The Robots: Volume One (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 22 January 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Robots 1 (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Roland Moore, Robert Whitlock, & John Dorney
Director: Ken Bentley
 
Featuring: Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)

Released December 2019

Running Time: 4 hours

Despite my love of the ongoing Eighth Doctor adventures I have to admit, I am not the biggest fan of Liv Chenka.  She has grown on me, but overall I find her to be a fairly drab character.  She's always so cynical, mistrusts everyone to a fault and, quite frankly, I find Nicola Walker's performance to be bland and boring.  From time to time, I have found sparks in the character...but on the whole, I tend not to like her that much.  I was disappointed when Molly was phased out in the Dark Eyes series and Liv took on the companion role.  Granted, Ruth Bradley (who portrayed Molly) was the main reason for the change, but I loved the rapport between her and McGann, and I still feel (even after nearly 5 years) that the rapport between McGann and Walker leaves something to be desired. Luckily, I have enjoyed the character of Helen Sinclair. And with Mark Bonnar so often along for the ride as the main antagonist, McGann always playing the Doctor superbly, as well as a ton of great scripts...the (in my view) deadweight of Liv Chenka is forgivable.  

So...in this modern age of Big Finish, where every small part in Doctor Who is just as likely as anyone to get their own spin-off, we arrive at the Liv-centered series The Robots which is purportedly meant to be a 12 part (over 4 sets) story that takes place on Kaldor in the year Liv stayed behind (which was during the boxset Ravenous 2). I can't say the idea had me terribly enthusiastic.  Not a fan of Liv and generally indifferent to Kaldor and the titular Robots (their original story with Tom Baker is great, but I can't say I ever felt they needed too much expanding), this was bound to be an uphill battle of enjoyment for me.  

The stories are, as per usual with Big Finish, excellently produced.  But the stories don't feel so original that I was won over by the set.  The opening story, The Robots of Life, introduces Kaldor nicely enough, and it sets up the relationship between Liv and her sister Tula. The idea of the overarching story is about how Kaldor copes with the quickly evolving robots. Their tech is getting better, and it's upgrades are moving faster.  And it seems one robot may have even achieved sentience.  It's an intriguing time for the planet.  Beyond the set up of the world and something involving a doctor losing patients, I have already forgotten most of this story.  

The second story (The Sentient) is likely the best of this particular set, involving a young artificial girl, meant to serve as a perfect child to be adopted by some parents longing for offspring...but her AI has some quirks.  Mostly that she is contemplating genocide. It's at least an episode that delivers on the promise of a story exploring AI, robots, and all the moral implications within those topics.  

The final episode is Love Me Not which is such a boring standard story of a guy who tries to use a robot to replace his dead wife and how it stunts his grief process.  This episode might have felt really innovative if it had been produced for The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits back in the 60s. As it stands it just felt so predictable.  It just didn't have a twist to make it feel worthwhile.  

The story of a planet, similar yet different to Earth, trying to deal with their ever-expanding tech of robots and the implications of AI is not a bad idea.  In fact, the Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica had a very similar premise.  And just like Caprica, this doesn't deliver on the topic as much as you'd hope. I still remember the sting of watching the Caprica finale, and they spent the last five minutes showing where the show could've gone had it not been cancelled, and it was a way more interesting show than what most of it had been up to that point.  If that show hadn't wasted it's time getting to some of those potential storylines, maybe it wouldn't have lost so many from it's built-in BSG fanbase.  Now I am listening to an inferior version of a show that was inferior, to begin with. 

Maybe I went into this set with a bad attitude.  I tried not to.  As much as I don't care for Liv and my feelings on the Robots can only be described as indifference, I really don't want to hate it.  If I am going to spend three hours with a set I'd rather it be good for sure.  And I don't hate this, I just didn't care about it on the whole. 






Torchwood One - Latter Days (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 20 January 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood One - Latter Days (Credit: Big Finish)Written By: Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tim Foley
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Featuring: Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Nathan Amzi (John); Timothy Bentick (Tommy); Barbara Flynn (Anne); Derek Griffiths (Dave); Michael Maloney (William); Ony Uhiara (Kara)

Released by Big Finish Productions - September 2019
Order from Amazon UK

No matter whether we’re working at minimum wage to provide for ourselves and loved ones, at the head of monolithic corporations as billionaires or anywhere in-between, one immutable truth remains the same regardless: death comes to everyone eventually. All the world’s a stage as a certain Bard once accurately proclaimed – its endless production comprises countless human entrances followed inextricably by countless exits.

If this sounds like a rather ominous note on which to begin our next Torchwood audio verdict, then rest assured that it’s with good reason; Latter Days, the third (and ironically potential final) boxset in Big Finish’s Torchwood One prequel series, directs its attention away from immortal beings like Captain Jack Harkness and instead onto far more short-lived humans facing their end of days while the titular Canary Wharf-based agency nears its own collapse.

Unless you’ve anything better to get on with during your Earthly days, then, let’s delve once more unto the mortal breach, plunging headfirst into arguably the most tragicomic entry in the franchise’s pantheon to date. Time’s a-wasting after all, and no-one knows that better than the employees whose contracts carry a retcon clause for retirement age – provided that they even survive long enough to contemplate retirement, of course.

“Retirement Plan”:

“Who the hell is Travis?”
“My talking Italian sports car – I just made him up.”

(Now there's a dialogue exchange which we never expected to transcribe!)

It had to happen at some point, we suppose. Just as Chris Chibnall dabbled in the realms of James Bond-style undercover espionage with his two-part opener for Doctor Who Season Twelve,“Spyfall”, so too has Gareth David-Lloyd taken a similar tact with his sophomore Torchwood script (after his excellent debut with The Last Beacon in 2018). Unlike Chibnall’s TV episodes, though, which could only go so far with the pastiche’s scale and ambition owing to budgetary limitations (admittedly doing a superb job on that basis), “Retirement Plan” carries no such stipulations, leaving David-Lloyd free to deliver as ridiculously over-the-top and unashamedly campy an affair as he saw fit.

And deliver on those fronts he most certainly does. The sheer glee which must’ve ensued as the star-turned-playwright drafted his script immediately leaps off the page/soundtrack, with Ianto’s unwitting traversal into a virtual reality utopia-of-sorts opening the door for an all-manner of vividly-rendered comic delights from Yvonne’s transformation into a not-so-PC exotic maid to Agent Jones’ madcap snowmobile chase across the Alps and regular sexual encounters throughout his high-stakes mission. Not since the Kingsman films entered cinemas or Killing Eve took TV by storm have we seen 007’s half-century-spanning antics lovingly sent up in such bombastic, downright hilarious fashion as that of “Retirement”, a trait which easily distinguishes the piece as the most memorable of this well-rounded collection.

More impressive still is the fine balance which David-Lloyd and his co-stars nevertheless maintain between farcical frivolity and – where the former’s storytelling demands as much – contrastingly profound pathos. Suffice to say that long-running Torchwood One recruit Tommy has no intentions of going gentle into that good retcon-laden night, hence his intent to spend retirement amidst innocuous VR servants. Timothy Bentick’s performance in the role oozes poignancy as a result, the character’s futile longing to remain in this prolonged nostalgic state only becoming more heartbreaking as events inevitably take a turn for the worst. Witnessing his friend’s age-induced downward spiral only serves to deepen Ianto’s ongoing conflict over his line of work to boot, prompting his own metaphoric contemplation of whether a life lived in escapist VR bliss outweighs an early death among comrades. Cue some painful dramatic irony for any fans still mourning his Children of Earth demise which will doubtless ensure the play’s repeat value for far more than its gloriously insane action.

“Locker 15”:

"Dave Cook was the last person to access Locker 15, and now he can't remember how it's secured!"

Whereas the set’s first and final instalments primarily depict Torchwood recruits contemplating or in the early midst of retirement, Matt Fitton’s contribution instead centralises an underappreciated employee with years of post-work experience already under his belt. Trouble is that, even for a cleaner with minimal exposure to the company’s alien dealings like Dave, such dealings often come back to haunt you. “Locker 15” consequently draws the now-almost amnesiac Dave back to service as his ex-teammates desperately mine the depths of his psyche for any clues on how to stop a deadly artefact sealed within their vaults from potentially destroying Canary Wharf, then London, then the world (no pressure though).

By far the most straightforward action-led storyline of the trio, Fitton’s script – for better and for worse – seems far less fussed with exploring didactic themes (beyond the central message on the dangers of letting class divides fester in the workplace) and moreso with aping J.J. Abrams’ mystery box-style manner of storytelling; the play’s non-linear structure, prompted by Dave slowly regaining his memories, affords us frequent clues as to how Locker 15’s explosive contents got loose and whether the former blue-collar worker holds any responsibility for the crisis at hand. It’s a perfectly engaging storyline on its lonesome which keeps ramping up the stakes and holding the listener’s attention. However, given the extent to which David-Lloyd and (as we’ll discuss momentarily) Tim Foley successfully tap into deeper issues elsewhere in the set, whether by utilising Bond pastiches as an extended metaphor for late-life nostalgia or interrogating Yvonne Hartman’s defining life-choices, the lack of meaningful character development – beyond Dave’s role as a plot cypher – presented here at the midway point stands out markedly as a result.

Going forward Fitton (a Big Finish regular who’s done superb work on Doctor Who ranges like Ravenous and The Eighth Doctor: The Time War) might benefit from relistening to his counterparts’ slightly superior contributions to Latter Days, if only to recall the benefits of prioritising the character drama at which the studio often excels over sci-fi spectacle which can eventually grate when sustaining audio dramas by itself.

“The Rockery”:

“Let it be known that I hate the countryside!”

But whose time within the soon-to-be-devastated offices of Torchwood One holds greater tragic weight than that of its commander-in-chief, Yvonne Hartman? Lest we forget given the rich abundance of Torchwood audio plays in which Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beloved character (or her Pete’s Earth counterpart) has since starred, her debut appearance in 2006’s Doctor Who season finale “Army of Ghosts / Doomsday” saw the head honcho meet a bittersweet end, holding back the Cybermen long enough for the Doctor to overcome them, only to sacrifice her humanity – and ultimately her life – in the process.

With a title like Latter Days, then, the series’ 2019 boxset was virtually obligated to deal with Yvonne’s fate (which in turn predicated the entire London agency’s downfall) in some capacity. Indeed, Tim Foley’s closing instalment “The Rockery” places the Hartman dynasty centre-stage in order to explore the fleeting nature of mortality – albeit in a rather different way than we might’ve initially expected. For in this instance Yvonne’s mission concerns not so much the fate of the cosmos, nor of her staff, but rather her mother’s post-retirement wellbeing as she settles begrudgingly into a life of rural tranquillity…with inevitably bumpy results once her daughter’s (usually benevolent) grand schemes come into play.

How much mileage you’ll glean from the collection’s most relaxed outing depends, in a similar vein to last year’s innuendo-laden Jack / Ianto release Serenity, on your investment in the previously-unexplored Hartman family drama as it develops here. Much of the runtime is spent in Anne’s company while she struggles with prioritising plants over professional projects, encountering selfless neighbours like Michael Maloney’s charming William rather than ruthless workplace rivals, so those Torchwood fans in favour of action-driven storylines a la Miracle Day might come away somewhat underwhelmed (and hence prefer Fitton's undeniably eventful effort "Locker 15" instead). To Foley’s credit, however, his regular injections of endearing senile humour (not least Anne’s aggravated reactions to human or animal intruders alike), escalating intrigue surrounding Yvonne’s housewarming gifts and world-wearied wisdom on family’s importance all endow “Rockery” with sufficient variety to keep proceedings from ever feeling stale.

One also cannot overstate, when it comes to intimate narratives of this ilk, the vital role which the players have in keeping listeners hooked through their chemistry and conviction. True to form, Oberman effortlessly channels Yvonne’s scathing wit as well as her unrelenting (and in many ways self-assuring) pragmatism, yet she equally goes a long way towards revealing the character’s rarely-glimpsed vulnerabilities too; that trademark bravado seemingly belies insecurities over her father’s passing, the growing distance between herself and Anne along with the legacy which she’ll leave when her time (soon enough) arrives, with the After Life actress’ sincere rendition of said transition greatly enhancing her fan-favourite heroine. Just as much applause, if not moreso, should similarly go in Barbara Flynn’s direction to boot, her capturing in Anne of the same ruthlessness, brazen practicality and hidden emotional scars as Yvonne’s all the more impressive given her freshman status as a Torchwood thespian here, as is the simultaneously ferocious yet heartfelt dynamic which the pair establish in only their first hour together.

Rather than showing any signs of a middle-age crisis or non-compos mentis tendencies, Torchwood One: Latter Days, therefore, speaks yet again to the enduring vitality of its franchise right now. With youth may well come innovation, but as the non-Shakespearean adage goes, with age comes wisdom; doubtless, that's a sentiment which will continue to hold true so long as Big Finish keep finding ways to explore weighty human themes amidst Torchwood’s outrageous sci-fi trappings, to remind us that there’s so much joy to be found through life’s thrills, friendships formed and cherishing loved ones that the end needn’t concern us nearly so much as the journey getting there.





The Moons of Vulpana (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 January 2020 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Moons Of Vulpana (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Emma Reeves
Director: Samuel Clemens
Featuring: Sylvester McCoyJessica Martin

 

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
First Released:  May 2019
Running Time: 2 hours

Following on from the previous months release, Moons of Vulpana see's the Doctor and Mags return to latter’s home world in a time long before she was born. This is the period when the four great wolfpacks, each devoted to one of the planets four moons, oversaw the height of Vulpanan civilisation. This is a feudal time, a time of honour and courtly relations. When Mags appears she is treated like royalty, seen as an opportunity to introduce new blood into the aristocracy. However, all is not right on Vulpana or more correctly above Vulpana and the Doctor becomes concerned that something or someone has been tampering with the moons…

Like the rest of this trilogy there is a large element of Gothic Horror at play here, primarily in the setting of the feudal aristocracy. Here it’s a lot subtler than in ‘Gokroth’ where, even for a Hammer Horror fan like myself, it was somewhat overblown and overplayed.  There, practically every major trope Universal to Hammer Gothic movies was utilised. There were aspects that directly called back to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein and Freaks to name just a small number. Here, mercifully, Emma Reeves crafts a story that is set within a Gothic horror-esque world but doesn’t overdo the references or allusions. This is an aristocratic society of castles and courts, of dark forests and secret labs. However, unlike the previous entry she does not feel the need to lift sequences from classic horror cinema- much to the stories benefit. Instead, Reeves chooses to focus on class politics and on building an effective and developed world. The result is a far slower piece than Gokroth, but one which effectively explores social and political elements introduced.

However the one negative to this is that whilst Reeves taking her time in exploring the world she creates can be interesting, it can also be a little dull. For those not interested in courtly dealings this is probably one to stay away, as for the most part it’s Mags attempting to mingle effectively. The slightly duller moments are not helped by a cast of primarily unlikeable and unengaging characters. This is by no means the fault of the actors but is instead the result of a lack of emphasis on those who are appealing (Barton for example). This is particularly noticeable in the case of Isaac and Tob who are given a running joke of overtly flirting with Mags, making her uncomfortable. The problem with this is that literally every other line delivered by one of these two characters is a flirtation and it get’s increasingly tiresome to the point that it really made me consider skipping ahead. Indeed this is Vulpana’s major issue, it feels like it needed one more draft, introducing and emphasising the mystery elements and action a little earlier and slimming back ever so slightly on the courtly romances. Whilst, as stated in the above paragraph, I did enjoy these aspects (and I could tell this was what Reeves was most passionate about) there can be too much of a good thing and it can tire your audience.

On the whole Vulpana is a fun listen. Flawed most certainly but it’s a story which boasts effective performances from it’s cast, skirts socio-political issues and manages to be extremely funny at points. Sadly, there are issues which hamper it from being one I’ll return to regularly but for those interested in Mags it’s a far more effective tale than Gokroth and a good direction to take the story.






Doctor Who 12.3 - Orphan 55Bookmark and Share

Monday, 13 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Orphan 55: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Ed Hime
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker 
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Laura Fraser, James Buckley
Gia Re, Julia Foster, Amy Booth-Steel, Will Austin, Col Farrell, Lewin Lloyd, Spencer Wilding

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 12th January 2020
Running time: 46.33 (source: BBC iplayer)

In an odd piece of publicity, BBC America suggested that viewers would need to watch this episode to the very end, prompting immediate speculation about another potential reveal (so soon after SpyFall Part One?). Would Orphan 55 somehow be related to the "timeless child"? As this story rocketed along at a breakneck pace, I started to wonder instead whether the irradiated, orphaned world of the title might even turn out to be Gallifrey, with those monstrous Dregs regenerating constantly to adapt to laser fire, and so representing the last, lethal remnants of Time Lord civilisation. Because going into this episode, one other fact had been widely trailed -- here be monsters, and really, properly scary ones (with promo photos of a Lovecraftian tentacle stretching into the TARDIS proving to be yet more solid misdirection). But I'd fallen prey to a classic fanboy category error; neither the "watch to the very end" encouragement, nor all the "these monsters are genuinely scary" stuff, were about the new story arc or Doctor Who lore -- rather, both were about this era's burgeoning relationship to the politics of the day (most certainly not without precedent, but still powerfully front and centre here, and all the better for it). And as for my in-episode speculations: right twist, wrong planet.

 

Valuing the Dregs?

 

Sure enough, the Dregs were a brilliant piece of design and realisation, intelligently shot and smartly directed by Lee Haven Jones so as to maximise their sense of threat. Often captured in tight, slavering close-ups rather than shown interacting with the main cast, the potential for generic 'men in rubber suits with masks on' was greatly reduced, and the Dregs' apparent alienness was suitably emphasised. At the same time, the slang naming of these creatures by Kane (Laura Fraser) constantly called to mind that judgemental, awful phrase "the dregs of humanity". As it turned out, of course, the linguistic prompt was more than apt, and the call to watch to the very end was one to heed the episode's environmental warnings, as the Doctor (and the show itself, by closing on an image of a roaring Dreg) effectively dematerialised the fourth wall altogether and spoke directly to its audience. Little could the production team have realised that this story's ashen-graded imagery of a ruined world would arrive hard on the heels of dystopic news images featuring red-hued skies from a dengerously, tragically burning Australia. Orphan 55's warnings about one future timeline where ruling elites had done the paperwork and cleared off, only for a new breed of terraforming disaster capitalism to creep in, could hardly have been more timely.

Comparisons to The Mysterious Planet were obvious enough, but there was also a touch of The Pyramids of Mars in the Doctor's closing speech -- surely an iconic moment for this era and Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. For this bit of time travel was seemingly different to the usual Who set-up, where we assume that future events are 'objective' (in the story universe), and so have happened/will happen in the way shown. The time, though, planetary disaster seemed to have become unfixed, and so it could be undone or avoided. This tension between 'Whoniverse' continuity and real-world resonance is probably unavoidable. Either the programme shows a ruined future, in line with its standard continuity of time travel, and risks encouraging fatalism about our real-world present (or accusations of treating a deadly serious issue as a mere backdrop to franchise entertainment), or it drops standard continuity in favour of pursuing clear, resonant lines between the here-and-now and its fictional state of affairs, using this as a potent call-to-action. And as Orphan 55 demonstrates, the latter choice is a dramatically powerful strategy. Just as it jettisons typical time-travelling norms, so too does this story forget about the whole Ravolox thing, as well as neglecting debates over "fixed points" in time etc etc -- arguably, all of this would have simply got in the way of telling the story that this team wanted to tell. And hurtling our heroes into an Inferno-style parallel reality probably would also have cued the twist too strongly for fans, again dampening its impact and lending the tale an air of 'well, it's all safely sealed off as a what-if'.    

Surely one of the Chibnall era's key themes, there's once again a full-on Enlightenment sense of science as a valuable source of facts; the Doctor is keen for viewers to pay attention to scientific warnings, and learn from the facts of our climate emergency. All of this may hark back to elements of 1970s Who, yes, but back then our hero was a 'Scientific Adviser'; now she's had to become more of a 'Scientific Proselytiser' (and given next week's scenario, I'd expect more of the same there too). 

 

Doctor Who: The Next Generation

 

So, how do you transform didactic eco-horror into family entertainment? For one thing, there's an overload of child-parent angst freighted into the Orphan 55 mix, not just via Bella (Gia Re) and Kane, but also through the mildly comedic mirroring of Nevi (James Buckley) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) -- a story strand which largely wasted a performer of Buckley's standing, but still. Parents needed to recognise their children rather casting them adrift, or failing to recognise their developing skills. Both in Kane's (repeated) sacrifice/redemption and in Nevi's eventual welcoming of Sylas's assistance as a "proper mechanic", cross-generational understanding was the dominant flavour of story resolution. Even the Dregs had to come to terms with their intergenerational inheritance in this rich, rapidfire episode (which really would have benefited from an extra ten minutes of runtime, so that there could have been more character-focused moments to counterpoint against the ratcheting up of story speed).

The Doctor's message to the Dregs was passionately unequivocal -- "be better than what made you!" Previous generations had failed, and this time round the Dregs needed to be smarter than any of their forebears, and by implication smarter than 'our' version of humanity who, in snap-edited, mind-melded flashback, had wrecked the planet. Whilst this episode's visibly human children might have needed love and understanding, its monstrous, distorted and metaphorical children -- aka its scary monsters of the week -- needed to wise up and heed the Doctor's words. As such, and despite the episode's attempts to eliminate all subtext in a whirlwind of on-the-nose eco-literalisation, there remains a curious doubling at work here: younger generations of viewers, or those of any generation minded to heed an environmental message, are threatened with becoming the post-human monsters in the Doctor's very final word ("Or...") and at the same time are subtextually addressed through the Dregs: "be more than what made you!" Be better than the systems and elites who have brought our planet to the verge of environmental tragedy; be the humanity in the Dregs rather then becoming 'the dregs of humanity'.

And this is a strange ambivalence at the twinned hearts of Orphan 55, complicating its professed message. We are its monsters, no doubt, but we might simultaneously draw power from a fantasised, subtextual identification with these (momentarily) humanised creatures and their capacity to learn, as well as being rightly terrified of the future that they represent.

 

Where's Benni?

 

This episode's strangeness and brilliance are somewhat marred by other kinds of ambivalence, however, including in the realm of production design. It is surprising that while so much effort has clearly been expended on making the Dregs realistic and convincing, some of the other alien designs are, at best, highly artificial. Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), Nevi and Sylas seem to have been crafted in a completely different tone meeting to pretty much everything else (was there a tone meeting? The campaign starts here: bring back tone meetings!). It's as if Doctor Who only has a finite amount of contemporary genre-based realism per story, and having used this up on Alien-esque not-quite-aliens, there wasn't enough left over for "hyphen with a three" et al. Or perhaps these brightly coloured, cartoonish versions of the alien are meant to reassure younger viewers, partly drawing the sting out of the really scary monster work? 

Given the proliferation of characters, not everything has a chance to land. The marriage proposal intended by Benni (Col Farrell) is interrupted when Yaz wanders over, rapidly shifting poor Benni away from existing at the centre of his own story, and towards becoming just one subplot amongst many in the lives of the Doctor and her companions. Benni's tale never quite gels -- sure, he has an oxygen supply, and the Dregs are supposedly "playing" by abducting him, but this always feels like it should pay off more, provoking some fuller plot point in the main storyline. Instead, we are treated to Vilma's (Julia Foster) many pleadings to find her Benni. This is an unexpected masterclass in how many different line readings can be offered from just two syllables, but is nonetheless in danger of becoming almost absurdist through excessive repetition.              

On the face of it, green hair and all, Orphan 55 remains less surreal than It Takes You Away -- there's nothing quite like that frog, more's the pity (full disclosure: I loved The Frog. For me, it was a superb, mad, wonderful encapsulation of Doctor Who's artful collision of the ordinary and the fantastical). But Ed Hime's skill as a writer shines in a different light here. Orphan 55 may feel overloaded -- "where's Benni?" -- and overly cranked-up at times, but on reflection, its overt, heart-on-sleeve message is embedded in a far more layered tale of generational conflict, and what we might take away from images of dystopian monstrosity.                                                                                   





The War Master: Anti-GenesisBookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 January 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Anti-Genesis (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Nicholas Briggs & Alan Barnes

Directed By: Scott Handcock

Starring Derek Jacobi,  Mark Gatiss, Seán Carlsen, Nicholas Briggs, Zaraah Abrahams, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Vikash Bhai, Daniel Brocklebank, Richard Clifford, Ben Crystal, Christopher Harper, Will Kirk, Jordan Renzo, Gavin Swift, Franchi Webb

Released by Big Finish - December 2019

I flat out love Big Finish's War Master series.  It has got to be their most intriguing series of Who spin-off material they currently offer.  Seriously...look at the bulk of their line-up of spin-off stuff. Most of it is friends of the Doctor adventuring and investigating aliens on their own.  The War Master...it is this deep dive into the truly dark nature of the Time War.  Derek Jacobi is so damn good in the role, as he constantly schemes to take advantage of the Time War for his own gain.  Constantly finding some evil plan to wreak havoc in his own way, and use the Time Lords and hte Doctor's preoccupation with the War to have a little fun of his own.  

In the latest set, he gets the hold of something called the Anti-Genesis codes, and as such he is able to break an unwritten rule of the Time War...neither side is meant to go back and keep the other side from ever existing.  That is how the war started essentially (as the seeds of the Time War were essentially planted with the Fourth Doctor story "Genesis of the Daleks" in which the Doctor is sent by the Time Lords to keep the Daleks from ever being created, and fails to do so).  

But the Master has his own plans.  He gets the codes, uses it to go back to the moment of Davros' accident in which he was horribly disfigured, and gets Davros to not be in the safety of his lab where he was merely disfigured, but is instead killed by a dropping bomb.  Then the Master himself takes his spot in history...he still creates the Daleks but in his own vein.  

It begins to unravel the universe slowly...at first in small ways, but eventually, it unmakes Gallifrey to a point where the Time Lords don't exist. Original Davros created Daleks team up with an Alternate version of the Master played by Mark Gatiss (reprising a role he played in Big Finish's Unbound series from yesteryear) in order to undo the War Master's plan...as it is essentially unmaking reality. 

What I love about this series is that the Master doesn't have the counterpoint of the Doctor to stop his evil plans.  He just does downright awful stuff; ruins lives, kills, destroys, emotionally scars people just for a laugh...and he often wins in the end. But in this one, the Master goes to gloat, he finds just a few weak Gallifreyans who know nothing of him, the Time Lords and barely even of the Daleks. And since he had the Doctor killed years earlier...he has no one to laud his accomplishment over...and then even his Daleks turn on him, just as they had with Davros in the original timeline.  

And so, the War Master must use the slice of his original reality (the Dalek Time Strategist's ship) to undo the damage. His hollow victory isn't worth dying for...because if it is one thing the Master never wants to do, it is destroy himself.  So he goes back in time, stops his former self, and then is trapped with the Daleks who offer to return his TARDIS to him as long as he helps them and gives them the secrets of the TARDIS...a set up for the next set I am sure.  

Anti-Genesis the best War Master boxset yet.  Its story flows naturally and builds brilliantly (it flows so naturally from episode to episode I didn't even feel the need to do an episode by episode review this time around).  I'll admit the third episode got a tad confusing with all the alternate timelines and jumping about...but overall the story was great and I must recommend it for any fans of the Master. 






Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor - Holiday Special #2 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 11 January 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Thirteenth Doctor - Holiday Special #2 (Credit: Titan)

Writer: Jody Houser
Artist: Roberta Ingranata
Colourist: Enrica Eren Angiolini

49 Pages

Published by Titan Comics -  December 2019

The second and final part of the Thirteenth Doctor Holiday Special comic from Titan is another case of writer Jody Houser (writer of this series) setting up something fun and at least mildly intriguing in one issue, but then we rush towards an ending in the second. Admittedly, this isn’t the worst offender by any stretch, but it is a pattern I have felt often during the run. The first issue had the heroes investigating their memories having been wiped and replaced, stumbling across tin soldier guards and elves...and a seemingly baddie Santa. This issue wraps it up, with the baddie Santa turning out to actually be Krampus (a yuletide monster that is being absolutely overused in media lately).

There have been quite a few direct to video Krampus movies, a pretty solid theatrical film, and even within Doctor Who media Krampus keeps popping up.  The character has shown up on audio with the Eighth Doctor, and has not only appeared in comic form via Doctor Who Magazine...but Titan themselves had a version already! In short: it’s been done to death and now it feels old hat. 

The issue is fine I suppose, but I have to admit that I lost interest when Krampus became the enemy. The story also hints that Santa may actually be real too. Which is silly but does hark back to a very old First Doctor comic in which the Doctor had to help Santa save the day. But that jokey wink isn’t really enough to make me care.

This issue not only wraps up the Holiday Special, but also serves as something of an ending for the Thirteenth Doctor’s first year of adventures in Titan’s pages. The next issue due out is the launch of “Year Two.” On the whole I haven’t been too impressed with this series. It set up interesting stories, but I often felt let down by the final issues.  It kept feeling like empty set up and then a rushed ending. The art is great, the stories have potential, and from the opening issue they had capture the character’s voices...but there never seemed to be enough meat in those bones to make a proper stew. Maybe Year Two will improve on this...but based on Houser’s work so far, I am unsure if she has any way to put a structure to hold her neat ideas on.