Classic Doctors New Monsters: Volume One (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 9 August 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Classic Doctors New Monsters (Volume 1) (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by Phil Mulryne, Simon Barnard, Paul Morris, James Goss, Andrew Smith
Directed by Barnaby Edwards

Starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy,
Paul McGann

Released by Big Finish July 2016, order from Amazon UK

This reviewer confesses to have been pleasantly surprised as to how well the four stories in the box set all work to complement each other and the respective Doctors they feature. When this set was first announced there was a certain amount of scepticism about whether some of the visual gimmicks of the post 2005 creations would translate well to audio. Also, as the behind-the-scenes disc indicates there are only a finite number of “new” monsters which can be included without breaking continuity, as indicated by the presence in the fourth story of the Sontarans which do not seem much different to how they have already appeared in previous Big Finish outings and by the revelation that next year’s volume 2 will only be featuring three “new” monsters across four plays.

This collection gets off to a strong start with 14772’s Fallen Angels which uses the Weeping Angels ability to send their victims back through time to excellent effect as the Fifth Doctor encounters a twenty first century married couple who have fallen foul of an angel in the crypt of a church in Rome and ended up in the fifteenth century where they soon encounter Matthew Kelly’s wonderfully temperamental Michelangelo. Newlyweds Joel and Gabby are well played by Sacha Dhawan and Diane Morgan (unfortunately this reviewer found the latter’s presence reminded him of annoying alter-ego Philomena Cunk) and are clearly intended to remind listeners of Rory and Amy and there are some clear parallels to The Angels Take Manhattan. Overall, the story is very much an homage to Blink and the silent presence of the angels is well-realised through clever use of music and sound-design. None of these stories attempts to offer a genesis account for any of the monsters featured and this is very much to their benefit especially here where the Fifth Doctor is shown very much in parallel to the similarly youthful Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, a role which Peter Davison responds particularly well to.

Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor is equally well suited to the second story of this set, particularly in the scenes with a courtroom setting. Simon Barnard and Paul MorrisJudoon in Chains is a clever tale which owes a debt to a number of well-known sources such as The Elephant Man and Pygmalion with one of the proto-companions even being called Eliza. Nicholas Briggs shows that the Judoon are capable of being much more than just space rhinos with a funny voice and the central character of Captain Kybo being a wonderfully nuanced performance. There is also a scene-stealing performance to enjoy from another Big Finish regular Nicholas Pegg as the wonderfully arch Meretricious Gedge.

The inclusion of one-off monsters the Sycorax for the third story of this set was initially suprising but James GossHarvest of the Sycorax proves that they have plenty of mileage left. Sylvester McCoy is reunited with former Red Kang Nisha Nayar who gives a great performance as Zanzibar, another great one-off in a collection full of similarly strong characters. There is also great support the rest of the cast, with particular mentions due to Giles Watling as the Sycorax Chief and Jonathan Firth as Cadwallader. This script has a great fast pace which definitely feels as if it could sit comfortably in a post-2005 series.

The set concludes in style with Andrew Smith’s The Sontaran Ordeal, which sits very much at the end of the Eighth Doctor’s life with the Time War beginning to make its presence felt. This is a solid final story which teams up Paul McGann with Josette Simon as Sarana Teel, an unlikely companion who just wants to bring peace to her planet. Her horror as she realises that the impact of the Time War means that there can never be lasting peace is wonderfully portrayed and her final confrontation with the Doctor gives a clear nod towards the inevitable events of The Night of the Doctor. Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey also give excellent performances as variations on their new series Sontarans. Above all, this final story provides a hint of exciting things to come in next year’s much anticipated prequel to Big Finish’s War Doctor series, The Eighth Doctor: The Time War.

Overall, this is a set of four very different but equally enjoyable stories with too many highlights to mention individually. Based on the form of this collection and most of Big Finish’s other new series titles, the second volume also promises to be something special.

 





The Shadow In The Glass (Audio Book)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 16 July 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Shadow in the Glass (Credit: BBC Audio)

Written By: Stephen Cole + Justin Richards
Read By: India Fisher

(Original Novel published in 2001, and Republished in 2015)

Approximate Length: 9 Hours


RELEASED: MARCH 2016 - BBC DIGITAL AUDIO

In the dying days of the Second World War, a UFO crash-lands in Turelhampton; a village in the English county of Dorset. The Royal Air Force has dealt with a possible threat at such a fraught time with seemingly no fuss. But then the village itself is soon evacuated.

Fast forward to the year 2001, and Turelhampton is still under the control of military troops. A sinister mystery is being shrouded from wider society. However a determined TV documentary crew are able to break through and record images of a malevolent ceremony, that crosses into the paranormal. And three-dimensional danger soon reaches the rather headstrong media professionals. Nearby in picturesque Cornwall, journalist Claire Aldwych is determined to uncover just what is going on after witnessing images of the bizarre and disturbing ceremony.

Meanwhile the Doctor, currently without his usual female companion - or 'penguin' Frobisher that can resemble anything and anyone - is drawn to the odd chain of mysterious events. But a beacon of reassuring familiarity resurfaces in the shape of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. Alistair is now rather wizened and past his prime days of blood and thunder, but still more than able to match the verbal wits of his many-lived friend and associate.

And their partnership must work at its best in the face of a grave test. The infamous Führer of the Third Reich is set to rise again; threatening the interests of all peace loving and decent natives of the blue-green planet that the Doctor cares so much for...

**

Shadow is a very enjoyable yarn, and combines a touch of 'old-school' Who with some of the more intense interpersonal drama from the Virgin and BBC book lines. These often experimental tomes paved the way for the more all-round drama of the modern TV show. At times things could easily verge into parody. I do find the end game with more than the one Adolf Hitler thrown into the fray threatens to unravel the core of the storyline. Yet it all manages to work as a whole.

I am a little unsure also if the villains behind the scenes, who are 'imp like' beings, could not have been executed rather better. They function well enough in that they enable the human villains to go about their dastardly schemes. But the best Doctor Who makes use of its monsters in a memorable fashion. These foes are simply fair-to-middling. The titular glass/medium concept is elaborated on very well, however, and ties in some clever minor character stories fluidly. The book is justifiably much longer than the novelisations that TV Doctor Who in written form, and similarly the length of this audio release is never a stumbling block.

Music is used sparingly but effectively, and helps punctuate the mood, as the story keeps moving along to one heart-racing moment of shock and awe, then to another of rather more introspective respite. India Fisher is a respected and well-loved contributor to the Doctor Who audio universe, which has helped the franchise endure. She does remarkably well with the inimitable portrayals of the Sixth Doctor and Brigadier that we have come to know and love so much. Sixie's bluster and buoyancy was a great counterpoint to the very dark Third and 'Fourth' Reich material in the original text by Cole and Richards. Our sole audio performer grasps the need to delicately balance both humour and 'world in peril' high-stakes thriller.

There is a lot of exposition and scene-setting prose for Fisher to convey to the listener, and convey it she does with aplomb. The plot is relatively straightforward, even with all the time travelling and subplots that feature, but in the hands of a less capable narrator there could be room for the audience to be disengaged.

**

This story could have easily worked, were it made originally as an audio drama spin off by Big Finish with Colin Baker and Nicholas Courtney. The enjoyable The Spectre of Lanyon Moor proved the chemistry between the two was up there with all the other leading men of the classic era. Today all of us miss the wonderful Courtney, but he left a terrific legacy as an actor and a person. Today still, his alter-ego soldier commands our attention and emotional investment.

One can quite easily listen to this set of eight CDs over a week or two, interspersing with the best TV material of the Sixth Doctor and the UNIT era to build up the visual cues needed. In any case, the prose, atmosphere and pacing all work well, and this story stands tall on its own.

There are plenty of nods to past UNIT characters, and to the family-like nature of the military organisation when it featured in the main show on a regular basis. My favourite returning solider is Tom Osgood. Though rather bumbling - at least in comparison to the eccentric genius protagonist - he is still determined and technically proficient. Some additional UNIT and military personal of course are added by the authors into proceedings, and are given suitable character development and back-story.

There is also a portion of the story that features the legendary real-life wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who has featured repeatedly in the Moffat era, and also now in ongoing Big Finish audios. What little this redoubtable politician and leader does here works well, but he is still more of a plot device than a proper supporting player. There is no actual meeting of Churchill, with either Hitler or his 'double', which perhaps is a missed opportunity.

There are a number of characters that have their own agenda and are neither wholly altruistic or malicious. This helps remind us that very few who fought in the War - win or lose - were completely without qualities at either end of the spectrum. Ultimately the biggest success of this book/audio is that it provokes some sober reflection on the defence of freedom and equality for all, in the face of cruel and distorted ideologies. And a good ending is always key for a satisfying adventure. Shadow closes in bittersweet fashion, but avoids this vibe from being telegraphed or coming off as just another twist. The finale instead arises organically out of the key themes.

Combining real life history, additional material for the 'short-lived' Sixth Doctor, and revisits to past friends from UNIT, this story has a bit of something for everyone. It never quite hits the heights of the very best of the original novels that feature in Doctor Who's extended universe, but is still a confident form of entertainment.





Big Finish: Vampire of the MindBookmark and Share

Friday, 20 May 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Vampire Of The Mind (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by Justin Richards
Directed by Jamie Anderson

Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Alex Macqueen (The Master), John Standing (Professor Threadstone), Kate Kennedy (Heather Threadstone), Neil Edmond (Boatman), Catriona Knox (Landlady), Elliot Levey (Gobernar)

Big Finish Productions – Released May 2016
Pre-order from Amazon UK

After a slightly average start to the new trilogy of Master stories with last month’s AndYouWillObeyMe, this reviewer is pleased to confirm that VampireoftheMind is a much more enjoyable affair. It’s difficult to account for this and there are probably a number of factors such as Justin Richards’ writing, the more interesting cast of characters led by Colin Baker on top form even during the slightly predictable denouement, or just the simple fact (with the greatest respect to Geoffrey Beevers whose portrayal in Master set a high standard which no subsequent actor has yet reached although Michelle Gomez has come pretty close) that Alex Macqueen’s incarnation of the Master is just so much fun to listen to.

It seems to have become de rigueur in the Big Finish canon for the Master to regularly cross his own timeline and this play is certainly no exception. There remains an air of mystery around the origins of the Macqueen incarnation since he first appeared in 2012’s UNIT: Dominion, with the suggestion in subsequent releases that he originated at some point after the events of The TV Movie. There is the briefest suggestion of a post-regenerative trauma in this story which suggests that the eagerly anticipated team-up with his earlier self in next month’s The Two Masters may yet shed some more light on these matters. Of course, given that the Seventh Doctor had clearly had no recollection of meeting this incarnation there is a rather predictable ruse used in the story’s conclusion to ensure continuity is maintained but for the sake of enjoyment this is easily forgiven.

A particular mention should also be given to Kate Kennedy as Heather Threadstone, who becomes the Doctor’s de facto companion for this story (or to some extent he becomes hers with some verbal sparring which fondly reminds of his intellectual equality with the much-missed Maggie Stables as Evelyn). There is definitely scope left for Heather to return in future stories which would certainly be a welcome possibility.

Like last month’s release, this play has a mostly standalone plot although there are clear thematic similarities with the Master’s gift for mind control once again proving to be of major importance. However, the closing moments of the play suggest that there is definitely more going on than has at first been apparent and would definitely suggest that the conclusion of this trilogy will be something to look forward to. In the meantime, this play is very much to be enjoyed on its own merits. Even if not the most original story ever, it is still an awful lot of fun.





This Is Colin BakerBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 23 September 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
This is Colin Baker (Credit: Big Finish)
Colin Baker, Nicholas Briggs (Interviewer)
Released August 2015, Big Finish Productions

The Sixth Doctor is perhaps the greatest 'what if' incarnation out of all the Doctors to grace the small-screen in the program's history. .Born out of the explosive events on the planet Androzani Minor, the very first moments of this direct and superior individual made the perfect end to an all-time classic serial. But trouble soon followed for both this new version of the Doctor and the program itself, and Colin Baker's wish to be the longest Doctor to date was cut abruptly short by the higher powers at the BBC

Of course, a horde of Big Finish productions expanded the universe of the past Doctors, and the characters they encountered. The Sixth Doctor has had many more chances to show just why he is every bit as worthy a pilot of the TARDIS as those that came before him and since.

My earliest impression of Colin Baker the person was at a 1990s convention in Birmingham where he had just returned from a tour to Blist Hills with The Mark of The Rani's cast and writers. Somehow I managed to grab a seat on the front row with a friend. One great story after another was shared, and during all that time I noticed just how friendly Colin was with the thoroughly engaged group of fans. A man who could look you full in the eye and smile, and for it to feel like you had met him before.

This type of friendly figure should have been the final stages of the butterfly Sixth Doctor, after sufficient build up and hints along the way. But it was not to be in the 1980s. I am at least confident it will happen in a not too dissimilar fashion with our present Doctor played by the wonderful Peter Capaldi.

This release is both similar and markedly different to Tom Baker at 80. Colin is younger than his predecessor but is very reflective and shows a 'come what may' attitude to the remainder of his career. Unlike Tom, Colin has always been a receptive and fairly open person for an interview. Such is Nicholas Briggs' determination, we actually do get the occasional more negative feelings and critical side to him, without it feeling forced from him.

Another notable difference, is that with Colin, Briggs has clearly much knowledge and appreciation for his work, but also knows that they had a healthy functional relationship.  Baker could get many more opportunities to show his capabilities as the Doctor and Briggs could write, direct, produce or act to some degree depending on the particular story in question.

And I personally enjoy this more assertive model of the same interviewer; one who can clarify and muster views on the past, the present and the future as they transpire for the interviewee.

 

The structure here is successful as a chronology with the occasional reflection and discussion of a big topic or theme. And it is very engaging to get a sense of how Baker as an acting persona grew and developed, drawing upon the various formative experiences he had, and later influences from people that he respected or revered. Colin rarely speaks for more than a minute or two without making some amusing anecdote, or some very insightful point about various important topics, i.e. society, education, effort in accomplishing something, opportunity, status, basic respect, and being a public figure - that last one of course being of paramount interest to listeners. He was put into a very troublesome place when it appeared he might be turned on and blamed for things faltering in a massive institution which Doctor Who was (and now is more than ever before).

To my mind this release is just as engrossing, and more dependable as a record of the person behind the actor. There will always be a sense that Tom Baker wants to play to the audience and be an entertainer the majority of the time, and will keep a certain amount of his most private thoughts to himself and a few trusted confidantes. Colin Baker is private in the sense that he will hint how his children and wife are the biggest thing in his life, but he will talk properly about virtually everything else and show no worries as to what others think. He even says that whether he is smart or not is for other to "decide", which is wonderfully self-aware and grounded.

But one common trait with the Fourth Doctor actor release, is that this interview tries to avoid retreading much previous material from bonus interviews that followed the Big Finish dramas. Furthermore there is very little about the majority of Baker's tenure as the doctor. So if like myself, you were frustrated by a lack of commentary from him on the DVD of Revelation of the Daleks, (and again for episode 13 of The Trial of a Time Lord) then this just is not the place to find his views.

 

Baker's formative years are arguably the very best component of the interview. We see a remarkably distinctive boy who unapologetically demonstrated the mind and attitude of a middle class thinker, and that caused problems for him in a school that was part of a very northern working class town. Further problems came from his posh voice, and his bookworm tendencies.

Yet instead of bogging the young Colin down, the ability to adapt and to gain trust and companionship was demonstrated, and would become a great asset of his. Later  he went on to be a promising young lawyer but opted ultimately for acting, despite its far less certain dividends and prospects.

He also would always stand up for the underdog and not be a pushover, but still use tact and patience when required.. And for those of us who revelled in his Doctor's finest moments, those were the precise qualities that made us cheer him on as he batted aside Mentors, Androgums, Borads and Vervoids.

Colin talks of his proud use of sarcasm, and how he gets on better usually with those that likewise opt for ironic and deadpan humour. And the jokes certainly come through many a time, enabling his release further replay value which was already sizeable given the remarkable life story.

 

However some bittersweet or melancholic moments are also there, even when a  quip has only just registered with the listener.  One of these is Baker talking about his dignified efforts to secure one last full season, and how he would not just return for the opener; eventually Time and the Rani. This was certainly more than reasonable and such issues had dogged Blake's 7 lead Gareth Thomas (Incidentally Colin was fantastically memorable as Bayban in a Series 3 episode that didn't feature Blake).

Yet apparently more galling was the regret over his inability to go to university as his father did not see the value in it. Although grants were available, the financial status of Colin's father meant that he was not eligible, and so had no further higher education opportunity in the Britain of the mid-20th Century.

This lack of choice in being able to go to university is something he freely admits to being a 'chip on his shoulder', but really was it such a problem when he ended up with a happy family life and a very solid acting career? Perhaps a bit of ambivalence lies at the heart of this interview, but that is by no means a failing; rather a fair reflection of a sophisticated and thoughtful individual.

With name dropping of great British actors like David Suchet and Bernard Hill, one appreciates how Colin was learning his craft alongside men with even more natural skill than he had, and that he was more than happy to benefit.

At the same time he is/was a very outgoing, genial and co-operative working actor, who certainly could not have tried harder during the very troubled mid-Eighties period for Doctor Who. And thankfully he ended up working in much more favourable conditions with both co-stars old and new on the audio dramas.

 

Nicholas Briggs will hopefully keep making these types of special audio releases, and involve other major players in Doctor Who history, be they producers, directors, script editors, as well as companions and notable guest stars. For my part I especially would enjoy one with Julian Glover, who now is producing wonderful cameos on Game Of Thrones.

A final reflection on this release then. We have a charismatic man who grew up in Manchester who is very grateful for the continuing adventures of one of the Doctor's more complex and unpredictable incarnations, and of course bold new projects like A Dozen Summers.

So whether the listener has heard any quantity of adventures belonging to the vast Big Finish catalogue, or not, they can really appreciate just why and how Colin Baker is consistently regarded as the best of a worthy group of Time Lords on audio. And of course Uncle Tom is in that mix as well.

 
 
 




The Sixth Doctor - The Last AdventureBookmark and Share

Monday, 24 August 2015 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Last Adventure (Credit: Big Finish)
Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor - The Last Adventure
Written by Simon Barnard, Paul Morris, Alan Barnes, Matt Fitton and Nicholas Briggs
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Starring: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Trevor Baxter (Litefoot), Christopher Benjamin (Jago), India Fisher (Charley), Lisa Greenwood (Flip), Michael Jayston (The Valeyard), Bonnie Langford (Mel) and Miranda Raison (Constance)
Released by Big Finish Productions - September 2015 ​

“It’s the end…but the moment has been prepared for.”

Regardless of its origin as the ominous yet somehow inertly reassuring final words uttered by Tom Baker prior to his Doctor’s regeneration in “Logopolis”, that fateful line of dialogue has rarely rung truer than with the wholly timely demise of the Sixth Doctor. Not only was Colin Baker’s divisive incarnation robbed of his own on-screen transformation thanks to behind-the-scenes disputes leading to Sylvester McCoy donning an unwieldy blonde wig in “Time and the Rani”, but as was revealed in last month’s edition of DWM (Issue 489, to be precise), Baker himself had until quite recently declined Big Finish’s various offers to send his most famed construct off in proper style. With all of that contextual background taken into account, the mere existence of The Sixth Doctor – The Last Adventure, a near unprecedented audio saga intended to rewrite continuity somewhat so as to give old ‘Sixie’ the denouement he deserves, represents a staggering development in the programme’s history worthy of applause in and of itself.

Of course, although the same could have been stated of the Eighth Doctor’s one and only televised serial, that the TV Movie managed to premiere both in the States and here in Britannia didn’t prevent the one-off, bumper-length special from receiving a far from congratulatory critical reception soon after its debut. Will the so-called Last Adventure (a title which admittedly seems more tenuous by the day given Big Finish’s ongoing plans for Baker’s most iconic persona) go down as another such tragic misfire, then, or as a near-unprecedented triumph on the scale of Russell T. Davies’ much-adored reboot-turned-faithful continuation “Rose”? To discover precisely this truth, let us plunge back into an age of technicoloured jackets, politically corrupt Gallifreyan trials and – most importantly – morally warped future Doctors, evaluating each of the four one-hour tales intended to chronicle the darkest – and by all accounts finest, though we’ll be the judge of that claim – hour of perhaps Theta Sigma’s most controversial regeneration to date.

The End of the Line:

Perhaps it’s this reviewer picking nits for the pure sake of doing so, but if any of the episodes featured on what is undoubtedly one of Big Finish’s more audacious compilations in their eventful history could have been released separately so as to reduce the hefty 420-minute running time awaiting listeners here, it’s this one. Try as they might to connect their largely gripping yarn – which sees ‘Sixie’ and his soon-to-be incumbent assistant Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison) investigate an increasingly mysterious railway train packed to the brim with temporal surprises (think “Mummy on the Orient Express”, albeit with far greater exploration of what lies beyond its primary setting) – to The Last Adventure’s central arc surrounding the Doctor’s inevitably self-destructive series of final confrontations with the ever-sinister, ever-vainglorious Valeyard, writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris ultimately offer the sense that like 2014’s Trial of the Valeyard (a once-apparently pivotal storyline which receives scarcely even a passing reference here, we might add), The End of the Line could easily have been released as a standalone title, or even in the form of a Short Trips-esque prequel several weeks prior to this box-set’s launch. Indeed, save for a few choice moments which the scribes strategically reserve for End’s denouement as well as a well-guarded cameo from one of the 1980s Doctors’ most persistent adversaries, this largely self-contained opening instalment could easily have come off as unnecessary filler in light of its acting as a Greatest Hits showcase for ‘Sixie’ as opposed to a fitting opener for what had always been pitched as a tightly-woven quartet focusing exclusively on the manner in which the Seventh Doctor truly came to be.

Enter Baker and Raison, both of whom excel at establishing a fresh dynamic of intellectual equality, genuine faith in the titular Time Lord’s ever-risky machinations, and most of all earned respect between Constance and her extra-terrestrial TARDIS crewmate in spite of Big Finish not yet having released the story in which these two great minds meet for the first time (though that’s due next month in the form of the Matt Fitton-penned Second World War thriller Criss-Cross). Without the promisingly assured performances of this enviably talented pair, we’d probably have been left with a primarily lacklustre audio drama, especially given that the turns provided by the likes of Anthony Howell and Maggie Service as the aforementioned track-bound vehicle’s band of waylaid passengers don’t exactly rank among the most memorable additions to Who’s ever-expanding audio ensemble (since, suffice to say, anyone expecting emotional depth from these secondary players on a par with those introduced in “Midnight” will come away severely underwhelmed), barring the moments where Barnard and Morris afford them significant chunks of dialogue so as to haphazardly further the compelling but easily condensable plot powering this intrigue-laden – albeit at times frustratingly inconsequential – initial outing.

The Red House:

Ironically enough, though, whereas it’s the leading pair of voice actors at The End of the Line’s helm who prove to be its handy saving grace rather than its supporting cast members, the opposite is in fact true of Alan Barnes’ The Red House, wherein Michael Jayston’s deliciously exaggerated take on his returning “The Trial of a Time Lord” antagonist the Valeyard – or the Doctor, as he claims he’ll one day become known by the wider cosmos – elevates an otherwise forgettable play centring on a frankly dull dystopian world of part-werewolf, part-humanoid beings; clichéd outsider communities who’ve been shunned by their former colonist allies and, worst of all, hopelessly predictable conflicts entailing reckless rebellions against a false empire. The latter’s presence in proceedings remains so minimal that the audience can’t help but struggle to give anything close to a damn about the war which Baker’s semi-iconic adversary appears absolutely intent on sparking (for reasons that mercifully become far clearer once the bell begins to toll on both versions of the Doctor’s respective character arcs), hence why the focus of all but the most avid fans of Hunger Games-inspired (or Brave New World-inspired; by all means take your pick) worlds without hope or compassion will soon inevitably shift to the aforementioned sub-plot in which Charley Pollard (brought to life with magnificent aplomb once more by India Fisher) faces off against the dark side of the man who she’s seen fit to travel with through time and space on not one but two occasions.

As anyone who persevered with “The Trial of a Time Lord” through to its high-octane denouement will surely attest, there was scarcely ever any reason to fear for the strength of Jayston’s third performance in perhaps his most infamous role, and indeed, despite being forced to dip into the realms of melodrama on occasion here just as he did in the original 1986 adventure, he doesn’t hold back when delivering the manipulative, psychologically assaulting and yet at times somehow subtly charismatic (proof if ever any was needed that the Valeyard hasn’t sacrificed everything in the name of peace and sanity at this point as was the case with John Hurt’s Time War-bound incarnation) dialogue afforded to him both over the course of House’s second half by Barnes as well as in The Last Adventure’s two remaining instalments. Nevertheless, with ‘Sixie’ curiously relegated from the bulk of proceedings despite the moments preceding his demise supposedly being intended to form the crux of this long-awaited set, it would seem that Barnes didn’t quite heed to the collection’s overarching criteria in this regard, something which would be that much more forgivable were it not for the disheartening lack of innovation present in his uninspired setting, a near-fatal flaw which only just fails to cripple The Red House entirely, with its redemption coming only fleetingly in the form of Jayston’s various prolonged (and oh-so-welcome) cameos.

Stage Fright:

For those beginning to question the need for their investment in this hefty £20 or £40 title having reached the halfway point of this review and having read of the considerable shortcomings sported by Red House – as well as to a far lesser extent End of the Line – now’s the time to breathe a hearty sigh of relief. Whilst this reviewer’s overall familiarity with Victorian quasi-detectives Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Gordon Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) didn’t extend far beyond his initial viewing of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (an entertainingly fast-paced, if at times disbelief-testing, introductory tale first broadcast as part of the Fourth Doctor era in 1977, though this won’t exactly come as news to the characters’ ever-expanding fan-base) when the time came to consume “Stage Fright” in its delightful 60-minute entirety, this lack of knowledge regarding in particular the history of Big Finish’s aptly-named Who spin-off Jago & Litefoot didn’t prevent Last Adventure’s penultimate instalment from easily ranking as the most satisfying entry of the bunch by an immeasurable distance.

There’s a chance this sweeping evaluation might come as a shock to any readers expecting the Sixth Doctor’s swansong to peak in its concluding moments: surely “The Brink of Death” should take the crown as this incarnation’s finest set-piece given its valiant efforts to rewrite the character’s botched demise? Surprisingly, no. That’s not to say the aforementioned serial disappoints – by and large, it’s another winner, as we’ll discuss later, but even so, it’s not dripping with the same level of periodic atmosphere as “Fright” by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps director Nicholas Briggs (who has in fact seen fit not only to helm all four tales but also to try his hand at penning their finale in the form of “Brink”) and the cruelly underappreciated team behind this masterpiece’s soundtrack deserve the most credit, especially since it’s all too easy for us to forget the incredible work that goes on beyond the confines of the recording studio in order to elevate the studio’s projects higher than most. Even so, however, to deny the influence Benjamin and Baxter have as they reprise their hilarious roles, bringing with them all of the energetic gusto, occasional (but vital) pathos and undying comedic interplay which made both constructs such hits with ‘70s viewers and modern listeners alike, thereby owning both the metaphorical and literal stage in the process.

As if all of that weren’t enough, they’re presented with the chance to converse with Lisa Greenwood’s Flip as she confronts the inherently personal fear which lends this episode its name – a wholly welcome emotional development for a previously shallow character who’s rarely caught this reviewer’s attention until now – and Jayston’s Valeyard as the latter manipulator takes control of the two wannabe investigators’ New Regency Theatre in a bid to gain power through theatrical plays intended to mimic his arch-nemesis’ past lives (or rather deaths) prior to their coming battle. Admittedly the glorious return of these Not-So-Great Detectives can’t quite compensate fully for the predictable manner in which proceedings come to a close, with the necessity of the Valeyard’s survival to fight another day inevitably necessitating his fortunate escape from the City of London’s confines, yet in stark contrast to its immediate predecessor, “Stage Fright” effortlessly negates its minor weaknesses by offering up an atmospheric, perfectly paced hour of entertainment which’ll endure in its listeners’ minds for just as long as “Talons” has, if not longer still.

The Brink of Death:

Whether the same can be said of Briggs’ undeniably bold quest to rewrite what’s easily one of the most loathed moments in Doctor Who’s hardly clear-cut canon will naturally remain a matter of fierce discussion for some time to come, not least since Steven Moffat’s namechecking of Charley et al in “The Night of the Doctor” only further muddied the waters in terms of discussions surrounding whether Big Finish’s audio releases can be considered official chronicles of their inspiration’s (supposedly) previously untold escapades. As disheartening a realisation as this must have been for Briggs at the time of drafting his script for “The Brink of Death”, only one fact is absolutely certain – there could have been no pleasing everyone with this latest endeavour, although in all honesty, given this reviewer’s unashamed disdain for the mere sight of “Time and the Rani”, the chances of the esteemed Dalek voice actor coming anywhere close to producing an inferior effort were always all but second to none.

If the latter admission like a prelude to a largely cynical evaluation, however, then fret not; it’s by no means perfect (few Who serials are, if we’re being brutally truthful here), but “Brink” comes about as close to conceiving the triumphant denouement Baker and Big Finish’s execs must have been hoping for as any budding audio production could. Is the Valeyard’s prolonged arc of darkness and mystery brought to a comprehensive conclusion? Not quite – most will still likely find themselves somewhat bemused as to the character’s precise origins (or rather the true reasoning for them) come the credits, a disappointing turn of events given that we had been promised a transparent resolution in this regard during recent Last Adventure press releases. Does the fate with which ‘Sixie’ meets echo the selfless, stirring demises originally presented to all but Baker’s seemingly doomed-from-the-outset incarnation? Absolutely. In fact, as those fortunate enough to have placed a pre-order for this collection will have already learned, the completely poignant sequence in question still finds a way of keeping “Rani”’s ludicrous but nevertheless (somewhat tragically) canon opening scene intact, albeit while ensuring that the moments preceding the Doctor’s fall from an exercise bike and subsequent collision with the TARDIS’ apparently rock-solid floorboards can be seen as fitting in terms of both his tenure at the ship’s helm and indeed in terms of his oft-overlooked concern for his future selves’ uncertain moral compass, a trait which manifests itself beautifully with both his final line of dialogue and with the first uttered by McCoy here in a similarly touching cameo.

As easy as it would be to elaborate in greater detail about the convoluted nature of the Valeyard’s grandiose final machinations (which takes into account his actions in all of the first three plays, only to then surely leave the vast majority of listeners boggled as to why the scheme took quite so long to plan and thus why this plot required quite such an elaborate set-up), Briggs’ misuse (however intentional) of Bonnie Langford’s almost non-existent Mel or the aforementioned ambiguity continually engulfing the true nature of the Doctor’s alleged future malevolent persona, it’s simpler still to instead end with our much-needed confirmation that, these minor faults in its metaphorical stars aside, “Brink” flourishes where its justifiably despised 1987 TV counterpart fails, bestowing the downfall of Baker’s incarnation with a timely aura of victory over moral corruption, not to mention over the naysayers who constantly seek to ridicule this particular version of the Earth’s longstanding alien protector. It’s little wonder that Baker expressed his disillusionment last month with the fans who ranked him as their least favourite Doctor in the pages of DWM, but on the basis of the mostly haunting “The End of the Line”, the dramatically charged (if oft-convoluted) “The Brink of Death” and especially the marvellously authentic – not to mention downright hilarious – “Stage Fright” (if not the surprisingly dissatisfying “The Red House”, The Last Adventure’s weakest link by far), neither ‘Sixie’ nor the still remarkable thespian portraying him have much left to fear, barring perhaps an overdose of particularly zesty carrot juice.

Believe it or not, after decades of painstaking waiting, this time around Baker's revised exit truly has been prepared for and executed with a commendable degree of success - and based on this legendary actor's recent contemplation of his own incarnation's worth, it would seem this much-needed change has arrived not a moment too soon.





The Brood of ErysBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Brood of Erys (Credit: Big Finish / Damien May)
The Brood of Erys
Released by Big Finish
Written by Andrew Smith
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Feb 2014

Remember how after making promising progress in terms of their narrative trajectory, recent modern Doctor Who serials such as “Night Terrors” and “Into the Dalek” somehow managed to squander their potential come their respective final acts by making sudden forays into overly sappy territory (if this reviewer never has to endure the sight of the Doctor teaching ex-Kaleds the beauty of the stars again, it’ll be too soon)? Well, much as The Brood of Erys, the second outing in Big Finish’s January – March 2014 trilogy of Sixth Doctor and Flip storylines, does its utmost to maintain a consistently impressive benchmark of quality throughout its four contributory episodes, so too does the 183th chapter in the aforementioned studio’s never-ending range of Who-themed audio dramas lose its way at precisely the wrong moment, thereby threatening to ruin its audience’s perception of what might otherwise have been one of Colin Baker’s finest off-screen hours to date.

More on that momentarily, however – let’s first align our metaphorical TARDIS scanners towards Brood’s strengths, since in spite of its lacklustre denouement, the drama in question can’t possibly fail to hook its listeners during its opening three-quarters. Central to its resounding success in this respect is the pair of increasingly tight-knit travellers currently piloting their Type 42 machine through time and space; although one gets the sense nowadays that Baker’s incarnation – nor the man himself, if his recent revelatory interview with DWM was any indication – will never quite shed his reputation as the version of the Doctor who underwent one of the weakest overall runs in the show’s history, the 72-year old thespian responsible for bringing the character to life during the mid-1980s has rarely been on finer form than he is here. Channelling all of the compassion and bombast he can muster as old ‘Sixie’ and his faithful accomplice explore a sentient moon known as Erys whose emotional motivations become murkier by the second (a fascinating narrative concept which this reviewer couldn’t help but wish writer Andrew Smith had deployed before “The Doctor’s Wife” aired on BBC One in 2011, but there we are), he not only reminds Nathan Turner devotees of the merits of his era but also affords the ever-complacent yet ever-righteous hero an emotional gravity which this incarnation’s haters might have claimed was lacking during his original run.

At the same time, every accomplished – if in this case cruelly unappreciated – Doctor needs a similarly worthy assistant at his side, hence the above reference to not one but both members of the TARDIS crew. When this reviewer came to pass judgement on Antidote to Oblivion last July, Ms. Philippa Jackson (Lisa Greenwood) appeared to represent one of its only notable caveats due to the lack of much in the way of character development afforded to her by scribe Philip Martin, yet just as Matt Fitton recently showcased Flip’s potential by exploiting her fears of performing before an audience and her realisation of her ability to overcome those long-running self-doubts in “Stage Fright” – the penultimate of the four captivating tales contained within Big Finish’s newly-released boxset “The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure” – Smith achieves much the same feat here, adding additional layers to Jackson’s personality by having her demonstrate her raw recklessness in a valiant but nonetheless risk-laden effort to reunite herself with the Doctor come Brood’s action-packed (sometimes to the point of its own detriment, as we’ll discuss later) second half, not to mention during the numerous Hammer-riffing body horror sequences where the young adventurer finds herself forced to navigate the depths of the titular living planetoid, encountering an all manner of spectacularly-voiced secondary constructs along the way including the slimy – in every sense of the adjective – Terrill (Chris Overton), the wayward amnesiac Sarra Vanser (Nicola Sian) and best of all the hauntingly omniscient persona of Erys (Brian Shelley) himself.

Indeed, in a similar vein to how Greenwood’s ever-passionate work as Flip has been complemented (and thus strengthened) to no minor extent here by Smith’s beneficially character-led script, the latter trio of supporting cast members each thrive in their respective roles thanks to the layered dialogue that their individual constructs spout out over the course of their extensive airtime. In a weaker science-fiction audio yarn, for instance, Terrill and his band of shameless, ever-troublesome Drachee scavengers would have come off as mindless slaves created for the sole narrative purpose of serving as the frankly dull lackeys of a (mostly) physically formless antagonist, yet far from allowing this to be the case, Smith throws more than one curve-ball into the figurative mixture that ensures the Drachee have just as significant a function to fulfil in the grand scheme of events as the Doctor, Flip or their latest adversary. It’s a true thrill to be able to confirm that as a result, once Brood moves into its fourth and final 25-minute segment, all but the most apathetic of listeners are sure to empathise with every character who they’ve encountered so far, and as such to feel as if they are on tenterhooks with regards to how each construct’s arc will come to an end.

What a crying tragedy it is, then, that after three episodes’ worth of steadily rising tension and intriguingly unravelled mysteries surrounding Sarra’s curiously absent yet vital memories, Smith hurriedly injects a small armada of emotionally vapid – albeit purposefully so – enemies not unlike those described previously here as being the stuff of lacklustre sci-fi efforts so as to add in some physical dangers for his ensemble despite the fact that the psychological toils presented by Erys’ meddling with the minds of ‘Sixie’ et al were more than enough to carry Episode 4 on their own merits. Whereas the scarecrow-styled hordes introduced a little way into “Human Nature / The Family of Blood” back in 2007 at least acted as a decent metaphor for the ceaseless, meaningless slaughter committed over the course of the Great War as they were endlessly gunned down by the students unlucky enough to attend the school which was playing host to one John Smith, the so-called “mud soldiers” who elect to crop up in Brood’s closing quarter hold no such deeper moral implications, instead existing only as a rushed means through which to off one or two supporting characters so as for (Andrew, not John) Smith to rest safe in the knowledge that his serial didn’t conclude without containing a single demise of some kind. Worse still, in subsequently attempting to add some further emotional levity (perhaps realising too late his mistake in abruptly prioritising action at the last second) by lobbing in a hopelessly indulgent throwback to the First Doctor era which doesn’t receive any of the necessary moments of foreshadowing earlier on required to justify its inclusion, the playwright comes cripplingly close to offering the impression that he had little idea whatsoever as to how to call it a day.

Yet to end on such a defeatist assertion would represent an unfair manner in which to resolve this particular assessment, especially given the strength of the ground-work laid during the opening three instalments. Make no mistake, Smith at least structures proceedings in such a way that the thematic discussion of matters such as corporations attempting to lay claim to entire landscapes without any thought of the immediate (or even distant) repercussions, not to mention that of the infuriating global political bureaucracy which can often force individuals to take drastic action for their family and / or community in today’s society, scarcely ever fails to captivate, a rare accomplishment given that many dialogue-led audio pieces can often lose their way by using too much exposition to delve into such themes and not enough in the way of tangible plot developments. As was the case with “Night Terrors” and “Into the Dalek”, though, Brood will forever be remembered as coming within inches of fulfilling its commendably lofty aspirations of centralising psychological drama over action, only to lose its nerve at the last instant and in doing so rank amongst the most notable could-have-beens in Who’s history.