Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Ravenous: Their Finest Hour written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the early days of the Second World War a strange and elusive craft attacks British targets. Could it be a German superweapon? Churchill calls for the Doctor’s assistance and with the help of a squadron of Polish fighter pilots the TARDIS crew take to the skies to investigate.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Don’t you think it’s rather breathtaking just how much the eighth Doctor has been fleshed out on audio? Anyone who is familiar with my scribblings will know that I also found his print adventures a joy, and he certainly had the most experimental and ground-breaking run in the comics too. But on the eve of his latest new epic it is worth considering the prolific number of stories that Paul McGann has featured in for Big Finish now and just how he has been the spearhead for the range for some time. When they were both in the main range it was both McGann and Sixie to watch out for but since he went it alone with his own series of adventures with Lucie, and then Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, his input is the most excitement that Big Finish generates. There’s something very exciting about a Doctor who is a such a blank page. And what’s surprising is that even after 100 or more releases, they are still finding surprising things to do with him. McGann himself is a terrific actor and has more than proven his worth in the role and because the storytelling has become bigger and bolder and more end of the universe than ever (from the Web of Time being threatened with Charley to the massacre at the end of Lucie’s run to the death of the future in Doom Coalition) it has given him the chance to indulge in some apocalyptic performances. Whilst I have missed standalone adventures, there is an undoubted frisson each time a new arc of adventures kicks off for the eighth Doctor and I cannot help but get caught up in it’s wake. There is something refreshing about slipping out of all the baggage that came with the previous arc and just diving headlong into a brand-new adventure with the eighth Doctor. He buzzes around like a caffeinated bee. When the phone rings in the TARDIS he comments that only the finest have the number and picks it up expecting Ringo Starr. Every time he looks in the mirror he gets a glimpse of a face he isn’t expecting. It’s a lovely, discreet reference to Night of the Doctor.

Liv Chenka: She seems to be the only one who is determined to get after Helen, whilst the Doctor is more interested in palling up with Churchill whilst the calculations work themselves out. Liv is a very conservative sort of woman and not the sort you would expect to have her head turned by Russian pilots. Much like her emotional breakdown in Absent Friends, this a surprising thread for the character but one which Nicola Walker plays beautifully. The moment when Rozycki compares her to his mother is priceless, her staggered reaction is nicely underplayed. It might appear to an outsider that the Doctor and Liv don’t like each other very much because they bicker like an old married couple but anybody who has been following their adventures will know that this is just how they communicate. If they weren’t insulting each other, then there would be a problem. She survived the Eminence, the Master, Padrac…for her to die in a plane in the Second World War seems such a small death. If people are going to threaten her friends and she will stop being nice. She’s got a Doctor on her side so piss her off and she’ll sit back with popcorn and watch him defeat them. Even though she knows that practically every one of his plans is far from perfect.

KBO: The rules of meeting up with Churchill is that there is no discussion of relative chronology. The Doctor doesn’t want clues to his own future. There’s an easy chemistry between the Doctor and Churchill that suggests a relationship of long standing and built on respect. It’s nice that he can call on his old friend at times when there appears to be alien intervention in the war.

Great Ideas: If mysterious black triangles are appearing in the sky and taking out military aircraft you better bet your bottom dollar that the Doctor is going to head to the nearest plane and try and take a gander. He’s like a moth to a flame to that sort of thing. The Hellian Blocks are at war but their evolved enough to realise that it’s a waste of population and resources. So they let another planet do it for them. They pick a world that’s already at war and choose sides randomly and whichever side wins, wins the war.

Audio Landscape: It’s astonishing how quickly a Second World War setting can be conjured up on audio with just the growl of aircraft, a siren and an awfully posh radio operator using the term ‘old boy.’ It’s all cliché, but it serves to set the scene immediately.

Isn’t it Odd: Liv writes off what she is hearing about the Second World War as history, which strikes me as a rather stupid thing to say given that everywhere they go in the universe is history of some kind or another. It feels like she is reducing the suffering that is occurring on the front lines to an academic exercise and that simply won’t do at all. Calling Liv’s death in a plane during WWII ‘small’ is another dig at the time, suggesting that to have gone down in this massive conflict is somehow less dramatic than what she has been through in Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition. If only Doctor Who could think up something half as ghastly as WWII, I say… The ending is sad but I felt both the writer and the director could have pushed the moment a little more. Compared to Liv’s outburst at the climax of Absent Friends, this was very passive.

Result: Their Finest Hour wriggles out of the arc constraints of Doom Coalition and tells a pleasingly simple story to kick start Ravenous. Churchill might be a little over-advertised given how much airtime he has in this story, but it’s always nice to have Ian McNiece back in the role and he enjoys an easy chemistry with Paul McGann. Nicola Walker, one of the unsung heroes of the eighth Doctor range for some time, gives a masterful turn as Liv Chenka, afforded a sweet romance with a Polish pilot and given a chance to explore her relationship with the Doctor some more. It’s so much more understated than the Doctor/Charley or Doctor/Lucie relationship (as wonderful as both of those were) and I think McGann and Walker have similar acting styles (subtle, until asked to really go for it and then they blow you away) which give the Doctor/Liv friendship a natural chemistry all of its own. For John Dorney this is a subdued affair, not trying to shake the foundations of the Doctor Who universe but instead gently easing in to the next phase of the eighth Doctor’s life. He’s always focused on character, which is why I love his writing so much. I always feel close to the people in his stories, even if the plot isn’t always as punchy as it might be. Big Finish is always so good at bashing out pure historical so when this dives into science fiction my interest waned a little, despite the fact that an alien presence was suggested from the start. To be honest the aliens made no effect on me whatsoever, but the rest of the story was easy to listen to. Doom Coalition started on a much punchier tale which immediately grabbed my attention but Ravenous has offered me what I have been asking for quite a while, to step back from all massiveness of an arc narrative and just enjoy some good old fashioned standalone storytelling. It was diverting with an authentic production and wonderful performances and as benchmark you can’t ask for much more than that. Unexceptional, but enjoyable: 7/10

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Eternal Battle written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: The TARDIS has landed in a war zone. The Doctor, Romana and K9 find themselves traipsing through an inhospitable battlefield. Strange lights flicker in the sky, and stranger creatures lurk in the darkness. When rescued from an attack by a Sontaran tank, the time-travellers discover they’re facing a far more dangerous foe than the battle-hungry clones. This terrifying fight has been going on longer than anyone can remember… and shows no signs of stopping. With the TARDIS missing and their luck running thin, the Doctor and his friends’ only hope of survival is to uncover the truth about what is happening on this planet. If they can discover the secret of the eternal battle they might just survive… but it might just mean the end of them all.

Teeth and Curls: Tom Baker is giving a very dominating and powerful performance throughout. In a serious situation he gives a serious performance and whilst I love the frolicsome Doctor from the Williams era, I think on audio he has delivered his best work when his comic excesses have been reigned in. The Doctor thinks he has brought Romana to the Lake District for a little sojourn but this time he has got it very, very wrong. There’s a standard order for the Doctor and associates to be executed should a Sontaran warrior come into contact with them, which makes sense given the trouble he has managed to cause for them over the years. It’s fascinating that the Doctor doesn’t seem to be unsympathetic with the Sontarans despite the atrocities that he has seen them commit. He truly will take each person on a case by case basis and judge them by their actions and not an entire species. These Sontarans are trying to keep a stiff upper lip against unsurmountable odds and the Doctor is willing to help because they are suffering. He truly is the Doctor after all. You’ve got to love how the Doctor is so excited to borrow a Sontaran tank. Imagine that on TV, with him atop a vehicle of destruction, laughing his head off, scarf flailing in the wind. It’s a steal from the book Millennium Shock (or at least a similar image) but it’s such a good one who cares? He’s very good at jiggery pokery, don’t you know? To have the Doctor fighting shoulder to shoulder with a noble Sontaran is a marvellous concept and I really enjoyed his relationship with Lenk. He’s very different from Strax insofar as he isn’t played for buffoonery, he’s distinctly a battle hardened Sontaran who is working with the Doctor to try and figure a way out of this situation for him and his men. I love the scene between them in the climax where they both remain true to their character and go their seperate ways.

Aristocratic Adventurer: There’s no real place for the witty banter that usually flows between the Doctor and Romana in this story so Romana is forced into the role of the intelligent, action companion. She’s sharp and moody (which is par for the course this season) and her dialogue is reduced to succinct and smart comments. She's handy with a shoe, though.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Doctor?’ ‘Well that depends, do I owe you money?’
‘A battle weary Sontaran, that is novel.’
‘Lenk, I’m going over the top!’ ‘No change there…’

Great Ideas: A depleted troop of Sontarans, on the edge of endurance and fighting a battle they are losing. It’s an interesting approach to the warlike race, putting them at such a disadvantage. Corpses are rising from the battlefield to fight again and again. Sontarans fighting the recently dead Sontarans, such a novel concept. Soldiers gathered from conflicts throughout history, no major wars and nothing that would attract too much attention. Trapping battles and entire wars in pocket continuums to demonstrate the futility of war to their students. They are contained within a time loop so they can be watched over and over and lessons from history learnt from. The idea is to prove that peaceful alternatives can be reached if you strive from them. The Doctor mentions the world peace and to Lenk that is the equivalent of swearing. Despite their precautions and their bubbles of war to learn from, war still came to Zykon and destroyed the population. The moral here seems to be that the same mistakes will be made over and over again, despite our knowledge of the past. That’s a very Scott and Wright ethic, it’s like the anti-Holmes approach to Doctor Who.

Audio Landscape: Dan Starkey is the go to actor to play a Sontaran these days and given his success as Strax that is hardly a surprise. However, speaking as somebody who finds Strax a little too comic book and has given the Sontarans an overly humorous angle of late it is refreshing to hear him playing a handful of deadly serious roles and proving he is just as adept at that. Leave it to Big Finish to remember that this race are supposed to be a threat.

Isn’t It Odd:
I do appreciate the notion of the Doctor and Romana walking straight into danger as soon as they exit the TARDIS, which is a stark difference from the usual frivolity that happens for the first ten minutes or so of most 4DAS. However, the idea of them running away from a slavering monster, represented by someone going ‘rawwwwrrrrrr’ might just tap into the fears of the casual audio audience that thing that is exactly what these audios are about. Not intellectual debate or character drama but people reacting melodramatically to nothing because we can’t see the pictures. For a second I thought I was back in Slipback again.

Standout Scene: The moment when the story pauses on the battlefield and the shadows come lumbering through the mist towards the Sontarans. At this point it’s still a mystery what the enemy is and the answer to what they are fighting is quite the surprise.

Result: Whilst scarce in nature, Big Finish have a really good track record with Sontaran stories and The Eternal Battle is no different. Being a self-confessed fan of war movies, Nicholas Briggs must have loved this directorial assignment and he really goes to town in making this sound as authentic as possible. It’s a story which really cuts to the point and doesn’t waste a word, something of a relief given how frivolous this range can be at times and it’s nice to enjoy a two-part story like this that makes so much time for suspense and atmosphere. If you look back at their previous record, it is very Scott and Wright to have zombie Sontarans like something out of the Walking Dead menace their way through the story. They have never been frightened of taking Doctor Who into graphic areas or really pushing the horror content and this is the sort of battle you won’t want to miss. The second episode lurches into something quite different. At first I thought we were heading into a War Games like scenario, which is how it is initially presented but pleasingly the narrative pushes to the other extreme from war and this turns out to be the ultimate exploration (or at least lesson) of peace. And then that is subverted again in a cruel twist when we find out what happened to the people of Zykon. Perhaps these developments come a little too thick and fast but at least this story is packed full of content and interesting moments and my attention never strayed for a moment. For a 4DA, this is well above average, memorable, and definitely worth a listen. The Eternal Battle is nothing like any 4th Doctor story you saw on screen and is all the better for it: 8/10

Monday, 9 April 2018

Torchwood: More Than This written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Gwen Cooper has triumphed against impossible odds before, but now she's finally met her match: Roger Pugh, Planning Officer for Cardiff City Council. Mr Pugh doesn't believe the world needs Torchwood. Gwen sets out to prove him wrong. For Mr Pugh, it's a day that'll change his life. If he can survive it.

Welsh Babe: Anybody who has become entangled with the government or any kind of bureaucratic department can empathise with Gwen’s plight in the first few scenes as she attempts to get planning position for a new base of operations for Torchwood. Gwen still gets shaken when confronting aliens but essentially takes it all in her stride now. After the things she’s seen, it’s just another day in the office. Pugh wonders if the existence of Torchwood encourages alien threats, which Gwen denies but there is no denying that their tinkering with the rift and their blasé approach to the universe at large has led to more chaos and attraction of alien nasties than would otherwise be the case. Nowadays Torchwood is about protecting people and not taking stupid risks. The fact that she has such a vital role in the survival of humanity makes Gwen feel terrified and humbled.

Mr Pugh: How fascinating to have a story told almost entirely from the point of view of an outsider who is being brought in to Torchwood. It’s essentially a copy of the story being told in Everything Changes but instead of ultra-naive Gwen being put through her paces we have a man from the Council, Mr Pugh seeing the day to day running of a covert alien fighting organisation. It works much better too because it’s told with much more relaxed humour and much less melodrama. The casual way that Pugh mentions that he knows about aliens because he’s read about them in the paper, is marvellous. Cutting back and forth to Pugh at his wife’s graveside and narrating parts of this story works extremely well. It allows us to get close to Pugh emotionally and for him to move the story on narratively. It’s established early that Pugh isn’t a fighting man which makes his endurance throughout More Than This the work of a brave man. The moment when Pugh admits that he let go, which is something he has wanted to do for years, it doesn’t need any explanation as to why because his wife’s death has already been very well established. The thing that makes him come to his senses that there is never more than this, there is no chance he will be reunited with her in heaven. But he’s open to the possibility, which offers hope. The world needs Torchwood and he has to help them create a base of operations.

Standout Performance: Eve Myles is clearly a talent and her continuing success beyond Torchwood is a testament to that. She broke my heart in The Unquiet Dead and returned to Doctor in quite a different guise in The Stolen Earth. I’m certain that Torchwood series one always played to her strengths because she works much better as the beating heart of Torchwood rather than the seduced vixen she became. Myles’ natural humour and likeability won through though and her characterisation has been a lot more consistent and enjoyable since. She’s especially fantastic throughout Children of Earth. On audio we’re up close and personal and her dulcet Welsh tones ring beautifully in our ears. She’s a phenomenon, effortlessly easy to get close to and portraying a character who is smart, confident and friendly. Listen to the moment where she has to bring Pugh to his sense in the climax. She’s instruction him with such conviction that even I sat up to attention.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Saving the world from the boot of my car is getting tedious!’
‘It used to make me feel bigger somehow. Imagining more than this. That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? That’s what all fantasies are about. We look at our lives and say to ourselves…there must be more than this.’
‘That’s what they always get wrong in the films. Special effects are flawless. Life isn’t flawless.’

Great ideas: Wonderfully on one call to the Council, Gwen is attacked by a hideous monster in the normal Torchwood line of business and Pugh’s response in his call back to her is that she will need to sign a health and safety form before proceeding further with planning permission. Plans have been drawn up for the space that Torchwood wants in Cardiff Bay for a new parking lot. Four years and it seems that the world has forgotten all about Torchwood. How cool is the idea of a liquid life form that can turn itself into a work of art and feed on the emotions of the people who look at it.

Isn’t It Odd: It’s a shame that the event that killed Pugh’s wife had to be directly linked to Torchwood. It’s a pointless piece of continuity and like with Buffy’s mum in The Body it would have been much more touching had it been a natural death, nothing to do with the supernatural.

Standout Scene: The stunningly written and performed scene in the middle of the story between Gwen and Pugh when they discuss the nature of fantasy and leaving a mark on the world before you depart. It’s so emotionally honest it quite took my breath away, especially after the frivolity elsewhere in this release.

‘We did it. We saved the world…’ Fascinating because it picks up after Miracle Day and continues that narrative that was left hanging by the TV series, More Than This abandons the American sojourn in favour of something a little more home grown, intimate and touching. This is essentially a fourth pilot for the show (after the first episodes of series 1, Children of Earth and Miracle Day), a way for newcomers to come to the series with no real knowledge of it (just like Mr Pugh) and take on board the Torchwood lifestyle. How very backwards to have this story then at the end of the first series, rather than kicking things off. Audio Torchwood wanted to establish that it can do and go anywhere in it’s timeline before continuing things where we left off on telly. Smart move. It’s such a cute idea, too, to have Gwen (who went through this experience herself many moons ago) expose the terrifying world of Torchwood to a Council Official who wants to turn the space they have earmarked for Torchwood Three into a multi-storey car park. The story hops from set piece to set piece as Pugh confronts the sort of dangers that Torchwood juggles and he comes to realise why such an organisation is vital to the security of the world. There’s witty lines, shocks and lovely moments of humour but more importantly there’s a lovely relationship that develops between Gwen and Pugh that surprises and moves. Guy Adams’ dialogue is very insightful and the script is beautifully played by both actors. Pugh goes from naïve newbie to giving Gwen advice by the end of the story and his monologues to his wife’s graveside really made him feel like a person who had a life beyond this story. Trust me with a lot of characters in audio drama I don’t always get that feeling. Lots of imaginative ideas abound too, in the little vignettes that we experience in the day in the life of Torchwood. Hugely enjoyable and a nice spring board for more Torchwood stories that take place after the body of television work, More Than This serves a purpose but it’s an involved piece in its own right: 8/10

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Heavenly Paradigm written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: With his plans approaching fruition, the Master travels to Stamford Bridge in the 1970s: a location he believes might hold the key to his success. But what terrible secret lurks under the stairs of No. 24 Marigold Lane? And what sacrifices will the Master make in the name of ultimate victory?

War Master: He’s deeply amused that the TARDIS materialises in the form of a police telephone box. It’s wonderful that he calls his own species one of the most terrifying in the universe. He takes delight in telling the Time lords he is visiting for purely altruistic reasons. When his motives match up with those of his peoples, he might just be worth listening to. When faced with one of his people brandishing a weapon and all he has is a cup of tea to hand he asks, ‘Are you scared yet?’ You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs and the Master is very particular about asking Cole if he thinks it is worth doing anything, whatever the cost to change the course of the Time War. Effectively his companion was agreeing to sacrifice himself. I do love how in this set the Master is completely honest and upfront, how he behaves to a specific set of rules. He never deceives anybody. He’s perhaps more honourable than the Doctor in that respect, whilst still behaving like a complete bastard. He doesn’t want a universe in ruins. If he did he would simply step back and let the War rip the multiverse apart. He wants peace and order and stability. He wants survival and power. He wonders if he is a product of his upbringing in that respect. Mrs Wilson points out that if he dispensed with his psychotic obsessions he could be the most wonderful man in the universe. Typical really, the one time he tries to make the universe a better place and it all blows up in his face.

Cole: Is Cole a little too naïve to have fallen for the Master’s charms quite so completely? I don’t think so because Jacobi plays the part so welcomingly (just like Delgado did, to a point where it was easier to champion him than Pertwee’s Doctor at times) and because he hasn’t actually been seen to do anything quite so resolutely evil as we would expect from the Master. He’s been very careful to present himself as a bystander in the War. It’s only when Cole is attached to the Paradigm and he still champions the Master that I was a little incredulous. Cole is labouring under the misapprehension that the Time lords have a sense of morality, rather than a sense of arrogance that they should dominate…well because they should.

Standout Performance: Nerys Hughes playing the perfect suburban housewife who is actually a Time lady in disguise. I especially liked how slipped her façade so easily when Cole has been knocked unconscious, from cheerful platitudes to straight to the point threats. She’s quite the talent, Nerys, and it would be nice for Big Finish to find a regular role for her. Jonny Green for again tugging at the heartstrings so effectively. And of course, Derek Jacobi, whose every utterance is one of sublime menace. Oh wait, that’s the entire cast. In that case, bravo.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I know exactly what I am doing! There is a reason I’m not called The Apprentice, you know.’
‘Making choices is what life is all about.’

Great Ideas: Even England in the 1970s is feeling the effects of the Time War. People can change gender in a heartbeat. Great swathes of history are being rewritten as the walls of reality come tumbling down. That’s rather frightening, isn’t it? To be living your life one day after the next only to realise that yesterday you never existed at all. If the War keeps going the way it is there will be nobody left, anywhere. A facility exists in the 1970s where the Time Lords keep their most terrifying weapons. A security weapon that bombards you with things that it finds in your subconscious. It would have a field day with my head. Trust the Time Lords to aim for the mind to hurt rather than any kind of physical pain. The Heavenly Paradigm is one of Gallifrey’s most shameful secrets. Certain decisions bring positive effects in our lives whilst others lead to consequence we might wished to have avoided. Imagine there was a way you could always make all the right decisions. You would live the perfect life. The paradigm examines a personal timeline and pinpoints the moments that can be changed to achieve maximum potential. Each person, each civilisation achieves the best chance of happiness. It’s designed to minimise conflict, to give you the best possible outcome. There’s a very arrogant assumption that The Time Lords don’t need fixing and that it is the Daleks who need altering to prevent the Time War from taking place. This is exactly what the Time lords were doing in Genesis of the Daleks, trying to turn the pepper pots into less aggressive creatures. This is a fascinating way to look at the exercise though, with a weapon that could iron out the entire timeline of the species and make such dramatic changes to the Web of Time (we haven’t had that phrase bandied about in a while). Nothing provides a great dose of potential energy than the fallout of cancelled probabilities. All those changes, all those possibilities wiped out and the Paradigm is juiced full of temporal energy.

Isn’t it Odd: This story does so well what Suburban Hell failed to achieve in the 4DA line, a suburban environment hiding a deadly alien secret. The Heavenly Paradigm achieves this by dialling back the weirdness and simply presenting a Time Lord facility in a mundane setting. Most people use their under stairs cupboard to store dull things but here there is a hangar for experimental aircraft.

Standout Scene:
Imagine the potential energy that could be reaped from the death of one man who created an entire race of robotic monsters that spread across the galaxy. With growing dread we realise that the Master is going to wipe Cole from existence, and the creatures he created in The Sky Man, in order to extract that source of energy and use it to manipulate the Time War. Big, big ideas but made to impact emotionally because we have come to like Cole. It’s like eliminating Hitler, or Davros, from history. Except he’s a really nice guy.

Result: ‘This is not what I wanted!’ This is a conceptual horror, told sedately, but giving you a lot to think about. The temporal energy shenanigans reminded me of the latter eighth Doctor Adventure books, particularly Sometime Never…, and the concepts fascinated me for the same reason. I love how the events of the Sky Man play such a big part in this story, giving that tale additional weight. It’s astonishing how quiet this story is and how economical it is cast wise, and yet how far reaching the ideas discussed are. It goes to show that you can created something epic without resorting to a cast of a thousand shouting voices, Dalek porn and pointless battle scenes without pictures. It the ideas hold weight and are brought down to a human level so they are affecting, you’ve got something huge in scale but still intimate. It’s a delightful disparity. This whole set has been leading up to giving the Master the chance to play God and turn the universe to his design. The last time he had a chance to do something on this scale he wiped half of the damn universe out. This time he’s even less in control of the fallout. The sequence towards the end of the story where the paradigm is activated and the universe is constantly in flux is quite astonishing in its possibility. Bravo for tying this so effectively into the Master’s established New Series timeline. Bravo for giving Jacobi the chance to return to the role and prove what a joy he would have been had he stuck around a little longer. And bravo for making a fully fleshed out character who is honourable in some ways and completely foul in others but always quite charming in his approach either way. It’s been a mesmerising experiment, this set, and one that was very worth trying. I certainly wouldn’t object to hear more from the War Master. He’s more than proven that he is capable of driving a series of his own. Blakes’ 7 proved that it was more than possible to have an anti-hero at the helm of a series and Only the Good shows you how that would play out with one of the finest character actors in the country took hold of that responsibility and ran with it. A risky gambit, but a successful one: 8/10

Only the Good box set: 8/10

The Sky Man written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When his new companion decides to save a planet, the Master indulges this most futile of requests. Materialising on a primitive, agrarian world, both the strangers quickly find their place in it… until fallout from the War invades their happy paradise.

War Master: It’s a great image of the Master, a Time lord in command of a TARDIS and completely impotent in the face of the Time War. It’s not like the Master took Cole to a world that he knew was bound to destruction because he gave him the choice of several. Unless he chose several that he knew were doomed… He’s always enjoyed hobbies that require patience and subtlety, going from a seed to a product of marvellous complexity. He could be describing one of his masterplans! Marvellous he suggests that he has the kind of face you can trust. The Master tending to his vineyard and keeping his nose out of Cole’s world saving activities is a fantastic conceit. It’s a little like what the Doctor does in Kill the Moon but handled with far more subtlety and believability. Plus, it’s just nice to listen to the man talk about something other than grandiose schemes and plots. It might seem heartless when he refuses to help this civilisation but he is still true to his word. When he arrived he specifically said that he wasn’t allowed to get involved and that his people would look unkindly on his interference and punish his appropriately (maybe he recalls watching the Doctor’s trial when recalling how they react to interference). If you asked him outright if he helped in any way he could refuse to say he did but conveniently he has left supplies to create a cyber race for Cole to use. He knows exactly what he is doing and exactly what his companion will do with those spare parts. The Master offering Cole the wine he has been making throughout the story, almost to toast his failure.

Cole: We’ve never seen the Master with an actual companion in the same way that Doctor travels with a friend. He had stooges that he manipulated in the Sea Devils and The Time Monster and Lucy was his wife and somebody he kept around to take his frustrations on. The closest was probably Chang Lee from the TV Movie and he snapped his neck so that didn’t go so well. It’s an interesting dynamic, having somebody in the Master’s TARDIS that he is willing to take to a doomed world and let him see if he can do anything about saving it. The doctor would often be known to remark ‘this is my best friend’ about his companions but the Master departs with a marvellous ‘treat him with sympathy, he means well.’ Cole integrates into this society naturally, with a few bumps along the way as he tries to ‘improve’ their lifestyle with technology that backfire and the romance that brews up feels very natural. He’s like a dodgy wine, apparently, after a while he’s bearable. They call Cole ‘the Sky Man’ because of where he came from. It surprises him when he finally says ‘our world’ rather than ‘your world.’ When it is clear that something deadly has come to this world and finger is pointed at Cole, he is quick to point out all the hard work he has done here and the character he has shown in helping this society. You can’t help but like this guy. Elidh means so much to him that when people start dropping like flies he is quick to make her a survival suit like his own. Coles tears when the Master turns up to take him away from the hell he has created were really affecting. Never before has someone saying ‘what have I done?’ hit me so hard. He doesn’t just carry the burden of this races construction but he also carries the weight of every planet they destroy and every life they take.

Standout Performance: Jonny Green gives a superb performance in The Sky Man, creating a Cole that it is easy to warm to and hard to condemn when his efforts go awry. The most important element of any audio drama is to have a character that you care about or can believe in and in both cases Green triumphs.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Typical. When a man decides to sew, he decides to sew in tin.’
‘A paradox made on a paradox…’
‘If they leave their world, they’ll burn the very stars and fill the emptiness of space with their screams…’

Great Ideas: The cover is phenomenal. Quite apart from a the very beautifully young man depicted (what? I’m only human!), it really sets the scene for this story effectively. The covers for both the Gallifrey and War Master sets have been above and beyond what I expect from Big Finish of late, certainly of the Main Range. This is a society that is aware of modern technology but chooses not to utilise it. Technology would have made them visible to those who are fighting the Time War, it is the best for of defence to maintain a peaceful, agrarian society. They slipped under the radar by keeping their noses out of the conflict. It’s astonishing how easily Cole’s efforts and his drive to help these people becomes something more sinister.

Audio Landscape: The robotic voices that kick in after the civilisation are encased in Cyber-suits are terrifying. ‘Retribution…’

Standout Scene: The moment Anvar was placed inside his survival suit really affected me. These are never specifically stated to be Cybermen but we have such a long-standing history with the creatures and the idea of being placed inside a cold metal suit and suffering a claustrophobic attack is stifling to listen to. It makes that moment of conversion so human and completely terrifying.

‘It looks…unfriendly’ Surprising, thoughtful, dramatic and gripping, The Sky Man sunk its claws into me and never let go. I was a little reluctant to have an adventure where the Master is sidelined and a one-off companion takes centre stage but Cole is characterised and intelligently and engagingly from the off and his integration into this simple society gently reveals shades of his character that surprised me. This is better characterisation than a lot of Doctor Who companions get in their respective ranges, Cole is sweet, funny and thoughtful. It’s a society that is painted beautifully too, an agrarian people who are proud of their lack of technology but with Cole’s influence slowly come to depend on it. I’ve seen this sort of story play out before on many science fiction shows, especially ones like Stargate and Star Trek. Where a regular is absorbed into a society that they visit and they have a profound effect on one another. But it is done here with such emotional honesty and naturalism that this really is the standard that the others should match up to. This reminded me of Goss’ The Winning Side for the Bernice Summerfield series, which was a real highlight of that period of the that range, insofar as I was engrossed by the cleanness of the writing where it felt like not a word was wasted, the quality of the characterisation and the doomy tone that led to some unforgettably dramatic scenes. The direction and performances deserve much praise, it takes some skill to make affecting drama like this seems so effortless. I really felt for these people and I had known them less than an hour. Cole thinks he’s saving these people from their deaths but all he is doing is providing them with an alternative purgatory. Watching this play out (given everything we know about Cyberman history) is devastating, but inevitable. All it takes is to put on a suit and all your problems will be over. The flesh is weak, technology is superior. Thoroughly absorbing and personal, this is audio drama at its finest: 10/10

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Good Master written by Janine H Jones and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: The Time War rages around Arcking - a planet serving as a sanctuary for the sick and injured. But Arcking is protected by a mysterious, powerful force: a force the Master will stop at nothing to harness… even if time itself is against him.

War Master:
Much like Delgado, Jacobi isn’t just a snarling, giggling villain but a rounded character. He rarely comes across as a ‘villain’ at all, except in climactic moments but rather a dark sort of character who is capable of doing good deeds if the situation calls for it. I much prefer that than the Ainley or Roberts approach when the poor guy couldn’t have any screen time without laughing like a loony or making some grandiose statement about how monstrous he is. It’s almost a shame that he has to take on a guise in order to take on a benevolent air. I would have quite liked the Master to simply be himself but behaving in generous way. It would make his acts of villainy stick in the craw even more. I really enjoyed his speech about doing as much as they can to save the lives of the patients for as long as possible…why wouldn’t the Master be down for that, if it didn’t get in the way of his masterplans? Just don’t tell the Doctor. When you think about the Master and the Daleks have quite a long history that stretches back to Frontier in Space (‘stupid tin boxes…’), through to the TV Movie, onto Big Finish (especially Dark Eyes) and the books (Legacy of the Daleks). He’s always exploiting them, I’ve noticed, and now it’s payback. He calls surgery ‘primitive childsplay’ but he does know his way around a scalpel. The Master came to Arcking to discover the force that the planet is imbued with and harness it. When his life is in danger he can even stroke somebody’s ego and calm them down enough to get himself out of that situation. Time and again the Mater has been on Arcking, first to try and take the heart for himself and now for others. Whereas the Doctor likes an inquiring assistant, the Master thinks that Viola ask far too many questions. Unlike the Monk with Tamsin, he shows no remorse whatsoever at her demise.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m the Master. It’s what I do. Infiltrate, exploit, win.’
‘One day soon and out of his own free will, the Master will choose to make the universe a better place.’

Great Ideas: Why would the Daleks attack an unarmed civilian ambulance? Because that’s what Daleks do. For all I complain about the overuse of the Daleks on audio, the producers of the various ranges at least manage to remember the thing they do best: they kill. The New Series sure forgot that for some time. Time passes very differently on Arcking, the anomalies distort the gravitational field and quite by chance as result Arcking projects a field of protection. A powerful force trapped on a planet lost to the fringes of the Time War. Some of this planet keeps them protected from the ravages of the Time War, something ancient and powerful. A state of grace. Nobody can be killed unless it is their time. Whatever it is it promotes longevity and extends life. Imagine the Daleks with a weapon like that at their disposal. I would never get bored of watching/listening to Kamikaze Daleks, turning themselves into enormous fists to punch through into their desired location. Risky, but effective. The heart of the planet is a sentient life form. Arcking was always going to be destroyed on this day, that’s how the heart was able to manifest itself in the first place. The trigger of its own destruction.

Standout Scene: There’s a beautiful moment where the Master stands back from the situation and talks to himself about the mess he has got himself into. It’s a stunning little monologue from Jacobi that reminded me of the moment in The Massacre where the Doctor expresses his woes at the console. Maybe he’s left it too long this time. The universe is going to hell. Maybe his number is up. It’s great to see him expressing his weariness at the extremity of the Time War. When a character designed to fight has had enough it brings home just how bad things have gotten.

Result: An interesting concept sits at the heart of The Good Master, one that sees a planet at threat because the Master happened to land there. How far would he go in order to protect himself? How many people would be manipulate and exploit and dispose of? Arcking is an interesting planet to visit because it shows the fallout of the Time War in a very different, subtle way. We get to experience the suffering of those races that have been caught in the fallout of the Time War without having to wade through endless noisy battles. How refreshing to have a new female writer introduced and the writing has a freshness about that comes from a new voice. It’s not a guns blazing war story that we have been used to as Big Finish has dived into the murky waters of the Time War but an altogether more thoughtful affair and I really appreciate that. The Time War touches The Good Master but it doesn’t dominate it. There’s no hysterics or angst, the story plays out very logically with people reacting to the situation in a reasonable way. Some of these Time War stories have been pitched at the hysteria level of a soap opera. I like the mystery of what is at the heart of Arcking is, the Master is at the heart of a proper SF conundrum. Just listening to Jacobi’s silky smooth voice is a joy for me. His continuing involvement in the extended Doctor Who universes shouldn’t be taken for granted. He’s one of the finest actors this country has ever produced and he’s playing the Master. Soak that in. And this set is giving him some delicious opportunities to play the Master as a rounded character, with a sinister edge. It’s a fascinating take on the character and I can’t wait to explore more. The Good Master is a very enjoyable story, if not one of the big hitters. You’ve got a smart plot, decent characters and an intriguing take on the Master: 7/10

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Beneath the Viscoid written by Nicholas Briggs and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: On the ocean planet Gardezza, deep beneath the Viscoid, a mysterious capsule is recovered from the Time War, and an equally mysterious stranger found within. The Doctor’s reputation precedes him, even here… but can he be trusted?

War Master: He was a prisoner of the Daleks when he escaped them. One is not usually a guest when one has to escape. The Master is having a whale of a time pretending to be the Doctor, trying to wave away his reputation with false modesty. Heading into this adventure incognito does address one of the problems that I had going into this box set and that is if the Master is a truly evil bastard who is out for himself, how does he drive the stories and help people out? But if he is taking on the persona of the Doctor then this can be driven in quite a conventional way. At least for now. I wouldn’t want every story to play out like your typical Doctor Who story, but as a way of introducing people to the idea of stories featuring the Master it makes a lot of sense to do it this way. He might be a conniving son of a bitch but that doesn’t mean he cannot marvel at a scientific wonder or praise a society that has lifted itself out of the mire technologically. The Master (well maybe not the Ainley but certainly the Delgado version) was always much more interesting than a walking evil cliched villain. He has a glorious moment when he gets to admire the Gardezzans for their strength at resisting the Daleks, a very Doctor-like speech that Jacobi delivers like an over excited puppy. The Master is clearly loving this guise. He considers himself a natural ally to the Daleks because he wants to crush the Time Lords and the Doctor as much as they do. Now that would be an interesting idea for a story, one where he completely allies himself with the race his people are at war with to meet his own ends. Would the Master sell out Gallifrey so completely? Of course he would!

Great Ideas: It’s made distinctly clear that if the Time Lords weren’t fighting the Daleks then the people of Gardezza wouldn’t be under Dalek occupation. They are using the power of the Viscoid to power a transportation network. The seabed bases used to be for their storage and energy distribution needs. When they Daleks invaded, they retreated beneath the surface. An alien artefact was discovered when they took refuge under the sea. The Master recognises his TARDIS but keeps his poker face fixed tight and all the survivors of Gardezza recognise is that it has an immense power source and they are hoping to defeat the Daleks with it.

Audio Landscape:
I thought Big Finish had portrayed the Daleks in every possible way before now, such has their exposure been on audio but I cannot recall them ever turning up immersed underwater before. It’s a novel experience and it sounds absolutely genuine. I’m I really using ‘novel experience’ and Daleks in the same paragraph when it comes to a Big Finish story?

Musical Cues:
A very impressively conceived and executed musical titles, combining the sort of bombastic punch that we expect from Doctor Who but strained through a darker, less optimistic lens.

Result: ‘He’s going to be an orphan now, poor little chap…’ Beneath the Viscoid is one of those stories that plays out with a crushing sense of inevitability…but it’s one of those times when it is perfectly okay because the predictable ending is what you are waiting for throughout. Having the Master pretending to be the Doctor is cute but I was on tenterhooks waiting for the moment where he throws off the disguise and turns on the Daleks. It’s a story with an extremely vivid setting, thanks in part to the atmospheric direction that brings the underwater setting to life so well but also because it sketches out a race that has been heavily affected by the Time War and details a pivotal moment when they push back against the Daleks. Had the Doctor turned out to be their saviour things might have worked out very differently for them but they were saddled with the War Master who is only out for himself (whilst smiling and pretending otherwise all the way). There’s nothing especially original happening here (but then with Briggs that ship sailed a long time ago) but it’s a story told with real efficiency with some lovely ideas like the Master appearing to be aiding the Daleks. If you’re a fan of Jacobi (and who isn’t?) this is such a treat. You get both his take on playing the Doctor and more of his burning eyed Master that made such an impact is Utopia. This is less pantomimic than Anthony Ainley and Michelle Gomez and far less manic than John Simm. Jacobi gets the closest to Delgado’s original Master; suave, intelligent and dangerous to know. If you greeted the idea of this box set with disdain it might be worth giving it a listen just to hear this iteration of the Master come to fruition. It shows what a crushing shame it was that we couldn’t have had more Jacobi on the telly. I’m game for more of this sinister incarnation now we’ve got the traditional Doctor Who story out the way, albeit with a very dark slant towards the climax: 7/10