Short Trips Rarities: The Switching (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 18 December 2017 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Short Trips Rarities: The Switching (Credit: Big Finish)

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Written By: Simon Guerrier
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Read By: Duncan Wisbey
)Originally Released: September 2017

 

An unapologetically slight tale, The Switching jettisons having much of a plot at all in favour of some fun character moments grounded in the UNIT family dynamic.

Though the blurb makes a half hearted attempt to play coy, and the script takes its time to say it out loud, it’s pretty clear from the off that we’re getting a classic Freaky Friday scenario with a Time Lord twist. In a way, it’s such a perfect idea it’s almost a surprise we never saw a version from Letts and Dicks on screen though I’m not sure Jon Pertwee’s pride could have taken playing across from another actor doing their best impression of him. As it is, we get Duncan Wisbey doing a remarkable job of capturing the Third Doctor’s sibilance and that slightly ragged edge to his voice. Except this isn’t the Third Doctor, of course, but the Master.

Surprisingly charming and pragmatic as he makes a nuisance of himself at UNIT HQ, it’s a reminder that, back in the day, the Master didn’t tend to kill unless it actually advanced his agenda. Instead, quickly discovering that the Doctor’s TARDIS is in parts all over the place and not fit for making an escape from Earth in, he restricts himself to having a bit of fun at his best frenemy’s expense.If there’s a flaw, it’s the Master’s surprise that the Doctor is clearly so habitually rude and disrespectful to his UNIT colleagues (everyone reacts with slight suspicion as to why ‘the Doctor’ is being so nice and pleasant to them). It feels like the Master should know the Third Doctor better than that. All the supporting characters are perfectly drawn, however, with Jo in particular note perfect.

Essentially a throwaway novelty, it’s nicely wry humour and talented and flexible reader this is well worth the handful of coins and half hour of your time it will cost you.

 





The Spectre of Lanyon Moor (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 December 2017 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Spectre of Lanyon Moor (Credit: Big Finish / Clayton Hickman)
Written By: Nicholas Pegg
Directed By: Nicholas Pegg
Cast
Colin Baker (The Doctor), Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe), Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier), Susan Jameson (Mrs Moynihan), Barnaby Edwards (Philip Ludgate/Scryfan), Toby Longworth (Professor Morgan/Sancreda/UNIT Sentry), James Bolam (Sir Archibald Flint), Helen Goldwyn (Nikki Hunter/Pelagia Stamatis/Corporal Croft), Nicholas Pegg (Captain Ashforde)
Cover by Clayton Hickman
Originally released: June 2000
The early days of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range still vibrate with innovation and excitement even all these years later. Relics from a time before things settled down into a polished, professional operation with a large, regular company of actors to draw from, there’s a powerful sense here of true fanatics who can’t quite believe their luck that they’re getting to play in this universe. Whom are keenly aware that it might not last and so fire off all their best ideas into it. This extends as well to the guest cast, with big names grabbing with both hands what might have been their only chance to be in Doctor Who, when the announcement of its TV revival was still three years away. Where Spectre of Lanyon Moor's contemporary Phantasmagoria boasted Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, here James Bolam (JAMES BOLAM!) adds a touch of real class to proceedings and proves a great foil for Maggie Stables’ Evelyn in a series of verbal sparring matches between her and his Sir Archibald. There may never be any better putdown of a Doctor Who villain in mid monomaniacal monologue about ‘the little people’ and the divine right to rule than “Don’t let’s get above ourselves, old chum; you’re only a baronet you know.”

 

Fantastically conceived by Nicholas Pegg (a man who perhaps doesn’t get his full due credit for all he’s contributed to Doctor Who in various ways down the years) Spectre of Lanyon Moor is, to an extent, a mash up of Terror of the Zygons, The Curse of Fenric and The Daemons. In its Cornish setting, there’s a corner of Britain possessed of a desolate beauty and a wealth of local myths and legend, while an archaeological investigation of an ancient structure, a legendary being of vast supernatural power which turns out to be an alien and a local lord who’s openly friendly but undoubtedly shady add to the sense of a greatest hits collection of, oddly enough, entirely the wrong era for Colin Baker’s Doctor to wander into.But it’s hard to complain about that.

 

Not only because this story is from the days long, long before Big Finish ensnared Tom Baker into its den of fabulous lunches, but because it gives an opportunity for the Sixth Doctor to finally adventure alongside the Brigadier. For the first episode and a half or so I had a rising fear that this was going to be a missed opportunity, with the semi-retired Brigadier simply used to ease the Doctor’s entry into the story and vouch for him with the other characters. Thankfully, as the story proceeds he moves beyond being a moustachioed Psychic Paper and instead this proves to be one of the Brig’s strongest, most heroic personal contributions to the action. In addition, it’s lovely, especially since his death, to hear Nicholas Courtney in such sparkling form. Courtney’s performance, as it often was, is a work of subtle genius – a tightrope rope between projecting unflappable decency that grounds the outrageousness around him and a twinkle in the voice to show he’s in on the joke.

 

UNIT are back too, in a small way, though low level UNIT troops seem as adorably incompetent as ever. With the name and description of a villain possessing a planet destroying device that must be kept apart from the ancient site at all costs distributed, one sentry still just ‘ums’ and ‘aws’ as said villain shows up, describes her disdain for lesser mortals and plans to revenge herself on them all, very slowly takes out her alien technology from her handbag and kills him.

 

The creature at the heart of the mystery is presented as an alien twist on the old idea that faeries are maybe a great deal more malignant than advertised in children’s books. Short but superhumanly strong, and given to cackling madly while messily and noisily tearing people limb from limb despite constant boasting about civilized and advanced his species are, Sancreda is a monster in the true sense. Doctor Who often treats villains and alien species as having a point of view, no matter how destructive their actions – even the first Dalek story circled the issue of whether the Daleks were actually evil or just driven by paranoia and fear of the previously war like Thals. But Sancreda is an out and out gibberingly sadistic maniac, if one driven mad by millennia of imprisonment. This leads to some nastily violent scenes but also helps sell the level of threat involved.It’s also a great showcase for Toby Longworth, who plays both the harsh voiced alien maniac, pompous old duffer Professor Morgan, and the aforementioned UNIT sentry, a fact which astonished me when I saw the cast list after. His ability to make all three totally distinct with such seemingly effortless ease is extraordinary. Elsewhere in the cast future Mrs. Wibbsey Susan Jameson is to be found as housekeeper Mrs. Monyhian, a kind of twised mirror of her later, more famous Doctor Who role.

 

The only possible criticism here is that the story unfolds in rather predictable fashion, with every strand evolving and climaxing pretty much exactly as you’d expect. However, that simply adds to the sense of being enveloped in a lovely, warm blanket of cosy familiarity. And, perhaps as a result of since seeing how the revived series handles such things, it would perhaps have been nice to see Evelyn still in a phase of learning the ropes or TARDIS travel. Instead there’s the sense of a number of adventures having being skipped over, with the unreliability of the TARDIS to get where its supposed to be going already a running joke between the Doctor and Evelyn.

 

As a rare opportunity to hear Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier swing into action once again, and as a fine homage to the Hinchcliffe Era of Doctor Who, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor is a must on any short list of early Big Finish plays for people to explore and discover.



Associated Products

Books
Released 1 Jun 2000
The Spectre of Lanyon Moor (Doctor Who)
$97.12



The Marian Conspiracy (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 November 2017 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Marian Conspiracy (Credit: Big Finish / Clayton Hickman)

Written By: Jacqueline RaynerDirected By: Gary Russell

Cast

Colin Baker (The Doctor); Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe); Sean Jackson (George Crow); Gary Russell (John Wilson); Jez Fielder (William Leaf); Jo Castleton (Lady Sarah); Anah Ruddin (The Queen); Nicholas Pegg (Reverend Thomas); Barnaby Edwards (Francois De Noailles); Alistair Lock (Royal Guard)

Originally Released: March 2000

A recurring issue for brave new explorers launching assaults on the vast continent that is Big Finish’s contribution to Doctor Who is that there’s just so MUCH of it. Certainly, as a relative newcomer to their work, who only started dipping into the ranges in 2013, I’m still balancing more current ranges with sifting through the early golden age of the first 50 releases. So maybe it’s worthwhile to look back at some of those formative stories and see which ones are seeking out, and also to see how almost twenty years of the development of Doctor Who (lest we forget, BACK ON TV) casts them in a different light than back in the day.

The Marian Conspiracy itself is a great jumping on point. More than that, it’s practically a soft reboot of the Sixth Doctor. While the Lost Stories range did wonders in improving his problematic TV persona simply by expressing his arrogant, egotistical, hotheaded tendencies through markedly better writing than back in 1985, here it’s like the entire characterization has been scrapped and Colin Baker’s Doctor rebuilt from scratch. The oft mention “Oul’ Sixey” is born here and, even if this story was lacking, it would be worth checking out as a vital bit of Big Finish history.

As it is, the story is anything but lacking. It’s an all time classic.

A rare “pure" historical, it features no aliens or mad scientists whatsoever, but simply concerns itself with the skulduggery and betrayals of Queen Mary’s court in 16th century England. And while contemporary Big Finish historicals like The Church and the Crown simply used history and its dramatis personae as a backdrop to rollicking adventure, this is more akin to early Hartnells – with an apparent mandate to educate the audience on the basics of the period (with added assassination attempts, naturally). This does raise the same question as most of the latter day revivals of the subgenre – how is that the Doctor seems to know he’s in a pure historical? It never even occurs to the Doctor that aliens could be behind events even though, across the whole of his lives, it should be his default assumption. I mean it’s always aliens in his experience. Except, as here, when it isn’t.

The lack of an outside influence does make the entire thing a paradox, of course. The Doctor’s pulled into events when he detects a history professor from the (very) early 21st century, Dr. Evelyn Smythe, is being erased from history from some anomaly in the 16th. But it turns out that she actually shouldn’t exist in the first place and only comes about because the Doctor incidentally saves her ancestor while trying to find the anomaly that only exists because he creates it by saving the ancestor while… you get the idea. From a modern perspective, it feels like this sort of thing would be made a central feature of the story but here it’s sort of tucked in like a slightly untidy bedsheet, in the hopes that nobody notices.

But that’s a quibble, and one beside the point of the story writer Jacqueline Rayner is telling. As an introduction to new companion Evelyn, it ticks all the boxes such debuts need to have. She’s got an immediately strong sense of whom she is as a character – strong willed, and borderline argumentative, but in the charming way that sees people sigh deeply as they give in to the inevitable and let her have her way; yet also deeply maternal and caring and acutely intelligent and insightful.  She’s quickly established as a woman you want to spend more time with as a listener. It’s all the more remarkable considering she’s so atypical a companion for the Doctor to invite about the TARDIS. A middle aged academic, she’s less about screaming and swooning over the nearest Thal, and more about an excitement to learn more about the world while maintaining a certain minimum standard of comfort. She’s a cocoa swilling, cardigan cocooned, handbag swinging breath of fresh air. And, sure, the Sixth Doctor seems a completely different man before they’re even introduced properly (her chiding of his interruption of her lecture would have seen TV Six stoked into a petulant rage, surely, followed by a prolonged sulk) but it does feel like Evelyn smooths the transition by credibly bringing out the best in him. He quickly seems to see her as an equal in all but her inexperience of the dangers of time travel, and the easy relationship between them is just nicer to see than his habitual bickering with Peri or Mel.

The exploration of Marian England is well sketched too. Having Evelyn blunder into a bar, believing Elizabeth is already on the throne is a very deft way of illustrating the real depth of passion tearing at the country’s fabric at every level of society. The eponymous conspiracy, joining together Protestant insurgents and agents of Catholic Spain in an unlikely alliance to put a more friendly face on the throne, is likewise a clever illustration of the issues involved. The debates between the Doctor and Queen Mary about the rights and wrongs of religious persecution shouldn’t work, as an epic case of telling, not showing, but the performances and script are so strong they absolutely work. It does push the Doctor into a strangely uncharacteristic tolerance of intolerance though. Really, Mary’s strident belief that all Protestants are marked by God Himself for damnation and that burning them alive and torturing them into converting is actually for their own good, isn’t that far from the stuff a Davros or a Cyberleader would come out with. But the Doctor never musters more than a bittersweet disappointment that he can’t reach her.

Of course, it’s not all talking and there’s a good deal of attempted assassination, framing people as deadly assassins, people threatening to blink out of existence as all of space and time warps around them, and the possibility of an ocassional stabbing. It all feels slightly tacked on but never less than fun and it all moves along at high enough a pace that it never outstays its welcome.

The Marian Conspiracy is an apparently effortless mixture of a very old fashioned view of what Doctor Who can, or should, be with a fresh and innovative companion and a complete rebirth for a classic Doctor. Even for those who think they don’t like pure historicals, this is well worth a listen or even, if it’s been a long time since you’ve heard it, a re-listen.



Associated Products

Audio
Released 30 Mar 2000
The Marian Conspiracy (Doctor Who)
$66.03