Doctor Who - Short Trips 8.10 - I Am The Master - Big FinishBookmark and Share

Sunday, 9 December 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
I Am The Master (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer Ian Atkins; Script Editor Ian Atkins
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: Geoffrey Beevers; Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

Cast

Geoffrey Beevers (The Master)

"There is a message for you. It comes from a long way, from a dying world. No, not a dying world. A killed world. And the message is from the killer.

Please attend carefully. The message that follows is vital to your future...
 
However much longer that may be."
 
I am the Master is a story told by Geoffrey Beevers, in full character as the version of the Master that the fourth Doctor went head to head with in The Keeper Of Traken. The Master here is still the shrivelled, burnt cadaver that he was in that story, a character that Beevers seems to enjoy recreating with absolute relish.
 
We visit the Master whist he is in a very reflective mood, sharing his innermost secrets and desires. He discusses being a Master-chef (poisoned no end of people), and when he gave Master-classes in music (wonderful music....burnt people's ears off when they heard it).
 
The main crux of the story involves his triumph over the planet Glox, a very Earth like civilisation that the Master tears apart....essentially for fun. Nudging them over centuries, in slightly the wrong direction. The story is deliciously devilish, and a joy to hear Beevers smugly let the story unfold, using his smooth and sumptuous tones.
 
There are many a sly dig at not only the Doctor (past and future - well to this incarnation), and rather randomly David Attenborough (!), the story is darkly humorous throughout, but is also a morality tale that good and evil can actually be very similar....all really depending on which side of the fence you find yourself.
 
I am the Master is a solid and very enjoyable listen, that somewhat takes a sidestep from the usual format, and gives the listener a very interesting insight into one of the Doctor's greatest foes. The with a slightly longer runtime of forty-two minutes - this only benefitted the story.
 
You can download I Am The Master HERE from Big Finish for £2.99.

 






It Takes You AwayBookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 December 2018 - Reviewed by Marcus
 It Takes You Away: The Tardis, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Simon Ridgway))
Writer: Ed Hime
Director: Jamie Childs
Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall
 
Starring: Jodie Whittaker

BBC One (United Kingdom

First Broadcast: Sunday 2nd December 2018

It Takes You Away is not what we expected. The trailers, synopsis and preview clips had built up our expectations for a proper spooky episode of Doctor Who. All the prerequisite ingredients were present - creepy house in the middle of nowhere, intriguing mystery involving mirrors, monsters in the woods…basically all the calling cards for a potentially intense and terrifying ghost story. But upon watching the episode, it soon becomes clear that the episode has other ideas about where to go.

Things certainly start off in the way of most horror films, with our heroes finding a deserted cabin in the Norwegian woods, a blind teenager fearing for her life, and strange monster roars coming from the forest. But as events move along, the episode soon changes tact altogether. What the episode ultimately becomes is a story about loss and love, a story about rejection and doomed romance.

Ed Hime’s story has all the makings of a proper scary story but doesn’t utilise these elements in a way that is scary at all. Granted, there’s plenty of doom-laden atmosphere to proceedings, but by-and-large, there’s little in the way of creepy moments or jump scares. The closet we get is the appearance of the slimy alien Ribbons (played here by Kevin Eldon) and some flesh-eating moths, but both are largely inconsequential to the main plot (the threat of the moths is quickly forgotten about during the climax, with the main characters almost oblivious to them). Even the title is misleading – no one actually gets ‘taken’ anywhere!

Of course, there’s little point in reviewing an episode for what it isn’t. What it ultimately is is definitely decent. Easily one of the more emotional episodes we’ve had this season, It Takes You Away deals with grief and loneliness in a unique and moving way. Doctor Who is always adept at subverting genres and going in unexpected directions instead, and what we have here is no different. There’s no greater example of this in play then with THAT particularly surreal scene near the climax. You know the one. The one with the talking frog!

As moments go, it’s undoubtedly one of the most bizarre visual moments in the show’s fifty-five year history, with an unmistakeable Douglas Adams-esque vibe to it. It’s an idea some viewers will undoubtedly dislike, what with it being so ridiculously silly, but it certainly matches the tone of the episode and plays the idea straight enough. The CGI is a little bit dodgy, but it’s Jodie Whittaker and Sharon D. Clarke who sell it, with Whittaker in particular going for broke in terms of her performance.

The idea of a conscious universe kept separate from our own is also an interesting development, and the manner in which the writer conceptualises it is clever and emotionally resonant. The return of Sharon D. Clarke as Grace is a nice touch, and once again Bradley Walsh gets the chance to really show-off what a cracking actor he is. The scenes between Graham and Grace are some of the most heart-breaking scenes we’ve had all year, and both actors deliver the goods in a beautifully understated but saddening manner.

Of course, as much as there is to enjoy, the episode never quite hits above average, no matter how compelling the human drama is. Like most of the stories this year, there’s a complete lack of a decent villain, which would be fine, had the majority of the episodes this season not done the same thing. The idea of a mirror universe is such a great sci-fi concept with lots of great visual possibilities, but the director and writer never utilise said-concept in ways that visually stand out or befit the story (aside from a few T-Shirt logos being flipped). 

Worst of all though, the guest characters pretty underdeveloped, which unfortunately renders a lot of scenes empty and defunct. Ellie Wallwork is decent in her respective role, but the character of Hanne barely gets much to do aside from pout and cry. Worst of the bunch though is her father, Erik (Christian Rubeck), whose actions here are so deplorable it’s amazing the character doesn’t get more of a telling-off from the Doctor. It’s this aspect that feels tonally-off, and really feels like the writers just forgot to add some kind of consequence for Erik’s actions. Instead, his daughter is happy to have him back, even though he lied, manipulated, and abandoned her. Frankly, he gets off pretty lightly.

As expectations go, It Takes You Away dashes them, but it at least has the decency to dash them quick and serve up something else that just about satisfies. Some big science fiction ideas gel nicely with some relatable human drama, resulting in some fantastic turns from the lead cast-members. Even though the concept isn’t as engaging as what we were originally promised, the episode still has plenty in terms of great ideas, visuals and performances – as we always expected it would!





The Seventh Doctor - The New Adventures Volume 1 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 December 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Seventh Doctor - The New Adventures (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Andy Lane, Steve Jordan, Alan Flanagan, Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Cast

Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Yasmin Bannerman (Roz Forrester), Travis Oliver (Chris Cwej), Liz Sutherland-Lim (Maratuk), Vikash Bhai (Sydyck), John Heffernan (Honos), Mina Anwar (Forsetti), Janine Duvitski (Alpha Wheeler), Leonie Schliesing (Zsa Zsa Straus), Franchi Webb (Eleanor Blake), Rupert Young (Binkum Fray), Silas Carson (Arbuckle), Sara Powell (Contessa), Olivia Morris (Green), Connor Calland (Blue), Jacob Dudman (Cannon), Melanie Kilburn (Hooley), Rhian Blundell (Isabel), Elaine Fellows (Annabel), Ellie Darvill (Willis). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer Scott Handcock
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

I missed the "Virgin New Adventures" era of Doctor Who.  That strange time when the show was off the air, and the biggest thing keeping the show alive was a series of novels that continued the adventures of the Seventh Doctor and Ace following the shows cancellation.  Eventually Ace moved on, and he gained new companions, most notably Bernice Summerfield (who continued the book series after Virgin lost the rights to Doctor Who, and was actually used as the test pilot for Big Finish to prove their worth and GAIN the Doctor Who license), but also a couple of future space cops named Roz and Chris.  But while I was too young tto really experience the Virgin line at the time, I've long had an interest in it.  So when Big Finish adapted some books into full cast audio plays a couple of years ago I sampled them. Two of the adaptations starred the afforementioned Chris and Roz...and now Big Finish has launched a new boxset starring the Seventh Doctor with these two characters...but instead of just adapting books, this time they are exploring these characters in brand new original audio plays.

The set begins with The Trial of the Time Machine, Doctor, Roz, and Chris debating law and order...discussing whether certain laws are constants, or whether laws on arious worlds are unjust...but they must face these questions head on when the TARDIS crashes into another Time Ship, and because of it's own sentient nature, is put on Trial for the crime.  I really loved that premise...it isn't any of the occupants of the TARDIS on trial for an odd crime, but the TARDIS itself. I also found it interesting that a time travelling being within the story also has the Doctor question his own relationship with the TARDIS.  Does the ship enjoy their travels together, or has he just enslaved her for his own galavanting across the cosmos. It's really a small moment, but I found this introspective pause from the Doctor to be really well done.

The second episode, Vanguard, involves the TARDIS landing on the Planet Vangard, and find that a war between two factions has lead to the destruction of most of the planet's occupants.  The TARDIS team are all separated, and must do their best to end the War and bring the people together, in order to be reunited themselves...though each faction is looking for escape and hope to use the Doctor and/or the TARDIS for escape.  It's a rather generic plotline for Doctor Who, but it is well exectued and enjoyable enough to listen to. I doubt I will remember much of it a week from now, but I can't say it annoyed or bored me while I listened to it.

The third entry (The Jabari Countdown) fared better, as the TARDIS lands on a ship during World War II full of mathematicians heading towards a remote island on a secret code cracking mission.  But the mathematicians haven't actually been recruited to crack any code related to the war, but have instead been recruited by an alien to find a cure to a math related virus, a virus which makes the infected speak only in numbers. This is at least a unique concept, and the creepy atmosphere and Second World War setting make it an enjoyable listen. 

The set closes out with Dread of Night, which is an "Old Dark House" story with a sick girl, her worried sister, a seemingly overbearing nurse, and some kind of psychic monster.  It is well executed and a good creepy listen...though if I had a complaint this had one of the only instances of awful sound design I can remember in a Big Finish play.  A woman was whispering so quietly, and I could barely hear what she was saying, so I had to really crank the volume...only to suddenly be surprised by a loud "jump scare" moment...thus violently hurting my eardrums in the process.  The jump scare didn't really do it's job. I was slightly alarmed for a moment, but I wasn't scared...I was just irritated that I had to crank it for some seemingly important dialogue only to get punished by this loud moment...and that has never been an issue with Big Finish before. Their sound design is some of the best of any audio plays I have ever heard. No one comes close to them on the regular...but man that moment annoyed me! Otherwise, I thought it was a really good story.

Overall, I'd say this set is quite a good listen.  McCoy's Doctor is always a bit better than I often remember it to be, and his companions in this set are decent, if a bit forgettable.  I think my biggest complaint of the set on the whole is that Chris and Roz lack personality.  I enjoyed them in the earlier plays based on the novels they originally appeared in, but in this set I never truly feel like I got a grasp on just who they are.  They could've been exchanged with any generic companion, and it wouldn't have changed the story one lick.  They aren't awful or annoying or anything...they are just completely bland.  That is a shame.






The WitchfindersBookmark and Share

Thursday, 29 November 2018 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
 The Witchfinders: Yaz (Mandip Gill), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele) (Credit: BBC Studios (Sophie Mutevelian ))
Written by Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian

Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Producer: Alex Mercer

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Alan Cumming, Siobhan Finneran, Tilly Steele, Tricia Kelly
Stavros Demetraki, Arthur Kay

A BBC Studios Production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 25 November 2018
Running time: 46 minutes 31 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)
 

The Witchfinders is Doctor Who's third foray into history this series, and on first acquaintance it's the closest to the model introduced with The Unquiet Dead and seen almost annually thereafter until (arguably) Robot of Sherwood. The Doctor and friends find themselves in a period setting familiar from school or heritage sites, but where the details aren't congruent with the record. There is a famous historical figure involved, presented in a knowingly self-conscious manner. An alien or aliens turn out to be behind events. There is an effects-laden climax which is cathartic for the historical personality concerned. Human history as known to the Doctor and his companions is guaranteed. While following this precedent, The Witchfinders follows hard on the heels of Demons of the Punjab and Rosa; and where the historical adventures of Doctors Nine to Twelve often revelled in subverting history, The Witchfinders carries forward the educative function of its predecessors this series, though in less direct a fashion. 

Like Vinay Patel before her, Joy Wilkinson has posted a picture of some of the books she used to research her story on Twitter. There are differences in that where Patel's choices were squarely set in historical scholarship and the literary novel, Wilkinson's have ranging roots, from books she read when growing up - such as Arthur Douglas's accessible, well-researched and unsensationally readable The Fate of the Lancashire Witches (1978) and Robert Neill's novel Mist Over Pendle (1951) - to modern scholarly discussions of what the Lancashire witch trials meant at the time and how they have resonated since, and James VI and I's own Demonologie. Writing at greater distance from her subject than the authors of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were from theirs, Wilkinson inevitably takes account of the centuries of transmission which have seen the Lancashire witch craze find many meanings for successive ages. While not necessarily less immediate than Doctor Who's depiction of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, or the partitioned Punjab in 1947, time leads to fragmentation and the ways in which the TARDIS 'team, gang, fam' relate to events and characters are consequently more diffracted. As Wilkinson's sources indicate, the episode is as much a response to fictionalization, mythology and a mood struck by witch trials in the collective imagination as it is to the judicial pursuit of supposed witches in Lancashire in the reign of King James.

No specific date is given for the events in The Witchfinders, and there is no mention by the seventeenth-century characters of the historical Pendle witch trials. Only Graham (Bradley Walsh) relates the setting of Bilehurst Cragg to the Pendle Witch Trail which he's walked. Presumably the story is set not long after the trials of 1612; or is it set earlier, and are we being asked to imagine that the persecution initiated by Becka Savage is the erased context for the historical accusations levelled against Alizon Device and her family in Pendle in 1612?  

The presence of King James in the story might suggest an earlier date. Following his visit to Norway and Denmark to marry their king's sister Anna in 1590, James VI had become obsessed with witchcraft, finding guilty several accused from North Berwick in East Lothian (presumably inspiring the 'Berwick' referred to in this episode) guilty of using sorcery to try to sink his ship on the way home. The James of The Witchfinders expresses his belief that he is protected by God against extraordinary adversity, and his survival of a satanic plot against his own life, his wife's and the possibility of their having descendants encouraged this well before the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. However, during the 1610s the king became increasingly sceptical about witchcraft and wary of condemning accused witches. It's possible that one might look at a post-1612 setting for The Witchfinders, with the king here being confronted by his own fears and (with his agreement to suppress the memory of Bilehurst Cragg) learning to move past them even if this means a continued degree of personal and political repression.

Beyond specifics about dates, The Witchfinders follows the pattern of other post-2005 pseudohistoricals by finding authenticity in impressionistic use of detail. Having witchcraft allegations arising within a family echoed the Lancashire witch trials of 1612, but its relation to female social mobility mirrored the case of Joan Flowers, one of the Belvoir witches of 1619. Where Becka Savage's status had risen by marriage, Joan Flowers's fell on her widowhood; before we learn that Becka has been infected by the Morax, her accusations of witchcraft, frequent duckings and horse-shootings invite the rationalist assumption that she has instigated a reign of terror in order to defend a precarious social position. Meanwhile her grandmother and cousin represented a power which could complement or oppose that of the local lord, that of the 'cunning woman' (sometimes cunning man) who in benign cases practised healing by seeking to bring the sick back into alignment with the four classical elements of earth, fire, water and air. The chanting of these elements as an invocation by Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly giving a rounded performance in a few lines so we can believe in her as someone to mourn when in the earth and possessed by it) before her ducking encourages the viewer to see the Twistons as potential wielders of magic forces, with vague echoes of Shakespearean ambivalent or malign magic, but it's also a transmission of social identity within the village collective, with Willa (a forceful and grounded Tilly Steele) taking over her grandmother's role. In Doctor Who terms one might think of the assumption of Panna's identity by Karuna in part four of Kinda. In The Witchfinders it serves as a reminder that women were accepted as the gatherers, keepers and conveyors of useful knowledge in this period. The discussion the Doctor and Yaz have with Willa at the Twiston family home about her grandmother and magic incline the viewer to see Willa as the nearest the setting has to a rationalist, showing sympathy to the Doctor's unbelief in Satan; she crumbles before James and Becka soon after the Doctor explodes that if she was a man she'd have no problem furthering her investigation.

Becka (a believable woman of faith and fear in the hands of Siobhan Finneran) imagines that the Doctor's authority is that of a witchfinder-general and does not scoff at what the psychic paper tells her. The arrival of King James, with his prejudices about male superiority and his belief that God works directly through him, disturbs the equilibrium of this corner of 'Merry England' as much as the witch-duckings displace the time-honoured Sunday ritual of apple-bobbing. Even assuming the early cultivation of different strains of apple which ripen at different times of year, and the maintenance of cold cellars for storage, I'm not sure that there would have been enough apples to bob every Sunday in a year, but the line (even if revisiting the scene 'this' is probably only the Sunday 'party') was a good way of suggesting that this was a time when long-established patterns of life were being disturbed. 

There were no witchfinders-general in the time of James VI and I, nor did the king maintain a witchfinding hierarchy. The use of the title appeals to what the viewers might think they know - the spurious office is associated with Matthew Hopkins, who was active in the 1640s, a probable three decades after events here - but it also places The Witchfinders in a tradition of fictional accounts of seventeenth-century witch hunts which would take too long to explore here. However, the identification of the Doctor and her friends as the episode's eponymous witchfinders is a neat confirmation of the Doctor's complicity in events. Where the Doctor interfered in Rosa to correct the distortion of history, to the extent of not intervening in Rosa Parks's defence when ordered to surrender her seat on the bus, here her sense of what is right compels her to attempt to rescue Willa's grandmother, but fails. The Doctor's dilemma is played, shot and edited well, encouraging the sense that the Doctor's preaching of non-interference has been leading to this point. Interference means feigning friendship with a mass murderer. Although brought into the heart of local and then national society by their proximity to both Becka and the king, the Doctor is still acted upon as much as she acts upon other people. More than in any episode so far, the Doctor's freedom of action is constrained by her gender. It's been widely remarked upon that this is the first episode of the series where the Doctor explicitly identifies with womankind, and the first where she notes that she wouldn't have had this trouble when she was a man. James only regards her as a potential equal once she is accused of witchcraft: God's representative facing the Devil's. 

On first viewing I found Alan Cumming's portrayal of James VI and I problematic. I was apprehensive following a report of his claim that he'd based his accent on Conservative politicians Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth - "from Scotland, but trying to pretend they’re from England with this strange hybrid accent" - which imports current debates about the politics of Scottish identity into a Doctor Who story which already promised to have much to carry. Whatever one thinks of James (or for that matter Rifkind and Forsyth) he never pretended to be from England; but what we had was a more generic 'Morningside' accent which worked as a parallel for a Scottish king seeking acceptance by the English elite. Choices in Cumming's establishing scenes made me sympathetic to observers who thought it an overly mannered, even homophobic performance and for a while I was one of those who thought this James would turn out to be an impostor. On the other hand Cumming emphasised the king's love of drama, acknowledged in the script; the characterization was strong, with 'modern' characters in Ryan and the Doctor inspiring some very twenty-first century therapeutic conversations to provide background to what one could already infer from text and performance. James's confrontation with the Doctor shows him to be a worthy adversary, able to turn the Doctor's interrogation against her in defence, but his attack on the Morax queen makes him a less than worthy ally, the divisions in his identity still unreconciled. Slaying a dragon as the sovereign of the Garter and bearer of St George's cross might be fitting, but in doing so James mistakes the nature of his foe, lets prejudice betray his claims to empiricism, and removes both the possibility of the queen's redemption and the recovery of Becka from possession (not entirely closed off by the insistence of the queen that nothing remains of Becka). The Arthurian echoes in the imprisonment of the Morax, a king with a mighty army sleeping under a hill, mocked the historical James's barely fulfilled wish to make Arthurian legend real as king of a unified Britain, just as the Morax queen and her court of corpses mock this James's fragile masculinity by intending to 'fill' him with their king. The latter too draws from M.R. James's treatment of seventeenth-century witch-hunting in The Ash Tree, as a wronged woman blights a landed dynasty of men over generations.

The Witchfinders succeeded at creating mood, with its mists, winter berries, cold grey water and wet earth. I might have wished for more oppressive dark to accompany the shuffling of the mud-filled corpses, though perhaps this might have been thought too directly drawing upon latterday zombie television for an early evening audience. I'd thought of this series as made of spaces and silences, but here Segun Akinola's score suggested that there was something in the silence, knocking on wood to seek form, whispering in the wind. There were touches of the uncanny in ordinary design, too - the stylized ducking stool seemed oddly fashioned but hinted at the revelation that this was alien technology. Transformed into the Morax queen, Siobhan Finneran's make-up suggested a woodland creature as much as a mud entity, with a little of Rupert Bear's forest sprite Raggety about her. 

The 'flat team structure' of the current Team TARDIS is evolving well, with this episode showing the roles of the different characters to advantage. Ryan's empathic side was brought out by the quietly assured Tosin Cole, Graham was authoritatively avuncular, and Yaz (a determined and energetic Mandip Gill) was professionally investigative but also humane in her treatment of the bereaved Willa. The Doctor has increasing room to display her edge, too, with Jodie Whittaker unquestionably in command of a chastened and reflective King James in the final scene. The regulars are enduring a slow build and makes me wish the series had more time, both with some more minutes to show off the abilities of the regulars and more episodes in which to get to know them. 

There's so much more that could be unpicked in this story, so many layers did it invoke. The Witchfinders was an accomplished and very enjoyable episode on the whole - but why, Doctor, that dig about pockets? Seventeenth-century women apparently enjoyed more of them about their clothing than their twenty-first century successors do...





The Diary of River Song – Series 4Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 29 November 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
The Diary of River Song - Series 4
Written by Emma Reeves, Matt Fitton,
Donald McLeary and John Dorney
Produced by David Richardson
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Alex Kingston, Tom Baker, Fenella Woolgar, Adele Lynch, Josh Bolt, George Asprey, John Asbury,
Tim Bentinck, Nigel Anthony, Nathalie Buscombe

“You’re not Romana!”
“Oh, I am …”
“You’re not! I haven’t even met her yet!”
“You haven’t … What? But how do you know about her then?”
“Because you told me!”
“Me?”
“Yes, you! You’re not Romana. You’re Professor River Song! You’re my wife!”
“I’m …?”
“Hello, sweetie!”

The Fourth Doctor meets River Song

Having pitted River Song (Alex Kingston) in her “standalone” series against the so-called “Rulers of the Universe”, the Speravore hive, and most recently Madame Kovarian and the Furies (not to mention earlier incarnations of her husband), Big Finish has upped the stakes for the maverick archaeologist with a new, seemingly invincible villain.The Discordia are, according to one of their number, an anarchical time travelling race which filled the power vacuum in the aftermath of the Time War. Unlike the Time Lords or even the Daleks, the Discordia have absolutely no regard for the integrity of the space/time continuum, using their temporal powers to conquer their enemies and even absorb their strengths through a “widening of the gene pool”.

This includes taking on forms that exploit the superstitions of the races they subjugate – such as, in the case of humans, the clichéd appearance of the devil, complete with (much to River’s initial amusement) horns, red skin, cloven hooves, forked tails and pitch forks! However, as River discovers, the Discordia “embrace their villainy” with pride and have a tenacious quality which pushes even her to the brink …

The first of the four instalments in this boxset – Time in a Bottle – lays the groundwork for the Discordia quite effectively. River is pitted against an academic rival in Professor Jemima Still (Fenella Woolgar) and accompanies her on an expedition to Lipiria, a world which exists in a timeless vacuum. They are joined on their mission by a giant warrior ant called Gammarae (Adele Lynch) and a cyborg academic called Spod (Josh Bolt). River in turn believes a certain Time Lord may have been caught in this timeless state but as she discovers, appearances can be deceptive …

Woolgar’s Jemima is the perfect foil to Kingston’s River. It is refreshing to see River bested by a peer in archaeology. While River is by far the cockier and more self-assured of the two archaeologists, Jemima is shrewd and calculating beneath all her fussiness, bluster and insecurity.There’s also a sense (as Woolgar perfectly conveys) that Jemima resents River’s academic feats, glamorous demeanour, and constant swagger. What is perhaps less convincing about Jemima is her sudden change of heart and selflessness at the conclusion to the tale; it just doesn’t ring true, given she has partially set up the story’s chain of events in the first place.

The second serial Kings of Infinite Space (a title inspired by a quote in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is quite literally a “run-around” tale – with River and her newfound companions on the run from the vengeful Melak (George Asprey) – and as a result it’s not necessarily all that effective for it.

Donald McLeary’s script is the weakest entry in this set – it feels like a retread of the 1965 Doctor Who serial The Chase (and indeed that adventure is acknowledged as an inspiration in the CD extras). River and her friends visit a range of strange times and places before there is a showdown in a deserted colony whose robot caretakers have been waiting thousands of years for humans to arrive (shades of the Mechanoids, anyone?).

The episode still has some memorable highlights, though, as Alex Kingston excels herself in dual roles – as River and a River android duplicate (which considers itself a few “percentiles sexier” than the original!). The android proves to be the perfect foil for Melak, and often gets the best dialogue and wisecracks – even better than River herself!

Special mention also goes to performer Ewan Bailey who employs a wide range of voices and accents to portray a string of hapless and villainous characters (his Rattis is simultaneously flamboyant and creepy).

The third instalment Whodunnit? also provides plenty of scope for Kingston to test her range. Once more adopting her private detective guise of Melody Malone, River is thrust into a murder mystery scenario reminiscent of the game Clue, in which a group of amateur sleuths and professional detectives are being murdered one by one on an estate. To add to the intrigue, legendary author Franz Kafka (Tim Bentinck) provides counsel for our heroine as she singlehandedly attempts to solve the mystery.

Whodunnit? is naturally a homage to the detective and crime noir genre, with the supporting characters very clearly based on other fictional investigators, eg Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Doctor Who’s own Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint, and even Scooby-Doo! However, it’s also very Kafka-esque in its execution, with many concepts in the tale inspired by Kafka’s great works, including The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. This peculiar blending of genres and sub-genres would be just plain confusing in less accomplished writing hands than the boxset’s script editor Matt Fitton but makes complete sense once River truly begins to appreciate the gravity of her situation.

The curiously titled Someone I Once Knew closes out the set, with Tom Baker’s Doctor completing River’s tour of all the surviving classic TV series Doctors in what are supposed to be her “solo” adventures. Scribe John Dorney, however, mischievously turns the concept of River meeting her husband’s incarnations in reverse order on its head.

On TV and in some of BF’s audio adventures, River is armed with plenty of future knowledge about the Doctor’s adventures; the further back she ventures down his time stream, the less knowledgeable he is about her. However, in this meeting, it’s the Doctor that is apparently armed with foreknowledge about his wife, particularly of events that she either hasn’t experienced or which lie in her personal future.

Kingston and Baker are a delight to hear on audio and it’s a pairing that probably deserves another team-up in the Big Finish range (albeit in the ongoing Fourth Doctor Adventures, not River’s own series). It’s as much a combination of Dorney’s dialogue as well as the artistes’ performances but there are some wonderful moments of humour between the two, as well as some heartening moments as the Fourth Doctor’s romantic side comes to the fore:

The Doctor: What was that thing you used to disable General Dante’s gun? I don’t approve of guns!
River: It wasn’t a gun – it was my sonic trowel!
The Doctor: A what? A trowel? Why you little Gertrude Jekyll, you, I didn’t notice you doing any gardening!
River: It’s a variation on your screwdriver!
The Doctor: In what way? My screwdriver is just a screwdriver!
River: At the moment it is! Let’s just say you go crazy with the optional upgrades! Look, can we save the marital for later on? I think we need to get away!
The Doctor: You’re probably right! Here we go – on the run, together, almost like old times!
River: Oh, new old times for me!
The Doctor: I’m delighted to be with you. There’s no where I’d rather be. Just the two of us – together as disaster swamps the universe!
River: Flatterer!
The Doctor: Oh, don’t lie! You adore it!

While the general trappings of this final serial are very much rooted in traditional science fiction – with the Doctor and River initially playing a temporal game of “cat and mouse” with the Discordia and the Doctor agitating the token rebels to strike back against their Discordia oppressors (“My dear, I am always with the rebels!”) – it also contains very strong undercurrents of love, loss and regret. These themes are personified in the Discordia’s stagnant Emperor (Nigel Anthony) and the villainous Dante (Nicholas Asbury) who has designs on both the imperial throne and River herself. Given the romantic air of the serial, the conclusion is consequently bittersweet. (Personally, I detest this type of resolution, which is a SF cliché – and tantamount to lazy writing – but given the level of selflessness that underpins it, I’m prepared to let it through to the keeper – and it’s pointless railing against it anyway!)

My major criticism of this set – which has little to do with the largely first-rate storytelling – is the actual voices of the Discordia. Generally, BF’s sound production values are excellent, regardless of the content. However, in a bid to make the Discordia sound powerful or frightening (or both), the chief antagonists’ voices have been so treated electronically that they sound like deep, almost unintelligible David Banks-style Cyberleaders – even though (considering all of the adaptations they will have made to their physiology through their conquest of time) there is no indication that all of the Discordia are cybernetically augmented.

By comparison, the voices of the other aliens that feature throughout the set are untreated. Adele Lynch’s Gammarae and even Fenella Woolgar’s Formidian Queen in Time in a Bottle portray the giant ant-like creatures with largely natural voices – but the two actors give their characters clipped, brisk tones (in manners that are meant to reflect the swift thinking of giant ants). In fact, Woolgar’s performance as the Queen is so different from her major role as Jemima Still that you don’t realise until the end credits that she in fact plays two characters.

Josh Bolt’s Spod has a treated electronic voice but it is also in a subtler vocal range than the Discordia. Some of the minor alien characters encountered in Kings of Infinite Space and Someone I Once Knew also speak in more natural, largely untreated tones than the Discordia. It implies that to make the “big bad” of this set seem so intimidating, the sound designers felt treating the voices would be effective (which hardly works when we meet plenty of dim-witted and obsequious Discordia!). Yet it is clear from my experience of watching and listening to a lot of SF over the years that it’s sometimes better to just let the actors’ natural voices prevail.

I also query why in the overall story arc the keynote villain is chopped and changed at the halfway mark. The Discordia are essentially personified by Sub-Captain Melak and General Dante who are so very similar in persona as to be the same character. Indeed, the enthusiasm of one of the villains for River would be more logical, convincing and interesting if he was the other antagonist (who at least shares a real, not contrived, history with River). But given neither adversary would have coped well with rebuttal, it’s debatable whether the saga would have played out any differently.

Series 4 of The Diary of River Song is an entertaining addition to River’s audio adventures and works all the better for limiting past Doctors’ involvement in the overall narrative (which has not been the case in some of the earlier sets, notably Series 2). We get to see River in charge of her own expedition, racing through time and space with two non-human companions and a vortex manipulator, and besting herself against the wild imagination of Franz Kafka.

Much like Doctor Who more broadly, River’s adventures are certainly not bereft of imagination. However, it would still be interesting to hear more of River’s exploits as an archaeologist (even after four volumes there have only been hints) rather than bogging her down in the continuity of meeting her husband in reverse order and multiple incarnations of the Master/Missy in the forthcoming Series 5 boxset.

 






The DispossessedBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 November 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Dispossessed (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Mark MorrisDirected By: Jamie Anderson

Cast

Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Bonnie Langford (Mel), Morgan Watkins (Ruck), Anna Mitcham (Jan), Stirling Gallacher (Isobel), Nick Ellsworth (Arkallax). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer Nicholas BriggsScript Editor Guy AdamsExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

‘The Dispossessed’ is the second entry in this year’s Seventh Doctor trilogy (or should that be pentology?). Mark Morris’s tale see’s the Tardis team of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) trapped in a run-down tower block, with no-way-out. Taking the basic small-setting small-cast mold, The Dispossessed,  utilises the aforementioned interesting setting of a condemned tower block incredibly well and merges this with portals to other worlds, zombies and eccentric characters.

Mark Morris’s script is really the star of the show here and he appears to have really let his imagination go wild. What emerges is a complex mishmash of intriguing ideas, settings and characters. From Arkallax, the villain himself and the setting and the idea of an endless night all providing a haunting atmosphere. Morris also provides McCoy with easily some of the best writing he’s had in a long time. There’s a moment in part two when he’s trying to find out what he can about ‘Ruck’ and the mysterious, darker seventh doctor really comes to the forefront. Where other Doctors would of perhaps been a little more emotional, McCoy’s responses show that he cares but still remind us that he’s an alien. The final sequences of part four, in a bizarre mindscape wherein he confronts the Villain, show McCoy at the height of his powers.

Nick Ellsworth gives a wonderful performance as Arkallax, particularly in the sequences when he’s entertaining Ace and Mel in his flat. Stirling Gallacher is particularly rousing as Isobel, providing a number of laugh out loud moments. An interesting moment occurs when we don’t really know which one to trust and the sequences of them both explaining their backstories are intercut, providing some mystery over who to trust. I have to confess that Morgan Watkin’s character of Ruck and Anna Mitcham’s Jan, left me feeling a little bit cold. This is nothing to do with these two actors wonderful performances, but the characters I couldn’t help but feel were a little cardboard and lacking in any real depth or substance. Mark Morris has tried to tackle some interesting issues and I give him kudos for that, though unfortunately, the slew of interesting ideas within this story means that these deeper themes are a little swamped. The result is Jan and Ruck are not the strongest supporting characters.

The Dispossessed also suffers from re-using a large amount of the soundtrack from the previous months Red Planets. On the surface, this may not seem like a particularly bad idea, though the result is that an incredibly atmospheric and dense script with lots of intriguing imagery, isn’t really given an effective soundtrack to match. Moments that really could have been awe-inspiring are hurt by using themes that don’t really fit.  However then later on, particularly towards the end of part three, there’s an incredibly effective piece used around one of the big reveals that provides an incredibly powerful moment of tension. Not too long after that we revert to stock ques used in Red Planets.

The Dispossessed is a highly enjoyable tale that highlights the greatness of McCoy’s Doctor. It may fall flat on a few points but the real star of the show is McCoy and Morris’s script, which results in easily one of the most entertaining stories from this year's main range.



Associated Products

Audio
Released 30 Nov 2018
Main Range 242 - The Dispossessed (Doctor Who Main Range)