Short Trips - Little Doctors (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 30 July 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Short Trips: Little Doctors (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Philip Lawrence
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Producer: Michael Stevens
Script Editor: Michael Stevens
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Cast: Frazer Hines (Narrator)
Released By Big Finish Productions - February 2015

 “It resembled a suit of armour perched on top of a small tank; its gauntlets were vicious pinchers that crackled with sparks; the head was shaped like a large, overhanging hood, but underneath, covering the dark recess where you would expect to see a face, was a metal grille. This was an Enforcer, and it wasn’t friendly.”

If you’ve been enjoying how Titan’s Fourth Doctor miniseries has cunningly integrated Ancient Greek mythology into its “Gaze of the Medusa” arc, then the second of Big Finish’s Short Trips outings released in 2015, LittleDoctors, is worth a look thanks to its delving straight into the realms of Olympus – albeit a futuristic human colony-turned-homage to the classic city – via the watchful eyes of the iconic deity known as Zeus. As with Dale Smith’s January 2015 title FlywheelRevolution, Philip Lawrence wastes no time in creating an immersive world full of societal depth and compelling characters, detailing the points-based currency system at Olympus’ very core along with the jobs, past-times and fake historical mementos of Zeus’ citizens as if his life depended on this. That said, it’s to his equal credit that he always endeavours to ensure these spouts of background information don’t detract too much attention from the core narrative…when said narrative actually kicks into gear.

Had Lawrence structured his storyline in more of a fast-paced fashion akin to Smith’s approach in the previous release, then listeners would almost certainly have been guaranteed to feel every inch as hooked as this reviewer was with Flywheel. Instead, even by the time of Little Doctors’ halfway point, there’s little sense of precisely where the storyline’s heading – and trust us, that’s a criticism rather than a commendation in this case – beyond the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie’s investigation into the causes of the “drab apparel” of the city and its inhabitants, a plotline which produces an interesting message that’s extremely topical in our present terrorism-plagued world, but isn’t developed nearly enough to be especially satisfying as a whole. It’s never a great sign when the writer needlessly pads out a narrative when attempting to fill a mere 30 minutes of airtime compared to the usual 60-80 comprising standard Big Finish releases, and while Lawrence might have simply employed this strategy in order to allow for the necessary world-building at first – which, as we say, thankfully takes a backseat to the central plot once it finally gets moving – there’s a fair deal of patience required here before the relevance of this piece’s title – or even the threat facing our protagonists in the form of the Enforcers as well as a semi-rogue artificial intelligence – becomes clear in absurd fashion.

Whereas Peter Purves’ solitary purpose in Flywheel Revolution was simply to complement Smith’s already superb narrative with a diverse array of robotic and extraterrestrial voices, then, there’s all the more pressure on Frazer Hines to liven up a slow-moving narrative by successfully conveying the humorously logically unhinged set-pieces awaiting the audience in the third act, maintaining his much-acclaimed impression of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and keeping a straight face when detailing how this cherished incarnation of the Time Lord employs one of his most iconic gadgets from the 1960s to best the army of facsimile versions of himself presently laying siege to the city for reasons too convoluted to outline here. True to form, though, Hines excels in each of these respects, bringing all of the customary energy and underlying wit to proceedings for which he’s become well-known based on his myriad previous contributions to Big Finish’s output under the Doctor Who licence. As with just about any flawed storyline, Hines’ performance isn’t quite enough to render Little Doctors as an unmissable purchase, yet that the 71-year-old Scottish great comes so close in this regard just goes to show how invaluable an asset he must still represent in the eyes of the studio.

In sharp contrast to Flywheel, the same can fortunately be said of the team responsible for orchestrating this disappointingly plotted instalment’s fantastic score, which seamlessly transitions from wonder-filled melodies intended to help portray the sprawling, initially breath-taking nature of Olympus’ scenery to far darker tones when Zoe has to navigate the city’s off-limits recesses in order to barter with the AI responsible for keeping its citizens’ aspirations in check. This reviewer has, in the past, noted that it’s hardly difficult to overlook the work undertaken by the technical experts involved with Big Finish’s audio dramas, but when the musical accompanies to one of their standalone narratives prove as spellbinding as these, it’s all but impossible not for us to take note, especially when the relevant storyline itself fails so greatly to impress – particularly from a structural standpoint – in comparison to this finely honed behind-the-scenes element.

Nevertheless, if asked to decide between wholly endorsing Flywheel or its immediate successor, this reviewer would find it similarly impossible to opt for any choice but the former. Every range must have its peaks and troughs of course, Short Trips undoubtedly included, yet given how sizable an impact Smith’s stunning junkyard-set title made the month before Little Doctors’ release, to witness Lawrence’s follow-up tale take such a notable step backwards in terms of structural and overall storytelling prowess is unpleasantly jarring to say the very least. There’s absolutely reason to take a listen in the form of Hines’ brilliant voice-work as well as the oft-majestic backing soundtrack and no doubt future releases will improve in providing more compelling narratives, but that doesn’t prevent this sophomore outing from representing a missed opportunity to capitalize on its mythological roots with a well-rounded mini-epic rather than the ill-paced vignette we’ve received here instead.

On the bright side, though, the third stop on our journey through 2015’s Short Trips adventures sounds far more entertaining – join us for a trip back to the days of UNIT as the Third Doctor tackles a mystery not dissimilar to that posed in 2009’s Planet of the Dead with the help of playwright Nigel Fairs, Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier and a certain Ms. Grant…





The Second Doctor Volume One (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 22 July 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Second Doctor Volume 01 (Credit: Big Finish / Simon Holub)
Written By: John Pritchard, Ian Atkins, David Bartlett, Rob Nisbet
Starring: Frazer Hines (Jamie), Anneke Wills (Polly), Deborah Watling (Victoria), Wendy Padbury (Zoe), Elliot Chapman (Ben), Robert Whitelock (Curtis)
Producer: Ian Atkins
Script Editor: Jacqueline Rayner
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2016

If Big Finish’s latest quartet of Companion Chronicles tales confirm only one long-assumed truth, then it’s how essential a component Jamie McCrimmon was to the sweeping success of the Second Doctor era. More than anything else, The Second Doctor – Volume One serves as a rich four-hour showcase of the psychological, philosophical and emotional depths of Frazer Hines’ occasionally naïve, occasionally ill-tempered but ceaselessly lovable Scotsman, revealing new facets to the character that Doctor Who could never have broached back in the 1960s while simultaneously keeping those endearing elements of his personality completely intact along the way.

For Hines himself, restoring the defining aspects of a construct he first portrayed on-screen over almost half a century ago might well have seemed like enough of a challenge in and of itself, yet far from simply asking this of their leading man this time around, the production team task him with reprising his almost uncanny portrayal of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor throughout the box-set given the original thespian’s tragic absence from our mortal plane these days. It’s an immense relief, then, to assert that far from crumbling under the enhanced pressure, Hines excels all the more at resurrecting the second incarnation of the eternal Time Lord, instantly reminding us of the warmth, madcap wit and unyielding passion for the unknown that made Hartnell’s successor such an undisputed hit with his viewership both at the time of broadcast and, indeed ever since.

Unlike boxsets such as UNIT: Shutdown or the various Doom Coalition releases, though, the four serials comprising Volume One don’t share much in the way of direct connections, their underlying aforementioned character study being the only true element which loosely connects each standalone narrative. With that in mind, join us as we tackle these four stories in three stages, investigating each instalment’s merits and shortcomings in their own right before we deliver an overall verdict on the compilation:

  1. “The Mouthless Dead” – On the basis of this phenomenal opening chapter, one would have forgiven Big Finish if they’d chosen to delay Volume One’s launch by a month to July, since “The Mouthless Dead” presents the audience with a poignant, captivating tribute to the fallen soldiers of the so-called ‘Great’ War. Taking place in 1920s Kent, the narrative depicts the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly’s haunting – both from a literal and dramatic perspective – encounter with ghosts of England’s recent past, enabling writer John Pritchard to delve deep into the consequences of the aforementioned global conflict from an immensely stirring personal perspective as a wandering young lady searches desperately for her allegedly fallen spouse nearby an isolated railway line. In the wrong hands, this could’ve come off as a contrived, borderline insensitive ploy to draw in listeners simply wishing to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, but the cast do Pritchard’s script a world of justice, with Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman – both of whom reprise their respective roles as if Doctor Who had never left the airwaves – in particular bringing a compelling sincerity to their performances both when it comes to interacting with Jamie despite their qualms with his personality traits and facing the war’s immediate ramifications. Throw in an equally engaging sub-plot surrounding Jamie’s touching attempts to demonstrate his intellectual adequacy despite the rest of the TARDIS team often eclipsing his in this regard, and the result’s without a doubt the finest serial of the four presented here, an unquestionable masterpiece of which everyone involved should be immensely proud.
  2. “The Story of Extinction” – To its substantial credit, for all of its faults, Ian Atkins’ “The Story of Extinction” certainly tries to take a markedly different tact to its predecessors, framing its storyline via an elderly Victoria Waterfield’s distant recollections of a trip she, Jamie and the Doctor took to the planet Amyrndaa at some point between her entry onto the TARDIS in The Evil of the Daleks and her subsequent departure in Fury from the Deep. Yet whilst such inspired storytelling devices are all well and good in terms of shaking up a short story collection’s tonal status quo, they’re normally not enough to wholly redeem a lacklustre narrative, a trend which rings unfortunately true in the case of Volume One’s decent but far from spectacular sophomore effort. For all its delightfully metatextual discussion of the power of words, not least via a completely unexpected form of antagonist along with a series of brief sequences involving Victoria’s attempts – rendered with appropriate compassion by the returning Deborah Watling – to educate her Scottish companion in the ways of the English language, “Extinction” packs a disappointingly mundane core plot, one which comes up so lacking in overall ambition that such compelling contributory elements can scarcely serve as fitting compensation. There’s nothing wrong with opting for a more action-orientated narrative, but when the protagonists of that narrative rarely seem to be any real danger, not least since one of them is already relating the events to us decades later while alive, nor where the antagonists have much of an impact or voice beyond robbing a few voiceless supporting characters of their lives, and well, much of the suspense can’t help but find itself dissipated as an inevitable by-product of that approach.
  3. “The Integral” and “The Edge” – Strange as it might seem, it’s worth taking a look at the second pair of serials forming Volume One in unison. Whereas the first two instalments took place in wholly disparate settings, conveyed completely isolated storylines and featured different sets of companions aside from Mr. McCrimmon, the David Bartlett and Rob Nisbet-penned “The Integral” and “The Edge” not only share their TARDIS crews – with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe banding together for the entirety of the two hours, albeit with Hines strangely taking on voicing duties for Wendy Padbury’s character in the latter despite Padbury starring in the former – but also fairly similar scientific facilities, complacent quasi-antagonists and moments of Jamie having to once again prove himself from an educational standpoint, to the point where listeners might almost find themselves struggling to differentiate the pair were they to listen from a random track out of the 16-17 clips forming the latter two serials. That’s not to say fans of Jamie or indeed the wider Second Doctor era won’t find elements to like in the boxset’s second half; both tales raise some intriguing concepts – such as mining intelligence from the “secret source of the galaxy’s acumen” or how the eponymous Highlander’s understanding of the supposedly universally adversarial intentions of extra-terrestrial species may well be misplaced – and always ensure that their leading stars at least have a fair number of exchanges with corrupt experimenters, benevolent aliens or each other to keep proceedings interesting, plus "The Edge"'s score constantly impresses whether it's backing a vivid description of a galactic labaratory's beautiful surroundings with whimsical beats or action-led chase sequences with darker, fast-paced melodies. On the whole, however, neither “The Integral” nor “The Edge” would warrant anything close to a hearty endorsement were they released as individual Companion Chronicles titles, making their comprising half of this otherwise largely compelling box-set all the more unfortunate a turn of events.

We’re thus left looking at something of a mixed bag in The Second Doctor Volume One, with the opening hour providing some of Big Finish’s most heartbreaking dramatic content to date, which is saying something given how much of an emotional punch Torchwood: Broken, easily one of the studio’s strongest works to date, packed in the same month as this collection’s debut; its immediate successor employing a largely engaging framing device only for the core narrative it’s framing to come up seriously lacking in terms of its scope or suspense and the two remaining instalments lacking narrative inspiration to the extent that many may struggle to tell them apart. Most devotees of this particular era of Who should find Hines’ stellar work as both Jamie and Troughton’s incarnation - along with the writing team's in-depth character study of the Second Doctor's most faithful ally - compelling enough to see them through and warrant their £15-20 – depending on the format they purchase – but if they’re to be tempted to purchase a second volume, then Pritchard, Atkins et al seriously need to up their game when it comes to ensuring their scripts consistently match the calibre of their cast ensemble.






Cybermen - The Invasion (Audio Book)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 30 April 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Invasion (Credit: BBC Audio)

Original Novelisation By: Ian Marter

Audio Performances And Narration: David Troughton

Released: 7th April 2016, BBC AUDIO.

Duration: 5 hours approximately.

The TARDIS crew have overcome unpredictable and unnerving events in The Land Of Fiction and now are returnd to their familiar time/space dimension. But it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. A quick control manoeuvre saves the TARDIS from an alien missile fired from the vicinity of the Moon, and the Doctor, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot travel down to Earth.

The heroic trio have ended up in a relatively innocuous field with cows, but the ship needs some circuit repair work before further travels are possible. Ideally, help is needed from someone native to Earth. Knowing that they are in the general time zone where they last met their ally Professor Travers they set off to nearby London.

But it is a somewhat different London from the one Jamie and the Doctor last visited, when the Underground was brought to a standstill by the Great Intelligence and its 'Yeti' forces. International Electromatics has made a decisive impact on the lives of consumers from all walks of life. The head of the corporation, Tobias Vaughn, is clearly a man of great vitality and drive, but he harbours a number of terrifying skeletons in his cupboard.

Eventually the Doctor crosses paths once again with the charismatic and brave Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, who has risen up to the rank of Brigadier, and who heads a military organisation known as UNIT.

Professor Travers is absent, and instead his apartment is rented to a Professor Watkins and his photographer niece Isobel. Watkins has seemingly been kidnapped by Vaughn's men and it falls on the Doctor to try and retrieve him, as well as help UNIT's investigations into just what International Electromatics are up to.

Before long, Watkins' niece Isobel and her new friend Zoe also fall into Vaughn's clutches, and the Doctor and Jamie must employ their wits in order to save them. A far bigger problem soon manifests itself: the emotionless Cybermen are planning to invade Earth, and they know that the Doctor is one of the few things that will stand in their way..

 

One of the most confident stories of Season 6 - along with the vitally important The War Games - The Invasion was pivotal in setting the groundwork for the imminent colour era of Doctor Who. It is also one of the longest stories in the show's history at eight parts; itself an episode quota that was never seen before or since.

It could have come over as unwieldy and padded, but wonderful one-off characters such as Vaughn, Packer, Watkins, and Isobel all play their parts to perfection. Having the first four episodes feature more of Jamie, and the latter four feature more of Zoe was also an unusual aspect at the time but paid off well. Even though the story is essentially action and thriller rolled together, there are some other notable themes. These include the dangers of technological progress, the price paid for being successful at all costs, the rise of feminism and its clashes with old-school male institutions, such as the military, and the importance of friendship and loyalty. The story was of course vital to Doctor Who's long-term future, and it is good we have it largely intact, although there is still a vague hope that episodes one and four are found somewhere, one day.

David Troughton has contributed much to film, TV and theatre over the years, and still is a busy actor to this day. I myself have had the pleasure of seeing him live on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon, and he had a poise and assuredness that made him magnetic to watch. He also has appeared many times in classic Doctor Who, as well as the modern show, with The Curse Of Peladon remaining his most significant contribution. 

Troughton sounds uncannily like his father Patrick, and thus delivers a recitation of the Second Doctor that gives much of this 'alternate take' on the official story an identity and compelling nature all its own.

However a number of the voices of the original are somewhat missed. I have returned to both the VHS and DVD releases of The Invasion many times since first purchasing them, and much of the reason for that were the strong performances across the board. This meant that whatever the quality of this new audio book, I would regard the Brigadier, Packer, Vaughn and Professor Watkins as 'the original and best'. Our audio perfomer nonetheless does very well to provide a rich vein of identity and distinctive personality in his voices. His narration is also very good, and manages to keep a potentially demanding runtime pass by relatively without fuss.

As with the recent Death to the Daleks release, we have the participation of multi-skilled audio icon Nicholas Briggs, who does a fine job of updating the monster voices that Peter Halliday had provided in the original 1968 TV serial.

Sound effects and music are serviceable here. For the climactic battle scenes there is plenty of fizz and fury. The occasional melody comes along to signify a chapter of significance, as well as beginnings and ends of (the in total five) CDs. Yet otherwise, and especially for such a long run time, the audio backing side of the production can feel a bit sparse.

The much-missed Ian Marter played companion Harry Sullivan - who was himself a member of UNIT - and is the writer of the text that fuels this unabridged reading. The book is generally very faithful to the original story, with the odd extra death or variant set piece slotted in. Thus, despite this audio release's cover and title, the prominence of the Cybermen remains somewhat minimal.  The heart and soul of the antagonism is still to be found in the form of Tobias Vaughn. There is a fascinating relationship of power between him and his security chief Packer, which is developed by the story being as long as it is. The novelisation does well to make Packer a bit less incompetent and displaying some insights that are of potential use to his superior.

And as a story in its own right, Marter has made sure to move events along at a steady clip. Most of the prose is pleasant to the ear, and there is a good amount of adjectives that stand out as creative. Some extra dialogue and emotion also make this version distinctive.

Overall this is another a fine exhibit of a story with a perennial enemy of the good Doctor. A previously made narrated 'off-air' soundtrack of the story is still available second-hand. Arguably that version now adds little to the official DVD, which was complete with excellent animation by the now sadly defunct Cosgrove Hall. But this release offers all the excellent prose and urgency that Ian Marter brought to his Doctor Who novelisations, and of course the versatile acting skills of David Troughton. It is truly deserving of a science fiction aficionado's time.





The Early Adventures: The Yes MenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 9 January 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Yes Men (Credit: Big Finish)

STARRING: Anneke Wills (Polly Wright/Narrator), 
Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon/The Doctor),
Elliot Chapman (Ben Jackson), 
Lizzie McInnerny (Harriet Quilp), 
Stephen Critchlow(The Yes Men), 
Timothy Speyer (Nesca Bangate), 
Jane Slavin (The President)

Written By: Simon Guerrier
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Sound Design/Music: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
    Cover Art: Tom Webster
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released September 2015, Big Finish

The TARDIS crew, including Ben, Polly and Jamie, arrive on a colony christened by mankind as 'New Houston'. Meg Carvossa was a long-term friend of the Doctor's - and one that he met in his first incarnation - and the reason for them paying a visit to the colony. However, there is no sign whatsoever of her. She was an important figure, as by repelling an alien invasion, she rose up to the title of President. Repeated enquiry over this woman points to various 'different' ways she died, which only results in a confused mess.

Stranger still, the near-total absence of the apparently large population, and scattering of obsolete looking robots that serve the interest of the colony would point to some drastic series of events that is not on record. So the Doctor and his friends must investigate, without putting their lives in jeopardy in the process..

Due to references to the Cybermen by Jamie, and even the Doctor's firm intention to somehow return Ben and Polly to the time and place they first him, this is yet another story that is sandwiched between The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones. It certainly feels quite similar in tone and style to these mid-1960s black and white TV chronicles.

In having narration as well as reasonably long explanatory dialogue, this story is unlikely to confuse listeners. The script from Guerrier has plenty of wit, as well as noticeable morality-inclined messages. The cast clearly are engaged by the core premise and help to make what is intended as a 1960s-storytelling throwback still feel relevant to our present time 21st century attitudes.

I cannot help but compare this new original story with the long-revered classic The Robots Of Death. The situation and resolution are somewhat different, but the themes of autonomy, slavery and ethics do bear reflection. As well-done as the Yes Men voices are here, they perhaps lack that eeriness and peculiar quality that the Sandminer robots did in the Tom Baker story. Having them all be exactly the same voice here is perhaps more realistic but also less engaging for the listener, but the play never allows them to take over a given scene for too long in a way that would grate.

The supporting cast otherwise all rise to the mark and the different characters with agendas that range from pragmatic to ruthless and corrupt are all distinct and play off well with the regulars. We are made to change our attitudes and sympathies several times, and this is due to a clever story where there is arguably no out and out villain but no 'goody-two-shoes' either.

Frazer Hines certainly makes a fine Second Doctor here. Return to Telos was a partial crossover of the Second and Fourth Doctors - and gave me a clear idea of how Hines approaches recreating the feel of his late co-star Patrick Troughton.  Of course in this story the Second Doctor is given centre stage, and is vibrant and complex as any story in the TV series.

Anneke Wills does a fine job as the narrator in this 'full cast' drama and come off as enhancing the overall impact, rather than being distracting. She also has that element of being wise and observant, rather than just 'a matter of fact' aid to the listener. Her recreation of Polly Wright is also to be cherished, even if we must concede there is the element of her voice aging which is rather less detectable in the case of Hines.

The new addition of Elliot Chapman is a very smooth method of finding someone who can sound and act like the late Michael Craze, and bring the fine earnestness and bravery that symbolized seaman Ben in all of his screen outings. Whilst this particular story gives better material to Polly and Jamie, there are still some moments that show how Ben Jackson has a native wit that is often necessary for an effective member of the armed forces. The hope would be for future 'Early Adventures' to reuse Chapman's services.

My main criticism for this production is that the music by Toby Hrycek-Robinson rarely manages to exceed simply breathing basic life into proceedings. Some tracks may bring an element of urgency but Big Finish has arguably done much better music frequently over the years. Hrycek-Robinson however does do well with sound design, as there are many different types of scene and action as well as substantial plot twists. Consequently the potential for confusion is quelled. 

The writer and director have proven their mettle many times before in working for Big Finish, and this play continues the trend. Thus, I look forward to further successes in this range which helps remind us all of just how brave and inventive early Doctor Who was in the Sixties.

 

EXTRAS:

A couple of documentary tracks feature, and they get right on with the necessary information about what inspired the story and how the cast recreated the different leading roles. Very few words are wasted, and the enthusiasm of the interviewees is symbolic of the committed performance in the actual audio play. A bit of insight into how an actor's voice develops when methodically 'getting in character' - by Chapman - is also very engaging.

There is also isolated music on offer. As i stated above, the music really was mostly just 'sort of there'. I cannot see myself playing those tracks in isolation, let alone repeatedly. However music is one of the most subjective and difficult things to argue for and against convincingly, and as such this special feature may well appeal to quite a few consumers.





The Underwater MenaceBookmark and Share

Friday, 16 October 2015 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
The Underwater Menace - DVD cover (Credit: BBC Worldwide)
The Underwater Menace
Written by Geoffrey Orme
Directed by Julia Smith
Released by BBC Worldwide, 26th October 2015 (R2)
Well, it's finally here. After some eighteen months since we originally expected it to be released, The Underwater Menace has finally arrived for everybody to enjoy on shiny DVD. Any boy, has it been a wait, with the story being delayed owing to animation, then effectively being cancelled and then suddenly being announced ahead of time by an accidental listing by the BBC Shop! Then, with features still under wraps, it was a question over how would the missing two episodes be presented ...

 

The Episodes

 

It turns out episodes one and four are telesnap reconstructions in the very strictest sense of the word - they are literally just the telesnaps, shown in progression - including those taken of the opening and closing credits! So, for episode one the opening title music plays over the "Doctor Who" logo, and the closing music plays over an image of a fish-person (plus the producer/director credit telesnaps at the end). The static images also lead to some strange imagery, such as when Zaroff is first introduced you might be led to believe he was a shark!

The reasoning behind why BBC Worldwide decided to present the story in this way is really quite mystifying, especially as their previous effort with The Web of Fear episode three was a much more fluid reconstruction. One can only assume that the budget was so restrictive for this release that they couldn't afford to utilise imagery more appropriate to reflect who/what is on screen, let alone insert the censor clips recovered from Australia, incorporate the standard opening title sequence or recreate the end credits! However, it does mean that you can see the Cura telesnaps in all their glory ...

The soundtrack itself is a clean, un-narrated version. For collectors like myself this is actually quite a good thing, as previously we only have the Anneke Wills-narrated soundtrack version to listen to. However, in terms of presentation the narrated version would probably have made more sense to assist in explaining what is going on, especially with the static telesnap presentation where there are long sequences stuck on a single unreprestative frame.

Overall, I'm not too sure how I feel about the presentation of these episodes; on the one hand it does (just about) serve the purpose of telling the story, but if you are unfamiliar with these episodes then it might well be quite confusing to follow the plot, especially where there is no dialogue - in those cases you might be better off muting the TV and playing the narrated soundtrack alongside the images on screen (or perhaps not even bothering with that as so little is occuring on screen!)

Of course the real reason we're here is the chance to finally see Episode Two in all its glory! With the exception of the lucky attendees at its unveiling at Missing Believed Wiped in December 2011 and a couple of special presentations around the country, the majority of fans have been unable to see the recovered episode for nigh on four years - indeed, we got to see both The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear beforehand! But was the wait actually worth it?

Episode Three has been available to us for many years of course, and perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, often leading to the story being derided for its outlandish characters, madcap chases, not to mention that immortal final line from Zaroff. With all that baggage, the second episode, therefore, was always going to have a fight on its hands to raise the story from being seen as a 'farce' to something more 'sensible'. However, it wasn't much of a fight in the end - from the outset we are presented with a terrifying scene of Polly about to be operated upon, and then to a much calmer, thoughtful, insightful version of the Doctor to the one seen in the latter episode. I woudn't say that this necessarily immediately raises episode three and the overall story into (ahem) 'classic' status, but in context it now makes the latter episode feel like a 'normal' part three as opposed to the extra prominence placed upon it as being the sole representative of the story.

The Underwater Menace DVD: The Doctor, as played by Patrick Troughton in episode two (Credit: BBC Worldwide)The problem with a "new" episode is often that there's too much to take in on the first viewing, not to mention the excitement of seeing it that first time. It's the second viewing that normally gives you the chance to better appraise it, and also whether it stands up to the closer scrutiny. Episode two does manage to pass that test, which to me at least means it has been worth the (extended) wait to see it. Though the narrated soundtrack and exisiting telesnaps mean I'm not entirely unfamilar with it, unless we are extremely lucky with when Cura took his shot much of the time little nuances within a scene are lost. Good examples are when we can now see the Doctor's reaction to Zaroff's outrageous claims, or his miming the professor's insanity to Thous, things that weren't evident before. Another one I like is the Doctor hiding in a plain and common wardrobe - in this case there are telesnaps showing this, but they don't quite portray the humour that is present.

I don't think the episode quite meets the hype that has grown up around it being the one remaining episode left to be released for this era of Doctor Who, and it was (justifiably) eclipsed by the two Season Five returns, but all-in-all it isn't a particularly bad episode and probably more representative of the story as a whole. It also now has the 'honour' of being the earliest complete episode of the Troughton era, and means the second Doctor  no longer has an 'embarassing' start to his visible adventures!

As a little bonus, those who sit through the end of the episode four credits can find the telesnap credits featured over video of the story's location, Winspit Quarry, which unfortunately only features in the two missing episodes. Not quite a "Now and Then" feature, and the footage hails from A Fishy Tale, but welcome nonetheless!

 

Special Features

 

Fortunately, one of the revelations of the formal DVD announcement was that, unlike Enemy and Web, it would  (most of) the special features that we are used to on 'classic' series releases. These also included the two (brief) Australian censor clips that weren't incorporated into the reconstructed episodes above, so at least these can still be seen on the DVD.

The Underwater Menace DVD: A Fishy Tale (Credit: BBC Worldwide)A Fishy Tale covers the making of the story, looking into the 'mountainous' production journey undertaken by The Underwater Menace from its original inception as Under The Sea, its rejection as unmakable by its original director Hugh David and a 007 film crewmember(!), its removal and subsequent re-instatement to the production schedule as other scripts fell by the wayside, and its ultimate tackling by the previous year's The Smugglers director Julia Smith. Regular companion Anneke Wills provided the main 'commentary' on how the story was produced, with additional insight from Frazer Hines on his formal arrival as Jamie as new companion (and the script adjustments needed to cater for another TARDIS traveller). Other contributors include Catherine Howe who played Ara, assistant floor manager Gareth Gwenlan, and new series writer Robert Shearman giving his take on viewing the story in 'modern times'. The feature was narrated by Peter Davison, who only really started to get his teeth into the special features range through its director Russell Minton, who also provided another welcome touch in the inclusion of especially shot footage out on the story's original locations at Winspit, featuring 'fish-people' out on the beach and in the quarry.

As with the majority of behind-the-scenes features in the Doctor Who DVD range, A Fishy Tale nicely summarises the making of the story, but sadly the nitty-gritty details of the ins-and-outs provided by production information subtitles are not included with this release. Being that these traditionally carry lots of interesting snippets about how the script progressed and changed, what was happening around and during production, etc., it feels like there's a bit of a vacuum this time around, and we are missing out on the usual 'definitive' story of production. I guess we will need to wait for the eventual release of the relevant edition of The Complete History now for that account.

However, at least we have the commentaries to listen to, which provide traditional behind-the-scenes 'gossip'. As with previous incomplete story releases, the existing episodes have the regular cast/crew reminiscences on production, with the missing episodes used to present contextual interviews, clips, etc. For The Underwater Menace, episode one takes the form of the second part of an interview by moderator Toby Hadoke with Patrick Troughton's son Michael (recorded prior to his own inaugural appearance in Last Christmas), who candidly discusses life growing up with his father, his relationships and attitudes towards the work he undertook. The second episode features Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, Catherine Howe, sound composer Brian Hodgson and floor assistant Quention Mann, and as might be expected discussion focussed on the return of this episode after a few decades and how they felt about being able to see it again. Other tidbits along the way include Frazer commenting on how Colin Jeavons aka Damon's eyebrows reminded him of an androgum (with Toby observing no colour photos exist to compare against), and how the opening scenes of the story raised concern over children not wanting flu jabs. Moving onto the third episode, anecdotes included reflections on the challenges faced both for and with director Julia Smith, the 'infamous' way in which Joseph Furst played Zaroff, plus Brian on the difficulties of sound mixing in the early days and Anneke on Troughton's thoughts over 'that' scene with the fish-people ... The last episode is made up of archive recordings, and features Julia Smith and the originally-slated director Hugh David on making (and not making) the story, producer Innes Lloyd on what he liked about producing Doctor Who and the changes of direction he instigated, and a longer interview with the Doctor himself, Patrick Troughton in which he talks about getting and creating the role, costume and "hairy" arrangements, and how important a routine was for making such a frenetic show.

The Underwater Menace DVD: The Television Centre of the Universe: Janet Fielding, Peter Davison, Yvette Fielding and Mark Strickson (Credit: BBC Worldwide)Yvette Fielding is back for the second half of The Television Centre of the Universe - and we also get a "previously" which is quite useful if you haven't watched the first half since it's release on The Visitation in 2013. The "cliff-hanger" is resolved to be cameraman Alec Wheal, and then it's straight into anecdotes between him and the trio of Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson about life in the studio during recording (plus BBC producer/fan Richard Marson chatting about the "fan glitterati" who watched whatever they could studio galleries!). As before, the main conversations were interspersed with anecdotes from other production personnel, such as assistant floor manager Sue Hedden on how props could disappear and exhibitions assistant Bob Richardson admitting he had purloined a terileptil mind control device! Other contributors included production assistant Jane Ashford (who reflected on the challenges of maintaining contunuity during filming) and videotape engineer Simon Anthony (who commented on combatting recording issues from lighting and physical effects). It was also an unexpected bonus to see behind-the-scenes footage from Earthshock to help illustrate the discussion!

As with the previous part, this is a relaxed, light-hearted wander through the production process and a way to 'look' around TVC as-was, before its tragic final closure. And, in tradition, it's off to the BBC Bar to finish off both this production and (possibly) the classic Doctor Who DVD feature range as a whole!

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, the story is quite a jolly romp. We get to see Patrick Troughton portray a more playful and extravagant version before these elements are toned down into the more focussed, enigmatic Doctor we travel alongside in later adventures. We get the over-the-top mad Professor Zaroff played with gusto by Joseph Furst. And of course we get to see the companion triad of Ben, Polly and Jamie in action for the first time. Visually, there are some impressive sets, and I personally think the fish people "showcase" in episode three is quite an effective scene (not to mention giving Dudley Simpson a good run for his money!). However, the story is hardly a memorable classic like many of the era to come - it's certainly not the best story in the world, but then again it is also by no means the worst in the grand history of Doctor Who.

In terms of the DVD itself, it's a shame that the still missing episodes were presented in such a basic form, but to misquote a well-known BBC phrase, "other viewing methods are available!" It's also disappointing that the production subtitles were not included, but on the other hand it is great to finally be able to see the second episode fully restored, the making-of, and the final part of the TV Centre feature.

 

Coming Soon ...

 

Sadly, "Nothing left in the world has stopped us now..."





The Lost Stories: Lords of the Red PlanetBookmark and Share

Friday, 19 September 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

The Lost Stories: Lords of the Red Planet
Written by Brian Hayles
Adapted by John Dorney
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released Nov 2013 by Big Finish

Big Finish has long been the hub for Doctor Who's what-ifs and might-have beens, be it filling in enticing gaps left in the TV canon, or giving the eighth Doctor a whole new lease of life on audio. In more recent years, the remit has widened to take in stories for the first three Doctors, with surviving cast members providing narration - first with Companion Chronicles, then The Lost Stories. Lords of the Red Planet takes this idea to new levels - with its expanded cast and lovingly-crafted sound design, it expertly recaptures the late Troughton era in six pacey episodes.

Lords of the Red Planet is based on another unproduced idea by Brian Hayles, and was to be the original follow-up to The Ice Warriors. It was abandoned in favour of The Seeds of Death, quite possibly because it would have used up an entire series worth of budget trying to create three distinct reptilian species and an underground city, mines, and a rocket on Mars!

As with The Queen of Time, Hayles' original storylines have been adapted into scripts for Big Finish, this time by John Dorney, and with the cast again led by Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. It's an origin story, a sort of 'Genesis of the Ice Warriors' - which sees the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arriving on Mars in its distant past, only to be caught up in terrible events that see the fall of one race and the rise of another. Troubled scientist Quendril works around the clock genetically 'sculpting' an army for the cruel dictator Zaadur on pain of death for his people, and the arrival of the TARDIS crew in the subterranean city of Gandor only makes things worse....

The Ice Warriors have traditionally been a bit of a blank slate throughout their history, arguably they've barely been explored beyond The Curse of Peladon's twist of Izlyr and Ssorg being good guys. Some attempt to flesh them out was made more recently by Mark Gatiss in Cold War, but Lords of the Red Planet looks at the bigger picture, and with greater effect.

We meet the reptilian martian race that created the Ice Warriors; the aforementioned Quendril (played by Michael Troughton) as well as the prototype Ice Lord Aslor, and one of Quendril's 'failed' experiments, his assistant Risor - both played by Nick Briggs, also on Ice Warrior duty. Briggs does an excellent job of breathing (hissing?) life into two distinct characters, with the tragic Risor being reminiscent of Condo from The Brain of Morbius. His Ice Lord, Aslor (a dead ringer for Alan Bennion's Ice Lords of the 60s and 70s), bonds with Zoe, and fights against his warlike conditioning, showing great pathos.

Quendril, meanwhile, struggles with the consequences of his work, and is highly distressed at the pain he is forced to put his test subjects through. Michael Troughton excels here, despite the horrific nature of Quendril's work, he comes over as sympathetic, no small feat when you realise he's essentially a Davros figure.

We also get an insight into the society of a dying world dependent on daily doses of 'life drink', with the spoiled, vain, puppet Princess Veltreena, (played by Charlie Hayes, daughter of Wendy Padbury) as its figurehead. Even the villainess of the piece, Zaadur, played by Abigail Thaw, has a brief moment of sympathy, when it's revealed that she too is the product of genetic experimentation and has gone through similar agonies to Aslor and Risor. Thaw is excellent, and gives a very strong performance. Dorney's decision to change Zaadur from male to female is a masterstroke, although, as with The Queen of Time, it does remind you of the Troughton era's lack of female foes.

Hines and Padbury are great as ever, with Hines doubling up again as Jamie and the Doctor. Zoe has a meaty part, acting as Aslor's conscience, and ripping the electrodes from him as he is being agonisingly 'brain-formed' by Quendril's process. Jamie is more involved with the rough stuff, but gets a nice scene with Veltreena, who is clearly flirting with him, despite being unsure of what exactly he is. Hines is as good as ever, and sounds like he's stepped straight out of The War Games. Padbury is excellent as well, but sounds like she's struggling to get Zoe's pitch right at times.

Lastly, Hines' uncannily accurate Second Doctor is present in full effect, and is almost flawless - it's only occasional lines of over-wordy dialogue that don't ring true, but the speech patterns, tone, and attitude are all there, and it's a joy to hear. Lords of the Red Planet is a real treat, and a fine bit of world-building, classic in feel, but quite modern at the same time, with real moral dilemmas nestling alongside sonically perfect hissing Ice Warriors and rumbling tympani straight out of The Seeds of Death.

Even if Big Finish isn't your thing, Troughton fans in particular should snap this up. A triumph.
Sssssssuperb.