The War Machines (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

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

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





The Caves of Androzani (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 March 2019 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Caves of Androzani  (Credit: BBC)
Written by Terrance Dicks
Read By Peter Davison

Released by BBC Worldwide - November 2018
Available from Amazon UK

The Caves of Androzani is not only my favourite Peter Davison story, it is not only among the top of my regeneration story lists, but it is definitely my favourite story from the entire 1980s.  So much of that decade had iffy scripts, were still stiffly directed like it was 1965 and were overly lit studio episodes.  Anytime they would leave the studio it becomes a relief because suddenly everything is lit so naturally.  But then there is The Caves of Androzani, a story which mostly takes place in dark caves, and is directed with a modern pace with the camera movement feeling free once.  And then there is Davison giving the performance of his life in his final moments as the Doctor.  I just love the serial, I think it is excellent.  But what if you strip away Davison's fiery performance?  What if the directing and lighting that I admire are taken out of the equation? 

Peter Davison reads this audiobook of the Target Novelization from the 80s, and while certain elements aren't nearly as exciting as their television counterparts (the crash landing cliffhanger from Episode 3 is one of my favourite moments in the whole of the classic show, and a lot of the umph is sucked out of it in this reading), I think I appreciated the base story elements better in this.  For example, I sometimes forget that this story is so simple.  It could be any random adventure for the Doctor...he lands on a planet, finds there is two factions warring over a rare medicine, there are androids and cave monsters, and the Doctor and his friend get captured by each faction have to figure out a way to save their own skin while possibly helping fix this society's ills. 

It is a fairly standard Doctor Who story...but what sets it apart is that all those elements aren't actually what the story is about in any way.  Our heroes step out of the TARDIS and almost immediately touch an odd plant, which immediately poisons them. The entire story has the Doctor and Peri dying from the word go, and all of those fairly average story bits that might otherwise be the focus of the story, merely become obstacles in the way of the Doctor finding an antidote in time.  The Doctor doesn't try to find a way to sort out the fighting, he doesn't solve any issues with cave monsters or help find an alternative for this rare drug that is being battled over...no beyond the two main leaders of the faction killing each other, the problems of Androzani aren't really solved in the end.  Because the Doctor is actually just too damn busy trying to save his friend.  And that is what sets this story apart.  

We've become accustomed to regeneration stories that are big sweeping epics...the Doctor against a horde of Daleks, with Earth in the balance!  The entire universe will be destroyed by the Master, but the Doctor will give his life to stop him and make a grand farewell speech before he finally changes into a brand new actor.  But for as much fun as those can be, sometimes it takes dialling it back a bit.  Focus in on a more personal story, and the regeneration can be just as, if not more, powerful.  The Doctor doesn't have to save the galaxy for his death to have meaning, sometimes he can just save his friend.  

This audiobook was read with enthusiasm from Peter Davison, who has long professed that his final outing was his favourite of his tenure.  Terrence Dicks novelization of the original Robert Holmes script is quite good, and it let me focus in on different details that I've sometimes glossed over when I think of this story. If you are a fan of the original story, and we all know you are...check out this audiobook, it added to my already high enjoyment of the original television adventure.

 





Doctor Who - Target Audio - The Invisible EnemyBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 27 February 2019 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
The Invisible Enemy (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Terrance Dicks

Narrated by John Leeson

"Contact has been made......"

John Leeson reads this exciting novelisation of a classic adventure for the Fourth Doctor – and the introduction of K9.

A mysterious cloud drifts menacingly through space, and the Doctor becomes infected with the Nucleus of a malignant Virus that threatens to destroy his mind. Meanwhile, on Titan, human slaves prepare the Hive from which the Virus will swarm out and infect the universe. In search of a cure, Leela takes the Doctor to the Bi-Al Foundation, where they make an incredible journey into the Doctor’s brain in an attempt to destroy the Nucleus.

Can the Doctor free himself from the Nucleus in time to reach Titan and destroy the Hive? Luckily he has help ― in the strangely dog-like shape of a mobile computer called K9… 

John Leeson, who was the Voice of K9 in the TV series, reads this unabridged novelisation of the 1977 television serial

 

The Invisible Enemy is probably most famous for three things – introducing K9, making the Doctor a threat (a surprisingly rare occurrence across the history of the show), and having a dodgy looking giant prawn as the main villain.

I was quite looking forward to listening to the Target Audio, as I fondly remembered the story on television, I have the DVD, which think I might have seen once.

With a running time of well over three hours, I have to admit I struggled a little. The story is narrated (of course) by John Leeson, and he does his best – but I, unfortunately, found things to be rather plodding when compared to other Target Audio readings that I have listened to. Perhaps this highlighted that the story wasn’t quite all that I remembered, or maybe that the additional material contained in the Target novelisation just didn’t do anything to make the story more dynamic.

So, to sum up, overall I was left quite disappointed – I’ll have to revisit the DVD at some point soon.





Twice Upon a Time (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Twice Upon a Time (Credit: BBC Audio)
Adapted by: Paul Cornell
Based on the script by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Mark Gatiss
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 3hrs 15mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

“Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen.”

That was the credo of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels of the 1990s. It’s a phrase that is written on the heart of certain circles of fandom right next to “Never cruel or cowardly.” It seems appropriate then that one of the authors that most defined the voice of those books, Paul Cornell, uses his last Doctor Who book (though he’s said that before, in fairness) to lend greater breadth and depth than the small screen could allow.

Twice Upon a Time was always a remarkable story to play out on a Christmas Day. Ultimately it’s the story of a man, standing at the precipice, deciding whether or not to commit suicide. Normally that sort of thing is the reserve of Albert Square, where Christmas means even more misery than usual. But in 2017 Doctor Who danced on the tiny overlap that allowed it to be a funny, thrilling adventure about wanting to die with dignity. Part of that trade-off was the Doctor’s exact reasons and feelings not having room to be deeply explored, but Cornell takes full advantage of his page count to give us exactly that. It’s no less witty or packed with incident, but it more clearly acknowledges that this is a story full of characters who are, one way or another dead or dying.

The Doctor’s yearning for completeness comes to the fore of his thoughts. His desire to be able to finally provide a full stop to his life and say ‘so that was it.’  River comes to the fore of his thoughts and, in a genius spark of perspective, Cornell notes that this is a Doctor who lived for 75 years in a rather settled life. Twenty-four years in one long night with River, and then fifty years at St.Luke’s University. He’s had his retirement and his good death. Why can’t he just have it?

Bill’s future history with Heather is also fleshed out and with purpose as it shadows the Doctor’s dilemma. We learn of them returning to Earth to live a full, long, human life and how Bill ultimately chooses to die of old age rather than resume her ‘puddle’ form and return to the stars, even as she urged Heather to go without her. The faint hypocrisy of this isn’t touched upon, but it’s very human. The deeper, broader question of Bill’s existence – something the TV episode has time to little more than nod at – gets intelligently examined too. The Doctor connecting the concept of Testimony to growing up with the everyday reality of the Matrix on Gallifrey seems obvious in retrospect, as does that informing his opinion on whether such digital ghosts are actually the person involved, or simply an extremely detailed diary left behind by them.

All in all, Cornell has constructed a novelization which adds a new dimension of tenderness and emotion relative to the time and space of the original. A fine example of a Target which doesn’t so much overwrite, or compete with, the televised version in your mind, but rather adds additional layers of quality and grace to it.

As an audiobook, Cornell’s efforts are assisted hugely by Mark Gatiss. Himself no stranger to reading the Target range as a child, he knows exactly what’s required and turns in a touching, sensitive reading of the material. Not only are his Doctors note perfect in their voices (interestingly, he’s definitely decided to channel Bradley rather than Hartnell for his First Doctor) but he invests them with a sense of performance and character beyond the voice that truly captures their personalities.

Gatiss’ own persona also meshes smoothly with the tone required by the text. At times you can almost picture him in a comfortable antique leather chair, relating a diverting anecdote he thinks might amuse you. At others, his dropped voice and quiet control effortlessly communicates the pathos of a moment. All of the audiobooks in this series have selected appropriate and talented readers. But Gatiss is probably the only one so far to feel like he could genuinely have read any of them.

The sound design also keeps up the high quality of the series. Unobtrusive, yet giving an appropriate sense of setting, it hits just the right balance. It’s particularly nice to get the unique, and never repeated, bloops and whirrs of the console going crazy during the First Doctor’s regeneration faithfully presented her. One tiny niggle though is when the polar winds continue to blow in your earphones even when time stops still – which did prompt a little Bradleyesque “Oh, surely not? That can’t be right, can it, hmm?” from this listener that momentarily took me out of the action. But when that’s the worst criticism one can make of a three-hour recording…

This is the final of the current set of new Target novelizations and it’s fitting that they’ve proven just how varied the original range was, and just what their readers loved about them. We’ve had Jenny Colgan’s deeply traditional Dicksian take, and RTD’s version which took cues from both David Whittaker and Ian Marter (gleefully raiding other stories for bits and pieces, while upping the gore and violence beyond anything BBC One would have allowed at 7pm on a Saturday). We’ve had Steven Moffat’s wildly experimental take which doesn’t so much expand on the original but treats the TV episode as a kind of Serving Suggestion for where the story could go. And now Paul Cornell’s fine novel which manages the trick of adding massively to the inner lives of the characters while altering the actual events hardly a line.

Here’s to the next batch (“The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss” anyone?)

 





The Day of the Doctor (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Day of the Doctor (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 7hrs 26mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

There’s a common conception that anywhere there’s a big ‘grown-up’ awards ceremony, there’s a room full of snobs instinctively looking down on anything in the science fiction or fantasy genre. That’s not entirely accurate. After all, Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and that’s about the discomfiting life experience of being a clone grown for spare parts. Post-apocalyptic novels The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale were both nominated too. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is about a telepath discovering that all children born in the same one hour period in human history all have superpowers and it actually won the Booker.

Yet, tellingly, all those books are the subjects of hotly debated discussion about whether they’re SF at all. Essentially on the basis of being too good to be SF. Rushdie’s novel has been deemed “magical realism” whatever that means. But all in all, the key thing seems to be that a science fiction novel can be seen as Great Literature (with the capitals audibly intoned) so long as there’s wiggle room to pretend it’s not science fiction at all.

So what chance a Target novelization of an hour-long fiftieth birthday party for the children’s science fiction show that adults adore?

Well, quite.

Which is a crushing shame, because what Steven Moffat has created here is very far from being ‘just’ what fans voted the best ever episode of Doctor Who with a few extra “he saids” added to each page. It’s not even just a playful, engaging and fiercely intelligent science fiction. It’s not even a book which rollerskates backward past the time travel shenanigans of the average Hollywood blockbuster while making encouraging noises as one might at a small child that had made a tower a whole six blocks high. No, The Day of the Doctor is proper Literature. I mean, it’s got not one unreliable narrator but four (at least; I may have miscounted – there is a Time War on) and they all turn out to be the same unreliable narrator. Maybe. It doesn’t get much more Literature than that, frankly.

The great bedrock on which the whole novel rests – the one which presumably gave Moffat sleepless nights during the planning stages as he pondered how it was either going to work beautifully or else be an unreadable mess – is the conceit that it’s written in the third person by the Doctor, except when it’s not. And that the Doctor is simply ‘the Doctor’ at all times, no matter the point in his life, yet you’re never in any doubt about which face he’s talking out of, even when the Doctor is talking to the Doctor. Unless it’s cleverer, more telling or more fun for you to not know.

It does work beautifully, by the way, and is matched by a plot progression that’s not simply clever for cleverness own sake (but it really is very clever indeed) but by approaching the story from the angle that reveals the Doctor’s hearts layer by layer and exposes who he is and who the Doctor is, and how that’s both the same thing even when he insists it’s not, with scalpel-like precision. There have been many Targets that improve and expand upon their original television script. This is probably the first one that feels like it’s been forensically dismantled, checked over, had half its bits chucked aside and then rebuilt into a shiny new version of itself, held together with new custom-made parts. It looks about as much like a prose version of the TV episode as a ‘deconstructed seared pancetta with toasted brioche’ looks like a fried bacon sarnie in a Masterchef final.

The only misstep is perhaps the infamous Chapter 9 (they’ve had complaints). Not only does it indulge in all the worst kinds of fan service (the words ‘Looms’ and ‘River Song’ should be kept at 500 feet’s distance from each other at all times) but you need to wear a special eyepatch to even remember having read it. Which is a bit much.

As an audiobook, it’s hard to imagine any reader other than Nicholas Briggs making it work quite so well. Briggs hasn’t. as you might have been expected been hired for his skills with a vocoder. As part of Moffat’s stripping back everything unneeded in his exploration of what it feels like to the be the Doctor, and to be haunted by the gap between that ideal and the reality, the Daleks are reduced to a single line of dialogue – and that’s a flashback to an entirely different story. Briggs also doesn’t try to do impersonations of any of the cast, though his Tennant is surprisingly good. Instead, he more than gets enough of the gist of them across that even the scenes most bewilderingly full of crosstalk by the same man three times over always make perfect sense. Only once in the whole experience does it feel slightly off – in a cameo delivered as a Northerner all the better equipped to hear you, when surely the Doctor’s vocal cords were in an attack eyebrowed Scotsman at the time.

Speaking of Scotsmen, though there’s no Paisley tones in evidence Briggs’ narration perfectly captures a certain conversational style, dryly witty and with dark eyebrows audibly undecided between frowning mock-furiously and arching ironically, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Doctor Who Behind the Scenes video. It creates a surprisingly intimate feel in contrast to all the epic action and deep emotion of the text and adds hugely to the democratic sense of ‘all fans together’ enjoying this insane thing we love.

The Day of the Doctor might never take its place on ‘M’ bookshelves in the Literature section adjacent to Ian McEwan’s story about a guy bumping off his wife by folding her into a pocket dimension and David Mitchell’s multiple dystopian futures. And all those other 'too good to be SF' books. But it sits on ours. And that’s enough.

 





Mawdryn Undead (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Peter Grimwade
Read By David Collings

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK 

I've always rather liked Season 20's Black Guardian Trilogy...not necessarily because of the Black Guardian, but I felt each story was rather good in spite of their interconnected storyline. In actuality, Mawdryn Undead was probably my least favorite of the three, though in this new audiobook context, I found I enjoyed the story better.  I'm sure the ugly design of Mawdryn and the lame 80s flashy redesign of the Black Guardian hurt my enjoyment, so maybe having those taken out of the equation helped my enjoyment factor just a bit. 

The story doesn't have too much meat on it, but I did find elements of the story were better presented in book form.  I felt I had a better grasp on Turlough as a character then I ever really did throughout the show, particularly in his early days as a pawn of the Guardian. We get more in depth as to what drives him, and how he feels about the whole deal he struck with the Guardian.  That is the kind of stuff a novel can do better than a TV series, particularly a series of this era.  On the show, Turlough seemed like a slightly conflicted jerk who I warmed up to after the Guardian left the picture.  In this book, I like him earlier on, because I felt he his conflict is better explored. 

The storyline with the two Brigadiers and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and the wacky time travel mechanics are pretty interesting, and feel like a precursor to the eventual Moffat/Smith Era of the show.  I still think that this stuff could have been better expanded upon, but the book gets into the gritty of it better than the show did.  Or my memory of the original TV version is just fuzzy.  I remember being slightly underwhelmed by this when watching it, but it has been so long since I have, it could just be that I am misremembering the whole thing.

The audiobook is nicely read by David Collings, and while unabridged only runs about 4 hours.  Easy listening for Classic Who fans.  Not the best story of the show's long history, but fans can not complain about this presentation.