Journey to the Centre of the TARDISBookmark and Share

Sunday, 28 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Mat King
Broadcast on BBC One - 27 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

This is a bottle episode of sorts, but it’s set inside a very unusual bottle – one that’s really more of a box, infinite indoors, and capable of architectural reconfiguration as well as generating multiple “echoes” of any particular room. Whether this sort of impossible space could ever actually possess a “centre” may be a tough philosophical nut to crack, but it’s a classic episode title nonetheless. And just in case we’re not aware of the rich promise conveyed by ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’, the Doctor informs the Van Baalen gang that he’s confident he can deliver on “the salvage of a lifetime” (echoing the tagline which accompanied Doctor Who’s 2005 return, although back then it was a trip being promised rather than spectacular flotsam and jetsam).

Making the TARDIS the story’s main environment also makes it highly likely, or at least thematically relevant, that time-travel shenanigans will be involved. And sure enough we get a time rift, Time Zombies, frozen time, and a 'History of the Time War'. All set against a ticking clock. Rarely has Doctor Who been this fixated on temporality. I kept waiting for a sequence where assorted clock faces would mysteriously melt, in homage to the very first ‘trapped in the TARDIS’ story from 1964, but plenty of other fan service aimed to press fans’ buttons – including ninth Doctor dialogue from ‘Rose’ and other audio treats, along with glimpses of TARDIS rooms such as the swimming pool and, rather oddly, what appeared to be the telescope from ‘Tooth and Claw’. Does the TARDIS incorporate copies of the Doctor’s previous destinations so he can re-enact adventures at his leisure, in his very own private version of the Doctor Who Experience? It’s one way to break up all the repetitive corridors, I guess.

Although TARDIS-centric storytelling licenses all the chronic time malarkey, this episode’s resolution still comes across as immensely convenient. Yes, it draws attention to the fact that everything can be made better via a “big friendly [reset] button”. And yes, Edward Russell will probably be pleased that this is the first ever Doctor Who story where branding officially saves the day (oops, no, sorry; it’s the wrong sort of brand awareness). More than that, though, you can almost picture Steven Moffat and Steve Thompson chortling over the fact that they’ve come up with the ultimate “handy” solution to a Who story. I say Moffat and Thompson because for me this episode has the exact same problem as ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’. Where that felt too strongly like Thompson imitating Moffat’s preferred tropes (technology gone awry), this was the same hired hand again borrowing showrunner tricks – a rift or crack in time, paradoxes, memory loss, a ‘reveal’ of unexpected identity, and yet another 'reveal' hidden in plain sight (thanks to the torn photograph which we assume is merely set dressing and character background when we first see Gregor). Instead of "Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the TARDIS", a little too much of this resembled Moffat-era storylining on auto-pilot. It reminded me of series five and its epic rewind through previous stories, but crammed into the space and time of a single tale. I can understand contributing writers wanting to please the big boss, but all this faux-Moffat pastiche arguably produces story predictability rather than elegant brand consistency.

On the plus side, director Mat King made some good choices: the opening ‘walk and talk’ between the Doctor and Clara had them circling the TARDIS console at pace, giving some basic dialogue a whirling dynamism, and nicely prefiguring the characters’ later TARDIS disorientation. And in terms of visual style, King used an unusually large amount of out-of-focus or blurred material for HD, effectively heightening the menace of the Time Zombies. The exploded engine room was also a definite high point, resembling something you’d expect to see in promotional footage for 3D television, whilst its stark white backdrop was brilliantly combined with an absence of incidental music, at least up until the turning point of the Doctor taking Clara’s hand. If these directorial decisions all smartly served the story, then by contrast the end of the pre-credits sequence felt poorly edited and lacking in rhythm – it crashed rather haphazardly into the titles rather than building up to a dramatic punctuation, almost as if King didn’t quite have all the coverage he would’ve wanted.

Greater ethnic diversity is surely something modern Who should be striving for, but casting three black actors to play the shifty Van Baalen team – salvage being represented as boring manual labour lacking in creativity and job satisfaction – struck a debatable note. Another odd moment arrived in the form of Clara’s self-referential “good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one, basic storytelling!” Seemingly approaching her travels with the Doctor as if she’s wandered into a “story”, I only hope that the eventual explanation of Clara’s multiple deaths doesn’t involve her being unveiled as some kind of fiction or fabrication. Yet her sudden 'meta' invocation of “basic storytelling” was so ham-fisted it’s tempting to wonder whether this'll carry any further significance in the scheme of things.

There’s also some set-up for ‘The Name of the Doctor’ – presumably material requested by Moffat, just as he’s previously instructed the likes of Matthew Graham and Neil Gaiman on arc duties. It’s a pity, though, that Clara’s reading of 'The History of the Time War' is immediately erased from Doctor Who: ongoing storylines would surely have been more interesting given her unfolding awareness of “the Doctor”. Yet neutralising Clara’s character development is what really makes this a bottle episode, essentially disconnected from what surrounds it. In the end, it’s the guest characters who seem to retain after-images and echoes of what they’ve learnt, with Gregor discovering “a scrap of decency”, whereas over-arching mysteries are safely put back in their box... for the time being.




The Roots of Evil (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 26 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Roots of Evil
Written by Philip Reeve
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Philip Reeve has won many awards across his writing career to date, and reading this month’s e-short it’s easy to see why. As well as effortlessly capturing the spirit of a fourth Doctor and Leela story (it feels like something developed by Hinchcliffe and Holmes but made by Graham Williams… with a budget), Reeve’s own authorial voice also rings out loud and clear. When ‘name’ authors work on non-TV Who there can sometimes be a tussle between different incarnations – will it be a Michael Moorcock novel, or a Doctor Who story, for instance. But in this case, there’s a seamless integration of something that’s at once very “Reevian” but also contains dialogue which wouldn’t feel out of place in a classic Chris Boucher script. Leela’s curt explanation of what a scarf is, for example, offers up particular humour. And perhaps as a nod to the Sevateem there’s something intriguing and very unexpected about certain character names…

To call this a partial compositing of ‘Planet of Evil’ and ‘Face of Evil’ does it a disservice; the world swiftly and colourfully sketched in by Reeve would have been tricky to realize in the 1970s TV show, and it really belongs to written Doctor Who. It has the same coherent inventiveness which marked out Reeve’s Mortal Engines – but where that introduced mobile cities, this has the “Heligan Structure”, a tree that's grown into a kind of "wooden space station". And there’s an entire accompanying culture set out for readers, whether it’s the Heligan’s “heartwood”, “digestion chamber”, or “trunk-roads”. Reeve has fun naming his world’s tangled arboreal features – the Heligan’s bark has plenty of bite – but he also acutely captures Tom Baker and Louise Jameson’s performances. There are moments of description which resonate with Baker’s joyous inhabitation of the role, particularly a focus on that infamous, life-affirming grin.

All the language games with tree-like features and attributes – plenty of copse markers, one might say – make this sound like a very fantasy-oriented tale, riffing insistently on a single set of ideas. But Reeve also branches out into sharply observant character moments such as Leela missing the woodland of her own planet, as well as linking the oxygen-producing capacities of the vast Heligan Structure to one of SF’s staples, namely terraforming. With the Doctor and Leela being well served, poor K-9 remains very much the unwanted tree decoration on this occasion, left in the TARDIS to charge up his batteries. Perhaps this makes sense in a novella, however, as it means there are only two lead characters to follow, whilst also avoiding questions of K-9’s mobility on a tree-world, not to mention whether his laser would’ve promptly burnt the whole place down.

Given recent speculation over which actors might or might not be appearing together in the fiftieth anniversary TV special, Roots of Evil has a rather canny structure which at least allows the fourth Doctor to express clear views on his eleventh incarnation. They might not meet, but their paths cross glancingly in this adventure, albeit sufficiently for the Baker Doctor to express some trenchant views on whether certain items of clothing are “cool”. And Leela also has a view on the future Doctor, as aspects of the show’s current format fleetingly intertwine with retro gothic stylings. The sonic screwdriver is even retconned into line with facts established by Steven Moffat, as two eras of Who are brought into dialogue, and tendrils of connection are lightly stretched across the programme's family tree.

Reeve paces his tale incredibly well. We get clever back story, a well-crafted and believable alien society, a lunatic villain for the Doctor to spar with, and some great monsters – all without events feeling too rushed. The monsters, although perhaps being slightly predictable in form and function, are still smartly depicted, carrying a requisite sense of mulched menace.

Roots of Evil is by far the best Puffin e-short to date. This really is a five-star adventure for the fourth Doctor, and hopefully later contributors to the sequence will take a leaf out of Philip Reeve's book in terms of intelligently balancing authorial style with authentic Doctor Who.




Eldrad Must Die! (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 25 April 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty

Eldrad Must Die!
Big Finish Productions
Written by Marc Platt
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released April 2013
The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough to the Cornish coast. But something is very wrong. The local wildlife has been corrupted by a bizarre crystal infection, an infection which seems to be spreading to humans. Soon Turlough is hearing voices, voices which demand that “Eldrad must die!”

Eldrad Must Die! continues Big Finish’s propensity for sequels to TV Doctor Who stories, and specifically the Hinchcliffe years of the programme. Having already mined the most popular stories of the era for sequels, Big Finish is now turning to the lesser regarded tales, and following on from the return of the Kraals from The Android Invasion in last year’s The Oseidon Adventure, it is now Eldrad’s turn to come out of retirement (he was last seen in 1976’s The Hand of Fear).

The script is from Marc Platt, one of Big Finish’s most prolific, and occasionally one of their best writers. Platt has previously done great things with bringing back monsters, most notably in Spare Parts where he explored the origins of the Cybermen in original and unexpected ways.

Platt goes out of his way to find new and interesting ways to use Eldrad and the Kastrians. The clever inversion of the ‘Eldrad must live’ mantra from The Hand of Fear and creation of a rival Kastrian faction are the most obvious examples of this. Even so, there are only so many ways you can bring back such a specific villain, and despite Platt’s efforts the play does retread much of the same ground as The Hand of Fear. We have a modern-day earth setting, discovery of an Eldrad-artifact, possession of a companion, and a similar structure, with the action moving to Kastria for the play’s conclusion.

The play is most successful in Platt’s wise choice to take explore the unique crystalline biology of the Kastrians. The Hand of Fear’s mental possession here becomes physical, with numerous members of the cast infected with Kastrian crystals. This allows for some decidedly creepy imagery, for example the discovery of a dead bird with its wings interlaced with crystals, and later possessed villagers with crystal masks covering their faces. However, despite these strong, chilling moments, the play’s tone is that of a fast run-around, and it could have been stronger if the early episodes had focused on building chills and atmosphere.

As if being a sequel to The Hand of Fear wasn’t enough, the play also draws from elements of Mawdryn Undead. While the mystery of Turlough’s solicitor (which the TV show left dangling and never followed up) is an interesting one it feels out of place and Turlough’s connection to puppet henchman Charlie seems unnecessary and overcomplicates the story. Perhaps Big Finish are sowing the seeds for a fuller exploration of Turlough’s life at Brendon School, but here it just feels superfluous. Where the focus on Turlough does succeed is in his dream sequences, where the rest of the TARDIS crew get to flex their acting muscles as figments of Turlough’s imagination.

With the exception of Stephen Thorne as Eldrad, the supporting characters are all rather generic and forgettable, and this is not helped by a weaker supporting cast than usually. The inclusion of four regulars, and attempting giving them all enough to do, is also a problem, and the Doctor comes off worst. This is the tenth release featuring the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa in a relatively short space of time, and it would be nice to see the Fifth Doctor used in a more varied way.

Eldrad Must Die! is packed with strong ideas but it never quite comes together. The main problem is that The Hand of Fear dealt with Eldrad quite satisfactorily, and the whole concept of a sequel feels unnecessary. While returning foes and sequels may bring in more listeners, Eldrad Must Die! shows that it is important to consider how much there is to say about these aspects of Doctor Who’s past, rather than bringing them back for their own sake.




Destiny of the Doctor: BabblesphereBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 23 April 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Destiny of the Doctor: Babblesphere
Released by AudioGo
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by John Ainsworth
Released: April 2013
This review is based on the CD release from AudioGo and may contain minor spoilers.

“Yes- I dare say he had a good reason. I usually do...”

Satirical productions are everywhere these days, with recent Doctor Who episodes like The Bells Of Saint John proving shining examples of modern writers’ takes on current social trends and technology. For the Fourth Doctor instalment in their Destiny Of The Doctor audio range, AudioGo have taken it upon themselves to echo these growing commentaries on our reliance on knowledge and communication. Babblesphere marks a shining highlight in the franchise so far, and with any luck should set a precedent for the remaining seven adventures still to come.

Set on a human colony inhabited by a seemingly omniscient and omnipotent technological matrix, Babblesphere once again perfectly encapsulates the vast science-fiction and inherently interplanetary tales of Tom Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana. Although Baker isn’t present on recording duties for this script, Lalla does an exemplary job of reviving her companion character and indeed mimicking her former co-star throughout the story. Roger Parrott provides superb support too, taking on the role of a bewildered user of the Babble network who finds himself in the middle of a growing catastrophe.

What’s perhaps most reminiscent of the rather defining 1974-1981 era of Doctor Who here is the sense of an inherent investigation of the human condition even in the context of a distinctly alien society in comparison to our own. Yes, there’s plenty of satire on offer to link the Babblesphere to Sol 3, yet undoubtedly we’re in extraterrestrial territory, so it’s testament to the sound creative vision of writer Jonathan Morris that he can make the entire narrative experience feel just as grounded as the legendary Who works of classic writers such as Douglas Adams did back in the good ol’ days.

Of course, no entry in the Destiny audio range would be complete without an allusion to an ominous future to come for the Eleventh Doctor in the franchise’s finale. As we’ve previously mentioned, the Fall of the Eleventh and the Fields of Trenzalore will no doubt be dealt with on screen in The Name Of The Doctor, yet whatever the various references to events that have to be preserved to help the Time Lord’s current incarnation in a battle to come are building to, we can be sure that November’s The Time Machine will provide a pay off in a satisfying fashion. It’s sadly the only real weakness of Babblesphere that this month’s arc reference feels a tad shoehorned in for the sake of it, yet for dedicated fans of the range the reference will at least provide further interest for the evolving story in the months ahead.

Whereas past instalments in the Destiny range - particularly last month’s Vengeance Of The Stones - have presented numerous shortcomings of note, it’s a pleasure for this reviewer to confirm that that particular franchise story arc niggle is the only real gripe to be found this time around. Beyond that, Babblesphere is easily the most confident, audacious and compelling instalment in the range yet. Lalla Ward is an incredible narrator both in-character and of the events surrounding the story’s constructs, the atmosphere of the world and its inhabitants is palpable, and more than ever there’s a sense of true dedication to this release’s chosen era of the show’s fifty-year history. Doctor Who has produced its fair share of groundbreaking and memorable satirical stories in the past, and without a doubt this reviewer can add Destiny Of The Doctor’s Babblesphere to the widening list of the finest examples of this budding new genre.




HideBookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Hide
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Jamie Payne
Broadcast on BBC One - 20 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

The thing about ghost stories is they’re full of rules: mysterious noises, flashes of lightning, cold spots, psychics, detecting equipment replete with oscilloscopes and toggles (noun), plus photographs revealing the impossible. And there are contemporary film conventions too: a burst of light illuminating something right next to our protagonists; a dark, menacing shape flitting across camera (a trick used back in ‘The Eleventh Hour’). ‘Hide’ throws itself into this maelstrom of whirling tropes with gusto and sincerity. And being set in the seventies, it almost feels like a classic BBC TV ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ reanimated at the wrong time via anachronistic technology: it’s as if the theatrical-yet-brilliant Stone Tape has been worked over for high-def, high-style TV.

Despite the opening “ghostbusters” reference, we’re treated to a greatest hits’ collection of spooky goings-on that are played pleasingly straight. Jessica Raine is outstanding as the emotionally suppressed and confused empath Emma Grayling, radiating fragile luminosity and stern verity as she warns Clara off the Doctor, instantly reading him as a “liar”. Professor Alec Palmer is also well realized, with Dougray Scott putting in a strong performance as the guilt-ridden researcher unable to shake off  revenants of his past.

You can see why Neil Cross was asked back to contribute ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. This is a fantastic script; a blend of believable, character-led emotional moments (rather in the vein of Russell T. Davies’s writing on the series) and Moffat-style inversion and tricksiness as we get around to the final genre-shifting kicker. There’s also a clever, parable-like challenge to our interpretation of monstrosity:
what we’ve assumed to be grotesque and terrifying (the half-glimpsed, gnarled stuff of nightmare) is simply a form of life and love we’ve been unable to recognize. Cross handles it all with skill, making me suspect possible problems with ‘Akhaten’ may have been far more to do with budgeting and production issues.

Although the sequence where the Doctor disappears off to monitor Earth's planetary life-cycle seems to puncture the episode’s rhythm and atmosphere, it rapidly gives rise to two great pay-offs – not just the Sapphire and Steel-type explanation of what’s going on, but more importantly Clara’s realisation that “we’re all ghosts to you”. Time travel will do that, jumping from birth to death, hurtling from joyous presence to jaded memory. And of course the Clara-Doctor exchange isn’t just a mirror of its surrounding ghost tale, but also neatly harks back to ‘The Snowmen’ and the Doctor’s graveside visit there.

Cross’s paralleling of the Doctor and Clara with the Professor and his “companion” also draws attention to the different genres that the two couples occupy – while Alec and Emma are part of a love story, the Doctor and Clara are instead tied together by a “mystery” that needs solving. For all their banter, and the Doctor’s exaggerated discomfort with talk of love, this Doctor-companion pairing is perhaps overly dominated by ongoing arc stuff, not quite giving Clara the space to really come alive as a three-dimensional, flesh and blood character. Her ghostliness is partly a product of the need to keep the ‘Oswin’ Oswald puzzle flickering away in the background.

And while I know the Doctor has to get used to new teeth with each incarnation, “Metebelis” seems to be pronounced strangely. Surely a DVD of ‘Planet of the Spiders’ could have been sent to Matt Smith or director Jamie Payne as additional homework? Otherwise, though, Payne plays an absolute blinder: the scary, mist-wreathed forest visuals are especially gorgeous, reminding me of Adam Smith’s work on series five. Echoing laughter and sweeping, dream-like camera work also somehow put me in mind of ‘The Deadly Assassin’, placing this episode’s flashes of surrealism in very good company indeed. As for the stillness and silence immediately following in the wake of Emma’s furious bid to retrieve the Doctor, this was an inspired, chilling instant. I’d expected “boo!” moments from ‘Hide’, a perfectly unimaginative expectation which sure enough the pre-credits sequence promptly answered, but I hadn’t expected such a startling soundtrack punctuation. Not since Graeme Harper’s outer space silence in ‘42’ have separation and absence been so well calibrated. In short, more Payne, please: this was smartly directed, making impeccable use of guest actors and capturing a visceral sense of the Doctor’s fear.

‘Hide’ sells itself as one kind of story, turning all its ghostly paraphernalia up to eleven before sharply sidestepping into a whole different pocket genre where the rules are different. Crammed with quotable dialogue (the “I’m not holding your hand” business even felt like Moffat pastiche, unless it was an uncredited showrunner contribution), its ending – “jump!” – had the sort of vitality and irreverence that perhaps only a newcomer to the fold would attempt. Hiding its twist in plain sight, ‘Hide’ nevertheless represents the most audacious and spirited genre switch in Who’s recent memory as it toggles (verb) between love and monsters.




Night of the Stormcrow (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 18 April 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty

Night of the Stormcrow
Big Finish Productions
Written by Marc Platt
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released as subscriber bonus December 2012, on sale December 2013
This review is based on the bonus subscriber release and contains mild spoilers

On a remote island a group of scientists have been observing the stars. But when the shadows start moving and people start dying, it seems that something might have been looking back at them. Something that has decided to pay them a visit...

“It’s teatime 1977 all over again” proclaimed the ubiquitous advertising for Big Finish’s first season of audios starring Tom Baker, clearly positioning nostalgia as one of their primary objectives.

Despite the fact that Tom Baker hadn’t appeared in Big Finish until last year, the Phillip Hinchcliffe produced series of Doctor Who have often tacitly positioned as the ‘golden era’ of the programme and have cast a long shadow across the company’s output. For example, when Big Finish first started releasing Doctor Who plays featuring Doctors five to seven they used the Hinchcliffe era version of the theme tune and when choosing villains for the high profile Eighth Doctor series it was Wirrn, Zygons and Krynoids who were brought out of retirement.

Yet, when the man himself returned, and this ‘golden era’ was finally unlocked to Big Finish, there was something missing. It was the Doctor himself. Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor shifted incrementally during his seven years in the show and when he finally returned to the role, perhaps unsurprisingly he played the part differently. In the Hornet’s Nest series produced by the BBC, Baker perfected a bombastic, whimsical version of his Doctor, very different from what had gone before, and rather suited to the excessive campy tone of that series. It was a slightly muted version of this Doctor which Baker brought to his first series with Big Finish, meaning that in spite of what the scripts, producers and audiences wanted, the tone they were trying to recapture was just out of their grasp.

Night of the Stormcrow marks the return of the Hinchcliffe era Doctor. Baker has chosen to reign in his performance and give us the alien, moody and at times portentous Doctor familiar from fan favorites Pyramids of Mars and The Ark in Space. It feels like the first time all the elements have come together in a Fourth Doctor play, with the cast and writers and production all singing from the same hymn sheet. This is very much helped by the tense, claustrophobic feel of the story and the wonderfully evocative speeches Marc Platt gives the Doctor. A highlight comes when the Doctor declares to the scientists that “Something found you here, something from the darkest corner of the night”, invoking memories of similarly tense moments from his early years as the Doctor.

Louise Jameson is equally well served by the script, and delivers a superbly written monologue for Leela in Episode Two. Throughout her appearances in various Big Finish productions she has proved herself to be one of their most adaptable and hard working performers. She has given subtly different performances as Leela over the course of the character’s life in Gallifrey, The Companion Chronicles and The Fourth Doctor Adventures, and here she once again skilfully recreates the cadences of 1970s Leela’s voice. My appetite has been thoroughly whetted for what the second series of plays starring Baker and Jameson will bring.

The story is a spooky, scientific haunting in the style of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (or in Doctor Who terms, Image of the Fendahl), with many standout creepy moments. While some may feel that the hour running time may work against the nostalgic aims of the Fourth Doctor series, here it works in the play’s favour. It means that the emphasis can be on building atmosphere rather than the denouement, which is often where sci-fi haunting stories fall down, when they struggle to explain the events away in rational terms.

If there is a fault in the play it would be that Platt’s decision to introduce two monsters, the eponymous Stormcrow and the ‘no-thing’ creatures, make things a little harder to follow in the second half, and perhaps he should have stuck with one or the other.

For fans who may have felt slightly disappointed by the first series of Fourth Doctor Adventures this play will be a welcome nostalgic trip to one of the most enduring, influential and popular eras of Doctor Who. Night of the Stormcrow is currently only available as a Big Finish subscriber exclusive, but will be available to buy separately from December 2013, when it will hopefully gain the wider audience it deserves.