Ground Zero (Panini Graphic Novel)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 February 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Ground Zero (Credit: Panini)

Written by Scott Gray, Alan Barnes, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell, Sean Longcroft

Artwork by Martin Geraghty, Adrian Salmon, Sean Longcroft

Paperback: 132 Pages

Publisher: Panini UK LTD

Much like 2018's Land of the Blind, Ground Zero is a collection of different Doctor-lead strips from the 90s, which were all released in the gap between the ending of the Seventh Doctor era, and the start of the Eighth Doctor era.  Unlike that previous collection, there is an actual arc hidden within these stories, which culminates in the big finale of the collection's namesake "Ground Zero." This arc also played a role in the early adventures of the Eighth Doctor, as the main villains, The Threshold, would go on to be the major antagonist for the Eighth Doctor's first group of adventures (collected together in Endgame). This book has adventures featuring the Fifth, First, Third, Fourth, and Seventh Doctors and the grand return of the Seventh Doctor to the strip also marks one of the long-running strips most controversial moves in it's entire history.  

The opening of the book stars the Fifth Doctor and Peri, as they take on an Osiron Robot, similar to the ones from Pyramids of Mars.  It involves a Hollywood director attempting to use a Hollywood studio to perform an Egyptian ceremony that will release an ancient God of Locusts and gain power himself (using a studio set as the commotion will likely be ignored as filming). The Doctor, of course, foils this plan. While I didn’t find Alan Barnes’ story to be that exciting or interesting, it was lovely to see Martin Geraghty’s (who was the lead artist for the bulk of the Eighth Doctor run) beautiful black and white again. That made it worthwhile to me.

We then find the First Doctor and Susan have an adventure in London that takes place before the discovery of the TARDIS by Ian and Barbara in the series first episode, An Unearhtly Child. While the TARDIS is hiding in a junkyard, Susan and the Doctor stumble into an adventure with an alien attempting to turn humans into his own kind in order to help work his ship and escape Earth. The Doctor thwarts his efforts, as you’d expect. I found this story didn’t really work for me in any way. It was just too bland to get drawn into.

Up next was a shorter story starring the Third Doctor, one of the only stories in the set that doesn't have a connection to the finale.  Unlike the bulk of the book, this story is only one part and was drawn by Adrian Salmon, as opposed to Geraghty.  Overall this one is short and light, but I enjoyed it.  When it comes to classic Doctor strips, I want them to feel like they could easily fit into the era they come from.  The First Doctor story in this book doesn’t get tht right at all, but this is a perfect Third Doctor mini-adventure.  

We then travel to 2086 with the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry as they fight off Russian Zombies and a man who goes full-on nuclear.  It’s one of the stronger stories in the book. I liked the visuals Geraghty brought to this one, and Gary Russell’s story is pretty solid.  I don’t have a lot to say on this one, mostly because it is just a fairly good read, not too many critiques to expand upon that. The Fourth Doctor also reappears in the final story of the book, which is a goofy strip in which the writer put himself into the strip, and it's a fourth-wall-breaking joke about the strip itself...one that served as the final random Doctor tale before the Eighth Doctor took over in the next issue. 

Really, it all culminates in "Ground Zero," which saw the Seventh Doctor return to the pages of the strip for the first time in two years.  His time on the strip had always been a bit rocky.  It started off shaky with little stories that were often hit or miss, then finally found a voice when the show was cancelled and the TV writers began to continue the journey on the strip itself, but then lost its way again when the Virgin New Adventures novel series began and the strip was forced to play second fiddle to the books. Communication between the folks behind the Virgin series and the folks at Doctor Who Magazine wasn’t always in order, and their synergy didn’t always work.  A comic strip that relies on you having read two novels doesn’t work…and if you are reading both the strip and the novels, having two similar Silurian stories printed around the same time isn’t helpful either.  

So Gary Russell, who at the time was editor of the magazine, just decided to end the Seventh Doctor entirely.  When the TV Movie came out and they were going to get the rights to have the Eighth Doctor, who was essentially a clean slate and a chance to start fresh and with a bit of direction again, they decided that they ought to have one final adventure for the Seventh Doctor, to finally give him a proper send-off from the strip.  And they really went for it.  

The strip totally breaks continuity with the Virgin books, gives the comics their own conclusion for the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and the path it set up was the spark that fueled the DWM strip for years to come. Instead of the older, edgier, darker version of Ace that had developed in the novels, the strip returned her to a state closer to how she had been when the TV series ended.  And then the strip did something majorly bold.  If you don’t want SPOILERS, then beware, I am about to get into them.  

The story involves the Threshold (who also serve as the antagonists in the early days of hte Eighth Doctor), and how they work for some monsters who live in the collective unconscious of humans and want to escape to the physical plane and destroy mankind.  In the process, the Threshold take three companions from the Doctor’s past (Peri during her adventure in the opening story, Susan from the second, and Sarah from the preceding adventure), and use them to lure the Doctor in. Susan, it turns out, can’t actually head into this other dimension, as it would destroy her mind, just as it would the Doctor. But the human companions can handle it.  The Doctor finds a way in, which nearly destroys the TARDIS (setting up his remodel seen in the TV movie), and he manages to stop the monsters…but not without dire consequences: the death of Ace.  Killing Ace was controversial to say the least, particularly as it drew a clear line in the sand as to where the comics now stood in terms of continuity with the novels.  

Going forward, the Eighth Doctor strips were excellent, especially when it came to building up their arcs and expanding upon what came before…and a major seed for that excellent era of Doctor Who Magazine comics is right here.  Ground Zero is a pivotal moment in the history of Doctor Who comics.  It was a bold statement that set the strips apart from the Virgin novel line, and the plot was important to the early days of the Eighth Doctor (though you can easily read the Eighth Doctor strips without having read "Ground Zero," as I did when it was reprinted years ago, but it is nice to get that background finally).  

As a whole package, the stories are slightly uneven.  The Third Doctor entry “Target Practice” doesn’t play into the overall story (though it is fun), and the other three Doctor tales are only tangentially connected to the final epic conclusion (and the First Doctor adventure is decidedly bland)…but that conclusion is something else. Even if you don’t agree with what the strip did in that moment, you have to give it props for being interesting.  It’s a good story too, regardless of the controversial elements.  And that finale makes this whole book worth it.





Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor - Issue #2.1 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 24 February 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Year 2 #1 - Cover 1 (Credit: Titan )

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

33 Pages

Published by Titan Comics January 2020

I was sort of disappointed in the first "year" of Titan Comics run for the Thirteenth Doctor.  It had great art, some decent concepts, but it always seemed to be set up for an issue or two, then an ending was constantly rushed. In fact, while so many seemed to be decrying that the show was now awful and disappointing, I was finding it to be rather decent, and it was the comics I was disappointed in.  But, it wasn't all bad.  Just felt like the heart of the stories were glossed over in favor of quick endings.

So now it is a new year, and they've begun a new "season" of sorts for the Thirteenth Doctor. I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  It has started off decent enough.  But I've been burned before. Then again, maybe this is why I tend to read Trade paperbacks, at least then I get the whole story.  As I read issue to issue, I think I hate the pacing of it. 

That is neither here nor there, the story has the TARDIS landing in 1969 in London (missing their Woodstock target), and the Doctor is sure the TARDIS has put them their for a reason...as she knows that this is also the same time her Tenth incarnation and Martha Jones were briefly trapped there by the Weeping Angels (see Blink).  So she decides to investigate.  She takes on the task of checking up on Martha and sends the companions to tail the Tenth Doctor. 

It's a fine start, though beyond the fun of seeing the Tenth Doctor and Martha and getting to see their lives when trapped for months in '69...I can't say it had much of a story beyond the cliffhanger involving Martha's shop coworker getting zapped away by the Angels. Here's hoping they really go for it this time around. 





Doctor Who 12.5 - Fugitive of the JudoonBookmark and Share

Sunday, 2 February 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Fugitive of the Judoon: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ruth Clayton (Jo Martin) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall ))
Written by Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall
Directed by Nida Manzoor
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
 Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Jo Martin, John Barrowman, Neil Stuke
Ritu Arya, Paul Kasey, Michael Begley
Nicholas Briggs, Judith Street, Katie Luckins

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 26th January 2020
Running time: 49 minutes 40 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)

Right, yeah. It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes.

--The Doctor, The Woman Who Fell to Earth

There it was, low-hanging fruit in the dialogue of the Thirteenth Doctor’s first adventure, a throwaway line spoken without any special weight or significance, a comment remarkable only in that it was so unremarkable. With Graham, Ryan and Yaz, the audience had been through so much in the previous fifty-plus minutes; our perspective on Doctor Who had been expelled from Steven Moffat’s oblique projection of Faerie to an angular and grimy world of concrete and cladding and (above all) steel. The magician-king had been transformed into ‘an engineer… a builder of things’ (to recall The Aztecs), an explorer of and maker in worlds outside more than a contemplative musing on doubts and questions within. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor not so much recoiled from challenges to her identity as was baffled by them. Where Peter Capaldi’s Doctor had been mired in a mid-life crisis, Whittaker’s Thirteenth seemed secure in who she was. Being the Doctor was a strong foundation for action, not a burden of guilt.

That apparent lightness of certainty was balanced by a seeming modesty of ambition, with questionable results. Now the Doctor is forced to look at herself. Fugitive of the Judoon begins (almost) with a previously unknown Doctor, whose identity has been technologically scrambled and who is thus ignorant of her heritage, viewing her reflection in a mirror – hexagonal, no less. It ends with our Doctor feeling that her identity has been poached. The shell of certainty, already cracked by the Master’s revelations, is now shattered.

Although for many viewers this strategy had been anticipated by the previous week’s social media campaign, Fugitive of the Judoon based its revelations upon misdirection. What poses initially as a self-contained problem of the week story (and yes, there was potential for another cold open here, which was lost) turns out to relate to matters which the episode itself can’t contain. In hindsight, of course Ruth (Jo Martin) was being set up to be the person she turned out to be. Her persona as fact-loving tour guide enjoying meeting people and home life with her domestic audience within an anachronistic outer shell is very familiar. So too is Ruth’s gaining at least one worryingly obsessive admirer. It’s tempting to interpret All-Ears Allan (Michael Begley) as the production’s response to the fans who wanted more mythology, more emotional depth, and more sophisticated dialogue after disappointment at the self-conscious straightforwardness of Series Eleven. After showing Lee Clayton (Neil Stuke) a message intended for Ruth (‘You Can Do Better’), he is disintegrated, perhaps because like fandom in search of an author to criticize he’s misunderstood the nature and powers of the authorities which he challenged. If so, it’s a blunt assertion of confidence and control of the ongoing narrative.

Allan’s murder despatches someone set up as a potential commentator or participant in events. He was an eavesdropper and gossip with a passion for Ruth, already established as someone the audience might have concern about. It’s the first indication that this isn’t going to be the small-scale adventure which early scenes might have been read as promising. The comedy of cathedral precinct manners which might have followed, doesn’t. The Judoon, callous in their absurdity, inject a welcome note of bleak comedy into the often overearnest Whittaker era, killing colourful supporting characters with little discrimination. It is difficult to imagine them being sent on their way with a message of hope while they consider the benefits of gradual change. Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall can bring their own ink, but they are filling in an embossed signature. Nevertheless, the Judoon commander (Paul Kasey as Pol-Kon-Don, a welcome gesture in memory of the much-missed Paul Condon) is shown to be alarmed at the way in which Commander Gat (Ritu Arya) breaks the code of conduct on which Judoon conduct depends. For all their merciless killing, there is something endearing and childlike about the Judoon addiction to rules, and the way in which they are treated might lead the audience to question what Chibnall and his colleagues seem to have been about so far. Ruth’s mutilation of the Judoon commander is a reminder of the Whittaker Doctor’s occasional unkindnesses – including her culturally superior goading of T’zim-Sha (‘Tim Shaw’ indeed) – at odds with her minimalist interventionism and moral certainty. Ruth’s battle with the Judoon within the cathedral suggests the hope of persuasion must yield to force, leaving much of the Doctor’s message of the past one and a half series seeming platitudinous.

The revelation of Jo Martin’s Doctor recalls aspects of Vinay Patel’s first Doctor Who script Demons of the Punjab last series. The Judoon have disintegrated expectation of structure, but Patel is a past master at misdirection, having tantalized with a possible major alien intervention in Yaz’s family history in Series Eleven. By the time Ruth looks in her suspiciously hexagonal mirror, the viewer has already been treated to at least one bluff as Ruth is introduced staring as if hypnotized into her watch, only for tension to be broken by her toast popping up. Where Demons of the Punjab made the alien witness to the domestic and the domestic succumb to political prejudice and conflict, here the domestic is a cover for the alien. The political still intersects with memory, though. Where Yaz’s inherited memories turned out to be edited, here the Doctor’s are brought into question, and with them a set of assumptions cherished by a small but significant proportion of the viewing audience.

There is of course a little evidence for incarnations of the Doctor before we joined their adventures on television. The Brain of Morbius featured images of several past Doctors who preceded William Hartnell’s. Perhaps when the Time Lords in The Three Doctors asked to be shown ‘the earliest Doctor’, this was only the earliest Doctor of which these Time Lords knew. Perhaps something stopped Clara – and the Great Intelligence for that matter – going back beyond the Hartnell Doctor when re-engineering the Doctor’s timeline in The Name of the Doctor. Perhaps Clara wasn’t asking for something unprecedented when, in The Time of the Doctor, she requested that the Doctor’s regeneration cycle be renewed. Of course, these are only possibilities and others have their own answers. The questions add dramatic potential to the Doctor’s history, and the effect this has on the Doctor now. Whittaker-Doctor shows disgust at Martin-Doctor’s sabotaging of her laser rifle to kill Gat, but the incident echoes the action of an earlier ancient Doctor, the one who programmed the Hand of Omega to turn on the Daleks and destroy Skaro (Remembrance of the Daleks), and whose actions were revived by Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. When Ryan (Tosin Cole) insists that he knows the Doctor and that who she is now matters more than who she was in the past, his dialogue recalls Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor’s insistence in The End of the World that only his present self was worth discussing. The contrast and continuity between the two moments is striking – Eccleston’s Doctor separated from and grieving for his past, Whittaker’s Doctor’s identity besieged by an unknown history, both defensive and distant in their vulnerability. It’s here that the ‘fam’ come into their own, now connected through Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) with a chain of faithful companions (and I missed Gat’s mocking tribute to Lee first time round) that stretches back further than we knew. Rose was someone conscious that she hardly knew the Doctor; Ryan, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are confident that they know the Doctor better than she allows and that they can defend her when things go badly, a challenge to the second half of this series.

Having mentioned Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s worth noting other allusions to 1980s Doctor Who too. The Martin-Doctor’s ease with a gun contrasts with Peter Davison’s Doctor’s failure to use one on Davros in Resurrection of the Daleks, an instance open to the interpretation that writer/script editor Eric Saward lacked confidence in the Doctor’s professed pacifism. The militarized Time Lords represented by Commander Gat (and Lee, and Jo Martin’s Doctor herself) were anticipated by – or perhaps narratively anticipate – the Time Lord military of Steve Parkhouse’s Fifth Doctor comic strips in Doctor Who Monthly. especially The Stockbridge Horror. Whether conscious references or not, the way they are realised serve to raise questions about the Doctor’s character which one feels this Doctor doesn’t want asking – what made her the person she is, who has made the choices she has. They have more in common with the agenda of Series Eleven than might first be thought, providing or promising answers which don’t require the viewer to search through relevant streaming services or invest in physical media to find out the Doctor’s history, instead suggesting this series will rely on new revelations using the icons of the old.

In practical terms, this was a strikingly executed episode. Sound design was remarkable, from the echoing spaces of cathedrals – not only Gloucester, but Clifton Cathedral in Bristol where Jack’s stolen spaceship was created – to Ruth’s ticking watch and the discordant otherwordliness of Allan’s coffee machine. Shots of cathedral spires reaching heavenwards and juxtapositions of old and new in urban architecture related well to the episode’s theme of Ruth’s spiritual and physical renewal as the Doctor. As a design note, the tarpaulin part-hiding the lighthouse’s lamp as Ruth edged closer to uncovering who she really was in the building beneath raised a wry smile in hindsight, and the Doctor’s looking out from its balcony over the time-weathered sands of the Severn estuary must have suggested to some of those who didn’t remember the Chameleon Arch from its previous uses in the 2007 series a connection with the dusty desolation of Gallifrey.

Of the performances, Neil Stuke deployed various kinds of shiftiness to arouse the suspicions of the audience and the on-screen investigators, as well as the worry of Ruth, as well as achieving a certain rough-ground nobility when facing his fate. John Barrowman’s Jack, of course, was overjoyed to be in the Doctor’s life again, even by proxy; his lack of respect for the Doctor’s personal space (and thus Graham’s) brought back not only Jack’s omnisexuality, but remembered celebrations of the removal of traditional inhibitions in the 2000s, for many in a new generation now superseded by questions of personal autonomy and nuances of polite behaviour. If Jack Harkness is an anachronism to some watching in 2020, then he’s as proud of that as he is his devotion to the Doctor. Barrowman injects a measure of performance appropriate to a matinee idol in a mid-century technicolor epic, into a version of Doctor Who whose colours are more muted, even grimier. The contrast is well-played. He opens worlds to Graham, Ryan and Yaz, who have a space adventure in one room which is both very Doctor Who in its economy and with which the Doctor is not involved. Their horizons are broadened and they gain some sorely-needed authority in their relationships with the Doctor which must have an impact on the series going forward.

Of the Doctors, it’s always refreshing to see Jodie Whittaker use more of her wide range. Her assured and reassuring Doctor of the earlier part of the episode is familiar, but put to use here in a crisis which feels more urgent than many thanks to the pace of events and the quality of script and performance. Credit not only to Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall’s script but to Nida Manzoor’s adept management of people and image. On the Judoon ship, Whittaker blazes furiously: this is a Doctor just bearing up fighting the urge to succumb entirely to self-examination and still keeping control of events, blazes furiously, and her broken walk along the canal a striking portrayal of delayed trauma. From a Doctor who has shown less sign of an inner life than her recent predecessors, this is a welcome development.

Jo Martin, of course, has lots to do. Ruth's gun-wielding acrobatics were unexpectedly of the moment given a similar ‘activation’ scene given to Isa Briones as Dahj in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, released just two days earlier. Martin’s Doctor is a rebel from within the Gallifreyan military establishment, uniformed like a disciplined sea captain but with flashes of fire emerging from beneath. Martin’s Doctor foregrounds the dangerous swagger which Whittaker’s seeker of fair play suppresses, but she also has rougher edges: her admission that the Doctor doesn’t use a gun is a surprise and seems ambivalent in the wake of her part in Gat’s self-immolation. This is a rough-edged Doctor, her alternations between authoritative warmth and cold steel suggesting perhaps less integrated a personality than the Whittaker Doctor’s. As a way of examining the origins of the character without recreating the already broadcast past, Martin’s Doctor is good for the series to have around.

For most of the last two series of Doctor Who, it feels we’ve been seeing the more perilous highlights of the Doctor’s generally undramatic travels. The direct lead-in to Praxeus tempts me to suggest that this might now be changing, with remaining episodes tying more closely in to the arc. Whether or not this is the case, Fugitive of the Judoon (it should have been Fugitive from the Judoon really) has made its core audience understand Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who as much more adventurous, and the challenge to keep that respect has now been set.

 




An Alien Werewolf in London (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 26 January 2020 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
An Alien Werewolf In London (Credit: Big Finish) Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)

First Released: June 2019
Running Time: 2 hours

An Alien Werewolf in London is the final story in the Mags trilogy, following on from the previous months; The Moons of Vulpana. The Doctor and Mags venture to earth where Ace has encountered possible Alien activity in Camden. However, not everything is as it seems and they are soon drawn into a war between too factions of a dark society…

like the opening tale, The Monsters of Gokroth, the title is a very clear allusion to what is going on and there are several sequences which reference John Landis's 1982 classic An American Werewolf in London. Unfortunately, like Gokroth, this is not always to the stories benefit as it draws in numerous ‘horror’ elements which honestly made me roll my eyes more than anything. One, in particular, is a classic horror monster which I can only say has been overused in the Whoniverse and writer Alan Barnes has set himself an immense challenge by introducing them here. Sadly he is unable to take them in any new directions and the result is lacklustre villain. Like Vulpana, there is also a strong class element to the tale, with a lot of humour injected this time which certainly makes it a more engaging listen. There are also some great action sequences which push the story along at a good pace until we end up in a hospital and back in pastiche territory.

One of the biggest wasted opportunities in AAWIL is the stories setting. Now admittedly I’m a little biased as I LOVE Camden. Camden is one of the great indie centres of London, full of alternative theatre taking place in the attics of pubs and fantastic street entertainments. Unfortunately, Alan Barnes chooses to only set a small number of sequences here and instead we’re taken to the familiar Doctor Who settings of a sinister villains Mansion hideout. Other locations include a Hospital and the Doctors London flat, whilst the latter is certainly interesting on the whole it can’t help but feel like more could of been done. An issue that has not been helped by placing the location front and centre on the cover…

On the whole, AAAWIL is the best of the Mags trilogy with some fantastic action sequences and intriguing plot elements. However, on the whole, it’s still on the whole something of a let-down. One can’t help but feel like there was so much potential for this series, particularly given the high standard of the Kamelion stories a few months earlier. However once again a distinct lack of experimentation stops the Seventh Doctor’s monthly series from reaching the heights of his contemporaries. Whilst recent standalone adventures such as Warlocks Cross and Muse of Fire have been excellent in the extreme, his ongoing stories remain disappointing. One hopes that the move away from the trilogy format towards individual adventures will result in a greater desire to take risks.






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.