Destiny of the Doctor: Enemy AliensBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 August 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Destiny of the Doctor: Enemy Aliens
Released by AudioGo
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by John Ainsworth
Released: August 2013
“Hello there, Doctor- this is the Doctor speaking! Now the fact of the matter is, you’ve caught me in a bit of a jam, a fix, you might say, a tight spot, quite frankly...”

In every chain, it seems, there must be a weak link. For seven months, across a variety of accomplished instalments, the Destiny franchise has succeeded in engaging this reviewer’s interest thoroughly thanks to strong characterisation, defined and unique performances from each cast member involved and above all the faithfulness of the restorations of Doctor Who’s various eras. However, Enemy Aliens struggles to retain these contributory aspects in any great measure, resulting in the weakest instalment of the series so far.

Perhaps the most notable shortcoming of this lacklustre Eighth Doctor adventure becomes present as early as the premise set-up in its opening moments. Much as in the Sixth Doctor entry Trouble In Paradise, the Doctor and Charley are called upon by the Eleventh Doctor to unravel a mystery in 1930s London. Whether it’s the familiarity of the scene in which the inter-Doctor discussion first takes place, or indeed of a pre-war setting such as this, either way there’s a sense instantly that the narrative material being covered here isn’t particularly fresh.

Paul Cornell once proved with aplomb that science-fiction storylines taking place before a World War can be suitably compelling, his Series Three two-parter Human Nature/The Family of Blood a particular shining reminder of this. It’s truly a shame, then, that writer Alan Barnes’ script doesn’t appear intent on recapturing any of the same emotional resonance, foreboding tension or effective satire of that beloved televised story, instead electing to provide listeners with an ill-paced romp that features predictable plot twists and generally ineffective action-driven setpieces.

Not all of the blame can simply be placed on Barnes, though- it seems safe to assume that this veteran writer in the Who audio range was commissioned with a specific narrative structure and tonal direction in mind by Big Finish for this release. What comes as a surprise this time around is that neither regular star India Fisher nor her supporting performer Michael Maloney seem particularly enthused in their portrayals. While naturally it becomes difficult to assess whether India held a blasé attitude towards her return as Charley Pollard when we don’t have access to behind-the-scenes footage, that’s certainly the impression given by her performance here, a factor of the release which stands in direct contrast to its predecessors.

In fact, that concerning contemplation of a blasé attitude held by a performer in this release seems to extend further than India in the grand scheme of things. No doubt honing a structure for an eleven-part series such as Destiny must have been a challenging prospect for those involved with producing this range, yet more than any of the past seven releases, Enemy Aliens merely comes off as a stop-gap entry intended only to further minor elements of the overall narrative arc ahead of presumably major developments in the final three instalments. This is not unheard of in the realms of televised or audio-based Who, yet rarely has such a trait proven so notable as it does here, with tedium setting in rather rapidly over the course of the sixty minute running time.

While this reviewer cannot confess himself as a regular follower of Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor adventures, even hardened fans of the range are unlikely to find much in the way of incentives to pick up this instalment. Neither the dialogue Barnes affords Paul McGann’s incarnation nor India’s lacklustre portrayal of the character seem to do this one-off Doctor justice, an aspect of the Destiny range which its other writers have seemed to pride themselves with in past entries. Certainly, fans who come to this particular chapter having only seen the TV Movie won’t be offered much in terms of defining how far this incarnation has developed since his first and last televised outing in 1996.

If Barnes had managed to create a suitably grand climax for this tonally diverse outing, then arguably all would not have been for nought. Sadly, referencing this release’s conclusion only serves to highlight further flaws within, seeing as Enemy Aliens ends with such startling brevity that the listener may barely realise the credits have rolled. There’s a near-total lack of closure to be found as Barnes rushes to explain various loose plot threads before the finish line, and that virtually no further contribution to the future of the series is offered in the tale’s final scenes does it no help, either. Those fans who claimed that Asylum of the Daleks and The Power of Three were constrained by their forty-five minute running times may think twice after experiencing this adventure, where proceedings come to an end at an alarmingly abrupt rate that’s difficult to commend in any way, shape or form.

Reassurance can at least come here in the knowledge that rarely have disappointing entries in Big Finish audio franchises resulted in a negative impact on a series’ momentum- quite the opposite, generally. Indeed, the Destiny range has hit one or two speed bumps and hitches over the course of its run so far with Vengeance of the Stones and Trouble In Paradise, yet has bounced back without fail in successive months after those mediocre outings. There’s little doubt that the production team will manage the same feat after this misstep, it’s simply disheartening that such a notable descent into quality had to occur when the franchise began to enter truly innovative territory with last month’s Shockwave.

The positive message that can at least be fathomed from Enemy Aliens is that at least if every chain must have a singular weak link, then in the words of a crazed inmate in Victorian London, “it is discovered” and has been dealt with. Newcomers to the Eighth Doctor audio range should rightly be underwhelmed by a below-average introductory adventure such as this, but there’s plenty of other great Paul McGann adventures to be found elsewhere in Big Finish’s back catalogue. While Enemy Aliens is most certainly not the weakest release in the studio’s history thanks to a somewhat ambitious narrative and assured direction, it lacks each and every one of the key elements which have made the Destiny of the Doctor franchise so far a success, and thus must be considered its weakest link as a result.




Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways at the BFIBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 August 2013 - Reviewed by Anthony Weight
When the British Film Institute announced their series of monthly screenings throughout 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I thought that they sounded like a nice idea, but I wasn’t particularly fussed about attending any of them myself. I hadn’t been to any Doctor Who events for a very long time, and thought that they weren’t necessarily my sort of thing.

However, last month I had the opportunity to attend the Remembrance of the Daleks event, and I absolutely loved it. The chance to watch a great Doctor Who story on the big screen, with a large and enthusiastic audience who love the series just as much as you do, and to hear more from some of the people who made it happen with the interview panel afterwards… I was hooked, and despite having come to these BFI events rather late in the series, was determined to try and get to more of them before the end of the year.

I was very fortunate, then, to be able to pick up a couple of returns on the BFI website in the week leading up to the Ninth Doctor event, and went along with a good friend of mine on Saturday to enjoy that Doctor's grand finale, the two-parter Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. The observant among you will have spotted that this is the Ninth Doctor, but in the eighth month. Presumably due to the availability of guests for the screenings, they’ve got a little out of order now, with the David Tennant event following next month, and Paul McGann finally getting his moment at the beginning of October. At the beginning of this month’s event, compère Justin Johnson announced that both Tennant and McGann will be attending their respective screenings.

Probably to nobody’s great surprise, there was no appearance from Christopher Eccleston at this month’s showing, although he did send along a note for Johnson to read out before Bad Wolf. It was short, but definitely sweet, and although Eccleston doesn’t often make any statements or appearances related to his period with Doctor Who, you do sense that he remains proud of his time on the series and the work that he did to help establish its successful return. In his note, Eccleston joked that if Joe Ahearne – who directed the two episodes being screened – were to return for the 100th anniversary special in 2063, he’d take part and bring his stair-lift, providing the Daleks do not bring theirs!

You do sense that there was a great bond formed between Ahearne and Eccleston during the five episodes of Doctor Who which they made together. Ahearne, remember, wrote to The Guardian to rebuke those who’d criticised Eccleston for his departure from the show after only one year, and he and Eccleston collaborated on the ITV drama Perfect Parents soon after their work on Doctor Who. Ahearne has rightly won many plaudits from fans down the years for his work on the 2005 series, but has oddly never returned to the show. It does make you wonder whether the fact that Eccleston left has anything to do with his not wanting to come back and do more, but sadly during the question-and-answer session which followed the interview panel, nobody put that one to him – and I wasn’t brave enough to ask him myself!

Nonetheless, Ahearne did give many interesting insights, such as his observation that Doctor Who was a pleasure to work on because it was one of the few British television dramas of the time where the camera could help to tell the story, rather than just being pointed at people having conversations in kitchens. And he did dispel the long-standing fan myth about his having been born on November 23rd 1963 – not true, evidently!

Representing the actors of the Ninth Doctor’s era was Bruno Langley, who played short-term companion Adam Mitchell in Dalek and The Long Game. I felt a little sorry for Langley, as there wasn’t a great deal for him to say, given the fact that he wasn’t actually in the two episodes being screened. Nonetheless, he came across as likeable enough, and another person proud to have been associated with Doctor Who.

Also present as a guest was visual effects supremo Dave Houghton, who was interviewed between the two episodes, and it’s odd to hear someone from that side of things talk about how much more can be done these days – we’re used to hearing those who worked on the classic series day that, but these 2005 episodes themselves are now starting to seem old!

There is no question, however, that both the interview panel and the question-and-answer session were dominated by day’s other guest – Phil Collinson, who was the producer of Doctor Who when it returned in 2005. Collinson is, of course, an old-school, dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Who fan, but he was also the sure head and steady hand who made sure that the whole thing didn’t fall to pieces in those early days when nobody had made a series like this in the UK for so very long, schedules were falling behind and elements both inside and outside of the BBC were predicting an embarrassment. It was anything but, of course, as Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways go to show.

Collinson was a witty, informative and hugely enthusiastic guest, proud not just of these two episodes, not even just of his era, but of all of Doctor Who. Even after everything that’s been said and written about the show and how it is made, he still had some fascinating new insights, too – such as the fact that the first cut of Rose, the first episode of the new series, came in at a mere 28 minutes, necessitating some frantic additions and reworking!

On a technical level, while it was very impressive to see the episodes on a film-sized screen, oddly I thought that they didn’t stand up to it quite as well as Remembrance of the Daleks last month. I don’t know if it’s because I was sitting nearer the front this time, or whether it’s an artefact of the field-pairing process used to ‘filmise’ the video, or simply my imagination, but I thought that the jagged edges you’d expect when 625-line video is blown-up to cinema-screen size were more apparent.

Perhaps it was simply the contrast with some of the high definition Matt Smith-era material we’d seen only a few moments before, when we were treated to a sneak preview of a montage from BBC One’s Doctor Who Prom broadcast. On the basis of that, I’d expect An Adventure in Space and Time and whatever 11th Doctor story is chosen to look fabulously lush on their showings here at the BFI.

Such quibbles aside, I can only thank the BFI once again for putting on this series of celebrations for Doctor Who’s anniversary, and repeat my recommendation from my Remembrance of the Daleks review that if you have the chance to attend one of these events, you should grab it with both hands.
Paul Hayes




Spore (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 August 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Spore
Written by Alex Scarrow
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 August 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook. 

This is an effective short story which builds tension smartly and offers an interesting pay-off. But as a tribute to the era of the eighth Doctor it falls a little flat. Beyond details of his costume, this is barely recognizable as the Paul McGann Doctor, instead feeling very generically ‘Doctor-ish’ rather than resonating with this incarnation’s appearance in the TV Movie or indeed with any of his lives beyond television. Also, the Doctor is depicted as travelling alone, meaning that none of his TV, novel or audio companions are acknowledged. All of this makes Spore a rather pale shadow of earlier entries in this series, for example Philip Reeve’s Roots of Evil, which perfectly captured the spirit of its Doctor Who time. However, nor is this eshort comparable to Eoin Colfer’s opening story which actively reworked the first Doctor’s character – this isn’t so much a revisionist eighth Doctor as a reduced or thinned-out character denuded of distinguishing features.

More authorial energy has been expended by Alex Scarrow on realizing the Doctor’s opponent – the spore of the title which threatens the American town of Fort Casey. This organism breaks any living matter down into a black sludge which it can then use to create a network of biomass connections and defences. However, the alien pathogen isn’t simply intent on invasion: it has a further purpose which Scarrow gradually reveals, and which sets the stage for an intriguing denouement. And there’s also some back-story to cement the Doctor’s involvement, as it becomes apparent that this entity has been faced by the Time Lords before. As a plot device this feels slightly in danger of becoming a Who cliché, mind you: it offers an instant way of raising the stakes, and the Time Lords have had a motley collection of enemies and invaders over the years. But Scarrow’s decision to pit the US military against a creature previously encountered by Gallifreyans means that the Doctor can play a more intimate role in repelling the spore than might otherwise have been the case.

Given that he’s travelling by himself, the Doctor rapidly acquires a makeshift companion, Evelyn Chan, part of the US forces sent in to investigate events in Nevada. By name-checking UNIT the Doctor gets himself sent in as a troubleshooter, and works alongside Evelyn to discover how the alien creature can be tackled. But Chan is given little sense of fleshed-out characterisation, and in an eshort such as this, which needs to constantly keep hitting plot beats, there is precious little space to develop her as a rounded, three-dimensional figure. Consequently she ends up as a companion cipher, there to give the Doctor somebody to talk to. Perhaps this tale would have worked better as an equivalent to The Deadly Assassin, pitting companion-less Time Lord against unusual antagonist.

There’s an interesting moment where cosmic timing is discussed: had the creature arrived on Earth some years later then the Doctor realizes a very different outcome would have arisen. It’s tempting to wonder if Scarrow is smuggling in a reference to the TV Movie’s fate: in 1996 Doctor Who’s timing was off, and just a few years later it would meet with a radically different outcome... but the parallel isn’t really made strongly or playfully enough to hold water.

Unlike last month’s Puffin ebook, Malorie Blackman’s magnificent and formula-challenging Ripple Effect, there’s little in the way of social commentary this time round. By contrast, this is an adventure firmly in the mould of B-movie antecedents, and although it darts along with plenty of narrative energy it ultimately feels rather insubstantial. The eighth Doctor has been poorly served in certain ways in the past (the TV Movie can hardly be described as having a well-plotted conclusion, for instance) and this strikes me, overall, as another disappointment. You get the feeling that Scarrow isn’t sure of what he should be building on from Doctor Who’s past, and his Doctor ends up feeling excessively generalised rather than specific.

It wouldn’t be fair to describe Spore as poor, however, but for me it is one of the weaker Puffin ebooks in this anniversary range. I expect the remaining titles will grab a much firmer hold of their source material, meaning that ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors will most likely feel ‘authentic’ in a way that this eighth Doctor simply doesn’t. And although I realize the brief for this range was to use new authors, thereby reaching out to YA readers, perhaps the Paul McGann Doctor would have been better served by a writer who’d already established a feel for this incarnation across the “wilderness years” of the interregnum. Instead, Spore presents an oddly generic Doctor alongside an equally generic companion. The fact that it is starkly named in honour of its extraterrestrial invader shows in a single word where the story’s centre of gravity really lies.

And as rumours continue to circulate about who might have agreed to write for this series, it will be interesting to see which authors contribute to Puffin’s run of ‘new Who’ adventures…




Harvest of Time (BBC Books)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 12 August 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Harvest of Time
Written by Alastair Reynolds
BBC Books
Published June 2013 (UK)
Alastair Reynolds is clearly a fan of the Jon Pertwee era, because this novel does a wonderful job of remembering the atmosphere and flavour of classic UNIT stories. The focus on Scottish oil rigs and mysterious marine happenings also feels reminiscent of Terror of the Zygons, whilst Reynolds’ choice of oil company – McCrimmon Industries – neatly suggests the second Doctor’s tenure, offering a canny hybrid of 60s and 70s Doctor Who. At the same time, Reynolds’ focus on the Master – given a more significant role here than in almost any other Who adventure – also involves a couple of smartly implied references to his most recent (John Simm) incarnation, making this something of an eye-opener for all those interested in Time Lord mythology. However, the superiority of the Delgado Master is reinforced: Harvest of Time suggests that the version of the Master faced by the third Doctor must have been the most deadly and the most powerful of all his incarnations.

As might be expected from a writer of Reynolds’ calibre, this is a compelling space opera version of Doctor Who (it’s not really hard SF, however; that would undoubtedly feel out of kilter with the third Doctor’s era of lash-ups, alien action, and gallivanting around the Home Counties). Incidents that would have been impossible to realize on-screen in the 1970s are given freer imaginative rein, along with one scene of carnage and gore which would never have been sanctioned as teatime viewing. Unrestricted by matters of budget or CSO, Reynolds creates an unusual and thrilling alien invasion force in the shape of the Sild. These metallic crab machines are each piloted by a tiny seahorse-like entity, and far from being an all-powerful presence individual Sild can very easily be dealt with. Their true threat emerges through force of numbers, along with their ability to possess human and animal hosts (and a sequence where the Sild use Friesian cows to impede UNIT’s progress is truly chilling).

Harvest of Time avoids merely being a nostalgic return to characters such as Yates, Benton and the Brigadier by combining its note-perfect realization of the UNIT family with some surprising and innovative plot developments. Memory also becomes a key theme and story motor, very appropriately for a novel which so clearly summons up its author's youthful memories of Doctor Who. It's sometimes tempting to suppose that the Doctor-Master relationship has been so well explored that there’s nowhere new to take things, but Reynolds displays vertiginous invention, re-shaping the Master into an unexpected level and scale of threat. Certain aspects of the back story revealed here do feel slightly familiar, but overall this novel offers a freshness of approach, and such an audacious, logical and energizing time travel idea that it’s shocking to think that televised Who has never quite attempted this particular gambit.

Reynolds also has fun with the dynamic between the Doctor and the Master, using small details to cleverly articulate their rivalry, such as the Master refusing to accept that the Doctor is taller than him, or the Doctor not wanting to accept the Master’s superior abilities in temporal science. Indeed, the Master almost becomes a sort of companion to the Doctor at one point (or vice versa), as the novel is split into two main plotlines: one focusing on the Doctor and the Master travelling to an alien world, Praxilion, and the other tackling UNIT’s endeavours to repel the Sild invasion of Earth. Reynolds threads these settings together with aplomb, and the enigmatic Red Queen of Praxilion takes on a greater role in defeating the Sild than might have been anticipated.

There are a number of beautiful, stand-out scenes scattered across this novel. At one point, junior members of UNIT grumble about their task to transport the TARDIS on the back of a lorry, giving readers a wonderful insight into the prosaic day-to-day operations that must underpin the Doctor’s adventures. Ordinary life suddenly runs up against the extraordinary exploits of UNIT, reframing both in refreshing ways. And another stunning scene involves the Master begging the Doctor to help him overcome his evil ways and ‘go straight’… a request which doesn’t quite play out in the way one might imagine.

Amongst all of Reynolds’ brilliant inventiveness, there is also the matter of exactly what the “harvest of time” refers to. The answer, when it comes, is a jaw-dropping realization, and something which greatly deepens and enriches this novel. Although Harvest offers plenty of on-the-money, gung-ho UNIT action, it also carries moments of terrifying darkness, and the monstrous Sild are not the only challenge that the Doctor and the Master must confront.

Meanwhile, McCrimmon Industries is given a human face via one Eddie McCrimmon, and Reynolds subjects this character to a number of transformative experiences. At one point, Eddie matter-of-factly discusses crab monsters via written messages displayed through a window, and rather than tipping the whole alien invasion storyline into absurdity, this adroitly emphasizes the tenacity of the human spirit. Eddie constantly rises to the challenges thrown at McCrimmon Industries, wearing the family name very well indeed.

This is such a satisfying, creative take on classic Who I very much hope Alastair Reynolds is invited back to write another adventure for the Doctor, Josephine Grant and UNIT before too long. It would be particularly fascinating to see what a science fiction writer of Reynolds' standing would make of the Daleks, for instance... And if this is Reynolds’ Doctor Who “Master-piece”, I’d also love to see what he could do with a tale focused more strongly on the Brigadier than usual. It’s common for writers who have made their name through original work to describe working on a franchise as “playing with somebody else’s toys”. But each page of this novel displays a real sense of Alastair Reynolds’ desire to channel the magic of Doctor Who: this is serious play, and it pays handsome tribute to Roger Delgado, Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, and all those hailing from an era that’s acutely recreated and astutely re-imagined across these pages.




The Final Phase (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 11 August 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Dalek Contract
The Final Phase
Big Finish Productions
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released July 2013
The Final Phase draws a season of Tom Baker audios to a close. Fittingly – and perhaps in tribute to the late Mary Tamm – it ends with Tamm’s character having the last word, reflecting beautifully on the Doctor-Romana relationship and its development. It is truly a great loss that this TARDIS team has now been parted, but Mary’s involvement across these recent adventures has amply demonstrated both her affection for the role and her unquestionable brilliance as a Time Lady.

Continuing on from The Dalek Contract, this story exploits a series of expectations: (when) will the Daleks turn on Cuthbert? Will Cuthbert’s staff remain loyal to him? And just what is Cuthbert’s mysterious plan? The answers are well spaced out and although there are fewer surprises overall than might be hoped for, this remains an extremely satisfying finale. As realized by David Warner, Cuthbert is really too good a character to simply exterminate and I found myself hoping that he might live to bother the Doctor another day. The script strives to generate moral ambiguity around Cuthbert by implying that his business practices may have helped or even saved countless lives. A stronger focus on this dilemma would’ve been more dramatically compelling, and it ends up fairly low down in the mix, overwhelmed by the Daleks' plans for conquest. Cuthbert is also slightly diluted by Briggs’ decision to give him a running gag of sorts, namely that he can’t get Romana’s name right (or is perhaps sufficiently self-obsessed that he doesn’t care enough to make the effort).

Cuthbert isn’t the only intriguing guest character on show here, however. Toby Hadoke invests Mr. Dorrick, who could easily be a cipher of a supporting character, with a deadpan comedic edge and a lively line in anxiety. Unfortunately, the Proximan rebels remain largely one-dimensional, despite some effort to humanize their relationships. And the Daleks revert to type fairly promptly after their time as an outsourced security outfit, allowing the story to play out as a conventional battle between the Doctor and his enemies. There are some lovely moments along the way, though, including another strong Part One cliffhanger from writer Nick Briggs as well as a highly unusual bit of Dalek voice work that’s such a wonderful conceit it almost becomes the highlight of this epic tale.

Interview chat in the CD extras addresses Briggs’ idea that the Doctor is trying to persuade monomaniacal Daleks to rethink their raison d’etre, and this is another fascinating possibility that whizzes by almost too quickly in the execution. The Final Phase whips along at near-breakneck pace, meaning that its ideas don’t always get as much of an airing as they really deserve. Another victim of this storytelling speed is the Doctor’s accusation that the Daleks are trying to challenge God; a notion of hubris that they promptly dismiss. The ‘becoming God’ card is one that SF often plays, of course, and it’s notably been used in relation to Davros in Doctor Who’s illustrious past. Here, it turns up during a shuffling of the Dalek deck, only to be apparently discarded. By hitting so many familiar philosophical narrative beats, Briggs sometimes gives the impression of wanting to play ‘Dalek Conquest Bingo’ rather than winnowing his material down to one or two coherent themes.

Amongst all the fizzing, quickfire drama, there can be no doubt that the Doctor, Romana and K9 are typically well served. Romana’s realization that she’s unwittingly become a genuine friend of the Doctor’s is particularly nicely played and well motivated in story terms. Gallifrey suddenly seems less appealing than TARDIS life, and this takes Romana herself rather by surprise, with her “ice maiden” persona thoroughly melting away.

With so much going on in this adventure, Cuthbert’s top-secret scheme defaults to standard SF domination, taking in the idea of parallel or infinite universes in order to indicate the scope of his fantasies of omnipotence. Mind you, given the story’s own final phase, an alternative interpretation becomes possible – perhaps Cuthbert’s God-like fantasies have taken on a reality all of their own, and he’s been getting by all along because he already knows these events inside-out and back-to-front. Cuthbert ends up as a fascinating figure: corporate man trapped between infinitude and the here-and-now. But The Final Phase could have explored (allegedly) predestined capitalist powers far more directly and effectively, had it wanted to.

In the end, this release feels like a collision between fast-paced action-adventure and ideas-driven, philosophical SF where adventure finally wins out. It also sounds very much to me as though Mary Tamm, John Leeson, Tom Baker, David Warner and Toby Hadoke are enjoying every minute of it, relishing the chance to interact with Nick Briggs’ energetic Daleks. The Final Phase is an ending of sorts, but it’s one that allows for time-travelling loops, returns and remembrances, just as fans will continue to remember and return to the character of Romana – the Doctor’s good friend – thanks to her wonderful portrayal by Mary Tamm.




Persuasion (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 August 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Persuasion
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: July 2013
If Big Finish’s UNIT Dominion presented its listeners with a renewed definition of the scale and potential of the Seventh Doctor audio range, then Persuasion can be perceived as serving an altogether different purpose. The first instalment in a trilogy of intergalactic adventures featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Time Lord, Tracey Child’s Klein and Christian Edwards’ new UNIT recruit Will Arrowsmith, writer Jonathan Barnes’ latest contribution to the Doctor Who universe does not find itself in want of narrative ambition. That said, a number of elements in this initial chapter restrain it notably enough to affect its overall quality.

The premise Barnes sets upon his listeners in the drama’s opening stages is simple, yet provides an effective and somewhat audacious opening to proceedings akin to that of a pre-titles sequence in a modern episode of Who. Now fully integrated into her role as UNIT’s scientific advisor, Klein is faced with training a relative newcomer to the organisation in Will. Before either of them can so much as utter the word “Kandyman”, however, the TARDIS appears on their proverbial doorstep, as the Doctor whisks the pair of them to Nazi Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War to hunt down a dangerous secret.

Of course, for more than one particular member of the TARDIS crew, the prospect of a trip to the Reichland is arguably threatening enough without a devastating piece of alien technology on the loose. Barnes rightly doesn’t ignore the significance this time period holds for the Doctor’s first German companion, instead seeding in a variety of whispers and hints from Nazi officials and others as to the nature of the information that the seventh incarnation of the Time Lord is holding from his ally at this stage. UNIT Dominion began to tease out inklings of Klein’s forgotten past, and thus to hear these murmurings developed on an explicit level here is enthralling for keen followers of the range.

What’s perhaps less effective in this case, then, is that Barnes appears to have been constrained by the overarching narrative structure set in place for this new trilogy of adventures. Certainly, fans who wanted to bear aural witness to new developments in the saga of Klein’s trip between parallel universes and our own won’t be outright disappointed by this release, but there remains an ever-present sense that certain revelations and events have been collated and stored for future instalments rather than placed here to serve a narrative which alludes to them. It’s one of the only arguable caveats of a trilogy such as this, in that there must always inevitably be loose ends which the opening instalment leaves for its successors to deal with, yet here that truth proves detrimental to Barnes’ narrative vision.

Thankfully, another element of Big Finish’s audio dramas which often has a great effect has not been restrained in this sense. Despite inhabiting a narrative that often falls plague to restricted progression due to its arc functions, the central cast of this release maintain a consistent benchmark of accomplished performances throughout. Sylvester McCoy is on just as fine form as he was in last October’s Dominion, an increasingly deceptive and omniscient presence within the lives of his companions, while Tracey Child maintains that impressive cold and hardened exterior of her oft-vulnerable UNIT advisor. Christian Edwards, a relative newcomer to the scene, must also be awarded great credit too for his stellar initial portrayal of Will, an instantly recognisable and empathetic construct who the audience can grow and bond with over the course of his coming travels aboard that oh-so-familiar time machine.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast of the piece are all served strongly with contemplative and emotive dialogue that rarely fails to hit the mark. Jonathan Forbes seems to revel in the layered depth of portraying a degraded Nazi officer such as Hinterberger in a post-war state, David Sibley’s Kurt Schalk comes across as a constantly elusive and wily rogue whose wider implications in the trilogy have yet to be seen, and Gemma Whelan’s hilarious intercom sequences as the artificial intelligence representing the Khlect foundation truly have to be heard to be believed. It’s testament to the diversity and uniqueness of the range that even now, a performance such as the latter actress’ can still inspire such profound, unforeseen hilarity and compelling listening fifteen years on from Big Finish’s inception.

Once again, though, by analysing and highlighting each of the elements which aid in providing the listener with a ceaselessly compelling and invigorating experience, inevitably the shortcomings which restrain the piece’s potential only become more prominent. Indeed, as with several other releases in the Doctor Who audio range, the notion occurred to this reviewer as to whether perhaps Barnes’ storyline would have been better served in a standalone context rather than that of a trilogy. It’s naturally clear that plot devices including the titular Persuasion machine, Schalk and the mystery of Klein will have roles to play in Starlight Robbery and Daleks Among Us over the next two months, yet this arc has seemingly forced Barnes to limit his line of investigation into the moral state of the Nazis after their defeat and indeed the Doctor’s own growing realisations that his next death and subsequent regeneration seem closer than ever before.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the latter contemplation from McCoy’s incarnation remains one of the most effectively underplayed moments of the entire production. The Doctor suggests to Klein in one way or another that his darker, enigmatic schemes which come into play here are simply his own way of dealing with his seemingly impending demise, his current incarnation making the worst of decisions in order to relinquish the universe of its darkest threats, allowing his next persona a degree of relief. This is a truly intriguing perspective for Barnes to take on a version of the Time Lord who has often been criticised for his eschewed sense of violence and justice, especially if the implications that this version’s transformation into the Eighth Doctor is near. When it comes to penning future instalments of televised Who, showrunner Steven Moffat could do far worse than to use Barnes’ contemplations of the Doctor’s darkest actions as an influence, even if it’s too late for such contemplations to have a direct influence on the portrayal of John Hurt’s new Doctor in the 50th Anniversary Special.

In fact, a recent statement by Moffat regarding the impending celebratory event can help to epitomise the effect of this latest Seventh Doctor release: “One of the things that I’m concerned about this year is that the show must be seen to be going forward. It’s all about the next fifty years, not the last fifty years.” Similarly, here Barnes appears to have adopted a mantra of moving the tales of this incarnation forward in an innovative manner rather than simply revelling in the nostalgia which ultimately killed Who in 1989. For the most part, it’s a supremely effective approach, and one that this reviewer hopes will not be forgotten as we move into escapades involving old foes like the Sontarans and the Daleks next time around.

Persuasion is a challenging audio drama to rate, simply because for every glowing strength it presents in the course of its two-hour running time, there’s a narrative or structural shortcoming which acts as a counterbalance to restrain it from greatness. However, what’s clear is that if the team behind UNIT Dominion were intent on redefining the Seventh Doctor audio range, then the team working on this production were equally intent on kick-starting a rapid chain of exhilarating events which no self-respecting listener is going to want to miss. In spite of its blemishes, Persuasion’s argument is aptly far too compelling for fans of McCoy and Big Finish to ignore, continuing a bold new lease of life for this particular range.







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