Doctor Who The Widows AssassinBookmark and Share

Thursday, 8 January 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
The Widow's Assassin (Credit: Big Finish)
The Widow’s Assassin
Written By: Nev Fountain
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Tim Chipping (Constable Wolsey/Mandrake), John Banks (Baron Pteratrark/Guard Two), Andrew Dickens (Reverand Flitamus/Guard One), FIona Sheehan (Princess Dirani), Glynn Sweet (Harcross The Ever-Patient/Pheen-Tu/Flunkey)

Released October 2014

“The thing is, Peri, I always go back ... for my friends. In time, I always go back ...”
The Doctor, The Widow’s Assassin

The Widow’s Assassin seeks to definitively address a question that has gone largely unanswered for nearly 30 years: What really happened to the Sixth Doctor’s erstwhile young American companion Perpugilliam Brown after their visit to Thoros-Beta?

When we last saw Peri (Nicola Bryant) on television in part eight of 1986’s epic, season-long serial The Trial of a Time Lord, it appeared that she had died on Thoros-Beta. In what must have been an even more confusing situation for the young woman, Peri had beforehand been seemingly betrayed and abandoned by the Doctor (Colin Baker). However, in what many fans nearly three decades on still consider a dreadful copout, it was later revealed that Peri’s life had been spared and she had become the queen of the Krontep warrior King Yrcanos. Even comforted by the knowledge Peri was still alive, it seems the Doctor never went back for her on-screen – or at least never attempted to reconcile with her.

Indeed, it has been left up to lots of spin-off and fan fiction over the years to speculate about Peri’s ultimate fate, sometimes ranging from the tragic to the absurd. Baker himself even had a go in his 1994 Doctor Who Magazine graphic novel The Age of Chaos. Writer Nev Fountain, best known for TV’s Dead Ringers and various other Doctor Who audio contributions for Big Finish, offered his own heartbreaking take on Peri in the Doctor Who Companion Chronicle Peri and the Piscon Paradox (2011). However, the most absurd theory came from Philip Martin, the scriptwriter of parts five to eight of Trial, who suggested in the 1989 novelisation of his script that rather than becoming a queen, Peri was safely returned to Earth and became Yrcanos’ manager on the US pro-wrestling circuit!

Now Fountain, who is actually married to Nicola Bryant, has had a go at definitively resolving Peri’s story (presumably with Bryant’s input) with The Widow’s Assassin. After nearly 30 years, has it been worth the wait, you may ask? And is it any better than some of the speculation that we’ve been served up over the years?

Fountain answers these questions by putting to us another: Yes, we know the fair maiden was ultimately rescued and became a queen – but was it ever truly that simple? On one level, Fountain’s tale is plausible, and he draws on the apparent fairy tale aspects of Peri’s fate to illustrate that perhaps it wasn’t all sweetness and wine after all (the opening monologue to the story is especially memorable). On the other hand, there are some elements of the story that just aren’t executed as well as they ought to be and really place a lot of blind faith in the listener’s conviction.

The tale start offs as a relatively straightforward murder mystery in a pseudo-mediaeval setting on Krontep. The Doctor arrives on the day of Peri’s wedding to Yrcanos to beg her forgiveness and to try to understand why she never waited for him on Thoros-Beta after he was whisked away to his trial. However, Peri has him promptly arrested and thrown into prison. Yrcanos is poisoned at his own wedding and dies a week later (fans who still cringe at Brian Blessed’s shouting nearly three decades on can breathe a huge sigh of relief – Yrcanos is only mentioned in dialogue and their sensitive ears are spared Blessed’s booming tones!). Five years later, Queen Peri pardons the Doctor and enlists him on a diplomatic mission to the planet Hurn to observe the suitors for the nuptials of its ruler Princess Dirani (Fiona Sheehan), only for the Time Lord to again fall foul of the law and be accused of regicide ...

The mediaeval flavour of The Widow’s Assassin gives the listener a story that is (much like Fountain’s period drama The Kingmaker) more farce than drama – or more Blackadder than Game of Thrones! It features many colourful, exaggerated characters with ridiculous and snobbish accents such as Baron Pteratrark (John Banks), Reverend Flitamus (Andrew Dickens) and Prince Harcross the Ever Patient (Glynn Sweet), as well as the distinctly Welsh working class intonations of the simply named Guard One and Guard Two (Dickens and Banks again), who fulfil similar roles to the fools of many Shakespearean epics. Indeed, the only no-nonsense character, apart from the Doctor and Peri, is the Queen’s head of security Constable Wolsey (Tim Chipping) – and even he is a genetically modified human-sheep hybrid! Apparently having four stomachs gives Wolsey an extra “gut feeling” when solving crimes!

The story also parodies fairy stories, particularly of the beautiful princess bagging her wonderful prince at the end of the story – although in the case of The Widow’s Curse, we discover that not all royal personages necessarily live happily ever after, nor they know true love either!

In addition to straddling the fairy tale, pseudo-mediaeval and murder mystery genres, The Widow’s Assassin to boot throws in a “wibbly, wobby, timey-wimey” element. This was a strong feature of Fountain’s Peri and the Piscon Paradox and also of The Kingmaker but the “timey-wimey” component in The Widow’s Assassin is subtler and requires not only a lot of exposition but an open mind on the listener’s part to make it credible (something that the author should make work of his own accord, not anticipate the listener to accept). It does, however, explain why the Doctor is supposedly content to spend time in prison rather than investigate Yrcanos’ murder.

While The Widow’s Assassin is mostly satirical, the cliffhanger to part two of this four-part serial takes the story in a more sinister and abstract direction from what you’re expecting and it ceases to be your conventional murder mystery. In fact, the story has a twist within a twist, completely overturning the usual assumptions we have had about Peri’s fate after life in the TARDIS and really testing the story’s plausibility and again the listener’s ability to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, the antagonist, which is revealed to have as much of a personal connection to the Doctor as Peri herself, is “too grotesque to be real” (as the Sixth Doctor once said of another of his foes) – that is, the adversary is even more two-dimensional and underwhelming than intended (a fact not helped by the over-synthesised voice!). Fountain tries to be a little too clever with his script when he doesn’t need to be.

Nevertheless, the production itself is delivered with all the energy and enthusiasm that we have come to expect from the cast and crew of a BF audio production and, apart from sections which require a lot of ponderous exposition, the story is well paced and well performed by the cast. It is a credit to the likes of Chipping, Banks, Dickens and Sweet that they can deceive the ear with differing voices and inflections and create the impression that there are more actors involved in the production than there actually are. Indeed, all the actors, including the regulars, should be congratulated for fantastic voice work. Baker and Bryant even swap roles in the climactic stages of the story (Bryant’s portrayal of the Doctor is brilliant and Baker’s impersonation of Peri’s American accent is riotously funny!). Baker even lends his voice to other roles; the reason why makes sense as the story progresses (despite again testing the listener’s credulity) but you do not realise it is Baker’s voice until you sit through repeated listenings.

For the most part, The Widow’s Assassin is an entertaining, farcical romp with plenty of black humour but as a definitive resolution to Peri’s fate in the Doctor Who universe, it really should have been a more earnest, darker story – much like the Thoros-Beta story arc of the Trial season which inspired it in the first place. Indeed, you expect the story to be much darker after the great cliffhanger to part two; Fountain sets up what seems to be an intelligent, logical follow-on from events on television but then attempts to be too clever and fancy with it and expects far too much of the listener to accept some of his plot points and join the dots. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Peri Brown (and Nicola Bryant) and were always disappointed at the uncertainty of her departure, you will now be pleased that the character has effectively been given a new lease of life (pun not necessarily intended!) and that she may yet have more satisfactory closure in BF’s ongoing Doctor Who audio range than she did on television.



Counter-Measures Series 2Bookmark and Share

Friday, 2 January 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
UNIT: Counter Measures 2 (Credit: Big Finish)
Manhunt; The Fifth Citadel; Peshka; Sins of the Fathers
Starring: Simon Williams, Pamela Salem, Karen Gledhill, Hugh Ross Written By: Matt Fitton, James Goss, Mark Wright & Cavan Scott, John Dorney
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released June 2013

A well-received first series of this spin-off drama ensured another quartet of adventures - which take place in Britain during the 1960s - would arrive in due course. And this second batch is just that bit more assured, well-rounded and cohesive than the previous one. All the main cast had proven their worth - ably helped by good characterisation and some enjoyably sharp witticisms - and they continue their fine work.

'Manhunt' sees immediate fulfilment of producer Richardson's promise (in Series 1's extras features) to build on the elements that proved effective and to limit those that detracted. One welcome aspect is that the story employs a 'beginning-in-the-middle' technique, which means a lot of exposition bringing listeners up to speed but also a change of pace that curbs formulaic repetition. The events and the sense of jeopardy are thankfully strong enough to ensure that this information does not feel unwieldy. A very good twist in the final act gives added dimension to the story. Gilmore is fighting to avoid capture and clear his name, and Simon Williams clearly enjoys having to play a quick-witted 'Bond' rift on his usual army-man persona. Allison notably seems to have a chance to make amends for her notably bad romantic life, but decent drama can often spare little regard for such a likeable character.

'The Fifth Citadel' is deliberately slow at first, allowing suspense. Some nice supporting characters help to get the listener involved in the actual plot, whilst there is plenty of intriguing character development for the main four players. Especially effective is the hitherfore uncommon pairing of Toby/Rachel and Gilmore/Allison. The play ultimately comes to full life and meets its potential thanks to the spellbinding Celie Imrie. The ending is suitably memorable and chilling, and also establishes an undertone of paranoia on whether the Counter-Measures team can really believe in each other's integrity.

Next up is 'Peshka' - a quintessentially Cold War story both in themes and in actual plot. To my mind this entry offers the best mixture of the characterisation and morals of this season with the paranormal events/action focus of the previous one. It is made further enjoyable by lots of good dialogue. Much of the personal interaction features heated argument, but impressively the writers avoid the trap of such repetition becoming ever so tiresome. The storyline of a chess genius wishing to defect again is notable in wrong footing the listener, as a decent twist leads to the real source of trouble in the final act. The two main guest stars (Bo Poraj and Emily Tucker) both impress and have put their homework in to sound authentically from their country of origin.

The season finale has its fundamentals from the unresolved details left hanging from 'Manhunt'. More cutting revelations come thick and fast, and manage to be sustained over whole story. The fate of one returning character is surprising in its fashion and when it happens; yet opens up a whole new can of worms. The brittle trust between Knight Kinsella and his Counter-Measures team is pushed to the limit, but could someone else entirely be the one who pushes things too far? One issue I have with a fair number of radio plays is the reliance on sound effects which may be of a confusing nature, and the lack of accompanying narration or explanatory dialogue. 'Sins of the Fathers' perhaps is the most troubled in the set in those terms, but otherwise the production is quite polished. It is also welcome that this really is designed as a direct sequel to the earlier story, as well as continuing the tension from the middle two. Rather predictably, some plot threads are left loose for Series 3 but at the same time the writing team have demonstrated enough flair to raise hopes of there being even more strong material to come.

As stated above, character development and the evolving dynamics of the core group make this series an improvement on the first. The Rachel/Gilmore relationship which was not so fertile in the first series - with other romances cropping up - now seems to be developing into at least a firm friendship if not something deeper altogether. Allison seems to still be learning the hard knocks of life which her older, somewhat embittered colleagues know just a bit all too well. But just as he stole the show in the first run of stories, Hugh Ross' complex character compels again of the main cast, and it now almost feels irrelevant that he never was in the main frame of action in the original television Dalek story. The latter two adventures especially see Sir Toby Kinsella entrusted with power and responsibility but facing awkward questions from his junior colleagues, and the results certainly live up to the strong premise. Further excitement is evoked through the development of the character Templeton. This is a man who clearly has a lot of depth, and a lot of amorality, allowing him to use means to justify end results. Actor Philip Pope is a very good fit for the role, and hopefully will feature again to a notable degree.

Extras are again very comprehensive and entertaining, conveying the sense that the entire cast and crew are working very well together. Anecdotes abound, including how Simon Williams was key in getting his renowned actress-wife Lucy Fleming to participate as Lady Waverly. Similarly Celie Imrie happened to know Hugh Ross before her being invited to return to Doctor Who - after her turn in the bells of St John - which certainly aids their excellent work together in 'The Fifth Citadel'.

The writing team reveal motivations and objectives including: gender politics and their evolution during the 1960s; being able to use tantalising clues for the uncovered interim period between stories/series; and exploring a twist on the Frasier/Niles family dynamic of the beloved American TV show. The latter method is perhaps odd, but ultimately welcome as realistic characterisation makes a decent audio story a good or great one.

The Fourth Doctor Adventures - The AbandonedBookmark and Share

Friday, 2 January 2015 - Reviewed by Ben Breen
The Abandoned (Credit: Big Finish)
The Abandoned
Written By: Nigel Fairs and Louise Jameson
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Stephanie Cole (Marianna), Mandi Symonds (One), Andy Snowball (Two), Nigel Fairs (Three)
Released July 2014

The point this review would normally start at is, in a somewhat mundane fashion, the beginning of the story. But in fact, it’s probably best to start with the rather well put together trailer, appearing at the end of the previous two episode excursion in the Fourth Doctor Adventures range, “Destroy The Infinite”. The trailer itself feels very reminiscent of the revived series, particularly feeling like something from the series 8, 12th Doctor pen of Steven Moffat. With supernatural elements appearing ubiquitously, along with dramatic music and a fairly anxious looking Doctor, the premise, such as it could be understood, looked promising.

The two episode adventure certainly lives up to this, with a production that twists and turns whilst keeping the number of visited locations to a minimum. Moreover, the linear plotline of most stories is replaced by a relative maze of possible angles, with the situation encountered by The Doctor and Leela, played with their usual flair and characteristic quirks by Baker and Jameson, remaining unresolved for a not unreasonable length of time. The use of references to past events and characters, as depicted in previous stories such as The Evil One are not without reason, woven into the tapestry that leads to the dramatic climax. The structure of the adventure could be seen as filmic in places, with the location shifts providing an impression of cause and effect between the actions of individuals or groups.

The most apt descriptions, subjective though they may be, for this story would probably be surreal and ground-breaking. The doctor and Leela’s dialogue, while at points seeming a little tense, conveys the slightly odd student-teacher dynamic well. Stephanie Cole’s Lady Marianna is at once chillingly unsympathetic and unrelenting, the latter trope also being present in the rather unnerving performances of Mandi Symonds, Andy Snowball and Jameson’s co-writer, Nigel Fairs. The score is well suited to the adventure, falling quiet when the need arises for tension and allowing the eerie atmosphere to settle in, complimenting the high quality production that most have come to expect from Big Finish’s various audio ranges. Leela’s part in the story is suitably larger than usual considering the doctor’s deteriorating mental state, as well as the fact that Jameson came up with the original idea and had a large part in the writing process. The additional references to elements like Block Transfer Computation gives opportunities for fans familiar with the classic, pre-revival era to try and spot the others laced throughout which, according to additional research, even include references to audio ranges outside of the Fourth Doctor Adventures.

All in all, while the story itself is very well crafted by Fares and Jameson and is an interesting and thought provoking performance by all members of the cast, it would most likely be confusing to new fans of the range or indeed of Doctor Who in general. This is due, in part, to the fact that the entirety of the adventure is an exception to the classic idea of Doctor Who stories, where the Time Lord is seen saving a planet from some alien race or other. The fact that other previous stories are referenced, if subliminally, also means that fans familiar with a wider portion of the canon will, in theory, be able to get more out of this than those hearing this as an initial entry into Doctor Who audios. This is a good adventure in spite of these minor points and I would urge anyone looking for something new and relatively abstract to give this one a listen if they are fans of the third season of The Fourth Doctor Adventures or the Big Finish ranges in general.