The Second Doctor Volume 2Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 11 August 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Second Doctor Volume 02 (Credit: Big Finish)
Writers: Julian Richards, Rob Nisbet, John Pritchard, Tony Jones
Directors: Helen Goldwyn, Lisa Bowerman
Featuring: Anneke Wills, Elliot Chapman, Frazer Hines, Daphne Ashbrook, Louise Jameson

Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2018
Order from Amazon UK

What with Big Finish’s ever-accelerating expansion into new realms of the Doctor Who universe, from boxsets chronicling the exploits of underserved New Series allies to their ambitious work reviving axed spin-offs like Torchwood, it’s often all too easy to forget that the studio’s roots lie in offering classic incarnations of the titular Time Lord a bold new lease of life. How better to remind us of this noble goal, then, than by transporting us back to the 1960s with the latest Companion Chronicles boxset, showcasing Patrick Troughton’s tenure at the helm of the TARDIS in all its monochromatic, bowtie-donning and frequently base-sieging splendour?

Whereas those content to explore Troughton’s televised adventures alone can only – barring telesnaps or the painfully gradual drip-feed of animated reconstructions from BBC Studios – experience but a minute fraction of those serials in their entirety at present, our lives are different to anyone else’s: we’ve got The Second Doctor Volume 2. So without further ado, let’s dive straight into this nostalgia-laced new collection and discover whether there’s life in a bygone era yet or whether, much like the ancient Cyber Tombs of Mondas, some artefacts are better left buried…

“The Curate’s Egg”:

“I’ve walked on the moon. I’ve faced down the Confederates of Brilpoor. But there is nothing, nothing in the universe as exhilarating as riding a dinosaur!”

Had soon-to-be showrunner Chris Chibnall’s 2012 Eleventh Doctor odyssey “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” aired in the Troughton era rather than the dying days of Matt Smith’s, then Julian Richards’ charming opening salvo offers perhaps the perfect approximation of how the story might’ve played out under such circumstances. Dropping the newly-regenerated Doctor, Ben and Polly within spitting distance of a castle populated by cybernetic dinosaurs, “Curate’s Egg” throws caution to the wind, embracing Doctor Who’s frequent flirtations with the fantasy genre through elements as unashamedly ridiculous as mind-swapping gizmos, talking T-Rexes as well as arguably the best canine-themed visual gag of the year so far.

Will it all seem too far-fetched for some listeners? Quite possibly, although Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman – working on double duties here, albeit with Ben only featuring in proceedings for 10-15 minutes at most – do a fine job of keeping events grounded with their heartfelt exchanges as Polly and underappreciated scientist Andrew Clarkson respectively, their joint irritation at society’s efforts to side-line them at every turn adding a welcome emotional core amidst all the prehistoric hi-jinks. Indeed, so brimming is “Egg” with potent concepts – not least the Doctor’s underlying efforts to regain his companions’ trust in the wake of his recent “renewal” – that this reviewer couldn’t help but wish at times that Richards had explored some of them in greater detail over the course of his jam-packed hour, for instance by saving one or two ideas for future scripts instead. Food for thought next time around, perhaps.

“Dumb Waiter”:

“Die, false Doctor!”

Anyone well-versed in the increasingly popular art of the meme will doubtless recall one such trending gag which did the rounds on social media in April, come the release of Marvel Studios’ long-awaited cinematic superhero epic Avengers: Infinity War:

Marvel: “Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover in history.”

Me: “[Insert award-worthy viral response here.]”

Apologies if the experience of reading the last 55 words felt akin to learning a foreign language for the first time, but put simply, Infinity War might’ve just met its match in the eyes of Doctor Who fans worldwide with Volume 2’s sophomore instalment. Just as we’ve seen multiple Doctors cross paths in anniversary specials from “The Three Doctors” to Big Finish’s own The Light at the End in 2013, so too does the audio behemoth’s wide-ranging Who license allow them to bring together companions from differing eras of the show at times, and in this case it’s the turn of James McCrimmon to shine alongside one Leela of the Sevateem. In other words: cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war.

Thankfully – not that this should come as any surprise given the levels of acclaim which both stars continue to court with their audio portrayals – neither Frazer Hines nor Louise Jameson disappoint, their hallowed characters’ clash of primal wits so ferociously unpredictable and regularly hilarious that you’ll soon wonder how it’s taken so damn long for this heavenly pairing to occur. That’s for the best too, since the core plot of “Waiter” leaves something to be desired in comparison, its rapid barrage of reality-warping setpieces and convoluted technobabble rendering the TARDIS team’s trip to a deeply sinister garden party even more overwhelming for the audience than it is for the Doctor as his present and future collide before his eyes. Scribe Rob Nisbet has his character drama down to a tee, then, but he’ll still need to work on balancing this with comprehensible plotting in order to craft the next Big Finish masterpiece.

“The Iron Maiden”:

“I suppose that time makes legends of us all…”

It’s worth noting from the outset that Volume 2’s penultimate chapter, John Pritchard’s “The Iron Maiden”, houses all the components of a great Doctor Who serial – intriguing temporal anachronisms by the dozen, an extremely sympathetic central supporting character with whose mind these anomalies predictably play havoc and quite possibly the finest companion of the Troughton years, Wendy Padbury’s Zoe Heriot, taking the initiative as our de facto protagonist this time around. Upon sitting through the credits one hour later, then, imagine this listener’s disbelief at only being left with the following inescapable question: just what went wrong here?

Despite her touching struggle to endure the seemingly endless conflicts of 14th century France, all while realizing that the worst is yet to come thanks to the suspect arrival of First World War technology on the scene, Jo Woodcock’s fascinating prophet-of-sorts Marie is criminally underserved here, lacking much to do beyond trigger the plot with her mysterious visions and prompt Zoe’s occasional epiphanies as she gets to the bottom of the situation. Throw in the disappointing absence of any real suspense – in spite of the deadly weaponry in our heroes’ vicinity – as well as what should’ve been a hugely poignant denouement falling surprisingly flat due to our minimal emotional investment in the ensemble, and “Maiden” unfortunately ranks as the boxset’s weakest link by some distance.

“The Tactics of Defeat”:

“We’re on the clock, Zoe.”

Volume 2, in stark contrast to prior Companion Chronicles collections, opts out of binding its four serials with any ongoing plot threads or recurring thematic beats, such that “Tactics of Defeat” isn’t nearly as burdened with tying up loose ends as The First Doctor Volume 2’s “The Plague of Dreams”, wherein Guy Adams faced the intimidating task of endowing the First Doctor with a more fitting send-off than his abrupt departure in “The Tenth Planet”. If the benefits of this procedural structural approach weren’t already obvious to Big Finish upon commissioning the set, then they’re downright unmissable here, with Tony Jones’ refreshingly understated quasi-season finale proving all the more satisfying as a result.

Not dissimilar to “Curate’s Egg”, “Tactics” pairs Zoe with her supposed Foe from the Future – better known to us as UNIT captain Ruth Matheson. Why the change of moral allegiances on Ruth’s part? Is everything as it seems? Both fair questions, but you won’t find us spoiling the answers here; much of the piece’s appeal lies in the constant twists and turns which Ruth’s mission to recover plague-emitting extra-terrestrial technology from a decaying temple take, not least Zoe’s supposed oncoming demise at the vicious hands of unknown assailants. The latter plot element might appear unthinkable given our foreknowledge of events to come in “The War Games”, yet we’re also well aware by now that “time can be re-written”, and indeed future Doctor Who scribes should keep in mind Pritchard’s tense work here as a prime example of how to put gripping new spins on the well-worn paradox-driven story format.

Come for Daphne Ashbrook’s still-endearing work as the constantly resourceful, inspiringly courageous Ruth; stay for one of the more innovative scripts that we’ve seen enter classic Who’s audio pantheon for quite some time.

The Verdict:

How much you’ll get out of Volume 2 depends largely on what you expect from Big Finish’s Second Doctor productions – if you’re looking for authentic reprisals of the Troughton era’s unashamedly outrageous jaunts into fantasy territory or surreal mind-trips into worlds hell bent on distorting their visitors’ perceptions, then the fifth Companion Chronicles boxset since the range ceased its monthly output will fall right up your alley. If, however, you’re hoping to see the scribes involved push narrative / creative boundaries given their lack of 1960s budgetary limitations, then barring the basic set-up of “Curate’s” and the brilliant “Tactics” in its entirety, the end product mightn’t offer quite as much bang for your buck.

But while we can’t afford the collection with quite the same glowing recommendation as its Chronicles predecessors, rest assured that there’s still plenty of entertainment in store for any Second Doctor fans craving further sustenance after last year’s "The Power of the Daleks" animated rejuvenation. And who knows – if Matt Smith consulted Troughton’s work in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” as part of the inspiration for his portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor, perhaps future stars lucky enough to portray the Time Lord’s allies might follow suit by picking up Volume 2, thereby starting the cycle of legacy anew…






Twice Upon a Time (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Twice Upon a Time (Credit: BBC Audio)
Adapted by: Paul Cornell
Based on the script by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Mark Gatiss
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 3hrs 15mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

“Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen.”

That was the credo of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels of the 1990s. It’s a phrase that is written on the heart of certain circles of fandom right next to “Never cruel or cowardly.” It seems appropriate then that one of the authors that most defined the voice of those books, Paul Cornell, uses his last Doctor Who book (though he’s said that before, in fairness) to lend greater breadth and depth than the small screen could allow.

Twice Upon a Time was always a remarkable story to play out on a Christmas Day. Ultimately it’s the story of a man, standing at the precipice, deciding whether or not to commit suicide. Normally that sort of thing is the reserve of Albert Square, where Christmas means even more misery than usual. But in 2017 Doctor Who danced on the tiny overlap that allowed it to be a funny, thrilling adventure about wanting to die with dignity. Part of that trade-off was the Doctor’s exact reasons and feelings not having room to be deeply explored, but Cornell takes full advantage of his page count to give us exactly that. It’s no less witty or packed with incident, but it more clearly acknowledges that this is a story full of characters who are, one way or another dead or dying.

The Doctor’s yearning for completeness comes to the fore of his thoughts. His desire to be able to finally provide a full stop to his life and say ‘so that was it.’  River comes to the fore of his thoughts and, in a genius spark of perspective, Cornell notes that this is a Doctor who lived for 75 years in a rather settled life. Twenty-four years in one long night with River, and then fifty years at St.Luke’s University. He’s had his retirement and his good death. Why can’t he just have it?

Bill’s future history with Heather is also fleshed out and with purpose as it shadows the Doctor’s dilemma. We learn of them returning to Earth to live a full, long, human life and how Bill ultimately chooses to die of old age rather than resume her ‘puddle’ form and return to the stars, even as she urged Heather to go without her. The faint hypocrisy of this isn’t touched upon, but it’s very human. The deeper, broader question of Bill’s existence – something the TV episode has time to little more than nod at – gets intelligently examined too. The Doctor connecting the concept of Testimony to growing up with the everyday reality of the Matrix on Gallifrey seems obvious in retrospect, as does that informing his opinion on whether such digital ghosts are actually the person involved, or simply an extremely detailed diary left behind by them.

All in all, Cornell has constructed a novelization which adds a new dimension of tenderness and emotion relative to the time and space of the original. A fine example of a Target which doesn’t so much overwrite, or compete with, the televised version in your mind, but rather adds additional layers of quality and grace to it.

As an audiobook, Cornell’s efforts are assisted hugely by Mark Gatiss. Himself no stranger to reading the Target range as a child, he knows exactly what’s required and turns in a touching, sensitive reading of the material. Not only are his Doctors note perfect in their voices (interestingly, he’s definitely decided to channel Bradley rather than Hartnell for his First Doctor) but he invests them with a sense of performance and character beyond the voice that truly captures their personalities.

Gatiss’ own persona also meshes smoothly with the tone required by the text. At times you can almost picture him in a comfortable antique leather chair, relating a diverting anecdote he thinks might amuse you. At others, his dropped voice and quiet control effortlessly communicates the pathos of a moment. All of the audiobooks in this series have selected appropriate and talented readers. But Gatiss is probably the only one so far to feel like he could genuinely have read any of them.

The sound design also keeps up the high quality of the series. Unobtrusive, yet giving an appropriate sense of setting, it hits just the right balance. It’s particularly nice to get the unique, and never repeated, bloops and whirrs of the console going crazy during the First Doctor’s regeneration faithfully presented her. One tiny niggle though is when the polar winds continue to blow in your earphones even when time stops still – which did prompt a little Bradleyesque “Oh, surely not? That can’t be right, can it, hmm?” from this listener that momentarily took me out of the action. But when that’s the worst criticism one can make of a three-hour recording…

This is the final of the current set of new Target novelizations and it’s fitting that they’ve proven just how varied the original range was, and just what their readers loved about them. We’ve had Jenny Colgan’s deeply traditional Dicksian take, and RTD’s version which took cues from both David Whittaker and Ian Marter (gleefully raiding other stories for bits and pieces, while upping the gore and violence beyond anything BBC One would have allowed at 7pm on a Saturday). We’ve had Steven Moffat’s wildly experimental take which doesn’t so much expand on the original but treats the TV episode as a kind of Serving Suggestion for where the story could go. And now Paul Cornell’s fine novel which manages the trick of adding massively to the inner lives of the characters while altering the actual events hardly a line.

Here’s to the next batch (“The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss” anyone?)

 





The Darkened EarthBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 8 August 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Writer: John Pritchard
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Featuring: Miranda Raison

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
Released August 2018
Running Time: 35 minutes

"Doctor.....are you saying you are not sure of something?"

 

Mrs Constance Clarke has faced perils on many planets, but now she finds herself in the most dangerous place on Earth. A place like home, yet terrifyingly different, where ordinary decent folk might hand her over to a dreadful fate. And as night falls, she and the Doctor realise that something is on the prowl outside, a creature darker than the dark. And hungry...

 

The Darkened Earth is my first encounter with Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison - also Tallulah in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks), and I must say, what a wonderful companion she makes. Constance is clever, confident and a perfect foil for the sixth Doctor. Her plummy vowels and old-fashioned virtues are a breath of fresh air.

 

The story sees the Doctor and Constance arrive in what they think is a rural post-war Britain when in reality this couldn't be further from the truth. After a slight glitch with the TARDIS's translation circuits, they realise they are in Germany, at the very height of the war. Not only do they need to dodge British bombs, but also a terrifying creature that feasts on whatever light can be found.

 

John Pritchard's writing is tense and fast-paced. Constance is a serving WREN, and to put her behind enemy lines with a frightened family during a blackout is a very interesting plot twist. There would have been more than enough story farmed from this one idea, but add to this a creature that is stalking the darkened streets seeking light energy to feed upon, and you have a proper corker of a story that I can't recommend enough.

 

The Darkened Earth is available from Big Finish HERE.






The First Doctor Adventures: Volume 2 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 3 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The First Doctor Adventures: Volume 2 (Credit: Big Finish)

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
First Released: July 2018
Running Time: 5 hours

David Bradley, Claudia Grant, Jemma Powell, and Jamie Glover return to Big Finish for the second round of adventures in the iconic roles of the First Doctor and his original TARDIS team. Once again the cast proves to be quite fun in the roles, not mimicking but having their own takes on the characters. While I don't particularly care for Claudia Grant's Susan, I admittedly never really cared for the character of Susan in its original incarnation...so That could just be that the character will never work for me.

The set features two stories, the first The Invention of Death has the TARDIS land on a planet full of immortal beings, who somehow become infected by the mortal crew of the TARDIS and begin to die.  I like that it has some deeper themes about mortality and what drives people to create and invent and grow, it isn't just weird aliens and a bit of a mystery.  

The set continues with The Barbarians and the Samurai, which is a classic First Doctor styled Pure Historical, taking place in feudal Japan and has the Doctor and crew try to foil the plans of a Japanese leader who is plotting a coup against the current Shogun.  I liked this story, and though I was never a huge fan of the Pure Historical stories of yesteryear, I find it a bit refreshing to have a story that isn't about some alien hanging around a famous historical figure.  It is a good change of pace.  

I enjoy these boxsets, the recasting seems like it could be a huge mistake, but I think it manages to bring a new energy to these early Doctor Who-style adventures that having the older, and sadly more depleted, casts could currently have. Bradley is lovely as the Doctor, and his supporting cast does a fine job as well. 






The Day of the Doctor (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Day of the Doctor (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 7hrs 26mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

There’s a common conception that anywhere there’s a big ‘grown-up’ awards ceremony, there’s a room full of snobs instinctively looking down on anything in the science fiction or fantasy genre. That’s not entirely accurate. After all, Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and that’s about the discomfiting life experience of being a clone grown for spare parts. Post-apocalyptic novels The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale were both nominated too. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is about a telepath discovering that all children born in the same one hour period in human history all have superpowers and it actually won the Booker.

Yet, tellingly, all those books are the subjects of hotly debated discussion about whether they’re SF at all. Essentially on the basis of being too good to be SF. Rushdie’s novel has been deemed “magical realism” whatever that means. But all in all, the key thing seems to be that a science fiction novel can be seen as Great Literature (with the capitals audibly intoned) so long as there’s wiggle room to pretend it’s not science fiction at all.

So what chance a Target novelization of an hour-long fiftieth birthday party for the children’s science fiction show that adults adore?

Well, quite.

Which is a crushing shame, because what Steven Moffat has created here is very far from being ‘just’ what fans voted the best ever episode of Doctor Who with a few extra “he saids” added to each page. It’s not even just a playful, engaging and fiercely intelligent science fiction. It’s not even a book which rollerskates backward past the time travel shenanigans of the average Hollywood blockbuster while making encouraging noises as one might at a small child that had made a tower a whole six blocks high. No, The Day of the Doctor is proper Literature. I mean, it’s got not one unreliable narrator but four (at least; I may have miscounted – there is a Time War on) and they all turn out to be the same unreliable narrator. Maybe. It doesn’t get much more Literature than that, frankly.

The great bedrock on which the whole novel rests – the one which presumably gave Moffat sleepless nights during the planning stages as he pondered how it was either going to work beautifully or else be an unreadable mess – is the conceit that it’s written in the third person by the Doctor, except when it’s not. And that the Doctor is simply ‘the Doctor’ at all times, no matter the point in his life, yet you’re never in any doubt about which face he’s talking out of, even when the Doctor is talking to the Doctor. Unless it’s cleverer, more telling or more fun for you to not know.

It does work beautifully, by the way, and is matched by a plot progression that’s not simply clever for cleverness own sake (but it really is very clever indeed) but by approaching the story from the angle that reveals the Doctor’s hearts layer by layer and exposes who he is and who the Doctor is, and how that’s both the same thing even when he insists it’s not, with scalpel-like precision. There have been many Targets that improve and expand upon their original television script. This is probably the first one that feels like it’s been forensically dismantled, checked over, had half its bits chucked aside and then rebuilt into a shiny new version of itself, held together with new custom-made parts. It looks about as much like a prose version of the TV episode as a ‘deconstructed seared pancetta with toasted brioche’ looks like a fried bacon sarnie in a Masterchef final.

The only misstep is perhaps the infamous Chapter 9 (they’ve had complaints). Not only does it indulge in all the worst kinds of fan service (the words ‘Looms’ and ‘River Song’ should be kept at 500 feet’s distance from each other at all times) but you need to wear a special eyepatch to even remember having read it. Which is a bit much.

As an audiobook, it’s hard to imagine any reader other than Nicholas Briggs making it work quite so well. Briggs hasn’t. as you might have been expected been hired for his skills with a vocoder. As part of Moffat’s stripping back everything unneeded in his exploration of what it feels like to the be the Doctor, and to be haunted by the gap between that ideal and the reality, the Daleks are reduced to a single line of dialogue – and that’s a flashback to an entirely different story. Briggs also doesn’t try to do impersonations of any of the cast, though his Tennant is surprisingly good. Instead, he more than gets enough of the gist of them across that even the scenes most bewilderingly full of crosstalk by the same man three times over always make perfect sense. Only once in the whole experience does it feel slightly off – in a cameo delivered as a Northerner all the better equipped to hear you, when surely the Doctor’s vocal cords were in an attack eyebrowed Scotsman at the time.

Speaking of Scotsmen, though there’s no Paisley tones in evidence Briggs’ narration perfectly captures a certain conversational style, dryly witty and with dark eyebrows audibly undecided between frowning mock-furiously and arching ironically, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Doctor Who Behind the Scenes video. It creates a surprisingly intimate feel in contrast to all the epic action and deep emotion of the text and adds hugely to the democratic sense of ‘all fans together’ enjoying this insane thing we love.

The Day of the Doctor might never take its place on ‘M’ bookshelves in the Literature section adjacent to Ian McEwan’s story about a guy bumping off his wife by folding her into a pocket dimension and David Mitchell’s multiple dystopian futures. And all those other 'too good to be SF' books. But it sits on ours. And that’s enough.

 





Mawdryn Undead (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Peter Grimwade
Read By David Collings

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK 

I've always rather liked Season 20's Black Guardian Trilogy...not necessarily because of the Black Guardian, but I felt each story was rather good in spite of their interconnected storyline. In actuality, Mawdryn Undead was probably my least favorite of the three, though in this new audiobook context, I found I enjoyed the story better.  I'm sure the ugly design of Mawdryn and the lame 80s flashy redesign of the Black Guardian hurt my enjoyment, so maybe having those taken out of the equation helped my enjoyment factor just a bit. 

The story doesn't have too much meat on it, but I did find elements of the story were better presented in book form.  I felt I had a better grasp on Turlough as a character then I ever really did throughout the show, particularly in his early days as a pawn of the Guardian. We get more in depth as to what drives him, and how he feels about the whole deal he struck with the Guardian.  That is the kind of stuff a novel can do better than a TV series, particularly a series of this era.  On the show, Turlough seemed like a slightly conflicted jerk who I warmed up to after the Guardian left the picture.  In this book, I like him earlier on, because I felt he his conflict is better explored. 

The storyline with the two Brigadiers and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and the wacky time travel mechanics are pretty interesting, and feel like a precursor to the eventual Moffat/Smith Era of the show.  I still think that this stuff could have been better expanded upon, but the book gets into the gritty of it better than the show did.  Or my memory of the original TV version is just fuzzy.  I remember being slightly underwhelmed by this when watching it, but it has been so long since I have, it could just be that I am misremembering the whole thing.

The audiobook is nicely read by David Collings, and while unabridged only runs about 4 hours.  Easy listening for Classic Who fans.  Not the best story of the show's long history, but fans can not complain about this presentation.