Red Planets (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 30 August 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
Red Planets (Credit: Big Finish)

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):

Released August 2018
 

Running Time: 2 hours

Now let’s make something clear first. I love spy stories. Le Carre, Fleming, Deighton; all three are in my favourite authors and the cold war period of espionage certainly seems like an excellent setting for a Doctor Who story. The first story in this years, Seventh Doctor Trilogy (though in matter of fact the first of a pentalogy), Red Planets continues the pairing of the Doctor, Mel and Ace. Taking it’s ques from Cold War spy thrillers in the vein of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Quiller Memorandum, Red Planets is an evocative, thrill a minute story that packs its punches but keeps its secrets close to its chest until its final moments.  Written by Una McCormack, this is an impressive high concept tale that weaves intriguing espionage, with time-bending mishaps-even if the impressive ideas aren’t always given enough room to breathe.

The story opens with the Doctor and Mel in a strange parallel future, in the socialist republic of Mokoshia and Ace in Berlin in 1961. Already even here there are a few problems as why the three are split into two groups is never adequately explained. At first, I thought that it could perhaps be another example of one of the more manipulative and darker Seventh Doctor’s masterplans, though this turns out not to be the case. The only other possibility is that it’s a hangover from a previous adventure, that’s all well and good if so but giving us a little bit more info would have been appreciated. In fact, even the story doesn’t seem to know, with at points it feeling that Ace’s presence in 1961 one is intentional and at others, it’s explicitly stated that it is not. Anyway, whilst the Doctor and Mel become embroiled in the politics of the shady new republic, Ace befriends a British spy. Up in space, the first mission to Mars is about to get a nasty surprise…

If that sounds like there’s a lot going on you’d be damn right. Unfortunately, this means that some of the ideas whilst ingenuous, need just a little bit more room to breathe. The revelation of what is up on Mars in particular. This idea is one of Una’s most captivating but unfortunately, it’s reduced to an exposition-heavy explanation by the Doctor in a story that has one too many of them. The result was I often found myself having to pause and skip back a little just to make sure I was taking everything in.

However, in terms of atmosphere and thrills, the story succeeds massively. The paranoia of a lot of the aforementioned Spy fiction is captured beautifully and Mokoshia really does feel like a threatening place, reminiscent of many of our darker Socialist dictatorships. The fact that the individual who will eventually cause all of this never makes an appearance is also a wonderful decision. This is a story about consequences and the characters who have to suffer because of his actions, not about him.

Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred are all wonderful as usual. Sophie Aldred in particular always works incredibly well alone and the character of Ace works wonderfully well in the world of 1960’s Berlin. Bonnie Langford gets some great moments taking further swipes at the Doctors character and in particular his moral stance on the rewriting of history- no matter how many individuals from the parallel world will be lost. Likewise, Sylvester gives his own in these scenes, giving a sense of a Doctor who is tired of trying to explain, knowing she’ll never understand. The supporting cast are all great, though admittedly I didn’t feel like they were really given much to play with, the emphasis being more on the ideas than supporting characters.

Red Planets is a great Doctor Who story with some great ideas. To really of been a classic it needed perhaps one more rewrite just to sort the pacing out. However, the result is none the less entertaining and comes recommended.



Associated Products

Audio
Released 30 Sep 2018
Main Range #241 Red Planets (Doctor Who Main Range)



Horrors of War (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 29 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Horrors Of War (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Justin Richards
Read By Katy Manning

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK

Writer Justin Richards continues his warped timeline of World War I storyline (started in Men of War) in this Third Doctor original Audiobook read by Katy Manning, which follows up on the lead that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand survived his assassination and the war was delayed somehow.  The Third Doctor regrets having done nothing about the discrepancy after he discovered it in his first incarnation, but as that story took place in the midst of the Daleks' Master Plan, I suppose he was busy at the time. 

In this installment the Third Doctor and Jo Grant end up in an earlier part of the war, and meet the nurse who had saved the Archduke from death, and figure out who was possessed and causing the time disruptions. 

Manning's reading is highly entertaining, and the story is just as interesting as Men of War had been, though with a slightly better ending this time around.  I still feel like there is a loose thread, as the Archduke still seems to have survived...and now the Third Doctor isn't busy...so why not solve this? If he did solve it, it was so brushed over that it did a disservice to the story. 

We still have one more of these audiobooks to go in this series, so I suppose it will all be wrapped up then.  For a quick light adventure, these Audiobooks are decent fun, but they leave a little to be desired in the story department.  But Katy Manning is always fun and she does a great job reading this story. 





Men of War (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 26 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Men Of War (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Justin Richards
Read By Peter Purves

Released by BBC Worldwide - May 2018
Available from Amazon UK

In this new original audiobook featuring the First Doctor, we have a short adventure built into the middle of the classic First Doctor epic serial The Dalek's Master Plan with the Doctor, Steven, and Sara Kingdom ending up in the middle of World War I, and finding that the timeline has been delayed, and it is causing havoc on the Web of Time. 

As a simple short story, Men of War is solid on atmosphere but feels incomplete. It has a good premise, a major battle of the war has not yet begun, and now the timeline is trying to fix itself by swallowing up all the lives that would've been lost if the battle had taken place.  The problems of this audio are in the ending, which feels like a lazy quick wrap up, leaving dangling threads for another story to solve. 

The big cliffhanging reveal is that Archduke Franz Ferdinand survived his assassination that launched the world into war, meaning the Timeline is even more screwed up than initially thought.  But the Doctor just sort of says that it will have to wait because they must avoid the Daleks, and the story is over. It is unsatisfying to the story being told.  It feels like this story has all this promise and then it just ends with a tease that basically tells the listener to buy another audio if it wants to get closure. 

This might not be a huge problem if the story felt like it had a more satisfying conclusion to it's contained story.  I've enjoyed many a Doctor Who adventure in a variety of formats that ends with a tease of tales to come...but if you have a self contained story that teases more to the story, the ending for the self contained bit ought to be a bit more interesting. 

As I already have the next story (Horrors of War), it takes the annoyance out of that ending.  And I've already seen that the title of BBC Audio's third release, also written by Justin Richards, is Fortunes of War, which has me more prepared for the story to end later.  But if I were a listener who purchased an audiobook and didn't know it was part of some bigger plot-line, I'd be a bit more irritated. 

But let me dial back the criticism a bit.  I actually liked the bulk of this story.  I thought Peter Purves did a lovely job reading it, and it has some brilliant ideas floating around. I am quite interested to hear this little series of audiobooks out. It doesn't have a great ending, and while the cliffhanger feels like a cheap way to not actually end this specific story...it is a good cliffhanger that left my interest peaked. 





Doctor Who - Short Trips 8.08 - Flight Into Hull!Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 August 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Flight Into Hull! (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer Ian Atkins, Script Editor Ian Atkins
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: Joseph Lidster, Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

Cast

Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler)

"Oh great, TWO Jackie Tylers....isn't that just wizard!"

 

Jackie Tyler's lost a close friend, and this new Doctor is only a half-hearted replacement for him.

But as she tries to put the events of Big Ben behind her and take a well-earned break, others have spotted an opportunity. A well-intentioned, far-reaching plan is underway. But Jackie Tyler isn't the woman she was...

 

So - first The Siege of Big Ban, and now Flight into Hull! Big Finish are positively spoiling us with tales of the meta-crisis Doctor and Jackie Tyler. 

 

After the events in Big Ben, and in an effort to have Jackie and the Doctor get on more, Pete and Rose arrange a private zeppelin flight for the pair, to the 'famous' spa city of Hull, to see it's great glass pyramid, and sparkling blue waters  (obviously this parallel world has some very big differences to ours!).

 

However things don't go as planned (do they ever?), thanks to a new Jackie Tyler, crashing into this dimension, and our party. The difference in this new Jackie though is that she is sharp, intelligent, cunning...and desperate to save her own children from her dying world, which is suffering from severe global cooling.

 

As with The Siege of Big Ben, Joseph Lidster delivers a smart and very witty, story for the Short Trips range. This is a perfect ship in a bottle story, which at first is quite light hearted and breezy, but quickly takes quite a dark turn, not only through the desperation of this new, second Jackie, but also exploring this Doctor's humanity, and the realisation that if he dies - he won't regenerate.

 

Camille Coduri again excels at not just our Jackie, but this new Jackie as well, and obviously has fun playing the new characterisation of what must be by now a very familiar role.

 

Flight Into Hull! is a truly great follow up to The Siege of Big Ben, and left me wanting to hear more stories from this parallel Universe. I'm quietly hoping that Big Finish are thinking the same....

 

You can buy Flight Into Hull here.





Torchwood: Deadbeat Escape (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 August 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Deadbeat Escape (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: James Goss
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Murray Melvin, Gareth Pierce, Cara Chase
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

Released by Big Finish Productions - August 2018
Order from Amazon UK

“What is this place?”
“I would’ve thought that was abundantly clear by now – it’s a trap.”

One of the first unspoken laws that critics learn, while blissfully perched upon their infinitely extravagant ivory towers, is to keep an open mind. No matter whether you’re consuming a miraculously uncovered tome from literary royalty such as Shakespeare or the twentieth instalment in the most monotonous TV show known to man (our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone still recovering from Australia’s traumatic take on K-9), casting past biases and – if possible – contextual controversies to the wind usually offers the best opportunity to consume and evaluate the work in question as objectively as possible. Who knows? The end product could rank among your most hallowed viewing, reading or listening experiences of the year come its final shot, page or track.

It’s with this fundamental professional goal in mind that we’ve got an admission to make; after More Than This, Made You Look and The Dying Room each wrapped up Big Finish’s first three monthly Torchwood runs with predictable thrillers, devoid of their predecessors’ thematic weight or profound character development, we couldn’t help but worry that this year’s mini-season would follow suit with its final chapter. But if Goodbye Piccadilly defied this reviewer’s expectations in July with a thoroughly entertaining hour for our most maligned protagonist paring, then the frankly magnificent Deadbeat Escape blows them out of the water – we’ve no reason to ever doubt productions in the range again after this unforgettable denouement.

Think Torchwood meets Psycho and you’ll only scratch the surface of the glory that awaits. Delivering a devilishly chilling chamber piece brimming with gothic suspense and disturbing sci-fi conceits, James Goss reintroduces one of the original TV show’s finest antagonists, Bilis Manger, as our Norman Bates, his concealed intentions every inch as terrifying to unravel, his self-centred but far from self-deifying worldview just as thought-provoking and his history no less deliciously open to interpretation than in “Captain Jack Harkness” or “End of Days”. As with Marion Crane and her post-mortem entourage, the further that the Traveller Halt’s latest misfortunate occupant, Hywel Roberts, delves into the hotel’s temporal mysteries, the greater our understanding of its enigmatic new manager – and the oncoming emotional turmoil that awaits Hywel – deepens with tragic gravity. Few scribes could truly claim to match the careful precision with which Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece gradually stokes our curiosity while still leaving us dreading the consequences, yet Goss’ perfectly-paced script undoubtedly manages this structural flourish with spectacular aplomb.

And yet where lesser writers might’ve been content with prioritising these archetypal horror  elements of intrigue, morally indecipherable foils and deadly foreshadowing above all else, it’s the unashamedly equal weighting afforded to Bilis and Hywel’s intertwined journeys that truly separates Goss from the pack. Naturally any innocent bystanders unlucky enough to find themselves in the former’s deceptively kindly crosshairs mark themselves out as lambs to the slaughter, but there’s so much more to Mr. Roberts than that – his effortlessly moving familial plight regularly thrusts the narrative into unexpected but no less riveting territory, with Bilis’ subtle interrogations and infrequent appearances by a haunting third player bringing his raw insecurities to the fore in heartrending fashion. It’s not often that one-off newcomers to the Torchwood franchise simply beg further appearances down the line, but just as The Dollhouse’s electrifying Los Angeles agents and Bilis himself were crying out for reprisals from the moment of their conception, so too would this reviewer leap at the chance to discover Hywel’s next steps – however inevitably morbid – beyond Escape’s end credits.

Of course, as much as it’s hugely welcome to see all of these constituent components ensuring that Escape bests previous Torchwood audio finales, not every trend needed bucking; regular readers of our range reviews will hopefully recall our continual praise for virtually every voice actor tasked with leading the plays, an enduring tradition which Murray Melvin and Gareth Pierce uphold via their superb two-hand act. In rendering Hywel’s escalating paranoia so hauntingly, yet still finding time to layer in emotional subtleties during his tender exchanges with Bilis’ other victim, Pierce offers up the perfect audition tape for the future Big Finish roles which he’s surely guaranteed to acquire going forward. Indeed, given that Melvin apparently departed his recording booth bellowing “revenge, revenge, I shall have my revenge!” and given how his gleefully malicious portrayal as Bilis takes on new dramatic layers as the pair’s tempestuous dynamic evolves, Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite their talents at the earliest convenient opportunity.

Scratch that last sentence, actually – Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite the talents of everyone involved with Deadbeat Escape at the earliest possible opportunity, convenient or otherwise. Such are the play’s myriad strengths that we could easily dedicate just as many words to the matter as you’d find contained in its script, but whether you’re examining broader elements such as Goss’ stunningly-structured storyline and the Peabody-worthy two-hander powering proceedings, or (still vital) minutiae like the sound design’s unsettling manipulation of background ambience to induce near-constant tension, even the most sceptical listeners would be hard pressed to come away with any points of contention. Our advice? Dive in with an open mind, then allow Bilis to expand your mind to the vast possibilities of time travel with no ill intent whatsoever – why, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly…

Next Time on Torchwood – Chances are that our paths will cross with Bilis again before too long, particularly given the apocalyptic note on which Aliens Among Us concluded earlier this year and the impending arrival of God Among Us from this October onwards. Whatever happens, though, we know for certain that Torchwood’s monthly adventures will resume in March 2019 for twelve months on end – join us then for prison escapes with Owen, domestic drama with Jack and Ianto, underground excursions with Cardiff celebs and plenty more of the globe-trotting hysteria that we’ve come to expect from the century where everything changes!






Torchwood: Instant Karma (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 August 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Instant Karma (Credit: Big Finish)
Writers: James Goss, David Llewellyn, Jonathan Morris
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Featuring: Naoko Mori, Jonny Dixon, Sara McGaughey, Duncan Wiseby, Ross Ford

Released by Big Finish Productions - July 2018
Order from Amazon UK

“That feeling…it felt amazing.”
“I know.”
“We could do anything, couldn’t we?”

It was only a matter of time. Between its mother show’s satirical coverage of the subject in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and the franchise’s recent deconstructions of classic sci-fi tropes such as artificial intelligence (Cascade), cult conspiracies (Believe), and nihilistic escape rooms (Aliens Among Us Part 3), Torchwood always seemed inextricably bound towards tackling society’s rabid superhero mania. Case in point: avert your eyes from the screen of whichever digital platform you’re consuming this review via right now and look up into the sky. See that mythical figure descending from the heavens, like the Greek god Icarus with his majestic wings of old? That’s not a bird, nor a plane, nor even the Man of Steel himself – introducing Instant Karma.

Rest assured that the following verdict won’t comprise simply of genre puns, though – partly because iconic adages like “with great power comes great responsibility” sound rather dated in the age of social media influencers / trolls / politicians, but moreso because this reviewer would sooner renege his profession than get on the wrong side of Karma’s three-strong writing team. If Family Guy’s Peter Griffin took to Quahog 5 News’ TV airwaves to “grind his gears”, then Torchwood range regulars David Llewellyn, James Goss and Jonathan Morris evidently selected audio drama as the ideal medium to do so; from pesky stragglers holding up the queues for ATM machines to ignorant railway passengers incapable of wearing headphones, from far-right politicians to Cardiff-based secret agents sticking their noses where they oughtn’t be, the axes are well and truly out in a vengeful hour of unrelenting bestial fury…

Just kidding! But odds are that we’ve all bemoaned at least one of the bugbears mentioned in the previous paragraph, thereby confirming how brilliantly the three wrights channel commonplace social tensions into a painfully believable tale of tragic hubris. The aforementioned persistent agent, Toshiko Sato, has her hands full as ever, with our scribes throwing nuanced moral dilemmas aplenty in her direction as she investigates the emergence of a seemingly superhuman community group capable of murdering their irksome victims with but a single malicious thought. Might we justify such grievous violence if directed at the ‘right’ target? Is it always fair to blame up-and-coming ‘vigilantes’ for the unforeseen consequences of their actions? In a world where those influencers mentioned earlier often come to the fore with but a single viral tweet or video, only to find their every word scrutinised for its potential to shape followers’ actions / ideals, originally far-fetched dilemmas such as these are fast gaining pertinence, making the script’s refusal to commit to one moral standpoint as the more righteous stance all the more powerful in hindsight.

Serving full justice to weighty debates such as these takes more than politically charged dialogue and the odd explosive set-piece, of course; you’ll also need accomplished performers with the emotional range to keep a straight face given the tale’s disbelief-testing premise, yet simultaneously to avoid sinking listeners into despair when critiquing our childhood cravings for supernatural abilities. It’s for this reason that the decision to centre Karma around three core stars rather than an overstuffed ensemble works to such compelling effect – naturally Naoko Mori resurrects Toshiko’s personal vulnerability, intellectual sense of humour and oft-overlooked bravery with the ease of flicking a light-switch, but don’t underestimate Jonny Dixon or Sara McGaughey either. Both shine with remarkable intensity given their newfound introduction into the Torchwood universe, Dixon’s initially collected take on soldier-turned-bus driver Simon belying a deeply unsettling egotism underneath and McCaughey’s seemingly blindly faithful lover Janet fast revealing herself as no less psychologically complex – nor formidable – as events take a turn for the worst.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that this reviewer’s only reservation towards the finished product concerns the sense of unfinished business lingering for these richly-detailed characters as the credits roll all too abruptly. Every great storyteller knows the value of leaving their audience wanting more, but past instalments in Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood range left us practically on the edge of our seats, desperate to know what became of Jack’s investigation into the Committee after The Conspiracy and Uncanny Valley, who the time travelling conspirators engineering events in Visiting Hours were or – as discussed last month – the true intentions of Norton Folgate, only for subsequent instalments to pick up with the same protagonists and yet virtually no sign of those previous plot threads. While this could suggest a bigger game-plan at work, what with one-off releases such as The Torchwood Archive and Outbreak admittedly furthering some of those minor story arcs, some might equally interpret it as Big Finish wanting to avoid those picking up a random Jack or Owen release in the monthly range finding themselves lost amidst ongoing story arcs, in which case return trips to Karma might induce a frustrating sense of longing for the closure which never came.

But that’s a question for another day – no doubt our understanding of Torchwood’s evolving narrative continuity under Big Finish will continue to grow as a second season of post-Miracle Day antics launches this autumn and the monthly range kicks into top gear with a full year’s worth of standalone missions starting next March. Regardless, Instant Karma confirms without any hesitation that now’s the perfect time for the studio to up their game with further monthly outings, delivering both exhilarating action for superhero aficionados and arguably the perfect therapy session for anyone in serious need of venting their stress mid-commute. Just be sure to remind Goss, Llewellyn and Morris that we told you as much, alright? The New Gods only know what’ll happen if we incur their wrath.

Next Time on Torchwood – Never mind superheroes, though; to paraphrase one Jim Moriarty, every comic-book needs a good old-fashioned villain. Trouble is that those ne’er do wells reckless enough to stand in the Torchwood team’s way rarely live to tell the tale, with one notable exception – Bilis Manger. If only we could ascertain the whereabouts of Abbadon’s kindly yet secretly bloodthirsty benefactor, then perhaps, just perhaps, this fourth season of monthly releases could finally buck the trend of past runs ending on devastatingly underwhelming notes. No luck? Oh well – we’d best retreat to the Travellers’ Halt for the night in that case. Rumour has it that the buffet’s to die for…