Doctor Who and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (AudioGo)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 28 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Starring Tom Baker
Written by Terrance Dicks
Narrated by Christopher Benjamin
Released by BBC AudioGo, January 2013
Reviewing a twenty-first century reading of a twentieth-century novelization of a Doctor Who television serial set in the nineteenth century can be a reminder that perspective, as it travels through time, can become as distorted as Magnus Greel was by his precious zygma beam. When both television and book forms of The Talons of Weng-Chiang appeared in 1977, popular culture’s Victoriana was shaped by different currents of memory, nostalgia and imagination to those we know today. Most obviously, the story’s music-hall setting would have been familiar to many television viewers. The Good Old Days, where Leonard Sachs hosted an hour of music hall featuring contemporary entertainers in late Victorian or Edwardian dress, was a recurring part of the BBC schedule as it had been since 1953. Drama series set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were fashionable, Upstairs Downstairs having been followed on ITV by sagas of the great such as Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward the Seventh, with Lillie and Disraeli still to come. Television closer to Doctor Who’s viewing time included several series set in the same period, including the turn-of-the-century The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Sunday afternoon Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby.

All these programmes were fed by the fact that in the 1970s the end of the Victorian period was just within or just outside living memory. Pennies and ha’pennies of Queen Victoria weren’t difficult to find in my (post-Victorian) grandparents’ house. Britain had spent most of the twentieth century trying to live up to an imperial myth largely manufactured in the late nineteenth century, of an empire where the sun never set and where British arms and British ships, military and merchant, dominated the globe. Just over thirty years before, Britain had fought, it thought, to defend that empire; by 1977 that empire was gone and with it economic self-assurance and a secure sense of national identity. However, historical dramas set in the Victorian period didn’t just compensate for national bewilderment; they were a reminder of a society from which mid-twentieth century Britain had escaped, one of poverty and disease and rigid conventions governing relations among classes, genders and ethnic groups. At the same time, the culture of British industry still owed much in the 1970s to the Victorian age; it was one where trade unions pointed both to the craft skills of their nineteenth-century predecessors and to the battles won by them for fair wages and working hours, and where managing directors still based their businesses on heavy machinery which had not changed greatly in eighty years. While for Doctor Who’s child audience, its eyes fixed on the twenty-first century, the 1890s of The Talons of Weng-Chiang might seem like ancient history, for many of the adults watching the 1890s might not have felt a long time distant.

This sense of time displacement is relevant to consideration of the book and the audio. One of the first things Christopher Benjamin’s vinicultured voice brings out is how careful Terrance Dicks was to explain the nuances of the story’s setting to his target audience of children reading Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang by themselves. With the visual element removed, the written and spoken word both rely on Dicks’s depiction of the social hierarchy of the music hall audience for initial contextualisation. This opens the first chapter and introduces music hall as something which appeals to all classes in the 1890s, but which does not unite them: ‘toffs’, ‘bank clerks and shop assistants’, ‘Labourers, dock workers, soldiers and sailors, even some of the half-starved unemployed’ are all present but all in places assigned by their spending power. The effect is more raw than that conveyed by the well-groomed audience seen on television at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. It also conveys something of the gap between the welfare state of a 1970s Britain which thought itself egalitarian and an 1890s London which had no social safety net and where class distinctions were dominant in a way easily comprehensible to the child readership.

Terrance Dicks’s attention to replacing lost visual and aural cues with new written detail friendly to an intelligent young audience also applied to characters. Listeners to Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang will hear Christopher Benjamin relate Dicks’s outline of Litefoot’s background as the rebel member of a family with aristocratic connections, and his resigned tones as the elderly waterman spitting his way through life, baffled at the expedition undertaken by the Doctor and Litefoot complete with giant fowling pistol. Dicks’s invention of Teresa’s occupation as ‘a waitress in a gambling club, in Mayfair on the other side of London’ compensates for the loss of Teresa’s costume and make-up, which some viewers have understood as representing a profession unsuitable for children’s literature. Christopher Benjamin’s falsetto Teresa is a brave attempt at youthful feminine joie-de-vivre, but his real strength is the matter-of-fact relation of events which he steadily leavens with urgency and horror as Chang presents his victims to a suitably maniacal Greel.

As 1977 has receded into the past, so John Bennett’s appearance as Li H’sen Chang, a white European actor under pseudo-oriental prosthetics, has caused more and more pained expressions among admirers of the story. Terrance Dicks, in an allusion to the cultural baggage Bennett’s casting and make-up carried with it, contrasted Chang with ‘most Oriental magicians who were usually English enough once the make-up was off’. Chang’s name recalls that of Chung Ling Soo, really the American-born William Ellsworth Robinson, killed when a trick went awry at the Wood Green Empire in north London in 1918. It’s possible that Robert Holmes’s choice of name for his Chinese magician was based on the expectation that an actor of western appearance would play Chang under make-up. Bennett’s casting in this vein drew attention to the artifice of Doctor Who and its reliance on a showbusiness tradition of deception, as well as an exoticism which portrayed the Chinese as unquestionably ‘the Other’. Dicks’s reference in the text acted as a historical note and placemarker for a visual gag at the expense of both conventions which could not be reproduced on the page. However, the fiction of Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu is based on the assumption that world affairs were a competition between easily-defined ‘races’, would still have been current in the childhood of many parents and grandparents watching. The film series starring Christopher Lee was a very recent memory.

Chang’s character is based as much on an understanding of the audience at home as white British as it is upon Chang’s manipulation of the prejudices of the white community. Chang is used, of course, to emphasise the Doctor’s own Otherness – ‘Are you Chinese?’ reminds the hypothetical white British viewer and listener that the Doctor does not share their prejudices. A twenty-first century restaging might seek to reinterpret Chang for a more broadly-conceived audience, but this is not an option here. Christopher Benjamin reads the speeches of Li H’sen Chang in a stage Chinese which suits the status quo, but Chang is now doubly a recreation of past attitudes, steeped in an irony which has lost some power since the 1970s. Nevertheless Benjamin recognises that for all his crimes, Chang is a person to be treated with some sympathy, and his reading of his final scene has the distance of someone dulling with opium the torment of moral self-realisation as well as his physical agony.

Admirers of Leela might feel disappointed by this audiobook. In Benjamin’s reading, Leela is more of a simpleton than she appeared on television, lacking the self-assurance Louise Jameson brought to the role. Dialogue of which Louise Jameson made the most – such as ‘You ask me so that you can tell me’ – is flattened and made more submissive than Jameson performed it on television. Benjamin, though, adequately represents Terrance Dicks’s interpretation of Leela as a childlike innocent in thrall to the Doctor’s genius, whose bravado often exceeds her bravery, difficult though that position is to reconcile with many of Leela’s actions in this story.

Christopher Benjamin recording The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Photo: BBC AudioGoChristopher Benjamin’s Doctor is difficult to pin down, not least because he doesn’t seem to have a fixed interpretation. For long periods his intonation is reminiscent of Tom Baker’s deep ringing tones, without capturing them, and at other times there is a mercurial self-satisfied air reminiscent of the Doctor with which Benjamin has worked most recently, Colin Baker. (Admirers of the Jago and Litefoot double act might find that Benjamin’s Litefoot is reminiscent of Trevor Baxter.) However, there is occasionally a glimpse of another Doctor, a gruff and amiable Time Lord who casts a sometimes sternly avuncular gaze over proceedings. The portrayal of the Doctor in a performed reading of a novelisation encourages expectations in a reader and while Benjamin is always authoritative there are too many different voices there to feel one is listening to a consistent portrayal; or perhaps the legacy of Tom Baker looms too large.

Benjamin’s voice is good at conveying the self-consciously heightened sense of danger in Dicks’s economical prose. Much of The Talons of Weng-Chiang depends upon the unknown lying beneath the familiar; so there is trepidation as manhole covers are removed and a deliberate, heavy wariness as characters wade through the filthy, rat-infested sewers. Benjamin and Dicks tell of a London dark and treacherous in its diversity, which it takes the universalist outsider, the Doctor, to navigate appropriately. There are some cautious notes - there seems to be care, for example, not to make ethnic epithets as emotively-charged as they might have been performed on screen in 1977.

There are some memorable moments of sound engineering in this audiobook. The echo placed over Christopher Benjamin’s voice in the pathology lab scenes almost dispel associations with the cramped tiled room and its anachronistic electric sockets covered by even more anachronistic adhesive plastic in the television production. The giant rats are relieved of the burdensome necessity of appearing in the fabric-and-stuffing, and can rely on piercing shrieks alone to instil terror into the heart of the listener. There are not quite as many porcine grunts from Mr Sin as I expected, but care has to be taken not to undermine the reader’s performance. Instead, one can sometimes imagine Christopher Benjamin moving from pathology lab to the night streets of Limehouse, climbing down into Greel’s hidden chamber as a silent companion opens the hatch for him, or hauling himself up in the dumb waiter in an attempt to escape from Greel’s clutches. Despite the reservations above, it’s an admirable reading, with Benjamin moderating his Henry Gordon Jago so as not to overwhelm his narrator’s voice, but not obliterating it; the way he uses his delivery to highlight the differences of class and education between Jago and Litefoot when they meet is a particularly skilled performance.

A release of a science fiction or fantasy story set in Victorian London in 2013 raises a question of genre unknown in 1977. Can Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang be described as steampunk? If steampunk depends on a situation where ‘anachronism is not anomalous but becomes the norm’, as Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall wrote in their introduction to volume 3, part 1 of the journal Neo-Victorian Studies (available free at www.neovictorianstudies.com), then novelisation and audiobook perhaps score less highly than the broadcast version. Terrance Dicks describes Greel’s organic distillation equipment simply as ‘ultra-modern’, which isn’t adequate to the baroque eclecticism of the machinery seen on television. Mr Sin and the Eye of the Dragon fuse the futuristic with cultural signifiers of the ‘old’ in book form as well as on television, though the audiobook’s blaster sound effects probably reinforce the high-tech connotations at the expense of the image of the gold dragon from which the blaster is fired. Even as a digital download in 2013, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains the product of a mechanical age when the dissonance between inexplicable futuristic technology and Victorian machinery was more powerful than the imagining of impossibly world-transforming engines; its lacquered Time Cabinet is a gateway for a generic reading which from the book’s own point of view in 1977 has yet to emerge from it.

Whatever the problems it inherits from its source, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang remains a hugely entertaining story and there is much to discover in Christopher Benjamin’s reading. Linger over descriptive passages and muse on how Magnus Greel’s ramblings about time agents and the Doctor’s counter-revelations about the battle of Reykjavik came to influence the programme’s mythology. Hear how both the Doctor and Leela confound the Holmes-Dicks pastiche of late Victorian manners which for all their assumed superiority are no match for the foe from the future. That the story measures its imagined past against a present day which is now very much our history, however recent, only adds another level of curiosity to one of Doctor Who’s pivotal tales.




The Reign of TerrorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 27 January 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Reign Of Terror
Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Henric Hirsch and John Gorrie
Broadcast on BBC1: 8 Aug - 12 Sep 1964
DVD release: 28 Jan(R2), 6 Feb(R4), 12 Feb(R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

The historical adventures are quite often overlooked in the grand tapestry of Doctor Who's 50-odd years of adventures. A staple aspect of the very early seasons of the show, they fell out of fashion and practically disappeared completely by the time the show transformed itself through the introduction of regeneration. A number of modern stories have taken the 'celebrity historical personality' route with the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare and Churchill making an appearance, but during the first year of the show, a concerted effort was made to enhance the education of its viewers through the alternation between 'sci-fi' serials and concepts behind genuine historical times and figures. We experienced the fight for survival of early man, journeyed to Cathay with Marco Polo, experienced the sacrificial belief systems of the Aztecs and then, as the first year of Doctor Who drew to a close, the fear of a populace under The Reign of Terror.

Set during the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution just before Napoleon's ascension, the TARDIS travellers find themselves embroiled within the intigues of those wishing to usurp First Citizen Robespierre's tyrannical grip on France, whilst also trying desperately not befall the fate of 'traitors' to the revolution, the guillotine.

Unlike The Aztecs, The Reign of Terror languishes quite a way further down in fan affections, at least as far as Doctor Who Magazine readers are concerned - Barbara's attempts to change a culture ranked 57th whereas the Doctor's favourite era could only manage 144th in the (then) 200 stories. This seems a bit unfair, really, as the latter story has just as much going for it with strong performances from regulars and guest cast alike amidst the firm Parisian locations.

However, one key factor to such aloofness is that, unlike the former, two of the episodes no longer exist, so watching Reigh is a disjointed experience. Fortunately, the soundtrack to every Doctor Who episode does still exist, and (in what's hopefully a new lease of life for the remaining curtailed stories) BBC Worldwide commissioned animations for both missing episodes, The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity.

An Animated Tale

The focal point of interest in this release, of course, is the recreation of the fourth and fifth episodes, giving many of us a chance to finally "visually" experience a story that has only existed on audio for decades - and as always does this ever match up to how we can imagine the adventure to have been? There are scant clues to how the story originally played out on screen (with just a few photogeaphs, a script, but no telesnaps) so animators Planet 55 have a fairly free - ahem - reign on how they recreate the appearance of unknown scenes and characters (especially the cellar scenes during episode five). The backgrounds are truly spectacular (and can be seen in a separate feature on the DVD), and the depiction of the regulars etc. are broadly very accurate.

The animation itself is presented in a 'modern' style, with quick cuts between characters speaking, and close-ups on faces - something that is quite distinct from the production style of the existing episodes themselves with their more static scenes and strategic close-ups. Going from episode three to episode four can, in the first instance, almost feel like you're watching a different story, but I personally found that I soon settled into the action and was able to enjoy the adventure in much the same way as I had done so with The Invasion's animated episodes. In many ways I actually preferred the new look and the switch back to the 'real' episode six made me feel the same way as replaying the original Myst and seeing the island after the experience of the version depicted at the end of Myst V: End of Ages - it seemed a bit two-dimensional and sluggish.

There is a lot of attention to detail within the animation for viewers to spot, from flickering candlelight through to scuttling spiders. Faces are also 'alive' with expression in close-up, with the Doctor's eyes often seeming to have a mischievous gleam to them that you can't always pick up on screen; however, if I have a gripe about that, it's that his face sometimes seems a little 'wide' - though then again it bring an strangely more alien countenance to him that I've come to quite like!

I think that much of what has caused consternation in fan circles is how aspects of this animation style can seem 'unfaithful' to the original episodes they replace - is it something to put you off though? The main aim of the recreated episodes should, of course, be to continue your immersion in the story without being distracting, and all-in-all I believe the Thetamation technique works. It might seem a bit strange on the very first viewing - not unlike the way in which Rose gave us a 'shock' with its whole new way of presenting Doctor Who - but as fans we don't just watch stories once and I can foresee that these will be just as acceptable to most people as they become familiar with the style.

The DVD


The episode quality of Reign is a little variable as we get a mixed bag of sources: episodes one and two are derived from the lower definition suppressed field prints that only exist for them, episodes three and six derive from higher, stored field prints, whilst four and five are the animated episodes. All four existing episodes have been cleaned up and look much better than their VHS counterparts. More importantly, though, the audio presentation of all six episodes sounds great, having benefited from remastering by Mark Ayres - especially the removal of the annoying theme tune bleed-through that plagued episode four on the original CD soundtrack release.

Don’t Lose Your Head is the documentary for this release, and features the usual cast and crew look-back on how the story developed from script to screen: in particular they recollect on how the director of the production, Henric Hirsch, suffered a breakdown during recording, and the influence of lead actor William Hartnell (something also covered quite extensively in the production notes). Also, it was good to see William Russell, whose presence is sadly missing from the commentaries.

The commentaries themselves are comprised of three parts: the existing four episodes are discussed by Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and Timothy Combe (Production Assistant), with contributions from cast members Neville Smith (D'Argenson, episode one), Jeffrey Wickham (Webster, episode two), Caroline Hunt about her first television role (Danielle, episode three) and Patrick Marley (soldier, episode six); episode four features actor Ronald Pickup, who chats about his first ever professional role as the Physician; finally, episode five is dedicated to the hunt for missing episodes as discussed by hunters Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

The usual production-intensive text notes that accompany episodes are present - except for the two animated episodes! Though it is understandable that notes about the animation itself would not be possible due to them not being available that far in advance, it does mean that there are none of the usual pertinent details about the original episodes and their production to be enjoyed, either. So, if you want to know Radio Times comments and broadcast statistics you'll have to look elsewhere this time.

Similarly, though one of the features is a presentation of the animated backgrounds from the story as previously mentioned, plus an animation gallery, there are no actual interviews or a look at how the episodes were made themselves on the DVD, which feels lacking for such an inaugural event - maybe there'll be something more extensive on the techniques in a forthcoming DVD like The Tenth Planet or The Ice Warriors (fingers crossed we get these, too!). However, BBC Worldwide have provided a short look at the animation of the First Doctor via their YouTube channel.

Random Observations

  • Reign was the last story in the original VHS incarnation of classic series releases (accompanied by existing episodes of The Faceless Ones and The Web of Fear). It was also the last classic story that I sat down to watch a couple of years ago, having put the experience off to savour a "premier viewing" of the old series for as long as possible. It's good to know that there's two more episodes to look forward to, now, hoorah!
  • This was the first story to feature 'proper' location filming, albeit without the regular cast involved. Being slightly interested in such things, I immediately did a Susan and said "That's not right at all" when I saw the production notes refer to the poplar avenue as a lane rather than the driveway of the White Plains resident home ... but that's just me being finicky, as the information derives from what is in the BBC's film diary.
  • The Doctor is reportedly not a man of violence, yet we see him quite merrily hit the foreman over the head with a shovel on his way to Paris!
  • Back in An Unearthly Child we see Susan reading a book on the French Revolution and remarking on an inaccuracy. Here, we discover it's the Doctor's favourite era of Earth history (still not a man of violence, hmm?) - does this mean the two have been here before?
  • In this modern era of celebrity historical figures gracing the show, it is quite easy to forget that this was actually a relatively commonplace during the First Doctor's travels - this time it's Robespierre and Napoleon's turn.
  • The animated episodes make a lot more sense of what's going on in some of the audio-only scenes: in particular the scuffles Ian endures in the cellar during episode five are much clearer now (even though this is an interpretation of the script!)
  • One thing that struck me in the recreated end titles of episode five was the next episode caption reading "Prisoners of the Conciergerie - I thought this was a mistake at first as the surviving episode six clearly doesn't have the extra word, but this was apparently what was in the camera script for A Bargain of Necessity, so I guess that's why it's here ... but was that on screen?!?! The lack of production notes on the animated episodes is a little frustrating in that regard!
  • Carole Ann Ford reminisced about a model of Paris she used to have, which had been made for the show but never used. It's a shame they didn't use that rather than the photo-caption for establishing the city.
  • The temptation to add "Carry on" in front of the documentary title is almost irresistible!

Conclusion

The Reign of Terror is an interesting tale, set in a variety of locales as the story progresses. Its ranking of 144 in DWM's list to me seems quite unfair, and with its fresh animated resurrection hopefully will improve its appreciation for the grand poll!

I think the enjoyment of the animated episodes themselves is always going to be a matter of personal taste; however, I'd say try to approach them with an open mind and don't pre-judge - yes, they may not seem very 1960s in look, but then again Doctor Who is meant to be timeless!

Coming Soon...

The survivors of a devasted Earth are on the brink of calamity as an unknown menace infiltrates and claims its victims one by one ... can the Doctor, Sarah and Harry avert the fate of humanity in The Ark in Space ... ?




The Shadow Heart (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 27 January 2013 - Reviewed by Richard Watts

The Shadow Heart
Big Finish Productions
Written by Jonathan Morris
Released November 2012
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

In televised Doctor Who episodes, we rarely see the after-effect of the Doctor’s travels on the planets and peoples he visits. There are notable exceptions, of course, including the rise of the Monoids in The Ark (1966); Xoanon, the computer left with a split personality after the Doctor’s previous attempt to repair it in The Face of Evil (1977); the damaging consequences of the Time Lord’s visit to Satellite Five in The Long Game (2005); and in A Good Man Goes to War (2012), Lorna Bucket’s ultimately fatal devotion to the Doctor years after meeting him briefly as a child. But usually, once the Doctor has stepped through the doors of the TARDIS, he leaves any repercussions from his latest adventure behind him.

Not so in Big Finish’s recent Drashani Empire trilogy. Beginning with the Fifth Doctor story, The Burning Prince, continuing with Sixth Doctor adventure The Acheron Pulse, and now concluding with Seventh Doctor story The Shadow Heart, these three audio adventures allow us to witness just how drastic the Doctor’s meddling can be, not just for individuals, but entire civilisations – making the Time Lords’ notorious policy of non-intervention seem rather justified.

The Plot

Written by Jonathan Morris, The Shadow Heart is set some 50 years after the events of The Acheron Pulse, making it 80 years since the Fifth Doctor first blundered aboard a Drashani spaceship bound for the swampy planetoid, Sharnax. Much has happened over the intervening decades, including the destruction of the Drashani Empire itself, at the hands of the alien marauders known as the Wrath. Despite (or more accurately, because of) the Doctor reprogramming them as a force for good at the conclusion of the previous adventure, the Wrath have since spread out across the stars, maintaining their own strict definition of justice and destroying any planet which does not live up to their own exacting standards. Now the Wrath are expanding into new territory, and only the Earth Empire stands in their way.

On the planet Temperance, the TARDIS materialises in the midst of a sleazy bar known as Starbaff’s, much to the displeasure of the publican, who dogmatically maintains (despite evidence to the contrary) that his is ‘a respectable establishment’. Moments later the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) staggers out the TARDIS doors, chest smoking from a laser blast, and collapses at the feet of scrap merchants Talbar (Eve Karpf) and Horval (Alex Mallinson), a pair of loveable rogues reminiscent of Garron and Unstoffe (The Ribos Operation) or Glitz and Dibber (The Trial of a Time Lord). The conniving pair take the injured Time Lord to safety, only to learn firsthand that involving oneself in the Doctor’s affairs is to invite trouble – which in this instance comes in the determined form of bounty hunter Vienna Salavatori (Chase Masterson).

Events quickly escalate. Salavatori has not one but two employers, and is intent on playing them off against each other for her own gain. One of her employers is the Wrath – the other is a shadowy figure from the Wrath’s past whom they also seek revenge upon. The fate of all will be decided within the walls of the Imperial Fortress on the Wrath’s homeworld – the Shadow Heart.

Observations

Just as the first two stories in this trilogy were dramatically dissimilar to each other, The Shadow Heart is different again to its predecessors. Whereas The Burning Prince was a fast-paced action/survival story, and The Acheron Pulse was a somewhat underwhelming space opera, here Jonathan Morris has given us an inventive, playful, and chronologically convoluted story that acknowledges and incorporates the popular perception of the Seventh Doctor as puckish, inquisitive, and manipulative.

Obviously a writer who delights in language, Morris peppers his script with smart continuity references, such as a comment about the marsh-moon of Magros 5 stinking like ‘an Ogron’s armpit’; narratively, this adventure should appeal to viewers who enjoy the timey-wimey structure of Steven Moffat’s television screenplays – the Doctor experiences the events of The Shadow Heart in a very different order to the listener, and is usually, though not always, one step ahead of the other protagonists.

Of the many highlights in Morris’s detailed vision of the Doctor Who universe, his most engaging creation in this story is Talbar and Horval’s unique means of transport – Hercules, a stellar ammonite, or ‘space snail’ in layman’s terms. A giant space-faring gastropod about the size of a lunar shuttle (perhaps inspired by the Great Glass Sea Snail from Hugh Lofting’s 1922 children’s book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle), Hercules has a control cabin implanted in his stomach, entered via a catheter, from which Talbar directs his flight. It’s a wonderfully daft idea but makes perfect sense in a universe that’s already home to star whales, megalomaniacal cacti, and bad-tempered, hermaphroditic Chelonians.

Talbar and Horval themselves are well written characters who quickly transcend the stereotype of slightly dodgy confidence trickers-cum-scroungers thanks to strong writing and excellent casting; Karpf is particular gives a throaty, cynical performance that is especially engaging. In contrast, bounty hunter Vienna Salavatori comes across as unimaginatively written and rather two-dimensional, an impression not aided by Masterson’s underwhelming performance in the role. Clearly, however, Masterson has already impressed the powers-that-be at Big Finish, with a spin-off series for the character already in the works (The Memory Box).

Wilfredo Acosta’s sound design and incidental music are solid (Star Wars fans should enjoy his musical homage to the famous Cantina sequence) and work well to advance and enrich the story, though the voices of the Wrath are frustratingly over-produced, and consequently often difficult to decipher – a flaw which becomes especially frustrating in the later stages of the story when the action shifts to the Wrath homeworld.

The first two episodes of The Shadow Heart advance at a cracking pace, and introduce a range of additional characters, including Captain Webster (John Banks) and Lt Dervish (Jaimi Barbakoff) of the Earth Empire spaceship HMS Trafalgar, as well as shifting the action between multiple locations. Episode three is slightly slower, and suffers a little from the now-traditional third act exposition which often plagues Doctor Who adventures, but still impresses, thanks in part to some striking imagery from Morris and a strongly written balcony scene evoking Romeo and Juliet – which ties in nicely with first impressions of The Burning Prince, the first story in the Drashani Trilogy. The fourth and final episode ends strongly, and surprisingly emotionally, though not without some classic Seventh Doctor deus ex machina, which once again reinforces the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey nature of Morris’s script, and the manipulative personality of this particular regeneration of our favourite Time Lord.

Conclusion

As a stand-along story, The Shadow Heart is engaging, intelligent and generally well-written. It successfully balances a lightness of tone with an expansive vision and engaging characters, and features original world-building and some truly memorable additions to the Whoniverse. But what of the trilogy as a whole?

With each episode so tonally different from the story preceding it, the Drashani trilogy feels somewhat lacking in cohesion, despite the unifying presence of Ken Bentley, who directed all three stories. Story elements designed to carry on through the following adventures feel somewhat tacked on to The Burning Prince, while in The Shadow Heart, there’s a sense that Morris was slightly underwhelmed by the plot threads he was required to incorporate from the first two stories in the series. The Acheron Pulse, as previously noted, just felt cumbersome. Given that each of these stories were scripted by different writers, it’s perhaps not surprising that they don’t cohere as strongly as one might expect – a problem the television series has long been able to fix thanks to the presence of such dedicated script editors as Robert Holmes, Helen Raynor and Terrence Dicks.

What the trilogy does succeed in doing, albeit in broad strokes rather than in fine detail, is an examination of the impact of the Doctor’s involvement upon the planets he visits – an impact which in this instance is positively cataclysmic. In Episode Three of The Shadow Heart we learn that ‘hundreds of worlds boiled in flame’ thanks to the Doctor’s meddling in the war between the Wrath and the Drashani Empire – no wonder the Time Lords once banished the him to Earth for the crime of meddling in other civilisation’s affairs!




The Auntie Matter (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 26 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Auntie Matter
Big Finish Productions
Written by Jonathan Morris
Released January 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

The Auntie Matter reunites the fourth Doctor and the first Romana, albeit under sad circumstances with Mary Tamm having passed away not long ago. It’s a tragic turn of events acknowledged by the tribute contained on this release, and it’s something that casts an inescapable shadow over the otherwise light, frothy tone of Jonathan Morris’s P.G. Wodehouse pastiche. Morris is also, of course, pastiching the appropriate era of Doctor Who, as well as firmly playing to Tom Baker’s flamboyant persona (one section of dialogue even sounds suspiciously like an infamous Baker anecdote). And though the ‘behind-the-scenes’ feature reveals a number of Baker gags that failed to make the final release, I suspect the Doctor’s mistaken addressing of housemaid Mabel as “Mary” was a Tom ad lib. There are also some very amusing riffs on well-known Who dialogue: “take me to your leader!” gets a make-over, and at one point Time and the Rani is unexpectedly, wittily brought to mind.

But if Jonathan Morris is playing with audience memories of Who, he also takes this story a step further than televised Doctor Who ever managed, giving Romana far more to do – in story terms – than was often the case on TV. Here, there’s a real sense of Romana’s capabilities, independence and resourcefulness: she’s very much a Time Lord in her own right rather than a companion. And by splitting the story into dual strands, following the Doctor and Romana, this adventure also takes on a sharp comedic edge as the two time-travellers continually fail to spot one another’s involvement.

The Auntie Matter is cursed with a lumberingly daft title, however, even if its basic formulation isn’t so far away from something like The Armageddon Factor. But whereas the culmination of season 16 had an earnest, portentous identity, this time around we’re treated to some pretty facile punning. And the story’s guest star – Julia McKenzie – goes so far over the top that she’s close to stratospheric on a few occasions.

Given the broad satire of some of what’s on offer, I think a few other performances could have been profitably toned down by Ken Bentley's direction: for example, Reggie (Robert Portal) is such a cartoonish figure that it’s difficult to care about him, or to believe that Romana would decide to accompany him anywhere. By contrast, housemaid Mabel (Lucy Griffiths) and factotum Grenville (Alan Cox) are performed more naturalistically, creating a sense of realism and stylization rubbing up against each other in a rather indecorous way. Perhaps the story's mildly schizoid nature comes from Jonathan Morris trying to second-guess which antics might appeal to Tom Baker, and which different tonalities might appeal to the nostalgic listenership. As it is, the play’s centre of gravity shifts around, veering from P.G. Wodehouse to G. Williams and back again.

Mabel gives the story some genuine heart; she’s an inquisitive housemaid who plays an unusual role for Doctor Who: in essence, she’s a multi-companion, being paired up with both the Doctor and Romana at different moments. But despite excellent, unshowy work from Lucy Griffiths, there’s little room for the character to be fleshed out, and her eventual fate seems implausible, with conventional sensibility triumphing over story sense.

Tom Baker seems to be enjoying himself immensely throughout, and the same can be said of Mary Tamm’s return to the role of Romana. Post-Key-to-Time, we hear a Romana who’s surer of herself, and who enjoys the Doctor’s banter whilst pointing out his lapses in logic. K-9 is missing from this release, though, meaning that we'll have to wait for The Sands of Life for a full-scale TARDIS crew reunion. (On this occasion, the Doctor doesn’t seem at all bothered about sending his canine computer off on a randomized tour of a thousand worlds… you’d almost think he wanted to spend some quality time by himself with Lady Romana).

As always with Big Finish, sound design is top notch and unobtrusively contributes to this tale’s realization of a 1920’s stately home and gardens. But clever plotting and sharp structuring are the real pay-offs here, once all the Wodehouse window-dressing has been tidied away. What makes this drama most compelling is the fact that it so obviously rewards its two returning leads, giving both Tom Baker and Mary Tamm something interesting to play. The Auntie Matter is surely an ‘actor matter’: written to please its stars as much as its listeners. And if such a strategy was instrumental in reuniting this particular Time Lord team, then Big Finish and Jonathan Morris have done us – and them – proud.




A Big Hand For The Doctor (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 22 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - A Big Hand For The Doctor
Written by Eoin Colfer
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 January 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

This title kicks off Puffin’s monthly series of ‘eshorts’ (
or short stories available electronically), featuring the first Doctor and his granddaughter Susan. Having recently rewatched An Unearthly Child at the BFI, and also having recently read Phil Sandifer’s sharp analysis of Kim Newman’s Time and Relative novella, the first thing that struck me about Eoin Colfer’s story was how unrecognisable his first Doctor seemed to be. This rendition isn’t loath to intervene, acting like a sort of anti-hero or proto-hero (as in Newman’s pre-Unearthly Child tale). No, this version of the William Hartnell Doctor has been busy pursuing Soul Pirates through space and time in order to combat their evil ways. He’s a swashbuckling action hero trapped in an ageing body. He even sees visions of his later and more physical selves, mainly so that younger readers can be reminded that this figure is the same character played today by Matt Smith. It’s a device, a convenience, that probably wreaks havoc with Doctor Who continuity, but neither Colfer nor whoever signed off on this short story are overly concerned with capturing the spirit of 1960s Who. Instead, the Doctor is a generic do-gooder who refers to things such as Hogwarts, referencing pop culture familiar to 2013 readers.

And as if symbolic of the way that Colfer has grafted his own approach into the world of the first Doctor, the integrity of the Time Lord’s body has also been violated. He’s lost a hand – sliced off by a Soul Pirate Captain – and so has to make do with a two-fingered ceramic model housed inside an ill-gendered spare. Surely Colfer isn’t putting two literary fingers up at fans who might be dismayed by this turn of events? Although the mental image of William Hartnell’s Doctor sporting a woman’s hand, painted fingernails and all, is certainly a striking and incongruous one, it’s not quite how I expected to be thinking of the first Doctor at the beginning of this anniversary year. It’s a good gag, sure. But it's one that isn’t afraid to ride roughshod over the dignity of the Doctor. This is a full-blooded contrast to the first Doctor instalment of Destiny of the Doctor, and each series looks set to work in very different ways for very different audiences. Destiny is era-appropriate fan service, while this eshort strikes a vastly revisionist, irreverent tone. This is Doctor Who’s history rewritten from a present-day perspective, enclosing younger readers in demographic now-ness rather than truly opening a window on mysterious other times.

And Doctor Who of fifty years ago, a strange and wonderful and enigmatic thing, is further reworked here as a burst of auteurist whimsy. Yes, Colfer’s authorial voice shines through – making this part of a marketing strategy where ‘name’ authors take the Doctor in hand – but I still would’ve liked to witness more of a meeting of author and character rather than the scales being tipped very much in the writer’s favour. And some jokes (e.g. a Time Lord known as the Interior Designer) breezily transform Gallifrey into a planet of Time Morons. The Doctor himself is depicted as unsmiling, and chided about his unrelaxed state, as if readers are being warned they need to take what follows in good humour.

Without spoilering the story’s Epilogue, there is a neat twist that frames Colfer’s heightened fantasy version of Who. H.G. Wells and his time machine have made a few appearances across Doctor Who’s lifespan, with ‘scientifiction’ (early science fiction) being positioned as one source for the Doctor’s time-travelling adventures. Colfer takes a rather different intertextual tack, however, in line with his genre-shifting towards children's fantasy adventure, and in the end this conceit works rather beautifully. It’s a handy pay-off which bathes events in a clever, new glow. And it makes excellent use of the short story form; there can be little doubting Colfer’s skill as a writer. Indeed, he retraces Douglas Adams' fingerprints here by adding Who as well as The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to his CV.

Like The Coming of the Terraphiles before it, though, this title is more concerned with being a publishing industry ‘event’ than with addressing fandom’s notions of authenticity. In short, this simply isn’t speaking to long-term adult fans. The signal it sends, loud and clear, is that the 50th anniversary is for all sorts of audiences, and for varied generations who have become fascinated by the Doctor. It's a post-Potter first Doctor. Bill Hartnell for Generation Z. And perhaps such diversity and plurality can only be a good thing.

That said, this eshort still sticks out like a sore thumb.




Dark Eyes (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 20 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Dark Eyes
Big Finish Productions
Written by Nicholas Briggs
Released November 2012
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

First, a confession. I’ve never been a regular follower of any of Big Finish’s Doctor Who series, purchasing rarely and selectively over the years, so much of what I have gathered about their additions to and refinements of Doctor Who mythology has been gleaned secondhand. However – metaphorically – they have a well-stocked larder of Doctor Who ingredients and can call on the services of confectioners of the highest skill. Here, the writer-director is Nicholas Briggs, who has reportedly been known to marshal his cast in character as a Dalek and so could surely be the focus of some bizarre reality TV series.

Returning to the kitchen, Doctor Who is like chocolate in that it is served in a wide variety of forms and has its addicts and connoisseurs. Dark Eyes is presented as the sort of event story which sets out to appeal to both. Its four instalments – The Great War, Fugitives, Tangled Web and X and the Daleks – provide several hours’ worth of concentrated essence of Doctor Who, more than enough to quieten the withdrawal symptoms of the fan desperate for a new hit, but it’s the substance and texture which are the proof of this pudding. Dark Eyes is constructed from layers of Doctor Who sponge, fudge cake, cream, ganache and mousse, but it’s the craft and the proportions which count, and some of the best chocolate recipes depend on the juxtaposition of the dark and light, the bitter and the sweet.

Dark Eyes is both a literal reference to a remarkable physical characteristic of the story’s heroine, Molly O’Sullivan, and a comment on the gloom which pervades the eighth Doctor’s universe. Lucie Miller is dead, Susan betrayed, the ascendancy of the Daleks seemingly inevitable. Seeking a vantage point at the end of time from which he can look back on the universe in the hope of ‘a wonderful view’, the Doctor is tempted away from this act of finality by the promise of hope elsewhere. The Western Front in the middle of the Great War is not necessarily an unpromising place to start looking for universal redemption, and the first instalment of the story is full of great kindnesses partially masked by circumstance.

In his short time on screen, the eighth Doctor was contextualised by a heady cocoa of religious imagery, and this is reinforced here. Within a few minutes the Doctor is gassed and buried and ‘resurrected’, only to be thrust back into a series of personal hells. Somewhere along the way he presumably gains the new costume which adorns the cover illustration of Later, he and Molly go for a perspective-shifting dip in the English Channel, and she takes to referring to his home planet as ‘Galilee’. For the Doctor, though, Gallifrey is not just the place he came from, but the heaven with all the answers to which he is not allowed, in this story, to ascend. The fragmented and state of the Doctor’s mind at the start of the story is conveyed through disorienting sound design and the tones of a Paul McGann who knows how his reading of the Doctor as a forsaken immortal tortured by existence can guide the listener through a convoluted and non-linear plot.

Ruth Bradley gives Molly a rich, dark, peaty voice, capable of expressing extremes of love and defensive cynicism. Molly is an Irishwoman in domestic service in London, effectively adopted as a sister by her mistress Kitty, whom she has joined in France as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of nursing auxiliaries. She is naturally well-suited to travelling with the Doctor: she is broadminded, adaptable, capable of command and not overawed by TARDIS-travelling, albeit for reasons both good and sinister. There’s a playfulness too, even a flirtatiousness, though there are also flashes of old-fashioned companion dependency which sit ill at ease with the rest of her character.

Doctor Who Magazine compared Dark Eyes to The War Games, to which it bears some similarities of setting, structure and iconography. Most of the first episode, The Great War, is set on the Western Front, where the question of whether the Doctor is a spy is raised, strange and threatening mist falls, and there is evidence of non-terrestrial intervention in events. However, the differences are perhaps more striking. At the start of The War Games the Doctor fell among the (junior) officer class, finding allies in a lieutenant and the ambulance-driving daughter of a peer of the realm. Here there are no officers, and privates and VADs are oppressed by a status-conscious matron and a doctor who hides his hostile agenda behind an American accent.

Fittingly for an incarnation of the Doctor whose experiences seem to express his inner torment, the Doctor is dogged in this story by characters who are his mirrors. Peter Egan’s urbane Straxus may be supercilious and condescending, but his ability to step outside the well-worn conventions of Time Lord thinking is an asset and he is, despite himself, quite at home conversing with the arch-yokel goatherd (a descendant of Pigbin Josh, The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, and Babylon 5’s Zathras) who adds an appreciated bizarre note to a couple of the early Srangor scenes. Toby Jones lends believability to the somewhat inept Kotris, an ex-Time Lord crippled by self-loathing psychosis. If this didn’t remind the listener of recent interpretations of another character somewhat central to Doctor Who, the Doctor’s denunciation of Kotris’s belief in the wrongs done by the Time Lords must intentionally recall one of the most well-remembered speeches in The Trial of a Time Lord.

There’s often been an element of comfort food in Big Finish releases, and even amid the 70% cocoa questioning of the Doctor’s moral purpose, there is the chocolate cream of retroengineered continuity and allusions to the past and future of the television series. Ian Cullen’s Nadeyan enunciates names rather like his Ixta did nearly fifty years ago in The Aztecs. There are characters in The Great War whose names seem to be borrowed from early production personnel. There are time winds and of course medical personnel to be baffled by double heartbeats. As suits a story by Dalek scholar Nicholas Briggs, there are lots of homages to the work of Terry Nation in both theme and incident.

Against this Dark Eyes is animated by a relentless pressure to move on. It’s expressed in the different settings, realised in the Doctor’s search for meaning; in a breathtaking diversion which teases the listener with the prospect of the Daleks building a flower-garlanded variant of Prince Charles’s Poundbury; and the increasing complexity of the four-dimensional dance of death between Daleks and Time Lords. Andy Hardwick’s sound design deserves a large amount of credit, particularly in his imagining of the distinct sounds of different wars. There are references forward to what is from the point of view of Dark Eyes the Doctor’s future, too, tantalising as Big Finish inch closer to that bend in both licence and Doctor Who universe, the Time War.

Molly says that the Doctor reminds her of a victim of shellshock. Dark Eyes – as Straxus and the enigmatic Time Lord President seem to recognise – is not the best therapy for someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The scenario repeats several of the elements of the Doctor’s ill-fated relationship with Lucie Miller. The Daleks seem ubiquitous, undermining almost every small triumph the Doctor and Molly have. The way in which the schemes of Daleks and Time Lords are upset fits a story which concerns over-reliance on the analyses of processes psychological, managerial and temporal, and blindness to the fates of individuals. The nature of this kind of victory is the dusting of sugar on this particular gateau, counterbalancing some of the more bitter curls to make one wonder what flavour the eighth Doctor’s adventures will take next.







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