Doctor Who - The DefectorsBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 June 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
The Defectors (Credit: Big Finish)

Written and directed by Nick Briggs

Big Finish Productions, 2015

Stars: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates), Barnaby Edwards (Commander Wingford), Neil Roberts (Captain Cornelius), Rachel Bavidge and Jez Fielder (the Europans)

“I kept trying to think what my Doctor would have done ...”

“I am your Doctor, Jo – just with the benefits of a few more centuries’ wisdom ...”

Jo Grant and the Seventh Doctor, The Defectors

 

The Defectors is the first instalment in a trilogy that culminates in (and marks) the impending 200th release of Big Finish’s Doctor Who “main range”* later this month.  It has been described (with tongue firmly in cheek by Big Finish) as the “locum Doctors” trilogy, as each story transplants some of the Doctor’s later regenerations into the respective eras of his first three incarnations.

In The Defectors, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) finds himself deposited at UNIT headquarters during the Third Doctor’s era, much to the surprise of companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning). Indeed, the Time Lord can barely reflect on how he suddenly came to be at this point in his past before he and Jo are whisked off to a remote island in the North Sea by regulars in the British Army who have, in the “interests of national security”, had all UNIT personnel despatched to London, including Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) who is standing in for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart whilst he is in Geneva.

In the ensuing events, the Seventh Doctor and Jo uncover a near three decades-old conspiracy and the Doctor is presented with an agonising moral dilemma that may (or may not) explain why he has been relocated to this point in his timeline. Is he supposed to rectify something he did long ago or sanction a course of action which his third incarnation would have vociferously opposed?

Writer/director Nicholas Briggs delivers a very good script which seeks to capture the spirit of the Pertwee era whilst offering a twist on the usual “alien invasion/base under siege” style of storytelling. Briggs’ brief is challenging, as he has to deliver what is nominally a UNIT tale without that era’s key players – Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) has sadly departed and John Levene (Sergeant Benton) declined to appear, effectively robbing Briggs of two-thirds of the UNIT staff before he had even put pen to paper. As a result, UNIT is relegated to the sidelines, and the Doctor and Jo must rely on their wits to uncover the truth on Delphin Isle. The Defectors therefore has the undercurrents of classic Pertwee and McCoy TV serials The Sea Devils and The Curse of Fenric respectively. Both serials are set in seaside locations and the respective Doctor/companion combinations have the assistance (or hindrance) of the armed forces, but the perceived threat in The Defectors is not nearly as cut and dried.

Indeed, there is good reason to sympathise with the motives of the antagonistic Europans (Rachel Bavidge and Jez Fielder) and to be suspicious of Delphin Isle’s populace, represented by the slippery Commander Wingford and Captain Cornelius (portrayed by BF regulars Barnaby Edwards and Neil Roberts) – in spite of the alien influence pervading their community. Indeed, Briggs channels Pertwee era scribe Malcolm Hulke by showing that the token monsters aren’t as monstrous as they appear and that their victims – the so-called “defectors” of the tale – aren’t so innocent either. Unfortunately, Briggs cannot emulate Hulke’s flair for irony and tragedy. If Hulke had written this script, I think he would have put an entirely different complexion on the climax. Briggs, in contrast, rather neatly winds up the story in exactly the manner that you would expect of a Pertwee era serial. So, yes, while Briggs remains true to the essence of his brief, The Defectors lacks the pathos that Hulke (or perhaps his peers like Barry Letts or Terrance Dicks) would have instilled in the closing proceedings and gives the tale an almost upbeat ending that it probably doesn’t deserve.

As you would expect of a BF Doctor Who audio, The Defectors benefits from excellent sound production and top-rate performances. Sylvester McCoy continues to be excellent as the Seventh Doctor, injecting the right amounts of humour, assurance and steel into his character as the script demands. What isn’t in play here (which is great for the script and the character) is the Seventh Doctor’s proclivity for playing cosmic chess with his adversaries and his friends. Indeed, the mystery of how and why he has been brought to this earlier point in his personal history is not even properly considered until the serial’s fourth episode; this particular version of the Doctor is uncharacteristically as much in the dark as Jo Grant and the listeners are. Indeed, he remains relatively unflustered by this turn of events, concentrating instead on the mystery of Delphin Isle; it is only as the stakes soar that the Seventh Doctor questions his place and also the intended course of his actions.

Katy Manning is fantastic as Jo Grant, having only had the opportunity to portray the character previously in BF’s The Companion Chronicles without the advantages of a full cast audio drama. Although you can occasionally detect the age in her voice (she is, after all, a near septuagenarian playing a character in her mid-twenties!), Manning still manages to recapture the qualities that make Jo so fondly remembered to this day: her naivety, compassion, courage and impetuousness. Briggs shows he has a very good handle for Jo’s character and that’s she not just a “dolly bird” assistant; she makes some critical discoveries through her own detective work, aided by Doctor Who veteran David Graham’s befuddled character Shedgerton. Manning’s scenes with Shedgerton are also illustrative of the rapport Jo could quickly develop with supporting characters, and how she could bring out the best in those people.

Jo’s reaction to the “new” Doctor is also an intriguing part of the story, even though she is cut off from him for almost a good half of the serial. She is familiar with regeneration (this story, for her, occurring not long after the events of The Three Doctors) but she is nevertheless uncertain how much she should trust this stranger claiming to be the Doctor. At first, her accidental acknowledgments of this man as the Doctor is a frequent source of humour – both with the Seventh Doctor himself and the listener alike – but by the climax, Jo’s faith in the Time Lord is unfailing – to a fault. Like her attempt at self-sacrifice in The Daemons or Ace’s conviction in the Doctor in The Curse of Fenric, Jo’s belief proves to be critical ...

McCoy and Manning eclipse the play’s other performers. Franklin is underused as Yates but makes the most of his limited role. Edwards and Roberts are unconvincing villains, although you get the impression their caricatures of old school soldiers is a deliberate feature of Briggs’ writing. Graham is surprisingly convincing as the constantly bewildered, yet courageous Shedgerton (his reaction when he is introduced to the interior of the TARDIS gives off the impression it is the least of all the uncertainty he’s had to deal with!). Hackneyed accents aside, Bavidge and Fielder are also proficient as two of the lsle’s local publicans as well as the alien antagonists.

Indeed, if there is one disappointing aspect of the sound effects, it is the Europans’ voices. The aliens sound too often like wounded 1960s Cybermen or 1970s Silurians and their voices are so high pitched and heavily modulated that they are at times almost inaudible. You either have to play back the tracks on the serial to understand what they are saying or listen to the story multiple times to improve your understanding of their dialogue. Perhaps the voices are also an attempt by Briggs to recapture the style of alien tones frequently tried during the Pertwee era – the quality of sounds used back then were experimental and on repeat viewings today can still grate with the audience because the dialogue is hard to understand. When sound is so integral to BF’s output, it’s ludicrous to compromise the story out of affection for archaic sound techniques which are incomprehensible to the listener.

Nevertheless, Joe Kramer’s sound design and incidental music does enough to evoke impressions of the era of Doctor Who in which this story is ostensibly set while also providing some stirring and exciting passages of music. Although I’m a great admirer of film and TV soundtracks, I don’t often notice incidental music on BF audios largely because I’m focusing on plot and characterisation while listening. However, for The Defectors, I did notice and enjoy the music. Some of the cues Kramer uses – particularly for the lighter moments that exploit Jo’s accidental acknowledgements of the Doctor – are reminiscent of the humorous cues that Dudley Simpson employed in the Pertwee era. But there are also tracks in the story that are grander and more ambitious than what Simpson or his contemporaries in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop could have attempted. Kramer’s passage of music when UNIT helicopters converge on Delphin Isle in the story’s climactic moments has an almost cinematic tone, daresay of the likes of Apocalypse Now. It just illustrates how far along music has come in 50 years; compositions that would have taken Simpson or the Radiophonic Workshop weeks to develop on what was then considered state of the art equipment can probably be replicated on Big Finish’s studio facilities in a matter of minutes.

The Defectors is a solid start to the “locum Doctors” trilogy and a fun, entertaining and well thought out morality tale in its own right. By the end of the serial, we are no clearer about why the Doctor has been drawn back earlier into his time stream or who or what has perpetrated it. No doubt more clues will be laid in the next instalment Last of the Cybermen and answered in “200th” release The Secret History*, with Colin Baker and Peter Davison respectively. If The Defectors is any guide, then these instalments should be just as entertaining.

* Author’s note: BF’s Doctor Who output over the last 16 years truly exceeds 200 releases, considering the “main range” does not encompass the Fourth and Eighth Doctor adventures (whose output alone equates to an extra 100 titles), Companion Chronicles, Lost Stories and numerous Whoniverse spin-offs, eg Gallifrey, Jago & Litefoot, Counter-Measures, Dalek Empire, Professor Bernice Summerfield, etc.

 





Last of the GadereneBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 June 2015 -  
 
Last of the Gaderene (audio book) (Credit: BBC Audio)
Last of the Gaderene
Written By: Mark Gatiss
Read By: Richard Franklin
Released By: BBC Audio, 21 May 2015
Last of the Gadarene is an unabridged reading of a novel by Mark Gatiss featuring the third Doctor, Jo Grant and UNIT. Gatiss’ narrative captures perfectly the feel of Season 10. The story’s main setting is a quiet country village which backs onto a disused aerodrome. Immediately this calls to mind the quaint country setting of Devil’s End in The Dæmons although in this story the fictional village is the more subtly named Culverton. Last of the Gadarene feels very typical of the sort of invasion story for which the Pertwee era of Doctor Who is generally remembered. UNIT are called in to investigate sinister goings on at the aerodrome which has been taken over by a mysterious black uniformed organisation named Legion International. From the opening quotation of The Gospel of Mark, Gatiss’ narrative is very atmospheric as it slowly builds towards a splendid reveal at the conclusion of Chapter 20 which, whilst not entirely surprising, is still a pleasing moment for fans of this era.

Richard Franklin was perhaps not the most obvious choice to narrate this audio version as unlike some of the UNIT regulars, Captain Yates only appears very fleetingly in a couple of the chapters. In the absence of the much-missed Nicholas Courtney, it might have been more appropriate to have asked Katy Manning as Jo Grant is present throughout most of the story although even she might have struggled with some of the impersonations required. Overall, Franklin does a creditable job. He captures Pertwee very well, admittedly assisted by the fact that Gatiss has clearly written the Doctor he remembered from childhood. Some amusement may be found from his country bumpkin accent for Sergeant Benton which is reminiscent of an extra from The Archers, rather than evoking John Levene.

The reading is largely left unaccompanied except for a limited selection of music cues for some of the action scenes and otherwise subtle use of background sound effects. An exception to this is at the climax of the story where the sound designers have chosen to bring in a voice changing effect for an alien character which having done without for the preceeding 7 discs seems an unnecessary last minute addition. Fortunately the narrative is allowed to evoke an atmosphere of sinister threat and excitement without being overwhelmed which is does very effectively, except for a couple of moments when Franklin over-emphasises a word or sentence in a way that sounds different to the imagined voice of the author.

In conclusion, Last of the Gadarene makes for an enjoyable listen with Franklin an able narrator. As the story unfolds and reaches a worthwhile conclusion it is clear that this is Gatiss’ love letter to the Doctor Who of his childhood and as such is a well-deserved audio release.




Jago And Litefoot - Series 5Bookmark and Share

Monday, 22 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Jago and Litefoot - Series Five (Credit: Big Finish)
Starring: Christopher Benjamin, Trevor Baxter, Lisa Bowerman
Also Starring: Duncan Wisbey, Raquel Cassidy, Ben Willbond, Jamie Newall, Chook Sibtain, Ken Bones, Anna Tolputt, and Alex Mallinson.
Writers: Jonathan Morris, Marc Platt,Colin Brake, Justin Richards
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Producer: David Richardson 
Script Editor: Justin Richards
 Executive Producers:Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released -  March 2013

Few keen Doctor Who fans will deny that 'The Talons Of Weng Chiang' saw the show at one of its absolute peaks. It featured arguably the best Doctor of them all in Tom Baker, one of the most original companions in Leela (acted to perfection by Louise Jameson), and Robert Holmes' terrific script brought to life expertly by David Maloney and his crew. The story also signalled the end of the frequently dubbed 'Golden Era', overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe.

Much like the previously reviewed 'Countermeasures', this ongoing series of original adventures sees excellent supported characters from a landmark story being given their own starring honours. Henry Gordan Jago and Professor George Litefoot were instantly likeable characters with very human strengths and weaknesses. Both acted as great foils for the Doctor and Leela, yet it was the chemistry they shared with one another in the climactic episodes of 'Talons' that signified something truly special: a pairing of two unique individuals whereby one complemented the other perfectly. They were the epitome of the 'Holmes Double Act' - a motif often imitated but never bettered. And I say that despite my high regard for 'Revelation Of The Daleks'.

This fifth series is the consequence of a solitary play in Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles hitting all the right notes, i.e. 'The Mahogany Murderers'. Andy Lane’s then-new story for the lovable duo was of sufficient success that Big Finish pushed on to make this very popular ongoing series of new adventures.

One distinct plus for me is that both Benjamin and Baxter are men who had mature voices when we first saw them on-screen, and thus the continuity of their further adventures feels absolutelty authentic to the ear..

The great hook for this sequence of escapades is that the two friends are left stranded in 1960s England thanks to the slight carelessness of the Sixth Doctor; this following the previous Big Finish adventures 'Voyage to Venus' and 'Voyage to the New World'. On my part I confess that I come into this long running series without having heard the earlier seasons, but this did not impact on my enjoyment or my ability to grasp what is essentially going on.

 

'The Age of Revolution' is a very solid beginning, which balances exposition, character development and dynamic suspense most deftly indeed. The villain is suitably hiss-able, with a clear objective that is credible, and we care enough as listeners for the various 'sacrificial lambs' that feature. The framing device of having Detective Sacker - a descendent of another supporting character from the Victorian time zone of earlier seasons -  investigate and narrate some of the play works well.

Also welcome is bringing back a fan favourite in Ellie (played by Lisa Bowerman - most well-known as Seventh Doctor companion Bernice Summerfield) who happens to now have a much longer shelf life in the aftermath of facing vampires.

The actual 'McGuffin' is the well-known trope of a crystal that can sway hordes of people, except when another crystal comes into play, that is. How this danger is averted before events spiral out of control is well-done and also services the key requirement of producing good character development for the main leads.

Many avid Doctor Who fans know that Jonathan Morris can write well and then some, and is always mindful of evoking the era of Doctor Who that a particular story owes its flavour to.  As in all good Who the blend of humour, drama and sheer entertainment is right on point.

 

'The Case of The Gluttonous Guru' is also fun in its own way if a small step down in its success. It also perhaps falls short of what Marc Platt truly can muster when he is really on song. The food humour from several scenes in 'Ghost Light ' seems to be the main foundation for the play. It is certainly an enjoyable story, with good pace and committed guest performances that are infused with relish. In terms of what can be denoted as flawed, the villain does rather feel like a mere henchman in thrall to his cause, which would be fine except that there is no major opposition to fill the void.

This matters little though when character building and proper exploration of the move to the 20th century are clearly well thought out by the production team. The ending has a certain simplistic elegance which can be hard to pull off, but in this case is decidedly innocent of the deuc ex machina cliche.

 

The third play of the four - 'The Bloodchild Codex' - although frequently seeming competent enough in a given scene, ultimately comes off as the 'weak link' of the season. I did not really get the right sense for what jeopardy was involved. The seemingly primary villains do not really stand out that much, with rather sketchy motivations, which is odd given the clear detailing of the actual power of a rare book that offers more than just the written word. Also I feel Litefoot is a bit out of character when it comes to the resolution, showing some of the cold bloodedness and/or flippancy that most Doctors - apart from perhaps the Sixth and Ninth - would definitely frown upon. However the cliff hanger ending leading into season closer 'The Final Act' is expertly done and almost washes away the disappointment of the prior closing tracks.

 

And what a thrilling, enjoyable and revelatory finale we are given on this CD. This play owes a lot to the core source material of 'Talons of Weng Chiang', and yet never feels tired or derivative - thanks to the clear differences involved in being over seven decades ahead of the original encounter with Greel and Mr Sin. There is not much time taken to catch a breath, as Godiva - the overall villain of Series 5 - is operating in fifth gear in order to achieve her goals. Raquel Cassidy presents the right amount of sassiness, cold-bloodedness and over the top devotion to her cause, and never fails to grip the listener's attention. Not only Jago and Litefoot are needed to thwart her, as both Ellie and Sacker have their important parts to play.The ruthlessness of one villain not needing another adds a bit of zest to the final climax as well, and a sacrifice or two on the heroes' side is required, but somehow feels like a big positive when it might not have been in a subtly different scenario .

 

Reflection on the box set as a whole: this represents enjoyable 'spin off' Doctor Who material featuring a good helping of talent -  be they those in the production team,  the leading and supporting actors, or the experienced writers who know how to do a fun bit of escapism. Most of all Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are utterly captivating leading men, and I look forward to hearing more of their teamwork in both future and past stories.     





The Fourth Doctor Adventures #403 - Requiem for the Rocket MenBookmark and Share

Friday, 5 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Requiem For The Rocket Men (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by John Dorney 
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Starring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, and John Leeson
with Geoffrey Beevers, Mark Frost, Damian Lynch, and Olivia Poulet
Released March 2015

The third in the current run of Fourth Doctor Adventures continues a purple patch of strong stories. Requiem for the Rocket Men is an absolute gem. Some stories are layer cakes. This one’s more like pass the parcel, as layers of story become more apparent as it progresses.

 

This is a caper movie in Audiobook form, more Ocean’s Eleven thanThe Sun Makers. Ostensibly this is the story of the Doctor’s capture by the fading Rocket Men, who have a price on his head in true Jabba the Hutt style. The Doctor is delivered to their blustering King Shandar at their orbital base at the same time the Master arrives to talk business, with predictably chaotic results involving explosions and Tissue Compression.

 

However, all is not as it seems – and writer John Dorney cleverly heaps double-cross on double-cross, with Tom Baker having a very good day as a Doctor revelling in just how clever he’s being.  You almost feel sorry for Shandar (Mark Frost), a dim thug at the head of a fading criminal empire - outclassed and humiliated at every turn by a pair of warring Time Lords. The Doctor’s out to destroy Shandar's operation. The Master is just unimpressed. Even when Shandar tries to boast about his ‘most wanted’ status, K9 corrects him and points out that the Rani and the Terrible Zodin are higher up in the league table.

 

This story is particularly strong for both the Master and Leela. Geoffrey Beevers is as silkily charming and malevolent as usual, and, for a change, the Master gets some good character moments. At one point, believing he’s actually killed the Doctor, the scales fall – and, briefly bereft, he asks “What will I do tomorrow?” His introduction to K9 (unbelievably, they’ve never crossed paths up to now) is also priceless.

 

However, this story really belongs to Leela. Told partly in flashback, it opens and closes on the same moment -  her musing whether she has learned all she can from the Doctor in her travels, and whether she should move on, as the pupil becomes the master (no, not that one). The main reason for her decision to leave is her serious chemistry with the man sent to hunt her, Rocket Man Marshall (Damian Lynch). Marshall’s not a good man yet, but he’s trying to be – and Leela thinks she could teach him more. One final dramatic rug-pull later though, and we’re left with a cliffhanger carrying through to Death Match, as the Master swoops in and kidnaps her.

 

This character development really works for Leela. She and Marshall are well-matched, and the relationship is played well by Louise Jameson and Lynch. The only problem is that their chemistry is too natural. We already know how she leaves the Doctor. In her not-too-distant future, she’s going to inexplicably settle for Andred, a union which, 37 years on, still has fandom scratching his head and saying “Is she really going out with him?”. Requiem for the Rocket Men manages to fit a far more convincing relationship curve into around an hour than The Invasion of Time manages in six whole episodes. It’s not Big Finish’s fault. Dorney’s script is excellent. It’s what happens in the TV series that feels wrong in this light.

 

Nevertheless, it’s going to be interesting to see how this pans out, and if it makes some sense of a famously rushed exit. Next stop: Death Match.

 





The Fourth Doctor Adventures #402 - The Darkness of GlassBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 3 June 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Written by Justin Richards
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson
with Sinead Keenan, Rory Keenan, Mark Lewis Jones and Julian Wadham
Released February 2015

The second in Big Finish’s new series of Fourth Doctor Adventures sees the Doctor and Leela arriving in Edwardian times on a gloomy coastline, shin-deep in rising tide. They soon stop at an old house straight out of a Hammer film, where a crowd has gathered, as an eminent Magic Lanternist is preparing to put on a show in tribute to the late Mainwaring Caversham, greatest Lanternist of them all.

 

It goes without saying that the guest list starts to shrink the moment the TARDIS crew get into the dry. Something has got in. Something in the shadows.

 

The Fourth Doctor and Leela have had a fair few adventures on audio now, and have visited Victorian and Edwardian Earth a lot more than they ever did on TV. This period suits them well, and writer Justin Richards does well to do something different than the usual Fogbound Ripper-at-Large Victoriana that the modern series keeps coming back to.

 

The Darkness of Glass drips with atmosphere through well-thought-out sound design - little echoes and movements have significance here, the 'demon' that moves through the absence of light is a need idea, and is all the creepier as it's not really explained.

 

The excellent supporting cast of Julian Wadham, Mark Lewis Jones, and siblings Sinead and Rory Keenan all impress, with Sinead Keenan giving a particularly strong performance. This is shaping up into a strong run for Leela, who gets to show off her hunting skills and intuition as everyone else wonders where the creature will strike next. The Doctor, meanwhile, is in his element, relishing his eerie surroundings and almost wistfully recalling visiting Fang Rock.

 

The only criticism of this story I can think of is that it's maybe a little short, but it's memorably creepy, and might make you think twice about the strange shadows that lamps can cast.