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 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. 





Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 24 June 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen
Written by: James Goss
Based on a Story by: Douglas Adams
Read by: Dan Starkey
Runtime: 9hrs 44mins
Originally Released January 2018
Avilable from Amazon UK
Like the preceding Douglas Adams adaptations, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen presents an unusual challenge for a reviewer. There are really three different bases on which it needs to be judged – Adams’ original story, the success of the adaptor in capturing that while perhaps finessing the rough, unfinished edges, and whether the final result is actually any good. In the audiobook version, a fourth element is thrown on top of even that.

In terms of Adams’ canon, there’s an inescapable sense of desperately sieving the dirt and rocks at the bottom of the well for any last drops of murky fluid that can reasonably be called ‘water’.

Shada was an epic hole in Doctor Who’s history filled with Gareth Roberts’ meticulous research and skilfully Adamsesque writing. It allowed us a best guess of what Adams might have done with all the time in the world. And The Pirate Planet was one of the last remaining un-novelized 20th century Doctor Who stories. Both were a bit of a holy grail. They offered up the chance to explore all the gags and insights Adams had scribbled into the margins in his typical ‘up to the last minute’ style. The Krikktmen was a story loosely sketched out, then rejected, then worked on some more, and then rejected again.

Its pedigree as a story deemed not worth making first or even second times around immediately makes it that little bit less of a glittering prize. Even in terms of Krikkitmen’s original afterlife as Life, the Universe and Everything (aka most people’s least favourite Hitchhiker’s novel), makes for a less auspicious start. The existence of Life, the Universe and Everything creates a unique problem for Goss in his adaptation too. Shada was a script brimming full of ideas and characters, and Adams cherry picked a couple for recycling in the otherwise original Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen and the third Hitchhiker’s novel as essentially the same plot, with the same villains, and most of the same gags, only with different characters as our heroes. It makes it less of an exercise is trying to spot the bits Adams would later recycle and more trying to spot the bits he didn’t.

 

Prior to this adaptor James Goss has shown himself one of the most talented and prolific authors of Doctor Who books and audios, with a keen ear for the style and tone of any piece. Here he tries to address the unique nature of the project by adding on a couple of extra layers to the plot, but not wholly successfully. Adams’ concept was always a villainous, universe shuddering plan that didn’t make any sense. There’s a villainous xenophobic race whose motivation and end goal don’t really make any sense, exposed as a front for motivations and goals that make less sense. In Goss’ version, then exposed as yet another front for even more nonsensical motivations and goals.And as for their methods -- the whole scheme is a basically a two million year plot to press a button, where simply walking up to it and pressing it in the first place would have done as well.

As part of the rearrangement of the furniture there are journeys to more planets than I recall in the original, and new elements of Adamseque parody and these sometimes fall flat or are tonally misplaced. The elongated quest takes the Doctor, Romana and K9, for instance, to a planet where people are addicted to being terminally offended by everything. They complain about rescue ships being agents of ‘the patriarchy’ and the Doctor winds up vilified for telling a woman she’d be prettier if she smiled more. It's an attempt at the type of skewering of social orthodoxy Adams did so well, but lands well wide of the target.

Possibly the greatest misstep is making this an adventure for the Fourth Doctor, Roman and K9 at all, rather than the originally intended Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. It immediately makes it a less interesting proposition and increases the sense of being the poor relation to the other Adams adaptations. The notion of what an ‘Adamsesque’ Doctor/Romana/K9 adventure looks like has been codified and established across dozens of TV episodes, novels and audios and the writer and the team seem to go together perfectly. But that just makes it seem all the more exciting to explore the road not taken. How would Adams have written Sarah Jane’s character? What roads would the humour have gone down? It’s a shame to miss the chance to find out.

 

But how does this fare as an audiobook? Narration duties are taken on by Dan Starkey – most famous to TV viewers as Strax and several other Sontaran characters since 2008. There are no Sontarans on offer here, but he still marshals all the forces at his command in an effort that could only be called heroic. Adams’ prose has always featured an odd contradiction whereby it reads like it was designed to be spoken aloud, but when spoken aloud it sounds like it really needs to be seen written down. Goss’ text magnifies that effect even more. Starkey navigates the river of footnotes, parentheses, diversions, and sudden intrusions from text books with the skill of a white-water kayaker throwing himself off 150ft falls for fun.

He also deserves nothing short of a standing ovation for taking a book with literally dozens of characters and making them all distinct, recognizable, and memorable. Many of them appear for only a scene or two or – worse from the narrator and listener’s point of view – are introduced in one scene and then pop up again four or five hours later in the listening experience but must be immediately recognized and remembered.  At points he seems to be channelling the entire League of Gentlemen through one set of vocal cords. There are moments you could swear you listening to Reese Shearsmith’s angry old lady arguing with Mark Gatiss’ uncertainly plodding autocrat.  Other bits of Starkey’s mental casting are inspired, liked Hactar the evil (in principle) supercomputer sounding like nothing so much as a somewhat bored Welsh shopkeeper.

His Tom Baker is remarkable but takes a little getting used to. In essence, Starkey perfectly captures Baker’s louche, slightly ironic mode of delivery and tone of voice and then sticks with it. If his Fourth Doctor has a flaw is it that it doesn’t swoop around the full range of emotion and unpredictable acting choices Baker revelled in. But if this Doctor sails through the tale being ironically amused at everything, it’s no terrible thing. And with Baker’s voice being so rich and distinctive, being able to replicate it so well in any of its modes is worthy of great praise.

 

Overall then, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen is worth checking out more as a historical footnote than as an original work. Strangely enough, more so to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans than to Doctor Who fans. But it is worth checking out, especially in audio form, if only for Dan Starkey’s contribution.

 





The Mark of the Rani (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 30 April 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: The Mark Of The Rani (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Pip & Jane Baker
Read By Nicola Bryant

Released by BBC Worldwide - April 2018
Available from Amazon UK

I was never a big fan of Pip and Jane Baker's writing on the series.  They only wrote three stories, but none of them thrilled me. "The Mark of the Rani" was probably the best of the three...but even then it was a little too campy. I didn't think the Rani was an interesting new villain, as she just seemed to be a pale imitation of Anthony Ainley's version of the Master, and her scientist goals seemed very anti-science in their depiction.  

Little did I know I'd need to write a review of the audiobook someday.  

This is the kind of sentence that seems to end a lot of sequences and chapters in this novelization.  "Little did they know..." and variations upon that permeate the book. The Bakers aren't particularly good writers in my opinion, not for the screen, not for the page.  While Nicola Bryant proves to be a great narrator, the story is only so-so.  

I don't remember disliking the original episodes, though I went back and read my review of when I last watched it many years ago, and my review is pretty critical of it.  I'd have to rewatch to see where I stand on the televised version.  But the novel is mediocre.  Not awful, but just somewhere in the middle...and there is little that is less interesting to talk about than something that is middle of the road in terms of quality.  

If you happen to be fan of this story, Nicola Bryant is giving her all to the audiobook. I would say her reading made up for the lack of story and interesting characters.  If you don't really care about this particular Sixth Doctor story, I wouldn't waste my time. 





The Two Doctors (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 9 April 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Two Doctors (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Robert Holmes
Read By Colin Baker

Released by BBC Worldwide - September 2015
Available from Amazon UK

I have never been particularly enamored with The Two Doctors. While it was nice to get the relief of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines back into the show during a season that was lead by the bickering characterizations of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant (neither of whom I consider to blame for that nonsense), the story itself was still poorly written, somewhat scattershot, and a bit muddled. I can ignore strange contiuity issues for the Second Doctor and Jamie, because the show's contiuity is the biggest mess in all of franchise contiuities...but I just didn't find the story engaging at all.

So we come to Robert Holmes novelization of his episode, now brought to life in audiobook form by the Sixth Doctor himself - Colin Baker. In general, I think this version is better. I attempted to rewatch the TV version, but the tone kind of turned me off.  But the book has better characteriations, more gruesome death scenes for characters, and flows a lot better.  For instance you spend a lot of time with the Second Doctor and Jamie before cutting to the Sixth Doctor and Peri.  In the show, they cut back and forth early on, and it is more muddled and doesn't flow as well. I think one of the weirdest things about it is that it is a multi-Doctor story for no real reason. The book fixes some of those story flow issues. 

That isn't to say that the story is suddenly really interesting, because it is still mediocre. The villain's evil plot is too vague, the Sontarans don't really do much, and the threat to the Doctor seems minimal.  Having the Second Doctor's life in danger might actually be interesting if it seemed as if the Sixth Doctor could be wiped from existance, but they never really go for it. I never feel like the threat is real. 

I think multi-Doctor tales need to be saved up for special occasions. Anniversary's are worth it. Or in the case of Time Crash, as a comedy sketch for charity.  But this episode did it just for fun, and since the story has no real need for Patrick Troughton or the Second Doctor to return, it just seems like a lame reason to bring him back. It diminishes the excitement of having two Doctors together when it isn't for a big occasion and is just in the middle of a season.

As for the audiobook itself, Colin Baker does a great job reading it. That should come as no surprise to anyone that has heard his excellent work for Big Finish. He makes the story seem far more interesting than it actually is, and reads with gusto. It will alwys be a bit of a bummer that this charismatic guy got such a short straw on TV.  Just two seasons worth of pretty horrible stories in an obnoxious costume. When a mediocre story like this is on the better end of his television output, that really is a shame.

I don't think this audiobook is particularly worth it. Baker's narration is top notch, but it is all in service of a lame story. 



Associated Products

DVD - Region 1
Released 8 Mar 2011
Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (Story 141)
$24.98
DVD - Region 2
Released 8 Sep 2003
Doctor Who: The Two Doctors [Region 2]
$9.87
Audio
Released 3 Sep 2015
28% off
Doctor Who: The Two Doctors: A 6th Doctor Novelisation