in this conflict beyond making what began life as a genuinely threatening and life changing conflict into something far less interesting and mouth-watering. I think a story like this is fundamentally misguided because it reduces the Doctor’s people to something so predictable and relatable. My opinion of stories set amongst the Time Lords was already so low I thought they would have to work extremely hard to disappoint me. Apparently, I was wrong. The Doctor causes a stir amongst the ranks, people get punished for his insurrection, the Daleks show up before people are ready to fight, the futility of war is discussed, the end. There isn’t a line I could believe in, not a character that wasn’t utterly predictable, not one moment of serious characterisation or a moment where the plot made me do anything other than sigh with the sheer inevitability of it all. This isn’t my Time War: 2/10

Echoes of War written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Colliding with the full force of the Time War, the Doctor crash-lands on a jungle world with a ragtag band of refugees. To stay alive, they must cross a landscape where time itself is corrupted. A forest which cycles through growth and decay, where sounds of battle are never far away, and where strange creatures lurk all around. Luckily, the Doctor has friends: not only plucky scientist Bliss, but another, much more unlikely ally. Its name is ‘Dal’…

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor states that his condition of forgetting where the TARDIS is is a little more complicated than amnesia…and thank God because we had enough of that malarkey in the BBC Books. He’s trapped in a War that has no respect for details, facing an opponent he has been tangling with all his lives, has no way back to the TARDIS and is taking responsibility for a group of desperate refugees in a dangerous environment. For the Doctor, this is called a Wednesday and will surely bring the best out in him. He’s a Time Lord but he’s not part of their fight.

Blissful: First Flip, now Bliss. Would it be possible to have companion named Louise or something? I jest, it’s a memorable name for a pretty unmemorable character at this stage. If Bliss is to be the Doctor’s new companion (and there’s no real indication of it at this point) then her only real qualification seems to be ‘because she’s here.’ She was at the Lunar University, a post grad in applied astro-tech, which makes her sound like the modern-day Nyssa (I wonder if she knows anything about telebiogenesis?) but with combat experience because of the Time War. This is a good academic experience for her because it is about as hands on as quantum tech gets. Like Clara in Nightmare in Silver, she is accidentally put in charge of a group of people when it is complete outside of her skillset. Rather than having any tactical competence, she seems to make it up as she goes along. She was on the Theseus because some brink spark thought it would be interesting to measure quantum fluctuations in a temporal warzone.

Standout Performance: Nick Briggs gives a terrific performance as the damaged Dalek. He always does his best work when he gets to play a Dalek that is completely different to the norm; the eponymous Dalek from Rob Shearman’s gripping re-introduction to the creatures in series one, Dalek Sec after going doolally in the time vortex, the Dalek Time Controller from Briggs’ own Lucie Miller and To the Death. This Dalek has completely lost its memory and is a unique individual rather than just another drone and Briggs works overtime to give it a little personality.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Every step could be your last before you even take it.’

Great Ideas: Proving this will be a series of heavily linked adventures, this picks up precisely where The Starship of Theseus left off with the refugees stranded on a jungle world with a damaged Dalek in tow. Everything around them is in a constant state of flux. It was a fun idea in the first story but we can’t really have an entire set of stories where from scene to scene all the details are different. Eventually things will have to normalise. No technology will work within this environment, not even the Doctor’s screwdriver. Time is fragmented here, causality’s askew. Battles long past resonate around them; other times and versions of reality are pressing into existence.

Audio Landscape:
This is one of those stories that truly relies on its soundscape to tell much of its story and I’m reminded (as I need to be every now and again) that we are dealing with a company at the top of its game when it comes producing vivid and complimentary sounds to construct a story. I think Big Finish’s output is so prolific these days that we simply hear too much audio Who and forget how lucky we are to have it. I particularly liked the sounds of warfare in the distance that faded away to nothing as the environment shifted. This sort of thing must be a sound technicians wet dream. It’s true that the Dalek voices are one of their big selling points (I wonder if Briggs would ever let anybody else voice them for a whole story now?), especially on audio. So, it’s jarring to hear one screaming in pain and behaving like a victim, especially when it is prolonged like this.

Isn’t it Odd:
Whilst the idea of a forest growing and dying all around them is an intriguing one and is well realised by the director, I really could have done without all the clunky dialogue that points out exactly what is happening. Big Finish is usually a lot better than this at getting across what is happening visually without having characters state the obvious for the audience’s benefit. If they are trying to help the Dalek forget about its origins and since the inference is that to mention its species will do just that, wouldn’t it be sensible to call it something other than ‘Dal.’ Besides, it just sounds really goofy. Creatures that have been forced down some twisted evolutionary path thanks to the Time War is an interesting concept, but I don’t think it is explored with much interest here beyond an assault of noise as the creature adapts as its timeline shifts.

Standout Scene: The echoes of war weren’t from its history but its future. In comes Ollistra and her War TARDISes and they are about to doom this world in the name of the Time War. The Doctor is appropriately furious, but it does mean that everything we have experienced on this planet is just a prelude of a conflict that is to come. Which means all the interesting stuff that is going to happen here, will happen off screen and at another time.

Result: Echoes of War plays out like standard war story with some temporal jiggery-pokery going on in the background. It’s less immediately gripping than the first story because it takes pains to explain what is happening as it goes and thus loses a lot of it’s mystery, plus some overly descriptive dialogue can really kill some of the more memorable scenes. However, it’s one of those adventures that offers up a unique Dalek character, brilliantly portrayed by Nick Briggs, who has completely lost his memory but is always on the verge of discovering that he was a ruthless killing machine again. He’s really interesting and I wish we had spent more time getting to know him rather than going on a protracted chase scene with him, this might have been a good chance to delve into the Daleks psychologically, especially with one so exposed like this. Instead the story focuses more on his combat tactics, which felt like a missed opportunity. There’s plenty of dangers and running and screaming, but this is one of those Time War stories that I question if it needed to be told. Yes, we know a lot of innocent people were wiped out in the universe spanning conflict but unless you are going to make those characters extremely vivid or have some lasting effect on the Doctor this is just another action epic that would be summed up in a throwaway line in a Russell T. Davies script. If you’re looking for a gripping Dalek live action adventure I would opt for Enemy of the Daleks or Masters of War over this because they have a greater sense of immediacy and better character drama, but this is a perfectly serviceable piece which thanks to some punchy direction remains dynamic, but it’s never intellectually challenging. It’s ‘Dal’ (I wish they had chosen a better name) that makes this worth listening to. Bliss makes little impact, but Dal would have been a brilliant companion: 6/10

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Starship of Theseus written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor and his companion, Sheena, land the TARDIS on the glamorous luxury space-liner Theseus just as it’s about to leave the Jupiter space-port. An opportunity for a holiday presents itself – and it’s one they’re very glad to take. But when a disturbance catches their attention, they realise sinister events are taking place on board. Passengers are vanishing on every trip. And unless they’re careful they may be next. Can the Doctor and Emma solve the mystery? Or is there something else they should be worrying about?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Having just listened to the Dark Eyes and then the Doom Coalition sets back to back for the eighth Doctor it is refreshing to have an adventure at the start of another set that is a story featuring the eighth Doctor and his companion simply materialising somewhere, stepping out and having an adventure. This particular Doctor has been embroiled in long, protracted arcs for so long I had forgotten the unassuming thrill of having him just travel. I realise this is another densely arc ridden set but for the moment let’s enjoy this simple pleasure. He’s like giddy little child discovering that he is on a space liner and the news that they are passing Vulcan means he can wax lyrical at Sheena. It’s a glimpse of the puppy dog eighth Doctor of old, it looks as if some of the pre-Neverland eighth Doctor returned after all the trauma of the Lucie, Molly, Liv and Helen years. It feels deliberately cruel to see some of the sunshine back in his smile when we know that is about to be cruelly ripped away in the face of a universe-devastating Time War. But dramatically speaking, it’s an excellent approach. Just act like you own the place, it always works for the Doctor. He’s sure he’ll get a holiday one of these days. As a Time Lord the Doctor can sense the shifting timelines but such is the strength of the fallout of the Time War he can only really sense that something is wrong rather than remember specific details of the alterations. He’s always had an air of self-sacrifice about him and the Doctor offers his many remaining lives so the refugees can escape. That sounds like a very Doctorish way for him to give up his life. He thought he had left the Time War behind, pushing away all the possibilities that he was involved and opting for a much simpler life of travelling…but it’s coming to get him anyway. He already has a reputation as a renegade, one who betrays his people. When its suggested if he keeps flying the way he does he will break every bone in his body he responds ‘been there, done that.’

The Shifting Companion: The first time the Doctor called Sheena ‘Emma’ I thought it was a continuity error for a script that had been through one or two major rewrites and was about to lambast for poor script editing! As much as I appreciate that Big Finish are trying to create their own universe within the Time War with the War Doctor sets, it always felt like conventional science fiction warfare to me rather than the temporal combat and dimensional madness that Russell T Davies alluded to in his tantalising mentions of it during his tenure on the show. What happens to Sheena (if that even is her name) strikes me as one of the first times that I felt Big Finish (or rather John Dorney) had started to explore the ramifications of fighting a Time War on people, how their lives could altered, rewritten or deleted from the timeline altogether. So, she begins this adventure as one character, shifts into another discreetly as the story continues without anybody noticing (why would they, that’s how it’s always been?) and before long vanishes from the time stream altogether. The fact that the Doctor doesn’t even remember her because he never met her in the first place is horrifying, but it does stress how unimportant these details are in the wake of the devastation to come and the consequences of igniting the flame that would cause this sort of thing to happen to entire star systems. It’s also a brilliantly creative device, and dramatically satisfying with the unfairness of it all. The moment the Doctor says ‘I came here alone’ my blood ran cold.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Your sister’s dead. Sorry, I probably should have built up to that.’
‘It’s like I’m feeling ripples. Ripples in time washing against us, reality changing all around me every time they hit. Ripples are becoming waves, crashing on the shore. Something wicked this way comes…’

Great Ideas: Blink and you’ll miss it but the ship transforms from a deluxe space cruiser to a desperate ship full of refugees instantly and the audience simply has to catch up. How naive is one character when she hopes that the Daleks wont attack neutral non-combatants. With all the alterations in the timeline taking place, the Doctor’s TARDIS is snatched away from him and leaving him stranded in this shifting time zone. A regression weapon that forces things back down the evolutionary ladder.

Musical Cues: The dramatic, punchy War Doctor title music is being used for this set and that delights me, it’s easily one of the best pieces of title music that Big Finish has created for any range. There is a steel to the music that is darker and more combat driven, which is very appropriate for a series set during the Time War.

Standout Scene:
The approaching war TARDISes give the story a truly epic feel and for once the use of the Daleks is perfectly justified, and their appearance brings on real feelings of dread.

Result: ‘I don’t think anyone can escape it, not really, not alive…’ A brilliant premise, dramatically presented and with very little concessions for those not paying full attention. I like it when a Big Finish story treats its audience with intelligence like this and expects a high level of awareness of the details of the story in order for it to make sense. The last time something like this was done in Doctor Who (with details changing from scene to scene) was The Last Resort for BBC Books and I really loved it there as well. But that isn’t all there is to love about The Starship of Theseus, which begins the Time War box set on a confident and memorable note. At the beginning of the adventure it’s like the War hasn’t even happened yet but by the end its clear that it has long since started and the effects are reaching out to catch up with the Doctor, whether he wants it to or not. The point where the Doctor realises what is happening proves extremely ominous indeed, I was utterly gripped at that point to realise that the Time War had him in his grasp and he was unable to struggle free. Paul McGann is on fire, clearly psyched up to be taking his part in the Time War and delivering a performance that is energetic and engaging. The tone shifts from enjoyable escapism at the beginning to sheer desperation at the end, and John Dorney makes that journey a seamless one. Whether or not you think the War needed to be further elaborated or not, The Starship of Theseus proves that it can be mined for dramatic and creative purposes. In both cases it is a sense of inevitability but it takes some skill to pull off a story that kicks off a series called ‘Time War’ and manages to package the approach of such a conflict as something unexpected and terrifying: 9/10