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Doctor Who - The Fourth Doctor Adventures - Series 9 - Volume 2Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 July 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Doctor Who - The Fourth Doctor Adventures - Series 9 - Volume 2 (Credit: Big Finish)
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
 Featuring: Tom Baker, lalla Ward, Matthew Waterhouse,
John Leeson, Samuel Blenkin, Samuel Clamens  
Abigail McKern and Nicholas Woodeson
 
Original release date: February - 2020
Distributed by Big Finish
 

9.3 The Planet of Witches by Alan Barnes

"My turn for the brain scan is it? Izzy Whizzy let's get busy!"​

Whilst attempting a detailed scan of E-Space, K9 detects the trail of a large spacecraft. Seeking a lead for their escape, the Doctor sets out on its trail towards a misty yellow planet.

Arriving just in time to witness a crash-landing in the planet’s swamps, the Doctor and his crew discover a number of escaping prisoners fleeing from someone claiming to be a Witch-finder... whilst terrifying ‘familiars’ float around them.

For this is the planet of the witches... and the witches may just know the way home.

 

The search for the CVE resumes in this third story of the fourth Doctor's 9th series with Big Finish. The Doctor, Romana Adric and K9 find themselves on a very damp planet where witches and witch-finders exist.

The fantastical elements of the plot are very well handled, and for a while the listener is almost fooled into believing that this is a world where magic actually exists, despite the Doctor's reasoning that it can't.

K9 has quite a key role, with John Leeson pretty much front and centre for the final quarter of the tale.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Abigail McKern's duplicitous Crone being the standout, her never ending cackling did grate a little though.

Of course, there is no magic, and everything is explained away nicely by the time the final credits kick in, but The Planet of Witches is a very enjoyable listen.

 

9.4 The Quest of the Engineer by Andrew Smith

"Beards!?!? Is that the only scientific qualification on this planet!?"​

The TARDIS crew’s attempts to escape E-Space lead them to a strange planet with a surface that shifts and changes constantly.

Losing their ship down a fissure, they venture into the depths of this world and encounter the man who rules this place – a man known only as ‘the Engineer’. He tells them that he’s on a quest for illumination, and to find a rumored portal in space that may lead to another reality, with knowledge unknown in this universe.

It seems he may be on the same quest as the Doctor and his friends. But can he be trusted? And who is he really?

 

The big finale to this series is The Quest of the Engineer, where we join the Doctor mid-adventure, rescuing Adric from a prison cell, that leads them to a shapeshifting planet, that can literally turn itself inside out.

Nicholas Woodeson plays the titular Engineer with great relish, he makes for a perfect villain. I couldn't help though to think that his cyborg army The Enforcers could have easily been turned into E-Space's version of the Cybermen, which I think was a sadly missed opportunity.

It's a shame though that this grand finale was (for me) the weakest story of the four in this series, it just didn't quite gel with me.

Our four leads are all brilliant, and I'm happy to report that Matthew Waterhouse's Adric is on top form after a bit of a wobbly start in the previous two episodes.

Series 9 on the whole though was very enjoyable, if somewhat frustratingly repetitive in some aspects of the plot. K9 is 'lost without hope' at least twice. The Doctor and companions seem to get split up when one of them 'suddenly' needs to go back to the TARDIS, but none of this detracted too much from my enjoyment of revisiting one of my favourite eras of the show's classic era.

Doctor Who - The Fourth Doctor Adventures - Series 9 Volume 2 is available from Big Finish HERE.





Doctor Who - The Fourth Doctor Adventures - Series 9 - Volume 1Bookmark and Share

Monday, 29 June 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
The Fourth Doctor Adventures - Series 9 - Volume 1 (Credit: Big Finish)
CAST: Tom Baker (The Doctor) Lalla Ward (Romana)
Matthew Waterhouse (Adric); John Leeson (K9)
Jane Asher (Pilot Dena); Amy Downham (Scraya / Pips)
Liam Fox (Mang / Wunshooz)
William Gaminara (Engineer Terson); Lucy Heath (Moni)
Nimmy March (Colonel Aesillor Zyre)
Christopher Naylor (Bolan)
Tania Rodrigues (Laker); George Watkins (Crimsson)
CREW: Cover Artist - Anthony Lamb; Director Nicholas Briggs
Executive Producer - Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Music & Sound Design - Jamie Robertson
Producer David Richardson; Script Editor - John Dorney

9.1 Purgatory 12 by Marc Platt

"Well, it was nice knowing you Adric, bye-bye....good luck!"

Still searching for a way out of E-Space, the TARDIS crew land on an isolated space rock... and immediately find it drawn towards a nearby asteroid

The asteroid has air and gravity unequal to its size and is strewn with the wrecks of spaceships. Veins and pools of rust are everywhere.

Stuck on the asteroid away from his friends, Adric discovers that it's a penal colony housing a gang of alien convicts - but resources are low, and they’re starting to starve.

But escaping the prisoners is only the first part of the traveller’s troubles. Because there’s a sinister presence at the heart of the asteroid... and it won’t release them quite as easily.

Purgatory (and this whole of series 9) can only be set between State Of Decay and Warriors' Gate. Which is quite a small window of opportunity to spend some precious time with these characters? I always did feel that Adric got rather a short shrift from a lot of fandom, so a chance to revisit the character was for me, very welcome. 

A lot of the backstory in Purgatory 12 relies heavily on Adric, as he not only struggles to come to terms with the death of his brother Varsh but also having to acclimatise to travelling with the Doctor, Romana and K9. In fact, I felt the penal colony that the narration is centred around to be window dressing to explore the relationship between the three main leads. I was quite surprised at how maternal the character of Romana could become!

On the whole Purgatory 12 is a strong start to this new season.

 

9.2 Chase the Night by Jonathan Morris

"Thats plenty of time! Theres lots you can do in half an hour, paint a picture, cook a curry.....sort out your sock drawer...."

The TARDIS lands in an alien tropical rainforest at night where the Doctor, Adric and Romana discover a set of rails stretching through the undergrowth. These tracks carry a long-crashed spaceship that’s been converted to run along them like a train.

The ship has to keep moving because only the night-side of the world is habitable. The sun on the day-side burns so hot that everything on the surface is turned to ash.

But the stress and strain of the constant movement is beginning to take its toll on the ship. Parts are starting to break down, and the relentless heat gets ever closer - but the greatest danger may be on the inside...

Chase the Night is a story of such huge scale, that it would never have been seen on television in 1980. It has a jungle planet that burns and regrows every day, and a huge vessel mounted on tracks, continuously travelling so that it can stay in the planet's shadow.

Adric (again) gets himself into trouble, this time through his overactive appetite for filling his stomach. 

John Leeson as K9, has a lot more to do than in the previous story. I did chuckle when K9 asked for "Elevatory assistance". The supporting cast are all excellent, especially Jane Asher as the rather ruthless Pilot Dean.

 

Volume 1 of the Fourth Doctor's 9th dedicated series for Big Finish is a great addition to the adventures of what was originally a very short-lived TARDIS team but has always remained one of my favourites. The highs of these eight episodes would have to include Tom Baker, who once again sounds pretty much identical to how he did during the show's original run, expanding on the foreshadowing of his last series as the shows lead. It is also great to hear Lalla Ward back as Romana, the chemistry between the two characters still holds a lot of charm. 

If I were to criticise anything, it would be that Matthew Waterhouse's performance. I appreciate it being hard for a man in his mid-fifties to pull off playing a petulant teen, in Purgatory 12, he sounds exactly like a man in his mid-fifties, failing to pull off playing a petulant teen. His internal monologues in that first story really did start to grate quite quickly. Thankfully though, his characterisation does improve vastly throughout the rest of this series.

If like me, you were a fan of this era of the show, you'll love these two new stories. You can buy The Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series 9, Volume 1 is available from Big Finish HERE.

 

 

 





The Lives of Captain Jack Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 June 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Lives of Captain Jack: Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Guy Adams, Tim Foley and James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Alex Kingston (River Song), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Jacob Dudman (Snorvlast), Paul Clayton (Pilot), Samantha Béart (Passenger), Jonny Green (Passenger)

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2020
Order from Amazon UK

Try as they might to mine all of Captain Jack Harkness’ infinite timeline across their various Torchwood ranges, Big Finish have in reality barely scratched his impeccably chiselled surface over the past five years since 2015's The Conspiracy. Therein lies the thrill of their three-strong The Lives of Captain Jack range, though – shifting their focus away from his ongoing exploits (and surrounding cast ensemble) in Cardiff / Victorian London affords them ample opportunity to explore Jack’s other unseen life experience, be it during his early stint in the Time Agency, his centuries spent on Earth awaiting the Doctor’s return, or even his donning another Doctor’s rainbow coat instead. The possibilities for fresh stories are quite literally endless, albeit their frequency governed by John Barrowman’s ever-densifying work schedule.

This time around we’re privy to three delightfully eclectic adventures in the good Captain’s eternal lifespan, each of which showcases the fleeting but treasured friendships which he ignites with undervalued mothers, overexaggerated fiends of myth and an unlikely equal alike. True, there’s still plenty of ground for Big Finish to cover beyond what Volume 3 achieves in the space of three hours (and indeed what its two predecessors cumulatively managed in six); as will become apparent below, though, its riveting contents can surely offer copious escapist entertainment to while away some lockdown time – a welcome prospect indeed given how our global predicament has justifiably limited other means of escapism of late…

“Crush”:

“There are other people on the Estate, some of them call themselves friends. But you wanna know how to be really invisible? Be a widow, be single, be alone – people hate that.”

Amongst Big Finish’s greatest strengths as storytellers in the Doctor Who universe has always been their ability to transform lesser-seen characters from the TV shows into well-rounded protagonists (or antagonists) with every ounce as much psychological depth as the Doctor, his companions or most notorious rogues. Take Jackie Tyler: although Russell T. Davies wisely found time in Rose’s Earth-bound storylines to glimpse her mother’s loneliness sans Pete and growing fears over her daughter’s survival amongst the stars, the relatively fleeting nature of her screen-time meant that we as viewers only formed so much of a lasting attachment before zipping back into the TARDIS to other places and times.

Enter Volume 1’s more introspective entry “Wednesday for Beginners”, which simultaneously afforded us far greater insight into Jackie’s social isolation (now all the more topical for us as listeners, of course!) while revealing that she and Jack struck up something of an electric rapport in Rose’s absence from the Powell Estate. That storyline naturally opened the door for future NSFW romps between the pair, so it’s a wholly welcome development to see Guy Adams kicking off Volume 3 with one such reunion, albeit in a rather different setting. Whereas previously Jackie hosted Jack at her Estate, now she’s joined him for an intergalactic luxury cruise…only to instead find herself aboard a tightly-packed replacement bus, rife with murders and passengers who’ll glare down anyone making a single noise.

If this discomforting public transport experience sounds at all familiar, then the aptly-named “Crush” and its scathing (anti-)social satire should lie right up your metaphorical street. Presumably Adams himself must’ve stood in one too many claustrophobic, headphoneless-tablet-laden, kindness-devoid carriages prior to pitching his latest Big Finish script, since this often depressingly realistic outing perfectly captures the constrained huddling, torturous suspense as to who’ll emit the next sound and yearning for oft-absent human connection – all sensations felt by the passengers and drivers alike, in fact. Indeed, his script takes remarkable pains to ensure our empathy with each apathetic party aboard the vessel, forcing listeners to question their own assumptions regarding fellow travellers’ mindsets (e.g. their religious beliefs or mental welfare) in a way that many other less confident playwrights mightn’t dare broach.

Anyone who’s heard Paul Clayton’s work at Big Finish to date will already attest him as an ideal frontman for such a biting social commentary’s supporting cast. Better known to us as Mr. Colchester in the post-Miracle Day Torchwood audios, Clayton gets to put his trademark sardonic wit to altogether different use here as the bus’s altogether indifferent robot driver, pitching him as constantly a deadpan automaton to marvellous (or perhaps Marvin-lous for Hitchhiker’s Guide fans) effect whatever the character’s dialogue. Keep an eye (or ear in this case) out too for cameos from some other Torchwood audio regulars like Samantha Béart and Jonny Green, whose voices you might just hear among the passengers as they start to pipe up later on in the narrative.

But by far the most effective aspect of “Crush” – ironically for a Lives of Captain Jack yarn – is how effectively it validates Jackie’s return to the franchise. As ever, Camille Coduri effortlessly recaptures her character’s ludicrously inappropriate humour, brash ignorance of social etiquette and volatile temper 1.5 decades on from her TV debut. And more impressively still, she’s fully embracing of the more vulnerable direction in which Adams strives to take Jackie as the hour progresses – her charmingly bubby delivery seems in many ways a façade to mask the still-painful trauma wrought by losing Pete to death, her daughter to the Doctor and her friends to their inability to comprehend widowhood. By striking this extremely taut balance between her long-running construct’s brazen exterior and the all-too-familiar self-doubt lying just beneath the surface of his psyche, Coduri crafts a truly engrossing performance, one sure to impact the average socially-distancing commuter just as much as it does a listener struggling with their own personal challenges.

All of this isn’t to say that Adams’ instalment lacks any scope for improvement whatsoever; certain sound effects might’ve benefitted from more focus to ensure our full immersion – for instance, distinguishing a set of near-silent deadly projectiles regularly fired at passengers from the vessel’s general hubbub often proves easier said than done. Yet as is so often the case with Big Finish’s productions, those qualms seem borderline irrelevant when put into the wider context of a thoroughly compelling first instalment like “Crush”, hence it’s still earning our full endorsement.

“Mighty and Despair”:

“Okay Persis – if you’re not about to kill me…”

“Never, your majesty!”

“Then the stories better be true. Let’s find this hidden planet – let’s find this Captain Jack.”

A lot of our experiences with the aforementioned Captain to date have admittedly taken the form of 19th-21st century narratives – primarily since the Torchwood Institute only started life in Victorian times and its eponymous Doctor Who spin-off centred on his team’s present-day missions. But Tim Foley’s ambitious contribution to Volume 3, in stark contrast to its 2000s space bus-based predecessor and timeline-hopping successor, plunges headfirst into uncharted territory, instead jumping forward to confirm that Jack’s fears (as expressed in “Last of the Time Lords”) of someday exhibiting “the odd grey hair” were wholly warranted. There will come a moment when this aesthetic bastion’s age starts to show, his boisterously fun-loving lifestyle gives way to that of a reclusive hermit and his (literally) undying capacity for hope fades into bitter resentment after losing everyone dear to him. It’d take a miraculous series of events involving warring royal siblings, unrequited romance or festive hijinks to restore our hero to his former glory – and even then that mightn’t prove enough.

What better moment could there be, then, for a deposed vampiric queen and her faithful servant to crash-land near Jack’s extraterrestrial temple in the hope of finding salvation, not to mention for us to hit Play amidst our already-demoralising real-world challenges? Thankfully there’s much more in the way of inspiration and solace than moroseness here for lockdown listeners, Foley’s uplifting tale quickly demonstrating how our bonds with friends, family and strangers alike will ultimately give us the strength, compassion and determination to see out any challenge. This rather timely notion manifests with particular poignancy via a brilliantly-paced Christmas montage in Act 2; over the course of decades, we gradually see Jack (whose voice Barrowman imbues with touching self-pity, misplaced venom towards vampires and world-wearied wisdom), said monarch Carla (whose resounded defeat Jessica Hayles subtly transitions into long-forgotten warmth) and her aide-turned-admirer Persis (portrayed with earnest yet defiant aplomb by Joanna Van Kampen) ease their joint exile by rediscovering the joyful spirit, generosity and love inspired by December 25th. “Halfway out of the dark” indeed.

If anything, “Mighty and Despair” would’ve thus easily justified Volume 3 releasing around the festive season last year (rather than a mere two months ago), although its clear message of hope’s triumph over near-endless adversity equally couldn’t have come at a much better instance than the current global circumstances.

“R&J”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in front of the Holy Modem to witness the union of Captain Jack Harkness and River Song.”

So it’s finally time. Time for the titanic crossover which fans have demanded ever since both iconic characters made their debut in modern Who. Fighting in the left corner: the Boeshane Peninsula’s most renowned Time Agent recruit. In the right corner, newly resurrected: Klom’s most renowned entity-consumer, the Abzorbaloff hims-

What’s that? Only this reviewer craved such an epic confrontation, whilst everyone else yearned for Jack to cross paths with the Doctor’s wife instead? Fair enough, then – fortunately Volume 3’s final chapter centres on precisely that collision course, with James Goss doing justice to the long-awaited event in a manner only possible for a scribe of his immense calibre. Most crossovers are usually content to simply provide a zany caper for their subjects to blaze through, all the while carrying no lasting effects for their respective character arcs; Goss’ stupendous “R&J”, however, takes quite the opposite approach, exploring events from throughout the two near-eternals’ Who timelines where we’d never have previously guessed the pair would clash. From Jack’s earliest encounters with the Ninth Doctor to River’s regular dates with his successors, from the Torchwood Three leader’s darkest hours to Melody Pond’s desperate stabs at happiness and agency in a chaotic pre-determined timeline, virtually no stone is left unturned over the course of the hour.

Of course, as satisfying as these call-backs might be and as vividly as the various worlds (from lively markets to hauntingly silent wastelands) are rendered by the sound design team, a mere greatest hits tour would likely start growing old fast. Yet our assured playwright abundantly recognises that risk from the outset, hence his remarkable endeavour to turn each chance encounter between our (anti)heroes into a key cog in their joint character study. For every madcap prehistoric race atop dinosaurs, there’s a personal discussion of immortality’s shortcomings (as Jack espoused in “Mighty and Despair” too); for every war over the Doctor’s affections (or his survival amidst River’s attempted assassinations), a more grounded debate over whether his reckless lifestyle of “never looking back” is a healthier match for River than the (comparative) normality offered by a romance with someone living day-to-day-to-century like Mr. Harkness. Such is the profound emotional resonance and relatability struck up between these oft-outrageous constructs here that you might genuinely find repeat viewings of the “R&J” coupling’s respective TV outings informed, nay enhanced by the extra context; that’s something which can rarely be said of the more high-octane crossover events in comics or any medium, regardless of whether or not they’re “the most ambitious of all-time”.

As for our esteemed leading performers, from the outset you can tell that John Barrowman and Alex Kingston - effectively gifted a two-hander to do with as they so please a la “Heaven Sent” - must have had an absolute riot with this one in their respective recording studios (though goodness knows how Jacob Dudman kept a straight face on supporting duties, since the behind-the-scenes tracks reveal that he read Alex’s lines whilst working alongside Barrowman!). Bringing their undisputed charisma to hilarious standoffs with scorned lovers and each other alike, the pair equally evoke pathos aplenty in their honest deliveries of grief amidst loss (striking a chord all too poignant in these times), yearning for true requited love and contemplation of roads not taken as millennia pass them by. Doubtless both will continue to appear in their own Big Finish ranges going forward, as well as making cameos elsewhere on occasion, but were this to mark their final collaboration, then these two rightly-adored thespians – not to mention Goss – could still rest assured that it’s among their finest work to date, as indeed is Volume 3 for everyone involved with this spectacular audio trilogy.





The First Doctor Adventures - Volume 4 (Big FInish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 8 May 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
First Doctor Adventures volume four (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Andrew Smith, Jonathan Barnes
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast

David Bradley (The Doctor), Claudia Grant (Susan), Jemma Powell (Barbara Wright), & Jamie Glover (Ian Chesterton)

There is something so lovely about the David Bradley-led First Doctor Adventures.  Big Finish has perfectly captured that era.  The pacing is perfect, the tone of the episodes, the music, down to David Bradley’s cadence as the Doctor…it all just oozes the earliest days of the series.  In this latest installment we get two four part tales. The first is a direct sequel to the first Dalek story called Return to Skaro.  The second, The Last of the Romanovs, lands the TARDIS in another pure historical, this time in Russia in the lead up to the Bolsheviks killing the Royal Family and taking over.  

It is an odd thing when Big Finish only has two stories in a set, as is the norm for the Bradley First Doctor series, because they have to choose between leading with their big draw episode, or leading with the more low key historical episode.  They seem to continually choose to start off with the big episode, this time featuring the Daleks, and then ending with the Russian adventure.  As much as it may be harder to draw in listeners with a slower paced historical story, it seems like ending with the big Dalek tale might make more sense. But then again, with only two stories, you can’t have much filler and building a set is a different beast entirely.  I suppose I am just used to the slow build-ups of longer sets.  

That all said the draw of the set is, of course, the Daleks.  And it is a solid adventure that feels like it could definitely be an adventure with the villains set in between the first and second television stories. It is definitely the better of the two adventures in this set.  The second story is decent, and I have a certain fascination with the beginning of the Soviet Union, but it is a classic historical in every sense: it is somewhat slow and forgettable.  It does end on a cliffhanger, with the TARDIS seemingly dead and unable to move on.  

David Bradley’s performance is something I can barely wrap my head around. He doesn’t actually sound anything like William Hatnell.  He also isn’t trying to do an outright impression, but his own interpretation of the role. Yet he nails it.  He just captures the essence of  Hartnell.  He isn’t like The Five Doctor’s Richard Hurndall, who while not awful mostly captured the cantankerous side of the First Doctor.  But Bradley has that spark that made Hartnell so beloved by the children of the 60s. The actors playing the companions also do a fairly good job recapturing their 1960s counterparts (though something always feels slightly off about Susan for me).  

Bottom line: if you love the earliest era of the show, and you have enjoyed the recasted adventures thus far, then you will no doubt enjoy this one too.  





Torchwood - Dissected (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 20 April 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: Dissected  (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Starring: Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper)

Released by Big Finish Productions – February 2020
Order from Amazon UK

“There’s due diligence and then there’s…I dunno, the UNIT way.”

“Yeah, whereas you bung a body into the boot of your car, drive all the way to Hereford, ask a friend to do an autopsy on the sly. That’s what – the Torchwood way?”

For the legions of Doctor Who fans who’ve long been craving Freema Agyeman’s maiden Big Finish voyage, their main question was less whether she’d ever frequent the company’s hallowed studios than when her crammed schedule would afford any opportunity to do so. And yet – with the benefit of hindsight – even that might’ve been the wrong dilemma for everyone to contemplate; instead our focus should’ve been on which audio range would play host to her “voice of a Nightingale” first, not least given her beloved modern Who character’s appearance in both the main show and one of its modern spin-off series. Indeed, rather than returning directly into the world of the Doctor (as still seems inevitable), for now Martha Jones is long overdue a reunion with another familiar face from her time-and-space-travelling past – the emotionally-fraught results of which prove utterly spectacular.

Admittedly an initial glance at Torchwood: Dissected’s plot synopsis, with its detail-lite teasing of Gwen Cooper dragging an enigmatic corpse to Martha’s UNIT lab for a late-night autopsy, might lead unsuspecting viewers to expect nought more than a continuity box-ticking fest. Surely writer Tim Foley’s decision to set what should be a landmark Main Range entry amidst Martha’s post-“A Day in the Death”, pre-“The End of Time” days limits his scope, creating clear narrative boundaries in which his script must fit lest it displease the Gods of Canon? Quite to the contrary, though, like any of Big Finish’s most accomplished writers today, Foley unmistakeably perceives the piece’s in-between-quel nature as a creative opportunity rather than a constraint, as evidenced by his script’s cunning transition from a nostalgic retrospective for fans to something far more personal and pivotal for his dual protagonists.

At the heart of our wright’s supreme success in this regard lies his decision to parallel Gwen and Martha’s seemingly short-lived professional friendship with those of anyone who’s vowed to maintain such ties even after moving onto other workplaces. Naturally in the early days you’re intent on keeping in touch via catch-up phone calls, pub sessions and the like, but one missed event here, a handful of other accidentally-ignored voicemails there and before too long, both parties find they’ve moved on in juxtaposing life directions. It’s a wholly resonant social situation which Foley clearly comprehends profoundly; the unspoken remorse and resentment peppered into Martha and Gwen’s dialogue as they examine their deceased subject’s remains starts subtle, only manifesting in offhand apologies for skipped parties or unacknowledged passings at Torchwood Three at first, yet tangibly escalates over time as their now-divergent respective work ethics threaten to destroy any remaining goodwill between the pair. Without going into spoilerific detail, perhaps the most brilliantly apt sequence has our ideologically-bipolar heroines questioning whether their friends haven’t been swapped with alien duplicates prior to this encounter – a cunning moment of dramatic irony given their past identity crises as well as tragicomedy for listeners recalling their similarly overblown reckonings with past workmates.

So there’s all the more pressure on Agyeman and her more Big Finish-savvy co-star Eve Myles, then, to do this poignant extended metaphor of a storyline justice, not least since Foley structures Dissected solely as a two-hander; think “Heaven Sent” but with a more talkative foil for Agyeman than Peter Capaldi’s in 2015. Whether as a result of this pressure or Myles’ format familiarity emboldening them, luckily there’s no sign of doubt whatsoever in either performance. At first the pair seamlessly recapture their characters’ old selves, Myles’ Gwen as ferociously energetic and brazenly commanding as ever and Agyeman’s Martha sternly regimented under her UNIT guise but prone to bouts of earnest sorrow whenever referring to Torchwood’s recent collateral damages. Once the play progresses into the aforementioned more adversarial territory, though, they’re equally capable of running the requisite emotional gamut, the former’s bravado fading to reveal recent events’ psychological damage and the latter’s job-mandated objectivity amidst autopsies in reality a front for her passion and longing to return to her world-saving days. Witnessing this evolution from a bittersweet reunion of old friends to two flawed but determined heroines finding paths forward consequently makes for fascinating listening, easily as compelling as Torchwood’s more high-stakes explosive affairs – if not considerably moreso!

Does the praise-heaping nature of this verdict so far mean that Foley and company have completely sidestepped the chasm-wide trap of filling continuity gaps for gap-filling’s sake that we discussed earlier? Not quite – certainly a key sequence in the tale’s latter stages seems primarily intended to help pave the way for where we find Martha come her “End of Time” cameo, as do some love life references scattered here and there to sate fans wondering what became of her ex-fiancée Tom Milligan in the interim. But it’d be downright churlish to begrudge Foley’s innocuous efforts towards tying up the odd loose end in canon here; much of the joy involved with Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise output over the years has, after all, come from their freedom to right past missteps like the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration or explore uncharted territory such as the Time War’s infinite battlegrounds. To be fair, so long as said continuity-alignment continues to only supplement releases with such innovative story approaches, universally-resonant messages (amidst their universal conflicts) and deeply intimate, personal performances as those found in Dissected, then frankly that’s an ideal state of affairs which this reviewer can wholeheartedly endorse.

Oh, and notice too Martha’s forceful insistence that Gwen washes her hands thoroughly whilst in the midst of their not-so-delicate autopsy. Yet another didactic message of which every listener would do well to take heed (regardless of their scientific or otherwise profession) in these troubling times of globally-shared strife. Stay safe to that end everyone!





Torchwood - Fortitude (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 10 April 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Fortitude (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria); Paul Bazely (Maharaja Duleep Singh); David Sterne (Colonel Crackenthorpe)

Released by Big Finish Productions – January 2020
Order from Amazon UK

“Just remember she’s behind all this. Even free, we’re her slaves.”

Now there’s a statement which you don’t hear uttered in every pulp sci-fi audio drama. Indeed, whilst Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise output oft comes under scrutiny for its depiction of controversial real-world figures such as Winston Churchill, in Torchwood: Fortitude lies a marked rebuttal to any accusations of political archaism, along with a confident mission statement for future such works. If you’ve long craved an entry in the Main Range which builds upon God Among Us’ disturbing odyssey into homelessness and Children of Earth’s harrowing satire on global crises and the leaders forced to tackle them –  rather than simply dipping its toe into political waters as Who does sometimes with episodes like “Arachnids in the UK” – then you’ve definitely come to the right place.

Ever the master of misdirection and deception, Torchwood range producer James Goss, has cunningly seeded this philosophically-charged storyline within an otherwise quintessential premise for the TV show-turned-audio saga; the good Queen Victoria, accompanied by one of her completely devout servants, finds herself trapped aboard a seemingly haunted prison, prompting no shortage of supernatural hijinks as she, her aide as well as the prison’s increasingly-unhinged warden battle demons both internal and external. So just another day at the office for our 19th-century monarch in other words, especially seeing as the play takes place after Who’s 2006 period outing “Tooth & Claw” and thus after her establishment of the Torchwood Institute to investigate unearthly incursions precisely along these lines.

Unfortunately for the British Empire’s leading lady, and fortunately for us listeners in contrast, her troubles here extend far beyond any run-of-the-mill alien encounter, with her truly greatest threats potentially lying closer to home. In fact, Goss’ gripping chamber piece of a tale delights in playing with our expectations. Mysterious locked rooms house less in the way of predictable jump-scares and more in the way of psychological insight into Colonel Crackenthorpe after guarding the prison for untold decades; said military veteran’s covert machinations might speak to alien possession or to far more human goals and regrets; while the traditional third-act confrontation takes a wholly different form as Indian Maharaja-turned-servant Duleep Singh finds a potential answer to his plight in another tormented soul. No accomplished script should present a completely shock-free storyline, of course, but it’s genuinely humbling to see Fortitude’s wright so gracefully subvert ghost story (and his franchise’s) tenets in order to explore Victoria’s moral spectres – namely those countless victims who suffered grievously under her Empire’s ruthless global expansion.

Just as Big Finish evidently realised this multi-faceted yarn’s huge promise upon Goss’ original pitch, so too must the piece’s Three Performing Musketeers have been all too aware of the potential for a distinguished gem to emerge provided that their own contributions delivered. And deliver they most certainly do: the tonally-understated egotism, ferocious stubbornness and dryly-pitched biting wit which Rowena Cooper has brought to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent ever since her rambunctious debut in The Victorian Age remains just as entertaining here, albeit lying in stark contrast to Paul Bazely’s part-tragic, part-inspiring take on Singh. His effortless progression through time-worn heartbreak, bubbling resentment and passionate cultural defiance as the character gathers long-lost confidence will – in combination with the script’s no-holds-barred interrogation of those responsible for his torture – surely evoke poignant emotions aplenty for any listeners whose ancestors endured the Empirical era. Arguably Fortitude’s finest actorial feat, though, comes in David Sterne’s more concise but no less impactful work as Crackenthorpe, the heartfelt pathos which he inspires in the Colonel’s sorrowful contemplations of past mistakes doubly praiseworthy considering that Cooper and Bazely share far more airtime in comparison.

Similarly instrumental to Fortitude’s success while immersing us in its seabound escapades are, well, the instruments involved with bringing said escapes to aural life. Through a combination of hauntingly atmospheric oceanic noises ever-present in the background, painfully jarring door creaks or ill-disguised footsteps as Queen Vic and Singh attempt to traverse the gaol unnoticed and vividly-rendered images like a Woman in Black-esque rocking chair moving of its own hostless accord, the sound design team work tirelessly to ensure that we’re every inch as unsettled as the fictitious constructs whom we’re following via headphones, laptop speakers or other means. What’s more, this superb sensory barrage has a vital role to play from a genre storytelling perspective, ultimately furthering our disbelief-suspending capabilities to the point that we’re no less invested once events take a turn for the Lovecraftian come Act 3 than we were in exploring the prison’s more tangible corridors beforehand – not something to which many of Fortitude’s sci-fi counterparts on audio or TV can always attest.

With all of that being said, one comparatively minor but still noticeable blemish may rob Fortitude of its otherwise undisputed place amongst the Crown Jewels of the Torchwood franchise. Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty once famously professed that “every fairy-tale needs a good old-fashioned villain” and indeed, this fantastical-esque romp to the high seas comes equipped with a fittingly overblown foil for our already-conflicted ‘heroes’ to reckon with in varying ways. Yet despite Goss’ remarkable efforts to seamlessly weave said foe into the piece’s thematic path-web of slavery-induced trauma, so much time passes before we’re properly introduced that it can’t help but resemble an afterthought versus the fascinating moral voyages taken by each of the other key players involved. Perhaps that comes down to the oft-discussed Main Range limitation of a one-hour narrative format, perhaps Goss consciously upheld the classic horror trope of leaving the relentless monstrosity up to our imagination; either way, the piece’s Big Bad remains in hindsight a somewhat untapped reservoir which his successors should seriously consider revisiting in greater detail.

Admittedly when the only real caveats levelled at your latest production represent but minor nitpicks in context, that’s a surefire sign of the piece’s success in virtually every other aspect. In no way did the above-mentioned gripe impinge upon Fortitude’s phenomenal performances, crucially-immersive sound effects or its script’s rarely-matched juggling act of classic Torchwood elements with challenging philosophical debates for listeners to contemplate; quite to the contrary, it only served to highlight the staggering extent to which the play’s strengths outweigh any such trivial shortcomings. As modern civilisation shelters from you-know-which crisis and shows its true colours, there has seldom been a better time for James Goss’ scathing, brilliant warning against choosing greed over human compassion – all the more reason to give his latest winning effort a try ASAP.



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