The Library of Alexandria (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 10 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

The Library of Alexandria
Big Finish Productions
Written by Simon Guerrier
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released April 2013
Search for the fourth-century Egyptian philosopher Hypatia on the internet, and among other images will be several of a woman painted in the third quarter of the second century AD. The painting is a face mask, placed over the mummified remains of a dead person, a traditional Egyptian custom reinterpreted for the Graeco-Roman style of the Roman Empire. It was also about two hundred years old when Hypatia was born. The internet generation rediscovered Hypatia as a woman of science and ancient precedent for today’s women mathematicians, engineers and physicists, but it needed an image to act as Hypatia’s standard. This portrait has caught on and is linked with Hypatia on many websites. Hypatia is the guest lead of Simon Guerrier’s Companion Chronicle The Library of Alexandria, and Ian Chesterton’s description of Hypatia (as written by Simon Guerrier) as having 'black wavy hair... cut very short' is reminiscent of that appropriated portrait.

The connection is relevant because The Library of Alexandria is in part about memes – ideas which reproduce themselves through and across cultures as genes do in biology, mutating as they try to adapt to new circumstances. In the manner of the early television stories set in the human past, the TARDIS travellers are visiting a specific event in Earth’s history, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. As Susan states early in the story, we don’t actually know when and how the Library was destroyed. There are reports that the Library was destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48BC, by the Roman Emperor Aurelian around 274AD, on the orders of Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, in 391AD, or by the Arab commander Amr in 642AD. Every incident was part of a major change in the government and culture of Egypt. Connections with the destruction of the Library weren’t necessarily made at the time of each incident. According to James Hannam at bede.org.uk, Hypatia, represented as the last proponent of the pre-Christian Greek intellectual tradition, has only been associated with the destruction of the Library since Carl Sagan linked her to its supposed destruction in 391 in his television series and book Cosmos (1980). Susan tells Barbara and Ian that memes are after their time, as they are, the word having been coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s; the adaptation of the tale of the destruction of the Library to include Hypatia is after their time too, and its inclusion at the heart of The Library of Alexandria suggests it’s a successful meme within a thirty-three year timescale.

The Library of Alexandria offers the devices of the first season historical stories interpreted within the legacy of the intervening five decades. The post-2005 series with its emphasis on interpersonal relationships is an influence, with Ian having to deny to his companions (especially Barbara) that he has been on a ‘date’ with Hypatia. Likewise Hypatia’s lecturing style and complaints about library departments not talking to one another are rooted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries rather than the fourth and resemble the presentation of Shakespeare as a media celebrity in The Shakespeare Code. The compression of several allied institutions, such as the reading rooms of the Museion (place of the Muses) into the Library for narrative purposes is a useful shorthand and one with a long pedigree. The anachronistic elements help highlight the differences, though: the descriptions of the tagged books on handwritten scrolls, for example. Hypatia’s first quayside meeting with Ian and her desire to seize the cargo of a book-smuggling vessel humorously conveys the very real ruthlessness of the Library’s acquisitions policy. We even get a short lecture on papyrus manufacture and how many words could be accommodated on a single scroll, which would no doubt warm the heart of Sydney Newman were he still with us. Likewise Newman would probably have liked the direct relation of the Library to twentieth-century research centres and the 1960s space programmes.

Less likely to have won Newman’s admiration are Mim, the monsters of this piece. Like meme the word Mim is derived from mimeme, an imitated thing, and these spacefaring creatures are size-varying, form-changing symbols of the evolution of ideas. Their bodies read situations, can become human-shaped, aquatic or airborne, and unsurprisingly are described in terms drawn from the mythology of the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a credit to all concerned in writing, directing, performance and sound design that they can be easily visualised in all their many shapes. Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s compositions sound as if they could have been played by the historical instruments Ian finds in the Library’s collection and the music suite is a welcome extra.

Director Lisa Bowerman has recruited another former regular from the early years of Casualty, Susan Franklyn, as Hypatia. Franklyn turns in a confident, flirtatious performance which easily engages both listener and principal narrator. William Russell again shows he can reinhabit the voice and personality of Ian Chesterton, as authoritative over customs men in Roman Egypt as he was over pacifist Thals or petty Arab criminals. He also recovers a lot of the tics of Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, but the Doctor very much draws on the octogenarian Russell’s own experience, fitting as this is a first Doctor viewed through the lens of 2013 as much as that of 1964.

For all the musings on memes, it’s the written word which the characters treasure. Barbara risks her life to save manuscripts from fire and the final scene takes place around one of the most celebrated inscriptions in the history of the rediscovery of ancient Egypt by the modern west. As the final scene suggests, more of the Library survives than just its idea, fragments of its collections surviving in other places to this day; the knowledge held and disseminated from there underpins the 1960s life of Ian and Barbara, and the realities and fictions of Doctor Who.




The Scorchies (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 3 April 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

The Scorchies
Big Finish Productions
Written by James Goss
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Released March 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains minor spoilers.

“You must change the channel – even if it’s Space: 1999! Just this once, it’s worth it! The Scorchies are evil!”
Jo Grant

I first met Katy Manning at a convention over a decade ago in my (and back then her) native Australia. The first thing that struck me about her is how extroverted and mischievous she is in comparison to her softly spoken alter ego Josephine Grant. The second thing that struck me was what a talented voice artist she is. She kept her audience thoroughly entertained for an hour by breaking into an assortment of voices belonging to characters she had portrayed in animation and children’s programmes at the time.

The Scorchies, her latest contribution to Big Finish’s Doctor Who Companion Chronicles, is right up Katy’s alley. It gives her the chance to not just reprise her role as Jo but to also voice some of the wacky characters that infest this oddball tale.

In the context of the story, the Scorchies are a bunch of madcap, homicidal extraterrestrials masquerading as children’s TV show puppets! Author James Goss, director Ken Bentley and sound designers Richard Fox and Lauren Yason bring to life a narrative in the guise of a fictional 1970s TV programme that can only be best described as The Muppets, The Teletubbies, Play School, Romper Room and Basil Brush on acid, complete with crazy, juvenile songs – and Jo Grant as a hostage on live TV! Jo is at one point trying to make a psychic anti-Scorchies gun out of cardboard tubes, sticky backed plastic, a pipe cleaner and a mind control crystal. Then there’s the Scorchie (TV) scanner, the sort of thing you might have seen on Play School or Romper Room in your tweens! The story also has a very pantomime feel which is, of course, very deliberate, especially when Jo herself ends up breaking into rhyme with some of the characters!

Like most Companion Chronicles, The Scorchies is a two-person affair. However, unlike previous titles, in which the story is told from the perspective of a narrator, assisted by some additional dialogue from a guest performer, the story is very much carried by the interplay between Manning and guest star Melvyn Hayes who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the villainous Scorchies, led by their leader Grizz Fizzle. Hayes, of course, is the ex-husband of former Who companion Wendy Padbury and father to their daughter Charlie Hayes (who has also appeared in other Who audios). Like Manning, Hayes has also done his fair share of voice work in children’s programmes, including Pongwiffy (in which he also voiced a character called Grizz), a TV adaptation of Jack & The Beanstalk and Super Ted (which, of course, starred the late, great Jon Pertwee). Clearly, Hayes is also in his element, playing other off the wall characters like Cool Cat and Professor Baffle.

I haven’t listened to too many Companion Chronicles so this is the first time I’ve heard Katy Manning as Jo on audio. Although you can sometimes detect the more seasoned tone to her voice, for the most part Katy captures Jo’s naïveté and youth perfectly – impressive when you consider that (her recent appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures aside) she hasn’t played the part for the best part of 40 years. Even the token Jo piece of dialogue – “But the Doctor can’t be dead! He just can’t be! You’re lying!” – is delivered with the same teary inflection and emotion that Katy was so famous for delivering on-screen all those decades ago.

Indeed, this style of storytelling literally pivots on the back of emotion. In an interview with Big Finish’s Vortex newsletter (which is available as a downloadable PDF file on this release), Katy discusses her approach to mixing her own portrayal of Jo with her other character voices (including the Magic Mice – “Would it help if we ate her a little bit?” - and Amble the ugly doll) on The Scorchies. She says the key to getting all the characters right is by “being in the moment ... with all the emotions that are happening at that time”. With the exception of the songs, which were recorded separately, Katy and Melvyn Hayes effectively performed the story “live”, effortlessly jumping between voices rather than recording the dialogue of each of the different characters separately. As a result, you as the listener get carried along rather convincingly, just as Jo, the hostage to this bizarre collection of aliens, is also powerless to influence the events of the story-cum-children’s programme.

The extras at the end of this release feature an interview with sound designers Richard Fox and Lauren Yason. They discuss the songs they had to compose for the story – Jo is Making a Thing and We killed the Doctor Dead – along with untreated performances of the songs before they were delivered to Katy Manning and Melvyn Hayes and treated electronically. This is actually quite refreshing, as we don’t often hear enough about the actual sound design work on a Big Finish audio, as opposed to the usual interviews with some members of the cast and production crew. What it does underline, though, is how important an aural experience The Scorchies is and how much it exploits the medium.

The Scorchies is an entertaining hour of childish mayhem, almost as if you really were watching a puppets’ TV show – and not listening to a Doctor Who audio. From that perspective, the story succeeds in parodying 1970s children’s programmes. If you’re not a regular listener of The Companion Chronicles, I urge you to try a few of the more conventional plays first. You won’t pick up on the nuances and emotion that Katy Manning refers to if you come to this cold.




House of Cards (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 3 April 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty

House of Cards
Big Finish Productions
Written by Steve Lyons
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released February 2013
Polly finds herself in a literal race against time after the TARDIS brings her, Jamie, the Doctor and Ben to a futuristic casino with a strict ‘no time travellers’ policy.

In the CD extras which accompany House of Cards, writer Steve Lyons and producer David Richardson discuss how they were “channelling” Season Four of Doctor Who in this release. While this may have been their intention, the finished product is reminiscent of a more recent sub-genre of Doctor Who. With its simple storyline, cartoonish villains and broadly drawn supporting characters the adventure feels closest in style to the BBC books/audios produced for younger audiences since 2005 (notably The Stone Rose with which it shares a similar structure). It’s an odd approach for a Companion Chronicle, given that they are geared to a more sophisticated, adult fan audience.

Once you accept that House of Cards is a more straightforward adventure than a typical Companion Chronicle there is much to enjoy here. Anneke Wills gives a typically spirited performance as Polly, with able support from Frazer Hines as the story’s secondary voice. A highlight comes in the first episode when Polly is confronted by Fortune, the mastermind behind the casino. Here Lyons capitalises on Polly’s strong sense of morality, calling to mind similar scenes with the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet.

While the first half of the play is a fairly standard set up, manoeuvring the regulars into varying degrees of peril, things get more complicated as we move into episode two. Here, Polly travels in time back to an earlier point in the narrative, and Lyons has a few clever tricks up his sleeve to stop things getting predictable. The identity of the lady in the china mask, who appears at key points in episode one, is central to this. Lyons deliberately wrong-foots the listener a number of times, making what first appears an obvious ruse a lot more fun than you’d expect. It’s in episode two that Jamie’s role as secondary narrator clicks into place. His present is Polly’s past, allowing us to see the impact her journey in time has had.

You would think that a casino would be a perfect setting for the mischievous Second Doctor but he takes a surprisingly small role in House of Cards. When he resurfaces towards the end of the story he is given a wonderfully ‘Doctorish’ moment (which I won’t spoil here, but concerns the game he picks to play to decide his fate) and it’s a shame there couldn’t have been more of these throughout the play. With Polly’s story neatly wrapped up, it falls to the Doctor to defeat Fortune. However, after being built up as a sinister, formidable foe her swift dispatch is something of a disappointment.

Overall House of Cards is one of the weaker instalments of the Companion Chronicles, but if you’re a fan of Polly and Jamie there are plenty of moments to enjoy. The disc’s extras confirm that Lyon’s will be penning a further adventure for this TARDIS team in the near future. This is welcome news as he captures them all very well, but it would be nice to see him return to the more nuanced, complex storytelling he is widely praised for (stories like Resistance, Colditz and The Crooked World).It would also be good to see more experimentation with the ‘second voice’ in Polly’s Companion Chronicles, as this is the third release in a row that has seen her paired with Frazer Hines as Jamie. One of the most successful aspects of the range as been the pairing of companion actors with co-performers/characters who bring out new and interesting sides of them, and it would be good to see Wills benefit from this, especially as it worked very well in her first Companion Chronicle (the previously mentioned Resistance).






The Last Post (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 19 March 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty

The Last Post
Big Finish Productions
Written by James Goss
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released October 2012
Across England important people are dying in seemingly unconnected accidents. Yet prior to their demise each of them received a mysterious letter, predicting the exact time of their deaths. With the Doctor and UNIT occupied by marauding shop window dummies and reptile men, Liz Shaw turns to the one person who might be able to help. Her mother.

Listening to The Last Post is a somewhat bittersweet experience. The play was recorded shortly before Caroline John’s death last year, and is her final performance as Liz Shaw. Consequently there is a weight of expectation upon it which there which couldn’t have been anticipated at the time of production. Perhaps unfairly listeners will desire not only a strong story, but an appropriate tribute to John and the character she played on-and-off for the last 40 years. Thankfully, The Last Post succeeds on both counts and is one of the strongest Companion Chronicles that Big Finish has produced.

The success of the play is mainly down to the relationship between Liz and her mother, Emily Shaw, who is a brilliant counterpart to Liz. In stark contrast to her daughter, Emily is a scholar of mediaeval literature and is outspoken in her disappointment at Liz’s decision to study science, rather than pursuing something more ‘worthwhile’ in the arts. Their spiky, yet affectionate relationship is a joy to listen to and wonderfully played by John and Rowena Cooper, and by structuring the majority of the play as a series of letters between them, writer James Goss gives both characters a chance to shine. The addition of Emily gives us an insight into Liz’s past which is both refreshingly new and completely in line with what we already know about her.

The story hinges on Liz’s expertise and ingenuity, and her relationship with her mother, with the Doctor very much a secondary character, appearing at appropriate moments, but never usurping Liz’s place as protagonist. Stylistically it draws inspiration from the 60s adventure shows which were a huge influence on Season 7, and the slightly bonkers plot wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Avengers. It is also a continuity heavy-story, with numerous references to Season 7 and beyond. However this never seems self indulgent or unnecessary, this is continuity done with a wry smile and a wink to the audience. As James Goss explains in the extras, the inspiration for this story came when he noticed how many bizarre deaths there are in Season 7 (death by dummy, reptile plague, isotope on a platter and exploding suitcase being prime examples), and thought ‘wouldn’t it be fun if they were all connected’? He cleverly joins the pieces and brings things to an enjoyable conclusion. The identity of the story’s villain will be satisfying to many listeners, especially if they manage to guess who it is from the hints that are dropped before the reveal.

With the previous Liz Companion Chronicles being something of a mixed bag, it’s a relief that in this release the character has been matched up with a writer who can do her justice. While stories featuring companions such as Sara, Zoe and Leela have found the right style, tone and co-performer to suit the actors and the characters, up until now John and Liz have been less well served. It’s gratifying, and poignant that in this final release things have fallen into place.




The Child (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 13 January 2013 - Reviewed by Craig Murray

The Child
Big Finish Productions
Written by Nigel Fairs
Released December 2012
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

Since its 2005 television reboot, Doctor Who has become an integral part of the Christmas schedule and is now widely recognized by broadcasters and critics alike, as the perfect vehicle to convey the magic, mystery and excitement of the festive period.

This years Big Finish Christmas offering is similarly laced with that magical feel; a gentle tale written in the style of a childs fairytale. Penned by regular Big Finish contributor Nigel Friars, The Child is a story of creation and of hope. Fittingly it is also the launch pad for a new era for companion Leela in the Companion Chronicles series, who appears this time as a projection in the mind of Emily – a young girl with old eyes.

Leela’s frequent challenging of Emily’s acceptance of a life in servitude – in the manner her mother supports her father – is perhaps just encouragement to aspire to more; but why old eyes? Call me suspicious, but the smell of a future story arc is as strong as the smell of mulled wine on Christmas Eve.

The plot

As we meet Emily, she sits alone in her room penning a story for her mother accompanied by her imaginary friend, who uses her as a channel to convey stories of the Wizard and the Warrior girl and their travels in the magical blue box.

It isn’t long before the pair arrive on a snow covered planet, the first snow Leela has ever seen. Placing a snowdrop in the palm of her hand, the wizard tells his sceptical companion that in it she holds the answer to all creation and he promises to show her the map of life – which holds all the answers.

The map, a creation by Richard Stempuss – a dying man with grand ideas when the Doctor last met him - is the largest work of art in the universe. In fact it is so big that it covers an entire continent. But when they reach the map of life, it bares little resemblance to the image in the Doctors crumpled photo – instead they enter via a Golden gate now blackened and decaying with age.

As they explore their new surroundings, the Doctor is captured by a mysterious woman, fixated by a desperate need to understand the meaning of existence and to destroy those without purpose.

But who is the mysterious figure? Can Leela find her time travelling companion? Why would I want nuts in the bottom of my Christmas stocking (I don’t even have a nut cracker!)? The answers to all these questions – well almost – are neatly packaged within The Child.

What works

Firstly I think the soundtrack is a really good accompaniment to the production and helps the story to seamlessly flow.

There is a nice interplay in the early exchanges between Emily and Leela, where they discuss story structure and its level of detail as Emily tries to perfect the tale for her mother. It rather reminds me of sitting with my parents doing my homework.

Constant reminders of the charming relationship between the Doctor and his companion, as he continues to challenge and educate her, are a nice throw back to Saturday tea times gone by – and the jelly babies make a welcome cameo appearance.

What doesn’t

Sorry - but for me, it’s the story itself. Christmas TV Who episodes are often a little lightweight in comparison to the regular show and this is very much in the same mould. The problem here is that, while TV uses it to attract a wider audience, the Companion Chronicles are for the Doctor Who hardcore, who I doubt are looking for easy listening.

The Fourth Doctor is back – and when you’ve had a taste of the real thing, its difficult to accept anything less.

The minor characters that the Doctor projects to help Leela – if you didn’t like Frobisher, its time to cover your ears!

Summary

A pleasant tale for a winters evening by the fireside with your children and a good way to introduce them to the franchise. However, if you’re looking for something more challenging, this is maybe one to avoid.

6/10