Delta and the Bannermen AudiobookBookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 January 2018 - Reviewed by Dustin Pinney
Delta and the Bannermen (Credit: BBC Audio)
Delta and the Bannermen
Written by Malcolm Kohll
Read by Bonnie Langford

Relased by BBC Audio June 2017

As a televised serial, Delta and the Bannermen could have been a hilarious, delightful, Douglas Adams-esque romp with a dark side. Many of the elements are there. Completely alien beings transforming themselves into humanoids in order to visit Disneyland in the 1950s as part of a “Nostalgia Tour”, everyday people trying their best to work according to procedure in the face of utter strangeness, and intergalactic war taking place at a holiday camp in Wales. Unfortunately, it’s an uneven, overly violent, tonal mess, with delusions of depth.

As a novel, Delta and the Bannermen could have been an edgy sci-fi epic with fleshed out characters, deeply detailed mythology, real character motivations, high stakes, and humor. Where else but a novel would it be possible to explore Chimeron culture,  craft a romance between Delta and Billy that feels genuine, or uncover the psychology of why an assassin on vacation just can’t help but make a kill (there has to be more than his enjoyment of it)? Instead the novel adds very little to what was already an unbalanced story.

As an audiobook, Delta and the Bannermen has fun music, an effective soundtrack, and Bonnie Langford’s narration can be a delight when she’s really giving it her all and having a blast. However the weak story holds the entire production back. It is simply too difficult to separate the story from the audiobook to enjoy all the work that went into recording this otherwise pretty impressive audiobook.   

The setting of Delta and the Bannermen requires a soundtrack rich with popular music of the time. Characters openly reference songs like “Rock Around The Clock” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” It would be hard to imagine the story without a few needle drops of those vintage hits. Somehow the producers were able to concoct generic, certainly royalty free, Rock & Roll tracks sufficient enough to capture that particular musical shade of the correct pop cultural tapestry.    

Not to say the music is all perfect. Perhaps the most entertaining piece of the score is what appears to be the main theme. A sweeping, swashbuckling suite that may have been more at home in a pirate story, but is equally thrilling here.

Telling a story about about genocide across the stars, especially when the antagonist is as murder-happy as Gavrok, gunfire and explosions are crucial. At no point does the artillery become a wall of pounding sound overpowering the music or narration. Every auditory element is layered to compliment each other, resulting in a sense of immersion.  

Of course the natural standout is Bonnie Langford as the storyteller. She is tasked with performing a variety of accents for more characters than necessary, and she does so superbly. While Mel may not be everyone’s favorite companion, Bonnie Langford is a first class talent, and she shines throughout the entirety of this book.  

Delta and the Bannermen, regardless of the form it takes, is a story with a lot of promise that never reaches its full potential. At least this version has a narrator who seems to be enjoying themself.

 




Tenth Doctor Novels (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 7 January 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Tenth Doctor Novels (Credit: BBC Audio)

Sting of the Zygons
Written By Stephen Cole,
Read By Reggie Yates

The Last Dodo
Written By Jacqueline Rayner, Read By Freema Agyeman

Wooden Heart
Written By Martin Day,
Read By Adjoah Andoh

Forever Autumn
Written By Mark Morris, Read By Will Thorp

Wetworld
Written By Mark Michalowski, Read By Freema Agyeman

Sick Building
Written By Paul Magrs, Read By Will Thorp

The Pirate Loop
By Simon Guerrier,
​Read By Freema Agyeman

Peacemaker
Written By James Swallow, Read By Will Thorp



Released by BBC Worldwide Auguest 2017
Available from Amazon UK

BBC Worldwide have released this collection of Eight Abridged Audiobooks from the Tenth Doctor's line of Novels, all of which feature Martha Jones as the Companion. The stories themselves range from mediocre to just plain decent.  Nothing in the collection really jumped out at me.  The readings all all decent, particularly those read by Freema Agyeman and Will Thorp.  Adjoah Andoh did a decent job as well, but Reggie Yates lacked something in his reading...while others found a way to capture the Tenth Doctor's voice in some way (Agyeman being the best in my opinion), Yates just never found a tone that worked for me.  His approach seemed to just be talk faster, but he missed key elements of this Doctor's delivery that took me out of the story, and just thinking "oh but the Doctor would've said it like THAT," which made it much harder to get into the story. 

It didn't help Yates that he was saddled with one of the least interesting stories of the bunch. In Sting of the Zygons, The Doctor and Martha battle Zygons in the early 20th Century...imagine Zygons on Downton Abbey, only somehow that isn't fun.  The second story of the bunch is The Last Dodo, read by Agyeman, which was a definite improvement in terms of story and reading.  The Wooden Heart is another decent story, but again nothing too stellar is found within this collection.  I did enjoy the Halloween themes and monster in Forever Autmn as well as the adventure with the sentient otters that is WetworldSick Building had some decent ideas, but the story is decidedly average. Peacemaker is another average adventure, this time with the backdrop of the old west, though I do think it got better as it went along.  This particular audiobook does show off some of the vocal range of Will Thorp, who does a lot of different Amercian accents. 

The one story that really jumped out at me was The Pirate Loop. Read by Agyeman, it has neat time travel mechanics, intriguing mysteries, unique storytelling devices, and Space Pirates who look like humanoid badgers.  What's not to love in all that?  Of all the stories, it seems the most memorable,  the only one I will probably continue to think of from time to time. 

Ultimately, this wasn't that impressive a set of stories.  There was nothing that was too bad, but everything was just middle of the road. A little bland. As someone who had not read any of the BBC original novels, these abridged audiobooks were sort of like a sampling of them...and it left me uninterested in reading more.  Because of the ongoing series, there is (or at the very least was) probably a lot of rules for what they could and couldn't do in the novels.  As such I think you end up with a fairly bland output of stories, things that certainly work as Doctor Who, but because of restrictions from the show itself take some of the edge out.  It could be that sme of the spark gets lost in the abridged nature of the audiobooks, or it could be the readings themselves weren't to my liking. For the most part, anything read by Thorp and (especially) Agyeman were more entertaining to listen to, but I can't say this was the most entertaining set of audiobooks. For collectors only, I would suggest just checking out either the audiobook of the prose version of The Pirate Loop, instead of going for the whole boxset.





Classic TV Adventures - Collection OneBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 26 April 2017 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
Doctor Who: Classic TV Adventures - Collection One (Credit: BBC Audio)
Classic TV Adventures Collection One

Featuring narration by Frazer Hines, Caroline John,
Katy Manning, Elisabeth Sladen, John Leeson & Lalla Ward

Released by BBC Audio April 2017 (order from Amazon UK)

BBC Audio have of late been releasing items in their back catalogue in collections, with last year seeing audiobooks of the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Torchwood, and also audio adaptations of stories. This month sees a further collection released, this time focussing on televised adventures with linking narration.

With a couple of early exceptions, narrated soundtracks started to appear in the early 1990s, featuring a number of (mostly) missing stories being presented on audio cassette with linking narration by 'future' Doctors. This series was "rebooted" for CD in the late nineties, now featuring a contemporary actor providing the narration, and continued on apace throughout the first half of the new decade. However, by 2006 the "missing" well had dried up and so BBC Audio delved into the expanse of complete stories, extending the range until the company responsible for the audio range, AudioGo, went into administation in late 2013.

Whilst the release of missing/incomplete adventures was a welcome (if not essential) addtion to Doctor Who collections, there were fans who felt that there was little point to the later releases - after all, these were available in all their glory on VHS and steadily appearing on DVD. However, I've always felt that these were worthwhile additions, for two reasons.

Firstly, you can't watch a story when you're driving, but you can listen to a soundtrack and linking narration as you're doing housework, in bed, or as frequently happened to me crawling around the M25! Secondly, but perhaps far more importantly, they serve as an excellent accompaniment to the stories themselves as an audio-description track - something that the modern series has enjoyed throughout its transmission/commercial release for those with visual impairment, but the 'classic' era never accomodated (we were lucky for subtitles back then!).

Personally I think it is a shame that no further narrated soundtracks have been released since Random House took over the BBC Audio range, but at least the previous adventures are getting a new lease of life.

So what do we get with the first volume of Classic TV Adventures? The collection features seven stories covering adventures of the second, third and fourth Doctors. First up is the Patrick Troughton tale The Tomb of the Cybermen. This story is a curio in that it was one of the "original" run of missing story releases and orginally narrated by Jon Pertwee, but lost its "missing" status shortly before its release (thanks Hong Kong!). For its re-release in 2006 it featured a new narration by Frazer Hines (aka Jamie in the story).  Entering the Pertwee era there are two stories that were originally released in late 2006 as part of a Monsters on Earth collection, Doctor Who And The Silurians (with Caroline John aka Liz Shaw) and The Sea Devils (with Katy Manning aka Jo Grant) - however, the third in this set (no prizes for guessing what!) isn't in this collection, it's bumped over to the second set due in October.. Two more, connected tales continue the third Doctor's adventures, The Curse of Peladon (from 2007, also Katy) and its sequel The Monster of Peladon (2008, with Elisabeth Sladen aka Sarah Jane Smith). Rounding off the collection are two Tom Baker stories first released in 2012, The Pirate Planet (with John Leeson aka K9) and Destiny of the Daleks (with Lalla Ward aka Romana). With the latter, I'm surprised BBC Audio didn't include City of Death to have a Douglas Adams mini-theme, but I guess the Daleks are aways a selling point!

As well as the soundtracks themselves, each story includes an interview with their respective narrator, talking, so you can listen to anecdotes such as how Caroline first got involved with Doctor Who, how Katy learnt how to do a number of her own stunts, John's road to RADA and Lalla's artistic flair. There are a couple of other bits to be found, such as a BBC Radio 4 item from 2004 on caves in Derbyshire accompanying The Silurians, and a nice little dedication to Mary Tamm on The Pirate Planet. However, no additional content has been included in these re-releases (and some content has actually been lost from the originals - more on that below).

It is a perhaps tricky to determine exactly how effective the narration of existing stories actually is, being that we've (probably) watched the stories many times before and so can visualise the scenes playing out in our minds as we listen. However, I think the narration does a good job in reminding us of what's occuring (and the earlier, missing releases certainly demonstrate how the narration helps inform us as to what's happening "off-ear"!)

As the linking narration has to be scripted in such a way to minimise interuption to the stories' own narrative, it is often heard in short bursts when nobody is speaking during the episodes. Surprisingly this all works rather well, with only the occassional situation where this isn't possible: for example explaining how the Doctor surrepticiously helps Kleig resolve his logic problem to open the hatch during Tomb means Frazer's narration covers over Kleig's muttering - but that is mitigated somewhat by it being mostly repetition from a few moments ago. The choice of narrator can also make-or-break how effective the plot is imparted - a bland delivery could ruin any atmosphere that the story has built up. Fortunately, nobody falls short in this collection, though of course they have their own distinctive styles.

Narration-aside, one thing that stands out is the clarity of the soundtracks, which seems so much better than on the DVDs. This may be down to the uncompressed format of the CD, but here dialogue is crystal clear, and I found it also enhances the musical cues, too - full kudos to the audio restoration work of Mark Ayres and David Darlington.

In terms of packaging, this set follows the same format as other collections, i.e. a single central spindle that holds all the discs. This may save on space on the shelf, but it makes it fiddly to access latter stories as you spend your time lifting discs on and off to get at them. I prefer the older boxes, even with the danger of the teeth holding the CDs pinging off! The CDs themselves have new illustrated labels reflecting their collection as well as story status - though unfortunately the labels (not content!) for both discs of Destiny say CD1! These are new pressings and previous PC content is no longer present (such as the PDF camera scripts for The Pirate Planet). However, a bigger problem lies with the bonus content that is meant to be in the set: the inside cover indicates full credits and production notes are in a PDF on CD1, but the disc itself - on my laptop at least - seems to only be a standard audio disc, thus making the promised delights of Andrew Pixley missing (believed wiped?!!!).

EDITORIAL: BBC Audio have confirmed that the PDFs of both the production/credits and scripts previously available on The Pirate Planet and Destiny of the Daleks were indeed erroneously left off this collection - future pressings will be corrected, but those who have bought this collection can request the missing PDFs via email by contacting the company through us at TV-Adventures-Bonus-Material-Request@doctorwhonews.net.

 

So, all-in-all, is it worth getting this set of narrated soundtracks? If you just want the stories (which is arguably the point of the set) then it works out as an efficient way to get them - the original releases will work out more expensive (new), but have sleeve notes and other features absent here, so it will depend on how important those are to you as a listener or collector.

That aside, is it still something to get when you've probably got the original DVDs anyway? To me, it is far more convenient to listen to soundtracks in this way when I'm doing other things without the need to watch what's happening on-screen (e.g. writing this review as I listen!), and whilst it isn't too difficult to copy the audio from the DVD to listen to independently, that will be lacking the additional cues made by the narrators. This ultimately comes down to how "purist" you are with the soundtrack, of course, but this does give you the alternative option!

The second set of existing soundtracks comes out in October (featuing The Krotons, The Ambassadors of Death, The Mind of Evil, Horror of Fang Rock, City of Death and Warriors of the Deep), which completes the back catalogue. It's my hope that BBC Audio will resurrect the series in 2018, but I suspect that the interest in narrated soundtracks won't be sufficient to give the range that new lease of life (certainly not while the Target adaptations continue apace and new series tie-in releases remain popular).

However, I'll continue to 'champion' the audio-descriptive benefits of such releases - with any luck all 'classic' serials will have such accessibility in the future!





Doctor Who - The Tenth Doctor Tales (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 20 September 2016 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Tenth Doctor Tales (Credit: BBC Audio)
Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor Tales: 10th Doctor Audio
Original Audio CD – Unabridged
Read By David Tennat, Catherine Tate and Michelle Ryan

This compilation released by BBC Audio August 2016
Buy from Amazon UK
Pest Control (Parts One and Two) - By Peter Anghelides - Read by David Tennant.

On the planet of Recension, a bitter war is being raged between humans and the Aquabi. When Dr McCoy (The Tenth Doctor) and Captain Kirk (Donna Noble) arrive, they not only face the wrath of each side, but also a monstrous plan that mutates soldiers into giant insects, and a huge metal robot exterminator.

Pest control has the advantage of (in my opinion) the greatest Doctor and companion team that the series has provided us since it's return in 2005. Peter Anghelides writes for them perfectly, and David Tennant turns in a surprisingly good Donna. The story conjures up some fantastic imagery, especially the transformation of the soldiers into the giant insects (which is always accompanied by wonderfully horrendous sound effects), and the giant metal robot, whose sole job is to eradicate the insectoids by stamping on them. The story does plod a little in the middle, and Tennant's voicing of Surgeon Lenova sounds as if it is unintentionally comedic, but on the whole this is an exciting audio with some lovely Star Trek in jokes.

 

The Forever Trap - (Parts One and Two) - By 15094 - Read by Catherine Tate.

The Doctor and Donna are duped into being flatmates in a huge luxury apartment complex called The Edifice. They soon discover that not all of their neighbours are particularly friendly, in fact some are just out and out murderous...

As anyone who has seen The Catherine Tate show will know, Tate is by nature a master of creating different voices, and here she gives them all character (my favourite being the overtly camp lift attendant). The Doctor and Donna's chemistry is present in the writing, but the comparison to Paradise Towers (not one of my favourites) was too much, meaning the story didn't quite work for me.

 

The Nemomite Invasion - (Parts One and Two) - By David Roden - Read by Catherine Tate.

A frantic chase through the time vortex, a splash landing and a flooded TARDIS herald the Doctor and Donna's arrival in World War 2. They are tracking an alien parasite that is intent on taking over all human life on Earth.

This story starts at breakneck speed, with the Doctor and Donna crashing into the English Channel in the middle of U Boat battle. The threat here is an alien slug-like creature, that attaches itself to the host, and spreads it's young through the water supply. The story is full of very tense and creepy moments, with the Doctor having to make some very hard decisions. Again Tate excels at voicing the different characters (there are a lot of them), and keeps the listener's attention throughout.

 

The Rising Night - (Parts One and Two) - By Scott Handcock - Read by Michelle Ryan

The Doctor finds himself in 18th century Yorkshire, with no idea how he arrived. Women are being kidnapped, and men murdered - the Doctor of course is the prime suspect. Something is feasting on the blood of the villagers, meaning the Doctor must prove his innocence and catch a monster. His only ally being a young woman called Charity.

I found the Rising Night quite hard to get into, the story took a lot of time to get going, and I am not sure that Michelle Ryan's vocal talents helped. However things finally get wrapped up nicely, and in the end the Doctor finds himself with a new travelling companion.

 

The Day Of The Troll (Parts One and Two) - By Simon Messingham - Read by David Tennant.

In the future, England has become a barren, arid wasteland. The Doctor discovers a team of scientists who are trying to help the environment, unfortunately for them all, an ancient evil is hunting them down one by one.

The Day of The Troll has the tenth Doctor in his element, leading a group of terrified scientists in a what is initially a base under siege scenario. The second half suffers a bit from bringing the characters out in the open a little, but the monster is terrific, and with the help of some subtle sound effects, Tennant really gives it air of terror. The story reminded me a lot of John Pertwee's era, in that not only did the Doctor have to face off against an alien threat, but also the establishment. With the Doctor here traveling alone, Tennant really excels in his characterisation of him.

 

The Last Voyage (Parts One and Two) - By 15094 - Read by David Tennant.

The Doctor joins the flight of a revolutionary transposition cruiser, where he finds that almost all of the passengers and crew have mysteriously disappeared, and an alien threat starts to manifest itself.

Dan Abnett here writes out an out science fiction, with the craft in the story bending space and time to reach it's final destination. The realisation of the dimension hopping aliens is fantastic, with the terrifying way that they seep into our reality. There is though unfortunately an issue with one of the characters, Sugar, whom Tennant voices in a REALLY annoying American accent that I just couldn't take seriously. Still the story is tied up nicely, in a way that makes perfect sense.

 

Dead Air (Parts One and Two) - By James Goss - Read by David Tennant.

On a pirate radio boat in 1966, the Doctor and the crew are faced by a hostile alien that not only feeds on pure sound, but is also the perfect mimic. Who can he trust?

The alien threat onboard the Pirate Radio ship Bravo is outstanding, The Hush is a malevolent presence that the Doctor has been tracking that feeds on sound. However as the story progresses, it mutates into something far more threatening. The use of sound in Dead Air is brilliant. Where ever the alien has been, there are pockets of silence. Imagine walking into a room talking, and suddenly you can't hear anything, not even the words that are coming from your own mouth. Goss has created a monster that would be welcome in show on television. Capaldi would have a field day.

 

On the whole The Tenth Doctor Tales is a worthy listen, if a tad long. I felt that because of the running time (each complete story is around the two hour mark) some of the stories outstayed their welcome somewhat. Tennant and Tate are excellent narrators, Tennant using his own accent when not in character, and Tate of course excelling at handling the different characters voices and personalities. I did feel though that Ryan's delivery fell somewhat flat.

 

The stand out story for me was Dead Air. The Hush is a truly unsettling monster that works perfectly in audio. James Goss has created an instant classic. Tennant's Doctor is made to be properly vulnerable in Hush, in a similar way that he was in television's. Dead Air is a truly disturbing listen. On the other side, the weak point for me was The Rising Night. The story was too slow, and could easily have been cut to one hour.

 

BBC Audio here prove that they can indeed make interesting, entertaining and engaging audios, that rival Big Finish.

 





The Macra Terror (AudioBook)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 11 September 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Ian Stuart Black,
Read by Anneke Wills,

First published by Target Books in 1987,
Released by BBC Audio - 4 August 2016.
Running time: 3 hours,  5 mins

In the 24th Century, a human colony enjoy a truly enviable lifestyle in their domain, which in many ways resembles a holiday camp from yester-century. Conformity and contentment go hand in hand, as everyone serves the interests of a society that runs like clockwork and never shows anything other than a positive demeanour.

But one of their own, a bearded and fidgety man called Medok suddenly insinuates that foul creatures are taking over control. No-one wants to believe his rather alarmist claims though, at least that is until a crew of four strangers arrive out of the blue...

 

This story has grown steadily in my affections over the years as a fan of Doctor Who, and also someone interested in social science and philosophy in general. I first encountered it when it came out at the same time as The Evil Of The Daleks on dual audio cassette in 1992. 

As a child back then I would devoutly replay these releases on my portable Sony 'Walkman' when travelling somewhere new, yet I would only fully engage with David Whitaker's epic.

Macra was just a curiosity. Not even a solitary episode existed, and having the Sixth Doctor / Colin Baker as the narrator somehow felt more opaque than the definitive (especially back then) Fourth Doctor/ Tom Baker.

But over time I have realised how the Season Four finale does suffer slightly from its seven episodes, and multiple locations, even if it remains great escapism. Macra is however concise, ascends in its suspense and feeling of high stakes, and makes the most of its overall premise.

 

As of today, only The Power Of The Daleks stands head and shoulders higher over this tale, as the marquee story of a season of Doctor Who, that said 'goodbye' to one talented actor in the lead, and 'hello' to an arguably more skilful thespian. Of course now we have the news that the debut Troughton story will make a comeback of sorts in the coming months, in the form of an exciting and newly envisioned animation.

For a great story to exist in the first place, it invariably needs a very strong and confident writer. Ian Stuart Black is one of the perhaps more under-rated scribes in Who lore and should be thanked for giving the show a vital shot in the arm when it began to falter in the latter half of Season Three. Today, we only have The War Machines (essentially intact), whilst Black's other two efforts - The Savages, and this story - are lost almost entirely. All three do however deserve to be remembered fondly.

I do think Macra is the cleverest and boldest of Black's three televisual serials. The novelization here accomplishes admirably efficient world building whilst maintaining the pace of the 'snappy' four parter structure.

 

The story has much to make the readership ponder themes and philosophy. One of the more overt is the need to be sceptical and questioning over what a person is told, and how they should invariably conform. If there is not enough of this independent thought, then the individual is in danger of losing their array of senses, and to be effectively brainwashed. Each chapter has something to say about the subliminal techniques used by the story's antagonists to wield power, and this manipulation is effective primarily due to the victim' sense of being euphoric and having the perfect life.

By making Ben Jackson the most susceptible of the TARDIS crew, when normally he is the most argumentative and dominant in nature, the original TV story managed to take viewers at the time on a journey where they questioned if what they thought they knew about the show's heroes was perhaps more superficial than first thought.

There is also a very strong amount of in-depth exploration on the nature of what is acceptable in society, and what is 'eccentric' or 'insane'. The various references to insanity and to hospitalisation/medication that controls said malady are as relevant to today's social confines, where the idea of normal is so strongly prioritised, they were in the 'swinging' Sixties, when this story was conceived (and had its regrettably one-off UK transmission).

The fate of one of the key guest characters of the story is also altered. Whereas in the transmitted story this person seemed to meet an abrupt end, in this version the author was allowed to present an alternative fate, as he held the full reins as the writer of the novelization. Consequently this key player in proceedings is allowed a fully formed arc and a sense of vindication.

 

And as an audio book, this stands up rather well too. Anneke Wills does a very respectable job in showing her range of skills, as the sole member of a one person cast. Many guest actors in the original show were strong, not least Peter Jeffrey (as the 'Pilot'), who later went on to have an even better role as the more villainous Count Grendel in the Tom Baker Era. But Wills uses the rich text of the book to narrate events and characters vividly, and switches personas for the various members of the colony distinctly and with full attention to detail.

The only niggling issue I have is that whilst her Second Doctor portrayal has much of the core mercurial spirit of Patrick Troughton, the actual voice - in terms of pitch - is more akin to William Hartnell. But I must admit, this is one area that is rather easy to criticise, much like Maureen O'Brien could only gamely attempt to portray her Doctor in The Space Museum, released earlier this year. Sometimes the sheer star quality of the main man in this sci-fi/fantasy phenomenon can be a double edged sword...

 

Sound effects and musical cues are well up to the usual standard for these BBC Audio releases. Such is the strength of the core text, and the dedicated, whole-hearted presence of Anneke Wills, these supporting elements act as a nice bit of icing on the cake, rather than something to break up a potential monologue. Whether you are clued-up on classic Who like myself, or someone who has only glimpsed the Macra in the Tenth Doctor belter Gridlock, this is a great addition to your audio collection. This late summer release lives up to the legacy of the sadly missing black and white BBC production.





Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment (audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 August 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who and The Sontaran Experiment (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Ian Marter
Read by Jon Culshaw
Released by BBC Audio on 7 July 2016
First published by W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd in 1978
Running time: 3 hours approx.

The Sontaran Experiment was the first two-part story to be novelized. Ian Marter’s text provided a model for others to follow, selectively expanding scenes or reimagining situations and sections of the plot in such a way that the book didn’t seem to have stretched its source material too thin in order to fill the 128 page count standard for Target in 1978. Not all his examples were followed by others, but Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment remains one of the most readable Target books. It’s now one of the most listenable too.

The success of Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment as an audiobook owes much, of course, to its reader. Jon Culshaw is a versatile and sensitive performer and shows his familiarity with the television source material. His Styr (as Marter renames Styre, slightly Germanically) has a lot of Kevin Lindsay’s bored colonial officer about it, but with an added note of cruelty to the hoarse voice in keeping with Marter’s reinterpretation of the character. The Galsec crew members turn up with South African accents present and correct, all distinctive and all from Culshaw. Sarah Jane Smith is Culshaw talking slightly more lightly and gently, and Harry Sullivan not too different from Culshaw’s narrator’s voice, respecting the relationship between the authorial voice and Harry’s viewpoint in Marter’s first two novelizations.

A good number of listeners will be curious to know how far Jon Culshaw’s fourth Doctor reflects his Tom Baker impersonation from Dead Ringers. Culshaw’s Doctor is realized more sensitively and subtly here than it was in his comedy persona, though there are still more than flashes of it every time Culshaw has to talk in pseudoscientific jargon or reminisce about constellations visited. He enjoys the dialogue which Marter adds, creating a fourth Doctor a little closer to the Tom Baker whom Ian Marter knew, crossing over fiction and reality. The Doctor’s rugby ball metaphor might have appeared on television, but certainly not his carrying around a flask of Glenlivet. We are assured, though not in precisely these words, that Styr would not have survived a night in the Colony Room with Tom and his Soho friends.

One of the great strengths of Ian Marter’s writing, at least where his first two books were concerned, was that he took the sets and locations of the television stories and created something extraordinary from them while keeping faith with his source. The Dartmoor locations of The Sontaran Experiment on television become the foundation for a gnarled postapocalyptic landscape, full of monstrous ochre reeds and brittle, black ferns atop deep ravines and cavernous labyrinths. As mentioned above Styr is developed into a dedicated sadist by Marter, who writes of how Styr enjoys putting his subjects – particularly Sarah Jane Smith – through tortures far more horrible than anything realized on television. In contrast he Styre written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is someone who can easily be read, in the words of one of my favourite reviews, as ‘a harassed Biology student trying to complete his practical on time.’ Marter’s Styr, though, is a complex creation, a cyborg entity whose flesh is likened to plastic, seaweed, rubber and steel wool, and viewed by different characters in different ways. To Sarah, he’s a noxious reptile and a bloated, snorting pig; to Harry he’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and the Golem of Jewish folklore, as if spontaneously generated from the devastated Earth, though Culshaw’s short vowels will make listeners think of Tolkien’s Gollum.

There’s a lot to intrigue in the writing, particularly the hallucinating Harry’s successive threatening visions of Sarah. Perhaps Marter viewed Harry as jealous of Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor, depicted as intense and trusting with Harry too often a third wheel. However, one of the more spectacular expansions is Harry’s exploration of the Sontaran ship, a more complex vessel in the book than suggested on television, which not only allows Harry to be heroic but is read with a careful urgency by Culshaw.

Simon Power’s sound design is appropriate throughout, especially in the torture scenes which are given suitably visceral cues. At about 180 minutes this audiobook isn’t too long and writer and reader are good companions for a few hours. It’s a small but determined sidestep into a reimagined fourth Doctor era, of interest to old and new audiences and an early indication of the elasticity of Doctor Who.