The Ghost MonumentBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 October 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Dennis
 The Ghost Monument: Yaz (Mandip Gill), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Opens))

 

BBC One (United Kingdom)
Broadcast on: Sunday 14th October 2018
Running Time: 50 minutes

There are spoilers in this review - so if you haven't seen the episode yet, and want to stay in the unspoiled, please come back later.

With the major festivities of that exciting and fresh-faced first episode well and truly out of the way, it's time for Doctor Who to settle in properly and get back to business. Of course, with a new head-writer in the driving seat and a whole new production team bringing a fresh approach to the show, business, as usual, could mean pretty much anything at this point. Judging by The Ghost Monument alone, it seems to mean both entertainment and frustration.

Like with the Doctor's other recently-regenerated incarnations, this second episode crash-lands our new hero onto an alien world (in this case, literally), before setting off with the herculean task of setting a tone for the new Doctor and her companions by testing their mettle. We’ve seen it done before in episodes like The Beast Below or Smile – throw the new companions into a completely alien environment and see how they cope.

Here, the marooned time-travellers must join the surviving participants of an interstellar race to survive the hostile dead planet of Desolation. By doing so, they stand a chance of finding the Doctor's lost TARDIS. But the planet holds a secret, and enemies are lying in wait.

For the most part, the episode has its charms and isn't without incident - there are some cracking ideas here that merit further exploration. But Chris Chibnall’s script is handicapped early on by a severe lack of momentum, with the episode spending too much time merely chauffeuring the characters from point A to point B. The main monsters of the episode - the ribbon-like Remnants - only make their presence properly felt in the final few minutes, and when they do show, it's largely underwhelming.

The big reveal of the alien world being weaponised by kidnapped scientists is a solid idea, but it's only mentioned briefly towards the end and never utilised in a manner that benefits the drama. Even more jarring is how the plot suddenly hints at a connection to the Stenza, last week's human-hunting aliens, only to forget about the whole thing altogether. Clearly, this looks set to be a continuing story arc thread running through this series (which is certainly welcome), but the reference feels clumsily forced here.

Of course, whilst the main crux of the plot is merely a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas (were the random robots really necessary?), Chibnall's script does deliver in terms of sound character moments, both for the main characters and guest cast alike. Jodie Whittaker is just as watchable and captivating as she was last week – ever-evolving in her portrayal of the Doctor, here showing off a bit of the Doctor's more judgemental, authoritative tendencies, but still the delightfully mad and upbeat character we met previously.

The Ghost Monument: Epzo (Shaun Dooley), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Opens))Guest stars Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley benefit from Chibnall's script as well, each of their respective characters getting a fair portion of the drama, with some excellent insights into their pasts and their motivations for partaking in the deadly space race. Chibnall’s strength clearly lies in his ability to identify and write the relatable aspects of a character, no matter the setting/situation.

Unfortunately, the companions are not all served by the script as well as they should. Tosin Cole's Ryan continues to get the most to do, whilst Bradley Walsh again provides the episode with plenty of heart (and a few banging comedy one-liners). Better yet, the previous episode’s major tragedy isn’t forgotten, which leads to a touching scene between the two bereaved men. However, Mandip Gill’s Yasmin still remains hugely underdeveloped, and oft-times her character feels severely inconsequential to proceedings. Of course, there may be more chance for her to shine in future episodes, but at this point, there isn’t a lot here for us to go on. Three companions plus a new Doctor may be a bit too much for the show to handle. Hopefully, this concern will be proven wrong soon enough.

Of course, the big talking point of this otherwise so-so episode is the big reveal of the new TARDIS interior. We only see it for a bit, slowly teased out to us as the Doctor enters, and it’s a lot to take in when we do. A slight return to the more organic look of the Davies era set, albeit with a more crystalline aesthetic as opposed to coral, first thoughts are mainly that it looks a bit cramped around that console and the lighting doesn’t quite do its grand size justice. However, it’s interesting and visually stunning enough to warrant more screen time in the future. Yet another box ticked for this new era.

Frustrating as the main alien plot is, there's still much to admire in The Ghost Monument - the direction and cinematography are both slick and sumptuous to behold, the new Hartnell-influenced opening titles look amazing, the cast is excellent, the ideas are imaginative and Chris Chibnall clearly has a talent for creating relatable characters in extraordinary situations. But the more pedestrian pace proves the biggest detriment to an otherwise decent episode, with both the monsters and any actual incident included as if they were merely an afterthought.

Entertaining but instantly forgettable, The Ghost Monument is nowhere near terrible, but for an episode that centres around a race to the finish line, it's ironic that it chooses to crawl instead of run!





Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the UniverseBookmark and Share

Sunday, 16 September 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the Universe
Director: Scott Handcock

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)

First Released: September 2017

Running Time: 5 hours

 “Well, you did find something! So what’s the problem?”

“You are, Mr President! You are!”

“Don’t call me that – you know I hate being called that! I’m the Doctor ...”

“No, that’s the problem, you’re not – not anymore!”

The “Unbound” Doctor and Bernice Summerfield

 

As this month marks 20 years since Professor Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) made her audio debut with Big Finish, it seems only fitting ahead of BF’s birthday celebrations for Benny later this month to review her most recent set of adventures which occurred in a parallel, “Unbound” universe.

In Volume 3 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, Benny found herself stranded in another universe with a completely different version of her (and our favourite) Time Lord – one of the “Unbound” Doctors (brilliantly portrayed by veteran David Warner). To compound matters, this variation on the Doctor Who universe (or Whoniverse) was on the brink of total collapse.

When Volume 4 opens, Bernice has returned to her roots and is undertaking an archaeological dig on an ancient world, hoping to uncover evidence of the Apocalypse Clock, a mythical device that could halt this universe’s imminent demise. The Doctor, meanwhile, has resumed his role as president of the universe (after initially shunning the responsibility) and is finding himself increasingly burdened in the day to day affairs of state – much to his and Summerfield’s chagrin. He is therefore happy to visit Benny to inspect her progress on the dig as a little bit of PR and to escape the trappings of office.

The City and the Clock, the opening instalment in this quadrilogy, is the straightest and most conventional of the four serials which are, for the most part, quite satirical and madcap. Unfortunately, it’s also a quite plain drama, lacking the tension and suspense that you would associate with a tale about mummified, undead creatures stalking the ruins of their ancient city at night. Indeed, if it weren’t for the introduction of the infamous clock that is a recurring theme in the box set, the story would be redundant.

It’s saying something when the memorable moments of this play are the cleverly written dialogue, exchanges and interplay between Benny and the Doctor (“What possible interpretation of the words ‘first’ and ‘class’ include having Karfel’s Next Top Model played at you? I wanted to confess five minutes in and I hadn’t done anything!”). A balloon ride over the ancient ruins also has Warner’s Doctor waxing philosophically:

The Doctor: It puts things in perspective, rather doesn’t it? Seeing it from up here – a whole ancient town, once a thriving community, people living lives, sleeping, eating, loving and dying under all those roofs and then …

Benny: The dust of ages, layer by layer, burying it from sight …

The Doctor: You’d think travelling in time, I’d get used to it – the idea that we’re all nothing more than temporary fixtures, walking bones, but I don’t! Everything we’re doing at the moment – all the plans, all the panic, all the meetings, everyone thinks it’s important because nothing’s ever more real than now. The people that lived down there thought the same thing – look where it’s got them! Nothing matters, not really. We’re all just waiting for the dust to bury us!

Benny: Well, I’m so glad you popped by – you’ve cheered me up no end!

Otherwise, aside from terrific dialogue, the plotline of The City and the Clock – and the premise behind the clock – is entirely forgettable. It’s a pity because writer Guy Adams clearly devises the story to put Benny back into her element – yet the tale, which is slow from the get-go, never builds to a dramatic crescendo, and Benny doesn’t get to employ the smarts that make her such a terrific archaeologist.

Strangely, after the “drama” of the first instalment, Asking for a Friend is a more character-based and pensive piece, as Benny and the Doctor grapple with the dilemmas of having to make compromises in a dying universe to save the hundreds of civilisations that fall outside the clock’s sphere of influence. This includes diplomacy with tyrants and zealots, and false promises to the needy. Indeed, Benny’s disappointment in the Doctor is apparently so great that at her suggestion the Time Lord ends up seeing a therapist (played by the wonderfully ebullient Annette Badland, famous for her portrayal in the first season of the modern TV series as the Slitheen Margaret Blaine). Of course, conducting therapy sessions with someone as complicated and self-absorbed as the Doctor is never going to be easy (he himself remarks it’s like “a mosquito scratching at a continent”!) – and that’s before you factor in time travel as well!

James Goss, the other writer of this boxset, provides a quite compelling tête-à-tête between Guilana the therapist and the Time Lord, as they verbally spar to pry sensitive information from the other. Attention to detail is required of the listener, as each new session between the two hints at subtle, new elements from the last scene between them (in the CD extras, Goss admits that he has “borrowed” an idea from former executive producer Steven Moffat that he used not just once but twice – notably in the TV serial A Christmas Carol, and a short story called Continuity Errors from way back in 1996!). When the consequences of these sessions finally come to a head, it is only then that you perhaps fully appreciate just how alone and isolated – and hopelessly disconnected – the Doctor must be in this – and in any other – universe.

In turn, put a solitary character like the Doctor in charge of executive government, and it’s little wonder that in the next serial Truant, he returns to his adventuring of old. The pre-titles sequence to this third instalment is highly amusing, as the Doctor’s attempts at heroics against amateurish evildoers and ne’er-do-wells are thwarted by their cowardice and his own reputation for being a champion (“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Is there nobody with a backbone in this stupid universe?” he moans at one point).

Even when the Doctor eventually encounters a conspiracy he can get his teeth into, much to his frustration he realises he has arrived too late to overturn the appalling wrong that has been inflicted. Nevertheless, Truant is one of the highlights of the set, mixing the right levels of drama and humour, as the Doctor and Benny evade unprofessional and sloppy villains in the Silvans, who are as much incidental victims of the conspiracy historically as their purported victims. Only in Doctor Who could the titular hero convincingly pull off a getaway by stealing not only a vehicle but its effusive driver as well – or “interrogate” the chief villain over coffee and chocolate biscuits! Guy Adams’ script is probably still a little too wacky for TV, but it suits the BF audio format perfectly.

The boxset closes with The True Saviour of the Universe, as the Doctor upon his return to parliament is arrested and thrust into impeachment proceedings. Much to Benny’s suspicion, the arrest coincides with the sudden arrival of this universe’s incarnation of the Master (Sam Kisgart, aka Mark Gatiss) and the emergence of a hooded figure which has been offering parliamentarians incentives to oust the Doctor from office since the events of The City and the Clock. Are they connected? Does the Master have designs on the presidency, so he can hijack the Apocalypse Clock? James Goss’s clever script challenges and upturns all the listener’s expectations while poking fun at all of Doctor Who’s conventions.

Goss jokes that The True Saviour of the Universe is “a remake of Logopolis involving Cthulu and singing nuns” – which, despite sounding far-fetched, is an apt description. The Sisterhood of Beedlix, like the Logopolitans, can influence the fabric of the universe through songs and prayer that recite the power of numbers. The appearance of the “old ones” at the gateway to another universe at the climax is an old riff on the nineties New Adventures novels, which regularly pitted the Doctor and his companions, including Benny, against “ancient evils from the dawn of time” – to the point of overkill.

Further, Goss has fun challenging the many clichés that fans have come to associate with the Doctor and the Master over many decades. For example, when Benny asks the Master how he survived his execution at the Emporium in the closing chapter of the Vol 3 boxset, his response is simple yet curt - “Don’t be boring!” – a subtle nod to eighties Doctor Who, in which no explanation was ever given for the Master cheating death or escaping from tight scrapes. Other quotations and dialogue subtly homage Logopolis and The Daemons, as the Master seeks to harness the power of the “old ones” to seize control of the universe. Of course, the joke is very much on the Master – and in the most unexpected way …

The production qualities of this boxset, like next to all of BF’s input, is first class – as are the performances of the first tier and supporting casts. Warner and Bowerman are a fantastic Doctor/companion combo and Kisgart/Gatiss is charming, urbane and oily as the Master (although Gatiss has far too much fun as his Kisgart persona in the CD extras for my taste). The flirtatiousness of the Benny/Master combo also puts an unusual spin on the usual antagonism between Master and companion.

As mentioned above, Badland is outstanding as the Doctor’s therapist, while Catrin Stewart (Jenny Flint of the Paternoster Gang) puts in an understated appearance as the aide-de-camp to the wimpy Silvan leader (Jonathan Bailey). Most notably, Hattie Hayridge (better known as the female Holly in Red Dwarf) delivers a terrific performance as the Doctor’s press secretary, deftly diverting and deflecting the tough questions about her President’s leadership in exchanges with Guy Adams’ hard-hitting journalist.

Volume 4 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield is an entertaining boxset which isn’t afraid to be tongue-in-cheek about Doctor Who’s conventions and show a strong sense of humour and fun. It isn’t constrained by the continuity of the regular series, so it can afford to be more audacious and satirical. This means it won’t necessarily be for every fan who prefers the more no-nonsense style of the TV series adventures, or even some of BF’s regular Doctor Who output – but if you’re a long-term fan of Benny (who as a character herself isn’t above taking the piss), then you’re in for a treat.

Indeed, the set ends on an upbeat note and with a paradox to boot. I won’t say what that paradox is (spoilers!) but if BF isn’t already sorely tempted to exploit the potential for a run-in with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in the future, then clearly the company’s heart isn’t in the right place! We’ll perhaps have a better idea of how this oxymoron may be addressed later this month in Volumes 1 and 2 of the next Benny series The Story So Far.

 






Tales from New EarthBookmark and Share

Friday, 23 March 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Tales From New Earth (Credit: Big Finish) Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
Running Time: 5 hours

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

Of all the worlds depicted in Doctor Who since its modern revival, New Earth mightn't initially seem the most obvious choice for a dedicated spin-off series. Sure, the Tenth Doctor made port at this futuristic colony for the human race on multiple occasions during his televised tenure, but ask most fans where 2006-07 serials "New Earth" and "Gridlock" place in their all-time rankings of every episode transmitted to date and they're unlikely to station the pair alongside "City of Death", "Blink" or "The Tomb of the Cybermen".

On the other hand, there's little denying the ripe narrative potential of further exploring a world whose corrupt hospitals and carnivorous underbelly - the only areas glimpsed on TV Who to date - are doubtless just the tip of the iceberg. Enter Tales of New Earth, Big Finish's latest addition to their ensemble of New Series sagas, which not only capitalizes upon that same potential by revealing new geographical facets of its titular setting aplenty, but goes one step further by following the continued journeys of recurring characters like Novice Hame, or in some cases their descendants.

Does this ambitious gambit of revitalizing the setting behind a divisive pair of televised serials pay off, though? Well, yes and no - as ever, there's not so much a black-and-white answer to that question as fifty shades of New New Gray. Let's begin...

"Escape from New New York":

"Hold on - isn't this my story too? Mine and Thorn's?" "Of course. I'm trying to set the scene..."

The old saying goes that you should write what you know, an authorial adage which holds true for Roy Gill as he transports listeners back to the setting of both aforementioned on-screen New Earth adventures: the sprawling cityscape of New New York. Where - with the Doctor's help, of course - the capital's elevators once sprayed chemicals capable of healing even the most deeply infected hospital patients, they're now seemingly causing innocent civilians to vanish out of thin air, with Gill's script depicting newfound Senator Hame (Anna Hope) and orphan-turned-lift maintenance worker Devon Pryce (Kieran Hodgson)'s efforts to untangle this disturbing mystery.

As premises go, it's a classic Doctor Who set-up for hidden alien machinations and some subtle allegorical strands surrounding societal outcasts, albeit without the Tenth Doctor's involvement in this case. Thankfully Hope and Hodgson are both more than capable of picking up the slack, their half-banterous, half-confrontational dynamic as two unlikely allies ensuring that no matter how much exposition we hear regarding New Earth's reformed political system and social strata, there's always a feisty wise-crack or compelling moral dilemma such as Devon's underlying prejudice towards Catkind waiting around the corner to keep proceedings entertaining.

Credit must also go to director Helen Goldwyn and her immensely talented sound design team, whose work in rendering New Earth sans visuals does a superb job of painting the realm in our heads through the grinds and whirrs of elevator shafts, unyielding hovercars whizzing overhead at all times or distant yet heartbreaking explosions as events spiral to their crescendo. It's easy to take such atmospheric nuances for granted these days that Big Finish has almost 20 years of aural storytelling experience under its belt, but without such technical flourishes on Goldwyn's part, the listening experience would surely prove far less immersive than is the case with "Escape".

In terms of twists and red herrings, there's not much to write home about beyond the intriguing introduction of a charitable benefactor-turned-self-proclaimed deity who comes to form the boxset's antagonist, an issue which becomes more problematic as the four stories progress. All the same, Gill - in tandem with Hope, Hodgson and Goldwyn - at least goes some way towards setting up a compelling status quo for the New Earth series here to justify its existence, imbuing Devon's journey in particular with hefty personal stakes and a driving motivation to undertake missions across the planet at Hame's bequest over the next three instalments.

"Death in the New Forest":

"Put the gun away! He didn't do this - his teeth are nowhere near big enough."

Sadly the title of Roland Moore's sophomore entry doesn't mean we're in for an adrenaline-pumping horror set in Wiltshire's treetops - maybe next time, Big Finish? What we're offered instead with "Death in the New Forest", as the story's title suggests, is Devon's quest to investigate further schemes concocted by the villainous, faceless Lux Corporation while exploring New Earth's equivalent of our famed woodland. Here residents aren't so much going missing within elevator shifts as dying outright on the streets for all to see. In case that sounds like a rather dangerous conspiracy for Mr. Pryce to unfold, rest assured that he's not alone - both the Tenth Doctor and Vale, a sapling descendant of the Ninth Doctor's would-be flame Jabe ("The End of the World"), are on hand to lend assistance.

Yet whereas "Escape" thrived thanks to its feisty lead stars' energetic interactions, "Death" suffers noticeably from the absence of that dynamic as Hodgson's left with carrying almost the full weight of proceedings alongside Yasmin Bannerman, who doesn't seem to know how to differentiate Vale from her ancestor without rendering her as a borderline dislikable rogue with whom the audience will struggle to fondly connect at any stage. Try as Hodgson might, then, he's inevitably unable to disguise the relatively predictable manner in which this second outing proceeds, from its warring alien societies to the Lux's attempts to utilize this conflict to its advantage to the inevitable last-minute counterplays which save the day. Naturally Doctor Who serials and their spin-offs can only throw so many science-fiction storylines our way without some degree of repetition eventually setting in - and indeed some academics argue that only 5-7 seven basic plots really exist in fiction - but that the well-worn wheels turning here become so plain to see makes for a rather deflating listen, since you're always longing for structural innovation which never comes.

One area in which Hodgson, in particular, doesn't disappoint, however, is with his rendition of the Tenth Doctor. David Tennant's iconic incarnation of Theta Sigma always sported a lust for life and adventure as well as a rapid-fire mode of address which most narrators have since struggled to capture, yet close your eyes here and you'd almost struggle to tell the difference between his and Hodgson's takes on the characters. Indeed, while Jake Dudman has rightly been afforded the opportunity to play both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in Big Finish's dedicated Chronicles series given his marvellous impressions of both incarnations, this reviewer can only hope that if Tales performs strongly enough in sales terms to warrant a second season, then this beloved version of the eternal Time Lord - whose "song" is presumably close to ending at this point with not a companion in sight - will return for more New Earth-bound escapades, if only to give Hodgson further opportunities to showcase his utterly uncanny portrayal.

"The Skies of New Earth":

"Here, the Bird People live in Nest City."

If that tantalising quote alone isn't enough to get the listener's attention, then Big Finish might as well close up shop at this very second. Still here? Brilliant - in that case, prepare for a whirlwind tour of New Earth's highest recesses this time around as scribe Paul Morris unveils the vast aviaries and Solar Clouds populating New Earth's evidently chaotic skyline. Half of the appeal of a setting-focused boxset like Tales comes from each writer's opportunity to hone that most basic authorial skill of world-building, either crafting entirely new planets of their own or delving under the skin of those locales which their audience previously assumed that they knew all too well already. Whether we're meeting remarkably animate solar bears, learning how New Earth's upper atmosphere parallels that of our own global warming-ridden world or gaining further insight into how the planet's body Politik and fourth estate interacted, there's immense fun to be had here from diving headfirst into a setting which has only received 90 minutes of screentime in BBC One's flagship sci-fi drama to date.

What's more, Morris affords Toby Hadoke - whose central role in the boxset is as the aforementioned Lux - the chance to flex his performing muscles further this time around, taking on other roles such as that of a Birdman to help better flesh out the communities which we explore and, as with "Skies", to ensure that we're sufficiently invested enough in these groups to care and fret as they naturally come under attack towards the hour's end. Even if Morris' various plot strands such as faked journalistic investigations, energy-harnessing Solar Clouds, and familiar environmental debates don't coalesce into anything particularly noteworthy as the Lux's latest plan comes to light, that we're still concerned as to the fates of the animal players pepped through this largely enjoyable penultimate episode does prevent it from feeling as downright unmemorable as its immediate predecessor.

Again, though, with such a necessarily unsympathetic and emotionally devoid antagonist at the Lux at its core - one who lacks the chilling menace of, say, the similarly heartless Cybermen - comes a frustrating sense of deja vu, such that we're never caught much off-guard by its plans on account of knowing full well that the Corporation will manifest itself at some stage and try to cause a global calamity all the while. Every villainous entity has their respective tropes - hence why some fans such as this reviewer wouldn't mind seeing the back of frequent returnees like the Daleks from the TV show for a while right now - but perhaps the optimal approach here would've thus been to vary up the antagonists tasked with causing New Earth grief, rather than having most of Tales' relatively standalone storylines play out in near-identikit fashion.

"The Cats of New Cairo":

"In short, I am here to tell you how the Lux tried to destroy New Earth, and how it took my friend away from me."

It’s off to the current desert residence of Catkind for Tales’ Season One finale, wherein the reunited Hame and Devon must race against time to stop – yes, you guessed it – the Lux Corporation hatching yet another plan to conquer New Earth. As with each episode preceding “The Cats of New Cairo”, listeners can expect plenty more of the same unreliably ruthless comrades, sudden betrayals, bodily possessions and quasi-wartime political metaphors for which the series will now almost certainly have become famous or infamous depending on your mileage with the boxset’s first three hours.

Every Solar Cloud has a silver lining, however, and just as the Twelfth Doctor’s absence from all of Class Season One barring its premiere meant that he could no longer act as a last-minute deus ex machina to bail the Coal Hill School kids out of trouble, so too are the dynamic duo at this collection’s heart forced to resolve the present crisis alone without the Tenth Doctor's help, by any means – or indeed sacrifices – necessary. That decision on writer Matt Fitton’s part works to tremendous effect overall, thereby placing Hodgson and Hope’s electric dynamic centre-stage once more and putting both characters through the emotional ringer as the situation escalates and they’re both forced to contemplate how far they’ll go to protect their home.

Trouble is, if the above set-up sounded as familiar as it should have based on our description, then there’s a good reason for that – focusing so adamantly on a singular, uninspiring antagonist means that regardless of the fascinating interplay between Hame and her increasingly desperate feline rivals which the Lux’s threat introduces here, we’re still left in little doubt as to how events will play out. At least Adjoa Andoh – better known to most fans as Martha Jones’ mother Francine in Who Season Three – goes all out as rival Sister Jara, the insatiable ferocity of whom lends her a certain wildcard feel and ups the stakes for Devon’s potentially limited lifespan, yet hardly enough so to take proceedings in a truly unexpected direction.

Perhaps this reviewer doth protest too much at Tales from New Earth’s shortcomings, but given how innovative and tonally ambitious Big Finish’s recent productions like The War Master: Only the Good and their particularly audacious Torchwood range have been, to see this undeniably well-intentioned boxset take so few risks in terms of narrative structure, its range of monsters or rife potential for political commentary seems a major disappointment. Might the studio’s licensed New Series projects run the risk of oversaturation at this point, especially with so many spin-offs like The Churchill Years, The Time War, Jenny: The Doctor’s Daughter, UNIT, The Diary of River Song and Lady Christina planned for 2018?  Possibly, though it’s too early to make such bold assumptions or to write New Earth off entirely; if the team goes back to the drawing board for Season Two to devise stronger arcs and antagonists, then there’s every chance that they could capitalise on the abundant potential teased by Season One’s superb lead performances and nuanced world-building.



Associated Products

Audio
Released 31 May 2018
Doctor Who - Tales from New Earth



Bloodtide (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 28 February 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Bloodtide (Credit: Big Finish / Clayton Hickman)
  Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
First Released: Tuesday 31st July 2001
Running Time: 2 hours
Cover by: Clayton Hickman

Silurian stories can be oddly one note. To an extent, for much of their existence, the Silurians haven’t been so much a monster as a story trope – the same singular story retold in various ways. It’s understandable - Doctor Who and the Silurians is a magnificent piece of work and a highlight of early seventies Doctor Who. And divorced from its central conflict of newly awakened ancient owners of the Earth having to choose between living alongside the upstart humanity or retaking their world by force, the Silurians are arguably just a bunch of standard reptile men with an inexplicable heat ray in their forehead.  But with The Sea Devils, Warriors of the Deep and The Hungry Earth all ploughing the same vein of inspiration, it’s a mine that risks being played out.  Love it or loathe it, at least Dinosaurs on a Spaceship succeeded in being a completely different type of Silurian story.

The same can’t really be said of Bloodtide. Hitting many of the same standard plot beats in its first half, we meet a newly awoken Silurian colony, a plot to cleanse the Earth of the ‘apes’ infesting its surface, and a power struggle between the group’s more militant and more tolerant factions, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know exactly where it’s going almost from the beginning of the journey.

However, to its credit, it does try hard to distinguish itself and add a new wrinkle to the well-worn formula. Unfortunately, the main way it does this is to transplant some familiar Doctor Who ideas from elsewhere in its canon. I’m not sure the Silurians were ever crying out for their own Davros style figure yet, in the person of Tulok, that’s what we get. Cunning, sly and political, Tulok is less up front than his reptilian predecessors and rather than openly confronting any hint of weakness from his own kind with challenges, he lies and wheedles to push them into conflict. More than that, with shadows of Davros’ conspiracy to destroy the Kaled Dome, Tulok proves himself more than prepared to kill huge numbers of his fellow Silurians in order to ensure his own mad scientist dreams come true.

Another major influence here merged with the Genesis of the Daleks vibe, is classic British SF horror Quatermass and the Pit. For the abomination which Tulok has genetically engineered to the disgust of his peers aren’t Daleks… they’re us. And, moreover, like the Martian altered humans of Kneale’s film his tinkering with ancient human biology has given Tulok a backdoor into the human brain – giving his Silurians third eye a somewhat bizarre new superpower: mind control.

Doctor Who and the Silurians, Genesis of the Daleks, Quatermass and the Pit; this is a high-quality crop of ingredients to mix into your creation but the resulting concoction doesn’t really work. Part of this is the way they combine to fight against the script’s other big idea: Charles Darwin. It’s always been one of the tightropes which Doctor Who has had to walk in showing aliens engaging in human history – trying not to take away from either the heights of human accomplishment nor the depths of very human evil by giving either the credit or the blame to outside influences. A young Darwin encountering a Silurian colony beneath the Galapagos was always going to risk portraying him as not developing his Theory of Evolution through hard work and genius but simply reporting on what he’d learned. But Bloodtide ups the ante by having him confronted by evidence that the human race was engineered, not the result of some natural process. It tries to turn this into a benefit by having him declare his faith in evolution and the ascent of man despite the evidence of his own experience – a faith which to an extent allows him to fight off Tulok’s psychic control – but that, with its echoes of Curse of Fenric,  simply positions evolution as a belief in the same category as religion or socialism rather than a simple scientific fact. It all makes for a rather confused way of praising Darwin for his vision.

Ultimately, Bloodtide gathers some high-quality parts from well-renowned suppliers but assembles them in a way that causes them to grind painfully against one another. If nothing else it illustrates just how hard it really is to try and play with the Silurian formula.

 



Associated Products

Audio
Released 23 Jul 2001
Bloodtide (Doctor Who)



The Apocalypse Element (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 26 January 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Apocalypse Element (Credit: Big Finish / Clayton Hickman)

Written By: Stephen Cole
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Cast
Colin Baker
(The Doctor); Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe); Lalla Ward (Romana); Karen Henson (Monitor Trinkett); James Campbell (Assistant Monitor Ensac); Andrea Newland (Commander Vorna); Anthony Keetch (Coordinator Vansell); Toby Longworth (Monan Host); Michael Wade (The President); Alistair Lock  and Nicholas Briggs (Dalek voices); Andrew Fettes (Vrint / Captain Raldeth); Neil Corry (Alien Delegate)
Produced by: Justin Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell
Originally Released: August 2000

The Apocalypse Element, made in 2000, makes for remarkable listening eighteen years on. It’s not just that it features the Daleks and the Time Lords at loggerheads, either. After all, Genesis of the Daleks sees the Time Lords attempting to kill the Daleks in the cradle, while Resurrection of the Daleks sees Davros’ children return the favour by attempting to assassinate the High Council. The Seventh Doctor even makes sure to declare he’s acting in his capacity as Lord President before he blows up Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks.  All of these and more haver latterly being subject to attempts to pinpoint them as the start of the Time War.

No, the truly astonishing thing is the way in which it all feels so very like the modern series’ vision of what a Time War is like. The Daleks fit so perfectly with their recent appearances, it’s difficult not to picture their bronze, rivetted travel machines as they carve their way through Gallifrey’s Capitol, exterminating everything in sight. They have a relentless, unstoppability rarely seen on TV in the 20th century but very familiar to viewers in the 21st. A scene where they destroy the lights because, after all, they can see in infrared and their prey can’t could have come straight from Dalek or The Parting of the Ways, five years after this was released.

The counterpoint to this, though, is that the Time Lords are a far cry from the battle hardy cynics whose very name terrifies or enrages those caught up in the War unwillingly, but are much more like their predecessors as seen in the likes of Arc of Infinity – people who talk a good talk about their own power but go hopelessly to pieces when the pressure’s on. In fact, this may be the least flattering depictions of the Time Lords yet as here even their paranoia, distrust and disdain towards the rest of the universe goes to the wall and they actually let the Daleks in by accident, during a hair brained impulse to steal another species’ time machine and see if it’s better than theirs. Though even this depiction winds up feeding into the modern revival of Doctor Who via a conclusion that sees the Time Lords swear to toughen themselves up and prepare for the inevitable rematch.

The Daleks’ over-arching scheme, like all the best Dalek schemes, is utterly bonkers. They’ve found a way to destroy the entire universe (thanks to the ‘Apocalypse Element’ of the title) and are now approaching the problem of weaponizing it from an unusual angle  – finding a way to use this technological terror without wiping out themselves too.Near the end, there's a little "We totally meant to do that!" explanation for why the Daleks would pursue such an obvioyusly flawed plan, but it's about as convincing as a small child expounding on exactly how that crayon got up its nose, and how it was actually all a completely reasonable idea.

It’s possibly this type of melodrama which allows The Apocalypse Element to succeed where many other attempts to create a grim and gritty tale in the style of 1980s Eric Saward stories have failed. It never tips into true nastiness, even in the scenes revealing Romana has been a Dalek slave for twenty years, slowly being worked to death, and doesn’t revel in any kind of nihilism. While it pulls in just enough of the silliness present in all the best Doctor Who as an antidote to masses of death and destruction without letting it collapse into farce.

Now that Big Finish are increasingly playing in the sandpit of TV’s Last Great Time War, with the sadly ended War Doctor range being followed up by ranges featuring the Sir Derek Jacobi's Master, the Eighth Doctor and Romana herself, The Apocalypse Element seems more relevant than ever and a must for those wanting to see where it all began.

 



Associated Products

Audio
Released 27 Jul 2018
The Apocalypse Element (Dr Who Big Finish)



The Lives of Captain Jack (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 January 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Lives of Captain Jack (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Goss, Guy Adams
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Cast
John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Russell Tovey (Midshipman Alonso Frame), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Sarah Douglas (Vortia Trear), Shvorne Marks (Silo Crook), Scott Haran (Malfi Pryn), Aaron Neil (Gorky Sax), Katy Manning (Mother Nothing), Ellie Heydon (Ginny), Jonny Green (Station Computer), Hannah Barker (Female Passenger), Conor Pelan (Male Passenger), Ellie Welch (Bay Guard), Kristy Philipps (Colby), Joe Wiltshire Smith (Pods), Sakuntala Ramanee (Maglin Shank), Kieran Bew (Krim Pollensa), Alexander Vlahos (The Stranger), Chris Allen, Christel Dee and James Goss (The Council)
Producer James Goss
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Originally Released June 2017

Captain Jack Harkness has long had something of a split persona – two distinct characters in one. There’s “Doctor Who Jack,” who is sparky and cheeky and fun and whose notorious omnisexual nature never gets further than a ribald anecdote of a flirtatious ‘Hello.’ And then there’s “Torchwood Jack,” tortured and cynical, weighed down by his sins, and known to be found in the company of his butler, trousers around his ankles among the office’s potted plants. The obvious real world answer to that is as clear as the differing audiences between Saturday tea time and post-watershed midweek audiences, but in-universe it would seem that Jack actually feels more comfortable as a sidekick – happiest when the Doctor is around to shoulder the tough decisions and conscious that, when the Doctor is in the room, the world is such an ever slightly kinder place.So a slight question mark over The Lives of Captain Jack as to which Captain Jack, exactly, we were going to get. Ultimately the decision to label this not as a Torchwood release, despite half of it being set during Jack’s Torchwood days, but as being from “the Worlds of Doctor Who” was our clearest signpost.  Even when this boxset sees Jack at some of the lowest ebbs of his life, in the aftermath of sacrificing his own grandson’s life to save the world, or as he crashes out of the Time Agency, it never loses a sense of lightness or optimism. Wonderfully, though, one element of Torchwood present and correct is Jack’s magnificent theme, affectionately known by fans as “Here He Comes in a Ruddy Great Tractor,” and it’s in particularly fine form with the jaunty treatment it gets here.

 

The Year After I Died

We open in the 200,101ad on an Earth that’s been in a hellish spiral for almost two centuries – first under the blobby heel of the Mighty Jagrafess, then the mad reality of the GameStation and now a desolate wasteland of displaced refugees left by the Daleks’ bombardment. Jack, trapped in this time and place for a year now, isn’t doing much of the rebuilding that the Doctor predicted he would. Instead he’s lost his mojo and has taken to living as a hermit in the wilderness. It takes a visit from plucky young reporter Silo (trying to jump start the journalistic tradition back into life all on her lonesome) to tease out exactly why. It’s a neat idea to give us a Jack that doesn’t yet know that he’s immortal but, having been dead just the once, didn’t like it much and is desperate to avoid repeating the experience. That’s why, initially, he’s prepared to do nothing more than warn Silo away from the Hope Foundation. Promising the starving masses of the Earth new life on her old colonies among the stars Jack can smell when something is too good to be true, but is too risk averse these days to do anything about it. But when Silo ignores his warnings and boards one of the departure ships she finds herself in a living nightmare and before you can say ‘Soylent Green’ realizes that the only asset Earth has left to strip is its people, one organ at a time. But will Jack really not come for her?

The Year After I Died is a pretty light, swift footed story with no real twists or turns, but it’s a nice tale of Jack getting his groove back. It also has the small, sharp slice of satire traditional to these Satellite 5 stories– with the former wealthy elites of the ravaged Earth doing whatever it takes to stay on top, from their ivory tower on the former GameStation. That, as embodied by leader Vortia Trear (former Superman II villain Sarah Douglas on great form), they’re entitled, conceited morons, as inept as they are cruel, rather than dastardly cunning supervillains makes sense. After all these are the people the Daleks allowed to rise to the top in the belief they ran the planet while anyone smart enough to detect the guiding hand of the Emperor would have been done away with. But you are left wondering what the 21st century’s excuse is.

 

Wednesdays for Beginners

Captain Jack. Jackie Tyler. A match made in Heaven or at very least a nice wine bar. If Wednesdays for Beginners disappoints at all, it’s simply because no meeting between these two giants of 00s Who could live up to the epic hilarity that lives in the fan hivemind. There is a great deal of spark and wit in the banter between two of Doctor Who’s most naturally charismatic performers, but it’s hampered a little by the exact choice of setting. Jackie is in her Love & Monsters phase of feeling somewhat abandoned and forgotten by Rose and the Doctor, while Jack is in the period between the murder/suicide of his old Torchwood team and his recruitment of the new one seen in the Torchwood TV series. It leads to them both being atypically glum in many of the scenes. Placing it pre-2005, with Jackie in full Mama Bear mode over a threat to her young child and not quite grasping alien involvement might have allowed for a little more lightness.In fairness, the setting is in service of the dramatic need to leave the characters different from where we found them. This Jack has had about enough of waiting for the Doctor and is actively staking out (or, as she puts it, “stalking,” though she seems mostly flattered) Jackie in order to force a meeting with him. By the end he’s accepted that what will be will be, and that he needs to rebuild his life in Cardiff until the universe bring the Doctor to him. Jackie’s arc is a bit of re-tread of Love & Monsters, with her ultimately affirming that, abandonment issues or not, the Doctor is under her protection and anyone who tries to come after him and Rose is in for a world of Mama Tyler hurt.The nature of the threat is left quite vague and technobabble heavy, mainly so that Jackie can cut through it all with basic instinct and common sense where Jack’s hard science and experience fails. There’s a lot to enjoy here, most especially the sheer joy of Camille Coduri’s brilliant performance, sounding like she’s never been away, while the counter-intuitive idea of the normally hyper-flirtatious Jack trying to keep an appropriately platonic distance from Rose’s mother (he rarely gets past the barrier of insisting on calling her “Mrs. Tyler”) is surprisingly sweet in execution.It may not live up to its full potential, but it’s still a fine investigation of what makes the two tick.

 

Some Enchanted Evening

In contrast, the third episode is surprisingly upbeat and humourous considering its placement in the aftermath of Children of Earth. But once you put that incongruity aside, this is a riotous, over the top celebration of Jack at his most flirtatious, cheeky, and preposterous and therefore massive fun. It turns out that the Doctor didn’t arrange a cute meet for his former companion and Alonzo Frame (Russell Tovey), formerly of the Titanic, just so Jack could shag himself happy again but so that the two would be placed to team up to defend the space station from an imminent attack.That attack comes from a giant, carnivorous space beetle called Mother Nothing and her army of killer robots. Mother Nothing is performed as a spectacular grotesque by an almost unrecognizable Katy Manning, plainly having the time of her life in a role that puts subtlety in a cannon and fires it far, far away from the recording studio. She wants the universe’s largest diamond even though, being artificially grown, it’s worthless, simply because it’s so very shiny. Unfortunately, it’s also a vital component in the station’s power generator and removing it will kill hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people so it’s up to Jack and Alonzo to stop her. Plus she keeps shovelling down handfuls of crew and passengers like popcorn, so there’s that too.The action conspires to separate our dynamic duo almost immediately, with Jack taking the fight to Mother Nothing while Alonzo tries to get the escape pods back online and evacuate the survivors. Rather than dulling their interaction, it amplifies it – their constant radio chatter being filled with humour, innuendo and a growing genuine affection. Barrowman and Tovey are both such charismatic leads that they make for a perfect pairing that, whisper it now, effortlessly eclipses Jack and Ianto as a couple. With a climax that involves Jack battling a giant insect as they swing from the world’s hugest glitterball, and an ending that leaves the listener laughing like a drain even as our heroes scream their mutual frustration, Some Enchanted Evening is perhaps the most definitively Captain Jack story in the boxset and almost worth the purchase by itself. Hopefully a sequel pops up sooner rather than later.

 

Month 25

One of the great unexplored subplots of Doctor Who is the mystery Jack’s missing two years. When we meet him, it’s what defines him – he’s a Time Agent turned con man, working to acquire leverage by any means necessary to force the Time Agency to restore the two year gap in his memory. Yet, short of a brief mention in the Torchwood episode “Adam”, it pretty much never comes up again – a casualty of a character bouncing from one creator to another and back again. Now, at last, the story can be told. Direct from the mind of Russell T Davies himself, and skillfully scripted by Guy Davies, Jack’s backstory here seems to delight in being not at all what you’d expect. Where most fans might have imagined that Jack had had a solid two year span of his life removed to conceal some posting or off the books undercover operation he’d been part of, instead it turns out to be a matter of a day here, a week there, and for reasons a bit more grandiose and villainous than perhaps we’d expected. It’s probably a smart move to avoid retreading a story people have already played over in their minds in favour of something fresher and wilder, but it doesn’t sit particularly well with Jack’s later actions on screen. I’m not really sure what Jack is trying to accomplish in The Empty Child anymore, though Month 25 does sort of make a stab at explaining why Jack later drops the mystery entirely.John Barrowman has tremendous fun as the younger Jack, or rather to give him his real name… well, you’ll just have to listen for yourself if you want the answer to that particular mystery. Even lustier, reckless and self-obsessed than when we first met him on TV he’s riotous company for this play’s hour long duration but would wear a bit thin if you had to deal with him every day (and indeed a recurring element of the play is how everyone in his office hates him). A light, over the top, sauna full of fun rather than a political thriller, Month 25 still manages to fill in a couple of gaps in Jack’s life in entertaining fashion, while providing John Barrowman with a showcase for his acting ability in an unexpected way.

 

 

As a pick’n’mix of slices of Jack’s life, this boxset successfully hits on all the different aspects of his surprisingly complicated and evolving character though often in unpredictable or surprising ways. And with its unbending Davies era style cheeky optimism it provides a nice counterpoint to the doom laden, if high quality, Torchwood range. Highly recommended.