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.

 





Short Trips - Landbound (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 13 January 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Landbound (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer Ian Atkins, Script Editor Ian Atkins

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: Selim Ulug, Directed By: Neil Gardner

Cast

Nicholas Briggs (Narrator)

Let me start by saying Landbound is FREE TO DOWNLOAD, via Big Finish thanks to the fantastic Paul Spragg Short Trips Memorial Opportunity.

 

The story is at times, quite a melancholy one about brief friendships and wings being clipped. In it we find the third Doctor in Bessie fleeing from his responsibilities at U.N.I.T. - bored with being tethered to one single planet and itching for the return of his freedom to roam the Cosmos.

 

In Whitby, the Doctor stumbles across a mugging, and steps in to save the victim, a local pub landlord called Ronald Henderson, or the Captain as he is known locally. As a reward for the Doctor's gallantry, Henderson invites him back to his pub, The Jolly Sailor for a glass or two of 'a decent vintage of Bordeaux'. The story slowly unfolds over drinks, and we find that the two of them may have a fair bit more in common that they at first thought. It is also revealed that Henderson quite possibly had an unfortunate encounter with a rather large, translucent, metal eating alien lifeform, something that, once a certain Time Lord gets his TARDIS back - he might just be able to help with a little.....

 

The story is written by Selim Ulug, the winner of this year's aforementioned Paul Spragg Short Trips Memorial Opportunity, and is narrated by Nicholas Briggs himself. The story isn't the best that the range has to offer, but is none the less very engaging and enjoyable. Nicholas Briggs does a fine job of making a very passable impression of the late, great Jon Pertwee. The story and it's sensibilities feel somewhat like a very modern take on a classic story.

 

Landbound is a solid entry to the series, and has the obvious plus in that if you haven't had a chance to sample a Short Trips story, or indeed are still yet to sample the Big Finish range, then Landbound is an enjoyable enough, free opportunity for you to do so.





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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 





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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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



Associated Products

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



The Marian Conspiracy (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

Written By: Jacqueline RaynerDirected By: Gary Russell

Cast

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

Originally Released: March 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Associated Products

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



Empress of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 10 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Empress of Mars: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Godsacre (Anthony Calf), Friday (Richard Ashton) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Yip

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley,
Richard Ashton, Adele Lynch, Glenn Speers,
Ian Beattie, Bayo Gbadamosi, Ian Hughes,
Lesley Ewen,
and the voice of Ysanne Churchman

Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 7.15pm, 10 June 2017​This review contains spoilers.

This review contains spoilers.

 

Earlier in the week, a friend circulated one of the pictures released by the BBC to promote Empress of Mars. It depicted an Ice Warrior serving tea to the Doctor, Bill and the British officers around a cloth-covered table, with hints of reddish cave walls. He declared that we had reached ‘peak Gatiss’. Empress of Mars repeats many of the techniques used in The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’s previous excursion into Victoriana for Doctor Who, but perhaps with more restraint and to more broadly entertaining effect.

There’s a great amount of detail in Empress of Mars which enhances its worldbuilding. Careful attention is paid to the Martian atmosphere. The introduction of Friday the Ice Warrior is a canny reinforcement of the idea that a menacing Ice Warrior bearing down on you is not necessarily hostile, a concentrated homage to The Curse of Peladon. From the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors, blending or suggesting details established in Brian Hayles stories with Doctor Who Monster Book lore, the accretions of fandom and the innovations Gatiss introduced in Cold War, we move to learn about Ice Warrior hives and tombs that are not really tombs. The imagery owes something to The Tomb of the Cybermen via Dragonfire, but more widely to every film or television production featuring people or creatures preserved in ice. This is a fortress of solitude for superbeings more than it is a memorial to the dead.

Influences are mixed and matched. The rhetoric surrounding the discovery of Iraxxa draws from late-nineteenth century imperialist fiction; I can spot H. Rider Haggard’s She but Gatiss doubtless knows his way around many more. However, the presentation of her tomb owes more to the European Middle Ages than Haggard’s sub-ancient Egyptian fantasies. Bill’s fourth-wall breaking recognition that the Ice Warriors are modelled on Vikings is in some way honoured, though Iraxxa on her bier looks more like a mediaeval knight, gilded like the armour of the Black Prince. Her awakening helps justify the awkward idea that reptilian Ice Warriors have hives like bees, the gold leaf fragmenting and disappearing like the pupal skins of some social insects. Dialogue throughout presents the Ice Warriors as guardians of military honour, but their military honour proves a concept over which there can be debate without integrity being compromised, in contrast with the non-negotiable values of devotion to Queen and Country and of bravery and cowardice proclaimed by the British soldiers.

As this last point indicates, worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of sketching in Ice Warrior culture. One of this story’s observations is that the imperial culture of the Victorians is alien to their modern British descendants. By locating the soldiers as veterans of the Anglo-Zulu War – the battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879, is mentioned as the site of Colonel Godsacre’s desertion – the soldiers are associated both with both imperial conquest and with one of the British Empire’s most substantial defeats in southern Africa, where a European army equipped with technologically-superior weaponry was no match for a force armed with assegais which they held in contempt. There’s more than an echo of this in Captain Catchlove’s dismissal of the Ice Warriors as ‘upright crocodiles’; and the demonstration of the ‘thin red line’ formation in the episode only shows, as it did at Isandlwana, how soldiers could easily be picked off. Just as there are parallels between Iraxxa and Ayesha of She, then Catchlove has something of H. Rider Haggard’s imperialism about him. He’s far more the ideologue of empire than Godsacre is, and that he is also a practitioner of blackmail and unapologetically avaricious is not just a good character sketch for a forty-five minute drama, but a sharply unsubtle commentary on the reality of the supposedly civilizing mission inspiring British rule as presented by Haggard and others in the late nineteenth century.

The most sympathetic of the soldiers is Vincey, the one who has a girl back home, and with deliberate irony this black character he’s given a name which is, in She, the family name of the British descendants of the forgotten white rulers of Kôr in central Africa. Gatiss enjoys the irony of depicting the reality that Victorian Britain was not monolithically white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with a character name borrowed from a figure intended to represent white superiority. Likewise, his inclusion of Catchpole’s evident attraction at their first encounter towards Bill, whom Haggardian imperialism would regard as inferior to a white person. Bill’s stunned, appalled face at the casual way in which the British officers have named their Ice Warrior ally Friday, and by extension why they think he should to wait on them, helps pay off her earlier string of cultural references. It’s juxtaposed with the way the script is already establishing Friday as a courteous warrior, a mind rather than a shell. Arguably it also points towards Godsacre’s journey from servant of colonialism, whose demeanour is that of a dead man walking (as his grave name suggests) to a more self-aware person serving the colonized, much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, rescuer-captor of the original Friday, passes through several states of consciousness of his own actions during Robinson Crusoe the novel.  

The regulars have quirks here which might not be found welcoming. Neither Bill’s tendency to spout film anecdotes nor the Doctor’s apparent ignorance of so much pop culture (which surely his tenth self knew about) rang as true as the production hoped or expected. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi’s fiercely deliberate portrayal of the Doctor’s observation of Martian ritual helps bring home how crucial for all those on Mars negotiation is, and though I found Bill’s characterization early in the episode to be at odds with how she has been portrayed earlier in the series, Pearl Mackie restores her to alert and intelligent Everywoman by the second half of the story.

Empress of Mars feels much more cohesively whole somehow than several other episodes have this series. It also feels more welcoming. Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads. Faced with a warm colourscheme it’s up to Murray Gold’s music to suggest cold and the thin atmosphere ‘topside’, and his thin, reedy notes manage just that.

She featured a mysterious African queen who beguiled white men to do her will. Iraxxa, here, does not perform that part of Ayesha's role. Instead, it’s another queen behind a veil who is acting as seductress. It’s never explained why the TARDIS returned itself to the Doctor’s study at St Luke’s with only Nardole on board, but we are invited to guess who is its secret remote operator. The final scene of Missy as contrite woman-child facing the Doctor, backlit, as Murray Gold’s score slithers across the speakers, sets up how compromised the Doctor might just be by Missy, and also how the end of this Doctor’s era, now so close, might be brought about by his belief in an old friend's better nature.

On a lighter note, perhaps… Who else of a certain vintage grinned or even punched the air when that high-pitched voice turned out to belong to a certain hermaphrodite hexapod? Who else exclaimed ‘It was Ysanne Churchman’? As the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe and give up isolation, those who regretted that this episode wouldn’t be set on Peladon learned that one doesn’t have to go there to use the Ice Warriors to make comments about Britain and its relationship with its neighbours in Europe. By invoking one of Doctor Who's own imperial phases, that of velvet jackets, Venusian aikido and broad political allegory, to warn about British imperial nostalgia (the brief visit to NASA is a concession to contemporary expectations, but feels like a stand-in for a Pertwee-era British Space Control), Empress of Mars recalls strong storytelling values whose appeal rightly stretches beyond the fan audience these references court, and help Doctor Who feel more anchored on Saturday nights than it has sometimes felt this year.