Doctor Who - The War Doctor Vol 4: Casualties of WarBookmark and Share

Thursday, 15 June 2017 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Doctor Who - The War Doctor Vol 4: Casualties of WarWritten by Guy Adams, Andrew Smith and Nicholas Briggs
Produced by David Richardson
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish Productions, 2017
Stars: John Hurt (The War Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra), Joseph Kloska (Schandel), Julia Hills (Sera/Spokesperson), Mark Elstob (Editor/Old Man), Lizzie Roper (Rosata Laxter/High Minister), Chris Porter (Skaul/Freel), Alan David (Castellan Kanteer), Jane Slavin (Panopticon Guard Lintok), and Nicholas Briggs (Dalek Time Strategist/Daleks/Assault Team Leader)

“I’m the stuff of nightmares! I’m a murderer, a warrior, a demon let loose in the time stream, a man who’s lost his conscience, his friends – even his name!”

The War Doctor

The latest – and possibly last – instalment in Big Finish’s The War Doctor saga, Casualties of War, has an unintentional poignant edge to it – it is the last Doctor Who-related work of the late, great Sir John Hurt. Hurt delivers such a lively, commanding, sometimes weary and at other times profound portrayal that it is hard to believe the owner of that distinctive, gravelly voice will no longer entertain us with his gift. As co-star Louise Jameson remarks in the CD extras, his voice is “perfect for audio … so full of character and a life lived!”

Hurt clearly enjoyed doing drama on audio; he could project his wonderful voice and deliver some great oratory. Indeed, in an interview with BF supremo Nick Briggs (that is available as part of a tribute podcast that BF released not long after his death), Hurt talked about the advantages of radio drama over television and the theatre.

“I love sound for a start,” he told Briggs. “I’ve always enjoyed voice work, I’ve always enjoyed doing radio, I think, because it’s very akin to film and less akin to stage … You can cut between this time, that time … You can play with it the same way you can in film but it’s more immediate. You have to have a sensibility for it, you have to hear it in your head, you have to know what your voice is sounding like and how it comes across.”  There is no doubt that Hurt was in his element in The War Doctor saga and in BF’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man.

Despite Hurt’s dedication to his art, Casualties of War won’t ever be a tour de force, nor is it the best of BF’s four War Doctor volumes. However, it would be unfair to judge it too harshly in the context of Hurt’s passing. It is an entertaining collection, and it brings The War Doctor saga to a satisfactory, if somewhat predictable close.

Just as the titles of the last couple of box sets reflected loose themes – eg the lengths to which Daleks and Time Lords alike would go to find an edge in Infernal Devices, and the machinations of third parties in Agents of Chaos – so Casualties of War explores the impact of the Time War on worlds, societies and even other realities unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. The war’s effects through time have been explored in other Doctor Who audios (notably the Eighth Doctor serial The Sontaran Ordeal) but this box set does a sterling job of putting the Time Lords, the Daleks and the listeners on the front line.

Pretty Lies, the first of Volume 4’s tales, largely resumes from where Vol 3 concluded, with the Doctor and Time Lord War Council strategist Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) on the run from the Daleks. In some respects, the story setting is reminiscent of an old Western – as a couple of strangers “mosey” into an isolated township on a remote frontier planet and inadvertently defend it against marauders.

After crash landing on Beltox, the Doctor and Ollistra meet Schandel (Joseph Kloska), a time-travelling war correspondent. Schandel, with the aid of an AI conveniently called Editor (Mark Elstob), has anticipated their arrival and is aware of their roles in an impending Dalek attack on the human township of Fairgill. Reluctantly the Doctor and Ollistra must use their wits and Fairgill’s scant resources to buy themselves time and save as many lives as possible against an all-out Dalek assault.

Throughout almost two decades of BF’s Doctor Who range, we’ve come across a few journalists and war correspondents in its serials (notably in Colditz and The Angel of Scutari). Whereas those characters were largely unlikeable and unheroic, Schandel is clearly naïve. In fact, given his unbridled enthusiasm upon meeting one of his idols – “the legendary Doctor”, “the greatest hero of the Time War” and an “inspiration” – it’s clear Schandel is more of a clueless, overexcited fanboy than a detached journalist. “I’m not normally this giddy!” he confesses to the Doctor. “I really am a bit of a fan!”

There is no doubt that scribe Guy Adams has based Schandel on a variety of Doctor Who fans he’s met but he doesn’t let the character get too out of control. Adams uses Schandel to show, much to the Doctor’s chagrin, how truth can indeed be one of the first casualties of war and how the camera can sanitise war for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, the Doctor is horrified when his words are edited and presented in a context that make him out to be a hero (the one thing he insists he’s not).

Adams devises a clever ruse at the climax which also ties in with his underlying commentary on the wartime role of the media. It’s not necessarily an original climax (indeed it’s very reminiscent of a ruse used to fool Pearce’s former persona Servalan in the Blake’s 7 TV episode The Harvest of Kairos) but it’s effective and dramatic.

The second instalment, The Lady of Obsidian, sees the War Doctor and Cardinal Ollistra again on the front lines of the Time War, as the Time Lords make a stand at the planet Grend. While Ollistra seeks to amass a Gallifreyan time fleet to head off an impending Dalek strike force, the Doctor goes in search of the mysterious “Lady of Obsidian” to recruit her guerrilla faction which is attacking Dalek forces in the sector. It isn’t long before the Doctor realises the so-called “Lady” is in fact his former companion Leela (Louise Jameson). But this is a very changed Leela from the “savage” we knew in the classic era of Doctor Who and indeed in BF’s Gallifrey spin-off series. Her psyche has been scarred  –  both figuratively and literally – by the Time War. While Leela’s affliction – a “time wound” – is not entirely convincing to the listener (anyone else in her position would probably be driven mad by the condition), Louise Jameson turns in a persuasively tortured, anguished, confused and uncertain portrayal. In the subsequent tale, once restored of her faculties, Jameson portrays the naïve, instinctive and curious huntress that we’ve loved for more than 40 years.

In the 2009-10 two-parter The End of Time, the Tenth Doctor spoke of other factions joining the Time War, including the “Could’ve Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres”. Lady of Obsidian writer Andrew Smith delivers a variation on this one-off line, creating the Unlived, hostile beings from a rift in the space/time continuum. While the Unlived, led by the Gollum-like Skaul (Chris Porter), are described by Leela as an even greater threat than the Daleks, they are for the most part unconvincing and one-dimensional. It could be argued the Unlived are meant to be vague beings but that shouldn’t make them caricatures as well.

Just as Pretty Lies borrows ideas from the Western trope, so The Lady of Obsidian draws heavily from space opera influences, notably Star Wars and Star Trek. This is evident in the dogfights in space between Dalek saucers and Battle TARDISes, the Doctor’s recruitment of a cocky former soldier-turned-smuggler, a guerrilla group that hides deep in a nebula (not unlike the Maquis in the Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine) and an “evil galactic empire” (the Daleks) intent on crushing all “non-Dalek life”.

The final instalment – The Enigma Dimension – is also reminiscent of a Star Trek episode (particularly DS9’s opening episode Emissary). Like The Lady of Obsidian, Nicholas Briggs’ script foreshadows significant concepts in the modern Doctor Who TV series, principally the Dalek containment sphere (or void ship) which graced Torchwood One’s Canary Wharf HQ in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. The Doctor, with the TARDIS back in his possession and Leela once more at his side, returns to Gallifrey, to be confronted with a potential threat: the extra-dimensional, non-linear Enigma, a life form unlike any he has encountered before. It is no coincidence that the Enigma arrives as reality on Gallifrey starts to shift; there are reports of “phantom Daleks” appearing in the Time Lord Capitol, portending an imminent invasion. Needless to say, the Daleks’ “prime objective” to win the Time War is more ambitious than mere conquest …

Briggs – who again voices the Daleks, including their deep-throated Time Strategist – quite rightfully resists the temptation to end The War Doctor saga on a space opera tour de force. Instead, he delivers a script that is quite surreal, ethereal and (excuse the pun) enigmatic – but definitely not to the extent that the listener loses track of the story. Indeed, some of John Hurt’s best work inevitably comes to the fore in The Enigma Dimension, particularly in the climactic confrontation with the Time Strategist.

Hurt’s performance is no doubt bolstered by close friend Jacqueline Pearce as Ollistra. As a reluctant sidekick or “helper” (her word for the Doctor’s erstwhile companions over many centuries), the cardinal is the perfect foil for the jaded, cranky War Doctor. No doubt due to her recent travels with the Doctor in Volumes 3 and 4, the character’s disposition has softened since she was first introduced in Only the Monstrous. She even shows signs of altruism. Ollistra passes off defending Grend as being a strategic advantage for Gallifrey that “by a pleasant coincidence … also happens to be the right thing to do”. However, she is also clearly shaken and emboldened enough by Beltox’s fate at the end of the Fairgill engagement to ensure that the Daleks do not repeat their atrocities in the Grend system. Ollistra’s ruthless, calculating streak really comes to the fore in the climax to The Enigma Dimension when, to the Doctor’s disgust, she seizes an opportunity to ultimately turn the Time War in the Time Lords’ favour.

Again, Pearce’s performance cannot help but be compared to her Blake’s 7 alter ego Servalan;  regardless she is an outstanding actor. And while this volume has debunked my theory (first postulated in my review of Vol 2) that “the unhappy woman” (as Leela cheekily calls Ollistra) is not a Time War incarnation of former companion Romana, it is great that Pearce’s Ollistra will continue to be a foil in the forthcoming The Eighth Doctor – The Time War series.

Aside from Hurt, Pearce and Jameson’s outstanding performances, Volume 4 of The War Doctor saga again provides great performances from some of Big Finish’s lesser known artistes – in particular, Julia Hills as Fairgill’s governor Sera and Lizzy Roper as smuggler Rosata Laxter – as well as excellent sound effects and incidental music from Howard Carter. In The Enigma Dimension, Carter’s blending of the iconic Dalek throbbing sound effect (which dates back to the pepperpots’ very first TV appearance in 1963-4) with the incidental track is particularly inspired and foreboding. It’s a masterstroke that Murray Gold has not even attempted in the modern TV series.

While not as memorable as the first three volumes in The War Doctor saga, Casualties of War is nevertheless entertaining and there are plenty of striking moments and performances – not least from Hurt himself. His confrontation with the Time Strategist in the climactic moments of The Enigma Dimension is both humorous and sublime. One moment, the War Doctor is describing the Daleks’ extra-dimensional destructor beam as “startlingly imaginative … Does what it says on the tin, I expect. Hardly surprising from a race of tin cans!” The next he is waxing lyrical about what fear means to him and the Daleks:

Perhaps I do fear ... Perhaps I do but not you yourselves. I fear what you can do. Yes, I fear that – the death, the pain, the suffering, the merciless, senseless destruction of … well, everything that isn’t you! Yes, I do fear that. But as for you, the Daleks fear powerlessness, defeat and in everything and everyone you ever encounter, you see your fear staring right back at you!

Whilst Hurt’s dialogue is extremely well written by Briggs, it succeeds because of Hurt’s wonderful delivery. Some of his final words as the War Doctor are equally as memorable:

We Time Lords have fought too long and too hard to be anything other than warriors … If the Daleks alone were to be destroyed, I think we would find someone else to fight now! I think that’s my real fear – that the war will never end!

Sadly, with Hurt’s passing, such wonderful monologues and dialogue is gone forever. It can only be hoped the great man’s departure doesn’t entirely close the door on the War Doctor’s adventures. BF has announced that the next four volumes of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures will focus on the beginnings of the Time War, which should compensate for the vacuum The War Doctor series leaves. However, why couldn’t there be more volumes of The War Doctor in the long-term? Yes, John Hurt won’t be there, but the absences of the actors to play the first three Doctors and Christopher Eccleston’s self-imposed exile from all things Who have not stopped BF delivering further adventures for each of those incarnations. Hurt’s Doctor shouldn’t be an exception, particularly as Ollistra, Leela and Veklin (Beth Chalmers, who appeared in Vol 1 and also makes a cameo in Vol 4) could all play parts in future narratives.

Hurt’s passing need not entirely mark the end of what has been a great series – and what better tribute could there be than to continue the adventures of a character whose artiste was so beloved by generations of viewers and who will even be long remembered by some Doctor Who fans as the noblest Doctor of them all?



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Torchwood: Corpse Day (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 14 June 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Corpse Day (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by James Goss

Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Tom Price (Andy Davidson), Hannah Maddox (Angela), Alex Tregear (Jan), Nigel Betts (Glynn), Oliver Mason (Sonny), Rhian Blundell (Marta), Aly Cruickshank (Desk Sergeant), Charlotte O’Leary (Waitress) 

Big Finish Productions - Released May 2017

 

Corpse Day has been one of the most anticipated Torchwood releases so far this year (at least until the news of Aliens Among Us) as it finally sees the return the last of the original UK television characters make a welcome return in the form of Burn Gorman reprising the role of Dr Owen Harper. It can hardly have passed notice that the main reason for it taking so long for Big Finish to complete the set of the original cast is that Gorman has been seen in many other television series including Game of Thrones and The Man in the High Castle to name but two. It is perhaps a shame that this story only sees him teamed up with Big Finish regular Tom Price as PC Andy Davidson as it would have nice to hear him reunited with Tosh or Gwen. Admittedly Price probably has more availability when he’s not reporting for Inside Out West Midlands. However, this story makes a virtue of the fact that its main characters never interacted during the TV series from Owen’s initial greeting of Andy as “PC Not Gwen” to allowing them to develop a rapport over the course of this story. Both have drawn the short straw of being selected for “Corpse Day”, an annual event where Torchwood and the Cardiff police team up to solve cold cases which usually ends in failure and the mystery being inexplicably blamed on the rift. This year however is different as Andy has provided a genuine mystery for Owen to do “the whole Torchwood” on involving missing girls and culminating in some very disturbing revelations.

The irony of this story’s title is further amplified by the fact that these events are set in the aftermath of Owen’s “death” in the TV episodeReset as he is given the opportunity to meditate on life and death. Much credit should also go to composer Blair Mowat for using an excellent arrangement of incidental themes from the TV series which very much convey the feel of episodes from 2008. Gorman has stepped effortlessly back into the role as if he only left the series last year as opposed to nine years ago and hopefully his busy schedule will allow him to return again soon.

Corpse Day is available now from Big Finish and on general release from July 31st 2017






Alien Heart / Dalek Soul (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 12 June 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Alien Heart / Dalek Soul (Credit: Big Finish)
Alien Heart by Stephen Cole
Dalek Soul by Guy Adams

Directed by Ken Bentley

Cast: Peter Davison (The Doctor), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Eve Webster (Sonderal), Geoffrey Newland (Elthar), 
Alex Tregear (Theebe), Vineeta Rishi (Falex),
and Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)

Big Finish Productions - Released April 2017

For this year’s trilogy featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors in successive releases, Big Finish have abandoned the tradition of three linked stories featuring different Doctors and instead adopted for an experimental change to their regular release format of a four-part story. Alien Heart / Dalek Soul is the first of three releases each fearing two stories told over two episodes, each by different authors.

Alien Heart by Stephen Cole sees the Doctor and Nyssa arrive on the moon of the planet  Traxana, having discovered that ten nearby planets have been mysteriously destroyed by an unknown device. The story takes the fairly-standard approach of separating the Doctor and Nyssa early on so they can interact with other characters. Nyssa ends up on the planet Traxana itself with one of the natives whilst the Doctor remains at the moon’s outpost station with the two investigating crew members. Naturally, the two strands eventually combine to allow the two travellers to be reunited at the stories climax only for there to be a somewhat unexpected cliffhanger. Whilst it may on first listening seem that having promised a stand-alone two-part story Big Finish have cheated a little by setting the scene for what follows, this is by no means a four-part story in disguise.

Dalek Soul by Guy Adams picks up some time after the conclusion of the previous adventure. Nyssa is now on the planet Mojox, working as Chief Virologist to the Daleks and yet she can’t seem to quite recall how she and the Doctor ended up there. The Doctor, meanwhile appears to have undergone something of a personality transplant and is now working as a Dalek agent attempting to infiltrate a Mojoxalli resistance cell. This gives both Sarah Sutton and Peter Davison an excellent opportunity to play against their usual characters as both are given opportunities to show their more ruthless sides. As the clues to what has befallen both characters begin to assemble, this leads to one of the more memorable conclusions of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range and must certainly rank as one of Davison’s best performances on audio to date. Much credit to Adams, who has done great work on several of Big Finish’s other ranges including the Torchwood audios, for giving this well-established team such original material to work with.

Having given the main range a welcome sense of reinvigoration, the next release will offer two new stories for the Sixth Doctor and Flip.

 

Alien Heart / Dalek Soul is available now from amazon.co.uk



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Torchwood: The Dollhouse (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 22 May 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
The Dollhouse (Credit: Big Finish)

Cast: Laila Pyne (Marlow Sweet), Kelly-Anne Lyons (Charley Du Bujeau), Ajjaz Awad (Gabi Martinez), Stuart Milligan (Don Donohue), Eve Webster (Valerie Fox), David Menkin (Brad), 
Guy Adams (Mr Beamish)

Big Finish Productions - Released April 2017

“Once upon a time there were three very different little girls who came to the attention of the British Empire…

A secluded mansion in LA is the last outpost of the British Empire and the first line of defence against extra-terrestrial threat on the West Coast of the United States, Torchwood!”

 

Big Finish continue to expand the horizons of the Torchwood universe with their second release in this new run of adventures which for the first time features a cast of entirely new characters with no direct connection to the television series. Set in Los Angeles of the late 1970s, this story is an obvious homage to Charlie’s Angels, with the scene set by the deliberately cheesy opening narrated by Mr Beamish, played with a delightful British charm by Guy Adams.

 Laila Pyne, Kelly-Anne Lyons, and Ajjaz Awad are Marlow, Charley and Gabi, the three plucky agents recruited by the mysterious Mr Beamish, a Torchwood representative who takes the “Charlie” role as a disembodied voice issuing instructions presumably from the UK. This small cast story finds our heroines on the trail of some missing girls whose disappearances seem to be linked to alien activity. There is some fun to be had at the TV series’ expense with a knowing reference to “sex aliens” and fans of other genre shows will also be amused by a reference to El Chupacabra. Before long the investigation brings the girls into contact with slimy agent Don Donohue, played with the just the right amount of creepiness by Stuart Milligan. The small cast are also ably supported by Eve Webster as Valerie, who gets to be more than just the standard victim character andDavid Menkin as Brad.

Whilst there are plenty of standard tropes reminiscent of 1970s adventure series, Juno Dawson’s script also manages to pack in a few nice suprises and proves to be a worthy addition to the list of strong writers who have contributed to the Torchwood audios and it is pleasing to learn that she will be contributing an episode to the upcoming Aliens Among Us series set in the aftermath of Miracle Day.

Overall, this is well directed by Lisa Bowerman with some great 1970s style music from Blair Mowat which is blended well with familiar themes from previous releases. Given that this story ends with something of a watershed moment for its protagonists, it will be interesting to see if there are any plans for them to return or whether this will tie into the long-term storylines of the audio series. On the strength of this release, Torchwood Los Angeles has a lot of untapped potential.

 

The Dollhouse is available now from Big Finish and on general release from 30th June 2017






The Mind Of Evil (AudioBook)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 5 May 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Doctor Who - The Mind Of Evil (Credit: BBC Audio)

Novelization By -Terrance Dicks
(based on a story by Don Houghton)

Read By - Richard Franklin

Released: 6th April 2017

Available On DIgital Download, or on CD - (4 CDs)
Approx Duration - 246 Minutes

BBC AUDIO

This unabridged recording is the latest such release from BBC Audio to cover the novelizations of the Third Doctor Era, following different adventures featuring Daleks, Axons, and The Master (as here depicted in typically brilliant fashion by Chris Achilleos, on the retained book cover). 


Mind is a distinctive adventure in that whilst it immediately followed Terror Of The Autons, it was strongly implied that the Doctor, Jo, and UNIT all kept very busy, looking to consolidate their role as a professional group of defence - both for their native country, and the wider world in general. The Master also has kept himself occupied, and (for once) chooses to use a pseudonym in ‘Emile Keller' which gives no hint at his true nature.

The original TV story was for many years notorious for having a paucity of actual colour material, and yet by being in black-and-white it actually took on a more adult and 'horror-surreal' tone, than Don Houghton or Timothy Combe ever intended. Eventually it became 're-colourised' for DVD release, and works well enough in the format it was intended to be shown. Some Doctor Who stories have only mildly above-average scripts, but become strong or even outstanding due to first-rate work by their director. I would certainly place the opening and closing stories from Season Thirteen in that bracket. With Mind, there was a potential story idea to rival the first effort from Houghton, but the tale as transmitted did have some consistency and logic issues. It mattered little, as virtually the whole cast and the production values are as robust as any from the Jon Pertwee Years.

This adaptation comes courtesy of Terrance Dicks; which was the case for so many TARGET books at the time. The first half of the book seems to signify greater effort from the story's original script-editor, in terms of expanding on the characters and explaining the overall set-up of the story. Thereafter, nothing vital is lost, but opportunities to get into the inner thoughts of the principle characters, as well as to really explore the threat to Earth in terms of the missile and the shaky political situation are not really seized upon. However, choosing to keep the titular monster/machine as mysterious as possible is a good move, as much of its creepiness lies in the lack of clarity behind how it is alive, and how it is able to kill with greater ease as the narrative progresses.

Jo Grant in her second story would rarely have such strong material again - only The Curse of Peladon, and most of her final season would again see such heights of maturity, quick thinking and sheer likeability. Whilst Katy Manning never turned in a half-hearted televisual interpretation, she was forced to often portray a semi-helpless damsel, needing aid from the Doctor or one of the supporting characters.

The Doctor’s ‘Moriarty’ is rarely better than here, being both ruthless and generally very sure of himself, with only the autonomous Keller Machine getting him truly flustered. At one point, he is totally convincing when he threatens the Doctor - "You'll do nothing, or I'll put a bullet through both your hearts." Surely this is one of the few ways that a regeneration can be cut off and thus lead to a Time Lord's premature demise. (Turn Left gave us another example). And during the finale, the brutal manner in which the Master escapes a trap laid by the Doctor - partly due to the after-effects of his machine being tested on the hardened criminal Barnham - is a notable moment where a fictional character created for escapism, feels chillingly credible as a threat.

The biggest problem I have with the story - apart from how the Kellar Machine actually helps with the ‘World War Three plan - is the portrayal of the Chinese. The Talons of Weng Chiang has come under fire in the years following its transmission, but this story does itself even less favours. The sheer number of repeated references to a "Chinese Girl" (which is already suspect,given that she is an adult woman) are carried over into this novelisation. There is also some broadly played humour over the Doctor being able to speak to Fu Peng, but the Brigadier completely struggles to understand a single word. Also, the Doctor's somewhat boasting references to meeting Chairman Mao seem to be a somewhat questionable choice of political commentary by Barry Letts and Dicks, and have only become further awkward over the ensuing years. Finally, the TV cliffhanger for Episode Two was risible in the extreme. I could never credit a world-weary diplomat having any kind of phobia of a ceremonial symbol like a 'Chinese Dragon'. That Dicks tries to explain this away as a strong distrust of the Chinese in general perhaps was acceptable when the book was published, but is glaringly dated now. And for good measure, it really makes no sense that the others who intervene on Chin Lee (channelling the Kellar Machine) in this assassination attempt would see the same thing.

In this novel version the Master having a chauffeur of Afro-Caribbean roots is barely acknowledged, but then the original TV story gave no dialogue to the character either, and furthermore he is simply missing by the end of the story. Whether he was hypnotised or simply on good pay was also left to one’s interpretation. This is a more minor reservation I have, however,. The Master really does make a great initial appearance with cigar in hand, whilst cruelly giving his latest destructive orders to the mesmerised Captain, from the comfort of his limousine.

Also slightly disappointing is how economical the author is when it comes to UNIT ‘turning the tables’ at Stangmoor. A fantastic set piece - indicative of the TV production being so polished as to qualify as a borderline TV movie – is condensed to its barest details. This was presumably due to the restrictions of page count that the author had to meet. The Invasion of Time, (previously reviewed on this site), had many moments that could be condensed down, or left without embellishment, as the original story was made in trying circumstances and did not fully justify six episodes. But this 1971 action-thriller had a lot more meat on the bones – partly due to the three major plot threats - and more expansion was needed, instead of the opposite.

But now to turn to some praise. The depiction of all of the principle criminals that feature, is very nicely done by Dicks, with evocative and entertaining back stories. I also appreciated how Professor Kettering was depicted as a virtual quack, and was made far less likable in general than the original TV version. Whilst the Doctor would not have wanted him to lose his life, (and especially in the manner he did), there is consequently a tinge of poetic justice owing to how this man carelessly helped the Master with his scheme, with nary a concern for wider society.

As an audio book, this is a solid effort. Sound effects for the riots, the various high-speed vehicles, and the brutal gun shots, all manage to bring the right feeling of tension or excitement. As for the ‘Mind of Evil’ itself, the audio dressing used for this creepy monster/device is perhaps a little stripped-down compared to its TV counterpart, but still effective nonetheless in selling the threat it poses to both mental and physical well-being.

Richard Franklin does fine work in the overall narration of the story. I found his takes on Jo and Benton better than his previous interpretations of these two roles, (which in the parent TV show were classic cases of the actor and character being very close indeed to one another). He is at his very best when breathing life to the self-assured Third Doctor, and of course to the very familiar Yates persona.

The Brigadier gets a passable interpretation, but will always suffer in comparison to Nicholas Courtney's superlative voice. However Season Eight was a distinctly marked downturn in the character's initiative and general intelligence. (Whilst The Three Doctors had some infamous moments, it did not actually signal anything new at that point). As a result, the rather more lackadaisical take Franklin has on Lethbridge-Stewart is reflective of the change in depiction of this long-standing character in the show's history.


SUMMARY:

This story is entertaining and a definite change from the standard formula of many a Doctor Who tale. Whilst never getting to the dizzy heights of Inferno - or indeed a good handful of other Third Doctor stories - it is always worth a revisit. This digital and CD production is especially convenient for a person with some other tasks requiring attention, and likewise is a good listen when ‘on the go’. Thus, it ultimately succeeds as being a worthy alternative to one of the better stories, which featured the ‘Earthbound’ Doctor on increasingly prevalent colour television.





The Diary of River Song - Vol 2Bookmark and Share

Friday, 5 May 2017 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Stars: Alex Kingston (River Song), Colin Baker (The Sixth Doctor), Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor), Anna Maxwell Martin (Maddie Bower), Gemma Saunders (Ellen Byrne), Justin Avoth (Robert Murphy), Salome Haertel (Rachel), Jessie Buckley (Sarah Dean), Ann Bell (Lisa Burrows), Robert Pugh (Emmett Burrows), Dan Starkey (Computer), Aaron Neil (Steven Godbold), Sara Powell (The PA), Sam Alexander (Todd the Pod), Barnaby Edwards (Autocorrect), Paul Keating (Isaac George), Robert Hands (Daniel Defoe), Alan Cox (Robert Harley)
Written by Guy Adams, John Dorney, James Goss, Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley
Produced by David Richardson
Big Finish Productions, 2016

“Some days I dreamed of having two of you to play with – but not you two! You really shouldn’t have met!”

River Song to the Sixth and Seventh Doctors

Volume 1 of The Diary of River Song in 2016 was a good, if not brilliant, start to River Song’s adventures on audio. As this writer remarked in his review of that boxset, Alex Kingston could certainly hold her own in a River-centric series and the stories, as diverse as they were in terms of style and settings, showed there was great potential for ongoing adventures with the Doctor’s archaeologist wife.

Whereas Vol 1 contained two very good episodes and two very ‘so-so’ instalments, The Diary of River Song Vol 2 has three very strong scripts and one ‘so-so’ tale. This is already a significant improvement, you might say, on the first volume. Only two of the contributors from the first box set write for Vol 2 – James Goss and Matt Fitton while Guy Adams and John Dorney take up the writing duties from Jenny T Colgan and Justin Richards. Like Vol 1 (and also the recent adventures of Big Finish’s other resident archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield), the four tales, while distinct from each other in storytelling styles, form part of an overarching, epic narrative of quite ‘earthshattering’ dimensions (spoilers!). In Vol 1, there was a pay-off for the listener in the final instalment, as River encountered an earlier incarnation of her husband – the Eighth Doctor. In Vol 2, however, BF pulls out all the stops and pits River not only against temporal paradoxes, temporal zombies, and a horde of quantum squids and their malevolent queen, but two even earlier incarnations of her husband. While the linked storyline of Vol 2 is stronger than the ‘Rulers of the Universe’ sub-plot in Vol 1, it is debatable whether the inclusion of multiple Doctors is a strength or a weakness.

The Unknown, by Guy Adams, opens the box set in dramatic style. The Saturnius, an experimental starship, is despatched from Earth to investigate the arrival of a mysterious planet on the edge of the solar system. River is, without any real explanation given in the narrative, amongst the tiny four-person crew to investigate the phenomenon.  In the bargain, a pint-sized stranger with a Scots accent is also apprehended and detained in the brig. He seems to know what is happening to the structural integrity of the ship as it nears the planet and although River doesn’t automatically recognise him, he seems oddly familiar …

The Unknown is almost a virtual retelling of the Doctor Who TV episode Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, complete with its own variation of temporal zombies and the ‘get out of jail’ card at the conclusion (which is a pet hate of this writer!). However, the story’s strongest influences seem to be from Star Trek’s past incarnations – from the Federation-style starship to the captain’s Picard-like order for black coffee to the Irish-accented, testy chief engineer to the smug computer (voiced by BF regular Dan Starkey) to the staple temporal quandary that plagues the starship, and its inevitable reset at the conclusion (again a pet hate!), you’d be forgiven for thinking River and the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) had stepped into a generic Star Trek episode. It’s difficult to know if Adams is homaging or lampooning Trek (possibly the latter more than the former), although there’s scarcely a red shirt in sight …

That’s not to say the serial itself isn’t entertaining in parts (there is some very clever dialogue) or that the performers don’t do first class jobs (especially as they all play characters suffering from amnesia induced by the starship’s temporal distortions). However, given this style of tale has been done in Doctor Who before (fortunately on TV just the once, but a couple of times now by Big Finish) – and indeed was often done to death in Trek – it comes across as clichéd, tedious and ordinary. This makes The Unknown (itself a feeble title) the weakest of the four episodes.

John Dorney’s Five Twenty-Nine is a very different change of pace from the temporal hi-jinks of The Unknown and of the subsequent tales, and the highlight of the set. Having established the identity of the planet that the Saturnius was investigating, River travels back to the source of the time/space fluctuations that have engulfed it. The ensuing story is very much, in Dorney’s own words, a ‘quiet apocalypse’ piece, bearing some resemblance to another fan favourite telefantasy program in Survivors.

It is also a reflective, personal story, as River meets an elderly couple and their android ‘daughter’ Rachel (played by Alex Kingston’s own daughter Salome Haertel). Dorney shows why he is one of the best contributors to the BF range – he knows how to write stories that, while a little slow-moving in pace, are intimate, moving, persuasive and emotional. His characters are also very three-dimensional and sympathetic; both Emmett and Lisa Burrows (Robert Pugh and Ann Bell respectively) are very salt of the earth characters, practical and unpretentious while Steven Goldbold (Aaron Neil) is full of the controlled bravado which doubles for intensity and anxiety deep under the skin. They are all bewildered by the ‘event’ that consumes their world but they, along with the synthetic Rachel, are prepared to meet their fates with dignity and courage rather than abject terror.

World Enough and Time is, by comparison to Five Twenty-Nine, high farce. Indeed, writer James Goss takes many cues from the late Douglas Adams (not terribly surprising given Goss has in recent years novelised two of Adams’s classic Doctor Who serials The Pirate Planet and City of Death). River ends up working as a temp for an intergalactic corporation called Golden Futures, which trades off the back of dreamers in suspended animation. It’s no real surprise that with a 'too good to be true' name like Golden Futures, the company is a front for something incredibly nasty and ghastly. However, not only does River stumble upon a grand plan to replace the Earth with an imperfect copy (a feat of pan-dimensional engineering that no doubt Adams’ Slartibartfast would be incredibly proud of!) but is startled to learn that the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) is the CEO of Golden Futures by default after he bought a 51 per cent stake in the company. The problem is River cannot decide if the Doctor has been duped – thanks to the monotonous office politics, staff bureaucracy and human resources nonsense that seems to have swamped his new executive role (office life is very well satirised in the serial) – or if he is indeed truly aware of what is going on and simply doesn’t care …

The Eye of the Storm concludes the set as River and the the Sixth and the Seventh Doctors all come together – working at cross-purposes to the other in 18th century London. Matt Fitton’s script also throws in alien monsters, novelist Daniel Dafoe (of Robinson Cruesoe and Moll Flanders fame), the infamous Newgate Prison, the UK’s Great Storm of November 1703 and two star-crossed lovers. Remarkably it all coalesces beautifully, with River playing a substantial role in the denouement which is intimate and tragic. Like Dorney, Fitton also has a talent for showing the impact that grand events can have on a small-scale – in this instance, that a modest, innocent romance can influence the future direction of an entire world.

The chemistry between Alex Kingston and Colin Baker in the final two instalments is wonderfully cheeky and mischievous, as the Sixth Doctor encounters a character that is intellectually his equal and just as brash and impulsive as he is. Anyone who still hasn’t got over the original kiss between the Doctor and his companion more than two decades ago in the 1996 TV movie will be equally bamboozled to learn that perhaps it didn’t all start with the Eighth Doctor’s Byronic demeanour after all. It may in fact have been the much maligned Sixth Doctor, with a little prompting from River, who started that ball rolling …

River’s flirtation with the even more unfashionable Seventh Doctor is also memorable in the closing moments of the final episode. Both Kingston and McCoy are flawless in their execution of a scene in which River seeks to outflank the crafty, manipulative Seventh Doctor. It is both amusing and compelling – as the two Time Lords flirtatiously engage in a battle of wills. “Oh, you frustrating, gorgeous little man!” River exclaims before knocking him unconscious with a Ming vase!

Although the two Doctors are generally kept separate for much of the duration of Eye of the Storm (and indeed for three-quarters of the box set as a whole), when they do come together, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are excellent. Their witty and disrespectful repartee is highly reminiscent of Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee’s double act in The Three Doctors, and it’s clear Baker and McCoy inject a little bit of the faux rivalry they demonstrate at conventions into their Doctors’ characterisations (in the CD extras, McCoy even recalls how Baker continually teases that none of the actors that came after him are truly the Doctor because he never had a regeneration scene on TV!). “It’s always about the grand futile gestures with you, isn’t it?” the Seventh Doctor contemptuously shouts at the Sixth Doctor, disapproving of the latter’s compassion, selflessness and even heroism in dangerous situations, while the Sixth Doctor informs the “big bad” of the final instalment of the futility of feasting on his successor – “You don’t want to bother with him – rather stringy and very bitter, I imagine!”

As much as the interaction between River and the two Doctors is a highlight and strength of this box set, my biggest criticism is that it is also a weakness. With the exception of one story, River has to share the action with not just one, but two Doctors. While her husbands’ presence doesn’t diminish River’s feisty qualities and leadership characteristics or affect Alex Kingston’s magnificent performance, I really question the value of River having her own series when it seems nearly every second story will be gatecrashed in some fashion by one (or more) of the Doctor’s incarnations.

Instead, what we mostly get from this set is the usual style of storytelling faire that you’d expect from Big Finish’s regular Doctor Who releases or The Doom Coalition saga, in which River Song also appears. The Husbands of River Song strongly hinted that River was a con artist, rogue archaeologist and adventurer – a female Han Solo/Indiana Jones cross, if you will. Sadly, none of that characterisation is utilised in this box set, and therefore a fantastic opportunity to differentiate River’s solo adventures from the Doctor’s goes wasted.

The only real point of difference, in fact, that we have between River and the Doctor in this set is that (a) she is more prepared to use a weapon to kill, if necessary (much to the Seventh Doctor’s extreme disapproval), (b) that she can be ruthless in her management of antagonists, particularly if the Doctor’s life is at risk (as demonstrated in the climactic moments of World Enough and Time) and (c) she will act as the Doctor’s conscience in the event that he cannot (as occurs in The Eye of the Storm).

The Diary of River Song Vol 2 is, from a writing and production standpoint, a better box set than Vol 1. As usual, Big Finish’s sound quality and production values are excellent, and even with larger than life figures like Kingston, Baker and McCoy dominating proceedings, there are some excellent performances from the supporting actors such as the aforementioned Haertel, Bell and Pugh, Sara Powell as Golden Futures’ villainous personal assistant to the managing director (or MDPA), and Jessie Buckley and Paul Keating as star-crossed lovers Sarah and Isaac. Nevertheless, like Vol 1, there is great potential for ongoing adventures but it would be ideal if the next volume is more, dare I say it, 'adventurous' and leaves the Doctor out of the proceedings.

Now that Alex Kingston has worked with Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker, surely it must be tempting for the BF crew to try to extend that company to Tom Baker and Peter Davison. I would prefer that temptation is ignored and the third box is full of more refreshing, innovative and original ideas. Perhaps there’s even scope for the android Rachel to become a companion to River – based on Salome Haertel's encouraging performance. And even if the next couple of volumes insist on still drawing on Doctor Who’s rich history, there are plenty of other characters and concepts that could be explored without directly involving the Doctor. After all, what did River do to the Daleks at some point that had one begging her for mercy back in The Big Bang?