Scream of the Shalka (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Scream of the Shalka (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Paul Cornell
Read By David Collings

Released by BBC Worldwide - June 2016
Available from Amazon UK

In the run up to Doctor Who's Fortieth Anniversary in 2003, fans had very little to look forward to.  The show was seemingly dead for good.  The 1996 TV movie had failed to make an impact, so the show was being carried on purely in spin-off material like audios, comics, and books.  But a small team at the BBC website was determined to make something of the fortieth anniversary, and decided to make a fully animated cartoon series.  They had put on some limited animations before, but those were mostly audio stories with still images attached. This time they wanted to make a genuine animated web series, three stories told over 12 episodes.  But that got whittled down, and in the end they produced one story written by Paul Cornell and starring Richard E. Grant as the Ninth Doctor.  Of course that Ninth Doctor's official status was immediately thrown out, as before they even released the first episode, the BBC finally decided to announce that they would bring the show back properly.  And so Scream of the Shalka became this odd diversion, the singular story for a Doctor that is not considered official. Plans for further episodes featuring this cartoon Doctor were shelved, and this Doctor became a footnote in the series history.

Cornell also wrote a novelization of his story, which has now been brought to life again as an audiobook. While each of the six original episodes ran around 10-15 minutes, each episode is expanded upon in the book, giving greater characterizations for our main players, as well as deeper motivations. This is a good thing, it makes the story stronger, as the original story lacked this due to it's shorter format. 

For example, this version of the Doctor was heavily implied to have a tragic backstory.  While it is only hinted at, it seems he lost a companion that he was quite close to. The obvious conlcusion is some tragic death, but what we are never truly given the details. The novelization doesn't either, but the hints are stronger, and help explain the Doctor's attitude. The robot version of the Master that accompanies the Doctor in the TARDIS also gets a lot of extra characterization. While it is still not clear how exactly his conscienceness ended up in a robot that lives in the TARDIS, we get a better sense of what he is all about here.  New characters like Allison, Joe, and Major Kennet all have better development here as well.

It then becomes odd that, as a story that had such short episodes, this audiobook has a full hour disc for each episode.  For a story that is less than 90 minutes in length, the fact that the audiobook is well over six hours is incredible. The average Target Novelization of even a classic six parter is about 3-4 hours.  So Cornell really expanded his story for the book, and it shows in this subsequent audiobook. To be perfectly honest, while Scream of the Shalka is a decent story, and the book version is clearly superior to the truncated original webcast, part of me thinks six hours is a lot of time to dedicate to a story that isn't really THAT good.  While Cornell did make some attempts at modernizing Who via this cartoon, he was too traditional in too many ways to make the show properly work for anything but old fans. They might've gotten into it with time and subsequent episodes, but it would not have brought in new folks the way Davies eventually did. And that is still evident in listening to this audiobook.

David Collings is a fine narrator, and this novelization by Paul Cornell clearly had a lot of love put into it.  The audiobook is a good way to experience that novelization, but if you are interested in Shalka, you can pick up the cheaper DVD and watch the story and special features in about the same amount of time it would take to get through this audiobook (probably less time really). If you find you really liked that cartoon and then want to get more intimate details of the characters featured within, then the audiobook would do you well.  Personally I found that watching the behind the scenes documentary on the DVD to be the most satisfying and interesting thing to come from this story, because there was a brief period of time when a small team at the BBC Website thought they had found a way to bring back Doctor Who in a new way, and that is truly fascinating. 





Third Doctor Adventures Volume 4Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 27 March 2018 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Third Doctor Adventures - Volume 4
Writer: Guy AdamsMarc Platt
Director: Nicholas Briggs
Featuring: Tim Treloar, Katy Manning, Rufus Hound, Mina Anwar, Joe Sims, Carolyn Pickles, Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 5 hours

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2018
Order from Amazon UK

Before we begin, a quick housekeeping query: is everyone sufficiently bucked up and ready for further old-school 1970s (or 1980s, depending on whom you ask) sci-fi escapades? Wonderful.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of their Dalek revival in Volume 3, Big Finish isn’t skimping in the slightest on classic villains in their newest pair of Adventures for the Third Doctor. In fact, they’ve introduced not one but two returning antagonists into the fray for Volume 4 in the forms of the Meddling Monk and – for the first time ever in a Jon Pertwee-era tale, so better late than never – the Cybermen.

Admittedly this reviewer took umbrage with how intent “The Conquest of Far” seemed with simply reliving Dalek glory days, rather than seeking to develop how we perceive Skaro’s finest in any notable way, last time around. Will Guy Adams and Marc Platt’s next efforts to immortalise the late Pertwee’s beloved Doctor – now revitalised via Tim Treloar’s loving aural homage – fall into the same traps, then, or can their connective thematic tissue surrounding the ever-complexifying concept of human nature elevate proceedings?

“The Rise of the New Humans”:

“Look, Bessie’s a lovely car Doctor, I mean a really lovely car, but have you ever thought about investing in a little roof rather than a flappy tarpaulin to keep you dry?”
“Don’t you listen, old girl – she knows you’re beautiful really!”

Had we ever told diehard fans of all things Doctor Who after watching the divisive “The Woman Who Lived” in 2015 that supporting star Rufus Hound would go on to resurrect a long-overlooked classic antagonist to tremendous acclaim, the best case scenario, most would have justifiably scoffed in our faces. Between his infrequent appearances in the Short Trips and Doom Coalition ranges along with the British comedian’s headline role in Volume 4’s opening tale, however, that’s all changed and the results could hardly feel more satisfying than in the case of “The Rise of the New Humans”.

A whirlwind four-parter that’s by parts thought-provoking, hilarious – as if we’d expect anything less of Hound – and thrilling, “Rise” fits into the mold of the Third Doctor era perfectly, posing a fascinating metaphysical concept as human test subjects find themselves transformed into supernatural beings capable of withstanding nearly any affliction. Naturally, though, Doctor Who wouldn’t be Doctor Who without an audacious experiment gone wrong, and sure enough the side effects – not to mention the technology recklessly co-opted by the Monk to achieve his not-so-altruistic goal – quickly lead listeners and the major players alike to question the limits of science’s oft-perceived god complex.

If this all sounds too grim and sombre an affair to warrant the Monk’s involvement, then rest assured that Hound alleviates any such concerns with unmistakable ease from the outset. It’s thanks to his sinister, almost sickly, charisma and brilliantly earnest haplessness in the face of just about any danger that Adams’ borderline gothic – certainly Frankenstein-esque – script never gets too bogged down in its contemplations on evolution and the increasing risks of intervention in this natural process for financial gain, with the Monk’s attempts to disguise his seemingly benevolent intentions so delightfully inept that the audience should barely mind sitting through the humour-laden first half before discovering his true ambitions.

At the same time, though, Adams thankfully also realises the supreme value and drawing power that Tim Treloar and Katy Manning both hold in the eyes of the Adventures range’s fandom, peppering in a wealth of understated conversations between the pair which perfectly encapsulate their bubbly, at times teacher-student-style dynamic. Whether they’re arguing over Bessie’s temperamentality on a rain-swept road – a subtle homage to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, perhaps? – or the Doctor’s comforting Jo upon her poignant realisation that rumours of us only accessing 10% of our brain power may have been exaggerated, every exchange that the characters share could’ve been ripped straight out of a 1970s serial, with Treloar’s righteously confident and Manning’s sweetly innocent line deliveries both as completely pitch-perfect as ever.

The only noteworthy misstep on the wright in question’s part, then, comes with Part 4. While by no means a deal-breaker, the final installment of “Rise” does succumb to an all-too-familiar virus plaguing myriad audio and TV Who adventures – hightailing it to the finish line and ditching any intriguing ideas laid along the way in the process. One can’t help but notice the superior running time afforded to the boxset’s second story – the individual episodes of which run for around 30-35 minutes each compared to this serial’s 20-25 – and wonder if Adams struggled to give ideas like humans struggling with their deadly mutations full due, hence the final 25 minutes descending into the usual catastrophic monster mash and retconning a hugely tantalising cliffhanger regarding Jo within moments of its occurrence.

Maybe Adams simply needs to keep honing his stabs at the four-part format instead, but it’s food for thought in terms of whether he might better befit a five- or six-episode serial should he contribute another script for the recently-announced Volume 5.

“The Tyrants of Logic”:

“Doctor, what are they?”
“Cybermen!”

Reading the above lines of dialogue alone will, for many fans, surely prove a cathartic experience in and of itself. After all, despite coming into contact with Daleks, Silurians, Sea Devils, Sontarans, Ice Warriors and Autons over the course of his four-year tenure, not to mention the Master on a near-weekly basis, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor never earned himself the chance to battle arguably Doctor Who’s second most iconic monster, joining Paul McGann, John Hurt and Christopher Eccleston’s as the only such incarnations faced with this unspeakable on-screen plight.

But, as Hurt’s War Doctor proclaimed in 2013’s similarly Cyber-lite 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”, no more. Setting down on an initially near-deserted human colony dubbed Burnt Salt, the now exile-free Time Lord and Jo soon discover that they’re far from alone; quite to the contrary, a nearby saloon houses a wild assortment of rogues and ex-soldiers, all of whom bear a secret inevitably doomed to surface as the Cybermen make their presence on Burnt Salt known with their destructive efforts to secure a vital hidden weapon.

Prior to us proceeding any further, though, a word of warning – with its Cybermats, Cyber Wars fallout and attempted Time Lord-Cyber conversions, Marc Platt’s latest script represents a quintessential story for everyone’s favourite Mondas residents, for better and for worse. Unless this boxset somehow marks your first encounter with Who, many of the twists in “Logic” will likely seem rather familiar; from characters mistakenly willing to sacrifice their humanity to the robotic menaces escaping supposed extinction yet again, from the Doctor needing 10 minutes to alleviate his companion’s dismay at their latest foe’s near-human nature to Part 4’s predictable final duke-out, there’s nothing particularly fresh to speak of in what’s a fairly run-of-the-mill nostalgia tour.

Nothing, that is, save for the continuing thematic strand surrounding what it truly means to call oneself a member of the human race. If “Rise” explores this existential concept through a metaphysical exploration of our species’ DNA being evolved to a supposed higher state, then “Tyrants” – as with many Cyber-tales, although to more emotional effect a la Spare Parts – does so by presenting members of our species on the brink of having every aspect of their personalities stripped away. Can we possibly still define someone as human when they’re clinging to any remains vestiges of their Id / ego / super-ego? Sure, it’s a line of inquiry also recently pursued by TV serials like “Asylum of the Daleks”, but without spoiling too much, Carolyn Pickles achieves wonders as her character Marian Shaeffer’s cold exterior peels back to reveal her heartbreaking motivations in this regard.

Indeed, even if “Logic” doesn’t exactly break a great deal of new ground compared to a recent TV Cyber-outing like “World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls”, it’s not for want of the central and supporting cast alike doing their utmost – with director Nicholas Briggs’ support and guidance, no doubt – to provide an entertaining 2-hours of pseudo-base-under-siege action. That Treloar and Manning’s insatiably endearing chemistry injects humour and charm at every turn likely goes without saying at this point, but look out too for Briggs’ finest turn yet as the ever-hauntingly impassive invaders standing in Burnt Salt’s doorway as well as a contrastingly vulnerable performance from Deli Segal’s Skippa, another innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a seemingly unyielding, constantly destructive conflict.

The Verdict:

Above all, this stellar new boxset for Treloar’s Third Doctor marks a vast improvement on Volume 3, offering a far more consistent pair of serials that seldom cease to provide gripping listening no matter your chosen venue of aural consumption. Does “Logic” still follow the roadmap presented by Cyber-tales gone by a little too rigidly at times? Sure, but its stirring explorations of warped human psyches – combined with Adams’ own study in “Rise” of our dangerous strides towards godhood of late – ensure that it’s nonetheless a far superior beast to “Conquest of Far”, particularly with Briggs taking such unnerving pride in chronicling Pertwee / Treloar’s proper first encounter with the Cybermen.

This reviewer has spoken before on the matter of whether Big Finish’s abundant New Series productions – see Tales from New Earth, The Churchill Years Volume 2, Gallifrey: Time War and The Diary of River Song Series 3 in 2018’s opening quarter alone – threaten to overshadow their Classic Series output if they’re not careful. Provided that the studio keeps producing such captivating jaunts into the lives of Doctors past, though, then their listeners, stars, scribes and directors should have nothing to worry about in terms of the job security that Hartnell-McGann’s incarnations will maintain going forward.

And buck down…see you next year for Volume 5 at the same Bessie-time, same Bessie-place!






The Enemy Of The World - Special Edition (DVD)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 March 2018 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (Credit: BBC Worldwide)
The Enemy Of The World
Starring Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who
With Frazer Hines as Jamie and Deborah Watling as Victoria
Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Barry Letts
Released by BBC Worldwide March 2018
It's out, and it's about time.

Some five years after its initial release, The Enemy of the World is once again released this month, this time bursting with the features we've come to expect from a BBC Doctor Who DVD and that were notably absent from 2013. Indeed, even the DVD blurb acknowledges this: "Originally rush released shortly after its recovery, there was little time to complete the extensive Special Features typical of archive Doctor Who releases". Well, quite!

So what do we get in what many would say is the "proper" release? Commentary: check. Production notes: check. Photo Gallery: check. An exhaustive making-of: check! The two-disc release also includes an interview with the man behind the rediscovery of this story, Phil Morris, a brief item on the restoration work undertaken in 2013, a tribute to the late Deborah Watling, the Jon Pertwee introduction to the then only existing episode 3 from The Troughton Years, and the original trailer from 1967 that followed The Ice Warriors. You even get a reversible cover so it can happily sit alongside the rest of your DVD collection if you prefer to maintain that consistent look and feel.

However, one thing that certainly isn't consistent is the disc's opening menu! If you've been watching a number of DVDs recently like I have, the absence of the 'traditional' Davison opening accompanying the TARDIS 'arrival' into the main menu is quite a jarring shock, with the sequence being dispensed with in favour of a brief snippet of the Troughton titles leading straight to the menu. I guess I'll get used to it - at least the familiar "roundels" menu has survived!

For the episodes themselves, the DVD boasts of further remastering with modern techniques by Peter Crocker and MArk Ayres - how much of an improvement in picture quality to the previous release I'm not so sure about, but the story looks and sounds very clean, and possibly as pristine as it'll ever be (and a definite improvement to the 480 line i-Tunes cash-in back in 2013...).

I won't dwell over the story itself - after all if you're reading a review then you're probably familiar with the plot(!) - but it is one of those stories that features the change of direction halfway through that transforms the story into something else rather unexpected that I always like in drama. With only episode three as a visual guide for literally decades I hadn't appreciated this change of direction, and it is still a delight to savour now - it's probably no coincidence that the director, Barry Letts, becomes producer of an era full of such twists and turns. The complete serial also allows us to enjoy the characters in all their glory, and more to the point being able to watch the performance of Patrick Troughton in his dual role as hero and villain. I must admit that it still feels like a novelty being able to watch and appreciate the full story, and leaves me eager for more (something that animations can only partially sate!). But seeing Troughton smoking a cigar in episode five as though in competion with Roger Delgado in The Mind of Evil still feels out of place, even though it is of course Salamander puffing away, not the Doctor. How the perception of that enemy of the world's health has changed!

The accompanying production notes provide the usual behind-the-scenes essentials, dates, figures, the development of the story from script to screen, changes to planned dialogue, action, etc., plus of course detail of the cast and crew and related observations. Insights include how several inserts made their way into later stories, how the slick action sequences in episode one were more fraught in production with both a hovercraft mishap and the helicopter very nearly following suit. During episode two it is revealed that there is a mysterious scene included featuring the Doctor and Kent that doesn't appear in the production schedules. And in episode five it is revealed how some of the more excessive blood and violence in the script were restrained in production. Though the production of the story can of course now be digested through reading Volume 11 of The Complete History, here the notes are more practical in illustrating what's currently appearing on screen - for example, In episode four, a practical example of the way in which those recording the programme worried less about the edges of the frame owing to on-screen visibility of the time is illustrated.

The commentary for the story is initially taken up with a lively discussion between Frazer Hines and Mary Peach, joined by Gordon Faith for the next couple of episodes. All change for episode four with Milton Johns and Sylvia James taking up observational duty, before returning to the original duo for the finale. Discussions across the episodes included acting with helicopters, working with Patrick Troughton, actor-come-director Barry Letts, and the delightful Debbie Watling (of course!), acting in the confines of small studios and limited sets, plus Sylvia's explanation of how the crew approached the creation of 2018[1], some 50 years ahead of time.

The commentary was moderated by Simon Harries, who had big shoes to step into following the mighty moderator extraordinaire Toby Hadoke; however he was more than capable of keeping the conversations going and keeping Frazer in check!

 

The Enemy Of The World Special Edition: Treasures Lost and Found (Credit: BBC Worldwide)

The Enemy Of The World Special Edition: Recovering The Past (Credit: BBC Worldwide)

The Enemy Of The World Special Edition: Remembering Deborah Watling (Credit: BBC Worldwide)

The main feature on the second disc is Treasures Lost And Found. Unlike the more usual more straightforward fact-based making-ofs, here Toby Hadoke takes us on a "treasure hunt" for new information on the story in his indomitable style, uncovering "clues" along the way in a similar vein to Looking for Peter on The Sensorites - so it isn't surprising that his accomplice on this mission is researcher Richard Bignell[2]! Along the way Toby (possibly) drank his way through innumerable relaxing teas conversing informally with Mary Peach, Sylvia James, David Troughton, Frazer Hines and Sarah Lisemore, plus several inserts on the making of the story from a 2008 interview with Barry Letts and also a 2011 interview with Deborah Watling.

The informal approach to the documentary meant that Toby took time to chat to his interviewees about more than just their Enemy-specific memories. Mary's extensive career was discussed, including what occured when she met Marilyn Munroe, and David reflected on life with the Doctor and his father's views of acting in theatre - which also highlighted the perceived nepotism of the time with his cameo as a guard in the story, not to mention Frazer's brother Ian, Barry Letts' nephew Andrew Staines and finally production assistant come influential producer Martin Lisemore's wife Sarah, whose interview at the end of the programme turns into its most poignant moment as the treasure is finally revealed.

I did have a couple of niggly issues with the presentation, though: the archive interview of Barry Letts was interspersed with shots of Toby and Richard watching the footage on a laptop, which I found both disjointing and a distraction to hearing what Barry had to say. The other was the "pop-up" message gimmick, which reminded me more of Top Gear style antics (something perhaps not lost on Toby? grin). These were only minor quibbles though, overall the feature is highly entertaining, ably guided by Toby throughout.

With this release being a celebration of its return in the anniversary year, it isn't surprising to find its recovery being featured in the extras. In Recovering The Past, Phil Morris takes us through the journey he undertook in his quest to find missing television, and in particular the trail through Nigeria to his eventual find of both Enemy and The Web of Fear in Jos. The passion he has for his job is obvious from the interview, as is his optimism for future finds He also left us with a tantalising hint of what might be in store in the future...

Restoring Doctor Who is an accompanying piece which documented some of the process in restoring the story from its original off-the-shelf condition to what we can watch today.

Remembering Deborah Watling is a tribute to the actress whose bubbly presence is sadly missed. Featuring Louise Jameson, Colin Baker, Sylvia James, Anneke Wills, and Frazer Hines, Debbie's life and career is followed through the memories of her sister Nicky and brother Giles, with everybody involved reminiscing on her wicked sense of humour, practical jokes, and of course her healthy scream!

The package is rounded off with the brief introduction to the then single remaining episode by Jon Pertwee from The Troughton Years, a trailer for the story from 1967, and the usual photo gallery, plus PDF materials.

 


 

So is the special edition worth buying? It does of course rather depend on whether you are interested in the extra features. If you're only interested in the story then, with this version released, if you haven't already purchased it you might well see the original 2013 version drop further in price in the coming months. If you're only after a commentary then an alternative, unoffiicial release from Fantom Films[3] may be a cheaper option (though there isn't much difference in cost between that and this entire DVD online at present!).

However, if you haven't bought Enemy before then I would certainly recommend this as the version to get. It's just a shame it wasn't presented this way in the first place!

 

Hmm, with all the extensive recovery articles on this release, what's left for the special edition of The Web of Fear ... ?!!

 

[1] The production discussion places the setting of the story as 2017, but a newspaper clipping seen in episode five shows "last year's date" of 26th August 2017, indicating it is actually set in 2018 after all.

[2] I might well be the only person who will laugh out loud at Richard's ringtone!

[3] A notable absence on the DVD commentary is of course the wonderful Debbie Watling, who had left us by the time this package was put together. All is not lost, however, as she can be heard on the alternative commentary from Fantom Films (and you can also get your Toby fix as Master of Ceremonies too!). The CD is still available from Amazon etc.





Doorway to Hell (Panini Graphic Novel)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 March 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doorway to Hell  (Credit: Panini)

Written by Mark Wright

Artwork by Mike Collins, John Ross, & Staz Johnson

Paperback: 148 pages

Publisher: Panini UK LTD

The third Twelfth Doctor collection from Panini, Doorway to Hell, collects together a series of stories published in Doctor Who Magazine between the end of Series 9 (and the exit of Clara), and the long wait until the launch of Series 10 (in which Bill could finally join the strip). All of the stories within were written by Mark Wright and featured a running arc of the Doctor stuck on Earth and living with the Collins family. Jess Collins was previously met by the Doctor and Clara in "The Highgate Horror," one of the stories in the previous Twelfth Doctor volume (of the same name as the story). 

The book opens with the Doctor landing back in 1972 and running into Jess Collins again, and she follows him as he tracks down an alien presence.  That presence turns out to be some alien tech which has been trapped underground for centuries, and has evolved the Bubonic Plague into a disease which turns people into Bird Monsters!  It makes more sense when you read it.  The Doctor is able to thwart the alien threat and save the Collins family, but in the process burns the TARDIS out...and the Doctor is stuck on Earth while it repairs itself. The Collins family take him in as a thank you for saving them, though the Doctor is initially reluctant to such a gesture. 

But the Doctor does move in, and we get a lovely one-shot that shows the Doctor interacting with each member of the family.  Bonding with the father over his traumatic transformation into a bird monster, cooking for the mom, debating comics with the younger brother, and discussing art with Jess. It's a great character piece, and it made me quickly fall in love wit this arc.  It was nice to see the strip try something really different.  Sort of doing their own small-scale take on the Doctor's exile to Earth from the Pertwee Era, but instead of being employed by a military organization, he is just living with a family in the early 70s.

The battle Alien Hunters together, and help out a poor neighbor whose own guilt creates a monster, and finally, in the big finale, the Doctor faces off with the Master...not just any Master, but the original Roger Delgado version! This final story is a really great finale and gives us a great battle of wills between the Twelfth Doctor and the Master, not to mention a bit of fun continuity gap filling, showing us what happened to the Delgado version of the character following his final appearance in Frontier in Space.  It was always a shame that Delgado's untimely passing meant we never got a final confrontation between he and Pertwee. 

This book was excellent, easily among my favorites of the Modern Doctors comic runs. The fact that it had a grounding with the Doctor stranded and living with the Collins family, the fact that between some fun Alien battling adventures they peppered in really nice small one-shots that explored character stuff. And since it is all so small scale for the most part, it makes the grand finale with the Master all the more satisfying.  Mark Wright's stories were uniformly fun to read, and the art is solid throughout.  I especially grew to love the art by newcomer to the strip Staz Johsnon. While his likeness of the Doctor took a bit of time, he just had a really pleasant art style, reminded me of John Ridgeway's Sixth Doctor run a bit.  I highly recommend this book, if you only read one Twelfth Doctor book, make it this one.  It is well written, has lots to love, and is so entertaining, I read it fairly quickly.  I genuinely had trouble putting it down!





Tales from New EarthBookmark and Share

Friday, 23 March 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Tales From New Earth (Credit: Big Finish) Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
Running Time: 5 hours

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2018
Order from Amazon UK

Of all the worlds depicted in Doctor Who since its modern revival, New Earth mightn't initially seem the most obvious choice for a dedicated spin-off series. Sure, the Tenth Doctor made port at this futuristic colony for the human race on multiple occasions during his televised tenure, but ask most fans where 2006-07 serials "New Earth" and "Gridlock" place in their all-time rankings of every episode transmitted to date and they're unlikely to station the pair alongside "City of Death", "Blink" or "The Tomb of the Cybermen".

On the other hand, there's little denying the ripe narrative potential of further exploring a world whose corrupt hospitals and carnivorous underbelly - the only areas glimpsed on TV Who to date - are doubtless just the tip of the iceberg. Enter Tales of New Earth, Big Finish's latest addition to their ensemble of New Series sagas, which not only capitalizes upon that same potential by revealing new geographical facets of its titular setting aplenty, but goes one step further by following the continued journeys of recurring characters like Novice Hame, or in some cases their descendants.

Does this ambitious gambit of revitalizing the setting behind a divisive pair of televised serials pay off, though? Well, yes and no - as ever, there's not so much a black-and-white answer to that question as fifty shades of New New Gray. Let's begin...

"Escape from New New York":

"Hold on - isn't this my story too? Mine and Thorn's?" "Of course. I'm trying to set the scene..."

The old saying goes that you should write what you know, an authorial adage which holds true for Roy Gill as he transports listeners back to the setting of both aforementioned on-screen New Earth adventures: the sprawling cityscape of New New York. Where - with the Doctor's help, of course - the capital's elevators once sprayed chemicals capable of healing even the most deeply infected hospital patients, they're now seemingly causing innocent civilians to vanish out of thin air, with Gill's script depicting newfound Senator Hame (Anna Hope) and orphan-turned-lift maintenance worker Devon Pryce (Kieran Hodgson)'s efforts to untangle this disturbing mystery.

As premises go, it's a classic Doctor Who set-up for hidden alien machinations and some subtle allegorical strands surrounding societal outcasts, albeit without the Tenth Doctor's involvement in this case. Thankfully Hope and Hodgson are both more than capable of picking up the slack, their half-banterous, half-confrontational dynamic as two unlikely allies ensuring that no matter how much exposition we hear regarding New Earth's reformed political system and social strata, there's always a feisty wise-crack or compelling moral dilemma such as Devon's underlying prejudice towards Catkind waiting around the corner to keep proceedings entertaining.

Credit must also go to director Helen Goldwyn and her immensely talented sound design team, whose work in rendering New Earth sans visuals does a superb job of painting the realm in our heads through the grinds and whirrs of elevator shafts, unyielding hovercars whizzing overhead at all times or distant yet heartbreaking explosions as events spiral to their crescendo. It's easy to take such atmospheric nuances for granted these days that Big Finish has almost 20 years of aural storytelling experience under its belt, but without such technical flourishes on Goldwyn's part, the listening experience would surely prove far less immersive than is the case with "Escape".

In terms of twists and red herrings, there's not much to write home about beyond the intriguing introduction of a charitable benefactor-turned-self-proclaimed deity who comes to form the boxset's antagonist, an issue which becomes more problematic as the four stories progress. All the same, Gill - in tandem with Hope, Hodgson and Goldwyn - at least goes some way towards setting up a compelling status quo for the New Earth series here to justify its existence, imbuing Devon's journey in particular with hefty personal stakes and a driving motivation to undertake missions across the planet at Hame's bequest over the next three instalments.

"Death in the New Forest":

"Put the gun away! He didn't do this - his teeth are nowhere near big enough."

Sadly the title of Roland Moore's sophomore entry doesn't mean we're in for an adrenaline-pumping horror set in Wiltshire's treetops - maybe next time, Big Finish? What we're offered instead with "Death in the New Forest", as the story's title suggests, is Devon's quest to investigate further schemes concocted by the villainous, faceless Lux Corporation while exploring New Earth's equivalent of our famed woodland. Here residents aren't so much going missing within elevator shifts as dying outright on the streets for all to see. In case that sounds like a rather dangerous conspiracy for Mr. Pryce to unfold, rest assured that he's not alone - both the Tenth Doctor and Vale, a sapling descendant of the Ninth Doctor's would-be flame Jabe ("The End of the World"), are on hand to lend assistance.

Yet whereas "Escape" thrived thanks to its feisty lead stars' energetic interactions, "Death" suffers noticeably from the absence of that dynamic as Hodgson's left with carrying almost the full weight of proceedings alongside Yasmin Bannerman, who doesn't seem to know how to differentiate Vale from her ancestor without rendering her as a borderline dislikable rogue with whom the audience will struggle to fondly connect at any stage. Try as Hodgson might, then, he's inevitably unable to disguise the relatively predictable manner in which this second outing proceeds, from its warring alien societies to the Lux's attempts to utilize this conflict to its advantage to the inevitable last-minute counterplays which save the day. Naturally Doctor Who serials and their spin-offs can only throw so many science-fiction storylines our way without some degree of repetition eventually setting in - and indeed some academics argue that only 5-7 seven basic plots really exist in fiction - but that the well-worn wheels turning here become so plain to see makes for a rather deflating listen, since you're always longing for structural innovation which never comes.

One area in which Hodgson, in particular, doesn't disappoint, however, is with his rendition of the Tenth Doctor. David Tennant's iconic incarnation of Theta Sigma always sported a lust for life and adventure as well as a rapid-fire mode of address which most narrators have since struggled to capture, yet close your eyes here and you'd almost struggle to tell the difference between his and Hodgson's takes on the characters. Indeed, while Jake Dudman has rightly been afforded the opportunity to play both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in Big Finish's dedicated Chronicles series given his marvellous impressions of both incarnations, this reviewer can only hope that if Tales performs strongly enough in sales terms to warrant a second season, then this beloved version of the eternal Time Lord - whose "song" is presumably close to ending at this point with not a companion in sight - will return for more New Earth-bound escapades, if only to give Hodgson further opportunities to showcase his utterly uncanny portrayal.

"The Skies of New Earth":

"Here, the Bird People live in Nest City."

If that tantalising quote alone isn't enough to get the listener's attention, then Big Finish might as well close up shop at this very second. Still here? Brilliant - in that case, prepare for a whirlwind tour of New Earth's highest recesses this time around as scribe Paul Morris unveils the vast aviaries and Solar Clouds populating New Earth's evidently chaotic skyline. Half of the appeal of a setting-focused boxset like Tales comes from each writer's opportunity to hone that most basic authorial skill of world-building, either crafting entirely new planets of their own or delving under the skin of those locales which their audience previously assumed that they knew all too well already. Whether we're meeting remarkably animate solar bears, learning how New Earth's upper atmosphere parallels that of our own global warming-ridden world or gaining further insight into how the planet's body Politik and fourth estate interacted, there's immense fun to be had here from diving headfirst into a setting which has only received 90 minutes of screentime in BBC One's flagship sci-fi drama to date.

What's more, Morris affords Toby Hadoke - whose central role in the boxset is as the aforementioned Lux - the chance to flex his performing muscles further this time around, taking on other roles such as that of a Birdman to help better flesh out the communities which we explore and, as with "Skies", to ensure that we're sufficiently invested enough in these groups to care and fret as they naturally come under attack towards the hour's end. Even if Morris' various plot strands such as faked journalistic investigations, energy-harnessing Solar Clouds, and familiar environmental debates don't coalesce into anything particularly noteworthy as the Lux's latest plan comes to light, that we're still concerned as to the fates of the animal players pepped through this largely enjoyable penultimate episode does prevent it from feeling as downright unmemorable as its immediate predecessor.

Again, though, with such a necessarily unsympathetic and emotionally devoid antagonist at the Lux at its core - one who lacks the chilling menace of, say, the similarly heartless Cybermen - comes a frustrating sense of deja vu, such that we're never caught much off-guard by its plans on account of knowing full well that the Corporation will manifest itself at some stage and try to cause a global calamity all the while. Every villainous entity has their respective tropes - hence why some fans such as this reviewer wouldn't mind seeing the back of frequent returnees like the Daleks from the TV show for a while right now - but perhaps the optimal approach here would've thus been to vary up the antagonists tasked with causing New Earth grief, rather than having most of Tales' relatively standalone storylines play out in near-identikit fashion.

"The Cats of New Cairo":

"In short, I am here to tell you how the Lux tried to destroy New Earth, and how it took my friend away from me."

It’s off to the current desert residence of Catkind for Tales’ Season One finale, wherein the reunited Hame and Devon must race against time to stop – yes, you guessed it – the Lux Corporation hatching yet another plan to conquer New Earth. As with each episode preceding “The Cats of New Cairo”, listeners can expect plenty more of the same unreliably ruthless comrades, sudden betrayals, bodily possessions and quasi-wartime political metaphors for which the series will now almost certainly have become famous or infamous depending on your mileage with the boxset’s first three hours.

Every Solar Cloud has a silver lining, however, and just as the Twelfth Doctor’s absence from all of Class Season One barring its premiere meant that he could no longer act as a last-minute deus ex machina to bail the Coal Hill School kids out of trouble, so too are the dynamic duo at this collection’s heart forced to resolve the present crisis alone without the Tenth Doctor's help, by any means – or indeed sacrifices – necessary. That decision on writer Matt Fitton’s part works to tremendous effect overall, thereby placing Hodgson and Hope’s electric dynamic centre-stage once more and putting both characters through the emotional ringer as the situation escalates and they’re both forced to contemplate how far they’ll go to protect their home.

Trouble is, if the above set-up sounded as familiar as it should have based on our description, then there’s a good reason for that – focusing so adamantly on a singular, uninspiring antagonist means that regardless of the fascinating interplay between Hame and her increasingly desperate feline rivals which the Lux’s threat introduces here, we’re still left in little doubt as to how events will play out. At least Adjoa Andoh – better known to most fans as Martha Jones’ mother Francine in Who Season Three – goes all out as rival Sister Jara, the insatiable ferocity of whom lends her a certain wildcard feel and ups the stakes for Devon’s potentially limited lifespan, yet hardly enough so to take proceedings in a truly unexpected direction.

Perhaps this reviewer doth protest too much at Tales from New Earth’s shortcomings, but given how innovative and tonally ambitious Big Finish’s recent productions like The War Master: Only the Good and their particularly audacious Torchwood range have been, to see this undeniably well-intentioned boxset take so few risks in terms of narrative structure, its range of monsters or rife potential for political commentary seems a major disappointment. Might the studio’s licensed New Series projects run the risk of oversaturation at this point, especially with so many spin-offs like The Churchill Years, The Time War, Jenny: The Doctor’s Daughter, UNIT, The Diary of River Song and Lady Christina planned for 2018?  Possibly, though it’s too early to make such bold assumptions or to write New Earth off entirely; if the team goes back to the drawing board for Season Two to devise stronger arcs and antagonists, then there’s every chance that they could capitalise on the abundant potential teased by Season One’s superb lead performances and nuanced world-building.



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Released 1 Nov 2016
Doctor Who - Tales from New Earth




The Highgate Horror (Panini Graphic Novel)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 23 March 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Highgate Horror (Credit: Panini)

Written by Mark Wright, Jonathan Morris, Steve Lyons, Jacqueline Rayner, & Scott Gray

Artwork by Mike Collins, John Ross, David A. Roach, Adrian Salmon, Roger Langridge, Dave Gibbons, John Ridgeway, Dan McDaid, John Ross, Martin Geraghty

Paperback: 180 pages

Publisher: Panini UK LTD

The Twelfth Doctor's comic adventures continue in Panini's second volume, The Highgate Horror, which sees the final set of adventures for Clara on the strip, and a special 20-page adventure celebrating the history of the Doctor Who Magazine strip itself. 

The opening one-shot is "Space Invaders!" which was originally printed between two stories featured in the previous volume.  Since it is only one part and doesn't play into any big arc or anything, I wonder why they didn't just place it in the previous volume.  That collection only had about four stories anyhow. But I digress, it is a simple and fun little adventure, not too deep, but fun.  And it has a nice nod to the Simpsons, as there is an alien that looks kind of like Bart Simpson that gets eaten up by a monster in one panel. 

The second story, "Spirits of the Jungle," has a bit more meat to it, with a big crazy jungle adventure with robots and monsters to battle. It's got good art, a fun story, and lots of crazy Doctor Who-ness to enjoy.  The titular story "The Highgate Horror" has great art, a decent story, and monster, a solid character known as Jess...but I think it has a rather unsatisfying conclusion, which is a shame.  The Doctor basically tells the monster to go away and the disappear into a void, it doesn't really work. 

Clara and the Doctor then travel to a planet where techno-savvy folk has decided to live out their dreams of living in the middle ages, complete with Dragons...unfortunately the Dragons have been freed from their computer control and are now free to rampage against the villagers. I think this was an entertaining story, but even by Peter Capaldi standards, the Doctor seems TOO grumpy throughout.  Just annoyed with everyone and everything from the word go.  This story is followed by a shorter one-off involving Houdini trapped in a computer program, which is light goofy fun. 

Clara's final adventure in the strip involves a trickster time traveller known as Miss Chief, who causes all sorts of havoc and a Halloween fest, and gets Clara (who is dressed as a witch) sent back in time to face off with Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, all while playing a time travel game with the Doctor in order to save her.  It's a fun adventure, and sends Clara off with a high note, giving her some good stuff to do, and ends with her raising enough money to name an I.T. room after Danny Pink.  Danny, despite his death, is quite present in this book. Appearing as hallucinations and computer programs. His memory lived on in the strip better than it really ever did in the show! But at any rate, while they can never do a true exit for companions and Doctors in the strip when they get such a thing on TV, they often find a nice way to say goodbye to those characters in the strip, with some little hint or nod that lets you know that they won't be in the strip anymore. 

The final story in this collection is "The Stockbridge Showdown," which was a special 20-page comic strip (as opposed to the now usual 12 pages), which was printed in the 500th Issue of Doctor Who Magazine.  As such, this story is a massive celebration of the strip's DWM history, featuring a bunch of the Magazine's own additions to Doctor Who lore, with places from Stockbridge (first seen in the Fifth Doctor's era and revisited often in the strip) to Cornucopia (a more recent addition from the Eleventh Doctor's era), and featuring comic-original companions from the first DWM companion Sharon, as well as Maxwell Edison, Majenta Pryce, Destrii, Izzy, and Frobisher!  The plot involves a takedown of Josiah W. Dogbolter, a villain from the Fifth and Sixth Doctor eras, who has teamed up with a villain of the Eleventh Doctor, Chiyoko.  To add even more fun to the mix, this strip is drawn by a variety of artists. With pages drawn by the first artist for the magazine, Dave Gibbons, as well as the man who drew the entirety of the Sixth Doctor's run, John Ridgeway, as well as the artists that remain with the strip today, many of whom really took off during the Eighth Doctor's run and beyond. Scott Gray, who has pretty much run the strip since the Eighth Doctor's days (either as lead writer or as the Editor), wrote a great celebration of a strip that has had many successes for many years. It's great to see so many of the strip's original creations and great artists put together such a fun celebration of the strip itself.  The show has a long and stories history, and the strip does as well, particularly the Doctor Who Magazine version of the long-running strip, so this 500th issue celebration is well deserved. 

This is a better collection than the first Twelfth Doctor volume.  It has a better variety of stories and includes a great celebration of the strip itself in that final story.  It's nice that they took a break from the big epic arcs, and just told a bunch of fun stories again, and if you want to dip into the Twelfth Doctor adventures, I'd say you get more bang for your buck by purchasing this collection over his first.  There's no real story arc to follow, just random adventures...so starting here is worth it in my view. If you have a love for the Doctor Who Magazine strip, then "The Stockbridge Showdown" alone is worth it!