At Childhood's End (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 25 April 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
At Childhood's End (Credit: BBC)
Written by Sophie Aldred
Read By Sophie Aldred
Released by BBC Worldwide - February 2020
Available from Amazon UK

It is always interesting when an actor writes a story based on the character they are so famous for.  It can be very revealing about the actor. When Colin Baker wrote a comic about the Sixth Doctor in the 90s, his Doctor was not the cranky know-it-all jerk he was on TV, he was far more reserved and kind...clearly the Doctor Baker always wanted to play was on those pages. William Shatner wrote a series of novels (with the help of ghostwriters) in which his Captain Kirk is written as the greatest guy in the universe who comes back from the dead and can beat up Data.

Sophie Aldred has now returned to the world of Doctor Who with her novel, At Childhood’s End, and it pretty much shows she just gets it.  She sees what worked about her character back in the late 80s, but is not afraid to give her character a ton of growth and maturity (as she is an older version here). Aldred recently made a brief return to the role of Ace in a specially made trailer for Season 26’s Blu-ray release, reflecting on her time with the Doctor while standing in her office for “A Charitable Earth,” her successful charity organization (first mentioned in the RTD penned Sarah Jane Adventures story Death of the Doctor)...and now she has dug deeper into that version of an older Ace, in which Ace gets a chance to reunite with the Doctor, albeit with the latest version.  

Aldred not only knows Ace (and how she would be as a middle-aged woman), but she also seems to be steeped in the confusing expanded universe lore involving the character. Ace is arguably the first of the modern companions, the first to have a real unfolding storyline.  When Doctor Who was put into hiatus following the 1989 season, Ace was still with the Doctor...her story left unfinished. The character then took on a new life in the comic strip, then the Virgin New Adventures novel series really let the character change and grow (becoming some kind of space mercenary), then the comics retconned everything and killed her off, meanwhile, the audio adventures at Big Finish have had their own life and development for over 20 years.  If you dig too deep you find a lot of conflicting ideas of where Ace ended up. She is either a space bad-ass, a spy for Gallifrey, dead, a perpetual teenager, or running a charity on Earth. It’s confusing.  

This story doesn’t dwell on rectifying all of that, and it is better for that, but it does feature Ace (in flashback) with the Seventh Doctor using a machine that shows a variety of these outcomes for her possible futures.  I also feel like there are some deep-cut references to audios or novels thrown in her. I get the feeling Aldred kept up, at least a bit, with the novels or comics that followed her and Sylvester McCoy’s exit from the show. She certainly was involved in the audio stuff. Luckily, while it feels like her story fits in nicely with (or at least compliments) the variety of adventures Ace had in spin-off material, it still stands on its own.  

It is extremely weird to pit Ace against the Thirteenth Doctor.  The thirteenth is so light and happy and utterly different to the Seventh.  He became so restrained, serious, and mysterious...and his little games certainly began to rub Ace the wrong way. All of Ace’s baggage for that version of the Doctor is carried over to a woman who is so utterly different, and it is odd.  But that odd nature is in the book. Ace is weary of the Doctor at all times and clearly is put off by her newer bubbly personality.  

 

Aldred’s audiobook is extremely well-read. Beyond being able to perform as Ace again, she puts on a variety of voices to keep things interesting.  She nails her performances as the Thirteenth Doctor and her three companions, really capturing their voices. The story is not nearly as interesting as all the character development for Ace...but that development is really good and the closure this story brings to Ace is welcome and makes it all worthwhile. 





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.





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 Moons of Vulpana (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

 

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

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

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

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

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






The Monsters of GokrothBookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 July 2019 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie

The Monsters Of Gokroth (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By Matt Fitton

Direted by Samuel Clemens

!

In Big Finish’s anniversary year, interesting choices have been made in terms of subjects from the ‘classic’ era of the show from which to tackle. The first three months saw a number of stories which finally chose to address the Fifth Doctors oft-unseen companion Kamelion and finally give him his due. In terms of the Seventh Doctors stories a more quirky but perhaps equally more inspired choice was made and The Monsters of Gokroth is the opening story in a trilogy which sees the return of punk werewolf Mags from the 1988 story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. It’s an inspired choice really, one which leaves room for a whole range of possible stories- possibly delving darker into horror that Doctor Who ever has before. After all ‘punk-horror’ is an intriguing sub-genre all of it’s own and the late 1980’s was it’s heyday. Indeed, the slasher and darker horror of the 1980’s is arich resource for Doctor Who to draw upon. The Monsters of Gokroth even seems to promise this, with elements of gothic littered throughout the synoposis. Unfortunately, what results is a story which whilst entertaining in it’s own right- is incredibly pedestrian and draws only from Gothic tropes, not really using the full potential of having an alien punk werewolf with the Doctor.

None of this is the fault of Jessica Martin, who is incredible and returns to her role as if it was yesterday. At several points throughout the story she…’transforms’ and the difference between her two performances are superb. One imagines playing an aggressive werewolf is hardly an easy task, the level of violence and aggression really is frightening.

Unfortunately, that is the only slightly frightening thing within the entire story. Now I don’t want to be too unfair, Matt Finton’s story is a fun and exciting romp and one imagines that perhaps some of the problems faced by Gokroth are far from his fault. As I briefly mentioned in my introduction, the main problem with this particular tale is that it’s just too safe. It draws from a number of classic Gothic horror tropes (the creepy carnival, the hunchback assistant) yet it does literally nothing new with them. Instead the result is simply another Doctor Who style take on classic horror films. it’s difficult here not to review what I have heard, but what I wanted to hear yet one can’t help but feel that the biggest issue with Gokroth is the sense of wasted potential that permeates the entire story. Even with Ace the Punk movement has hardly been touched upon at all and with the Seventh Doctor already having a darker, edgier side- it seemed the perfect era in which to explore these ideas.

Aside from the story, there’s very little wrong with Gokroth. All of the guest cast are fun and seem to be having a blast with the story. In particular, Jeremy Hitchen makes a particularly slimy villain and provides some nice creepy moments with his portrayal of the sadistic Varron. Abi Harris threatens to steel the show however as the bombastic Trella, head of the village and in an unusual move for a character of this kind within the Whoniverse, comes across as mostly sympathetic.

Whilst much of the main range of late seems to have played it safe (with the exception of last years Daniel Hopkins trilogy) with a large number of ‘romps’ it seems a shame that Gokroth is just another in this line. Hopefully, the next two tales will redeem this trilogy and use some of the potential that is unfortunately wasted here.






Muse of Fire (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 25 February 2019 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
Muse Of Fire (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Paul Magrs
Director: Jamie Anderson
 

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):

First Released: December 2018

Running Time: 2 hours

‘Muse of Fire’ is the first of two Big Finish releases that graced listeners in December of 2018. The fifth seventh doctor release in a row, it saw the return of the popular Ace/Hex companion team and plonked them down in 1920’s Paris at the height of an artistic boom. Not only that but it features the return of Iris Wildthyme and her long term companion and friend- Panda. I must confess to being something of a humbug when it comes to overtly silly Doctor Who stories. I must also confess to not having experienced much Irirs before (indeed I had only heard The Wormery) and so I wasn’t really too excited about this particular release. However, I can not only claim it to be the best main range release of the year thus far, but I must also thank it for starting my obsessive love affair with a certain 10-inch tall panda….

Written by one of the real shining stars of the Doctor Who world, Paul Magrs, Muse of Fire is a multi-layered incredibly rich piece of storytelling that weaves an eccentric comedy around themes of art and poetry. It pits the TARDIS team against Iris and Panda with ease and manages to further the Doctor and Iris’s relationship, not as easy as it may sound given that she was first introduced into the Whoniverse (or he was first introduced into the multiverse!) in 1998. Of course, Magrs has a certain advantage over some of the other writers who have written for Iris, being her creator. It effortlessly manages to include some moments of genuine tension, even if the situation is absurd, without giving us any jarring shifts in tone. The concept of the Doctor immediately mistrusting her, particularly in this incarnation, results in some wonderful moments- with Magrs getting in some great digs at this ‘era’ of Doctor Who.

Katy Manning and David Benson are of course two of the highlights of this release. In the previous series of Iris Wildthyme (which thanks to this release, I recently binged when travelling), their team of Iris and Panda proved to be one of the prime points of amusement and the fact that it took them this long to meet the Doctor together, is criminal frankly. Admittedly some of their…’vices’ are toned down a little, though this is to be expected, given that this is a Doctor Who and not a Wildthyme release. Benson takes a little longer than Manning to enter into the story, however when he does I had to stop the playback in order to wipe the tears from my eyes. Panda’s dynamic with Ace will surely reduce any hardened Doctor Who fan to sobs of laughter. Not only that but whenever I sit down to write another Doctor Who review, I won’t be able to not picture Panda ripping into Dali.

The regular Tardis team all get some great moments and it’s nice to see this particular trio in something a little more light, though still containing an incredible richness. Phillip Oliver shows a talent for comedy and he takes an immediate shine to Iris, indeed perhaps somewhere out there, there’s an Iris and Hex miniseries waiting to happen? Sophie Aldred has some wonderful moments, particularly with David Benson and McCoy manages to play the straight man beautifully, this darker Doctor seeming a little lost amidst all the madness. Yearning for the past is almost always a bad idea, however, I’d still indulge in any more one-off adventures featuring this team reunited.

All in all Muse of Fire is an incredible piece of work. The highlight of the year.