The War Machines (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 May 2019 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The War Machines
Written by Ian Stuart Black
Read By  Michael Cochrane
Released by BBC Audio - March 2019
Available from Amazon UK

I have always ranked The War Machines fairly high in First Doctor stories.  I've always felt Hartnell is quite good in it, and it drops dead weight companion Dodo in favor of the charming Ben and Polly, who at the time better represented modern youth. It also had fun robot villains trying to overtake London and the World, and what isn't fun about that? But somehow, I didn't really find myself that interested in this audiobook of the Target Novelization. 

Written by original script writer Ian Stuart Black, the novelization just isn't written with any energy. It highlights the deficiencies of the television story.  On TV they got away with some filler and a story that isn't full of action, because the performances of Hartnell, Anneke Wills, and Michael Craze keep you engaged. But as a novel or audiobook, I just found that there isn't much happening, and even though I finished listening to it a week ago, I've been struggling to think of much to really say about it. 

The only thing of note I truly remember is that the first chapter adds a bit of business between the Doctor and Dodo, in which both note secretly think they will be parting soon.  This is certainly more than the TV version ever did, as Dodo just disappears at one point, and at the end of the story, her replacements show up and say she's gone to live on a farm upstate somewhere, and then they callously steal her job. The book does the same, but at least there is this acknoweldgement of her exit in the beginning of the story.

I don't think it is the fault of the narrator, Michael Cochrane, who I think does a fine job.  His Hartnell impression is particularly great.  But the guy has little to work with. I find it so odd that a story I have always liked has left me so cold in the novelization. 





Fortunes of War (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 17 October 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Fortunes of War (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Justin Richards
Read By Colin Baker

Released by BBC Worldwide - September 2018
Available from Amazon UK

Writer Justin Richards closes out his ...of War audiobook trilogy with this Sixth Doctor entry read by Colin Baker.  The Doctor has long put off actually dealing with the World War I situation, but now that he is alone, not distracted, and out of excuses...he finally goes back to the Great War in order to fix it's jumbled timeline.

I had found it problematic at the end of Horrors of War that the Third Doctor seemed to leave the situation with major threads dangling without solving it.  At least when the First Doctor fell into the mess he was also being chased through time and space by Daleks (as his entry took place during the Daleks' Master Plan), but when he is confronted with the situation he left unfixed when he was in his Third Incarnation, it didn't really make sense for him to just say "problem for another day" and then put it off for seemingly centuries. 

There are other issues with this mangled timeline as well.  When the Third Doctor and Jo landed in World War I, the timeline was askew and Jo knew the original timeline...but how can she come from a future where this timeline is mangled yet know the original. It just hurts the whole mangled timeline story when it doesn't really ripple into the future.

I did like the melancholic tone the story had.  But I did find that the Doctor's main reason for avoiding the problem, that he didn't want anyone to see what he'd have to do, fell flat when what he had to do wasn't really that cruel, so I'm not really sure I get why he put it off for so long. 

Complaints aside, there is still something of an interesting in story in this, and Colin Baker is a great narrator and always a joy to listen to.  It isn't a bad way to spend an hour or so, but the basic mechanics of the time travel problems never truly gelled for me. There are kinks in the story that maybe could've been worked out if the story wasn't being stretched to three releases with three different Doctors.  Had it focused in on one Doctor, maybe even two, I could've gone with it...but it just stretched the premise too thin to stretch it to a third incarnation. 





Horrors of War (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 29 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Horrors Of War (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Justin Richards
Read By Katy Manning

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK

Writer Justin Richards continues his warped timeline of World War I storyline (started in Men of War) in this Third Doctor original Audiobook read by Katy Manning, which follows up on the lead that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand survived his assassination and the war was delayed somehow.  The Third Doctor regrets having done nothing about the discrepancy after he discovered it in his first incarnation, but as that story took place in the midst of the Daleks' Master Plan, I suppose he was busy at the time. 

In this installment the Third Doctor and Jo Grant end up in an earlier part of the war, and meet the nurse who had saved the Archduke from death, and figure out who was possessed and causing the time disruptions. 

Manning's reading is highly entertaining, and the story is just as interesting as Men of War had been, though with a slightly better ending this time around.  I still feel like there is a loose thread, as the Archduke still seems to have survived...and now the Third Doctor isn't busy...so why not solve this? If he did solve it, it was so brushed over that it did a disservice to the story. 

We still have one more of these audiobooks to go in this series, so I suppose it will all be wrapped up then.  For a quick light adventure, these Audiobooks are decent fun, but they leave a little to be desired in the story department.  But Katy Manning is always fun and she does a great job reading this story. 





Men of War (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 26 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Men Of War (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Justin Richards
Read By Peter Purves

Released by BBC Worldwide - May 2018
Available from Amazon UK

In this new original audiobook featuring the First Doctor, we have a short adventure built into the middle of the classic First Doctor epic serial The Dalek's Master Plan with the Doctor, Steven, and Sara Kingdom ending up in the middle of World War I, and finding that the timeline has been delayed, and it is causing havoc on the Web of Time. 

As a simple short story, Men of War is solid on atmosphere but feels incomplete. It has a good premise, a major battle of the war has not yet begun, and now the timeline is trying to fix itself by swallowing up all the lives that would've been lost if the battle had taken place.  The problems of this audio are in the ending, which feels like a lazy quick wrap up, leaving dangling threads for another story to solve. 

The big cliffhanging reveal is that Archduke Franz Ferdinand survived his assassination that launched the world into war, meaning the Timeline is even more screwed up than initially thought.  But the Doctor just sort of says that it will have to wait because they must avoid the Daleks, and the story is over. It is unsatisfying to the story being told.  It feels like this story has all this promise and then it just ends with a tease that basically tells the listener to buy another audio if it wants to get closure. 

This might not be a huge problem if the story felt like it had a more satisfying conclusion to it's contained story.  I've enjoyed many a Doctor Who adventure in a variety of formats that ends with a tease of tales to come...but if you have a self contained story that teases more to the story, the ending for the self contained bit ought to be a bit more interesting. 

As I already have the next story (Horrors of War), it takes the annoyance out of that ending.  And I've already seen that the title of BBC Audio's third release, also written by Justin Richards, is Fortunes of War, which has me more prepared for the story to end later.  But if I were a listener who purchased an audiobook and didn't know it was part of some bigger plot-line, I'd be a bit more irritated. 

But let me dial back the criticism a bit.  I actually liked the bulk of this story.  I thought Peter Purves did a lovely job reading it, and it has some brilliant ideas floating around. I am quite interested to hear this little series of audiobooks out. It doesn't have a great ending, and while the cliffhanger feels like a cheap way to not actually end this specific story...it is a good cliffhanger that left my interest peaked. 





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.