Saturday, 20 January 2018

Ship in a Bottle written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor, Liv and Helen are hurtling into a future that has been utterly destroyed, trapped inside a shuttle with no possible means of escape. But with the lives of everyone in the universe in the balance, they've got to find one. And soon. When the stakes are this high, you can't just give up. Or can you?

Physician, Heal Thyself: There’s been many a time when his survival has been dependant on a piece of fruit. He’s usually very good at spotting psychopaths so he’s astonished that he has missed all the signs in Padrac. The counters Helen and Liv’s accusations of abandonment with being insulted that they would run off with the Eleven, and how they could ever think that it was him. He is extremely rude to Helen when she was only trying to help and I feel that his apology is completely justified. The Doctor is in guilt mode once again, feeling as though everything is his fault. Ever since the Eleven escaped from Gallifrey he has been trying to hold back the tide of events but can see now that everything he has done since that day has helped Padrac with his plans. He looks back it his previous incarnation and sees nothing but hubris, the great manipulator and the master of chess but nowadays he feels as though he could barely win a game of snakes and ladders with his opponents. Just because he has managed to muddle through everything so far it doesn’t mean he always will. What he needs is for Liv and Helen to give a bloody good slap (metaphorical, of course) and to give him something to fight for again. The last time the Doctor was this without hope was when he lost Lucie and Alex at the end of series four. Live calls him fatalistic, and she’s not wrong. The Doctor is trying to prepare his companions for the worst, that there maybe nothing they can do to prevent the future dying, that they might not be able to save anybody this time. He’s prepared to go forward with only keeping the memory of those people they met in the future (when it still existed) alive, saving them in hat small way.

Liv Chenka: Liv finally gets the chance to tell the Doctor how angry she is that he abandoned them to swan off with River, despite the urgency of the situation. Since he abandoned her she has been attacked, knocked unconscious and now she is hurtling into a future that doesn’t exist. She very much holds him accountable for what has happened to her. She makes him insist that he will never do it again, and to admit that they are a team and they work better that way. It’s an astonishing scene that really drives home the connection between these people and how much it hurts when that connection is broken. I loved Liv’s sheer determination in refusing to give up and accept the situation. When even the Doctor is without hope, she fights and fights. She considers it is her duty to go back and save the future and everybody that was once alive, there isn’t a choice. As a Med-Tec, she’s seen people die, told grieving relative that there is nothing that can be done…she’s had plenty of life experience before she met the Doctor. She doesn’t give up until every option is exhausted…and the she keeps on trying.

Helen Sinclair: Helen is written very smartly in this adventure, asking some very pertinent questions and trying to remain positive in an impossible situation. It’s one of her best ever showings. Sometimes she feels redundant next to the Doctor and Liv, but Liv tells her she has more than proven herself already. The Doctor is the best man that Helen has ever known and she knows he will get them out of this, it might be blind faith but she has no doubt in her mind. There’s a beautiful moment when Helen comforts Liv with the knowledge that sometimes it is okay to let go of hope, recalling the death of her grandmother. It’s terribly sweet for her to use such a personal memory to make things easier for her friend.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re still travelling into a murdered future, only now we’re travelling into it gently.’
‘The universe is destroyed and its because of me.’
‘Believing is the first step in healing. Moving on.’

Great Ideas: I’m a bit on the fence about bottle episodes; sometimes they are beautifully done and give the regulars characters a real chance to shine without any outside interference from guest characters or moving to new locations beyond the normal sets. I particularly like bottle shows that primarily feature two characters and the time is used to explore that relationship in some depth (DS9’s Duet and Waltz are great examples). Other times they can be the most remarkably contrived situations in order for the show to save money. Clip shows are particularly loathsome (check out TNG’s Shades of Grey). To do a bottle show on audio is a ballsy thing given that there is an unlimited budget in the imagination and that the only justifiable reason to cut back so much is to give the characters a chance to breathe. Which Dorney succeeds in doing admirably here, given the regulars were somewhat at sea in the previous box set in such a violent and all-consuming narrative. This reminds me a little of the Stargate episode Unending, which also had the regulars in an impossible situation out of time and dealt with how they coped with the idea of never being able to escape. Except for Doctor Who a bottle show (well referenced in the title) is a rarity, and thus should be enjoyed as a novelty too. Outside the shuttle is dead space, Padrac has destroyed the future of the universe. Every single creature for the end of time has been destroyed. The Doctor, Live and Helen are trapped nowhere for an eternity. Let’s give John Dorney and Matt Fitton a round of applause for manipulating events so the fourth Doom Coalition set starts on such an ominous and memorable note. Padrac has been working with the Sonomancer and the Eleven and the Clocksmith…he’s been a busy boy. Helen asks a very good question; if the universe has been destroyed and the Doctor always says they cannot change what has happened…doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done? The Doctor counters with the argument that since they have already been to the future and know it exists it suggests that this is the aberrant timeline. If you’re stuck in the middle of an ocean (the non-future) how do you get back to shore? You ride a wave (time winds in the vortex). Riding a shockwave back in time through the vortex. There is only one way to do that…blowing up the boat.

Isn’t it Odd: You do have to wonder why Padrac went to all the length of trapping the Doctor and his companions in the non-future when he could have just killed them. I guess that’s a Time Lord justice for you, shove them aside somewhere alive rather than getting his hands bloody.

Standout Scene: ‘Doctor, we’ve made our choice…’ After all the tension in this story you might think that things have been damaged beyond repair for this team. When it comes to the Doctor’s insane plan of escape, his two companions don’t doubt him for a moment. Ship in a Bottle has strengthened the faith they have in each other, not weakened it.

Result: Like the beginning of the previous set, this is an intimate character drama that kicks things off in memorable style. The one thing the Doctor, Liv and Helen have plenty of now is time and it is a chance for the three of them to have it out. After the tidal wave of plot from the previous three stories it is a huge relief to cut things back to just the three regulars and to deal with their reactions to everything that has been going on. John Dorney is scripting, and he isn’t afraid to push these characters into asking tough questions. What I found interesting was how much it exposed about the strength of the eighth Doctor, Liv and Helen as individual characters because this was the sort of economic storytelling that would reveal whether they were hollow or fully rounded people. A lesser set of regulars would flag in this type of story. Pleasingly, they all have solid reasons for being angry and frustrated with one another and it never once feels as though the tension is manufactured. Not only that it shines a new light on how much they need each other and how effective they work together. Doom Coalition might ultimately be another Doctor Who epic to end all epics, but it has brought together a wonderful TARDIS team. I’m so pleased that the personal consequences of this story are being dealt with (because they are so often ignored in Doctor Who) and that meaty acting opportunities are being handed out to the performers. The ‘escape the non-future’ plot is reasonable, but it’s the dialogue and performances that shine here. I felt this was getting back to what audio drama can really achieve; intimacy, emotion and meaning. The last ten minutes in particular are hugely uplifting and exciting, with a memorably ambiguous final scene. A huge thumbs up to Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan for tackling such a challenging script so skilfully. What a team: 9/10

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Time in Office written by Eddie Robson and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: The Doctor's adventures in time and space are over. The Time Lords have recalled him to Gallifrey – but what he faces on his home planet is worse than any trial. Following the disappearance of President Borusa, the High Council condemned him to the highest office - and he can't evade his responsibilities a nanosecond longer... So all hail the Lord High President! All hail President Doctor! Rassilon save him. This time, there's really no escape.

An English Gentleman: He only accepted the Presidency in order to give the Time Lords the slip and get away from Gallifrey…of course High Office wasn’t on his list of career choices! It did feel like something of a missed a missed opportunity to duck out of a chance to see how the Doctor coped with the presidency that he accepted. Like much of the early eighties, it ducks the interesting possibilities for character development (see also Nyssa confronting the Master about her father’s death, Adric going through any kind of grief process about his brother, exploring Tegan failing to cope back on Earth before re-joining the TARDIS and the fallout of the suggestions between Pei and her stepfather). It would have been very satisfying to have had a story set on Gallifrey with the Doctor struggling to cope with being grounded on the planet he always longs to escape. Eric Saward’s loss is Big Finish’s gain, because this is the most delicious concept driven story in an age. Marvellously, since all of this was set up in The Five Doctors all Eddie Robson has to do is drag the Doctor’s ass back to Gallifrey and the story can begin. He likes to think he’s an amenable sort of chap, especially compared to his recent incarnations. The Doctor attended the Academy and describes it as a decidedly mixed experience. He’s a cheeky one, undermining the social order of Gallifrey in his first act and forcing the elite class to work harder and giving the lower classes fresh opportunities. It’s his chance to iron out the issues he has with his home planet. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to cross some things off his list. ‘We can be home in time for tea and scones!’ – you see now why I give the fifth Doctor his title heading. It’s a little tricky when you have been at this time and space travelling lark as long as the Doctor and then you take up the mantle of Presidency, it means you may very well wind up causing a diplomatic incident when one of your previous adventures comes back to bit you in the ass. Apparently, the TARDIS is not as complicated to pilot as the Doctor lets on, he just likes to do all the driving himself. As a boy the Doctor never could resist bringing strange creatures home with him (that’s not a very nice way to describe Leela, mind). The Doctor returning to the Academy is an idea that holds some dramatic weight, but this isn’t really the story to explore that. Time of Office is much more interested in pointing out what a naughty little boy he was. Tegan and Leela have a good laugh at the Doctor when he performs a catwalk wearing the robes, sash and staff of Rassilon. Bling bling. Hearing the Doctor say ‘hello, old fella’ to his new TARDIS is just plain weird and Davison plays the line with the right amount of uncertainty.

Mouth on Legs: ‘I’m not worried, I’m cross!’ which is her default setting. Tegan nearly goes the way of Jamie and Zoe, her memory of her time with the Doctor excised. It would have been ever more gutting for me because it would have meant that we endured those three seasons with her, and only the audience would be saddled with the memory of it. Tegan implies that her time away from the Doctor wasn’t the best of years and so when the Time Lords are looking to excise her memory, she asks them not to bother letting her keep that one. Ambassador Tegan? I suppose it’s better than saddling some poor Gallifreyan with her hand in marriage. She takes her role seriously and it’s really amusing to watch her, well researched, know just as much about certain Gallifreyan rituals as the Doctor. If she was made president of Earth she would close the gender pay gap, revise aboriginal land rights and force her cousin Scott to admit he had a thing with her cousin that summer. Nice to know she has her priorities straight. She does start to get a little bored on Gallifrey and accepts a date with Scandrius. She doesn’t realise that involves stealing a TARDIS and heading out to a bar somewhere in the universe but it’s nice when a guy makes an effort to impress. Tegan realises on her date that she doesn’t want to gallivant around the universe with a tribute act but the real thing. Do you know I fear that might be the first time I have heard Tegan fight passionately for the idea of travelling with the Doctor? How refreshing. Although, somewhat amusingly, the next trip would turn out to be her last.

Noble Savage: From a lost human colony on a distant jungle planet, it’s as concise a description of Leela’s origins as I can remember. During the mopping up of the Death Zone on Gallifrey, Leela brought down the Raston Warrior Robot and has its head mounted on the wall in her kitchen. That nearly made me spit out my coffee. In a fit of pique, Leela attempts to tender her resignation and completely forgets that she doesn’t have a job. When the Doctor gives Leela carte blanche to destroy the controls of his new TARDIS you can hear her screaming and causing havoc for the rest of the scene! It’s like a rabid dog has been let off the leash.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Is this the water feature of Rassilon?’
‘You can’t be called President Doctor!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s two titles!’
‘But the people who disagree with me on this are idiots’ – the template for the rigid visioned Doctor Who fan
‘Gallifrey is ready to follow you, Doctor!’

Great Ideas: Nice to see that there are news anchors, even on Gallifrey, that attempt to manufacture conflict between the people they interview simply to make a good bit of telly. Truthfully there is a gap where the Doctor and Tegan can have an adventure on their own between stories so Eddie Robson shoves his tale into the journey they take in Frontios to drop of the Gravis. If that’s how we can do this sort of thing now there are all kinds of diversions and side stories that could be placed. Big Finish need never stop churning out stories within stories. Mind, the continuity reference at the beginning of the story feels very Eric Saward (enforced by JNT, as is implied). Chancellor Flavia retired because people blamed her for bungling the succession. Borusa’s reputation was too powerful for the people to be told the truth about his betrayal, so it was quietly side-lined. The Black Files (anything official and Gallifreyan deserves capitals, don’t you think?) officially un-exist and you can only by visiting an office at the heart of an asteroid in a pocket dimension, which is the only surviving remnant of a redundant timeline. Typical over complicated Time Lord bureaucracy. You get the sense that the Doctor is taking the piss in spectacular style when he coins a battle TARDIS a ‘WARDIS.’ The Doctor ‘accidentally’ left his room in temporal stasis and so it is still present for his trip to the Academy, a small piece of his past perfectly preserved. Gallifrey fully understands harnessing the power of block transfer computations to erect great structures in no time at all. Imagine all the pomp and circumstance that goes with opening a spanking new Capitol building on Gallifrey? Fluid sculptures are a terrific idea, monuments that shift from regeneration to regeneration of important Time Lords worth commemorating. The Citadel shifts between a building and a humanoid machine – just imagine how that could visualised today? A living TARDIS posing as a building that gets up amongst the cities of Gallifrey. Astonishing. Vorena is offering the Doctor the power to do what he does best, to spread his personal brand of interference throughout the universe but with all the power of the Time Lords behind him in a sentient TARDIS. I’m not sure ideas like that should be dealt with in ten minutes, but it’s still a insanely ambitious notion.

Isn’t it Odd: There is an argument that could be made about wasting so many potentially dramatic ideas on a romp…but I can’t be bothered this time because I simply had too much fun with this one.

Standout Scene: I was wetting myself in the first episode as Crex tries to outfox the Doctor who outfoxes him, so he has a second plan in place, which his own organisation outfoxes. It’s twist and counter twist all the way in a farcical scene that tickles and delights. The reveal that the entire Capitol building is a TARDIS is a doozy of a revelation, too.

Result: What would have happened if the Doctor had been forced back to Gallifrey after The Five Doctors and expected to fulfil his role as Lord President? Eddie Robson has a blast with the idea, using the umbrella theme of a year on Gallifrey to tell four stories that tackle the idea. It’s the best anthology release yet because it isn’t really an anthology at all, more a serial with loosely shaped mini stories buried within. It’s a good thing, because I’m not sure any of these stories would have held up as adventures in their own right but hung on the eclectic framework of the Doctor in charge, Tegan as Ambassador of Earth and Leela as their protector and guide, the whole piece comes together as deliriously entertaining. Add in more great lines than I could recount, some very pleasant character work, zesty ideas and some terrific direction that gives the whole story a light touch and a sense of occasion, you have a Doctor Who set on Gallifrey that I can finally hold up and recommend. Bravo. This isn’t much like the Gallifrey series that Big Finish has been putting out for donkey’s years now, which at its best mixed high concept science fiction with political drama to riveting effect. Eddie Robson is interested in mining the fun out of ‘the Doctor running Gallifrey’ and not deal with any meditative angle on the idea (thank goodness he has Tegan and her catty commentary on everything to provide such a wonderfully human perspective then). And why not? There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment, especially when it is as pleasurable as this release. Another shout out for Janet Fielding as Tegan, an actress I have never rated that much because of her struggles in the series in the eighties with a role that was inconsistently defined and one note. In Time in Office Tegan is funny, warm, smart and extremely engaging company. I can’t think of another character within the Doctor Who universe that I have take such a 180 with. Another bravo, both for Eddie Robson and Big Finish. I would compare this release favourably with The One Doctor, Ringpullworld and Robson’s own Situation Vacant, a story that isn’t looking to probe deep but one that delights for it’s entire running time, and leaves you with a huge smile on your face. It’s good to remember that Doctor Who can simply offer a bloody good time: 9/10

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Contingency Club written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: London, 1864 - where any gentleman befitting the title ‘gentleman’ belongs to a gentlemen’s club: The Reform, The Athenaeum, The Carlton, The Garrick… and, of course, The Contingency. Newly established in St James’, The Contingency has quickly become the most exclusive enclave in town. A refuge for men of politics, men of science, men of letters. A place to escape. A place to think. A place to be free. The first rule of the Contingency is to behave like a gentleman. The second is to pay no heed to its oddly identical servants. Or to the horror in its cellars. Or to the existence of the secret gallery on its upper floor… Rules that the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan are all about to break.

An English Gentleman: It’s fascinating that the team of the fifth Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa should work together so well on audio given that they are literally a bunch of oddballs thrown together with no particular plan. All this clever-cleverness in the TARDIS, cries JNT, let’s bring in some kids. I know a cheeky artful dodger type, but with a maths degree. Wait, that cute little girl on Traken was rather lovely, let’s add her to the mix. How about a really mouthy Australian with an obsession with Heathrow airport? And for good measure let’s throw in that charming fella from All Creatures, barely out of the cradle and shove him in some cricket gear. Looking at these four characters objectively they are utterly disparate and have no right appearing in the same TV show together at all, let alone functioning as the audience identification figures. On screen the actors are often awkward in the barely fleshed out characters and there is no real sense of developing relationships or a decent motive of why they travel together. It’s kind of just because they’re stuck together. And yet for a large section of fandom they sum up a particular period of Doctor Who (let’s call it TARD-Enders) and their coming together marks a pivotal point, where Tom Baker left the show and there was a seasons worth of grace as the audience checked out the ‘dynamic’ new team. When it appeared that both Matthew Waterhouse and Janet Fielding wouldn’t return to Doctor Who on audio is was long feared (or possibly rejoiced) that this team would never get to enjoy the same sort of renaissance as the sixth Doctor and Peri and the seventh Doctor and Mel (it’s funny how only the 80s companions need some kind of renaissance, isn’t it?). Until one fateful day the stars aligned and all the cattiness apparent on the DVD commentaries between Davison, Waterhouse, Fielding and Sutton transferred to the Big Finish studios for the Fifth Doctor Boxset (featuring Psychodrome and Iterations of I). Horror of horrors, the team was back together. I was agog when I heard the results; the only time in memory when I have given 10/10 to an entire boxset, a pair of stories that plays to every one of their strengths, a relaxed set of performances (that can only come from a lifetime of these actors forging relationships at conventions) and a longing for further stories with these characters. And here we are; the first trilogy for the fifth Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa. What does this have to do with The Contingency Club? Like The Star Men before it, the writer captures a distinctive voice for each of them and pairs them off in very entertaining ways. These aren’t characters that work together naturally, I explained that upthread, you have to put some work into capitalising on their individual strengths and weaknesses and Mulryne has done a fine job of that. The story here is okay, but his work with the regulars is exceptional. It’s another winner for this team, which so far has not dropped the ball once.

Hilariously the Doctor states that they have tried and failed to get to Heathrow once too often, hopefully putting an end to that bloody airport being mentioned in every season 19 Big Finish story. Even more joyfully he wonders if there is some influence that is deliberately keeping them away. You can hear Gary Russell writing the proposal for that continuity gap as I type. Sometimes he feels his three companions could all do with a headmaster and he tries to fill that role, but the fact that he looks younger than his oldest companion works against him.

Maths Nerd: ‘Some teenager you are!’ cries Tegan, baulking at the idea that Adric never enjoyed music when he was a teenager, instead choosing the symphony of numbers. I bet he never played with himself, either. He’s trying to fit in with these meddlesome girls but he can’t seem to grasp their language, especially when they refuse to accept how superior his intellect is.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan’s Walkman dates her wonderfully, especially how proud she is of it. She gets off her best cutting remark about the TARDIS yet, comparing it unfavourably to a personal stereo. A gentleman’s club that refuses women admittance being ruled by a Queen…imagine Tegan’s delight. Setting explosives next to Tegan is a fruitless exercise, she detonates with far more ferocity than any dynamite ever could.

Alien Orphan: The Miss ‘OfTraken’ is peddled out again, but it’s still faintly amusing.

Standout Performance: What has happened to me? I just love Janet Fielding’s Tegan these days. Fielding isn’t fighting a caricature, as she often was on television but embracing a character, and playing it warmth and humour. Fielding has become one of my favourite Big Finish performers. She made me laugh out loud twice in several minutes in the first episode. I never, ever laughed at Tegan on the television. I was too busy trying to think of ways to dismember her. Lorelei King’s performance is interesting because she gives the Red Queen all the ham and hokey of a Doctor Who villain, and yet she turns out to be anything but. It’s rather misleading to be expect a climactic showdown with a character who has been behaving like she’s going to tear down the universe as an amusing after party game only to be told that she’s just a regular Josephine enjoying a spot of entertainment. She even has lines like ‘The end game is in motion!’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh dear me, no! A club is a place secure from women!’ is a line spoken to Tegan. Someone should have warned him…

Great Ideas: The Contingency Club is newly established in London but has quickly become the most exclusive enclave. Men of learning are flocking there and the other clubs in town are losing their most respected members to new venue. It takes Nyssa two episodes to figure out the identical Edwards are clones (even Adric takes the mickey that she felt the need to spell it out). I enjoyed the discussion of the Underground, which grounds the story in a particular time period, and the scene where Adric reacts at how primitive the building of the tunnels is. The Club is much bigger on the outside, its hiding a club within the club, a hidden chamber where the Red Queen hides. She’s plotting to put explosives underneath key points in London in order to force Queen Victoria to kneel before her. It’s one big chess game with the Red Queen trying to take the White Queen. That’s quite a fun notion, but I don’t think the story is anywhere near tightly plotted enough to justify the reveal. The Contingency family are a race of game players who have played on several worlds in their time. The wager here was that the game could not be won without superior technology, hence the steampunk tech that was featured in the story.

Isn’t it Odd:
After listening to episode one, would you choose to listen to more of this story if it featured a less engaging set of regulars? Me neither. It’s the opposite of The Star Men which practically packed the events of a two-hour story into half an hour, literally nothing happens in episode one beyond the Doctor and friends reaching the Club in the title. In storytelling terms, this is an opening instalment that is entirely lacking in interest. Simply because there is no story come the first cliff-hanger. The first piece of truly useful information about the plot comes 34 minutes into the story where the Doctor is finally given some information about the Club. In New Series terms, that information would be offered in the first five minutes of the story. I know classic Who could be quite ponderous at times but it was always good at setting up the story before the running around. Having the characters dash about without notion of where they are or what is going on is a little unusual, to say the least. At the end of episode two where all the Edwards start waking up, it’s sold as a moment of jeopardy but there is no reason for us to consider it so because they haven’t acted dangerously. The story makes an assumption that they are dangerous simply because they are the one science fiction element in an otherwise ordinary story. Isn’t the Toymaker the ultimate Doctor Who villain who plays games? Did anybody think that Tegan's tape player wouldn't play some part in the climax?

Result: Like the Star Men, I want to like this more than I did. Immediately it has two elements going for it; four well defined regulars and atmospheric direction by Barnaby Edwards. Ultimately that was all it had going for it and by the time I had finished I wondered why I had committed two hours of my life to this tale when it had a plot that would barely fill one. If you enjoy endless scenes of the Doctor and companions being split up, running around and getting excitable as they piece together a very thin mystery, knock yourself out. That might sound like the recipe for many a Doctor Who story but in most cases I couldn’t excise the first 50% without doing a great deal of harm to the story. You could easily do that with The Contingency Club. The Contingency Club is a collection of pleasurable ideas (the Russian Doll Club setting, the surreal nature of the Edwards clones, the game that is being played out) that I think would have made a cracking new series adventure but stretched out to the length of a classic Who it struggles to find enough substance to justify its length. Fortunately, we have the fifth Doctor (a gentleman for a gentleman’s club), Tegan (good humoured, even when facing the sexism of the time), Adric (offering a brilliantly bitchy commentary on everything) and Nyssa (whose biology skills are put to good use) to help pass the time. They are a lot fun to be around, and salvage a lot of the aimlessness. Peter Davison and Janet Fielding, in particular, are great. There was a chance to explore class, sexism, politics and all manner of significant topics within the setting of a gentleman’s club but this Doctor Who adventures ducks any chance of shades of grey and settles on being an entertaining romp and nothing more. I like entertaining romps, but when you have a locale that offers so much more it does feel a little wasteful. I didn’t even get much of a sense of the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club, not like the cover suggests we would. Phantasmagoria did a much better job of that. Fun, entirely throwaway, protracted filler: 6/10

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Crucible of Souls written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The date has been set. The trap has been sprung. A life has been taken and a maniac is on the loose. With the TARDIS crew separated and in terrible trouble, will today be the day the bad guys win?

Physician, Heal Thyself:
Wonderfully the Doctor suggests that flying the TARDIS isn’t easy and River steps in and mentions that the way he does it makes it so. I love this little strain of doubt that his been planted into our minds ever since River so perfectly piloted the ship in The Time of Angels. That the Doctor has been winging it all these years and operating the ship with scant knowledge and ability. It confirms his position as the dilettante of the universe, with hints already from a beautifully pompous Romana in The Pirate Planet (‘What about the multiloop stabiliser?’) and the brilliant (if hilarious over the top) organisation of an entire crew of regulars in The Stolen Earth where each side of the console had a pilot, as it should. Wonderfully the Doctor has dresses in his wardrobe already, which is probably an indication that he is sharing it with his female companions or it could mean he has been a woman in a previous guise (as he would be in a future one) or that he enjoys a little cross dressing on the side (ala The Green Death). The Doctor gets to talk about himself in the third person; a remarkably clever man, a force to be reckoned with and handsome too. River chips in he’s sometimes very irritating. The Doctor wonders if the other Doctor is one of his future selves heading back to meddle in his own past. Like that has never happened before.

Liv Chenka: Liv has experience of the Doctor being in different guises and Helen cleverly alludes it to a snake shredding its skin. It’s funny how different regeneration feels depending on which companions are experiencing. Here you get the benefit of experience giving the concept credence, with some wide-eyed naivete ensuring that the presentation still has an emotional impact. Even if it is a fake. When you travel with the Doctor you call people shooting at you Tuesday. It’s a massive compliment that a Time Lord should tell Liv that the Doctor’s companions are too clever for their own good.

Helen Sinclair: She decides, after he snubs Liv’s death, behaves abusively towards her and dismisses her wish to leave, that it is time to leave the Doctor. Which is why it’s a good job that this isn’t the Doctor.

The Only Water in the Forest is the River: River asking for the less smug answers is like salt asking vinegar why he hurts in a wound. There is something extremely satisfying about the Doctor and River uncovering a gripping mystery together that doesn’t involve them threatening to get jiggy with each other or her pulling out a gun and acting like GI Jane every five minutes. They compliment each other very well because they are both reacting to the situation with appropriate seriousness. Is that all it took to make this character work this well? Head back to the Silence in the Library before all the River clever cleverness began, she’s treated as a strong protagonist who is caught up in events rather than being the event itself and she behaves as a normal person would. Hurrah for John Dorney for remembering that. It’s one of the best ever River stories.

Standout Performance: I’d seen a little of John Heffernan in Luther and The Crown, certainly enough to know that should he be asked to play the Doctor for a one-off that he would attack it with some gusto. And he has that with bags to spare. This is a Doctor played with huge theatrical humour, and he leaps from the story vividly. The alternative Doctor (who isn’t the Doctor) can pass of any gaps in his knowledge with post-regeneration amnesia. It’s the same sort of narrative sleight of hand that allows River to interact with the Doctor. There’s one moment where it appears Liv has been shot in the head and the Doctor’s completely dismissive ‘was she immortal? You think she would have mentioned that!’ made me laugh out loud. He’s a bit of an asshole but played with a knowing wink, it’s all rather fun. It’s nice to be able to go town with the idea of an evil Doctor with the foreknowledge of it all being a con because Dorney can take it to an extreme. He’s quite nasty in parts, but I’d say that Colin Baker still relished sheer abusiveness more in The Twin Dilemma. Which kind of shows (again) why that wasn’t such a good idea.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So you’re good with your hands?’ ‘Spoilers…’ Surely that’s the best one yet?
‘You’ve a face like a constipated Sontaran.’
‘He’s too boring to be evil!’ The Doctor is appalled that somebody he went to Academy and who is a straight down the line Gallifreyan could turn out to be in league with the Eleven. I’m not sure why, practically everyone he went to the Academy has turned out to have turned to the dark side in one way or another. He’s the aberration in that respect, and even he has his moments.

Great Ideas: There’s been a major temporal cataclysm, the future has gone, which is why the TARDIS didn’t want to travel in that direction…it simply wasn’t there anymore. Temporal refugees, the crew of a time ship who knew of the cataclysm that was coming and had the ability to warn others. The Coalition knew these temporally active ships could warn people in the past of their plan and so they stopped them with destructive intent. Mopping up their own mess and ensuring nobody can get in their way. A graveyard of a 100 ships, a haunting moment that truly suggests the ability of the force the Doctor is up against. The darkest vaults of the Time Lord archive, the place where you find their nastiest little secrets. Only the highest ranks even know it exists. The allusions to the book in Shada and the Doomsday Weapon in Colony in Space are lovely touches. That’s how to unobtrusively make continuity references. An evil Time Lord Cabal, lead by the Eleven. When the Coalition’s plan is put into action and the future is destroyed, all the waste life energy in the universe will be absorbed and converted into regeneration energies by the crucible. The Time lords need never die. The Eleven might selfishly take the lives of everyone in the universe, take their energies into himself. Or something. It all sounds very end of the universe though, doesn’t it? I’m so pleased the story took a second to give Padrac a motive for his defection, even if it is the most extreme conclusion he could have reached. Essentially the only projection of a future where Gallifrey survives is one where the rest of the universe is destroyed, so nothing could possibly harm them. And he wanted to ensure their survival by helping to put a plan in place that would see off the universe. To be fair to him, the Time War couldn’t take place if his plan was brought to fruition. So, in some respects, he’s right. He feels as though he is merely filling his role in Time Lord destiny. The Doctor, Liv and Helen are trapped inside a shuttle that is shielded to protect against the energies of non-time. They have been projected into the future that no longer exists and are trapped forever. I laughed my head off at this…it’s such a creative way of trapping the Doctor but all the threads it has to put in place to ensure we reach this point (Padrac, the destruction of the future, Time Lord tech) is boggling. Was this set always leading here? To the Doctor and his friends being removed from the action completely? I never saw that coming!

Isn’t it Odd: I have a comment to make about the length of the Doom Coalition set, which is 16 hours in length making it one of the longest Doctor Who stories of all time. Somebody, eventually had to start weaving together all the threads that have been left dangling in the previous sets and Dorney does a bravura job here of attempting that. The problem is he is talking about plot elements that were set up anything up to 12 hours previously, long forgotten because there have been many diversions along the way. People criticise the Trial of a Time Lord for the same reason, the Ravalox segments being paid off two months after the mysteries were posed. Unless fans of this series constantly play the old box sets before the new ones come out (in which case they have way more time than me on their hands…just keeping up with the new releases is a struggle, not to mention, you know, life stuff), Doom Coalition is released almost a year after the original box set which features stories that this instalment refers to. A year! If you consider that certain stories were hardly essential to the central narrative (Beachhead, Absent Friends) and that whole adventures have been played out simply to add tiny pieces of the puzzle (The Red Lady, The Galileo Trap Scenes from her Life) you have a narrative that has been elongated, The Dalek’s Masterplan style, far longer than it has any right to be for the overall story it is trying to tell. I’m just talking about bare bones of the overarching narrative here, and I’m almost willing to bet that once I have listened to the final box set that all the essential ingredients of the Doom Coalition adventure could have been condensed down into two sets that were released a few months apart. But…and it’s a massive but, the stories I have mentioned above (especially the John Dorney ones) have been the highlight of the series (despite being inessential) and generally speaking the material has played out in such an entertaining fashion (in the way only Doctor Who can….apocalyptic melodrama) that the overall piece has been extremely enjoyable to demolish, despite the narrative It is like eating a cake with far too many ingredients and that has been in the oven too long but somehow comes out of the oven in fine form, and absolutely moreish to consume. Somehow the tone, the regulars, the ideas, the energy and the performances all merge to skip over the sheer storytelling bloatedness of Doom Coalition and it emerges as the most engaging Paul McGann story in yonks.

One thing I will complain about is the overreliance on the Time Lords. Why shouldn’t a series lean heavily on one its own continuity elements? Because it’s a little obvious and it has been done before. Many, many times. A Time Lord with regeneration schizophrenia being the pawn of another gaga Time Lord who is trying to ensure the survival of Gallifrey with the use of a great Time Lord superweapon. You can make this sound as calamitous as you like…we’ve been here before. And it was the end of civilisation then too. Prove me wrong, Dorney and Fitton, and don’t have some kind of Time Lord intervention in the climactic set.

Standout Scene: The moment the Doctor tries to look in to the future and finds that it isn’t there anymore. All of time, all of eternity has gone. Everything past the point indicated by the Chronometer. Paul McGann sells the moment brilliantly and the music is appropriately apocalyptic.

Result: ‘How can someone destroy the whole of the future?’ Do you ever wonder if Matt Fitton and John Dorney write each other into a corner just for the fun of it? I’m sure they sit down together and plot out these box sets meticulously but instead I prefer to think of them writing their own scripts and passing them to each other with a maniacal glint in their eyes and saying ‘get out of that, then!’ Dorney has quite a shopping list of ingredients that he has to pay off satisfactorily in The Crucible of Souls (an ostentatious title if ever I heard one); with the Doctor and River having to save the universe from extinction which has been set in motion by the Doomsday Chronometer and Liv and Helen dealing with what they think to be the next incarnation of the Doctor, who is up to something perverse on Gallifrey. Couple with that the return of the Eleven, a bunch of Time Lord scallywags and access to all of the dirtiest Time Lord secrets and Dorney has an awful lot to juggle. A massive strength of John Dorney’s work is these people sound like characters again, and not plot functions so even when there is plenty going on, I felt as if I was learning things about Liv, Helen and almost impossibly given her previous exposure, River. Telling the story through the characters means that suddenly this is personal again. Padrac gets a much bigger role here and his character surprises by taking the weight of a number of heavy plot points from stories past and assembling them into some kind of order and cohesion for us. Thanks Padrac. But for the end of the universe as we know it, you’re a bit of a bastard. I’ve said a lot above about the Doom Coalition arc as a whole so I won’t repeat it here, just to say that whilst we are enjoying something of a renaissance for the eighth Doctor after the stickiness of the Dark Eyes sets that ultimately came to nothing, I am missing the simplicity and the individuality of the standalones. It’s why stories like The Red lady, Scenes from Her Life and Absent Friends were so enjoyable, with a little tweaking they could exist as stories in their own right rather than being dragged along in a tidal wave of epic storytelling. The last twenty minutes of The Crucible of Souls are desperately exciting as big superweapons are deployed, characters are appalled by the scale of devastation that is to come and a villain boasts that his super plan has finally come to fruition. I’m not even sure that the details are even important (because when you focus on them it is little more than exaggerated technobabble and over plotted madness), just that we’re told that things are badder than bad and a wave of emotion is created to drag us into the final set. The end is nigh again but this time we really mean it and there is no way to stop it. Oho! But we have the Doctor to save the day! I would have believed that until the final twist which ups the ante even further and ensures that that is not the case. A brilliant last-minute coup: 8/10

Friday, 12 January 2018

The Doomsday Chronometer written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: While River Song takes Helen on an archaeological expedition like no other, the Doctor finds himself enlisted by an alien Queen to save her people. Trapped and alone, Liv stares death in the face as she meets the enemy who’s been dogging the TARDIS travellers’ footsteps throughout Earth’s history. The Doomsday Chronometer has been protected for five centuries: secret cults and societies jealously guarding its mystery. But what is their real purpose? The Doctor is about to discover the truth…

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor describes River as a stalker dogging his steps wherever he goes. That’s pretty on the nail. He has no idea what he means to people, he thinks he is just passing through giving people rides and a fun experience. Given Liv and Helen think he is dead and he isn’t telling them otherwise, I can imagine there will be some fallout. He loves them too, avoiding saying that reveals that.

Liv Chenka: Umm…

Helen Sinclair: Umm…

The Only Water in the Forest is the River:
She considers herself a much better driver than the Doctor. River explains about the psychic wimpole, a device that allows him to see her with a different face so she doesn’t affect the timelines and her first meeting with him. It’s a really neat, simple idea that skips over any problems in continuity in a heartbeat and allows River to present with as many classic Doctors as Big Finish choose. Bravo. When she suggests that she will keep Leonardo Da Vinci busy I thought Fitton was taking a Moffat approach to over sexualising the character but amusingly he has her playing tiddlywinks with him instead. River suggests that she will train that high handedness out of him eventually. She would drop anything to save the universe with the Doctor and it does feel like the story has been geared to force the Doctor and River into a position where they do that alone together. It’s a positive way to end the story though, so I’m not complaining.

Standout Performance: I haven’t really commented much on Alex Kingston’s performance on audio. On the whole I think I prefer it to her work on the telly, although there were several River episodes that I enjoy a great deal. It’s interesting to see her in the hands on another writer and just how the smugness factor diminishes when Steven Moffat isn’t involved. During seasons six and seven she was creatively poisonous for the show (in my humble opinion) but in the Doom Coalition narrative her appearances are a highlight, which is quite a reversal of fate in this reviewer’s eyes. Kingston is a lot of fun on audio, and has a terrific rapport with all three of the regulars. River isn’t the be all and end all but a positive component in a larger story.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘Honestly, Time Lords! You spend your whole life thinking that there is only one left and then they start turning up like buses!’
‘The question often asked of art! It is to provoke emotion! A response in those who gaze upon it. It will cause fear or terror!’

Great Ideas: The Clocksmith came to create a work of art so the universe will remember them. The religious sect believes the clock was broken apart in the 1400s, the pieces scattered throughout Europe. In 2016 someone is putting all the pieces back together again. All part from one, the eighth piece. I really enjoyed how the Doctor set up this entire mystery in the first place, it has a nice circular feel to the plotting to have the puzzle of the clock put together and then how the puzzle pieces came to be scattered explained. The clock is the Clocksmith’s small contribution to the cause, using a part of the first world demolished in their name (Syrah). Turning the ashes of a dead world into a souvenir. It’s a demonstration of everything the Coalition is out to achieve. The first mention of the Coalition…two thirds into the set! Talk about playing the long game. The clock forces co-ordinates into the Doctor’s head. There’s a secret group of Time Lords trying to harness a resonant power the like of which the cosmos has never seen. By calculating the time and place of the end of everything, the clock made it real. A trigger, a signal to the Coalition.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m reliably informed that reviewing this story and the previous one as two separate entities rather than taking them as a whole is pointless. So call me pointless. I did the same thing for Aliens of London and World War Three. My blog, my rules. Colour me pointless. There is a gripping Doctor Who story to be had featuring ThomasCromwell but swallowed up in the great Doom Coalition narrative, this is not it. He’s a useful plot device and has a few nice speeches, but as a historical figure he is chronically underserved because of the larger arc. In a moment of maddening obviousness, the revelation dawns on the Doctor that assembling the doomsday chronometer might not be the smartest of ideas. Given that its construction has been the focus of a pretty rum lot throughout history there is a remote chance that it might not be a product of benevolent design.

Standout Scene: Everything has been building to the clock being assembled and activated and so when that happens you start to hear the ticking, you cannot help but get excited at what could possibly be coming next. It measures Doomsday, what an exciting prospect. ‘I’ve never seen it…but this must be what happens when he regenerates!’ The cliff-hanger is as bold as it is nonsensical since we already know this isn’t the Doctor. Where on Earth do we go from here?

Result: Much more satisfying, but with the trade off once again being a weight of plot elements obscuring any chance of character development. The answers come thick and fast throughout and it’s possible to think of all this as entertaining exposition but given the denseness of the Doom Coalition arc it is a relief to see it starting to streamline and make sense. I really enjoyed how early instalments of the Doom Coalition series are brought up and have impact on the story. It feels less of a bunch of incoherent pieces but more like a slowly forming narrative. What The Doomsday Chronometer also has in spades is a snappy pace and a great sense of fun, I bounced from scene to scene enjoying the journey very much. You’ve got a likable cast of regulars bringing this story to life and whilst they aren’t being stretched in a great direction, they make the revelations that this story throws up an exciting experience. It’s huge ideas all the way from secret Time Lord groups up to nefarious activities to ashes of dead worlds being used to create a doomsday device; grandiose, exciting, and hugely over the top. Doctor Who melodrama at it’s most epic. The last fifteen minutes are desperately exciting as the clock is finally allowed to count down towards doomsday and everything leads towards an unforgettable cliff-hanger. I’m still very positive about this sixteen-part narrative, despite a few stumbles along the way. The batting average has been well above average and in parts, truly sublime. This instalment has the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the character development of a stone but it’s hugely engaging despite that and promises big things for the future. This energetic adventure more than makes up for the previous hiccup: 8/10

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Eighth Piece written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 15th Century Prague: in the castle dungeons, a prisoner raves about the end of the world. Outside, Liv Chenka seeks out the workshop of a strange Clockmaker to see what he is creating. England, 1538: Lord Thomas Cromwell finds his duties interrupted by otherworldly forces – clockwork soldiers, an unusual nun, and a mysterious scholar calling himself ‘the Doctor’. Perhaps the truth can be extracted in the torture chamber of London’s Bloody Tower? Rome, 2016: Helen Sinclair has an appointment with an enigmatic Professor, whose greatest work is almost complete. Only the Eighth Piece is missing…

Physician, Heal Thyself: Freedom and equality are his watchwords. Not much more to say here. The Doctor meets Cromwell in this story but there isn’t much of a sense of occasion because there is so much happening elsewhere.

Liv Chenka: She enjoys early 15th Century Prague because it feels alive, and after the relative slumber and introspection of the previous adventure I can understand why. This is exactly the sort of place to go to take your mind off of family tragedies.

Helen Sinclair: Very British, she’s taken aback by a continental kiss. Yep, that’s about it aside from a mention of her disreputable past. But she shrugs that off and says it’s a disgruntled aunt in question.

Standout Performance: It’s now been established that Alex Kingston has pleasing chemistry with both Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan. So can we please give them a chance to stop dashing about and just talk.

The Only Water in the Forest is the River: A member of the clergy that fancies her fellow clergymen? Yeah, that sounds like River. She suggests she will repent later at leisure but I doubt that will happen.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Threads in the Web of Time are being unpicked by whatever this is. But only in relation to one another’ – no it’s not a great line by any standards…but nine stories in, we’re finally working towards some kind of a coalescence of plot.

Great Ideas: A raving madman from the past screaming prophecy that the end is coming…I thought I had wandered in to The Pandorica Opens for a second. How fun to yomp through history in search of components of the Doomsday Chronometer, it’s a loose technobabble conceit to give the show the chance to do what it does best, explore all of time and space. Or in this case, time and Earth. Justin Richards was the master of this kind of thing, the Doctor and his companions all in different times and places (see Time Zero and Sometime Never… for just a few examples) but working towards the same goal of putting together a puzzle. It’s not original, but it’s often fun. The Doctor wants to reassemble all the pieces under controlled conditions. The Solvers are living puzzle boxes with a hive mind. A collection of time pieces covering six centuries of European history. A time piece that measures the time we have left, knowledge enough to send men mad. Over time the Chronometers was assembled from eight separate larger pieces, a revered piece of work. The eighth piece remains lost.

Audio Landscape:
Footsteps, a squeaky door being forced open, the clock mechanism clicking and whirring, River’s screwdriver, a horse whinnying, a ticking clock.

Isn’t it Odd: I don’t pretend to be an expert in writing audio drama, but I have heard an awful lot of these now so I can only critique in relation to what works for me. Coherency is a vital consideration on audio because you are only working with sound. On television you have visual back up, but on audio if you have characters reacting to situations that aren’t adequately explained or characters in dialogue that you haven’t established well enough it is just audio waffle until the penny drops. Generally, in Doctor Who audios you have the Doctor there to provide a lot of the explanations and exposition or the companions asking the right questions to the guest characters to provide the answers the audience needs. The Eighth Piece commits the cardinal sin of setting up the story in the first five minutes and then spending ten minutes with characters we’ve never encountered before discussing and reacting to situations that have yet to be explained. As such my interest immediately started waning. I think if you are going to have a story which is set in several time zones with lots of events happening, immediately establish all three regulars in their appropriate time zones and have them reacting to the situations. When robots appeared, and started killing characters I hadn’t had the time to get to know or understand in a setting that hadn’t been adequately established, I was wondering why I was listening to this. When Helen and River showed up, I cheered but I think the appearance of companions should be celebrated because they are enjoyed in themselves rather than because the plot will finally make some sense. I guess the biggest comparison I can make is to Seasons of Fear in McGann’s second season, which also featured a waltz through history as the Doctor and his companion attempted to piece together a puzzle involving a man who is apparently immortal and some old monsters returning. Seasons had the Doctor and Charley visit each time period together, discuss the setting in some depth, make jokes, interact with characters, get into danger…it was all very engaging, informative and vividly described. I knew exactly where I was and it wasn’t at odds with telling a gripping puzzle piece. If the story is about the mystery of the eighth piece of the doomsday chronometer (as the title suggests), I would have gotten to the point a lot sooner. The entire story could have been about the Doctor, Liv, Helen and River hunting through time for the eighth piece…rather than spending an hour setting up the mystery that the eighth piece exists. There are essentially four regulars in this story (let’s include River even if it pains me to do so) who are all underserved (especially Helen) because the hour-long story is divided four ways.

Result: ‘Bumbling around time as though it’s a bric-a-brac shop!’ Diversity seems to be the keyword in the Doom Coalition set as an intimate, intense character drama is followed by a chaotic, sprawling time puzzle of a story. The Eighth Piece sets up an intriguing premise; hunting the pieces of an ominous time device through the earth’s timeline. But the emphasis is definitely on set up, with no resolutions and the debate rages on whether this should be considered a story in its own right or the first half of the story that concludes in The Doomsday Chronometer. Absent Friends essentially honed on the three regulars and studied them penetratingly, The Eighth Piece jettisons any hope of studying them in favour of dropping them off in separate time periods and swallowing them up in plot. I know which approach I prefer. I don’t mind plot heavy Doctor Who, but my method of surviving the rapids of the complex narrative is to grab the hand of the characters and experience it through their eyes. If the plot is simply a tidal wave that crashes into the regulars, I can’t keep hold of them and we’re both lost in its wake. The narrative is nowhere near as coherent as it needs to be, and it is still unclear how it fits into the overall Doom Coalition narrative. It’s starting to feel like The X-Files mythology, god knows what the overarching story is, but the individual elements are quite fun. Raving madmen, River Song nunning it up, living puzzle boxes, horsing about, a huge time piece collection, knowledge of the end of the world… Imagine each of these elements like rocks, constantly being added, but with nothing to carry them in. I was overwhelmed by ideas, incident and revelations, with no reason to care about them. Where is the Eleven? Why is River included if she has to be written out with magic wand technobabble? Who are the Doom Coalition? The narrative of the doomsday chronometer (the device, not this instalment) is assembled with great care, each piece given a story of its own. When a plot device is given such luxurious priority over any one of the characters that are trying to figure out it’s construction, I think the story needs a rethink: 4/10