Image of the Fendahl (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 April 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Image of the Fendahl (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Terrance Dicks
Read By Louise Jamesona

Released by BBC Worldwide - February 2020
Available from Amazon UK

To be totally honest, I barely remember the TV version of Image of the Fendahl.  I remembered the image of the golden priestess at the end of the story, but the bulk of it has faded completely from my memory.  So as I entered this Target Audiobook, I was very much like the fans who originally picked up these Target Novelizations.  Repeats were uncommon and chances are the book was going to be your main source for re-living a story.  As a book, I enjoyed it. I think I actually enjoyed it more now than the TV version, even though my memory is definitely vague.

Apparently, this is a story that involves a small village, witchcraft, and an ancient evil alien.  Yep, seems like a Tom Baker adventure. His era, particularly in the first half of his run, was filled with gothic horror elements...so a small village with a Witch and ancient evil seems just about right. 

As expected, Terrence Dicks' writing is easy and engaging.  Louise Jameson does a solid reading, and the production value for the audiobook (featuring some music and sound effects to add to the drama), are excellent.  If you, like so many of us, are now trapped at home looking for something to fill the air as you work from home,  why not pass some of the time with one of these Target Audiobooks?



Associated Products

DVD - Region 1
Released 1 Jan 2006
Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (Story 94)
DVD - Region 2
Released 20 Apr 2009
Doctor Who - Image of The Fendahl [Import anglais]
$9.04



Doctor Who - The Eighth of MarchBookmark and Share

Saturday, 28 March 2020 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Doctor Who - The Eighth of March (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2019)Written by Lisa McMullin, Lizzie Hopley,
Gemma Langford and Sarah Grochala
Directed by Helen Goldwyn
Stars: Alex Kingston, Louise Jameson, Sophie Aldred,
Lisa Bowerman, Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart,
Dan Starkey, Jemma Redgrave,
Ingrid Oliver, Sylvester McCoy
Big Finish Productions, 2019

In 2019, to mark International Women’s Day, Big Finish launched an anthology – The Eighth of March – that celebrated the diversity of its stable and highlighted the exploits, courage and ingenuity of some of the women the Doctor has travelled with or encountered in his/her long lives. In addition, the four 60-minute-long serials were written, produced and directed by women, some of whom have been long-standing contributors to Big Finish over its 20-plus years.

BF’s decision to do an International Women’s Day release was a curious one, given its track record in the portrayal of women and in promoting opportunities for female actors and directors is pretty rock solid. It has given many former Doctor Who companions who weren’t necessarily served well on TV new leases of life – eg Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Maureen O’Brien, the late Deborah Watling – and its Bernice Summerfield range is the longest-running audio SF series with a female lead. Add to that other output featuring female leads – such as Torchwood, The Diary of River Song, Gallifrey, Missy, UNIT, Counter-Measures and new series spin-offs for Rose Tyler and Donna Noble – and the opportunities the company has given to many other women to work behind the scenes as well – Bryant, Louise Jameson, Bernice actor Lisa Bowerman and Helen Goldwyn are directors as much as they are actors – it could be argued there is little cause for an anthology release that celebrates the work of its women. Nonetheless, The Eighth of March is a decent primer for showcasing the wonderful work that women are doing across the Doctor Who audio range and in Big Finish’s other output.

The anthology consists of four serials, some of which tie in with other spin-offs in the Doctor Who range. Emancipation pairs the Doctor’s wife River Song (Alex Kingston) with former companion Leela (Jameson), while The Big Blue Book is effectively a Nineties 'New Adventures' reunion of Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Professor Bernice Summerfield (Bowerman). Inside Every Warrior is effectively a pilot episode for The Paternoster Gang audio series, while Narcissus is a modern UNIT story with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and the two Osgoods (Ingrid Oliver) post-The Zygon Invasion/Inversion two-parter.

In Emancipation, River attends a Galactic Heritage convention on a primitive planet under the guise of former Gallifreyan President Romanadvoratrelundar. Enter Leela, who is despatched by the real Romana to expose the impostor, only to find herself (in her own words) “jumping through time to rescue princesses”, as she and River uncover an age-old conspiracy by that world’s royal personage to appease her people’s gods.

Kingston and Jameson make a great team, with the usually feisty Leela being the more level-headed and soothing influence, and River the more emotional, flamboyant tearaway (a reversal of the Fourth Doctor/Leela partnership). There are, of course, moments where Leela’s inner warrior seeps through this more restrained exterior – “Get up – or I will scalp those unnecessary curls from your head!” – but it is River’s recklessness and throwing of caution to the wind (much like her final TV appearance in The Husbands of River Song) that more often than not endangers their mission. This not only occurs over the course of the episode but in the conclusion when River quite unashamedly begins to meddle with time itself, at potentially great cost to many lives (something that the Doctor would rarely, if ever, do).

Pitted against the charismatic Kingston and Jameson is Julie Teal (Luther, Doctors, Waking the Dead) as the villainous and flamboyant Royal Magnificat. Teal almost steals the show from the two leads as the deliciously wicked and calculating evil queen mother. It’s an “arch” performance which Goldwyn admits she encouraged Teal to “revel” in, and it’s no doubt assisted by some great dialogue by scribe Lisa McMullin, whose script also borrows from the Steven Moffat playbook of witty discourse. As McMullin herself admits in the CD extras, it was “hard to pull back from the jokes. Because the characters are so brilliant, you want to make every line a standout line, so you start trying to one-up yourself while you’re writing it”. The episode is indeed very entertaining listening as a result, although it doesn’t surpass another River Song instalment – The Bekdel Test – which had the advantage of pairing River with Michelle Gomez’s maniacal Missy.

The second instalment – The Big Blue Book – is perhaps the most “traditional” of the four serials, given it features popular companions Ace and Bernice (aka Benny), minus Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Benny is drawn into an elaborate extra-terrestrial library-cum-dimension ship, and Ace has to rescue her before Benny is lost forever within a matrix of twisted and dying souls. Lizzie Hopley’s script is the most macabre of the four scripts – the manner in which an alien race imprisons and effectively damns its criminals for eternity brings a whole new meaning to the term “body horror”. It would have perfectly suited the style of the New Adventures (NA) that have clearly inspired it.

Ace and Benny are matched against another female antagonist in Vassa, played by Rosemary Ashe, who describes her character as a “kleptomaniac serial killer”, and her emasculated partner in crime Lycurgus (Robert Gill). With Benny sidelined for some of the story, it is the streetwise Ace who steps up to thwart this bizarre, villainous couple and free the trapped souls within the dimension ship. There is an assumption (particularly on the part of the villainous Vassa) that because Ace isn’t academically minded, she is no real threat and therefore not worthy of induction into the ship’s library. Of course, anyone familiar with Ace from the TV series – or her NA persona – will know that she is very smart; she may lack certified qualifications but she is by no means simple-minded (she’s a non-qualified chemist, given her affinity for making Nitro-9 bombs) nor is she completely science-phobic either. Hopley shows in her script how resourceful any informally educated person can be – yet another appreciation of the diversity this set is promoting – and Aldred (as expected) does an outstanding job of recreating her signature role (even down to recapturing Ace’s youthful verve) and its knack for ingenuity.

It is easy to forget that the TARDIS is also ostensibly female and sometimes can be as much of a character in 'her' own right as the cast of whichever era a story is set. 'She' also becomes a worthy plot device and instrumental to the conclusion in the Doctor’s absence.

Inside Every Warrior, the third script by Gemma Langford, takes us back to 8 March, 1894, when the Paternoster Gang – comprising Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife/housemaid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and their Sontaran butler Strax (Dan Starkey) – are called upon by a conceited, misogynistic Victorian scientist Cornelius Pinch (Nigel Fairs) to investigate werewolf sightings in London. Pinch does little to enamour himself to the Victorian detective trio, while Jenny befriends Pinch’s ill-treated maid Daisy Hodge (Julie Atherton). However, when Strax is kidnapped by a werewolf and interned in an extra-terrestrial menagerie – in which the alien prisoners’ life essences are being drained by London’s upper classes – Vastra and Jenny realise the antagonist is not quite whom they were expecting.

As a primer for The Paternoster Gang series, Inside Every Warrior provides a “taste” of the Victorian-style adventures of the assorted trio. McIntosh and Stewart effortlessly recapture the love, affection and flirtatiousness their duo shared on-screen, while Stewart also gets to display her compassionate side in scenes with her counterpart Hodge. Starkey has less air time as Strax but his larger than life presence is certainly felt when he features, especially in the opening and climactic scenes of the story, underlined by the unmissable 'Sontar-ha' baritone.

The other performers in this play are also very strong. Tom Bell does an outstanding job of portraying two different characters – the downtrodden alien Prog and the foppish upper class 'gentleman' Percy – while BF veteran Louise Faulkner is both equally eccentric and deliciously sinister as Percy’s wife Laeticia. Atherton also shines in her role as she eschews the demoralised, browbeaten maid in the second half of the play. “Whatever we do, we’re always the vessel taking others to fairer lands. For once, don’t you want to be master of your own destiny?” Hodge poetically asks of Jenny, reinforcing the very solid writing that Langford brings to this entry and the sympathy it engenders for the central antagonist.

The final play – Sarah Grochala’s Narcissus – brings us squarely back to the 21st century as the modern day UNIT team encounter an internet dating site that is a cover for extra-terrestrial activity in London. This serial (as the title strongly implies) focuses on the concepts of beauty and self-image in both women and men, particularly in this age of social media, ‘selfies’, online personas and self-gratification.The interesting contrast with these notions is the character(s) of Osgood. Not only do the twin Osgoods not always get along (implying that having a physical duplicate of yourself is not guaranteed to make you faster, more efficient and more productive) but Osgood’s more modest sense of self is equally important in countering the extra-terrestrial threat in the androgynous Jordan (played by both Alix Dunmore and Dan Blaskey).

Ingrid Oliver delivers a fantastic performance as the two Osgoods. The actor admits in the CD extras that trying to convey the different moods and tones of each Osgood in the booth at the same time proved problematic . Therefore, Oliver would perform as one Osgood, with her other dialogue being read to her, and then perform her counterpart’s lines, leaving the editing suite to marry the two performances. The end result is a plausible conflict between two very alike individuals. And when they do get along, they are quite enterprising – one of them goes ‘undercover’ at one point to try to uncover the truth – to the horror of feisty Scots journalist Jacqui Magee (Tracey Wiles). The only downside with the Osgoods is that there is a strong implication in the climax that one of them is indeed human, whereas in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, Steven Moffat went to great lengths to hide exactly whether the surviving Osgood was the original human or her Zygon copy. The question is whether a Zygon could convincingly outwit and confuse the serial’s antagonist in the almost oblivious, and selfless, manner that Osgood demonstrates.

Jemma Redgrave is also excellent throughout the serial as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, her calming, diplomatic tones providing her with the scope to mediate some very difficult and challenging personalities, whether that be the Osgoods, Jackie or the villainous Jordan. Her calm, matter of fact demeanour also plays a significant role in her being able to resist the villain’s mindwashing techniques and overtures in the serial’s climactic stages.

So did Big Finish really need to do an International Women’s Day release with such a smorgasbord of tales? Probably not, as again the company’s record of hiring women as directors, producers, writers and actors is outstanding. Nonetheless, listeners will still be grateful for what is an excellent anthology set. Each tale is extremely entertaining, exploring the full gamut of emotions – from dark humour right through to self-deprecation – and there are morals from each of the tales that will appeal to both women and men alike.

Should there be another boxset in the future as a companion to this release? Perhaps it will depend on the theme and the types of stories that can be told, eg it may honour women and men of colour, LGBTIQ status or ethnicity. Regardless, you can be assured Big Finish will deliver an outstanding product. 






The Diary of River Song - Vol 6Bookmark and Share

Friday, 27 March 2020 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
The Diary of River Song - Vol 6 (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2019)Written by Matt Fitton, John Dorney,
Guy Adams and Paul Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Stars: Alex Kingston, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell,
Claudia Grant, Ralph Watson, Clive Wood,
Christopher Benjamin, Angus Wright, Nicholas Goh
Big Finish Productions, 2019

“So you know what happens to us?”

“No, I know what happens to everything else. I know what happens to the Miniscope and everything outside our personal experience. Think of it as an old story we’re walking around in!”

Dibbsworth and River Song, Peepshow

It’s been strongly hinted in the Doctor Who TV series - particularly in the 2015 episode The Husbands of River Song - and in prior Diary of River Song instalments that the Doctor’s wife is more than happy to engage with her husband’s past incarnations and 'borrow' the TARDIS from time to time for her own escapades while he is preoccupied.

Volume 6 of The Diary of River Song gives us an insight into the form those adventures take. It takes four serials from the first four Doctors in the classic era of the TV series – An Unearthly Child, The Web of Fear, Carnival of Monsters and The Talons of Weng-Chiang – and provides the listener with three prequels and a ‘midquel’ (a story running simultaneously with events in the original).

The first serial – An Unearthly Woman – takes us right back to the beginning, as River (Alex Kingston) goes undercover as a relief teacher at Coal Hill School, a few months before the fateful events of the very first episode. What’s fun about this episode is that it pairs River with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, and their pupil Susan Foreman, all oblivious of the great adventure that awaits them. What is also neat is that these are the ‘contemporary’ versions of the characters, as originally played on TV in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time and subsequently in Big Finish’s own First Doctor Adventures audios – Jamie Glover (Ian), Jemma Powell (Barbara) and Claudia Grant (Susan).

The engagement between River and these ‘modern’ iterations of the original characters is one of the highlights of the box set. Kingston, Glover, Powell and Grant all interact naturally (which would not necessarily have been the case if Kingston had been paired with original cast members William Russell and Carol Anne Ford). Kingston also particularly relishes some of River’s moments with the trio – flirting with Glover’s Ian, providing counsel to Powell’s Barbara and lending a sympathetic ear to Grant’s Susan. These interactions are also capped off by two riotous encounters with the First Doctor (David Bradley), who is oblivious (rather than immune) to River’s charms!

The story itself bears some superficial similarity to another Coal Hill escapade in 2014’s Peter Capaldi episode The Caretaker, in which the streets of Shoreditch are being stalked by an extra-terrestrial hunter. In this instance, the antagonist is far more sinister than the quite comical Skovox Blitzer and (unintentionally) shares some vague similarities to the Kasaavaan of Jodie Whittaker’s second series opener Spyfall. Long-term, owl-eared listeners of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range will no doubt also pick up on a subtle ‘Easter egg’ that ties into the Eighth Doctor’s recent audio adventures.

The Web of Time takes River back to late 1960s (or is that mid-1970s?) London in the thrall of the Great Intelligence and its robot Yeti a few days before the Second Doctor and his companions arrive in The Web of Fear. River is on the trail of a rare extra-terrestrial artwork that has somehow found its way to the National Gallery but then finds herself in pursuit of a mother-and-daughter duo of looters who ‘nick’ her prize before she can. To add to her woes, River is forced to rescue the ill-fated Captain Ben Knight (who is destined to meet a grisly end at the tendrils of the Intelligence in the TV story) and drag him along for the ride throughout the abandoned capital. And as if having Knight questioning her altruism throughout the story isn’t aggravating enough, River subsequently finds herself being drawn into the Intelligence’s ‘web’, its curiosity in the time traveller having been piqued by her insertion into events.

John Dorney has a penchant for writing for characters with tragic histories and/or fates, so Captain Knight fits that bill quite neatly. While it is also quite poetic that the original actor in Ralph Watson reprises the part of Knight almost 50 years on from the original Web of Fear serial, the romance of this rather novel casting is somewhat shaded by the reality of it. Knight is presumably in his late twenties but Watson’s voice sounds considerably older and deeper, conjuring images in the listener’s mind of a much older man. Watson is unarguably great, and he puts his all back into the character but even the best of Big Finish’s sound wizards cannot disguise the age discrepancy in his voice. It perhaps would have been better had the captain been recast, and maybe Watson cast in another role (even as the Intelligence) as a nod to his involvement in the original serial. Nonetheless, Watson and Kingston have some great moments as the no-nonsense, compassionate soldier and the wise-cracking, opportunistic and sometimes ruthless archaeologist. Knight is very much the moral compass of this story; he is the one who lectures River about her duty and responsibilities, especially as she is armed with foreknowledge of the Yeti threat.

Knight may be River’s conscience in The Web of Time but her next sidekick – Dibbsworth – in The Carnival of Monsters midquel Peepshow pales by comparison (particularly in the courage stakes). Clive Wood’s hapless security guard starts off as quite obtuse but, thanks to Guy Adams’ character development and the dialogue between Dibbsworth and River, becomes quite likeable and sympathetic by the end. (Dibbsworth has an entertaining anecdote about riding a donkey in Blackpool which most individuals who meet River or the Doctor would very likely relate to!)

Wood has to compete for airtime with photocopier-eating sabretooth tigers, bemused yet stoic Sontarans, clueless Ogrons and marauding Drashigs. Nevertheless, even with Dan Starkey standing in for the Sontarans and Adams as the Ogrons, Wood eclipses them all as the comic relief – especially when he stands up to a Drashig with a banana!

Starkey has played numerous Sontarans for Big Finish over the years and once again excels as he channels the original actor Kevin Lindsay in his portrayal of Commander Sturmm and the other Sontarans in his unit.  Adams also puts on a very ‘simian’ performance as the Ogrons – although being an audio tale, the characters, even with their limited vocabulary, probably have more dialogue in this than they ever had on television!

In all, Peepshow is a fun, laugh a minute romp around the edges of another classic Doctor Who tale. The story only really reaches emotional heights when River briefly crosses paths with Tim Treloar’s Third Doctor in the closing moments of the play. It’s a touching, bittersweet meeting that foreshadows the conclusion of The Green Death – but it shows just how much River cares for the Doctor in all of his incarnations and why she can never stomach seeing him heartbroken.

Heartbreak is another theme of the final serial in this set – The Talents of Greel, a prequel to the timeless Tom Baker epic The Talons of Weng-Chiang and an unlikely romance story. Given Talons was only ever intended as a one-off tale by Robert Holmes in the late 1970s, the serial has spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, both in print and on audio – most notably in the Jago & Litefoot series. With Trevor Baxter (Litefoot) having passed away, Christopher Benjamin (Jago) gets to rub shoulders with Alex Kingston, as River infiltrates the Palace Theatre a mere week before the Fourth Doctor and Leela arrive, and foils an earlier scheme of Li H’Sen Chang (Nicholas Goh, recreating the late John Bennett’s part on TV) and his deformed master Magnus Greel (Angus Wright, who reprises the role he first played in the Peter Davison tale The Butcher of Brisbane).

Paul Morris’s script ties quite cleverly into Talons, as he builds on a random piece of dialogue of Greel’s (Michael Spice on TV) about time agents in the original teleplay (this notion, little more than paranoia on Greel’s part, has been further developed in the modern TV series as the Time Agency, to which Captains Jack Harkness and John Hart belong). However, Morris also manages to add a human dimension to the story by introducing us to former Moulin Rouge starlet Celestine (Milly Thomas), who it transpires has an unexpected connection with Goh’s Chinese magician. Morris’s writing, coupled with Goh’s performance, consequently gives Chang a far more sympathetic characterisation than he had on TV and makes him far less of a villain and a caricature. While Goh is excellent in the part, his characterisation sadly (at least from a continuity perspective) doesn’t quite marry with the original Robert Holmes portrayal, which is more evocative of Saxon Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and Bennett's subtly menacing performance.

Wright, however, more successfully captures the madness, anger and frustration in Spice’s original portrayal of Greel. This is no doubt helped by his earlier turn in The Butcher of Brisbane, and indeed in the CD extras, Wright remarks that while he worried he had forgotten how to play the part, the script was so well written that five minutes into the recording booth he had effortlessly slipped back into the role.

The other highlight of this tale is the duet between River and Jago on the stage of the Palace Theatre. Both Kingston and Benjamin clearly enjoy performing a bawdy song which will invite plenty of laughs from long-time Whovians. It may not be as accomplished as some of the clever musical numbers that were performed in the Sixth Doctor tale Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003) but it’s nevertheless a fun romp, particularly as River tunelessly attempts to raise her voice to the right keys in the course of the song and Jago chips in with his own helpful merry gems.

Long-term fans may be disappointed that River’s relationship with Jago is not as flirtatious and mischievous as it so often is with the Doctor and other incidental characters. However, as Morris and Benjamin explain in the CD extras, this would simply not be consistent with the hard-edged showman and businessman that is portrayed early in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and would be much too close to the more mellowed, experienced infernal investigator of the Jago & Litefoot series. Nonetheless, Morris finds a use for Jago that fits the plot and Benjamin’s wonderfully fruity tone and knack for using encyclopaediac dialogue – all while sounding bemused by events that occur around him – is as entertaining as ever! It’s great that while J&L may have come to an end, BF is still finding avenues for Benjamin’s character in other spin-offs, notably this story and a future Paternoster Gang instalment. I’m sure future forays in the Doctor Who main range (alongside Tom Baker or Colin Baker) aren’t out of the question – and it would be great to see the character interact with even Captain Jack in a period Torchwood tale!

The Talents of Greel is, by far, possibly the strongest of the four tales in this boxset, with The Web of Time also a major highlight, given that prequels to any classic Doctor Who stories in the past would have been suspiciously viewed by some quarters of fandom as utter heresy or ‘fanwank’! Nevertheless, BF manages to make all of the tales work quite plausibly – for the most part. At a time when some fans have been rattled by the recent revelations of recent series finale The Timeless Children (which have potentially rewritten the lore of the TV series as we know it), The Diary of River Song Vol 6 might be a reassuring journey back down ‘memory lane’ - albeit with its own modern twists and iterations

It will be interesting to see if this experiment of River dancing around other Doctor Who tales might be repeated for Doctors Five through Eight. Perhaps there’s more mileage to be had out of obscure classic era tales like Terminus, Vengeance on Varos, and Paradise Towers and Paul McGann audio Seasons of Fear. As I’ve written before in my previous reviews of the River series, I would still prefer that our heroine engages in her own escapades that aren’t so heavily anchored to the Doctor, the Master or the Doctor’s past. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the TV series’ history and Alex Kingston continues to be outstanding as the Doctor’s rogue archaeologist wife. 





Torchwood - Expectant (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 18 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Expectant (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Xanna Eve Chown
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Aaron Anthony (Jonty); Catherine Ayers (Paula); Meryn Davies (Resident); Jessica Hayles (Brigadier); Emily John (Resident)

Released by Big Finish Productions – December 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“I’ve gotta be honest – I’m really struggling with this.”

“Why?”

“Why? Why? Because two of our friends die and Jack goes off and I think he’s coming to terms with it but oh no, suddenly he’s pregnant!”

Were we to have compiled a checklist of unseen Torchwood moments craved by fans as of the show’s audio resurrection in 2015, then by now, Big Finish would’ve already ticked a remarkable number of those boxes. From the truth behind Jack’s predecessor at Torchwood Three taking his entire team’s lives in 1999 (The Torchwood Archive) to the conspirators behind the Miracle (ditto), from the inception of Jack and Ianto’s romance (Broken) to the agency’s international branches (The Dollhouse, The Dying Room), at this rate the studio will soon have plugged more holes than the good Captain has bullet wounds in his immortal body. And yet amongst the most obvious remaining gaps for many fans still has to be the show’s most ‘shipped’ coupling never raising any offspring before Ianto’s Shakespeare-calibre tragic downfall.

Until now, that is. For in honour of the festive season last December, Main Range freshwoman (and Doctor Who: Short Trips regular contributor) Xanna Eve Chown delivered the ultimate Christmas gift to the doomed lovers’ followers – but, to paraphrase the Eighth Doctor somewhat, “probably not the one that they were expecting”. On the bright side: Expectant affords the pair new purpose after the harrowing death toll of “Exit Wounds”, specifically in the form of a youngling to protect and nurture in its formative days. On the downside: said youngling is an extraterrestrial royal-to-be to whom Jack might give birth at any moment…so long as they’re not all slaughtered by alien bounty hunters or overzealous UNIT troopers beforehand. Cue a relentlessly zany, eclectic hour of audio drama which – much like October’s Smashed did for Eve Myles – lets its stars showcase dynamic new shades of their long-established characters, all the while providing ample chuckle-worthy moments for their listeners too.

This reviewer initially couldn’t help but fear the worst upon hearing of such a wish-fulfilling yet equally bonkers premise as that described above; what if the inevitably comic relief-fuelled concept failed to yield more than 15 minutes of half-hearted chortles, let alone sustain the usual 50-60 minute running time afforded to Big Finish dramas? And might the challenge only prove exacerbated by its scribe’s newcomer status on the Torchwood audio scene? Thankfully it took merely a few minutes for Eve Chown to lay those concerns to rest with some downright hilarious overblown action and comedic set-pieces, then another 10-20 minutes tops for her to confirm that – as per the quote which opened our review – there’s far more on her mind than cheap guffaws. Indeed, Expectant plays marvellously as both a sitcom pregnancy romp – hunger pangs, self-body-shaming, mood swings, frantic spouses and midwives, the works – and admirably intricate meditation on grief, Jack’s struggle to reconcile his supposed victories at the agency’s helm with his recent losses often bubbling to the surface at the most inopportune but poignant moments. It’d be a truly tough tonal line for any author to straddle regardless of their chosen medium so that our resident scribe achieves as much despite this outing marking her first Main Range ‘baby’ is all the more astounding a feat.

The same unsurprisingly goes for John Barrowman too, who’s clearly having just as riotous a whale of a time here as he did with his headline-grabbing Doctor Who return last month, yet likewise manages to inject further layers beyond mere farce. On the one hand, his uncharacteristically emotionally distraught and oft-irritable take on the knocked-up Jack represents a welcome breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the Time Agent’s usual endless array of raunchy one-liners and / or stoic attempts at leadership; on the other, having Barrowman poignantly reveal the cracks in his long-running antihero’s exterior, the newfound hormones prompting distraught outbursts over Owen and Toshiko’s deaths with Ianto’s encouragement, proves equally effective in depicting yet more shades for this oft-comic relief-driven protagonist. A lot of actors would doubtless feel content to simply phone their performances in once a role has been as well-established as Jack, so it’s reassuring to know that Barrowman (amidst all his other work on pantos, Holby City, the Arrow-verse and the like) shows no sign of following suit – quite the opposite based on his remarkably versatile contribution here.

As ever, though, virtually no audio drama (one-handers aside perhaps) can survive solely on the basis of its leading thespian’s performance. Luckily Gareth David-Lloyd (whose role essentially amounts to an extended cameo this time around) and Aaron Anthony seem to wholly recognise as much, their respective takes on an increasingly infuriated Ianto as well as Jack’s bewildered midwife Jonty inducing ample laughs along the way as the pair react desperately to their knocked-up friend’s pleas for food, aesthetic compliments and hugs alike. There’s inevitably not quite as much attention paid to each player’s individual character development in Expectant as, say, more personal drama-heavy affairs like Broken and The Last Beacon have afforded Ianto in recent years, but the intentionally comedy-thriller-style tone of the piece moreso demands a balance of gung-ho resilience and gags which the two undoubtedly strike in good measure throughout.

By now you’re probably wondering who our heroes must face off against before reaching the play’s metaphorical finishing line. Well, there’s a reason why we hadn’t mentioned as much up until now – whereas Torchwood audio dramas (and indeed action dramas generally) usually feature a pretty transparent antagonist for the agent at hand to best, in Eve Chown’s script the threat moreso lies in the overall challenge at hand than any of the foes revealed as events progress as a conspicuous food clinic hotel in Act 3. It’s an approach which pays off for the most part in terms of allowing the heightened yet ever-developing core character dynamics breathe in a 1-hour runtime, albeit with the trade-off of the ‘true’ villains’ outing and motivations feeling somewhat rushed come the last 20 minutes or so as a result. How detrimental that aspect feels to your overall satisfaction with the play will, at the end of the day, largely depend on whether its storyline’s / performances’ banter-driven nature start to grate for you as a listener beforehand.

Regardless, the further that we move into the Torchwood Main Range’s more standalone, arc-detached output (notably the Committee don’t even get a mention here, perhaps signalling their end of days seeing as God Among Us wrapped up their ongoing story arc), the more confidences its wrights instil in leaving the show’s interconnected storylines to its yearly three-part ‘season’ boxsets. Releases as gloriously bonkers as Expectant continue to uphold the wide breadth of storylines which the TV series always offered on a weekly basis (contrast this with the haunting circus affair From Out of the Rain and it’s night and day), thereby demonstrating their sustained potency in the franchise’s audio-resurrected form. Would we necessarily want every instalment produced at Big Finish to take such an outrageous and laugh-laden direction? Probably not, but so long as Eve Chown’s back at the helm whenever the studio next opts for such a refreshing narrative approach, this reviewer will have no qualms whatsoever about coming along for the ride.






Gallifrey: Time War 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 17 March 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Gallifrey: Time War 3 (Credit: Big Finish)

Starring Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, and Seán Carlsen

Written By David Llewellyn, Lou Morgan, Helen Goldwyn

Directed By Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs
 
Released by Big Finish - February 2020

When we last left off on Gallifrey: Time War, Romana and Narvin were banished by the Time Lords and sent packing into the vortex in an old TARDIS (Romana was sentenced to death, but someone didn’t want her becoming a martyr), and despite their predicament, Romana decided the best course of action was to find their lost friend Leela. Their first stop (Hostiles) is a wreckage of a ship, upon which they find a Time Lord and an abominable being with time disruption powers that will kill them all to keep that one Time Lord alive and with him.  It’s a decent enough opener, as it has a good monster and some good Time War business.  

From there the duo end up on a rural planet, one in which the Time War has also begun to take effect as they deal with time folding in on itself.  If I am honest, this one is pretty forgettable. As I sat down to write this review it took me a few minutes to even remember what the details of this one’s plot were. The synopsis I found of Nevernor did not even remotely help me.  Finally...something of this story came back, but it just isn’t that great. It’s not a horrendous listen, because if nothing else Big Finish have tremendous production values...but I can’t sit here and pretend that they are infallible, and that they don’t occasionally have stories that can bore and confuse me, and then have the entire memory of the tale just float out of my brain.  

The big return of Leela happens in the third episode, Mother Tongue, in which she gets the full focus.  She has found herself jumping back and forth through time on a planet that is utterly peaceful with mysterious plants that take root around the whole world and somehow protect them from the outside universe.  As she bounces from the past to the future, she finds he has a son, and sees the different paths the world could take. It’s a solid premise and it is executed decently, even if I occasionally wasn’t able to keep up with where Leela was.  I also found another actress had a voice similar enough to Louise Jameson that it threw me off once or twice.  

The set concludes with Unity as Narvin and Romana finally meet up with Leela, find her living as a protector of a family on the planet Unity, but a guy trying to make a buck steals their TARDIS and lures the Daleks there to buy it (which as you already guessed doesn’t really pan out for him).  It all comes to a head with Romana deciding to sacrifice herself via the Chameleon Arch, become human and forget the dangerous knowledge she has to keep the planet hopefully safe from the Time Lords and the Daleks.  

But she also doesn’t do that. She decides it is cheating, and gives herself up to the Daleks believing she can maybe outwit them?  But while Narvin knows she changed her plans, they seem to feel it is best that Leela doesn’t know. To be honest, right now I am trying to figure out why Leela is so important to their plans.  Not that she isn't a fun character, but they seem to act like Leela MUST be saved and taken back to Gallifrey or help in the Time War cause or something...but she is just this Savage girl who could maybe be good on the front lines or something.  The whole ending just feels like it is concocted for a dramatic cliffhanger (the Daleks seemingly about to exterminate Romana), but doesn’t really make too much sense big picture to me.  

This set has decent episodes and is, as always, wonderfully produced, but I did feel it was missing something.  What I enjoyed about the Gallifrey series was the machinations on, well, Gallifrey. This set doesn’t have a single moment on the Time Lord’s home planet.  It doesn’t really continue the descent into madness and ramping up the Time War business, and how the Time Lords truly lost their way. Instead this just feels like an Eighth Doctor: Time War set.  Two characters bouncing around in an old TARDIS running into monsters and experiencing the effects the Time War is having on the universe. I like the Eighth Doctor sets, but this feels like they lost the identity that made the Gallifrey sets unique.  They were about the political intrigue that led to Gallifrey’s downfall. This is just adventures. It is worth a listen for fans, it’s just missing that key element.   





Torchwood - Dead Man's Switch (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 16 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Dead Man's Switch (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: David Llewellyn
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Murray Melvin (Bilis Manger), Timothy Blore (Piers), Maxine Evans (Rowena), Mali Ann Rhys (Zoe)

Released by Big Finish Productions – November 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“I know this music – what is it?”
“Beethoven. Do you like it?”
“Dunno, sounds it like should be in a horror film or something…”

Three doomed souls trapped aboard a potentially Hell-bound train, with the seemingly innocuous carriage guard Bilis Manager their sole companion – nothing says classic Torchwood chiller quite like a premise along those (railway) lines. Add to that the reliably sterling quality of Manger’s Big Finish appearances to date (his deliciously sinister tones elevating the Psycho-esque hotel horror Deadbeat Escape and Aliens Among Us’ own holiday romp “A Kill to a View” exponentially), as well as the general strength of playwright David Llewellyn’s audio output so far, and the stage seemed set for another winner in the Main Range’s thirty-third instalment Dead Man’s Switch. But have Llewellyn, Manger’s formidable vocal channel Murray Melvin, their three-strong supporting cast and the studio’s behind-the-scenes wizards found greatness once more, or have we finally – rather fittingly – reached the end of the line?

Certainly, Switch’s chosen narrative format should come as a welcome surprise to any late-20th century horror devotees, since we’re firmly in portmanteau (better known today in the Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 era as “anthology”) territory here. As the aforementioned track-trailing vessel progresses along its seemingly eternal path, each of its passengers gets their own segment in which to relate the haunting events which somehow landed them a ticket to this carriage-shaped purgatory. By far the play’s most valuable asset comes in its slow-burn, deeply unsettling generation of old-school suspense from here on out, its trio of chamber-house tales subtly piling on the tension to the point that the more dread-susceptible listeners among us might want to switch extra lights on if they’re courageously attempting a late-night playthrough. This palpable manipulation of our inner fears is achieved magnificently via a number of key contributory pillars involved with the release, many of which / whom are often all too easily overlooked when we’re busy heaping praise on Big Finish’s ever-accomplished audio dramas.

Case in point: the sound designers and composers whose taut deployment of understated aural effects and perfectly-timed musical cues over the course of the hour both work immensely in its favour. At some points it’ll only take the silence of a supposedly empty household to put us at unease, as an anxious woman fills the bathtub with the creeping sense that she’s not alone in the building; at others, more blatant jump scares do the trick marvellously, a man’s sudden encounter with roof-dwelling bats every inch as quake-inducing as any big-screen scare conjured up by today’s myriad horror remakes, sequels and soft reboots. As if these vividly realistic moments weren’t enough to worm their way under the skin, the fear factor only deepens towards the end of each narrator’s account with the deviously understated injection of classical Beethoven melodies, always ominously building to a thrilling crescendo as their fate becomes apparent in grisly, macabre fashion.

So too are Llewellyn and his concise quartet of performers clearly cognisant of the power with which dialogue (both in its scripting and tonal delivery) can reflect – and better yet enhance – the escalating terror of such supernatural (though metaphorically relatable) circumstances. The former’s carefully-paced script affords each tale ample space to breathe, allowing us sufficient time to understand the extent of auction-scammer Rowena’s conniving schemes before she’s forced to (literally) reflect upon herself in uncanny fashion; to shiver at ruthless estate agent Piers’ inhumanity when banishing doomed edifices’ residents before he realises these edifices’ secrets, and detect the harrowing backstory which fuels hair stylist Zoe’s efforts to deter drug addicts from ruining her homestead. As such, portrayers Maxine Evans, Timothy Blore and Mali Ann Rhys respectively have time aplenty too to nuancedly depict their constructs’ descent from (misplaced) moral righteousness to (not-at-all-misplaced) near-complete nervous breakdowns, leaving us (in The Great Gatsby’s words) “simultaneously enchanted and [moreso] repelled by the inexhaustible varieties of life” before those lives come startlingly close to extinguishment.

And what of the corporeal yet somehow transcendental watchman standing guard over our protagonists? Even in the wake of his turns in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera film adaptation or his countless theatrical and Ken Russell-directed roles, Bilis Manger nonetheless seems the part which Murray Melvin was born to play – a sentiment that holds doubly true in Dead Man’s Switch. Manger’s deceptively kind voice of elderly wisdom of course belies the intricate emotional torment through which he’s dragging his unwitting victims, the unmistakable pride which manifests all the while behind his words a joy to behold for Torchwood fans (and doubtless for Melvin to express based on the sinister energy which he yet again brings to the table). The only inherent risk involved with reprising such an unashamedly malevolent and self-assured foil as Manger, though, is that of the audience’s growing sense of dramatic irony. Through no fault of Melvin's own, such has become our familiarity with the time-hopping schemer since his debut in Season One’s “Captain Jack Harkness” / “End of Days” that his modus operandi of twisting humans to his own (along with his godly master’s) ends risks rendering standalone storylines such as that presented in Switch as somewhat predictable if they’re all heading in the same fatal direction (as Deadbeat Escape and “A Kill to a View” did to a certain extent). Perhaps that’s also a by-product of the portmanteau / anthology horror format in fairness, with the aforementioned abundance of shows like Black Mirror in 2020 also setting us up to expect last-minute deadly twists from these affairs.

All the same, the extent to which Llewellyn, his cast and the wider sound design team deflect from any minor sense of déjà vu bears huge congratulations indeed – as does the seamless manner in which director Scott Handcock shepherds each vital contributory element. Releases like Dead Man’s Switch consequently enable us to better appreciate the painstaking time invested by everyone at Big Finish team to reward listeners for their commitment, thereby shining further light towards the end of the metaphorical train tunnel as we glimpse at what lies in store for Torchwood and its various agents going forward. Between run-ins with the Doctor’s wife (or one of them at least), old UNIT allies rearing their heads, Sir Michael Palin taking on recording duties and even Andy Davidson’s first encounter with Theta Sigma themselves, there’s no reason whatsoever to alight the train just yet.