Countermeasures Series 1Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Threshold, Artificial Intelligence. The Pelage Project, State of Emergency

Written By: Paul Finch, Matt Fitton, Ian Potter and Justin Richards
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson, Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs Big Finish Productions 2012
Remembrance of the Daleks’ is still for many fans of the classic show one of the very best stories ever, and was a highlight of Sylvester McCoy's era. With wonderfully written characters and strong themes it transcended its humble trappings of low budget and throwaway scheduling as an hour and half of compelling action. There had always much potential for a spin-off owing to the strong triumvirate of characters who get caught up in the pitting of wits between the Doctor and two Dalek factions. Firstly there was Group Captain Gilmore – or ‘Chunky’ to those who know him a bit more personally. Then there was Professor Rachel Jensen – who was forthright and sharply witty, and yet clearly was a loyal friend to those she trusted. Lastly there was fresh faced and mellow, but eminently capable Allison Williams.

In an ideal world the Seventh Doctor’s era would have had the relative ratings that Ecclestone, Tennant, Smith and now Capaldi enjoy on Saturday nights; and the demand would have been for further adventures with these three very human characters in a sister show along the lines of 'Torchwood'. Luckily ‘Big Finish’ is the saviour of many a lost cause and these adventures – now in their third season – have been given a chance at long last.

The actual premise of this series concerns the three colleagues being officially united under the banner of ICMG – the ‘Intrusion Countermeasures Group’ - where their role is to try and find the cause of paranormal or alien phenomena occurring in Britain. Only months after their escapades with Davros, Ratcliffe, countless Daleks, and the eerie girl/battle-computer this functions as their first real test. The man with two hearts is not able to help out. They are therefore thrust into making some difficult decisions and must show their ability to adapt to the wider context that is 1960s Britain.

The three core characters of Gilmore, Allison and Rachel are reprised by the original actors: Simon Williams, Karen Gledhill and Pamela Salem. They definitely are having a fun time revisiting these roles and all manage to give a good account of themselves; with perhaps a little leeway being required with Simon and Pamela sounding a little bit older than their actual characters for obvious reasons. They are joined in the regular cast by Hugh Ross as Toby Kinsella, a somewhat unknown quantity in that while he helps the Countermeasures team to function by liaising with the British government, he has some of his own motivations that skirt the edges of immorality. Alastair Mackenzie also features on a recurring basis as Julian St Stephen - Allison's boyfriend of three years. This character is given a strong arc of his own which wrong foots expectations.

The opening episode is a solid enough beginning if somewhat unoriginal and static as a stand-alone piece. An apparent ghost is at work and an eminent German scientist has suddenly vanished. The villain (or misguided antagonist depending on your parameters) is somewhat broadly sketched as a crazed scientist/ Nazi stereotype. The actor’s performance is pretty arch on top of this, reminding me of a similar stereotype from Lucasarts' PC game 'The Fate of Atlantis'. The attempts to fill in a back story with Rachel’s admiration for his work are a good idea but do not quite get the right pay off when the dust settles at the end of the events. Episode Two already has signs of the show hitting its stride. A Czechoslovakian former flame of Gilmore has found a device of terrifying power but also great potential benefit. This artificial intelligence will end up influencing the behaviour of various characters dramatically. Eventually the dilemma hinges on how to contain such a sentient creation. There is quite a bit of important set up for later in the season – especially with Allison’s beau Julian. The villain of this particular piece is rather more effective here and he is described by Professor Jensen as making her ‘skin crawl’. Even his eventual fate is done in a surprising and shocking fashion and will make listeners reconsider one of the main cast in a wholly different light.

The following story has some memorable concepts of genetic augmentation and is quite satirical in many ways. Within the newly built town of Pelage, a dangerous encounter ensues with Ken Temple, a man with a very novel mindset as regards the future prospects for planet Earth and how mankind will have to adapt to survive. Political party funding is to blame for Temple's progress thus far and the Countermeasures team need to find a way to halt total chaos. This third episode has many good aspects but is slightly ruined by a perfunctory ending which seems overly predictable and also vetoes having a good supporting character return in a future story, By now the regulars are quite fluent in their roles and are still being developed organically as one would hope. Also the majestic Stephen Greif (of Blake's 7 fame) turns in a fine performance as Temple. This man has a tenuous grasp on reality but cannot be faulted for lacking pioneering ambition,

The series finale is a riveting tale - full of revelations, action and strong evocation of the time period. The story builds upon the plot device of 'Threshold'- with Rachel having apparently solved the issues that the matter transporter had previously. Events are set during Harold Wilson's elevation to Prime Minister. Pressure is put on the Countermeasures team as Chancellor Callaghan plans to reduce the budget of the Ministry of Defence. Before long creatures from another plane of existence make their presence felt, just as a group led by a senior military figure looks to stage a coup. How many of the closest friends and colleagues of Ian, Rachel and Allison will turn out to prove rogue? I never was left being distracted with this fourth story, which rewarded the work required to get committed to the previous plays. The villains may have some despicable methods but at the same time are believable and credible up to a certain point, and the character of Toby continues to shine brightly as a fine combination of writing and performance.

Overall 'Countermeasures' has good pacing and distinct atmosphere, and the stories are pretty easy to grasp. The show doesn’t force too many characters or require the listener to visualise too much difficult material. The character development and overall portrayal of individuals is very solid. There are lots of themes that resonate and tie in well to the time period the show is meant to be set in. Sometimes the plot doesn't feel too conspicuous either which is always welcome given how formulaic the Doctor Who fictional universe can inevitably be on occasion. Plenty of scope remains to explore how our three heroes really do feel about being back together on a long-term basis; hooks for the listener are not in short supply.

As for the original theme tune it is of the brand that stays in the head, but not really something I would want to play to myself outside of the show itself. Other music is serviceable enough and conjures up atmosphere without being intrusive. The show has started on a solid footing and the brilliance of Ben Aaronovitch’s creations means that it would take something drastic to deliver a noticeably weak story.

Behind the scenes material is also very good as we get a grasp behind the creative process from the individual writers as well as the producers and directors. Quatermass stories had a huge influence on the source Dalek story, and so its ability to inspire these new stories is an obvious place to start. Much strong discussion ensues over various 'chapters'. A generous run time of well over an hour is very welcome and rounds off the box-set package nicely.




Luna RomanaBookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 April 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Luna Romana
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Matt Fitton
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: January 2014
ISBN: 978-1-78178-089-3
"Help me, Luna Romana! You're my only hope!"
Quadrigger Stoyn

Luna Romana marks the third and climactic chapter in The Companion Chronicles' "Stoyn" trilogy which, along with Big Finish's The Light at the End and the 1963 saga, celebrated Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in late 2013. For the uninitiated that have not listened to the earlier instalments (including this reviewer), Quadrigger Stoyn is the hapless TARDIS engineer who was inadvertently aboard the First Doctor's Ship when he and granddaughter Susan first fled Gallifrey in the audio The Beginning. Several lifetimes later, an embittered, maddened Stoyn returns to confound the Fourth Doctor and his Time Lady companion Romana – twice over . . .

According to author Matt Fitton in an interview in Doctor Who Magazine, Luna Romana was always intended as a three-hander play that would be told from the perspectives of Romana's TV incarnations, as played by Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward respectively, and Terry Molloy's villainous Stoyn. However, as fate decreed, Ms Tamm sadly passed away in 2012. Fitton and producer David Richardson decided to continue with the story as a tribute to Tamm and ingeniously drafted in Juliet Landau (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) to tell Romana I's story. Landau, fresh from having portrayed a future version of Romana in the final season of Big Finish's Gallifrey saga, therefore narrates Romana I's account from the standpoint of her future incarnation while Ward directly supplies Romana II's side of the story.

Fitton is no stranger to drafting (in his own words) "timey-wimey" stories, as he so ably proved with The Wrong Doctors (which also saw the Sixth Doctor and Melanie Bush cross their own time streams), and Luna Romana is an equally clever and carefully plotted tale. The story begins with the Fourth Doctor and Romana I arriving at the Temple of the goddess Luna in ancient Rome in their search for the final segment of the Key to Time. The first act is substantially slower in pace than you'd normally expect of a Doctor Who tale and it is difficult to fathom at first exactly where the narrative is going as the Time Lord pair visit a Roman arena production of what is more familiar to modern audiences as the farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the two Time Lords even meet the playwright Plautus). However, as the Doctor is heard to remark later, this is no coincidence, merely an instance of "spatio-temporal synchronistic serendipity"!

It is from mid-way through the first episode (this story is still structured like a four-part classic Doctor Who serial) that the drama really picks up pace. Episode two is particularly action-packed as Ward assumes the narrative duties from Landau. The story jumps forward a "season" (in TV terms) as the Fourth Doctor and Romana II materialise in what also appears to be ancient Rome. The jigsaw pieces gradually fall into place - although not necessarily in the right chronological order! - as Romana II finds herself reliving part of the adventure of her first incarnation, all whilst trying to avoid as little disruption to her time stream as possible and thwarting Stoyn's final roll of the dice in his grudge against the Doctor.

The three performers all excel in the storytelling. Landau magnificently conveys the sense of naivety, innocence, haughtiness and impatience that personified Tamm's Romana I, while Ward from the get-go contrasts Landau's performance with the more confident, comfortable and upbeat demeanour that typified her Romana II. Landau even does a passable impression of Tom Baker's Doctor, complete with booming voice and embellished oratory, while Ward uses a subtler authority in her voice to deliver the Doctor's dialogue. It is also a feature of good acting on Ward's part that she convincingly manages to spar with herself when expressing retorts between the Doctor and Romana II: "Well, they always did say I was ahead of my time at the Academy!" "No, they said you were always late - not the same thing at all!"

Molloy's talents are also put to very good use in this story, as he provides all the voices for the acting troupe of Plautus's Roman play as well as Stoyn. While some of his inflections inevitably remind you of his often-brilliant turns as Davros, Molloy for the most part manages to earn sympathy (from both Romana I and the listener) as both victim and villain. You naturally assume (given this is a three-hander) that Molloy also substitutes for a multitude of different voices amongst the acting troupe. It is therefore a pleasant surprise - and an inspired twist - when this proves not to be as obvious as it sounds! In the DWM preview of this story, Fitton rather spoiled the surprise. Needless to say, I'm not going to give a spoiler here - but it is a very smart use of sound to hide a major plot point. The surprise could not have been so easily hidden if Luna Romana had been recorded as a full-cast audio drama.

Long-term fans may question why half of the story is set near the end of the Key to Time season and not during Big Finish's second series of the full-cast Fourth Doctor Adventures, which sadly marked Tamm's last work as Romana I. I've personally always been a little irritated by past efforts by authors (notably David McIntee in the Virgin Missing Adventure The Shadow of Weng-Chiang) to shoe-horn their stories into the Key to Time saga, especially when it is obvious that a segment of the Key won't be recovered. However, I'm prepared to let Luna Romana off on this count for two reasons. One, I don't think the portrayal of Romana I would work as effectively without it being set in this timeframe (again, she is more naive in this tale than Tamm's portrayal in the Fourth Doctor Adventures). And two, it seems that there is indeed a missing piece of the Key - despite the Doctor and Romana I possessing five of the six segments and the sixth still awaiting them on Atrios! How could another segment of the Key exist in ancient Rome, you ask? The twist is simple yet nevertheless logical. We also eventually understand why the Doctor would prefer to watch a play in Rome, much to Romana I's chagrin, than complete their mission. It makes perfect sense and is consistent with the Fourth Doctor's eccentric character and moral code. He is, fittingly in the spirit of the story, not just playing the fool!

Luna Romana is an excellent chapter in The Companion Chronicles series and an entertaining Doctor Who audio adventure in its own right. Despite its small cast and longer length (at 120 minutes, it is twice the length of a regular Companion Chronicle), Luna Romana is a solid story and it has many memorable, emotive and witty moments that wouldn't always be captured in a full-cast drama. While the story may have been intended more specifically to celebrate Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, Luna Romana is ultimately a fitting mark of respect to Mary Tamm, "beautiful, brilliant, shiny" (to quote Landau's future incarnation) and for many fans (including yours truly) one of the noblest Romanas of them all.




Gallifrey VBookmark and Share

Monday, 3 March 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Gallifrey V
Produced by Big Finish
Written by James Peaty, Una McCormack and David Llewellyn
Directed by Gary Russell
Released: February 2013
Gallifrey V has all the makings of a classic Big Finish drama. Packed to the brim with familiar faces from Doctor Who’s past, this three-episode boxset’s cast ensemble represents a formidable Who’s Who (if you’ll pardon the pun) of talent from the show’s classic and modern incarnations. A well-rounded ensemble, however, is far from a guarantee of a entertainment release’s success (catch last year’s dire sketch comedy Movie 43 and the truth of the matter will become abundantly clear), and in the case of this fifth season of pre-Time War incursions with the Doctor’s race, plenty comes to mind which could (and should) have been altered for the better.

This reviewer can imagine few pre-21st Century fans who would wholeheartedly reject the opportunity of spending further time in the company of Lalla Ward’s Romana or indeed Louise Jameson’s Leela, yet the former companion is cruelly short-changed throughout, her sequences as President of the Time Lords largely boiling down to uninspiring political jargon and the odd ‘rousing’ speech to her High Council cohorts in the midst of their race’s entrance into an alternate dimension. Before any viewer who has recently been thrilled by The Day of the Doctor anticipates an insight into the ongoing conflict of the Keepers of Time whilst trapped in a pocket dimension, they should be reminded that James Peaty, Una McCormack and David Llewellyn wrote their respective episodes of this spin-off long before the 50th Anniversary Special’s broadcast, and as such- barring a few refreshing references to a certain impending war with the Daleks - there’s nothing new to be gained here in that regard.

To her credit, Jameson fares considerably better in her return to the role of everyone’s favourite savage, in no small part thanks to Leela’s contribution to proceedings closely resembling that of The Invasion of Time, whereby the character finds herself separated from the planet’s core society and so subsequently must find her own way to further benefit Gallifrey in some shape or form. Enter The Sarah Jane AdventuresAnji Mohindra, a perfect fit for the mysterious Outsider Maris, whose importance in terms of evolving Leela’s character arc becomes evident as the season’s opening instalment Emancipation and particularly its successor Evolution progress the overarching narrative towards its compelling final act. That a one-off bout on Casualty and appearances in BBC Three’s Some Girls have marked Anji’s only notable TV performances since Elisabeth Sladen’s passing is utterly criminal, yet the actress who gave us Rani Chandra displays promise in multitudes as Maris, making her a potent candidate for future roles in the Big Finish range if nothing else.

Had more performances from the diverse array of guest stars matched Anji’s incredible standard, then perhaps Season Five would have been presented with a greater chance of overall success, but as it is, Sean Carlsen (Narvin), Peter Sheward (Slyne) and Scott Arthur (Lukas) each either lack charisma in their portrayals or are restrained by lacklustre dialogue from the series’ latest scribes, and their Outsider counterparts don’t handle the material with much aplomb either. The other solitary exception, then, is Simon Fisher-Becker. Best known by Doctor Who fans for his recurring role as Dorium in the Steven Moffat years, Simon’s Science Minister Kavil is a breath of fresh, comic air into an oft-soulless run, ever the charmer and cavorter of the party and a superb example of British talent to boot. In much the same vein as Anji, should Simon ever feel the inclination to take up the offer of a further role in Big Finish’s Doctor Who ranges or elsewhere, we regular listeners shan’t discourage him from doing so.

Any reader approaching this review with even a mild interest in pursuing the Gallifrey range has no doubt already learned of the nature of the season’s cliffhanger, but for those still unaware of the narrative’s final development, suffice to say that it is an immensely tense and thus satisfying teaser for the series’ final run. Indeed, if each of the three episodes on offer here presented listeners with a similarly engaging climactic sequence, the box-set as a whole would warrant far greater recommendation than it does in reality. As it is, its narrative is varied such that despite its merits, the final scene itself acts as a jarring tonal juxtaposition to everything that’s come before, therefore highlighting rather than concealing the inherently tedious nature of proceedings this time around. What might- in another dimension- have once acted as a simultaneously captivating and tonally cohesive denouement, then, instead acts only as the instigator of the disconcerting rhetorical dilemma as to quite why the ensuing level of tension and anticipation for future storylines only emerges in Season Five’s closing stages, rather than remaining a constant factor worthy of praise from start to finish.

Quite honestly, that final dilemma was the most prevalent resulting impact of Gallifrey V on this reviewer. Given that the notion of exploring the Doctor’s home planet before its destruction (and indeed its resurrection not too long ago) remains such an exhilarating prospect, and one arguably never truly fulfilled on-screen save for The Deadly Assassin, the writing team’s caution towards stepping beyond the frontiers of political drama here is confusing to say the least, particularly in light of the lukewarm reception to The Trial of a Time Lord’s similar approach. Hope may at least reside- in Louise, Anji and Simon’s performances, as well as Arbitration’s climax- that Big Finish can turn the tide in order to ensure that the Gallifrey range ends on a high, but a misstep so noteworthy at this late stage in the game bodes ill indeed. The Doctor’s “new destination” may well be his revived home planet, yet if the quality of his show’s latest spin-off continues to decline at this rate, then he needn’t bother commencing his search anytime soon.




Ghost in the Machine (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 19 November 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Ghost in the Machine
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Louise Jameson
Released: October 2013
More than any Big Finish release before it, Ghost in the Machine is a grand showcase of Katy Manning’s ability to give a spectacular isolated (in more ways than one) performance. Sharing the stage only with one other actor, as is the norm for the Companion Chronicles range, Manning slips back into the role of Jo Grant with ease, while simultaneously bringing the listener some sterling renditions of secondary characters such as the Doctor and the piece’s central antagonist. If her recent appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures wasn’t strong enough as evidence, then Ghost brilliantly reinforces our confidence in Jo and the voice behind her.

To make one matter abundantly clear, however, this is not Big Finish’s pièce de résistance of horror storytelling. Claims from some reviewers that Ghost in the Machine is the studio’s 2013 equivalent to Blink and Midnight are wildly off the mark. While there is effective atmospheric drama on display here, the script never reaches the benchmark of its predecessors for sheer fear factor. Indeed, the majority of the two-part drama’s tension dissipates in its second half; when the inevitable eventual presence of the show’s eponymous Time Lord ensures that the overall threat of Jo’s adversary seems minimal at best. Ghost’s antagonist certainly pales in comparison to the Weeping Angels and Russell T. Davies’ haunting, nameless Shadow, it has to be said.

Doubly infuriating is the recurrent sense that we’ve seen this all before. Although the classic series didn’t dabble quite so frequently with the potential meta-infused nature of televisual drama, at least not until its later days in instances such as Vengeance of Varos, this flirtation is practically the chalk and cheese of ‘new Who’. As such, a narrative involving voices manifested by and trapped on cassette records must ultimately be reminiscent of recent TV adventures, The Idiot’s Lantern, Silence in the Library and The Bells of Saint John all echoed in one way or another during this subtle adventure. Even the resolution feels as if ripped from the latter, the Third Doctor’s daring gambit hitting many of the same beats as the Eleventh Doctor’s turning the tables on Miss Kizlet earlier this year.

Thank the heavens, then, for Manning, whose work here should doubtless spark the immediate and prolonged engagement of any listener. It would be an impressive feat alone for the 1970s star to simply recapture the essence of her own character forty years on from her departure, yet she doesn’t stop there by any stretch, her portrayals of Pertwee’s Theta Sigma and the original foe of the drama equally as noteworthy, if not moreso. Few listeners would blame the Companion Chronicles contributors for becoming complacent as to their talents six years on from the range’s inception, so for Manning to move as far from resting on her laurels as humanly possible produces enriching results for any fan lucky enough to have experienced Jo Grant as she first appeared in 1971-1973.

If only Damian Lynch weren’t short-changed by the inherently unoriginal dialogue offered to his disembodied secondary narrator, then perhaps Ghost’s dynamic duo would have created a more well-rounded set of portrayals overall. Ultimately, Jonathan Morris’ script recalls this year’s Season Seven Part Two opener too visibly in its depiction of Lynch’s Benjamin Chikoto, a detrimental issue which in tandem with the gradually reduced tension restricts the release’s potential. Lynch’s failure to impress would be less surprising if newcomers to the Whoniverse showed a general trend of underwhelming performances at Big Finish, but fans only need to check out Jo Woodcock’s brilliant work in Starlight Robbery to discover that’s far from the case, another benchmark in which this potent drama falls oh-so-slightly short.

What does seem to reside as a trend of late in Big Finish’s Doctor Who releases is the sense that were some of their recent audio dramas to not have featured their accomplished central or supporting star(s), the lack of inspiration found in their narratives would leave plenty more to be desired. In the 50th Anniversary year, there’s little surprise in the studio’s election to revive revered adversaries like the Daleks, the Sontarans and the Master in Daleks Among Us, Starlight and The Light at the End respectively, but that accepted strategy simply cannot compensate for the disconcerting recognition that those stories lacking an iconic ‘classic’ element have been sorely lacking in the innovation department.

I refer once more to Steven Moffat’s election to have The Day of the Doctor focus primarily on setting up another fifty years of Doctor Who rather than simply nodding and winking towards the highlights of the last half century. In spite of the daunting audacity required to take such an approach, this reviewer would have applauded a greater confidence from Big Finish to take creative risks in what is a groundbreaking year of change for the show on screen. Ghost in the Machine is supported in great measure by Katy Manning’s superb contribution, yet for a studio which managed the impossible in aiding the strive to keep Who alive in the midst of its cancellation era, this is uncomfortably safe territory, an occasionally chilling but regularly familiar listen that holds scarce surprises for any initiated fan.




The AlchemistsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 26 October 2013 - Reviewed by Ian J Redman

The Alchemists
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Ian Potter
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: July 2013
One of the most fascinating periods in the Doctor’s life is also arguably the most enigmatic. Before we met the First Doctor and Susan on our TV screens back in November 1963, the duo had unknowable adventures before the TARDIS ultimately brought them to an old junkyard on Earth…

Or at least, almost unknowable. Every now and again, Doctor Who’s various spin-off media has treated us to a glimpse at the Doctor’s earliest days wandering all of space and time, and that includes The Alchemists. Part of Big Finish’s The Companion Chronicles range, the adventure is set prior to Doctor Who’s first televised adventure, and is performed primarily by Carole Ann Ford. Obviously, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are absent from the story, although writer Ian Potter manages to reference them by employing a clever framing device to introduce us to the tale.

One of the most successful things about this story is how well it establishes the setting. Almost immediately after the TARDIS materialises (not as a 1960s Earth police box, although there are signs that the Chameleon Circuit might already be on the blink), the script, sound design and music come together to form a wonderfully evocative production. This is 1930s Berlin, and there is certainly a sense of atmosphere about the opening scenes. The music (by Jim Hamilton and Toby Hrycek-Robinson) is a perfect match for the tone that the script is trying to achieve, and the pacing is also very well balanced. The Alchemists does not rush into things – it spends some time setting up the location and characters, before the story really gets into full swing. Not only does this reflect the style of early 1960s Doctor Who, but it also makes the story incredibly effective. From very early on, we get an overwhelming sense that something really isn’t right – and indeed, this turns out to be the case.

One of the earliest principles of time travel to be established by the TV series was that “You can’t rewrite history, not one line”, so it’s great that this rule plays a huge part in the story. Indeed, Potter truly pays homage to the original intention of the series, with a script which educates about science and history in equal measure. The absence of Ian and Barbara means that we get a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Doctor and Susan prior to An Unearthly Child, and we also see more of the volatile First Doctor, before he was mellowed somewhat by regularly being in the company of humans. Ford’s ‘Doctor’ voice takes a bit of getting used to if you aren’t familiar with it, but once you’ve been listening to it for a while, it becomes quite easy to envisage the First Doctor – in a loose sense, the Doctor’s mannerisms and inflections are there, and Ford captures these without attempting to ‘impersonate’ William Hartnell. In this play, Ford is joined by Wayne Forester as Pollitt (and various other characters). Forester brings great subtlety to his dialogue, and works well alongside Ford. Together, they do an admirable job at bringing 1930s Berlin to life.

Throughout The Alchemists, darkness constantly lurks just beneath the surface. There are times when things become rather sinister, such as Susan recognising what the symbol on a young man’s sleeve would come to represent. But at the same time, there is a great sense of mystery about the whole thing. While the plot itself may not be the most substantial, this is compensated for by the quality of the production – the characters are well-portrayed, and the music and sound design works brilliantly in the context of what the story sets out to do, building up to a tense and thought-provoking finale. The Alchemists is a solid and enjoyable entry in The Companion Chronicles, and a fascinating hint at the adventures that the Doctor and Susan had already experienced before we first met them, nearly fifty years ago.




Mastermind (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 August 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Mastermind
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: July 2013
"I am known as the Master – universally! Let me assure you there is far more to me than can be read in any UNIT file!"
The Master, Mastermind

He had very little screen time in the 1981 Doctor Who story The Keeper of Traken but there is no doubt that it was Geoffrey Beevers’ refined, suave, hypnotic and mischievous voice which gave the villainous Melkur and (in the revelatory moments of that serial) the cadaverous version of the Master such a magnificent screen presence. Beevers’ performance as the Master in that story and to this day drips with undercurrents of malevolence and menace that have been rarely matched by his successors on TV, including Anthony Ainley and John Simm.

Big Finish obviously recognised Beevers’ voice talent because he has been the company’s preferred version of the Master on audio since 2001. He made an astonishing, yet magnificent return as the Master in Dust Breeding, alongside Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, and more recently rejoined Tom Baker in his first season of Fourth Doctor audio adventures. Beevers’ Master is also the antagonist in Big Finish’s 50th anniversary extravaganza The Light at the End in November. In the meantime, you can enjoy Beevers’ mesmerising version of the Master in the latest (mis-named) Companion Chronicle Mastermind (judging by the way the Master views himself in this story, and the way Morris describes him in the post-story interview, he would be horrified at the second billing as a “companion”!).

Beevers’ propensity for captivation, while a large part of why the story works, is not just confined to his performance. It is inherent in writer Jonathan Morris’ storytelling as well. Through the eyes of the protagonists – UNIT soldiers Captain Ruth Matheson and Warrant Officer Charlie Sato (played by Who veterans Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso) – we find ourselves absorbed in the Master’s story as he boasts of his escape from the TARDIS’ Eye of Harmony (after the events of the 1996 TV movie) and his subsequent survival on Earth for over a century. There are particularly effective moments in the story when the listener is as much stirred from the flashbacks as Captain Matheson and Warrant Officer Sato are – such is the power and realism injected into the storytelling by the cast’s performances and the atmospheric incidental music and sound effects (eg the tolling of Big Ben and the screams of a woman effectively underline a horrific murder). Beevers, Ashbrook and Tso all convincingly step into other roles in the course of the Master’s account, whether that be Beevers masquerading as a succession of New York and Las Vegas gangsters (complete with differing American accents), Ashbrook as a waitress-cum-assassin or Tso as many of the Master’s unsuspecting vessels for his nefarious mind.

As with recent Companion Chronicles (such as The Scorchies), Mastermind is told in “real time”, with Matheson and Sato alternating turns in an interrogation with the Master. In scenes which producer David Richardson in the post-story interview likens to Clarice Starling’s memorable interrogation of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, the hour-long story (much like its titular character) takes on a devious, psychological edge. As it draws towards its conclusion, the tale exposes the vulnerabilities of the protagonists while reinforcing the strengths of the antagonist. You realise at the conclusion that the Master, much like Lecter, has manipulated the proceedings all along.

Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso are competent as their characters and you don’t need to have listened to their previous audio outing Tales from the Vault to understand the characters. That said, it is hard to treat Sato seriously when he behaves at the beginning of the story more like an irritating, wet behind the ears fanboy than a supposedly hardened, extremely well trained UNIT officer! Sato’s reaction when he learns the identity of UNIT Prisoner Alpha One is akin to a fanboy who’s just seen his idol at ComicCon and reinforces to the listener that he is going to be no match for the individual that he is about to interrogate: “No way! ... The Master ... a member of the Time Lord race and the Doctor’s greatest enemy! ... Oh, I’m ready! ... An interview with the Master ... Wish me luck!” Obviously UNIT – or at least its US branch - isn’t recruiting very well these days! Matheson at least seems to hold her own in some scenes with the villain but ultimately Tso and Ashbrook were always going to be outshone by Beevers in this narrative.

The cliffhanger twist to Mastermind, while predictable, reinforces the seductive nature of the Master’s voice (which entrances the listener as much as the protagonists). It also underlines why Beevers is the perfect choice for the Master in this medium. It doesn’t matter to this fan that Beevers has played the Master “out of continuity” (eg filling the gaps between Anthony Ainley’s and Eric Roberts’ incarnations, and now Roberts’ and Derek Jacobi’s personifications) because for me, in this format, Beevers is unquestionably the Master. Indeed, this story hints very strongly that the Beevers incarnation is the “core” of the character. As the Master himself says, “I have worn many bodies over the years but always they revert to my true form ... I am the living embodiment of entropy! Rotten to the core!”

My only criticism of this story (and it is a minor gripe) is the references to short stories in Big Finish’s Short Trips collection that are no longer available in the company’s back catalogue! Again, there is no need for casual listeners to have heard Tales from the Vault to know who Matheson and Sato are but the Master’s tale references short stories from the anthology The Centenarian (released way back in September 2006) which are quite important to kicking off the narrative (and which are only available in print). While it is still easy enough to connect the dots and the flow of the story isn’t grossly affected, the reference will be confusing to all but the most rusted-on Big Finish subscriber. It would have been better if the prior short story had been ignored altogether.

But again, don’t let a trivial grumble dissuade you from enjoying this tale. Mastermind is a superb entry in the Companion Chronicles. While it doesn’t necessarily reveal new insights into the Master (indeed, like the Doctor, part of the character’s appeal is his mystery), it is nevertheless a great opportunity for the character – and by extension, Geoffrey Beevers – to be the “hero” in his own story, liberated and unencumbered by the do-gooding and meddlesome Doctor!







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