Prisoners of Fate (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 8 July 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Prisoners of Fate
Big Finish Productions
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released June 2013
"You’re saying we’re all about to be Blinovitched!"
Tegan Jovanka, Prisoners of Fate

For a TV program celebrating its 50th anniversary, it is remarkable, although not necessarily surprising, how many great, similar ideas pervade Doctor Who across its other media – print, comic strip or audio drama. Some ingenious concepts and visuals in the spin-offs are often developed quite coincidentally of the TV series (the primary source) but are inevitably trumped by the parent program.

Indeed, as if the parent program doesn’t have enough of its own continuity to draw from, it has since its return in 2005 drawn inspiration from its spin-offs. The recent Season 7 finale The Name of the Doctor repeated some ideas that were first mooted by Virgin Books’ New Adventures range in the 1990s. Paul Cornell adapted his original NA Human Nature into a two-part serial for David Tennant’s Doctor in 2007. Key ideas in some of Big Finish’s audio dramas in the early ‘00s were also “borrowed” by the TV series, notably from Marc Platt’s Cyberman origin tale Spare Parts and Robert Shearman’s Jubilee (the famous cell scene of Dalek – in which the Doctor realises his cellmate is one of the creatures – happened in Jubilee first!).

The latest Doctor Who audio release Prisoners of Fate – if it had been released a year ago - would probably be hailed by fans as a classic of the audio range. It is an intelligent and cleverly thought out story, with some truly brilliant ideas and visuals and a wonderful villain. Unfortunately, coincidence can, to put it crudely, be a “bitch”. I suspect Jonathan Morris conceived of Prisoners of Fate at least a year ago so who couldn’t forgive him for feeling a little miffed that his story and ideas have been trumped by none other than the Season 7 finale?

For the sake of the readers of this review, I will discuss the more obvious aspects of the plot first but warn it is hard to comment on this story without touching on potential spoilers (which I will return to). I can talk more freely about the “B” and “C” plots - even if they are actually presented as the “A” plot in all the publicity for the story and on the CD sleeve. The Doctor and his companions touch down on Valderon after the TARDIS is drawn there by a temporal anomaly. The incongruity appears to be a Chronoscope, which the colony uses to police its society in a manner that is reminiscent of the Philip K Dick short story (and subsequent movie) The Minority Report. The Doctor’s companion Nyssa is also reunited with her son Adric 25 years after she went missing, presumed dead.

While it is not essential, it helps if you have scrubbed up on Jonathan Morris’ earlier BF outing Cobwebs which reunited Nyssa with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough some 50 years (in her personal timeline) after she first left the TARDIS crew in the TV serial Terminus. The “B” plot, nevertheless, reinforces just how much of an indirect impact the Doctor’s meddling can have on not just the lives of a 15-year old boy but his whole family and the galaxy at large. Not only does the Doctor’s reunion with Nyssa rob her family of their mother but it means she is also not able to provide the crucial antidote to Richter’s Syndrome that she originally sought and discovered in Cobwebs. The effects of the Doctor’s interference are disastrous, with billions across the galaxy having succumbed to the virus. Prisoners of Fate also revisits some of the themes that were touched upon in the TV serial The Angels Take Manhattan and to a lesser degree the preceding BF release The Lady of Mercia – that once the Doctor and his companions arrive in a given time and place, they are at risk of learning about their own futures and becoming ensnared in the web of time.

However, as it becomes clear by the half-way point of the story, the Chronoscope sub-plot, together with the notion of imprisonment on the premeditation of murder, is a red herring. It’s a little disappointing that Morris does not explore this in more depth – however, if he had done so, I suspect it would have been an entirely different story. Similarly, there is the potential for Adric’s experiments on Valderon’s prisoners to alienate him from his mother but that too could also make up another story. As it is, the Nyssa/Adric reunion is also a clever distraction from the raison d’etre.

The true “A” story to Prisoners of Fate features many similarities (at least on a superficial level) to Season 7 finale The Name of the Doctor – most notably that both stories involve a villain from the Doctor’s past who threatens the Time Lord’s very existence (and with it the web of time) and that the key to his survival is one of his companions. There are also some strong, impressive visuals to the story, set on the penal planet Valderon, that also bear an uncanny resemblance to imagery on Trenzalore. More than likely I’ve already said too much and to say any more would be to spoil the listener’s enjoyment of the story on its own merits and independently of The Name of the Doctor.

As we’ve come to expect from Big Finish dramas, the scale and quality of the production is almost flawless. The regulars and the guest cast are very impressive in bringing the story to life. While they comment in the CD extras just how complex this tale is to understand (compared to The Lady of Mercia), Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Mark Strickson through their energetic performances really do anchor this story (and their preceding adventures) in the period of Doctor Who in which it is meant to be set (eg circa 1983-84). The guest cast are also very competent performers, even though their characters are mostly one-dimensional, a case in point being Sarah Douglas’ Prime Elector Sybor. However, as I’ve mentioned, not everything in this story is as obvious as it seems and Douglas clearly relishes the opportunity to play the story’s true villain (as do Fielding and Strickson briefly as well).

The sound effects and incidental music in Prisoners of Fate also deserve a special mention, especially the score by Fool Circle Productions. The use of haunting choral music really conveys the sense that you are (along with Tegan and Turlough at one point) visiting a haunted medieval castle and there is also a lovely homage to Nyssa, reprising Roger Limb’s theme for the character from the TV series. It’s great to hear a suite of all this music at the end of disc one.

The problem with such an enjoyable story like this is that the bar is raised so high that the conclusion is always going to be on a hiding to nothing. The seemingly all too convenient climax is my only gripe with the tale (again I can’t risk spoilers!) but I personally like the melancholic twist in the resolution between Nyssa and her son.

Prisoners of Fate is, fittingly in Doctor Who’s golden anniversary year, virtually an unofficial anniversary story. Like The Name of the Doctor, it celebrates Doctor Who’s past and present while also challenging fans’ established knowledge with a curved ball hitherto unknown (even the villain’s name seems to inadvertently symbolise the anniversary). However, as I’ve mentioned, its impact has been diluted by the historic events of Doctor Who’s recent TV finale. It may be some time before Prisoners of Fate emerges into the limelight to be evaluated as an outstanding story in its own right.

Postscript and Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t overly bothered by the threat of spoilers, I will give out one, final cryptic hint – an alternative title for this story could be “The Doctor’s Other Wife”!

The Dalek Contract (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 2 July 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Dalek Contract
The Dalek Contract
Big Finish Productions
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released June 2013

Returning to events and characters from The Sands of Life and War Against the Laan, The Dalek Contract is itself Part One of the grand finale to this season of adventures for the fourth Doctor and Romana, or “Ramona”, as Cuthbert calls her. Yes, David Warner is back to spar with his fellow actors once more, as writer/director Nick Briggs continues to explore the Conglomerate’s shady activities. And helping the story to bounce atmospherically along there’s some excellent incidental music from Alistair Lock.

If Phantoms of the Deep partly hinged on a cliffhanger putting K9’s catchphrase in a whole new light, then this month we get a similar gambit surrounding the Daleks’ most infamous slogan. Dalek stories can perhaps be grouped into two categories: one where they are traditional monsters intent on invasion or domination, pure and simple, and one where they are more radically recontextualised or reimagined (with the latter also sometimes acting as a lure or a blind for the former, as the Daleks eventually reveal their true colours). Big Finish have previously welcomed Shakespeare-citing Daleks, affectionately merchandised versions, and Toy Daleks as well as nano-versions. One might be forgiven for wondering whether there are many new twists that can be put on the polycarbide-shelled creatures, but The Dalek Contract pulls something out of the hat. These Daleks are employees, it would seem, part of the Conglomerate’s outsourcing plans. Although this is undoubtedly an interesting concept, turning Skaro’s meanest into the story’s hired muscle means that they necessarily have a very different narrative role to usual and are necessarily blunted or reduced in the process. It’s as if they’re the new Ogrons, playing second fiddle to a far greater threat. Presumably The Final Phase will restore the order of things and feature the Daleks turning on Cuthbert – though this story move seems so blindingly obvious that hopefully it’ll be avoided, complicated or subverted in some way.

John Leeson plays two roles here, but to no great gain, as his non-K9 part is that of Tollivun, a rather generic figure among the cast of rebels. On the plus side, K9 does get to mount a heroic rescue mission at one point, as well as conversing very entertainingly with the Daleks. A few other elements here feel overly familiar, though: there’s a resistance force (of course) on Proxima Major, and Cuthbert is busy beaming propaganda down to the planet. And there’s a MacGuffin to get the Doctor involved and raise the stakes: a “haze” of miniscule particles which could lead to Very Bad Things, i.e. tearing apart the fabric of space-time. However, as a reason for getting the Doctor to switch off his randomiser and explore the Proxima System, this is actually a rather intriguing and playful story device – it threatens vast destruction, but only due to the creation of almost infinitesimally small particles. An inversion of conventionally epic scale, it deliberately undercuts what we might expect, just as the Dalek’s typical role undergoes a similar kind of alteration. Feeding into this unexpected set-up, and again playing Mr. Dorrick, Toby Hadoke has great fun with his delivery of certain dialogue, instantly transmuting what could have been the base metal of bafflegab into comedy gold. In this Contract it’s not the small print you have to beware – it’s the even smaller “particles”.

There are some reversals which are less effective, however. Romana asserts that she knows the Doctor very well just before he does something that she’s failed to predict. On the plus side, this makes the Doctor’s behaviour appear daringly risky, but on the other hand it makes Romana look slightly foolish, which is a shame. From this run of stories, The Auntie Matter has probably given Mary Tamm the most to do (treating Romana like a parallel version of the Doctor rather than his subordinate), but here she again seems to be cast back into a more standard ‘Who girl’ role, especially towards the end of this installment. Cuthbert is also sidelined a little, though no doubt he’ll take centre stage in the following story, as Briggs’ revisionism of the Daleks edges out other story content this time round.

The Dalek Contract suffers by virtue of being a connective part of this season’s mini-arc. Its job is to set everything up, and move narrative pieces into place ready for The Final Phase. As a result, we don’t quite get the full pleasure of encountering a new world, culture, or scenario that a standalone story can offer, but nor do we get the satisfaction of a tale that's neatly resolved. There are some great ideas, such as how the Daleks cope with operating on an icy, frozen planet, but by the end I was impatient to find out more about Cuthbert’s aims. Although there can be no doubting Contract’s ambition to do something different with the prototypical shape of a Dalek story, I suspect it will end up being judged more on how well The Final Phase seals the deal than on its own merits.

The Seeds of War (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 2 July 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
Seeds of War
Seeds of War
Big Finish Productions
Written By: Matt Fitton and Nicholas Briggs
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Released March 2013

After years of devastating war with a mysterious force know as the Eminence, humanity is finally starting to recover. The enemy has withdrawn and the last of its strongholds are being torn down. But when the Doctor and Mel arrive they discover that the war is far from over, for the Eminence has played a long game, and is ready to make the final move...

The Sixth Doctor and Mel are a pairing who have long been problematic for Doctor Who fans turned-writers. The two characters are often seen as totemic of the Doctor Who’s fall from grace in the 1980s and its eventual cancellation. Consequently many authors have sought to redeemed the characters in some way, something that Big Finish's writers have gone out of their way to do, especially in the company’s early years.

The Seeds of War is another in this long line of attempts to rehabilitate the characters and the era, but it approaches this in an interesting and rather unique way. In writing this story Matt Fitton and Nicholas Briggs have woven together numerous pieces of storytelling TV stories from the Sixth Doctor and Mel’s tenures on the show (seasons 22-24) and made them work a lot better than they did on TV.

The story’s opening is taken directly from Paradise Towers in a way that is a little disconcerting until you realise what is going on. The Doctor promises Mel a wonderful dining experience at the renowned Great Tower of Kalsos, but when they arrive they find the tower derelict and well past its glory days. However, rather than simply replaying Paradise Towers, the story moves on, zipping from location to location, encompassing more disparate elements of Sixth Doctor TV adventures as it does so (specifically Timelash and Trial of a Timelord parts 9-12).

Key to this is the concept of the ‘imagined sequel’, borrowed from Timelash. In that story the revelation that the Third Doctor had previously visited Karfel added little to the plot other than a sense of nostalgia. Here however, the Doctor’s previous encounter with the Eminence is absolutely integral to the plot. Keeping us in the dark about the Doctor’s past adventure it means that the writers can work in an important twist which changes the nature of the story. Listener’s who want to get the most out of The Seeds of War are advised to treat this is the Eminence’s first outing, rather than waiting for their chronological debut in Briggs’ Fourth Doctor play, Destroy the Infinite, which will be released next year.

But The Seeds of War isn't just a rewarding intellectual experiment, it also tells an exciting and involving story. The play is rigorously structured, with each episode moving the action to a different location (from the tower, to a spaceship, a colony world and finally Earth), while ratcheting up the stakes and adding to the mystery surrounding the Eminence as it goes. If there is one thing that lets the play down, it is that the conclusion is a little too reliant on events which occur ‘off-screen’ (as it were), meaning that the defeat of the Eminence doesn’t quite feel earned. However, the final scene with the Doctor and Mel is an utter joy, and for my money the best moment the characters have shared together in any medium.

The Seeds of War is a strong outing for Mel, as the only character who doesn’t know anything about the Eminence she’s very much our viewpoint character for the first half of the play, and we learn about the enemy as she does. Bonnie Langford is particularly strong playing Mel’s self-righteous anger, and the scenes where she berates Trellack are a world away from the character’s irritatingly priggish demeanour in Trial of a Timelord’s courtroom.

The play’s supporting characters are rather generic ‘space people’ which isn’t necessarily a problem in a story like this, but this production shows what a difference good actors can make. Ray Fearon and Lucy Russell put in such good performances as Barlow as Trellack that the other actors pale by comparison, and scenes without Baker, Langford, Fearon or Russell can be a bit of a drag. However, these scenes are necessary to give us a sense of the time and place we are in, and give a sense of the aftermath of war. Thankfully the fast pace of the play means these weaker scenes are kept to a minimum.

After over a decade of successful Big Finish productions based on this era of Doctor Who it may seem redundant for a play to be so focused on redeeming aspects of it. However, when the results are as strong as The Seeds of War, it is hard to find too much fault in this approach. The Seeds of War is one of Big Finish’s best Sixth Doctor plays and I hope that Matt Fitton (who scripted the play based on Briggs’ outline, and wrote The Wrong Doctors) returns to write for this particular TARDIS team again.