BBC AudioGo: City of DeathBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 December 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
City of Death
City of Death
Starring Tom Baker
Written by David Agnew
Narrated by Lalla Ward
Released by BBC AudioGo, December 2012
City of Death is often regarded as one of the greatest stories from the Fourth Doctor era, and also considered one of the most accessible stories for a newcomer to the classic series to see first. A lot of this reputation stems from the witty dialogue (Douglas Adams on a very good day), excellent music from the then-resident composer Dudley Simpson, and beautifully shot model-work, sets and location filming from director Michael Hayes. However, with such a visually-rich story, how does it translate into the audio-only world of the CD/download? Can words speak louder than action?

Also, some think audio versions of complete stories are simply a waste of time and money; however, there are times when you can't actually watch stories - like driving to your parents' home at Christmas... - and then releases such as this become a godsend. So, the question becomes whether the narrated version imparts the story sufficiently to be able to enjoy as well as if watching?

All-in-all, the story is just as entertaining in this form as on the DVD, with the sparkling dialogue of the characters working just as effectively in this format. As with the preceding Destiny of the Daleks, Lalla Ward (Romana in the story) becomes the guide who ably navigates our path through those unseen moments, with the words themselves scripted by David Darlington, who does an excellent job in filling in such visual gaps.

If I have any 'gripe', though, it is that Dudley Simpson's fantastic score is 'lost' beneath the necessary dialogue describing the scenes. For those unfamiliar with the story, however, or those simply not so bothered with the score, a lack of such dialogue might well render those thematic passages through Paris etc. long and potentially boring to listen to - it's a compromise of the medium, of course, so I'm happy to settle for a release of the score instead (are you listening, Mark? (grin)).

Actually, a thought that does lurk in the back of my mind is to whether the narration truly captures the essence of the story or if it is as much my own familiarity with the story filling in any potential deficiencies - with the early days of the range the narration described scenes lost from the archives, but now we have soundtracks for stories readily available on DVD. It's hard to gauge how much influence that has, but when listening to City of Death on the drive I know I was visualising the characters as seen on screen. A good example of this is how the time-bubble is handled, which though described competently by the delightful Lalla, isn't able to quite create the visual impact of the appearance of Scaroth back in time. Similarly, the reveal of the six additional Mona Lisas isn't quite so startling when spoken. But that is a general problem with translating visual to audio rather than a deficiency of this release.

It should also be noted that inserting such elaborations between the gaps of dialogue without unbalancing the flow of the story is no mean feat either - the timing of these passages is impeccable, and the only dialogue I noticed as being 'muffled' was that of the tour guide's initial chatter during the description of the museum, but nothing that impacted on the plot in any way.

Special Features

It seems a bit odd to talk about "special features" on an audio CD, but with a story you can get on DVD I guess other value-added material is required in order to tempt the buyer.

As with Destiny, there is a brief interview with Lalla Ward included: here she talks about the problems with filming - both with a snowy Paris in May and a cantankerous Tom Baker - and how she feels it is important for an actor to defend the integrity of his/her character when writers might be less familiar with their nuances.

For PC users, the original camera scripts for the four episodes are also provided as PDF files on disc one, so you can read along to the soundtrack too if you like (and spot the ad-libs!).




The SnowmenBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 26 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Snowmen
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 25 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

There’s nothing abominable about this year’s Christmas Special; it’s full of invention and makes light work of relaunching a post-Ponds Doctor Who. And after an assortment of prequels – let’s pretend that a “foreshadowing” of prequels is the collective noun for CiN, online, and ebook iterations – it comes as something of a surprise to find that the main event is itself another prequel… to several stories from 1960’s Who. This is a big, energetic, sentimental crowd-pleaser which looks all set to play on wintry iconography, and then plays on Doctor Who’s history at the same time. Not just a wonderful Christmas gift, it’s also a prequel of a different kind – to the 50th anniversary. Throw in a title sequence paying homage to various eras, a TARDIS which neatly echoes older designs, Matt Smith’s face in the titles a la Troughton-to-McCoy, not to mention Clara Oswin Oswald’s birthday of November 23rd… and you’ve got a bundle of knowing treats for fandom, all pretty much screaming “this is part of television history”.

But that's about TV time on a fairly macro scale; what about the micro? Every few moments of The Snowmen there’s another burst of colourful, often comedic entertainment, almost as if Steven Moffat composed the script in bite-size chunks aimed at amusing an audience with virtually no short-term memory. Strax is a major delight throughout, particularly thanks to his memory worm exploits and his Sontaran stratagems. Vastra’s rendering as ‘The Great Detective’ is also neatly developed, along with any Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover being addressed by the Doctor’s impersonation of Holmes (complete with Murray Gold pastiching some rather familiar music). Rarely has the shadow of another popular TV series flitted as visibly across BBC Wales’ Who as Sherlock does here, seemingly all in the service of reminding us – as if we might not remember – that we’re watching a Steven Moffat script.

There are other showy, writerly sequences too, most notably the “one word test” where poor Clara has but a single word to appeal to the Doctor. This succeeds in making what could have been a fairly humdrum, seen-it-all-before scene – Clara soliciting the Doctor’s help – into both a challenge for the new companion figure, and a testament to the Doctor’s withdrawal from humanity. It works very well, and has a great pay-off as the Doctor reacts to a rather unexpected four letter word. And the reveal of the Ship’s interior also 'makes it new' via Saul Metzstein’s direction, with a single camera shot appearing to cross the police box threshold while Moffat craftily throws in “smaller on the outside” as a revamped “bigger on the inside”. It’s a refreshingly simple inversion, and one which manages to put a smart twist on a well-worn concept. As if to prove he’s been pondering how to rework TARDIS lore, Moffat even includes a bonus riff in the form of an exterior staircase that’s “taller on the inside”.

One problem with The Snowmen is that at times it feels more like a series of set-pieces rather than a coherent and logically developed storyline. If the snow isn’t really snow, but a crystal drawing on peoples’ thoughts, then shouldn’t it have been able to adopt other shapes rather than being locked into the thematic, wintry mode of ice statues and snowmen? And its “low-level telepathic field” seems to kick in only at points where Moffat wants to achieve a shock effect, a new threat, or a tidy resolution, otherwise being conveniently set to one side. All the individually Moffaty segments are great fun, but as a narrative The Snowmen drifts ever so slightly. We get little sense of an escalating attack, and the incremental pulse of danger which so pervaded The Christmas Invasion, say, seems less present in this year’s giant snowglobe invasion. The funny business of the memory worm does have a gear-shifting, serious pay off, mind you, and the transformation of snow and ice into salt water feels poetically appropriate, even if the rules of a low-level telepathic field aren’t ever properly put into place for viewers, enabling us to guess at the outcome, or genuinely appreciate its fittingness.

Clara’s life has been dubbed a “soft mystery” in official terms. In old money, this would probably be a story arc, but after negative publicity surrounding “complex” storylines the PR computer says “no” to story arcs this year. I don’t know whether Clara’s origins make The Question (Doctor Who?) a “hard mystery” by comparison, but there’s no denying that Clara Oswin Oswald is an intriguing addition to the spaces and times of Doctor Who. However, the “soft reboot” (of new title sequence, theme arrangement, TARDIS and companion) leaves less room than usual for a villain, with Richard E. Grant not being greatly called upon. There are some potshots taken at “Victorian values”, but ultimately Dr. Simeon is little more than a puppet whose strings are pulled by script requirements and pressures of screen time. Like the Autons in Rose, monstrosity is really a convention rather than a focal point, given what the script has to achieve.

Our attention is elsewhere. To wit, Jenna-Louise Coleman never puts a foot wrong as The Girl Who Died. Whether as cut-glass governess or blimey-guv barmaid, she has great screen presence and chemistry with Matt Smith, and her character’s double life resonates with the episode’s theme of imitation, whether it’s the Great Intelligence repeating young Simeon’s words back to him in Ian McKellen’s resonant tones, the Doctor playing at Sherlock, or snarling snowflakes approximating themselves to earthly weather.

Much here is derivative, based on something previously thought or said, on behaviour performed to suit. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this: for his third Christmas Special, Moffat must have been aware of not wanting to repeat himself excessively, and not wanting to follow a template too slavishly after the Dickensian Christmas Carol and Narnia-esque The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. How to make something original out of standard Christmas elements? 2012’s elegant answer is to incorporate imitation as the story’s motor.

When all’s said and done, reviews are words, words, words. So perhaps the one word test should be applied, cutting through blizzards of commentary and opinion. How might The Snowmen best be summed up in a single word? It reminds me of many title sequences, of Patrick Troughton stories, of much-loved TARDIS interiors, companions and introductions, of better and worse Christmas Specials, of a gravestone in the previous story, of Asylum of the Daleks of course, of Murray Gold’s motifs, of November 23rd anniversaries long ago and yet to come, of Cardiff University’s Main Building, of pastiche and parody, and always of the BBC’s period drama brilliance. Or, in one not necessarily Christmassy word:

Remember.




Devil in the SmokeBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Devil in the Smoke
Written by Justin Richards
BBC Books
UK release: 18 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Certain quarters of fandom have been clamouring for a Madame Vastra and Jenny spin-off for a while, and this ebook pretty much fulfills the brief – albeit as a “media tie-in” (in old money) rather than a fully-fledged series all of its own. Following the release of The Angel’s Kiss (which itself linked into The Angels Take Manhattan), I wonder whether every ‘event’ episode – or even just every episode, full-stop – will now arrive complete with its own commercially-available ebook. Personally, though I’m more than happy to buy DVD releases containing the TV series plus additional material, it feels a little odd to pay (seemingly on a per-episode basis) for prequel novellas to what’s still a public service TV series. But muttering about Doctor Who’s ongoing commercialization is a futile act – akin to trying to catch smoke in your hands – especially on the verge of an anniversary year and what will no doubt be a vast new plume of merchandise. Instead, fans and reviewers may as well just let it all swirl around them; like the weather, there’s seemingly nothing that can be done about Who’s corpulent growth as a mega-brand. And here’s something else for completists to enjoy (though Dan Starkey’s audiobook reading may well prove to be the more entertaining version, given the skill and verve with which he tackles character voicing).

Scrooge-like grumblings aside, there are some lovely moments in this tale, such as an observation of snow settling on the cold-blooded Vastra, as well as a mysterious death which sets everything in motion and features rather more “viscous carmine” blood than I’d expect to see in televised Doctor Who (particularly at 5:15pm on Christmas Day). There’s also some clever use of settings. Justin Richards plays with the reader’s expectation of a showdown set amid generic, grimy industrialism – all smoke, soot and merchants of menace – instead opting for a glassy, atmospheric location that greatly boosts his finale. However, the sense of place and time on show throughout is largely sketched in chocolate-box mode, relying on too many stock characters and shorthand sentiments. There are workhouses, and thugs, and baddies with names like Able Hecklington. Given that Justin Richards has to set out his stall pretty sharpish, and then wrap everything up just as quickly, it feels as if there’s little room for character development here, or indeed for very much which transcends the imitation of pastiche. Mocktoriana is drawn from how we remember collections of assorted cliché: the popular image of Dickens adaptations; jumbled TV Christmas Specials from over the years; big-budget advertising and its jacketing of history into seasonal prettiness. Furthermore, Vastra and Jenny are not really developed in any major way, and intimations of their relationship remain largely off-screen, or off the page. Devil in the Smoke, with its workhouse boys providing a point of identification, is self-consciously suitable for readers of most ages.

It may sound as though I’m being overly negative about this release – bah humbug! – but it has one feature that leaps off the screen and brings vitality to a sometimes insubstantial runaround. For me, the true saving grace here is none other than Strax. Justin Richards writes comedy just as fluently as he does action set-pieces, and his Strax one-liners are consistently laugh-out-loud superb. As a result, Strax pretty much gets all the best dialogue and effortlessly steals the show, for example with his Paternoster Row battle cry, not to mention his emphasis on “regrouping”. Richards clearly relishes the opportunity to subvert Sontaran militarism, but Strax’s forward planning is also valued, and he’s shown to be far more than just a comedic figure, but also one who is an important and respected part of the team.

The Snowmen has already provoked multiple prequels, whether for Children in Need, online, or in this guise. Like snowflakes, perhaps no two prequels are identical – some feature the Doctor, some (like this one) don’t really, some focus on Madame Vastra as ‘The Great Detective’, and others (like this one) amount to a colourful, undemanding romp compressed into less than a hundred pages. Can there ever be too much of a good prequel thing? In its favour, Devil in the Smoke ties into the imminent Christmas extravaganza in more ways than one. Not only does it draw on characters who have already become fan favourites, it also deploys its snowy backdrop for ambience, mood, and for the substance of plotting. Richards intelligently offers a different take on snowscapes (and a snowman) to the one we’re about to receive, and his closing line deliciously resonates with all the trailers and promotion for The Snowmen, setting the pulses racing of those of us “impatient for Christmas”.

I hope this ebook trend doesn’t expand to take in every episode next year, but instead remains an occasional and special treat, like all the trimmings that accompany Christmas dinner. With Devil in the Smoke, Justin Richards has served up something combining traditional, seasonal Who flavours with glorious notes of (potato-headed) piquancy.




Editorial: reviewers requiredBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 December 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
News in Time and Space Ltd are expanding their Doctor Who and general Sci-Fi and Fantasy reviews sites, and are interested in hearing from writers who would like to contribute. If you would like to apply, please send us an email to introduce yourself, your interests in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and a sample review of any recent show or item of merchandise for us to consider.




The Angel's KissBookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Angel's Kiss
Written by Justin Richards
BBC Books
UK release: 4 October 2012
Available to purchase from Amazon UK
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Tied into The Angels Take Manhattan, this ebook constitutes a prequel of sorts. It's most notable for adopting a cod noir style and presenting events from Melody Malone’s first person POV. The gambit allows author Justin Richards to enjoy himself, and his playful pastiche does a fine job of conveying River Song’s unusual world-view.

The decision to link a novella, or long-ish short story, to TATM fits tidily with that episode’s emphasis on clattering typewriters and storytelling practices, as well as imitating the Melody Malone book that we’re shown on screen. It therefore has a sort of instant authenticity. Yet one might have expected the novel the Doctor reads from to itself become a tie-in, with glimpsed on-screen chapter titles being fleshed out, precisely inter-linking ebook release and televised tale. Instead, The Angel’s Kiss eschews such direct expansion of the story world, and sets its sights on bit-part players such as Julius Grayle and Sam Garner the private eye. More substantial than recent online prequels, but nevertheless far briefer and less narratively developed than an episode, this ebook compresses its storyline into a fairly limited number of settings and incidents.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with this e-extra is how it uses the Weeping Angels. Of course, Moffat’s own TV scripts have form here, with the Angels’ modus operandi shifting radically from appearance to appearance – sometimes they kill victims, other times they bounce people back in time. Here they don’t really do either of those things, but instead drain life/time energy in a novel manner. In a sense, then, the Weeping Angels can pretty much be used to play whatever temporal tricks their author desires; as long as “timey wimey” shenanigans are involved at some level, and mixed with narrative threat, then the Angels basically remain on-brand. What best characterises them as a monster is that they’ve never been set in stone; each new appearance adds to their powers and purposes. And this is certainly true of The Angel’s Kiss. Angels can be rewritten, especially when they're read. But I still felt that Richards’ storyline reduced its angelic evil to an overly convenient, plastic and malleable plot device at times. Certain other Who villains would have fitted more obviously into events, rather than the Weeping Angels being reworked to carry things.

Ebooks such as this may well offer one future for Doctor Who publishing. Presumably overheads are lower than print editions, something which may enable ebooks to be targeted at a smaller fanbase or readership compared to the relative mass market required for many current Who titles. (I’ve always lamented the fact that there was no further script book published after Series One, something which I’ve heard said was a result of that title’s poor sales; perhaps ebook releases would allow original scripts to once again see the light of day). But ebooks would presumably frustrate the eleventh Doctor himself; it’s difficult to tear out the final page, for example: endings remain obstinately in place. Perhaps ebooks like The Angel’s Kiss might also frustrate sections of fandom; you can’t put this one on the shelf, nor admire its cover art in physical form. At the risk of coming over all old school – as if I’ve been thrown out of time by mysterious forces – The Angel’s Kiss would still have been more compelling for me as a material thing.

Regardless of its format, though, this delivers a pleasurable and well-crafted addition to River Song’s story. The classic noir detective typically has to contend with a mysterious femme fatale, but Melody Malone wraps both roles into one elegant package, her career at the Angel Detective Agency never distracting from her desire to make an impression on the opposite sex. But whereas Alex Kingston’s TV performance leaves some room for ambiguity as to just how knowing River’s sexuality and manipulation of male characters might be, the problem with first person narration is that it converts the character’s allure and mystery into descriptions of pointing the right bits at the right chap in order to get his attention. Unspoken game-playing becomes conscious, in-your-face strategy, curiously making River more one-dimensional rather than more complicated. You’d imagine that getting inside a character’s head would achieve the opposite effect.

By extending The Angels Take Manhattan, as well as giving Melody Malone all the best lines and pushing at least one Weeping Angel in a somewhat unexpected direction, The Angel’s Kiss glosses various character and creature arcs. Knowingly arch in its noir stylings, this arc angel of an ebook is never less than a hell of a lot of fun. In short, no reader will be left stony-faced by its incessant wise-cracking and wordplay.