Something Borrowed (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Something Borrowed
Written by Richelle Mead
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 June 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook. 

Puffin's series of short stories continues with something of a triumph for the sixth Doctor’s era. In Something Borrowed, US author Richelle Mead adopts the first person perspective of Ms Peri Brown, as well as having fun with the gaudiness of mid-80s Doctor Who (but not fun at its expense). Here, the Doctor and Peri visit the Koturians, a race who have been so inspired by their experience of Earth’s Las Vegas that they've modelled themselves on its culture. In place of the Strip there’s a “Swathe”, and even an Elvis impersonator turns up at one vital moment. But for all its energetic knowingness, Something Borrowed also refines its Who source material by setting out a coherent, well thought through storyline (not something that could always be said of the sixth Doctor’s TV outings, in my view).

Mead’s decision to use Peri as her viewpoint character means that the Doctor occasionally bursts in on proceedings and has to info-dump what he’s been up to, but on the whole it’s a gambit which further lends coherence and credibility to the tale. Peri’s American vantage point is (perhaps understandably) well realized, but there are also lovely little character moments such as her anxiety about being stared at by a crowd of wedding guests when she and the Doctor are about to intervene in one particular ceremony. Given the story’s title – and its Vegas-esque setting – it probably comes as little surprise to find that there’s a wedding at the heart of matters. But this isn’t Doctor Who-as-romance: nuptial themes are precisely and sharply integrated with a daring scheme that could transform the Doctor’s world (and even Doctor Who) as we know it.

The Doctor and Peri face a familiar nemesis, and though the identity of this villain is eminently guessable it is still a pleasure to encounter them, and in a well-written guise at that. The Doctor’s acerbic reworking of “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue” may be rather mean, but it’s also very funny, and in keeping with this era’s focus on badinage. At one point the Doctor overcomes some henchman-type creatures (hench-creatures?), and you half expect him to toss out a Sawardian one-liner. But no, rather than caustically quipping, he pauses to express his regret (and I’d love to know if that moment emerged through an editorial note: it really does feel like a knowledgeable fan taking the time to ‘correct’ tonal worries rooted in long-term readings of the sixth Doctor).

The villain of the piece wants a Koturian groom as part of their capricious machinations to ‘borrow’ (OK, steal) something that’s lacking in “most” Time Lord’s capabilities (and the story fudges this by inserting “most” and “definitively” in its eventual explanation, thereby glossing over the debacle of a certain fourth Doctor Dalek story). But what’s most impressive is that while acknowledging details of fan knowledge here and there, the storyline still rockets along and everything dovetails neatly together in a logically and emotionally satisfying way. There are bits of dialogue you can almost hear Colin Baker’s voice saying, they fit so well into his Doctor’s character. And both Peri and the returning baddie are also well served. In light of what would happen later in the run of television stories, a casual threat about the possibility of the Doctor regenerating “sooner” than he might think also resonates rather smartly for the reader.

In terms of character, setting, alien culture, and its villain’s grandiose scheme, Something Borrowed hits all the right notes. Richelle Mead has lovingly borrowed a sometimes unloved period in Doctor Who’s rich tapestry, and not only restored its sense and sensibilities, but also stitched it back together in a new and somewhat improved pattern. Rarely has Peri been this three-dimensional a character. And although the TV programme had begun to recurrently plunder Time Lord lore by the mid-80s, it rarely did so in a particularly coherent manner (something brought home to me when rewatching The Two Doctors at the BFI recently). On this occasion, however, Mead’s handiwork makes judicious use of Time Lord capacities to power the overall storyline. “Impressive” really is the most apposite epithet for this month’s Puffin ebook.

FILTER: - Sixth Doctor - eBook - 50th Anniversary - B00AWJYKPK

Destiny of the Doctor: Trouble in ParadiseBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Destiny of the Doctor: Trouble in Paradise
Released by AudioGo
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Nev Fountain
Directed by John Ainsworth
Released: June 2013
This review is based on the CD release from AudioGo and may contain minor spoilers.

"I really need an Omni-Paradox. I need you to store its awesome energy within the TARDIS so I can use it later for a very important thing I’m doing. The existence of the universe is at stake..."

Whereas the first five instalments of the Destiny of the Doctor range have had a lot of common, albeit each boasting their own definitive tone based on the era they represent, from this point onwards it seems as if each of the final six releases will be far more distinct from one another. In the case of Trouble In Paradise, it’s time for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor to go under the radar, and it seems fair to say that this release will differ greatly from the McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Tennant and Smith adventures still to come.

The premise here is simple enough- the Eleventh Doctor calls upon his former self to hunt down an Omni-Paradox, tracking such an element to a 15th Century sailing vessel containing none other than renowned explorer Christopher Columbus. This set-up allows us an intriguing interaction between the Doctor and a man he believes to be one of his greatest inspirations. Of course, as the old saying goes, you should never meet your childhood heroes- and just as Shakespeare and Van Gogh appeared to vastly contradict the Time Lord’s preconceptions, so too does Columbus bear a startling darkness in his heart.

Typically enough for an audio outing which is so intently focused on replicating the tone of its chosen era of Doctor Who, Nev Fountain elects to have the Doctor travel with his most faithful companion of this particular incarnation- Perpugilliam Brown. Nicola Bryant is our narrator of proceedings, then, seeming to inhabit her 1980s role again with breathtaking ease, while additionally managing to provide a fair reproduction of Baker’s protagonist. Nicola is joined by Cameron Stewart, who lends Columbus that aforementioned darkness and moral ambiguity, as we listeners discover that this ‘great’ explorer may not have been the hero that most would have expected.

The narrative of the adventure is helped in no small measure by being prompted by an appearance from the latest version of the Time Lord. In past instalments of the Destiny range, the 50th Anniversary links featuring the Eleventh Doctor worked to the stories’ detriment due to feeling somewhat misplaced, yet by having the Eleventh incarnation be the trigger of events to come, it lends his cameo a greater presence and dramatic impact. Once we’re down to business, though, this tale of ‘El Diablo’ (a supposed physical manifestation of the Devil) is a fairly well-worn adventure that fans will recognise as bearing strong similarities to previous televised and audio stories alike. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily always detrimental, yet it can have a profound negative impact if allowed to dominate a story’s structure and characterisations.

Did Fountain perhaps rest on his laurels somewhat, then? That could certainly be one interpretation of Trouble, a morally ambitious Sixth Doctor audio adventure that seems too intent on paying homage to the past. The problem, though, is that the drama’s writer was quite probably asked to adhere to certain tonal and narrative boundaries in order to properly fit the Colin Baker years without ever stepping too far away from the status quo. During isolated moments, the story does venture into interesting uncharted territory, but too often are these ventures painfully brief and regularly jarring with the ‘classic’ tone of the remainder of this release. This shortcoming doesn’t completely rob the audio drama of its dramatic impact, yet for long-time fans either of the classic era of the show and/or even simply since Doctor Who returned in 2005 (this reviewer falls in the latter category), this sense of déjà vu is something of a sore point. For many, it seems that an overdependence on nostalgia was what killed the programme at the climax of the ‘80s, so with Steven Moffat thankfully focused on ensuring that the 50th Anniversary Special introduces as many new elements as it does reference the past, it seems strange that AudioGo has kept its range so nostalgia-orientated.

Let’s not dwell too heavily on the negative aspects of Trouble In Paradise, however. Indeed, much like the Colin Baker era as a whole, to lament its flaws too heavily is to miss much of this audio release’s charm and wit. Nicola Bryant has slipped effortlessly back into the role of Peri and does wonders with the narration, the direction of the piece is accomplished and Nev Fountain’s script is accessible and empathetic despite its lack of innovation. If this latest entry in the Destiny range does herald a series of distinct concluding instalments, then, we can at least rest assured that AudioGo will maintain their focus on adhering to the tones of each era of the show, for better or for worse. Doctor Who’s past can often be just as much of a hindrance as a blessing, but in this case, it should be of great benefit as the last fifty years of the programme will define one of the most ambitious and innovative audio ranges that fans have yet had the opportunity to experience.

FILTER: - Sixth Doctor - Audio - BBC Audio - 1471311724 - 50th Anniversary

Council of War (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 June 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
Council of War
Council of War
Big Finish Productions
Written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released June 2013
Poor Sergeant Benton. Eight years as a recurring character in Doctor Who, but always in the background, always the butt of his UNIT colleagues’ jokes. Until now that is, in this final regular series of The Companion Chronicles Benton finally gets to take centre stage in a tale of his own.

Rather appropriately for a second rate character like Benton, the perils he faces in Council of War are decidedly second rate themselves. The grandiose sounding council of the punning title is in fact nothing more than the humdrum town council of Kettering. After Mike Yates is unavailable to take the assignment, Benton is dispatched to investigate ghostly apparitions plaguing the council chambers and uncovers a bizarre alien incursion.

Full of bathos, the tone of Council of War is gently mocking, and never turns cruel or nasty. With its collision of the mundanity of local politics and absurd space opera the clear inspiration here is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Bedknobs and Broomsticks thrown into the conclusion.

The story is almost Doctorless, with he and the Brigadier putting in only cursory appearances, almost as if they don’t deign to be part of such a trivial adventure. This means the action is squarely focused on Benton and the guest narrator, Margery, which gives both characters a chance to shine. Benton gets to be the hero for once, showing off an intelligence that was rarely glimpsed onscreen and Margery is a great character, and a good foil for Benton. She’s a seventies feminist in the same vein as Sarah Jane Smith, but depicted without the slightly mocking tone which crept into the early scripts featuring Sarah. She’s excellently played by Sinead Keenan, who joins Hayley Attwell and Laura Doddington as two of the best young actresses working at Big Finish. Hopefully we’ll be hearing more from her in the company’s future output. Keenan has an excellent grasp of the light hearted tone of the play, handling the comedy and drama of it superbly. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of John Levene who seems to take the whole thing very seriously, which is a shame given the good comic scenes he often shared with the UNIT regulars back in Benton’s TV days.

The first episode builds a good sense of mystery around the events in Kettering and the early scenes conjure up the small town feel familiar from seventies comedies like The Good Life. The pace dips a little in the second episode, with the plot needing to be wrapped up, and the denouement, which hinges not on Benton or Margery but an outside force, is a little disappointing. Despite these niggles Council of War is a great deal of fun, and one of the better Companion Chronicles released so far this year.

Writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris will be familiar to some from their previous work on The Scarifiers and Bernice Summerfield audios, and their first Doctor Who script marks them out as a pair to watch in future. I’m less sure about future adventures for Benton. With both the character and the actor seeming quite limited it would be wise to keep Council of War (good as it is) as a one off.

FILTER: - Third Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781780676

The Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who AssistantsBookmark and Share

Thursday, 20 June 2013 - Reviewed by Emma Foster
Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants
Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants
Written by Andy Frankham-Allen
Released by Candy Jar Books, June 2013
With the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who in full swing fans are being treated to a near unprecedented level of merchandising. Virtually every week there's a new gizmo, piece of apparel or toy for the deep of pockets to pick up. More than most, those who appreciate a good tome to while away the hours with are being spoiled with an avalanche of books to read about every possible bit of the Doctor's fictional universe and the people in the real world who bring him to life.

Joining my heaving bookshelves is the companions book by Andy Frankham-Allen, a book which promises to "look at the story of 35 of the Doctor's friends who have changed him into the man he is today". The book gives a basic overview of the Doctor's companions on television and their later adventures in the expanded universe of audios and books.

The book is written in a clear, consice fashion and gives a good overview of all the television companions. However, an issue that all books of this ilk face is who is this book aimed at? For long-term fans this book will not be offering many insights into the psyche of companions, or interesting discussions of continuity. For new fans one wonders about the appeal of reading a book of descriptions of things that companions did and felt in an episode when you could spend the £9.99 the book costs on a few DVDs and get a lot more value for your money. Gone are the days where the only way you could learn about companions of days past was by reading a book like David J. Howe & Mark Stammer's Companions of the 1980's - stories from every era are now widely and cheaply available, reducing the need for a book that fills in knowledge gaps.

The book sometimes comes across like it's been copy-pasted from Wikipedia in its character summaries, and it reads in an excessively dry manner. Also, the expanded universe companions are quite poorly served by the book - characters like Evelyn Smythe and Erimem for example are some of the most interesting and unusual companions to have been created, but they are barely mentioned, getting just about a page each. This is a major oversight in a book like this; a lot of novels from the wilderness years are now long out of print and filling in information about companions which newcomers to the series would have never heard of and would be unable to learn about by simply watching television would have elevated this book above the ordinary.

In a marketplace which has books like the majestic About Time series - surely the gold standard for fan books in any genre - The Companions book is a very poor relation.

FILTER: - Books - 50th Anniversary - Factual - 0957154887

The Curse of Peladon (AudioGo)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
Doctor Who and The Curse of Peladon, read by David Troughton
Doctor Who and The Curse of Peladon
Originally starring Jon Pertwee
Written by Brian Hayles
Narrated by David Troughton
Released by BBC AudioGo, May 2013
Brian Hayles’ novelisation of The Curse of Peladon was among the earliest Doctor Who adaptations published by Target, appearing on bookshelves in January 1975. Reprinted numerously in the 1970s, 80s and 90s it is one of the more memorable books in the range and it’s surprising that it’s taken AudioGo this long to adapt it.

The Curse of Peladon is one of the highlights of the Jon Pertwee era, seeing the Doctor and Jo taking a rare excursion to another world, and a world which is one of the best defined and realised that Doctor Who had given us up to that point. The story is full of incident and moves along at a fair pace, making the running time of over 5 hours less of an ordeal than some of AudioGo’s other releases. Unlike some of the other early Target novels, Hayles sticks closely to the TV version, making a few additions here and there but mainly sticking to his scripts. However Hayles clearly takes delight in fleshing out his creations, giving us a little more insight into the customs and politics of Peladon and taking the opportunity to make alien delegates Alpha Centauri and Arcturus rather more impressive than they were on screen. Here Alpha’s, octopoid nature is constantly stressed, depicted as a mass of constantly shifting, colour changing tentacles rather than the phallus with hoover attachments we saw on TV.

However, Hayles fails to transcribe much of what worked in the visuals of the TV version. The Curse of Peladon was an unusually lush production for the time and had a distinct visual style. The purple robes, unusual hair pieces and visual iconography of Aggedor which brought the original production to life are not described in the novelisation, with Peladon’s citadel and inhabitants depicted in sparse detail.

Hayles has a rather unusual take on Pertwee’s Doctor, often emphasising the arrogance and egotism of the character (perhaps suggesting a preference for his predecessor). It’s an intriguingly different take on the Doctor, and one of the highlights of novelisations written by authors other than the prolific Terrance Dicks is that they sometimes offer unusual interpretations of familiar characters.

While Hayles’ take on the Doctor is interesting he is less successful in his depiction of Jo. On TV Katy Manning had a tendency to play against lines, managing to show Jo’s intense affection for the Doctor at the same time as chastising him. Here, although her dialogue is the same as the TV version, the narration fails to capture the subtleties of Manning’s performance, meaning she comes across as a constant whinger, who doesn’t seem to like the Doctor or enjoy her adventures at all.

David Troughton, who played King Peladon in the original version, is (as usual) an excellent reader, performing all the alien delegates dialogue with gusto, closely replicating how they sounded on TV, and helped out by some skilful post-production to emphasise their alienness. The story is a sound designer’s dream, filled as it is with crashing thunder, echoing caverns and an assortment of strangely voiced creatures, and is coupled with a subtle yet effective score.

This is an excellently read and produced version of one of Target’s more iconic titles, and will appeal to fans of Pertwee and the early Target novels.

FILTER: - Third Doctor - BBC Audio - Audio - B002SQ4WV2

Phantoms of the Deep (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 17 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Phantoms of the Deep
Big Finish Productions
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released May 2013
Writer Jonathan Morris muses in the interview “extras” for this release how surprising it is that Doctor Who hasn’t done many submarine stories, given the potential for ‘base under siege’-type affairs. Of course, Phantoms of the Deep arrives not long after Cold War: you wait years for a sub and then two come along at once. The two adventures share basic structuring devices: both play on feelings of claustrophobia, and both find a way to promptly separate the Doctor from his TARDIS in order to ram home the point that there’s no way out.

Despite basic similarities, however, there are also a host of differences. Cold War needed to expend energy on reintroducing a classic monster, whereas Phantoms is unencumbered by any such need. And where Mark Gatiss’s screenplay necessarily had to pay close attention to budgetary constraints, Morris is free to throw in super squid as well as vampire squid and giant jellyfish: there are sea creatures galore featured here, with Big Finish playing extremely well to its audio strengths. Sound design also helps to convey the tension and isolation of characters trapped in various submarine vehicles, using a host of pinging, echoing underwater and radio communication effects to generate an acute sense of imagined place.

Sometimes across this series of fourth Doctor tales Tom Baker has been given a running gag (it was a desire for hard-boiled eggs in The Sands of Life, for instance), but there’s less obvious tomfoolery on this occasion, and Baker’s performance is all the better for it. He also finally gets to play off John Leeson more substantially, as a repaired K9 is given a far meatier role than he’s had of late. In fact, the cliffhanger to part one represents a stroke of genius from Jonathan Morris, turning one characteristic K9 expression into a chilling expression of threat. It’s a great moment, reminding the listener just how much televised Doctor Who has missed its traditional cliffhangers in recent times.

K9 also gets to communicate with some highly unexpected allies, and at least one event that would probably sound absurd if I summarized it here actually works well in content. Morris’s dialogue also takes the opportunity to poke gentle fun at the K9 prop; offered assistance by Romana, K9 notes that he’s “perfectly capable of traversing flat metal floors”. Along with using the robot dog effectively, Phantoms of the Deep also gives the TARDIS a memorable entrance, and as the cover image makes clear, the Doctor gets to supplement his characteristic costume with underwater/diving garb, venturing the observation that he’s a very strong swimmer. Clearly enjoying putting his lead characters in some unusual settings, Morris’s versatility comes across powerfully when you compare this release with The Auntie Matter; whether crafting Wodehouse pastiche or base-under-siege ghostliness, the writer seems equally at home.

Phantoms does hit a number of eminently predictable story beats, mind you – given that we have a deep-sea sub exploring the Mariana Trench, there’s precious little doubt that something nasty is going to be lurking down in the blackness of the ocean floor. And the title alone promises some kind of spectral presence. But this story still finds ways to surprise its audience – themes of possession may not be earth-shatteringly original, but there are a few new wrinkles to how events play out this time around. There’s a particular emphasis on the mind as well as the body, for instance.

The cast are all decent enough, though I’m not convinced they are greatly challenged by script requirements. Indeed, director Ken Bentley discusses how they rattled through scenes at quite a pace when making the story, and it’s easy to see how the limited settings and small cast would lend themselves to quickfire production. Alice Krige plays Dr. Patricia Sawyer; sadly her character feels a little identikit rather than really coming to life, and likewise other crew-members of the Deep Submergence Vehicle Erebus feel fairly generic – not that the story’s tight focus gives many opportunities for individuation. Phantoms of the Deep is very much action-oriented, so this is a rather inevitable outcome.

Gwilym Lee as young midshipman Jack Hodges is given a more unusual role amid the twenty-first century scientist-explorers, as Phantoms presents us with what, on the face of it, can only be an impossible lad. The collision of different character types doesn’t give rise to perhaps as much dramatic tension as it could, however, and there’s a “fish out of water” story bubbling away under the surface rather than really being given room to breathe. If this were a contemporary TV episode we’d no doubt be offered a greater emotional connection to Hodges and his strange plight, whereas here the emphasis is very much on a mystery to be resolved. Horses for fourth Doctor courses, though: Phantoms still feels like it belongs to its era, despite Morris’s characteristic playfulness. This is a satisfying addition to what has thus far been an occasionally uneven run of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm stories. The inventiveness of Phantoms isn’t submerged by ongoing story strands: it offers a self-enclosed, stand-alone and tension-filled tale before we're due to return to the character of Cuthbert for The Dalek Contract.

FILTER: - Fourth Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781780587