The Day of the Doctor (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Day of the Doctor (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 7hrs 26mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

There’s a common conception that anywhere there’s a big ‘grown-up’ awards ceremony, there’s a room full of snobs instinctively looking down on anything in the science fiction or fantasy genre. That’s not entirely accurate. After all, Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and that’s about the discomfiting life experience of being a clone grown for spare parts. Post-apocalyptic novels The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale were both nominated too. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is about a telepath discovering that all children born in the same one hour period in human history all have superpowers and it actually won the Booker.

Yet, tellingly, all those books are the subjects of hotly debated discussion about whether they’re SF at all. Essentially on the basis of being too good to be SF. Rushdie’s novel has been deemed “magical realism” whatever that means. But all in all, the key thing seems to be that a science fiction novel can be seen as Great Literature (with the capitals audibly intoned) so long as there’s wiggle room to pretend it’s not science fiction at all.

So what chance a Target novelization of an hour-long fiftieth birthday party for the children’s science fiction show that adults adore?

Well, quite.

Which is a crushing shame, because what Steven Moffat has created here is very far from being ‘just’ what fans voted the best ever episode of Doctor Who with a few extra “he saids” added to each page. It’s not even just a playful, engaging and fiercely intelligent science fiction. It’s not even a book which rollerskates backward past the time travel shenanigans of the average Hollywood blockbuster while making encouraging noises as one might at a small child that had made a tower a whole six blocks high. No, The Day of the Doctor is proper Literature. I mean, it’s got not one unreliable narrator but four (at least; I may have miscounted – there is a Time War on) and they all turn out to be the same unreliable narrator. Maybe. It doesn’t get much more Literature than that, frankly.

The great bedrock on which the whole novel rests – the one which presumably gave Moffat sleepless nights during the planning stages as he pondered how it was either going to work beautifully or else be an unreadable mess – is the conceit that it’s written in the third person by the Doctor, except when it’s not. And that the Doctor is simply ‘the Doctor’ at all times, no matter the point in his life, yet you’re never in any doubt about which face he’s talking out of, even when the Doctor is talking to the Doctor. Unless it’s cleverer, more telling or more fun for you to not know.

It does work beautifully, by the way, and is matched by a plot progression that’s not simply clever for cleverness own sake (but it really is very clever indeed) but by approaching the story from the angle that reveals the Doctor’s hearts layer by layer and exposes who he is and who the Doctor is, and how that’s both the same thing even when he insists it’s not, with scalpel-like precision. There have been many Targets that improve and expand upon their original television script. This is probably the first one that feels like it’s been forensically dismantled, checked over, had half its bits chucked aside and then rebuilt into a shiny new version of itself, held together with new custom-made parts. It looks about as much like a prose version of the TV episode as a ‘deconstructed seared pancetta with toasted brioche’ looks like a fried bacon sarnie in a Masterchef final.

The only misstep is perhaps the infamous Chapter 9 (they’ve had complaints). Not only does it indulge in all the worst kinds of fan service (the words ‘Looms’ and ‘River Song’ should be kept at 500 feet’s distance from each other at all times) but you need to wear a special eyepatch to even remember having read it. Which is a bit much.

As an audiobook, it’s hard to imagine any reader other than Nicholas Briggs making it work quite so well. Briggs hasn’t. as you might have been expected been hired for his skills with a vocoder. As part of Moffat’s stripping back everything unneeded in his exploration of what it feels like to the be the Doctor, and to be haunted by the gap between that ideal and the reality, the Daleks are reduced to a single line of dialogue – and that’s a flashback to an entirely different story. Briggs also doesn’t try to do impersonations of any of the cast, though his Tennant is surprisingly good. Instead, he more than gets enough of the gist of them across that even the scenes most bewilderingly full of crosstalk by the same man three times over always make perfect sense. Only once in the whole experience does it feel slightly off – in a cameo delivered as a Northerner all the better equipped to hear you, when surely the Doctor’s vocal cords were in an attack eyebrowed Scotsman at the time.

Speaking of Scotsmen, though there’s no Paisley tones in evidence Briggs’ narration perfectly captures a certain conversational style, dryly witty and with dark eyebrows audibly undecided between frowning mock-furiously and arching ironically, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Doctor Who Behind the Scenes video. It creates a surprisingly intimate feel in contrast to all the epic action and deep emotion of the text and adds hugely to the democratic sense of ‘all fans together’ enjoying this insane thing we love.

The Day of the Doctor might never take its place on ‘M’ bookshelves in the Literature section adjacent to Ian McEwan’s story about a guy bumping off his wife by folding her into a pocket dimension and David Mitchell’s multiple dystopian futures. And all those other 'too good to be SF' books. But it sits on ours. And that’s enough.

 





Mawdryn Undead (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Peter Grimwade
Read By David Collings

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK 

I've always rather liked Season 20's Black Guardian Trilogy...not necessarily because of the Black Guardian, but I felt each story was rather good in spite of their interconnected storyline. In actuality, Mawdryn Undead was probably my least favorite of the three, though in this new audiobook context, I found I enjoyed the story better.  I'm sure the ugly design of Mawdryn and the lame 80s flashy redesign of the Black Guardian hurt my enjoyment, so maybe having those taken out of the equation helped my enjoyment factor just a bit. 

The story doesn't have too much meat on it, but I did find elements of the story were better presented in book form.  I felt I had a better grasp on Turlough as a character then I ever really did throughout the show, particularly in his early days as a pawn of the Guardian. We get more in depth as to what drives him, and how he feels about the whole deal he struck with the Guardian.  That is the kind of stuff a novel can do better than a TV series, particularly a series of this era.  On the show, Turlough seemed like a slightly conflicted jerk who I warmed up to after the Guardian left the picture.  In this book, I like him earlier on, because I felt he his conflict is better explored. 

The storyline with the two Brigadiers and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and the wacky time travel mechanics are pretty interesting, and feel like a precursor to the eventual Moffat/Smith Era of the show.  I still think that this stuff could have been better expanded upon, but the book gets into the gritty of it better than the show did.  Or my memory of the original TV version is just fuzzy.  I remember being slightly underwhelmed by this when watching it, but it has been so long since I have, it could just be that I am misremembering the whole thing.

The audiobook is nicely read by David Collings, and while unabridged only runs about 4 hours.  Easy listening for Classic Who fans.  Not the best story of the show's long history, but fans can not complain about this presentation. 





Twice Upon a Time (BBC Books)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 30 July 2018 - Reviewed by Stephen Blenkinsop
Twice Upon a Time (Credit: BBC Books)
Author: Paul Cornell
Publisher: BBC Books
Released: April 2018
Paperback: 161 pages

This final Target novelisation brings us bang up to date with the Doctor’s adventures, recounting the 12th Doctor’s final journey towards his future, covering events following the end of series 10 that saw him lose his companion Bill to the Cybermen.  Arriving at the South Pole and deciding he doesn’t want to regenerate again he meets his first incarnation who is also wrestling with the prospect of change.  When time stops and the Doctors encounter a First World War soldier who is being pursued by a woman made of glass they begin a journey that sees both incarnations finding out what it means to be the Doctor.

The novelisation follows the broadcast story extremely closely, with relatively little additional material in terms of story development.  However, while the TV episode might have suffered, at least in the eyes of some, from the lack of an enemy to see the Doctor off in spectacular style, this seems less the case here, in a novel that has the space to explore the nature of the change and personal sense of loss that regeneration inflicts on the Doctor.  It, therefore, feels less of a postscript to what went before and more an exploration of some big themes in their own right, with a deeper reflection on the life of the Doctor as he faces his latest regeneration, and on the sense of the unknown as he faces his first.  To fully exploit this, a quite significant development that seems even more explicit here than on broadcast is the idea that the Doctor can choose whether he regenerates or dies, something that raises big questions for the Doctor personally but also for the web of time itself.

This serious subject matter doesn’t stop Cornell having fun throughout the book though.  The Doctor’s nicknames for his earlier incarnation prompt him to recall past encounters with various stars from the world of entertainment including a shared holiday with Mary Berry and a pub crawl with Clive Dunn.  There’s also some fun referencing the show’s history.  When the VHS tape held up by Archie is revealed to be the Doctor’s recording of the Daleks master plan, it elicits the comment ‘how they’d love to get that back’ – a nice acknowledgment of fans’ desire for the return of lost episodes.  And there’s further mischief with a joke addressing the old Dimension/Dimensions inconsistency in the TARDIS acronym.

In common with the other recent releases in this range the author also indulges fans with occasional continuity – some obvious, including references to events in the Snowcap base in The Tenth Planet, to companions Steven and Sara Kingdom, and a moving reference to Susan, - some more subtle, such as the reference to people being the sum of their memories.  The First Doctor getting to use the sonic screwdriver for the first time provides another fan-pleasing moment.  Throughout, Cornell shows the attention to detail one would expect, taking the opportunity to explain why the Blinovitch Limitation Effect isn’t functioning, and delightfully explaining why the First Doctor has to do more work at the console when flying the TARDIS compared with his later incarnations.  There’s also a nice acknowledgment of the legacy of the Target novels themselves with a chapter titled ‘Escape to Danger’.  These references demonstrate real respect for the show but don't distract from the storytelling.

Cornell finishes the book on a very serious note, adding perhaps the most chilling moment in the book with what was for me the revelation that plans for a subsequent Christmas truce in 1915 were stopped by the authorities.  This moment darkens the sombre mood as the story draws to its conclusion, as ever, reality proving to be far more shocking than anything the show can create.  This addition is well judged and feeds the somewhat melancholy mood as the Doctors finally come to terms with their destinies.

The book is not without its problems, however.  In remaining faithful to the broadcast episode the novel does retain what many people felt to be an over the top characterisation of the First Doctor’s dated attitudes.  This can be forgiven as it merely reflects the TV episode itself, however, it may possibly be compounded in the novelisation by an occasionally overstated characterisation of the First Doctor as devoid of humour.  This is something that doesn’t really reflect the softer characterisation that had evolved by this point of this incarnation and even contradicts him making a joke himself earlier in the story, albeit one that demonstrates the first point of criticism.  These are however relatively small points and don’t detract significantly from the positives.

As the final book in this batch of releases it’s worth reflecting on the nature of the Target range and what they offer in the twenty-first century.  My own Target collection has been packed away and living in my parents’ loft for a few years now, these books a remnant of my childhood, a feature of the past, not needed in an age of on demand TV and DVDs.  Reading these recent releases however I’ve rediscovered the joy of Target novels and realised that they can still have a unique place in Dr Who fans' collections .  Whilst they may not be the most challenging of reads it is clear they are written with a great deal of love and it’s a joy to be able to join the Doctor for a couple of chapters on the bus to work or a few spare moments during the day.  And given that these books have a style of their own, the reader can connect with (and appreciate) the series in a uniquely different way.  Until there are further new releases (hopefully!) it may be time for me to pay a visit to my parents’ loft.





Hour of the Cybermen (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 28 July 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie

Hour of the Cybermen (Credit: Big Finish)

Writer: Andrew Smith
Director: Jamie Anderson
Featuring: Colin BakerDavid BanksMark Hardy

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
 

Released July 2018
Running Time: 2 hours

Hour of the Cybermen, is the second entry in this year’s UNIT themed multi-doctor main range trilogy, following on from the previous The Heliax Rift. To that end, it features the return of a number of characters from that story namely Blake Harrisons as Daniel Hopkins and Russ Bain as Colonel Price. Of course, for many fans, however, the main draw of this story is the return of David Banks and Mark Hardy as the Cyber-Leader and Cyber-Lieutenant respectively. The 80’s Cybermen have a curious longevity about them that make them something of a fan favourite. Whilst the Cybermen had already had several reinventions by the time they appeared in 1982’s Earthshock, this new version was so utterly modern and completely terrifying yet somehow evoked memories of their previous designs. Add to this Banks’s portrayal of a Cyber-Leader that somehow manages to have underlying currents of emotions, whilst debating their usefulness. Banks would return to play the role in three more serials; The Five Doctors, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis, whilst Hardy would return in just two (The Five Doctors and Nemesis). Since then Banks became something of a ‘spokesperson’ for the Cybermen, writing an original novel and a ‘history’ of the Cyber-Race. However, it’s always been something of a missed opportunity that he, nor hardy, never got to reprise their roles for Big Finish….until now. So does Hour of the Cybermen provide the triumphant return for the Cyber-races two stars?

Well yes and no, depending on your expectations. What hour isn’t is a dark exploration of what it means to be a Cyberman, along the lines of Spare Parts or The Silver Turk. No, Hour is more the Cybermen as ‘monster of the week’, featuring them using a dehydration weapon in an attempt to take over the earth. It’s pretty classic ‘alien invasion’ storytelling. However whilst the general plot may be somewhat basic, the way in which the story chooses to get from point A to B is not. There’s a hefty helping of ‘Sawardian’ nastiness in the way that some of the characters are dealt with and several brutal and distressing descriptions of Cyber-conversion. The story also chooses to play with our expectations of those characters we’ve already met in The Heliax Rift. Whilst the decisions these characters make may not always be wholly…convincing (without giving too much away, motivation seems somewhat thin for one individual), the grim, bleak world that Hour takes place in allows you immediately sympathise. Not only that but the story brisks along with so much pace that you can easily forget it, with a heavy emphasis on Cyber-Action.

And what of Banks and Hardy themselves? Well in a word they are superb, it’s like they never went away. Banks, in particular, gets plenty of time to shine, including uttering some of his most famous catchphrases. However, it is his scenes with Russ Bain’s Colonel Price that he really gets to shine. In these moments Banks is utterly terrifying, reminding us immediately why his Cyber-Leader was such an imposing figure when he first stomped onto our screens in 1982. He also works particularly well against Colin Bakers Sixth Doctor, who seems to be relishing his first Cyberman story in quite some time. Their final confrontation is a hell of a moment and builds expertly on the tension achieved in what is an almost non-stop action thriller. Blake Harrison impresses again as Daniel Hopkins and is certainly given plenty of chances to show off his range, as does Russ Bain. Newcomers Frog Stone (Riva) and Wayne Forester (Atriss) are also given plenty of chance to shine, with my only regret being a lack of exploration of Rivas part cyber-conversion.

Hour of the Cybermen is a thrill-a-minute action adventure that manages to take two icons of 80’s who and give them the comeback they deserve. Highly recommended.






Rose (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 27 July 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Rose (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by: Russell T Davies
Read by: Camille Coduri
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 4hrs 14mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

When Doctor Who returned with Rose in 2005 its necromancer in chief, Russell T Davies, was understandably nervous of going too far too soon. Both in terms of keeping the new mystery at the heart of show a mysterious tease (War? What war did he fight in? What planets couldn’t he save?) and in keeping the show’s past at arm’s length. Let the public learn to love the show again first, then introduce them to the potentially embarrassing extended family. Don’t scare them off straight away.

But Davies’ affection for the show he grew up with pure and true, and it makes this Target novelization a unique case across the hundreds of titles to carry the Target logo. It’s not remotely unusual for Target books to deepen and expand on the original script. But this is the only case I can think of where the author is indulging himself with all the back references and fan service he couldn’t the first time around. The job is done. The crown has been passed on. Now it’s time to play.

And so Clive’s history is greatly developed. Not only does his collection feature more than just Christopher Eccleston’s face staring out of historical events, but all the Doctors past and present, from Hartnell to Whittaker and even beyond have their own files on the shelves of the shed. And the origins of his obsession are revealed as being his own father’s presence during the events of Remembrance of the Daleks. But this book looks forward too. Davies has said he considers this itch scratched now, and being able to say that he wrong one entry in the beloved range of novelizations is enough for him. Nothing he’s said could be more convincing of that than the way he approaches this take on the Doctor and Rose. In a move that feels almost slightly greedy, he reaches into his own show’s future to plunder it for character beats that, on TV, were spun out for much longer. So, in this text-based universe, Rose and the Doctor have their discussion about his world having been destroyed and being the only survivor here rather than in The End of the World. A lot of the material about the Tyler family finds it way here from its original placement in Father’s Day and similarly, Mickey’s backstory from Rise of the Cybermen is included and expanded here. Indeed, Mickey overall is given far more sympathetic treatment here than in the televised episode. Another suggestion of Davies seeing this as his one shot at the character in prose, with no future installments over which to develop Mickey's good points.

That will make for an interesting puzzle for future writers if the range ever gets around to novelizing such episodes – but if the Doctor winds up revealing the death of his people in the Time War to Rose twice, well, such continuity issues are almost a Target tradition going right the way back to Ian and Barbara’s multiple choice origin stories. In fact, even within this initial set of four releases, there’s an element of that – Davies’ Rose introducing a whole supporting cast for his version of Mickey (who, in another universe perhaps, would be the star of his own single-camera Channel 4 sitcom about a loveable ne’erdowell and his mates), all of whom have apparently evaporated by Colgan’s The Christmas Invasion, which notes that Mickey’s a bit of a loner who doesn’t make friends easily.

There's a lot of brand new material in Davies’ book, too, both in fleshing out the bones of the plot and in the way Ian Marter famously used to with his novelizations – pushing the violence and horror well beyond anything that could have been gotten away with on television. The more in depth look at the characters is a delight. As soon as the passing line of “Wilson’s dead,” in the television script becomes an entire chapter of Wilson’s history at Henrick’s down the decades it’s clear we’re in for something special.  The increase in the violence isn’t quite as successful. There are scenes where the Autons utilizing bladed arms and so on are ingenious and clever, but at other times the detailed descriptions of people being hacked to pieces, or having the back of their heads blown off by Auton guns seems to sit badly with the general tone of the book and to be included just for their own sake.

As with The Christmas Invasion, Jackie Tyler herself, Camille Coduri, takes on narration duties. The sheer pace of storytelling here leaves her less room to inject her own breezy reading style, and she seemed more at home approximating David Tennant’s mockney than dealing with Christopher Eccleston’s Salford tones (which here wind up more generically ‘Northern’). However, her recapturing of the Tyler matriarch is as perfect as ever (and she clearly relishes some of Jackie’s new lines like “Rose Tyler. You tart.”) And she again matches Billie Piper’s Rose so well that at times you’d be forgiven for thinking Piper had shown up in person. Coduri’s reading of the various tragic backstories of characters like Clive and Mickey is nicely sympathetic too, with a tangible sense of sitting across a kitchen table from her as she tells a new neighbour all the sad, sad stories of the locals right after they’ve left the room.

Having Russell T Davies back on anything Doctor Who is always a massive treat and his revised take on Rose is no exception. Matching his prose with as warm and engaging a reader as Camille Coduri, it makes the audiobook a shot of pure nostalgia and a wonderful way to take listeners back to where it all began (again).

 





The Eighth Doctor: The Time War Series 2Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 21 July 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Time War - Series 2 (Credit: Big Finish)
 
 Director: Ken Bentley
 


Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
Released July 2018

Running Time: 5 hours

The Time War continues in the latest Eighth Doctor boxset from Big Finish, and it is another effort that showcases just how good Big Finish continues to be when the passion is there.  I get the sense that the Monthly Range doesn't have the same passion and excitement it once had from those working on it, while the bigger scope and chance to truly expand on a topic that comes with the boxsets still has a flame of passion ignited. Admittedly, I don't listen to the Monthly Range as much as I used to, so I could be wrong, but this just seems to be an impression I can't shake.  But this boxset keeps my hopes for the company continuing to release exciting stuff for some time alive.  

 

****THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS****

 

In The Lords of Terror, The Doctor takes Bliss to her homeworld, but they find it has already been ravaged by the time war. Instead of the home, Bliss remembers, her city is now encased in a dome, and it seems to be a dystopian nightmare. While the front story is that the Daleks attacked and they have protected themselves and are building a retaliation rocket in order to wipe out the Daleks, the Doctor soon discovers that it is even more nefarious. I rather loved what this story does with the Time War arc.  It seems that the Time Lords are actually behind this plan, and they haven’t created one dome and one rocket, they have turned the entire planet into a missile production plant, with every city put into a dome and forced into slavery to create a rocket...all in the name of winning the war. 

The second episode (Planet of the Ogrons) has the Doctor and Bliss recruited by the the Twelve (a regenerated and more stable version of the Eleven), and an Ogron who believes himself to be the Doctor. They head to the Ogron homeworld, where a mad genius Dalek with hybrid DNA is performing crazy genetic experiments. While I certainly enjoyed this episode, it felt slightly less engaging after the killer of an opening episode. That said, it does still have a lot of fun to offer. 

For the third story, In the Garden of Death, we have the very familiar trope of the Doctor and friends locked up in jail with missing memories.  I feel like the Eighth Doctor has been in this predicament before.  Despite the well-worn territory, it isn't half bad. I like the places it takes the Twelve, and the idea that while in the prison camp no one can remember their captors, and only when taken for interrogation do they recall the Daleks.  But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that though I only just listened to the story, much of it has already faded from my brain. It is certainly an enjoyable listen, it just doesn't leave much of an impact.  

Jonah closes out the set, and it is a tense submarine thriller in which the Doctor is Captaining a sub in a body of water in which no time travel can take place...and beneath the waters a mythological creature that can see every possible outcome of the future, and that is a beast that neither the Daleks nor the Time Lords should get their hands on.  I rather liked this story and felt it was a great closer to the set, and it is about as strong as the opening story, at least more so than the two stories that bridge them.  

While I can't say that the second and third stories are perfect, they are still rather engaging and fun, and with opening and closing stories that really are top notch, it is rather easy to recommend this set.  I don't even want to come down to hard on the two lesser stories, because I still think they work in the long run. Even so, no matter what the first and fourth episodes are really great episodes of Doctor Who, and McGann is giving his usual quality performance throughout the set.  Julia McKenzie should also get special notice for her turn as the Twelve, doing a great job running with what Mark Bonnar began as The Eleven. 

I have a soft spot for anything McGann or the Eighth Doctor, but I also think this set is worth the continued exploration of the Time War (and the weird ramifications of such a strange type of war), and Big Finish always put their all into these box sets, even the weaker stories have something to offer. Recommended.