Eighth Doctor Mini-Series #4 - BriarwoodBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #4 (Credit: Titan)
Writer - George Mann
Artist - Emma Vieceli
Colorist - Hi-Fi

Letterer- Richard Starkings + Comicraft's Jimmy Betancourt
Editor - Andrew James
Assistant Editors - Jessica Burton & Gabriela Houston
Designer - Rob Farmer
Cover Art - Rachael Stott + Hi-Fi

Released February 17th 2016, Titan Comics

An arrestingly powerful being that seems to have sprung to life from the folk tales of yesteryear threatens a community of aristocrats and servants in the early 20th century. It has the power to completely subjugate even the most steadfast human that treads the earth. It reveals itself through a grisly combination of vines, leaves and bark, as it displays its sheer power of physical strength and mental control.

Ultimately a sacrifice of at least one person with much integrity and good will may prove unavoidable. And this is despite the considerable life experience and ingenuity of the evergreen, curly-haired Doctor. (And not forgetting the spontaneous problem-solving of Josie, who defiantly styles her hair in colours that raise an eyebrow or two in this altogether more reserved period in British history).

 

The budding new partnership of Josie and the ball-of-energy Eighth Doctor continues to ring true in this story, and I almost worry that this may one of a small handful of chances for the pairing that may not ever be taken up by another creative team. Within a seemingly short space of time, there seems to be an easy rapport, and solid understanding of what Earth girl and Gallifreyan semi-eternal each need and expect from one another. This story could have been presented in a deadly serious fashion and still worked handsomely, but the moments of levity that occur every so often are judged just right and consolidate the good character work of prior issues.

Writer George Mann certainly knows how to keep the reader hooked for the concluding fifth issue, and does so by an apparent 'flash-forward' where the Doctor and his green-blue-haired companion are at an auction of some significance. For the most part though this adventure is set in one place and one time zone, but is still rich in atmosphere, world building and confident in its use of an alien race. The Nixi has some superficial similarities to the dreaded Krynoid (of the Tom Baker TV era), but is rather more 'grey' in terms of its actual morality. It is portrayed as being not suited to our world as we know it, and of potentially devastating influence on any flora and fauna it comes across. Ultimately, though it is a threat that may be better off rendered  docile and dormant, rather than facing rather more brutal and desperate methods of defeat.  

Although artwork was on occasion inconsistent early on in this mini-series, last issue's The Silvering saw a definite raising of the bar. This trend continues with Briarwood. There are many wonderful images that deserve to etch themselves into the memory banks of the reader.

Page layouts are also pleasingly varied and the right choice of grand scale for action or visual exposition is mirrored by appropriate instances of smaller panels that solidify this story's emotional core. We are made to care for virtually every character we meet; whether a minor player or a major contributor to the plot. Clearly by now, Mann and Emma Vieceli have truly meshed in achieving both their individual and joint creative intents.

My one reservation that impedes this being a sure-fire classic is that the latter stages of the story feel a bit rushed. Having a crammed final page, with a squashed 'to be continued' just seems to be the result of not quite enough planning, and is unfortunate given how measure the telling of the story was for most of the preceding pages.

 

EXTRAS:

Once again there are a number of variant covers. In addition to the one featured with this review, there is a secondary cover by Will Brooks, and a tertiary one by Carolyn Edwards . The main image is nicely indicative of the main threat, and should help retain previous purchasers of these Eighth Doctor adventures. It is so striking that it deserves to catch the eye of those who roam their favourite comic stores and may not have yet given the Doctor Who universe a try in this ever-popular medium.

Titan have somewhat shied away from the light-hearted and satirical bonus strips of late. But by and large we have been granted some fascinating behind the scenes material. For this fourth edition of the mini-series, there is a nicely done 'q/a style' interview with Paul J. Salamoff, who is privileged in that he owns a refurbished version of the actual console from the 1996 TV movie. Salamoff has shown much career versatility in the space of two-and-a-half decades, by being a movie and book writer, a producer, a film executive, and a make up artist - all in addition to being well-recognised as a comic book creator and visionary.





The Witch Hunters (Audio Book)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 16 March 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Witch Hunters (Credit: BBC Audio)

Read + Performed By David Collings   
Written By Steve Lyons  
BBC Digital Audio/  Audio CD

·  Published 7th January 2016
·DURATION:  480 Minutes Approximately

Salem Village, Massachusetts, the late 17th century. The Doctor's two companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright persuade the white haired old man to keep the TARDIS on Earth, as opposed to the ship making a trip to the Vortex so as to save them waiting. This is due to the lack of trust in the 'Fast Return Switch' which almost consigned the quartet of heroes to an undignified and fiery demise.

Hence, in order to pass the time, Ian, Barbara and Susan decide to experience history once more, as they did in Mexico, France and China. Initial assumptions are made by the time travellers that they are present in 1691, and so a comfortable year away from the Witch Hunts which demonstrated rampant paranoia in the fledgling colonial societies of the 'New World'.

Despite her affection for her former school teachers, Susan quickly looks for new friends and finds them in the form of Abigail Williams and several others. However, she makes the mistake of joining in a 'séance', and this supposed game takes a turn for the worst when Abigail foresees terrible events and has a fit. This panic spreads to the other four girls; one of which is Susan. And from then on, one dangerous event follows another as both the TARDIS crew and various Salem citizens become associated with Satan and the arch crime of witchcraft. Even those previously considered good and 'godly', like John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth, face their good names and safety in dire jeopardy.,

The Doctor however is able to remain relatively safe and try to build a strategy to save his friends and granddaughter. He also is able to establish that the initial assumption was wrong. Because some people were behind with switching their calendars, it is in fact 1692 after all. The Doctor has already warned Barbara before of the dangers of interfering with history, and now it seems it is own kin who must  learn in the most difficult of fashions.
 

I must acknowledge just how much of a gem this book is, and how easy it was to read from cover to cover, when I first acquired it back in Spring of 1998. Offering a reasonably simple plot, but choosing to tell it in a non-linear fashion, Steve Lyons was also able to get a fine balance between edgy atmosphere and philosophical discussion. That this story was republished in 'The History Collection' some considerable time later to help remind modern Doctor Who fans of the show's rich archive of novels was thus no surprise.

And now we have a fully-fledged audio book to enjoy as well. David Collings was never less than watchable in classic Doctor Who when co-starring with Tom Baker and Peter Davison respectively. He also had a distinctive and evocative voice, and could elevate his dialogue effortlessly, regardless of the quality of the story. As such then, I was very happy to learn he would be the narrator (and performer) of this unabridged version of the Lyons tale. The best voices for the regular heroes are predictably enough Ian and the First Doctor, with the latter suiting Collings' natural intonations very well. This is not to take away from very authentic work for Barbara, and especially Susan - who as previously described is vital to the plot and themes of the story.

I approve of this 'missing' adventure building on the stronger material Susan was granted in her TV appearances - which did admittedly happen intermittently and thus prompt Carole Ann Ford to leave somewhat earlier than her other co-stars Russell and Hill . Also noteworthy is the attempt to give more context for Susan being a sufficiently wise and adult figure by the time of the climax of the second Dalek TV story.

One of Susan's best TV yarns was (the sadly missing) Marco Polo, in which she bonded with a girl of the 13th century. Despite the two having a gulf of experience dividing them, they were able to forge a meaningful short-term friendship, perhaps aided by their appearing to be of a similar age to anyone who knew nothing of Gallifrey and the wider cosmos. But, on that occasion Susan did not end paying a price for trying to act like 'another human being'. By contrast here, Lyons explores Susan's need to be someone other than an outsider, and being so determined that she very nearly throws the entire fate of herself and her 'travelling family' into jeopardy. Another Season 1 call-back involves the Susan's latent telepathy - a power of hers which was introduced in The Sensorites - and how it can have potential pit-falls when combined with a society dominated by religion and a set way of thinking.

As for her savvy grandfather, this is an especially fine showing. The Doctor is frequently able to gauge just how much he can use his rhetorical gravitas, but also when to be more subtle too. William Hartnell would have made fine use of the many dialogue highlights that feature here. There is also a decision made by the Doctor near the story's end that reminds us of his alien set of values, but also prevents the story from feeling unrealistic or having an easy solution.

If one were to try and imagine this story actually being made in black and white in the 1960s, it would not be too great a leap of imagination. Obviously a lot would need to be truncated, and the interlude featuring a visit by TARDIS to the production of The Crucible in the mid-20th century would also be outside time and budget resources. But the core of the story, with all the drama that it commands, explores 'then and now' ethics just as well as John Lucarotti's two scripts had done in the maiden season of the Doctor Who saga. 

The production of this audio release is respectable, but given the substantial length perhaps a little more frequent use of music, and also variety in that music, would not be out of place. Yet taken as a listening experience, and most likely over the course of a week, the story is relatively easy to follow. True, the plot does jump around a bit chronologically, but the CD/ audio track format makes bookmarking and re-listening a mere formality. If you have not yet read the novel - and I do recommend finding it either as an eBook or in print form - then you can do far worse than acquire this terrific audio book.

 





UtopiaBookmark and Share

Saturday, 12 March 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
John Simm as The Master in Utopia (Credit: BBC)
 Series Three - Episode 11 - "Utopia".

STARRING: David Tennant, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman
WITH: Derek Jacobi, and John Simm

ALSO STARRING: Chipo Chung, René Zagger, Neil Reidman,
Paul Marc Davis, John Bell,
 Deborah MacLaren,
Abigail Canton, and Robert Forknall

Written by Russell T Davies,

Directed by Graeme Harper

Music - Murray Gold

Produced by Phil Collinson

Executive Producers: Russell T. Davies + Julie Gardner

Originally Transmitted 16th June 2007, BBC 1

The first in a series of retrospective reviews covering stories missing from the Doctor Who News archive.

 

The David Tennant incarnation of everyone's favourite twin-hearted iconoclast was enjoying a second full series on TV in 2007. Back then with Martha Jones as the able and beautiful new companion, played by up-and-coming star Freema Agyeman the show was continuing to provide excellent entertainment and role models for men and women in equal measure.

And overall, the production and writing crew began to combine the emotional weight of Series 1 with the heady hi-jinks of Series 2. At its peak, the Third Series of modern Doctor Who was the show at its very best, but it did still have some notably weaker efforts in places. To my mind, it was only the following year when showrunner Russell T Davies totally perfected the formula and came up with a great TARDIS crew, great one-offs, and a really fulfilling linking arc.

The Tenth Doctor/ Martha collection of travels and timelines, did however keep those viewers, who may still have missed the amazing chemistry that Tennant and Billie Piper shared on screen, engaged in the present. This episode of course, was one of the stand-outs, and did a terrific job of rewarding the loyalty of those too young to have experienced classic Who, but also came up with the return of a pivotal returning character that long-term watchers and committed fans alike were surely expecting to make another return to the fray. (And hopefully in a more traditional manner than the muddled Terminator homage of the TV Movie).

The Master makes his triumphant return in a fast-paced episode, by making the closing few minutes a powerhouse of revelation and dramatic chutzpah. And what a steal in getting none other than Derek Jacobi to guest star. Here he is just credited with the part of Professor Yana, obviously designed to preserve secrecy. It is an admirable '2 for the price of 1' effort, and succeeds in making the viewer remember this story as having a truly kind man succumb to a cruel twist of fate. Just as we could not dismiss the benign John Smith and think of him as a 'placeholder person', so we can never forget the combination of wisdom and boyish excitement that Yana has in this tale.

The 'Y.A.N.A. acronym' was of course one of the story-arc elements so elegantly laid out in prior episodes in Series 3. The other, and more deliberate hook was the 'Saxon' thread, which even stretched back to the preceding Christmas special - The Runaway Bride. The acronym stands for "You Are Not Alone", and could be read as a positive. For most of Utopia, Jacobi plays the most charming and likeable of people, in some ways even more engaging than the Doctor. Perhaps the message from the Face of Boe in Gridlock was meant as an encouragement. It also looks that way in the company Yana keeps. His own female assistant is very well performed by Chipo Chung, and in make-up terms a finely designed semi-humanoid, who employs a speech pattern of "Chan..tho" to bookend her statements. The two syllables form together to denote her name.

But it still is very clear that Utopia is overall a very bleak tale. Like Frontios, and a few other stories from the Who mythos (such as the recent Hell Bent), it is set at the end of time and sees a group of humans trying to proceed despite the odds being against them. A small camp of civilised people are having to guard against regressive beings, and they put all their hope in a great journey to another world. But of course they do not know if that world will have anything for them. And later episodes quickly confirmed the worst feelings of any TV viewer with an ounce of pessimistic suspicion in them.

Enough character development is spent establishing how close Yana and Chantho are together, that when the Master is unleashed by the spate of 'triggers' that lie within his subconscious, and despite the best intentions of the TARDIS crew, it really feels like a blow towards the captivated viewer. The ability to quickly make viewers care about 'supporting characters of the week' was one of Davies' finest assets in all of his TV writing, and not just this one prime time show. The way that Jacobi announces who he is, the sheer venom he hurls at the bewildered lab-coated and loyal ally of his previous persona, before fatally wounding her, is a moment of top notch thespian malice. "I am the ... Master" is a simple line of dialogue, made into something truly resonant.

David Tennant also has his moments of darkness at times in this story, most noticeably when the Doctor shrugs off the attempt of Captain Jack to re-forge their travelling partnership. In the process the former Time Agent makes his friend fully aware of the impact of being abandoned. He wanted some answers for what we were able to see were Rose's Time Vortex powers causing him to have the dubious superpower of being able to die and revive in the most traumatic of fashions. The Doctor's necessary regeneration into his Tenth self was a process that makes such a conversation with a former ally not the easiest of topics.

Ultimately it is a good thing we get Jack back after having all but no proper sign of him in the main show since The Parting of the Ways; the 'Torchwood' name being a verbal reminder over the course of Series 2. Barrowman makes the most of his opportunities in RTD's deft script, and is able to exude the energy of a man who has forged his own life, but still values the Doctor's friendship and mentorship highly. Even if many viewers did not see Torchwood the sister show in the interim, it matters little over the course of this episode and the next two, as enough exposition is made, without it being too obvious an advertisement for another BBC production.

John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in Utopia (Credit: BBC)

The music from Murray Gold is typically strong in any given TV story, but this tale  introduces one of my absolute favourite musical motifs. It clearly was seen as strong by those around Gold in post-production as it was to be repeated again in the concluding episodes of this third year to even great effect. Most notably featuring when the Doctor and Yana make progress as a team, it combines both the heroic and the melancholic to exquisite effect. There is also some frenetic up-tempo musical accompaniment to the  action, where the heroes are on the run from the regressive outsiders, and this helps breath life into what flirts with being vaguely absurd.

Although the concept of the savages is a sound one, part of me finds their witless  expressions and gnashing teeth somewhat out of synch with the intellectual and  emotional complexity of the overall narrative. But if one was to just view them as a token  monster and plot device then really this is just a tiny drawback.

Back to some praise again: the cliffhanger leading into The Sound of Drums is truly brilliant. We see a final blaze of glory for Jacobi as he defiantly cries "The Master ..Re-born", and then the most dangerously unpredictable and indeed disturbing regeneration yet is on the TV screen. Of course, in recent times Michelle Gomez has made the part her own and benefited from enough good scripts, great co-stars, (and crucially) screen-time to be that bit more nuanced than the John Simm incarnation. But make no mistake, the renowned Life On Mars actor is still fiendishly good and makes any given scene must-see TV. The ultra-confident, happy-chappy Doctor has now met his equal and opposite. However, it will take a journey or two into the past and across the cosmos, before they finally get their face-off in person.

Utopia is a fine piece of prime time TV in its own right, and it underlines the enterprise and craft of the production team in no uncertain terms. The mega-length finale had got off to a great start, and much more character development and high drama was just around the corner.

 








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