Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Behemoth written by Marc Platt and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Bath, 1756 – and a very dashing gentleman known only as the Doctor is newly arrived in town, accompanied by his lady friends Mrs Clarke and Mrs Ramon. He’s created a stir among the gentlefolk of Georgian high society – and a stir in the heart of merry widow Mrs Theodosia Middlemint, rumour has it. They are not the only strangers from abroad causing tongues to wag, however. The mysterious Lady Clara, come from Amsterdam in the company of the noble Captain Van Der Meer, has the whole of Bath agog. Who is she, really? What is she, really? But there’s something terrible beneath the veneer of Georgian gentility. As awful a horror as the Doctor has ever exposed, hidden inside Balsam’s Brassworks. Something that needs to be brought to light, for the sake of all humanity.

Softer Six: How wonderful that this mismatched team should be the most successful and anticipated of the Big Finish main range; a bombastic and colourful Time Lord, a stalwart and sensible WREN and a street wise cockney fresh from her wedding. There’s something extremely charming about the clash of personalities that is in play here, it’s a three-time culture clash that yields entertaining and engaging results. It’s nice to have Sixie at the top of the pecking order again after some time cruising the main range. He’s mistaken for Mrs Clarke’s footman with ideas above his station…and with a coat like a detonation in a woman’s wardrobe! He once danced a cotillion with Jane Austen, don’t you know. She was a very nifty mover. As you can see on the cover the Doctor has abandoned his hideous coat and is decked out in finery from the period. He manages to charm the local hob nobs and is quite graceful on the dance floor. A veritable parapet of invention, he performs a trick with a roast chicken that quite brings the house down. The Doctor takes hot chocolate with a lady, much like the first Doctor did with Cameca in The Aztecs. Since this is a similarly paced historical with dark undertones, it feels very apt. Life, even amongst friends can be a lonely business so he keeps busy to distract himself from that. He’s crestfallen because he can’t even enjoy one day off. Sarah being protected by the Doctor rather than owned by Balsam is a very important distinction, suddenly she is an individual seeking shelter rather than property running away. Can you imagine a Doctor more suited to damning the black slave trade? When he gets the chance to do so Colin Baker lets rip in the finest sixth Doctor defiance. I loved his shoulder shrugging reaction to Craven going overboard.

Constant Companion: Constance got married during wartime so it was in uniform with a bunch of wilting daffodils. Balsam calls her charming and thoughtful, which just about sums her up. She has enough of a modium of decorum not to want to get into a swimming bath with fully dressed people. Travel has opened her eyes. Constance’s father has land in Africa where he employs the local people, but as servants rather than slaves. She tries to convince Sarah that she is not property, that nobody belongs to anybody but themselves. She’s appalled that women are treated as property as much as the slaves. This is the second story on the trot where Constance has talked about leaving the Doctor. I hope she doesn’t too soon, they’ve touched upon something rather special here.

Flippin’ Heck: The Doctor despairs at Flip thinking that chlorine was invented. There’s a subtle gag that plays out where nobody can pronounce Flip’s foreign surname, much in keeping with the theme of the play. Flip’s affection towards Clara is palpable, underneath all those streets smarts she’s a big softy really. In reality the offer that Craven makes her to become the mistress of a plantation in Jamaica is a better life than anything Jared can offer her in her own time but she is true to herself and refuses to be seduced. Her reaction to his proposal is to kick him in the nuts and given the manner in which he has spoken to her and treated Clara, that is an understatement.

Standout Performance: Balsam is a truly loathsome character, brought to life with relish by Glyn Sweet.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘The owner said the lady had to pay the bill’ ‘Oh, Doctor’ That really made me chuckle.
‘England should be ashamed. You belong in the same pit as all the other Fascists and Nazis of the Universe - everything I’ve fought against. And one day your filthy trade will be swept away!’
‘Human beings traded for pots and pans and weapons. Surely one of this world’s worst abominations.’

Great Ideas: The way this story tackles racism is very well done because the first episode plays out very like your typical Doctor Who meets the gentry (think Black Orchid) with the colourful and pampered upper classes taking a shine to the Doctor. The subtly dark undertones of racism are there from the beginning, a dismissal, a threat. It’s laced into what would otherwise be a genteel tale, giving it much more depth. You can trust the clergy to get to the heart of the matter; those of black stock are just treated as chattel, a possession, something to be bought and sold. I loved the gag of Lady Clara being a rhino. In a delightful moment it appears that the Doctor and Mrs Middlemint are indulging in a bit of rumpy pumpy when in fact it is revealed they are only playing cards. Mrs Middlemint’s tragedy is that she is just as trapped as Sarah, and that she accepts her fate just as easily. It’s brought home in a scene where Flip tries to point out that things can be different and she refuses to listen. I would LOVE to see the Doctor and Flip pushing a rhino inside the TARDIS. How delightful.

Audio Landscape: A horse whinnying, carriage clipping along a path, birds chirruping, a pug barking, the Doctor jumping into a pool, applause, the growl of a rhino, a clucking chicken, bells ringing, a packed tavern, seagulls crying, the chink of chains.

Musical Cues: I’m noticing a pleasing trend with the music of late that the scores are less wallpapered action soundtracks but instead more appropriate, subtle affairs. This is the rarest of things, a pure historical, and the music truly steps up to make this an occasion.

Isn’t it Odd: There’s an eleventh-hour action sequence that only served to remind me just how atypical this adventure had been in that respect. Bravo.

Standout Scene:
There’s a glorious moment where Constance and Flip discuss how they feel about the Doctor going on a date. It’s everything I could have hoped for from this pair. There’s also a beautifully written scene set in the TARDIS where the slave trade is brought home to a very personal level by Sarah and condemned by the Doctor. He admits that he is powerless to stop it and that he is even part of the system that allows it to happen, purchasing hot chocolate earlier that day.

Result: ‘The slave trade is England’s dark heart…’ Time for something completely different and what a refreshing change of pace it turns out to be. The Behemoth is the rarest of things, a pure historical and one that is happy to build an atmosphere and let the characters take some of the weight rather than simply assaulting us with plot. Like The Waters of Amsterdam, Jamie Anderson is particularly adept at bringing these character driven tales to life and he does a masterful job here. The story felt unhurried but never slovenly, appropriately dramatic in parts and with plenty of scenes where the actors can prove their worth. Marc Platt throws a harsh light on the ugly truth of the slave trade, taking it as far as you can go in a Doctor Who story. I was impressed with how he handled the theme, the story kicking off light and breezy and get steadily more uncomfortable as we get closer to the characters who have been torn from their homes and treated as wretched property. I love the idea of a Doctor Who story that places it’s drama on the wellbeing of a rhinoceros and the tragedy of lovers torn apart by Western greed. On a purely superficial level it is very invigorating to hear some more exotic accents in a Doctor Who audio. I’m a big fan of Marc Platt’s work stretching right back to Ghost Light, through the original novels and finally celebrating his prolific audio stories. He’s a writer that has the occasional off day but when he is on form it is a synthesis of beautiful dialogue, strong characterisation and fantastic ideas. This is a step away from what I have come to expect from him, creative science fiction, and instead he has chosen to build a setting, a small group of characters and tackle a tricky but very worthy theme. Colour me impressed, it’s a combination that suits him very well. What’s more it’s a great showing for the Doctor, Flip and Constance. Anybody who was impressed with their merging in Quicksilver most certainly will not feel short changed. I can’t think of the last time I let a Big Finish tale play out quite so effortlessly: 9/10

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Maker of Demons by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Decades ago, the mysterious time-travelling Doctor and his cheerful companion Mel became the toast of the planet Prosper, when they brokered a peace between the native Mogera and humans from the colony ship The Duke of Milan. But when the TARDIS at last returns to Prosper, the Doctor, Mel and their associate Ace find only a warzone. The burrowing Mogera have become brutal monsters, dominated by their terrifying leader Caliban – and it's all the Doctor's fault!

The Real McCoy: This is the kind of story that should fit the seventh Doctor like a glove. He’s the Doctor that is willing to make genocidal moves in order to tidy up the universe and he’s exactly the guy that needs a wakeup call every now and again. Instead of using this as a chance to examine the most dangerous of Doctors, Elliot turns this into a revenge story where the Doctor is treated as the enemy without ever digging deep as to why. As far as he is concerned he did a good turn, until he realises the true consequences of his actions. Instead of dealing with that, what is his best solution? To go back in time and punch himself on the nose! Whilst I’m sure he meant that facetiously, he needs to deal with his problems instead of wiping them away. Mel is the voice of good reason when the Doctor wants to go back and rewrite an entire century of history on this planet just because things didn’t go how he wanted. That’s playing God. The argument that the Doctor is only interested in saving the day rather than ensuring that a planet is left in capable hands and its future is secure is nonsensical because it goes against everything that we know the Doctor is about. If the villain of piece had constructed an argument around a portrayal of the Doctor we could buy into (or one he could himself) then this might have been a hard-hitting examination. Instead it feels like a slack motivation of the villain and a waste of the Doctor.

Oh Wicked:
Ace doesn’t enjoy stories when people don’t die and nothing explodes. I can’t see the point of Ace in these stories and certainly in this story where she is shunted off into her own pointless subplot that serves no purpose but to add to the running time. If it meant the pain of listening would be over sooner, I would have happily excised her completely. Seriously, this could have been set in season 24, which is probably where it belongs. She’s has enough of snorting with the Porcians.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel loves to stay around a celebrate and is willing to accept what she thinks he and the Doctor deserve, even if he would rather leave. It’s Mel who manages to unpuzzle this adventure, she’s the one who is taking note of the details and unmasks the villain. However, she has the right idea but the wrong person.

Standout Performance: Everybody is struggling with the dialogue in this adventure, especially Sylvester McCoy who is saddles with gems like ‘I’m being impatient being a patient!’

Terrible Dialogue:
‘And it seems I created those devils!’
‘You made them into monsters!’ ‘After you made us into monsters!’
‘There are seams in our territory but mining them are suicidally dangerous and we have a subterranean enemy…’ – every other line is of this ilk, exposition central.

Musical Cues: Nigel Fairs is a decent musician, I remember he scored some of the early companion chronicles and did a wonderful job. I even liked his lunge into melodrama recently when he provided the overdone (but appropriately sixties) music for Last of the Cybermen. This time, however, he is all over the place. At times I felt the Daleks were approaching as the music went all chorus of doom (but I guess we have Murray Gold to thank for that) and at other interludes something akin to a digeridoo was farting away in the background. Maybe Fairs was attempting to blind us to the stories faults.

Isn’t it Odd: When the opening speech contains the phrase ‘this day of days…’ I should have known I was in trouble. In fact just listen to the opening speech as a whole for a perfect lesson in how not to write science fiction, characters talking like cod Shakespearean characters and over emphasising every line. Even the comedy punchline before the credits fails. Gratuitous continuity references abound. So much so I thought Gary Russell might be using Matthew J. Elliot as a nickname; the plot of Underworld, Vardans, Dido, Polly, Tegan, Sharon, Dodo…is Elliot trying to remind us of the worst of Doctor Who? There’s an irritating tendency in these Mel and Ace stories to portray one as a complete goody two-shoes and the other as a teen space bitch and contrast the two. It lacks any subtlety. Mel is enthusing about how she wanted to cuddle an alien race to bits whilst Ace bangs on about explosions. I’d rather focus on the crueller side of Mel and the gentler side of Ace, that would be much more interesting. ‘It’s like some kind of armour plated ogre!’ – has Elliot ever written for audio before? I mean, I know he has but this is remarkably clumsy. And I fail to understand how Big Finish, who have been at this malarkey for 15 years now could let such blatantly awkward descriptive dialogue reach the final script. Russell T Davies said that he didn’t want to go down the route of having stories set on an alien world because it would be hard to connect with the events on a human level…he was probably referring to scenes like Ace and the mutant scrabbling around on the surface. It’s mind numbingly dull, overwritten and hackneyed (‘Humans all have funny names! I’m not even interested in whether or not you have a name!). I feel so sorry for Ewan Goddard, who has to try and convince as a mutation but winds up sounding like a dog chewing a caramel toffee. Seriously, go listen again. Slurp. Slurp. Plus, the voice of the actor and the (ahem) realisation of the creature on the cover don’t really marry up. Powered by Doctorium? A power source that has been named after the Doctor after his meddling in the first adventure. I bet Chris Boucher would listen to this and weep. Alonso being revealed as the villain of the piece is about as surprising as it would be if I wrote a Missing Adventure, squeezed it into season eight and made the Master the baddie behind it all.

Standout Scene: Go and listen to the end of episode two. Like right now. There have been some inept murder scenes in Doctor Who before (who could forget the Co-Pilot and his split trousers?) but this one must rank. ‘Oh hello, what are you doing back here? I’m afraid the kitchen’s closed…no wait…Mel get out of here…nooooooooo!’ Unbelievable.

Result: ‘Back off super furry animals!’ I think if I took off all my clothes and went to eat in a top-class restaurant I would feel less awkward than listening to this audio. A series of hideous SF clich├ęs, served up with characters that talk in pure exposition, a plot that is explained rather than experienced, a noisy soundscape full of people shouting, continuity vomiting everywhere…it’s the sort of thing you would imagine a company producing if they were new to this medium. The idea of the Doctor revisiting a society that he has had an adventure in before and the consequences of said adventure and his involvement coming back to haunt him is a good one. It was a fresh approach when The Ark and Face of Evil played about with the notion. They took different approaches but they were both intelligent stories that used the idea to paint a picture of a society that has adapted to the Doctor’s interference. Evil in particular built an entire world around him. Demons adopts the approach without any of the intelligence. It’s so clumsily handled, it isn’t a story that staggers the revelations so we are engaged with the idea, it just dumps you in the middle of the scenario within 15 minutes and then becomes a run-around for remainder of the running time. The story is heavily influenced by The Tempest, but any serious comparison between the stories is like comparing the cuisine of the finest Michelin star restaurant and a Little Chef. If you’re going to ape Shakespeare, you need something a little more compelling than a bunch of slavering, slurping monsters and a Scooby Doo villain searching for a motive. Most Doctor Who stories you can find something nice to say. The music was pretty, or there was a decent idea thrown in the mix, or the soundscape brings the story alive. Maker of Demons is so lacking in positives I feel like I’m pointing a gun at a sick dog. Avoid this nonsense like the plague. I’m hoping for better in the second Seven/Ace/Mel trilogy: 2/10

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Fiesta of the Damned written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of "a taste of the real Spain", the TARDIS transports the Doctor, Ace and rejoined crewmember Mel not to sizzling Fuerteventura, or the golden sands of the Costa Brava – but to 1938, amid the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Having fallen in with a rag-tag column of Republican soldiers, the time and space travellers seek shelter from Franco's bombers in the walled town of Farissa – only to discover themselves besieged by dead men returned to life...

The Real McCoy: Surely the Doctor (especially this Doctor) isn’t so stupid that he can mistake the hum of an approaching bomber for somebody mowing their lawn? I suppose he does always try and be the optimist.

Oh Wicked: I never thought we’d hear Ace say ‘boom!’ again, given the reaction to her infamous scene in Battlefield. A self confessed adrenaline junkie, that's about as deep as this story wants to delve into its characters during all the running around.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel is diplomatic enough to swallow down the casual sexism of the period, but Ace isn’t so easily subdued. It’s a pleasing disparity between them, in Mel’s favour I would say because she comes across as the seasoned traveller. She remembers how it used to be with the Doctor, that history hurts. Ace attempts to mock Mel’s do-goodedness is to suggest that she orders a smoothie made out of spinach and tears.

Standout Performance: I particularly liked McCoy’s quiet contemplation on war. The first two episodes capture the strongest elements of his Doctor, a conflict-weary Time Lord who has learnt to play tough and whose actions weigh heavily on his mind. Who would have guessed that quiet brooding would have been McCoy’s (a man who is famous for his comedy) forte? Sophie Aldred doesn’t scream her head off throughout, because I thought a story set during wartime meant we were in for aural torture.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So the Republicans are the good guys?’ ‘In war there’s no such thing. They’ve both committed their share of atrocities.’
‘The rest of us just haven’t had the common sense to lie down and die yet.’

Great Ideas: The Club Type 40 holiday packages are…See the Universe and Run for your Life! I’m one of those people that chooses not to educate himself on history unless a show I am enjoying chooses to focus on a particular period. Once my interest is piqued, I then go the distance and learn everything I can. Doctor Who has been extremely useful to me in that respect. I went into this knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War. The Doctor gives a handy potted history of the war in the first episode to anybody who is green (like me) and reveals that the Republicans are already wounded beyond repair and terrible losses are due until their surrender. It sounds like the perfect setting for a Hartnell historical, so it’s rather refreshing to step from the McCoy era. Apparently when it comes to history even the footnotes like Juan Romero are inspiring.

Audio Landscape: You have to wonder how an actor faces an audio challenge when the script says he has been ‘zombified’ without giving the character any dialogue. Low moaning, apparently. Mumbling voices, insects humming in the distance, bombs falling, masonry loose, someone screaming into a hole, flames crackling, walking on stones, a bell tolling, a squeaking door, Lynx’s screaming and scattering.

Isn’t it Odd: I think this series of adventures is serving more as a ‘what if Mel had stayed at the end of Dragonfire?’ than taking place years afterwards in the post Hex period of Big Finish. There’s simply no indication that Ace has changed at all in the intervening period and the stories feel like they belong on season 25. So, I guess in order to find some enjoyment in them I’m going to have to ignore what my ears are telling me and make up my own continuity (I can do that, it’s my show too). Otherwise this is another cynical marketing ploy on Big Finish’s part where they wanted to work with Slyv, Sophie and Bonnie just BECAUSE without any decent reason to do so. It’s certainly not to explore the characters, which I would have thought a given in the circumstances. So, let’s chalk this down to ‘what if…?’ It’s lucky there was an English reporter like Newman involved, who can explain the details of the conflict to Mel and Ace and thus, to us. I’m guessing the idea of The Walking Dead charging in on a Doctor Who historical set during the Spanish Civil War might have sounded like a good idea in theory (Horror on top of conflict) but the lengths the story goes to justify that these are zombies in science fiction terms renders them as scary as a church mouse. The story becomes mired in hideous fructuous, SF dialogue, a far cry from the sensitive portrayal of war in the first episode.

Standout Scene: The bombing in the first episode is spectacularly realistic. Massive credit to director Ken Bentley for making wonder if I should run for cover and hide.

Result: I thought the first episode was really rather good; dramatic, evocative and educational but that was ruined by the first cliff-hanger where the science fiction elements of the story collide with the historical ones and the recently smooth narrative veers off the rails. Even the dialogue, which has been informative and emotive suddenly lurches into awkwardness. Whether it’s Big Finish or the television series or the comic strip, nobody seems to trust to tell a pure historical when that would be the freshest approach any of those mediums could take. Instead aliens always barge in on the action and things become far less interesting. It’s a shame because the location is conjured up with real care and there were parts of Fiesta of the Damned where I could close my eyes and find myself back in Spain and truly see the action as it was unfolding. The music was a treat too, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jamie Robertson. The regulars, particularly Bonnie Langford, are given material that plays to their strengths too, which further compounds the unfortunate lacklustre nature of the narrative. There’s a distinct lack of character conflict that might have brought the story alive, this is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where everybody seems to get along…and it’s set during wartime! So, what you’re left with is a period of history that is potentially devastating to explore but with a story that fails to do so in favour of another bog-standard alien race. We’ll only visit the Spanish Civil War a few times in the lifetime of Doctor Who whereas we’ll be inundated with aliens until it expires. In this case, the wrong call was made. I guess the old adage is true; Doctor Who can survive anything except being boring. The fact that the production is so stellar (I can’t even fault Sophie Aldred) merely rubs salt in the wound. Trust that human history is riveting enough: 5/10