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



Vortex Ice / Cortex Fire (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 10 July 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Vortex Ice / Cortex Fire (Credit: Big Finish)
Vortex Ice by Jonathan Morris

Cortex Fire by Ian Potter

Directed by Ken Bentley

Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Lisa Greenwood (Flip), Shobu Kapoor (Sai Chopra), Orlando Seale (Dylan Argent), Monty D’Inverno (Jannik Woolf), Rebecca Todd(Khoralla), Simon Kane (Halus), Eve Webster (Bav/ Cortex/ Enforcer) 
Katherine Senior (Holly Whitfield) 
Youssef Kerkour (Dakeem/Ambulance Pilot)

Big Finish Productions - Release May 2017

 

Following on from the previous release of two very enjoyable adventures for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, Big Finish's experiment with their release format continues with another double-bill of two part stories, this time featuring the Sixth Doctor and Flip. These are set prior to Flip's initial departure in 2014's Scavenger (from which she returned for last year's Quicksilver and will be heard again later this year alongside Constance Clarke).

Vortex Ice by Big Finish veteran writer Jonathan Morris is an enjoyable tale which may cause a little confusion for listeners during the first episode due to a certain amount of "timey-wimey"ness as the story unfolds. However once the story moves into its second episode, the truth of what's really going becomes more apparent and the listener is rewarded for their patience. Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood are joined by a competent supporting cast of whom the standout is Shobu Kapoor still probably best remembered for having portayed Gita Kapoor in EastEnders (and Dimensions in Time) who convincingly portrays the leader of an underground expedition. Overall this is an enjoyable tale although it possibly could have done with a slightly happier resolution. 

Unlike the previous (and following) release Cortex Fire  by Ian Potter does not follow on directly from the first story but instead stands completely alone. It finds the Doctor and Flip having arrived on the futuristic and slightly dystopian city of Festin to witness an astronomical spectacle. However as they discover the truth behind the Cortex network which controls the city it becomes apparent that the entire population are in danger. This story also features a tight ensemble cast who are well directed by Ken Bentley including Eve Webster who voices several roles including the sinister Cortex. Fortunately, this is a more straightforward narrative and perhaps all the more enjoyable for being so.

Both stories also benefit from excellent music by Joe Kraemer, with Vortex Ice having a traditional 1980s feel and Cortex Fire featuring a nice homage to the film score of The Empire Strikes Back.

Overall this release features another enjoyable double-bill which shows that the range’s format deserves to be stretched occasionally. It also bodes very well for the next run of adventures featuring the Sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance beginning in October with The Behemoth. The double-bill trilogy concludes with the welcome reunion of the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex in Shadow Planet / World Apart .

 

Vortex Ice / Cortex Fire is available now from amazon.co.uk






Quicksilver (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 15 January 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Quicksilver (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by Matt Fitton

Directed by Jamie Anderson
 

Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Miranda Raison (Constance Clarke) Lisa Greenwood (Flip Jackson), Matthew Cottle (Henry Clarke), Joel Fry (Kinvar/Rogers), Oliver Cotton (Major Callahan), Kate Kennedy (Ana), Robbie Stevens (Boyarov/Vilal General).
 

Big Finish Productions – Released December 2016

Picking up immediately from the end of AbsolutePower, Quicksilver finds the Doctor and Constance returned to Bletchley Park some months after they originally left at the end of Criss- Cross. For Constance there is bad news in the form of a telegram advising her that her husband Henry who had been absent on a classified operation is now missing presumed dead. However, there is also a reunion in store for the Doctor as this story sees the return of Lisa Greenwood as popular companion Flip Jackson. 2014’s Scavenger ended with Flip falling through the earth’s atmosphere. She then reappeared in an episode of TheSixthDoctorTheLastAdventure set at an earlier point in her travels with the Doctor, allowing the Valeyard to tease her eventual fate. However, the ambiguity had already been cleared up in The Widow’s Assassin, in which the Doctor revealed to Peri that he had intervened to save Flip and take her back to 2012, and had subsequently received an invitation to her wedding. Flip’s wedding invitation makes a reappearance as a convenient plot device to allow for her to be brought back in time in what seems an almost too obvious nod to the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride.

The Doctor and Mrs Clarke meanwhile, are caught up in an alien invasion plot which conveniently links to the undercover project codenamed Quicksilver which Lt Cmdr Clarke was working on. This allows for a convenient transposition of events forward a few years in time to post-war Vienna, in which Matt Fitton effortlessly evokes the spy-movie atmosphere of The Third Man. After the slightly hit and miss antics of the previous play, this story is back on solid ground with clever use of characters and settings. In particular, the device of keeping the Doctor separate from both of his erstwhile companions for a large section of the story is well-used. Instead Constance and Flip are inadvertently paired together as a wonderfully chalk and cheese team who end up complimenting each other very well, sharing scenes which are an enjoyable contrast to previous occasions where past and present companions have met up.

As usual there is a reliable supporting cast with particular mention going to Matthew Cottle for bringing to life Constance’s much talked about husband Henry who has formed the centre of her story arc since her first appearance in 2015. Despite emerging as an unsympathetic character, he plays in very well in scenes with Miranda Raison’s Constance, allowing for a worthy conclusion to this stage of the character’s journey.

With the ending suggesting that, for a brief time at least, Colin Baker’s Doctor will, for the first time ever, have two companions in the TARDIS simultaneously, it seems that Big Finish are continuing to keep him in the excellent storytelling to which he has become accustomed. Overall, 2016’s main range releases have generally been a very strong collection of stories with much to recommend them. Quicksilver has rounded them off on a high note which has left this reviewer very keen to hear what will happen next.

 

Quicksilver is available now from Big Finish and is on general release from January 31st 2017

 

 






Absolute Power (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 6 January 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Absolute Power (Credit: Big Finish)

Written and Directed by Jamie Anderson
 
Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Miranda Raison (Constance Clarke), Paul Reynolds (Lyam Yce), Jenny Bede (Florrie/Medical Doctor), Arian Nik (Ammar Elkady), Neil Edmond (Professor Aryan Wyke/Mine Worker), Gary Martin (Kohrbal), Esther Hall (Pheenan)
 

Big Finish Productions – Released December 2016

AbsolutePower is a solid story from Big Finish’s newest regular director Jamie Anderson who continues to prove his own ability with a competent first full length script for the Doctor Who audio range (having previously contributed the single episode Come Die with Me to last year's You are the Doctor and other stories) and clearly demonstrates that he's not here because of cult TV nepotism. Judging by the comments of other reviewers, this story has clearly been well received and why not when there’s a lot to recommend it.

 As ever, Colin Baker and Miranda Raison are on sparkling form as the Doctor and Constance find themselves in full-blown detective mode. They head up a cast which includes an enjoyable turn from Paul Reynolds as the morally dubious galactic entrepreneur Lyam Yce. Reynolds has previously appeared in 2008’s FortyFive as the first incarnation of the villainous Word Lord, although for those of a certain age he will forever be remembered as Colin from TV’s Press Gang. Also worth mention are Jenny Bede as Florrie and an extremely impressive debut from Arian Nik as Ammar, a young man who falls very much under Constance’s spell and allows for some enjoyable final scenes.

However, when all’s said and done, for this reviewer, something about this story didn’t quite gel as a piece of Doctor Who. Every now and then, we all encounter an episode which, for whatever reason isn’t quite our cup of tea even if we can’t always put our finger on what we didn’t like, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that most others seem to have very much enjoyed this story. I will posture that perhaps there were a few too many rather obviously stereotypical characters woven into the plot which felt as if had more in common with the sort of adventures that Anderson is used to writing, almost as if the Doctor and Mrs Clarke had inadvertently landed in an episode of Captain Scarlet.

Most listeners will however find this a very enjoyable listen and it is inevitable that after 16 years of monthly releases, Big Finish aren’t going to manage stunning originality every time but this play is worth persevering with for the ending which segues very neatly into Big Finish’s final main range offering for 2016, Quicksilver.

 

AbsolutePower is available now from Big Finish and on general release from January 31st 2017






Order of the Daleks (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 24 November 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Order of the Daleks (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Mike Tucker
Directed by Jamie Anderson


Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison) John Savident (Pendle), Olivia Hallinan (Asta), Robbie Stevens (Boswyck/Raspak), Sam Fletcher (Rosco/Gabber), Joseph Kloska (Habrild), and Nicholas Briggs (Tanapal and The Daleks).

Big Finish Productions – Released November 2016

This month sees the welcome return of the Sixth Doctor alongside his latest audio companion L/Wren Mrs Constance Clarke, played with a perfectly clipped RP by Miranda Raison. This is actually Mrs Clarke’s fifth audio appearance to date but in a timey-wimey fashion this reviewer will be revisiting her first trilogy of adventures from last year at a later date.

This story sees the Doctor and Wren Clarke arrive on the idyllic backwater planet Strellin which has protected status but from which a signal is emerging which suggests that outside technology has infiltrated this primitive society. This has attracted the attention of the Galactic Census, who have sent assessors to investigate. The elder of the two assessors, Pendle is played by John Savident, who is still best remembered as Coronation Street’s Fred Elliot. Even without his regional accent there are still a few familiar mannerisms which add to the enjoyment of Pendle’s continual insistence in his own superior knowledge which rubs everyone up the wrong way. His trainee Asta is voiced by Olivia Hallinan whose many TV credits include Lark Rise to Candleford and the Torchwood episode Out of Time.

The four protagonists soon find themselves facing the monastic order of the Black Petal headed by the sinister Abbot Tanapal played by Nicholas Briggs alongside Robbie Stevens in the dual roles of Raspack and Boswyck, the latter of which becomes part of the team of protagonists. The title of this story means that it is of course not a surprise when Briggs gets to play his more well-known role as the voice of the Daleks. Despite having apparently beautiful new cases made of lead and stained glass (as illustrated on what has been one of the most eye-catching covers this year by Simon Holub), the Daleks have a sinister plan at work and have the monastic order very much under their control despite having to resort to primitive weaponry.

Mike Tucker, whose previous writing credits include Big Finish’s first ever Dalek story TheGenocideMachine, has provided a clever script which shows the Daleks at their devious best. As acknowledged in the behind-the-scenes interviews, the setting for this story owes a debt of inspiration to Vincent Ward’s original vision for Alien³ of a wooden planet inhabited by monks. Highlights include Constance’s unphased reaction when she meets a Dalek for the first time. Her “keep calm and carry on” attitude of pragmatism in the face of danger makes her a worthy new companion. Based on Constance’s adventures so far she is looking set to become the best Big Finish audio companion since the days of the much-missed Evelyn Smythe.

Overall, this is another extremely enjoyable addition to the Sixth Doctor’s long life of audio adventures which Colin Baker is clearly still enjoying. It also shows that there is still plenty of mileage to be gained on audio for the Doctor’s oldest enemies. With two more adventures for the Sixth Doctor and Mrs Clarke to follow in December, it looks like Christmas is about to come early.

 

 

OrderoftheDaleks is available now from Big Finish and is on general release from 31st December 2016.





Short Trips: Series 6 #1-3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 30 August 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen

Gardens of the Dead (Credit: Big Finish / Mark Plastow)Gardens of the Dead
Written by Jenny T Colgan, directed by Lisa Bowerman, narrated by Mark Strickson
Released January 2016

 

Seeing Jenny T Colgan’s name on a by-line associated with a Doctor Who story usually indicates that the listener is in for a treat and GardensoftheDead is certainly no exception to this rule. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Turlough as so it is doubly a treat that Mark Strickson is on hand to narrate it. He gives some spot on impersonations of the other characters especially Tegan and the Doctor and it really feels as if it Turlough telling the story from the way Colgan has captured his personality. Another nice touch is that the story is set shortly after Turlough’s arrival in Mawdryn Undead and so he is still under the influence of the Black Guardian and we get to enjoy Strickson impersonating the late Valentine Dyall. The story centres on Turlough building a relationship with and eventually coming to the rescue of Nyssa who finds herself falling foul of a sinister influence in the eponymous gardens. However, the conclusion of the story then disappoints as it references Nyssa’s departure in the television story Terminus a short time later but doesn’t make any reference to the various audio adventures set post-Enlightenment which Turlough would go on to share with Nyssa. Despite losing points for overlooking a significant development of the Big Finish continuity universe, this remains an extremely well-written story and is a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.

Prime Winner (Credit: Big Finish / Mark Plastow)Prime Winner
Written by Nigel Fairs, directed by Lisa Bowerman, narrated by Nicola Bryant
Released February 2016

 

This slightly odd story from the usually excellent Nigel Fairs is something of a curate’s egg. It finds the Doctor and Peri arriving on a space cruiser with an on-board casino where one of the players seems to having an extremely lucky day. The more curious aspect is that the gambler at the centre of the story apparently bears a strong resemblance to Peri’s step-father Howard. It is perhaps because this story seems to feature the more fractious season 22 relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri that this reviewer found the story didn’t gel as well as it might have although the relationship does show a hint of softening towards the end of the story. Also, there are a lot of continuity heavy references as a result of the appearance of ‘Howard’ including mentions of the Master and Kamelion as well as Necros mourning colours. This 42-minute story seems to become a little confused around the midway point when it takes on a rather repetitive Groundhog Day aspect but eventually reaches a satisfactory conclusion. The only disappointment is the slightly dismissive explanation for the central character’s resemblance to Howard, which ultimately serves to set up a final continuity punchline which unfortunately feels rather forced. Nicola Bryant gives a good reading and it will hopefully get to read some stronger stories in future.

Washington Burns (Credit: Big Finish / Mark Plastow)Washington Burns
Written by Julian Richards, directed by Lisa Bowerman, narrated by Sophie Aldred
Released March 2016

This enjoyable short story from Julian Richards opens in July 1814 when the city of Washington was under siege from the British with the rather shocking revelation that Ace has just accidentally shot and killed a horse. It then becomes apparent that we are starting the story in the middle as the action moves back several weeks from Ace’s point of view to Washington in the 22nd century where she and the Doctor are on the trail of a mind parasite known as Cerebra which spreads through transmission of the written word. This is not an entirely novel concept and will call long time Big Finish listeners to mind of the Word Lord but still the threat is well realised within the confines of a single person narrative. There is an initial confrontation between the Doctor and Ace and the parasite’s commanding host body before it manages to escape into a time corridor. The action then moves forward, or rather back, to Ace’s present where it becomes apparent that the Doctor has cleverly infiltrated the British army to ensure that any books in which Cerebra might be hiding are destroyed. The story reaches a sinister conclusion with the suggestion that the parasite may yet have survived but there is at very least a strong suggestion that there is a bootstrap paradox which will result in Cerebra’s presence in the Washington of the future. Overall, aside from the slight misfire of the opening scene, this is one of the strongest and at only just over 30 minutes in more compact stories of the range and all the better for not outstaying its welcome. Definitely a worthwhile listen.