The Sands of Life (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 26 February 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Sands of Life
Big Finish Productions
Written by Nicholas Briggs
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Released February 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

This three-part story features David Warner as Cuthbert, celebrity businessman and head of the Conglomerate. Aiming for total brand domination, Cuthbert seems to have Earth’s government pretty much in his pocket. And the character has his roots in Big Finish’s forerunner, the fan-produced Audio Visuals series, first appearing in The Destructor Contract. I have to say that despite Warner’s star turn, Cuthbert strikes me as a rather generic, unremarkable villain here. In fact, several elements of this story feel slightly predictable: it lacks the sharp structure and playful vitality of last month’s The Auntie Matter. At times, Cuthbert comes across as a cipher representing evil enterprise and General Vincent is likewise a rather standard version of the trigger-happy military figure. Hayley Atwell plays newly elected President Sheridan Moorkurk, but doesn’t have much to do in this story, while Cuthbert’s assistant Mr. Dorrick is well performed by Toby Hadoke. Like President Moorkurk, I assume this character will have a larger part to play in future.

There are some lovely dialogue and performance moments from both Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. The Doctor’s observation that “a telepathic sea-cow travelling in the time vortex, that’s unusual” is worth the cost of admission all on its own. And Romana’s acerbic aside, whilst being dragged to her doom, that she’s thinking about how to escape “among other things” is another witty little detail. Does she really need the Doctor to explain how to avoid this sandy fate, though? Her character, very much an independent force in last month’s adventure, occasionally regresses to companion-in-peril this time around.

The fourth Doctor and Romana are reunited with K9, yet the poor robot mutt is promptly left behind in the TARDIS because sand and heat will mess with his “bits”. It’s a gesture perhaps aimed at giving this audio production an authentic TV feel: after all, if they’d been filming in sandy terrain then obviously K9 would have been written out. But there’s no reason for it here, other than perhaps to raise the level of jeopardy that the Doctor and Romana face, and to sideline K9's Wikipedia-style info-dumping for a while.

‘The Sands of Life’ is self-consciously epic. Romana receives a mysterious telepathic message (you know it has to be significant, because it’s also the story title) and billions of alien Laan rapidly loom on the horizon. Threatening the Earth with such huge numbers plays to the strengths of an audio adventure, for sure, but it also raises the spectre of a Great Big Reset Button – perhaps this’ll be something to do with Cuthbert’s vague time-space experiments, or it’ll involve some capacity or other belonging to the TARDIS.

By far the most compelling thing about Nick Briggs’ script is that he ultimately avoids a standard Earth invasion story, despite so many of its trappings being present and correct. As we eventually learn, there’s something far more interesting going on, with the Doctor and Romana facing a genuinely difficult moral dilemma. Mind you, the Laan’s reason for arriving in the Sahara isn’t that difficult to guess after all the Doctor’s musings, and I think this might have worked better as a shock twist or ‘reveal’ rather than as something fairly clearly signposted.

Another incidental, fanboy pleasure is that The Sands of Life has some fun with continuity and audio clips as “time phasing” messes with the Doctor’s timeline. Some famous Genesis of the Daleks dialogue gets an outing, again implying that this may well be building to a devastating moral conundrum. Does the Doctor have the right? We’ll presumably find out across this “mini” arc of linked Nick Briggs’ stories. Continuity also gets in the way sometimes, though – a line about the randomiser being disrupted so that the TARDIS can be accurately piloted is clunky in the extreme. Yes, I know it solves a fan nitpick and allows the story to proceed, but it sticks out for precisely those reasons. “Ah”, the listener ends up thinking, “you’ve dodged a fan grumble there, well done.” Had Briggs again wanted to aim for TV-style authenticity he probably could’ve just ignored the randomiser and been done with it, but either his ‘inner fan’ couldn’t bear to knowingly introduce a continuity error, or the Big Finish Script Editor hates getting complaints.

It’s intriguing to have a major element from the Audio Visuals brought into the Big Finish universe, and although David Warner is always a pleasure to listen to, Cuthbert doesn’t yet seem an especially interesting character. Corporations are bad and powerful and corrupt… OK, but aren’t there less well-trodden paths for this sort of material? I hope that alongside its epic feel, later installments in the story arc will allow for greater characterization and greater divergence from default Who. The Sands of Life sometimes feels too smoothly engineered: a little more grit in the story-telling machinery wouldn’t have gone amiss.




The Ark in Space SEBookmark and Share

Sunday, 24 February 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Ark In Space
Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by Rodney Bennett
Broadcast on BBC1: 25 Jan - 15 Feb 1975
DVD release: 25 Feb(R2), 12 Mar(R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

After a spate of stories of which I have no real memory, this month finally returns to a period that I can firmly recall from a more youthful time of life. Having become an an avid viewer (translation: my parents were allowing me to watch now), the coming months were to bring great excitement: Sontarans! (remember those last year), Daleks! (remember those last year, too!), and Cybermen! (parents remember those with a Doctor that wasn't Jon Pertwee and assure me they'd be scary too ...). But, after a fun romp with a giant Robot and Sarah being stuck on a roof, this week we were off to a strange Space Station orbiting the Earth ...

The Ark In Space is the adventure that heralds what many of my age think of as the "golden age" of Doctor Who, a period when Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes ruled the show and brought us some of the greatest adventures encountered by the Doctor, accompanied by his best friend (and our favourite companion) Sarah Jane Smith. Though Hinchcliffe and Holmes had inherited the initial set of scripts from their predecessors Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, the falling through of the original storyline by John Lucarotti enabled them to launch their tenure with the kind of story they'd like to tell. And boy were they to do so ...

After a teaser of a strange glowing green thingy apparently attacking its sleeping victim, our heroes arrive some time later to discover an apparently lifeless station. First they have to deal with the lack of air, then a door sealing Sarah off from the others, then a re-activated security system intent on wiping about anything organic it can set its sights on; after that, Sarah has been transmatted off somewhere and the Doctor and Harry have to track her down, whereupon they finally find her amidst a huge "Ark" containing the survivors of the human race.

That, in essence, is episode one, which by description alone might not sound too exciting, but what really brings it to life is the already apparent familiarity and comfortable rapport that the lead actors have together. It isn't often that an episode has just the principal cast performing (computer voices excepted) and be able to pull it off over some twenty-five minutes, but this episode manages just that. It sparkles with clever and witty dialogue, from the repartee between the Doctor and Harry as they undertake each challenge through to the Doctor's soliloquy on homo sapiens. And then there's the surprise cliffhanger as Harry opens a cupboard and a huge monster leaps upon him ...

... okay, so actually it's a dead wirrn and it's simply falling on him, but that wasn't quite so important to this infant!

Putting my adult fan head back on again, if anything with hindsight it is the realisation of the "monster of the week" that lets the story down slightly. The slight glimpse of the larva in the corridor is okay, but its more prominent appearance in later episodes shows just how reliant on bubblewrap it is. The adult wirrn also looks too much like fibreglass in the harsh studio light (something Hinchcliffe laments in the commentary) - plus, the initial stages of Noah's transformation does look a lot like he's simply put a glove on. However, it is the characters' reactions that help sell the threat, and Kenton Moore's rivetting performance as the tormented leader desperately trying to hold onto his own humanity is totally compelling and means his 'appendage' does not cause a distraction, nor do his subsequent appearances as the physical transformation continues apace throughout episode three - it's testament to this on how shocking it is for this episode's finale that we see Noah's tortured visage finally subsumed into the full wirrn form. Of course, the deficiencies apparent now meant nothing back then, and I can still recall how frightening these giant grasshoppers (as my mum called them) were. And, some 35 years later, the single staring eye out of the solar stack at the Doctor in episode two still sends a shiver up my spine!

Besides Noah, we have Vira, the Ark's First Medtech. On the documentary Wendy Williams explains how tricky it was to approach playing a really intelligent person, and on screen this comes across as a seeming aloofness much of the time - meaning that at the moments she does crack are really telling. However, I did think that perhaps the character should have been a little more emotional at the ultimate death of Noah (her bond partner). Out of the other characters that are brought out of cryogenic suspension, there is poor Libri (Christopher Masters) who barely gets to take his breath before he becomes the "possessed" Noah's first victim, Lycett (John Gregg) who gets smothered in bubblewrap - sorry a victim of a larva - but at least Rogin (Richardson Morgan) gets to nobly sacrifice his life to save the Doctor as the transport ship lifts off. To be honest, none of them really engaged me as much as the principal five stars, but Holmes still ensured that none of them were neglected, dialogue-wise.

There are some superb sets on display from designer Roger Murray-Leach (some of which to be seen again when the Doctor, Sarah and Harry return to the space station some time before in Revenge of the Cybermen) - the cryogenic chambers themselves look fantastic (a special mention should be made for Jan Goram, Tina Roach, Barry Summerford, Peter Duke, Richard Archer, Sean Cooney, Roy Brent, Rick Carroll, Lyn Summer and Geoffrey Brighty, all of whom had to stand patiently in the pallets pretending to be frozen through long recording sessions!).

The DVD

The special edition sees a new documentary covering the production of the story; A New Frontier delves into the making of The Ark in Space and the move into a whole new era of Doctor Who, with then-incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe reflecting on the issues he had with the inherited scripts, as mentioned earlier. Director Rodney Bennett and designer Roger Murray-Leach discuss the production itself, with contributions from Wendy Williams and Kenton Moore - the latter explaining the fun of portraying a character disappearing under progressive layers of bubble wrap! Oh, and there's an appearance by an unexpected fan to look out for, too ...

The new production notes written by Martin Wiggins provide the usual in-depth analysis of the story's development; if you want to know which recording of Handel's Concerto Grosso in B Flat Major was used during Sarah's preparation, the original badge colour of the decontamination chamber, which extra ended up in which pallet, what John Lucarotti's original episodic titles are, and how Douglas Adams fits into the grand scheme of things, here's the place to find out!

Doctor Forever! is a new feature to appear on successive(ish) DVDs, looking at how Doctor Who survived in its 'wilderness years'. The first here, Love and War, explores the literary adventures of the Seventh and then Eighth Doctor through Virgin Books (under Peter Darvill-Evans) and then BBC Books (under Steve Cole and Justin Richards). Narrated by Ayesha Antoine, there are contributions from a host of authors including Russell T Davies (who also talked about his novel Damaged Goods contained elements he'd then recycle for the television series), Paul Cornell (whose the only author to date to have a book translated to screen with Human Nature), and the An Adventure in Space and Time writer Mark Gatiss. An interesting summary of how these ranges kept Doctor Who alive until the series return in 2005, and some candid observations over the BBC's abrupt 'seizure' of the book franchise from Virgin in 1997 as well as how they eventually reached their own demise (and the (ahem) novel way the spares went to use in Eastern Europe orphanages ...).

As with Planet of the Spiders in 2011, the omnibus repeat of the story is included on the second disc, which at seventy minutes means pretty much an episode is lost in the condensed version. I must admit I skimmed this a bit (at 1.5x too), being I'd watched the full version recently, but it is interesting to see how some sections get excised along the way - I noticed the Doctor's speech about humanity in episode one had been lost, and little things like Noah initially shooting the Doctor in episode two and the High Minister's speech in episode three disappeared too.

Other new DVD features include the raw footage of Tom Baker's visits to Northern Ireland in Scene Around Six, the clips of which were rediscovered back in 2011, plus 8mm film of location filming for Robot and the PDF files of Radio Times listings and - for those of us who didn't buy every single tie-in merchandise in the mid-eighties - The Doctor Who Technical Manual (so I can finally build my own TARDIS!). Most of the original 2002 features have been carried across to the special edition, with the notable exception of the Wookey Hole interview with Tom Baker that was released again in its 'proper' place on Revenge of The Cybermen in 2010.

Random Observations

  • The "pink" title sequence present for this story is a fun anomaly (as are the other title sequence variants that are included as an extra)
  • Unlike some of the commentaries to come, Tom Baker is quite serious on this one, though he still has time for his own style of random observations with comments such as "four jaunty buttocks"!
  • It's interesting how the role of a women is played around with during the story, with Harry's blissfully ignorant inappropriate comment to Sarah about "the fairer sex being the top of the totem pole" contrasting against the Doctor's deliberate goading of Sarah's deficiencies to get her to move through the pipeline.
  • I wonder if Begonia Pope ever heard that her alias was Madame Nostrodamus ...
  • The Doctor's introduction of Harry's credentials as being "only qualified to work on sailors" is still amusing, though being it is also on the main menu loops of both discs perhaps it has worn out its welcome now...
  • What with the sailor joke earlier in the script and Philip Hinchcliffe's observation of Robert Holmes having fun with the script, Harry then exclaiming "I found the Queen in the cupboard" caused an outbreak of uproarious laughter from both the commentary crew and myself!
  • There's a strong theme of the fear of possession and loss of identity running through the story, with Noah's struggle against his physical transformation, the Doctor's mental struggle with the hive mind, and the lingering thought about what actually happened to the hapless Dune (Brian Jacobs) under the Queen's ministrations ...
  • The way in which the wirrn propogate through 'contagion' is a theme that rears its head again a year later with the Krynoid's reproductive cycle in The Seeds of Doom.
  • It's a shame that the cut scene of Noah's plea for Vira to kill him no longer exists - it might have been a step too far for the audience in 1975 but it would have made a great deleted scene in 2013!
  • The autobiography "All Friends Betrayed" by Judas Baker is something to look forward to (grin)
  • And for those who always turn off before the end titles have finished ... well, you've missed out on a treat!

Conclusion

All-in-all, the story is quite minimal in its presentation but very effective in its execution. Great acting, stunning sets and scintillating dialogue all competently meld together to create a compelling story, and though the creature realisation was perhaps not as effective as some past and future efforts, in combination with the other elements they form a memorable adversary.

And as for the TARDIS team of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, they are on fine form, and between them triumphantly launch this "golden age" of Doctor Who!

Coming Soon ...

The Doctor learns the intricacies of cocoa-making and Barbara find out being a god is not all it's cut out to be as the TARDIS travellers touch down in the murky tomb atop a pyramid of The Aztecs ...




IMW: Star Trek: TNG/Doctor Who: Assimilation2Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 24 February 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Star Trek: TNG/Doctor Who: Assimilation2
IMW
Written by Scott and David Tipton, Tony Lee
Released as a collection in 2012 (Vol1/Vol2)
The crossover sub-genre has famously paired characters that should by rights only exist in their own worlds and never, ever meet. Over four decades, from the conventional (Superman/Spider-Man, Batman/Incredible Hulk) to the sublime (X-Files/30 Days of Night, Batman vs Predator) to the bold (Superman/Aliens, Joker/Mask) to the absurd (Aliens vs Predator vs The Terminator, Freddy vs Jason vs Ash), crossovers have become an “event” fixture of comics. Although many crash and burn on their titles alone, some crossovers work, due to the passion of writers and illustrators who are the best in the comics business.

Even Star Trek has had its crossovers. The Enterprise crews of Captains James T Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard teamed up with the X-Men in the Nineties and Kirk’s crew recently met the Legion of Super Heroes. Doctor Who, however, has avoided entangling itself with other TV/film tie-ins.

In 2012, that changed when IDW, publisher of Doctor Who and Star Trek comics, printed Assimilation2, an official Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who crossover (endorsed by Paramount and the BBC). This eight-issue mini-series (recently collected in two volumes by IDW) paired the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory with the crew of the Enterprise-D to protect the United Federation of Planets from a Borg/Cybermen alliance.

When IDW announced the project, there was promise of an epic tale. Sadly, the mini-series fails to live up to that ambition. Writers Scott Tipton, David Tipton and Tony Lee have all delivered some fantastic stories for IDW’s Doctor Who comic (Lee’s The Forgotten is outstanding) and for this crossover, they are highly respectful of both properties. However, as a story, it seems the scope of the brief may have been too grand and ambitious, even for them.

Assimilation2 is way too long. IDW thinks an epic should be eight issues. Instead of an action-packed, tightly-paced story over four to six issues, we have an adventure that plods along, despite the scale of the extra-dimensional threat. Indeed, the first two issues are studies in how different modern Doctor Who is in tone and tempo to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The first issue sees the Doctor, Rory and Amy complete an adventure in ancient Egypt, exposing an alien criminal masquerading as the Pharaoh’s vizier. The second issue focuses on the Enterprise-D’s visit to ocean world Naia VII, where Starfleet is involved in an intensive mining operation to extract materials for the return bout with the Borg. The first chapter is evocative of modern Doctor Who, with the TARDIS team thrown into the thick of trouble. The second chapter is a dull, staple Next Generation episode, with the crew doing little exciting or consequential. Sadly, when the story proper begins halfway through Issue 2, its tenor and pace continues to mirror the staidness of ST:TNG and not Who’s vigour and wit.

When you expect Issue 3 to ramp up the story, it is sidetracked by a pointless flashback in which the Fourth Doctor aids Captain Kirk and his away team against a Cyberman raiding party (of the Revenge of the Cybermen caste). Once that mini-adventure is over, it takes another two issues for the Eleventh Doctor to convince Picard to trust him and overcome his suspicion/hatred of the Borg – and that’s not until Issue 5! It’s then another three issues before the TARDIS and Enterprise-D crews take the fight to the enemy. When events come to a head in Issue 8, the climax is disappointing.

The story follows the typical formula of crossover comics. There is uneasiness and distrust amongst the protagonists while the antagonists predictably turn on each other. For example, just as Batman and Judge Dredd have to overcome their differences to outwit the Joker and Judge Death, so it takes a good few issues for the Doctor and Picard to agree on a partnership for the greater good. Meanwhile, the Cybermen prove more than a match for the Borg, which tests credibility. Largely because of Doctor Who’s constrained TV budget in the past, the Cybermen have always been the poorer cousins to the Borg, lacking their resources and firepower. Yet they usurp their Trek universe counterparts with ease and in the bargain threaten two universes. Given the short shrift they have had in Doctor Who (going from chilling metal giants to figures of parody in a few stories), making the Cybermen “the big bad” is a good idea. Unfortunately, the Cybermen’s aggressive behaviour is more characteristic of the Daleks (I suspect IDW’s preference for a Dalek/Borg alliance would have been vetoed by Terry Nation’s estate). Certainly the Cybermen’s portrayal (characterised by the Borg-enhanced Cyber Controller in Issue 8) contradicts the single-mindedness and logic of the steel giants.

The characterisation of the protagonists is faithful and consistent with their TV portrayals. The Tiptons capture Matt Smith’s Doctor’s eccentric and madcap persona and contrast it well with Picard and Riker’s earnestness. What doesn’t work is Picard’s attitude to the Borg. While Picard’s behaviour is consistent with episodes of TNG post-The Best of Both Worlds, it is undermined by the fact that this sequence of events occurs during the Enterprise-D’s seven-year mission and before the events of Star Trek: First Contact. In fact, the way Picard overcomes his reservations about his perennial foe contradicts Patrick Stewart’s brilliant performance in First Contact (when we see just how bitter Picard is about the Borg).

As can be expected with an ensemble cast, the story is unkind to most of the TNG characters. The Doctor, Picard, Data and Riker dominate the “screen time” and dialogue, Worf gets a few good action scenes but LaForge, Crusher and Troi are grossly underused. Amy and Rory are also relegated to observer status but still feature in the story more than the unlucky trio.

Although her presence in the story is also brief, the Doctor’s meeting with the Enterprise-D’s enigmatic bartender Guinan is the highlight of the comic. Guinan is what the Doctor would call a “time sensitive” who can perceive differences in the flow of time (witnessed in TNG episode Yesterday’s Enterprise). She is the perfect foil, throwing the Time Lord with her ability to read him. “I must admit, you have me at a ... loss ... that doesn’t happen ... often,” he muses. This example of character interaction works well, fulfilling a function common in crossovers – highlighting specific characters’ differences and eerie similarities.

Unfortunately, other character relationships don’t fare so well. There are brief, memorable exchanges. The TARDIS crew’s arrival on the Enterprise is amusing (Data confuses the TARDIS crew for malfunctioning hologram simulations) as is the Doctor’s retort to Riker when the commander scoffs that he could be 100 years old: “Don’t be ridiculous, Commander. I’m nowhere near 100.” When Worf declares his usual mantra that “Today is a good day to die,” Rory’s comeback is “I never much care for it myself ...” But for the most part, this kind of banter is limited and the story is mostly humourless.

While the story disappoints, JK Woodward and Gordon Purcell’s interior artwork is stunning. Purcell pencils and inks the story and Woodward paints, contributing to a look that echoes peer Alex Ross’s work. In close up, most of the characters resemble their TV counterparts and the look is so organic (compared to other comics) that when the Fourth Doctor/original Trek crew flashback occurs in Issue 3 and the art reverts to a traditional comic book style, you are sadly reminded that you are reading a comic!

Each of the eight issues had regular and retailer incentive covers, with the standouts belonging to Woodward for his Borg/Cyberman combo to Issue 2 and Issue 3’s fantastic cover art of Revenge-style Cybermen menacing Captain Kirk. Special mention also goes to some of Joe Corroney’s alternate covers, particularly the Issue 1 RI cover putting the Doctor, Rory and Amy in charge of the Enterprise, and the Issue 3 homage by Elena Casagrande and Ilaria Traversi to the movie poster for Star Trek: First Contact.

Unfortunately, while the cover and interior artwork is impressive, it emphasises that Assimilation2 is all style, no substance. I certainly don’t envy the task the writers and artists had but despite their best efforts, we have a story that, like many blockbuster films, over-promises and under-delivers. Nevertheless, the story is plausible enough that you can believe the Doctor and Guinan can chat like old friends, Amy and Rory can have a quiet discussion with Troi, and Data would be unfazed by the TARDIS’s interior dimensions. This convinces me, despite the faults of Assimilation2, that there is scope for future Doctor Who/Star Trek crossovers. Given IDW has the comic book rights to JJ Abrams’ incarnation of Star Trek, pairing Matt Smith’s Doctor with Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock is recommended – or perhaps IDW should go out on a limb and pair the Doctor with Captain Kathryn Janeway and the USS Voyager in the Delta Quadrant ...

At any rate, the next crossover should be promoted as Doctor Who/Star Trek! It irks that Star Trek had top billing, especially when Doctor Who is the live TV program and TNG expired over a decade ago with Star Trek: Nemesis! But that’s just a minor gripe ...

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 is available in two trade paperback volumes by IDW Publishing: Volume 1 (ISBN 978-1613774038) and Volume 2 (ISBN 978-1613775516).




The Nameless City (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 22 February 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Nameless City
Written by Michael Scott
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 February 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

The second of Puffin’s e-shorts, this story focuses on the second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. At times it reads rather like Lovecraft lite: Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own short story called ‘The Nameless City’ was published in 1921 and dealt with ancient ruins sung of by the (fictional) Necronomicon's "mad poet."

The Necronomicon also makes an appearance in Michael Scott’s story, and his beaked, clawed and octopus-like monsters are reminiscent of the Cthulu Mythos. I wonder just how appropriate these Lovecraftian debts are: when the TV series threatens to become ‘too scary’ for young viewers then negative commentary never seems far away, but perhaps different rules apply to the written word rather than the visual image. In any case, readers don’t have to know Lovecraft to follow the story: it’s more a bonus layer of meaning for those who get the references.

On the whole, then, this is a deft mix of Lovecraftian elements and Doctor Who history: Jamie meets a mysterious bookseller named Professor Thascalos who is presumably a well-known character drawn from the Doctor’s past (and future), whilst Vengeance on Varos’s Zeiton-7 forms a further part of events. And the second Doctor is typically well represented via a scattering of iconic dialogue and artefacts: “ when I say run, run” gets an outing, for instance, as does the Doctor’s recorder playing.

If this anniversary series partly retools Doctor Who for today’s younger readers, another emerging pattern seems to be that these ebooks make heavy use of other fantastic literature. Last month’s title was ultimately indebted to a very famous children’s fantasy, whilst this story focuses on connections to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and begins in 1968 on Charing Cross Road, itself renowned for its range of second-hand and collectors’ bookshops. It’ll be intriguing to see whether this bibliophilic, bookish strand continues through later e-shorts, but such is its prominence in Eoin Colfer’s A Big Hand For The Doctor and here, it’s tempting to suppose that “include elements drawn from well-known fantasy literature” was part of Puffin’s brief to writers. Time will tell whether such a device does indeed tie the whole sequence of short stories together, or whether it’s just a first and second Doctor coincidence. (Will Charlie Higson pop up with an Ian Fleming-influenced third Doctor story? Which Doctor should be re-worked via H.G. Wells or Jules Verne?).

Michael Scott doesn't just emulate Who, he also improvises a few new tunes using the show's established elements. Particularly striking is how the Doctor looks out of the TARDIS’s Police Box windows at one point, given that unlike latter-day Doctor Who, the TARDIS of this era didn’t include Police Box doors as part of its console room set-up. And the TARDIS’s organic nature, emphasized in ‘new Who’, is also cleverly seeded into Scott’s scenario.

There’s a recurring sense that this short story wants to introduce readers to the pleasures of culture beyond television. As well as featuring Charing Cross and its bookshops, the TARDIS materializes at the back of the National Portrait Gallery, and Jamie doesn’t just muse about how big the TARDIS interior is, he wonders “how many rooms, galleries, museums and libraries” it contains. Here there may be shadowy schemes and terrifyingly powerful forces from beyond time, but there are also books and galleries and music threaded into the story’s background and foreground alike. It’s Doctor Who coded as a culturally edifying vehicle. With freaky monsters. And the Book of the Dead.

One difficulty with the short story form is that there’s relatively little space and time available to set up and resolve an epic adventure. Consequently, the Doctor’s scheme to defeat an ancient evil existing before Gallifrey is only given minor foreshadowing, and seems to emerge almost out of nowhere. Nevertheless, I can imagine the story’s ending appealing both to younger readers and to admirers of Jamie McCrimmon. And curious conclusions have a long track record in official, original Doctor Who literature, going all the way back to 1960’s Doctor Who and the Invasion from Space, where galactic invaders were foiled in a truly absurd fashion. By comparison, Michael Scott’s storytelling is far stronger, artfully weaving together Lovecraft and loved continuity, even if his finale does strike a slightly off note.

A notable improvement on January’s ebook, this feels much more like Doctor Who, and Scott’s representation of the second Doctor comes far closer to deserving the description “as seen on DVD”. However, with the appearance of Professor Thascalos, and the TARDIS apparently being stranded on Earth, there’s also a definite flavour of the following era: this is very much the second Doctor retroactively composed in the light of what’s to come. Perhaps Scott’s preferred era is really that of the third Doctor, and he just couldn’t resist smuggling in a few series-travelling tropes ahead of time. (Or may be he was expecting to write a Pertwee story, and got bumped up the schedule). But whether it’s coloured by passion or pragmatism, The Nameless City is a definite credit to Scott’s authorial name, skillfully bridging Doctor Who’s eras and offering up a smartly intertextual, atmospheric tale.




The Wrong Doctors (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 19 February 2013 - Reviewed by Richard Watts

The Wrong Doctors
Big Finish Productions
Written by Matt Fitton
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Released January 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains minor spoilers.

Chronologically speaking (the UNIT dating controversy aside) the majority of the Doctor’s companions from the television program’s classic era have a fairly straightforward relationship with the Time Lord. Dodo, Jamie, Sarah Jane – they all meet the Doctor, travel in the TARDIS for a limited time, and eventually depart. Not so Miss Melanie Bush, a computer programmer from the West Sussex village of Pease Pottage, who travels with the Doctor before she meets him – at least from his perspective.

When the Sixth Doctor first encounters Mel during The Trial of a Time Lord, she has been plucked from his future, during an adventure on the planet Oxyveguramosa – a future in which she has already been his companion for approximately three months (as detailed in Pip and Jane Baker’s Target novelisations, Terror of the Vervoids and The Ultimate Foe). Thereafter, once the trial has ended, the two depart together, despite the fact that their first proper meeting hasn’t actually happened yet. What happens next in the Sixth Doctor and Mel’s temporally complex relationship forms the basis of this new Big Finish adventure (and directly contradicts the ending of the Bakers’ The Ultimate Foe novelisation, which may frustrate some purists).

The Plot

Travelling alone, having recently bidden farewell to his former companion, Evelyn Smythe, the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) decides it’s finally time to meet Mel (Bonnie Langford) for the first time. Unfortunately, the TARDIS materialises in Pease Pottage on the same day that the Doctor’s brasher younger self is dropping Mel home after the events of The Trial of a Time Lord – despite her protestations that he should be taking her back to the planet Oxyveguramosa.

In addition to the dangers of crossing his own time stream, the Doctor – or rather, Doctors – soon discover that all is not well in Pease Pottage. Former village postmistress Mrs Muriel Wilberforce (Patricia Leventon) appears remarkably spry for a woman who supposedly died in 1964; dinosaurs roam the streets, as do a gang of violent young ruffians clad in ragged Victorian costumes and led by one Jedediah Thurwell (James Joyce); and the younger version of Mel the two Doctors discover working at the Pease Pottage radar station seems distinctly not herself...

Observations

Written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs, The Wrong Doctors has the difficult job of filling in a missing piece of a story never told on television, while also trying to avoid any major conflict with alternative iterations of Mel’s story as told in other media (in particular, Gary Russell’s BBC Past Doctor Adventure, Business Unusual, in which Mel’s first encounter with the Sixth Doctor takes place in Brighton in 1989). From this perspective it’s a success; unfortunately as a stand-alone audio adventure, it doesn’t completely satisfy.

The story begins well; its tone is light, almost playful, and characters are swiftly and easily introduced, though unfortunately Fitton fails to develop them well – all are predominantly two-dimensional, more caricatures than well-rounded characters in their own right, save for the lead roles of Mel and the two Doctors, on whose dialogue Fitton seems to have focussed most of his energies, resulting in successful and well defined evocations of the characters at different points in their own timelines.

Performances from Joyce and Leventon as Mrs Wilberforce and Jeb are strong despite the characters’ flaws; less impressive are Beth Chalmers as Facilitator Vaneesh and John Banks as Captain Ksllak, two members of an economically aggressive alien race, the Mardaks, described by the Doctor as "an entire species dedicated to one of the most despicable occupations in the entire universe".

"Robbers? Arms dealers? Pirates?" Mel asks.

"No," the Doctor replies. "Business consultants!"

Joyce and Leventon struggle to convincingly portray the faux-American accents demanded of their characters; nor is Fitton’s satire of modern business-speak particularly compelling. With the Mardaks’ talk of ‘probjectives’ and ‘incentivisation’, there’s a sense that the writer is attempting a satire of the contemporary business world akin to Robert Holmes’ spin on the British tax system in The Sun Makers; unfortunately Fitton lacks Holmes’ wit and skill, resulting in blunt, unsatisfying dialogue and thinly written characters.

Nor is the villain of the piece especially memorable. As Stapleton Petherbridge, Tony Gardner does his best with the over the top dialogue he is given, but some of his line readings are particularly melodramatic, a fault which could have been muted by stronger direction. The revelation of Stapleton’s true nature is frankly silly, though the script nonetheless scores well on the continuity front at this point thanks to its references to "vortisaurs, chronovores, pantophagens; the creeping, swarming things of the vortex". Awkward dialogue aside, references like this are still bound to bring a smile to most fans’ faces.

Despite these flaws, The Wrong Doctors still entertains thanks to its central conceit of two Sixth Doctors and two Mels featuring in the same story. Baker is in magnificent form, clearly delighting in playing two versions of himself, and in her long awaited return to Big Finish, Langford charms. Her subtle differentiation between an older, wider Mel and the ditzy younger version is impressive, and the chemistry between her and Baker is immediate and obvious.

Conclusion

This tale of cauterised time and pocket universes, temporal anomalies and characters meeting themselves starts strongly but ends poorly. A lacklustre villain, poorly developed characters, and a muddled and over-wrought climax detract from what could have been an engaging and memorable addition to the Big Finish range; nonetheless the adventure entertains thanks primarily to the verbal dexterity and charisma of its star performers and the well-written banter between them – and between different versions of themselves.




The Flames of Cadiz (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 18 February 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

The Flames of Cadiz
Big Finish Productions
Written by Marc Platt
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released January 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

From the point of view of early Doctor Who's production history, Spain in the 1580s was what London in 1963 was to the TARDIS travellers in its first two seasons: attempts were made at several points to programme this destination into the schedule, but the TARDIS stubbornly failed to materialise there. Shortly before he left the position of story editor in 1964, David Whitaker had envisaged that he would write a story for the 1964/65 run set in Spain after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, departing the staff with BBC library books on the subject under his arm. He renewed this proposal early in 1966, only to be rebuffed by Gerry Davis. Nothing is known about the storyline, though several years ago Daniel O'Mahony made a commendable reconstruction for the website of the fanzine Circus based on Whitaker's known interests and story structuring, now sadly lost to the internet.

The Flames of Cadiz is haunted by Whitaker's idea, but if anything it is a prequel to it. Whitaker intended to set the Doctor down in a Spain troubled by the failure of the Armada, but Marc Platt places the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan in a Spain preparing for the maritime assault on protestant England. Not only does this mean that a huge fleet is being assembled off Cadiz, but Spain itself is undergoing religious purification as government, church and mob turn on the descendants of Muslim converts to Christianity. The last Islamic state in Spain, the emirate of Granada, was conquered in 1492 by the husband and wife 'Catholic monarchs' Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and thus the larger part of the Iberian peninsula. Their conquest of Granada was first accompanied by a promise of religious liberty for Muslims, but this was soon withdrawn and Muslims - and Jews - compelled either to become Roman Catholics or leave. The descendants of those who converted, known as moriscos (meaning 'moorish', pertaining to a North African, especially a Muslim) were frequently suspected of practising Islam in secret and persecuted.

The theme of discrimination and violent oppression against one or more minorities was very much live in the 1960s Britain from which Ian and Barbara and from which this Companion Chronicle samples its Doctor Who. Inevitably with a production made nearly half a century later, the concept has undergone a remix. This isn't to the advantage of The Flames of Cadiz. Platt seems to interpret the persecution of the moriscos as a direct parallel to oppression of the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain or of African-Americans in the United States. Esteban is specifically described as dark-skinned in a manner which contrasts him with the surrounding population of southern Spain. The burning of his home is reminiscent of arson attacks on African-American homes in the southern United States before and during the Civil Rights campaign. It could be taken for a neat parallel, were it not misleading. The moriscos were not immigrants, but had similar ancestry to their Christian neighbours. Just as the king of Spain could justify his invasion of England on the grounds that he was bringing the country back to the true faith - Roman Catholicism - at the request of a persecuted Catholic minority, so he feared that the moriscos would assist an invasion of Spain by the leading power in the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire. There is a dramatic irony here missed, unless Ian's farewell to Esteban, “Go home to Morocco,” is intended as an echo of white British calls for the 'repatriation' of their non-white neighbours.

There's some entertainment from spotting the allusions to broadcast Doctor Who historicals. There are plot beats borrowed from The Reign of Terror and The Crusade, and the central conceit expands upon the famous “You can not change history! Not one line!” from The Aztecs, as well as underline the fallibility of the first Doctor. Problematically, though, this never gets beyond feeling like a pastiche, and while this isn't in itself a bad thing, as much of Doctor Who is pastiche, The Flames of Cadiz isn't particularly successful pastiche. If Doctor Who's strengths have included genre pastiche as commentary, then this fails on that account partly for the aforementioned misunderstanding of the historical context of the story. It plays with school history and national mythology, in the latter case to a greater degree than its 1960s inspirations, and its portrayal of Sir Francis Drake is predictably unheroic. The cross-dressing propagandist Don Miguel, who is also an agent buying provisions for the Spanish Armada, is revealed through hints of decreasing subtlety to be perhaps the greatest figure in Spanish literature. The tilting at windmills line is surely calculated to inspire a groan.

It's good to hear William Russell and Carole Ann Ford again, of course, and there are doubtless fans wondering when this reminiscence by Ian and Susan takes place. Is there a metafictional Time Lord researcher compiling interviews with the Doctor's companions, one wonders? The appropriation of aspects of William Russell's background for Ian doesn't convince, however, and it's unclear what the story seeks by its adoption of Ian's “I take things as they come” line from An Unearthly Child as a motif, beyond the confounding of the prejudices of both Ian and the Doctor. Nabil Elhouahabi as the morisco Esteban has little to do with a misconceived role.

Given the track record of those involved, especially Marc Platt whose Spare Parts remains one of the highlights of the Big Finish range, I feel I might have missed something about this story. The Flames of Cadiz fails to engross, but that's as much a flaw of the semi-dramatised format as anything particular to the story itself. There is much to-ing and fro-ing with little development. It's not surprising that Big Finish are retiring the Companion Chronicles format, as this blend of retelling and dramatised extract feels too much like an abridged soundtrack album, and the story is too long for this model.







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