Mask of Tragedy (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 12 November 2014 - Reviewed by Richard Watts

Mask of Tragedy
Written By: James Goss
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released September 2014

In his first audio adventure for the Big Finish Main Range, writer James Goss (The Scorchies) takes the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Hector (Philip Olivier) for a holiday to ancient Greece in the year 421 BC. As holidays go, it’s about as refreshing as a dip in the seas of Marinus.

Outside Athens’ walls the Peloponnesian War rages, and a horde of Spartan warriors (described by the Doctor as "like the Daleks, but with better hair") are preparing to sack the city. Inside the walls, a strange sickness stalks citizens and slaves alike, turning them into mindless zombies; and a winged fury haunts the Tyrant of Athens, the tormented Cleon (Alisdair Simpson).

In the words of the poet Sophocles:

"Ah me! it is a world, a world of woe,
Plague upon the height and plague below!"

Or as Goss puts it, speaking through playwright and comedian Aristophanes (Samuel West), this story’s major supporting character: "Basically, it’s the end of the world.".

Mask of Tragedy is that relatively rare Big Finish release, a comedy; a wry, knowing, bawdy and clever comedy that balances camp quips with dark undercurrents in a way that recalls such classic Doctor Who stories as The Sun Makers and Revelation of the Daleks.

As with the comedies of Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BC), that humour is sometimes dragged down by the occasional cheap laugh that reminds listeners why everyone from Wilde and Faulkner to Arthur Quiller-Couch urged writers to "kill their darlings" (the most groan-inducing example being the line, "Is it a bird? Is it an astral plane?") but for the most part it’s a smart, even sophisticated script that takes every opportunity to celebrate Goss’ love for Aristophanes’ contributions to the theatrical canon, as well as the foibles of the theatre in general.

Continuing the playfully self-aware approach to storytelling that has become a trademark of Goss’ writing, from Torchwood spin-off novels Almost Perfect and Risk Assessment to his tenth Doctor audio Dead Air, the adventure’s structure reflects classic Greek proscriptions around the need for all plays to have a hero, a villain, and a chorus, with Ace often playing the latter role. Much of the script is presented in extended flashbacks, framed by narrative sections which heighten the listener’s awareness of actively listening to an audio drama. Goss also successfully and meta-theatrically plays with the listener’s awareness of common Doctor Who tropes, such as the Doctor’s exasperation over Ace once again stuffing up his plans by taking action at the wrong moment, or the Time Lord’s sudden realisation that he neglected to listen to one of his companions when they were telling him something important.

Indeed, even the citizens of Athens in Mask of Tragedy seem hyper-aware of the nature of the universe they live in: apparently ancient Greece is a hotspot for temporal tourists. As Aristophanes succinctly notes: "We get visitors all the time. From all of time."

Mask of Tragedy sees a return to the Machiavellian Doctor whose long games were so successfully represented in the Virgin New Adventures, even as Goss leavens his script with jokes that writers in particular will enjoy, such as Aristophanes’ faux-exasperated complaints about the popularity of his base comedies: "Hack work. But alas people do seem to like them."

Supporting characters, ranging from time-travelling theatre-luvvie, Tyrgius (Russell Bentley) to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Cleon, are well developed, though a cameo from the slave-girl Lysistrata (Emily Tucker) is tantalisingly brief.

Goss also writes Hector well, making the recently changed relationship between the current TARDIS crew feel genuinely fresh – such as an early scene, when in response to Ace telling Hector that she and the Doctor care about him Hector replies, "You don’t even know me!" And indeed they don’t know him well; not his new personality at least.

This new Hector gets a chance to spread his wings in this adventure (as does Tyrgius); certainly more than in the previous month’s lacklustre Revenge of the Swarm. Here Hector tries to become a hero in response to what he sees as the Doctor’s indifference to the plight of Athens – with predictably unfortunate results. That said, for someone whose only known memories are as life as a petty Liverpool gangster, Hector is still a relatively passive character – perhaps suggesting that Hex’s lost memories are not all that lost after all?

Not every aspect of this audio adventure is entirely successful: Ace is written as strangely naïve as she leads the Spartan army into Athens, and some of the line readings – such as Philip Olivier’s Jim Carrey-esque exaggerations when wearing the artefact that is this story’s titular McGuffin – are a trifle grating, though perhaps deliberately so given the Mask in question. Too, Richard Fox and Lauren Yason’s sound design is not always successful; for instance the invading Spartan army’s cheers seem distinctly masculine, despite the fact that said army is written as female. The pair’s score, however, is far more impressive, a convincing pastiche of traditional Greek music that makes excellent use of percussion to ramp up the intensity of the drama.

Though it may be a trifle too light-hearted and self-aware for every taste, for this fan, Mask of Tragedy is one of the strongest Big Finish releases of 2014: a playful, intelligent and engaging homage to the dramatic structures and characters that have made Doctor Who – and Greek drama – a lasting success for so many years.




New Adventures with the Eleventh Doctor - Issue 4: WhodunnitBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Eleventh Doctor - Issue 4: Whodunnit
Revolutions of Terror, Part Three
New Adventures with the Tenth Doctor
Issue 3
Written by Al Ewing
Illustrated by Boo Cook
Coloured by Hi-Fi
Released 2014 by Titan Comics
This new issue in the line of comic strip adventures with The Eleventh Doctor confirms that John Jones is indeed a companion proper following his striking introduction in last month's escapades. Having been somewhat memorable at first, this is perhaps not the best use of this character as he spouts rather frivolous statements and does not really seem to be swept along by the amazing experiences he is so privileged to be having. He instead seems to be treating the whole thing as a trip on the chemical substance level - which may be a deliberate choice by the creative team but seems rather cloying. The old conceit of characters rarely needing comfort breaks is also bypassed as Jones seems desperate to go to a stopover place; when the TARDIS would surely offer much more comfortable options. At least Alice is as engaging as ever, even if she shows signs of being ready to resume her normal challenges in the real world.

The actual plot is nothing too different from the usual outer space fare for Doctor Who. Something is turning members of a spaceship crew researching beetle colonies into human vegetables, and The TARDIS lands at the very moment when those trying to maintain order have become rather paranoid. By being released in time for Halloween there is a perhaps deliberate atmosphere of creepiness and mystery as the rather odd alien entity causing the danger is employed sparingly and thus the tension is quite acute.

The Doctor also has the personal worry of Alice siding against him upon hearing him dismiss her and many of her predecessors as little more than outsiders and stowaways. Yet this is once again a good opportunity for modern Doctor Who to show off its winning character development attributes. Alice is certainly one of the more grown-up and steady of the companions and this means that the sometimes childishly positive Matt Smith incarnation must accept that life can be inescapably difficult. A key objective for a spin-off story in another medium is to try and add something that the source material did not explore - or at least not to a great extent. Thus Titan Comics are justifying their work beyond a purely franscise-level.

Al Ewing returns to writing duties with a much more gripping and memorable story than his previous solo effort in Issue 2. There is a good combination of black humour, intrigue and the threads of 'timey-wimey-ness' coming together from the previous set-up of prior installments. More striking though is that we have a different artist on board for the first time in this particular series, with Boo Cook getting to show off his style of presentation. There is very much a pure sci-fi feel, and by being set on a sterile craft in space there is less need for the heady mix of colours and contrasts that were noticeable in the other stories. For me personally the character designs of Cook stood up well; emotions and defining facial features were to a particularly solid standard.

Most reading this review will be pretty loyal fans of the show, but as some people make comics their first choice of entertainment/escapism, we can only hope these new stories are drawing in a whole new demographic to this five decade (and counting!) phenomenon. Perhaps a singular issue has less impact if not read in sequence after other entries, but there is some good work being done with the story arc and a long-term plan seems confident enough. Essentially the expectation now is that the 'hits' will begin to outweigh the 'near-misses', so that some real momentum is built for the flamboyant Eleventh Doctor.

**
Bonus strips are once again enchantingly amusing. A nice call-back to the wooden Cyberman of Matt's TV tenure features in 'Wooden Acting' by AJ. Can Marc Ellerby do no wrong?? Once again he ticks all he boxes you can ask for with his 'Wholloween' gem. The Doctor may be free to travel anywhere and anywhen but he can't escape alien kids after something tasty from his many forms of sustenance abroad the TARDIS. Amy dressed up as a witch is also of amusement, especially as she can't seem to get her Time Lord chum to make the same sort of effort.




Death in HeavenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 8 November 2014 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

This review contains plot spoilers.

Death in Heaven’s pre-credits sequence plays with the idea of a female Doctor; it’s a notion which hangs over this finale. The cheekily modified title sequence lends unexpected credence to Clara’s assertion as to who she really is, deftly borrowing a trick from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although in the end all of this proves to be little more than a diversionary tactic.

There can be no doubting Steven Moffat’s ambition – this episode caps a story that has taken Doctor Who to some pretty dark places for a ‘family’ show, and concludes a series that has combined romps and dead-ahead monster stories with experimental, unusual and outright fantasy-driven tales. There’s a sense of the showrunner cutting loose and ditching tried-and-tested timey wimey devices in this episode; Moffat clearly relishes writing for a “bananas” Master, and takes care to show us the danger and potency of the character, particularly by killing off a returning friend of the Doctor’s. It's a version of the Master that seems indebted to Big Finish’s explorations of the Doctor-Master relationship, specifically framing this archest of arch enemies as a “childhood friend”. Moffat makes Missy’s agenda more personal than ever before: what she wants isn’t simply world domination, but rather full recognition of the fact – as she sees it – that the Doctor is her mirror image (it’s almost as if she’s read a scriptwriting manual on how to represent heroes and villains in the contemporary screenplay). This partly replays tropes from the tenth Doctor’s showdown with Davros in series 4. And it further develops Moffat’s thematic interest in the implications, or possibilities, of a warrior-like Doctor, something that's chillingly explored via the Doctor's use of any tactical advantage he can lay his hands on.

More than anything, though, this finale integrates the series that has come before: flashbacks to a range of episodes including Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood pull series eight together impressively, representing a satisfying rather than gimmicky story arc. I’m tempted to suggest that this is Moffat’s finest series finale yet, as he riffs shamelessly on the “tomb of the Cybermen” image and idea, seeking to make the Cybermen as terrifying as possible (and delivering in spades).

Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson all put in impressive performances – something enhanced by Rachel Talalay’s smart and assured direction – but the episode belongs to Michelle Gomez as well as her channeling of John Simm in the role. I realize that many of us would have liked a regeneration scene, but what we get is, in a way, more substantive than that. Gomez’s heightened and exaggerated performance consistently calls her predecessor to mind. Her mocking lip-biting is a joy to behold, as is her choice of pop music (even more narcissistically self-centred than the Simm-Master). And the child-like way that Gomez chooses to interpret a line about playing with more of the Doctor’s friends is also spot on. I very much hope she will return in the role, as there’s real scope to further explore this somewhat retooled relationship between Time Lord/Lady peers.

Death in Heaven offers another terrific piece of narrative trickery from Moffat. Having directed audiences to consider how the Doctor and the Master are the same (or not), we instead end up with a very different mirror image, as Clara and the Doctor face each other across a gulf of mutual deceit, both of them seeking to protect and release the other. And, most wonderfully of all, Moffat transforms what has up until now looked like a bit of mildly flailing comedic business – the Doctor’s aversion to hugging – into an emotional sucker punch, as the Time Lord explains why he doesn’t trust a hug. That instantaneous shift from slapstick froth to brutal truth might just be the darkest moment in the episode – it’s not a fantastical scenario of uploaded minds and upgraded bodies, just the simple, stark recognition that even those we most care about, and deeply trust, might nevertheless choose to lie to us about matters of life and death.

As well as lacking full-on time travel shenanigans (bar Missy’s acknowledgement that she’s been patrolling up and down the Doctor’s timeline, by way of explaining her earlier episodic appearances), this finale also plays out like a fairly linear continuation of Dark Water. Other Moffat two-parters have sometimes taken off in a whole new direction. Here, we get the shifting perspective of UNIT’s involvement, and the Doctor’s unexpected rise to mastery of Earth, but there’s still very much a sense of organically developing ideas from episode eleven. And if some of Dark Water’s darkness is backed away from, the Master’s made-over identity is nonetheless firmly embraced (though we are deprived of seeing Missy’s TARDIS, unless one counts Saint Paul’s as occupying the role). Unfortunately, I think Seb represents a slightly miss(y)ed opportunity, despite offering a pay-off to Missy’s initial explanation of her status. And although Seb’s final word offers a moment of fan referentiality (only someone as black-hearted as the Master could possibly be opposed to a good squee), it would have been interesting to see Chris Addison properly facing off against his The Thick of It co-star Capaldi.

This is an episode sprinkled with special, fan-pleasing moments, not least of which is the manner in which a much-loved classic series character is cleverly and poignantly featured. And it is an episode which, for me, integrates sentiment and intellect more thoroughly than, say, The Angels Take Manhattan, and in which the graveyard setting feels thematically relevant and earned rather than a case of set dressing or overt emotional manipulation. Clara’s (latest) story really feels as if it’s been completed here, although the cunning false ending, and Nick Frost's eyebrow-raising debut, both promise further adventures (and these moments were omitted from an advance screening of the episode, as well as from its BBC preview for journalists).  

Is the Doctor a “good man”? Did you ever really, truly doubt it? And has series eight offered a good run of episodes? More than that, it’s been startlingly great in its overall consistency, its risk-taking, its freshness and its vision. Much of this series, and Capaldi’s effortless, bravura inhabitation of the role, is surely up there with the very best of Doctor Who times past. Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin and the many other prime movers behind this run of episodes all deserve hearty recognition.





Revolutions of Terror - Conclusion (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 3 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Tenth Doctor #3 Cover - Revolutions of Terror
Revolutions of Terror, Part Three
New Adventures with the Tenth Doctor
Issue 3
Written by Nick Abadzis
Illustrated by Elena Casagrande
Coloured by Arianna Florean
Released 2014 by Titan Comics
"In this city, you could get great rent on this place... 'Blue Unit.. From out of the blue" Gabby responding to the sight of the TARDIS interior.

This third issue concludes the first multi-part story in this new run of Tenth Doctor adventures, and sees our intrepid time travelling hero come up with a typically inspired approach to resolving the astral plane attack on New York (and effectively the entire world).

The early indicators of Gabby's relatives having a role to play in the unfolding plot and inevitable climax seem to have been a misdirection. Still, there is some good character development as they all show strong appreciation and warm regard for her role in combating the disturbing menace. Part Two had been the equivalent of an episode where most of the characters we met were extras/ passers by; this instalment gets more of a balance between the new TARDIS crew and the supporting characters that were introduced so well in the opening issue.

Significantly 'Revolutions' has allowed the Tenth Doctor to assert his authority and true heroic traits, Despite still coming across a bit madcap he eventually brings the crisis to a decisive end. There is some remorse though as he must accept that the race that gave life to the evil Cerebravores has paid the ultimate price. In resolving the cliff-hanger threat of one of these parasitic creatures, he is able to assist a female scientist who explains just why the crisis appeared in the first place. However in this instance the Doctors only delays the inevitable, as the learned alien commits to helping him find the solution before being lost forever to the terrifyingly destructive creatures. "[I] never knew her name' he laments.

Last time I praised the writing and development for Gabby, and I still am as excited about her potential in these new stories from Titan. Perhaps predictably, but still a positive, her scepticism towards the sheer improbability of the Doctor's claims diminishes drastically. The eventual demolition of the Laundromat serves both story and symbolic purposes, as it is signposted that the immediate future for the young Mss Gonzalez will be in a setting far removed from the somewhat humdrum society of 21st century earthlings.

And as Gabby seemingly begins to grasp the astounding fact that the Doctor is no ordinary law enforcer, upon entering his 'TARDIS hut', we can now keenly await what else she must get her smart mind to adjust to. At the very end there is an echo of the very first New Who story 'Rose' - with a slight tweak on the Doctor revealing the time travel aspect of his unique spaceship. Another reference also comes along with a fleeting look at what could be a Weeping Angel - but who knows if this is a cameo, an in-joke or an actual foundation for a later story with these iconic monsters.

So this initial story has played out well, although Part One promised more thematic depth in terms of the main Earth setting than we ended up actually getting. On the other hand the heavy use of mystical/magic themes, along with the astral plane concept and the alien beings is relatively original; especially if compared to the typical RTD episode that Tennant featured in.

The translation of the story's concepts into art continues to be of the highest calibre - as Abadzis and Casagrande clearly know what to expect of one another. With the tension ratcheted up by the preceding issue and now this conclusion, the art work has shown a good amount of range flair. The colours from Arianna Florean also end up proving more than serviceable, as the particular mood needs to be established. To summarise, this is as measured and well-constructed a conclusion as I tend to expect from a Doctor Who story that begins so confidently. Perhaps the absolutely most inspired material isn't quite achieved, but the story reads well, moves along without fuss and has plenty of incident and solid character development. And now the true scope of the TARDIS has opened up for the Time Lord and his latest companion, so there is plenty to look forward to from now on.

**
We are granted two bonus features in this issue, the first being a very welcome reminder of the 'Day of the Doctor'. Here, the War Doctor is given prominence, but incarnations 10 and 11 also get in on the act. Perhaps the actual humour featured is not for everyone but it is still pleasing to be reminded of the great John Hurt's frustation with his successors' 'immature' behaviour. (David Leach is the writer, with AJ conjuring up the visuals)

The second bonus is of more interest as it features the Tenth Doctor in passing on the end of a telephone line to the 'Psychic Paper Inc Claims Department'. With both the Ood and the Sensorites confirmed as planetary neighbours on TV, it makes sense to have them work together on an off-world space craft/centre. Even more intriguing is having an unnamed woman that originates from the sisterhood of Pompeii (featured in Series 4). And a rather greedy alien race introduced in the Sixth Doctor's era also is involved. (Emma Price is solely credited, and this hopefully leads to a main story being penned by a woman).




Dark WaterBookmark and Share

Saturday, 1 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
This review contains plot spoilers.

Poor Danny Pink. It was looking fairly inevitable that he'd end up paying the Nethersphere a visit at some point, but who would have thought he'd get there for not observing the Green Cross Code? Clara herself remarks on what a boring demise it is, in her numbed, traumatised state - even if 'death is not an end'.

These early scenes see Doctor Who handle death and grief in a very grown-up fashion, perhaps influenced by Broadchurch. Indeed, the whole episode deals with various facets of death, and is set to challenge one or two belief systems. One bit of blackmail-related plot misdirection involving lava and a dressing-down from the Doctor later, and it's time to go and rescue Mr Pink from his new home in the Nethersphere.

Speaking of the Nethersphere, we get our first proper glimpse here. Not only do we get a look at its impossible vistas and see how it works, but we finally get to the bottom of what's eating Danny.

Boldly, he's brought face to face with the young victim of his tour of duty in the Nethersphere, and we see his 'really bad day' in flashback. After weeks of treading water whilst Clara's story continues bounding forward, Samuel Anderson finally earns his stripes, as he finds out that 'death is not an end' via administrator-from-hell Seb (Chris Addison), and is left contemplating his own final end, as he tearfully manoeuvres Clara into hanging up on him.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Clara make their way to the mysterious 3W institute. Here we meet Doctor Chang, who is pressed and pressed until he finally reveals the full horror of what happens after 'death', and the TARDIS crew finally get to meet Missy - who terrifies the Doctor with her unorthodox and highly invasive method of introduction.

After lurking on the sidelines since Deep Breath, Michelle Gomez gives a superb, playful, unsettling performance once given a bit of space to move. The terrified Chang is asked to 'say something nice' before she executes him. We still don't have the full lowdown on what she's about, but unsurprisingly, given the familiar publicity shots - Missy is in league with the Cybermen. The Nethersphere gets the minds, our friends from Telos get the bodies. There's some neat foreshadowing with the Cyber-eye motifs used on doors and the 'water tombs'. This is even used to alert the viewer ahead of the Doctor as to what's coming. The title itself is a plot point, and it becomes very apparent that it's there as Cyber-camouflage. It's good to finally have confirmation that these Cybermen are of organic origin, and not the RTD-era brain-cases though.

In another bit of misdirection, Moffat pulls the rug to reveal that the Nethersphere exists on a different plane to the institute, and the Doctor and Clara are actually in central London all along - as Missy puts things into motion, and Cybermen once again march down those St Paul's steps.

Interestingly, for a change, the Doctor has no inkling of the series arc, he blunders into it by accident while attempting to rescue a man he doesn't much like. Despite his 'so what' reaction to Clara's news, we know whether he's a good man now.

As ever, Capaldi and Coleman are excellent, and their relationship is key. The Doctor gets some good moments, be it his disbelief and horror at Missy's revelation, or tersely telling Clara how much she means to him when she attempts volcanic blackmail. Coleman meanwhile channels grief, deviousness, and pluck throughout, with the underlying unsaid note that her phone call caused Danny's death. The chemistry between the two leads is electric as ever.

Dark Water is a brilliant part one, how part two pans out is anyone's guess, but hopefully our questions will be answered next week, and it'll be worth the wait.