White Ghosts (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 20 April 2014 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

White Ghosts
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: February 2014
An atmospheric, knowing tale that ultimately delivers a number of smart twists, this adventure opens by building neatly on the concluding events of ‘The King of Sontar’. Dwelling on the emotional fall-out of Leela’s earlier decision and the Doctor’s displeasure, we witness Leela’s ongoing development as she reads a series of fairytales in order to escape from the Doctor’s apparently scolding silence. Little is wasted in this cleverly economical script, and the fairytale motif returns a number of times later on, shifting, mutating and deepening as we encounter it in various ways.

However, learning isn’t a wholly positive force in this story. Leela’s acknowledgement – “thank you, Doctor, for my education”, she says at one point – is contrasted with the academic culture encountered by the time-travellers. “Senior Tutor” Bengel and her “research assistants” are busy researching an extremely unusual planet where darkness endures almost constantly. Modified by injections so as to operate in the dark, these boggly-eyed scholars are investigating the “white ghosts” of the title: savagely sentient plants that grow at an accelerated rate when exposed to light. But this isn’t an idealistic pursuit of knowledge. Instead, the team of researchers aim to exploit their discoveries, vying dangerously with one another for status.

The Doctor coins a nickname for one of this scholarly team (performed very effectively by Bethan Walker from the Torchwood episode ‘Cyberwoman’), addressing her as “star pupil”. Elsewhere this might be a compliment, but in this case it eventually takes on a bleakly ironic tone. Meanwhile, the Senior Tutor is voiced by Virginia Hey, crossing from one SF franchise to another, and playing her role with all the conviction and authority that it requires.

For most of its running time this is a taut and compelling creation, veering into the territory of vampire mythology. But the story’s resolution is perhaps slightly hamfisted, depending on an impromptu and convenient spot of time-travelling while the Doctor and Leela are separated from the TARDIS. More intriguingly, the events of ‘King of Sontar’ resonate here in ways that run beyond Leela’s learning. The mythos introduced in ‘State of Decay’ is eventually also referenced, and the Time Lords look set to offer a recurring backdrop to this series of stories.

Although the mystery of the “white ghosts” is eventually solved, the story again doubles and bifurcates its pursuit of knowledge, with one discovery being countered by another of a very different nature. It seems that learning can be both good and evil, hopeful and duplicitous, in this world: fairytales don’t quite offer a reliable guide to the darkness at the edge of the universe.

When Leela engages in combat, we hear her ‘inner voice’ or warrior’s consciousness, and the device works extremely well to capture what could otherwise be a highly visual action sequence hamstrung by an audio-only format. It also slows down the action for a scene or two, in a story that is otherwise furiously concerned with acceleration – accelerated growth, accelerated change, and faster-than-light salvation. This counterpoint works exceptionally well, and Alan Barnes’ story is well served by Nick Briggs’ direction both here and throughout.

Tom Baker’s hilarious delivery of another incarnation’s catchphrase has to be heard to be believed. And there are other aural treats: occasional music cues sound vaguely reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to me, but this isn’t a Douglas Adams-esque romp, coming across instead as a tough SF-vampire thriller. There’s no sparkling in the light in this brand of hard-edged fantasy, and just as the Doctor’s response was called into question at the end of ‘King of Sontar’, some of his actions this time around also seem far from ideal. This realisation of the fourth Doctor is a touch less heroic than some of his televised versions, and rather more compromised or doubting, as Tom Baker notes in the extra feature interviews. It’s a fascinating dynamic, off-setting Leela’s growing understanding and literacy with a slightly less God-like, omniscient Doctor who's recurrently pushed to make difficult choices. However much we might strive to improve ourselves, awkward decisions always remain. And the Doctor’s optimism at meeting “people of learning” proves to be largely unfounded; learning is no guarantee of goodness or civility in ‘White Ghosts’. Light and dark may offer black-and-white certainties, but this is seemingly a grey universe, lacking in moral absolutes. Whether you’re a Doctor, a star pupil, or a Senior Tutor, you might not know best.

FILTER: - Fourth Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781782911

Horror Channel 'Who on Horror' Press Launch with Tom BakerBookmark and Share

Friday, 18 April 2014 - Reviewed by Melad Moshiri
Tom Baker and Dalek (Credit: Melad Moshiri)
Tom Baker Ivy Q&A (Credit: Melad Moshiri)
Who on Horror Davros Cell (Credit: Melad Moshiri)
Tom Baker and Scarf 1 (Credit: Melad Moshiri)
Tom Baker and Scarf 2 (Credit: Melad Moshiri)
On Monday April 14th, the day was uncertain for one of the main attractions. Tom Baker was to appear at The Ivy in Leicester Square, but days before, an illness seemed ready to put a stop to his attendance, having already cancelled a signing the Saturday before. Upon my arrival, and stepping aside at the main entrance, how wonderful it was when the Fourth Doctor himself was then happily posing outside infront of fans and photographers in the sunlight with one of his adversaries, a Dalek. Upstairs at the restaurant and bar provoked a lot of interest for the day with the very costumes of Doctors One to Seven (the latter being from The TV Movie) on display after their previous presence at the 50th Anniversary Celebration at London's ExCel arena.

Gathering fellow Doctor Who fans, bloggers and journalist in a corner of the room, Baker himself, looking very well at 80, greeted all to an enthusiastic "hello" back, as the Q&A session began. A first question posed was his much talked about cameo in The Day of the Doctor, something that the actor initially didn't want to have a part in. Baker spoke in a particularly vein manner when recalling a meeting with former producer Caroline Skinner:
I did contemplate not doing it, and I was persuaded by a girl called Caroline Skinner, who was the producer, and she came to meet me in Rye at the Mermaid Hotel, a lovely antique place, and she begged me to be in it. She’s a very persuasive girl and she was very charming about it and said I could tamper with the script and whatever, and so I said yes to her. Anyway, then the script arrived and I didn’t much care for the script, so I rang the BBC and said, "Get me Caroline Skinner". They said, "I’m so sorry, she’s not with us any more". And it was only later I found out she’d been murdered by someone else in the BBC, I suppose, who was after her job. And I never heard of her again. Going to Cardiff on a winter’s morning at four o’clock couldn’t possibly be fun, but [Matt Smith], he was nice and I didn’t understand the cameras any more because of the HD, so I was a bit uneasy. But Matt Smith was a charming young man and we did this little scene which people liked a lot.
He was then asked if another potential return to the show would be out of the question:
I wouldn't rule anything out. If it was a nice part, with some good lines, I might deign to appear! I greatly admire [Peter Capaldi], he's a brilliant actor. He's lovely and apparently he's a great fan of Doctor Who. He might ask for me! [On his cameo if it affected the surviving Doctors] I was delighted! Oh I hope so yes! That really pleased me.

Baker is known to the fandom to have had, at the time, disagreements with producer John-Nathan Turner during the 1980 run of the show which eventually saw a final season with his Fourth Doctor. He explained the reasoning behind his untimely departure:
My favourite period had to be the changeover from Barry Letts to Philip Hinchcliffe. He was amazing. Graham Williams was absolutely devoted, but he didn't have that kind of flair that Philip had. But he let me get away with murder so that was alright! Then John introduced many more characters. In the 25-minute format, there isn't room to divide a script between four or five principal characters so it meant that I was surrounded by people nodding away saying, "Yes, Doctor, that's right", they couldn't drive the plot. I had to drive the plot, that wasn't so fun at all. John Nathan-Turner and I did not see eye-to-eye really about very much. It was only afterwards when he'd gone that I got to realise what he was doing for Doctor Who. He was promoting it all over the world which was all to my advantage. We became quite good friends as time passed, we forgot all about those disagreements.
Interviewing him, I kept creativity in mind, stepping away from the formulaic questions such as "what was it like being The Doctor?", and instead queried about his feelings of the several costumes he wore throughout his tenure, to which he lovingly took on as an acting job. I later queried about his supposed involvement in The Five Doctors 20th anniversary special and if his decline to the opportunity had something to do with his conflicts with Nathan-Turner, which was indeed true:
I turned down The Five Doctors because it wasn't long since I'd left. I had left Doctor Who because I think I'd run my course. I didn't want to play 20 per cent of the part. I didn't fancy being a feed for other Doctors. In fact, it filled me with horror. Now, of course, if someone asked me to do a scene with some other Doctors, I think, if they let me tamper with the script, it would probably be quite droll. I would think about that, yes. I did one series too many of Doctor Who. I probably stayed on too long. I think I should've gone when John was taking over to liberate him to recast. Maybe I did one series too many. But the truth is, I never did give it up because people wouldn't let me give it up! I'd been waiting for a part like Doctor Who all my life and since I finished, it's never gone away. I'm still playing it for Big Finish, and I'm still happy!
An interesting question cropped up, revealing that he had been approached to be in The Sarah Jane Adventures for a guest stint as The Doctor intended for a sixth series. Enthused by the prospect, at the time, Baker then reminisced his memories being with former co-star Elisabeth Sladen:
I think it was being mooted at a time when Elisabeth began to be ill. I'd never seen it, but she was so thrilled, I never got round to doing that.
I was saying all this gobbledegook and people were falling around laughing and especially Elisabeth. As a colleague, she was absolutely devoted to me, so when we'd cook up a scene, she was always there saying just what I wanted. She'd say, "Listen to Tom!". We both were fond of old movies and we often stole bits! And because she admired me, I in turn adored her! When people laugh at my jokes, I'm extremely vulnerable! Elisabeth, oh... it was terrible when she went.

A break allowed all to chinwag about their appreciation of Who and of the man present, with complimentary drinks, refreshments, and (believe it or not) jelly babies layed out on tables. Tom was then photographed in between Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy's costumes while, as an extra special treat, wearing his burgundy hat and scarf he first wore in his final series as The Doctor. Leading next was Horror Channel's showcase of promoting Classic Doctor Who on the UK channel, represented by the face of the channel, Emily Booth, who proceeded to give a speech and presenting scenes from a couple of Tom's stories, (The Face of Evil and Genesis of the Daleks) set to the full 1963 version of the theme tune. An interview followed with Booth to Baker about his life on the show and his delight at Classic Who being on the channel, sharing anecdotes of being a fan of horror himself. After which, Tom quietly left.

There were musings in coversations that Peter Davison and Nicholas Briggs were to turn up, but alas, this never materialised, but Tom's presence certainly didn't bat this. Three individuals who did were The Fires of Pompeii writer James Moran, a representative from the BBC and a man named Peter, whose company (which I failed to know the name of) were responsible for creating the animation seen in Horror's posters and commercials.

It had been a frankly brilliant day talking non-stop to fans but also briefly exchanging words with the man himself. It had been arranged perfectly by the Horror team at an appropriately posh venue for a showcase like Doctor Who. Baker was on form and kept everyone in good spirits by joking in his usual manner but also being truthful and setting eyes on every person to interact with. Had Baker not have turned up, the launch would have been much shorter and would have felt somewhat empty. In short, Tom Baker saved the day and appeared to have enjoyed it very much.

FILTER: - Event - Fourth Doctor

Once, A New Musical with Arthur DarvillBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 8 April 2014 - Reviewed by Marcus

Playright: Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Tiffany
Opened New York: 6 December 2011
Opened London: 9 April 2013
Current London Cast: Arthur Darvill, Zrinka Cvitešić, Fiona Bruce, Mark Carlisle, Jamie Cameron, Matthew Ganley, Mathew Hamper, Allison Harding, Daniel Healy, David Hunter, Loren O’Dair, Tim Parker, Miria Parvin, Tim Prottey-Jones, Sophie Reid, Christina Tedders, Alex Turney, Jez Unwin, Ruth Westley, Robbie White
Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London
Once, A New Musical has been running in London's West End for over a year now, but its latest star has drawn a new crowd of Doctor Who fans, as Arthur Darvill takes over the role of Guy for the next month.

The role is a very different one for Darvill, far from the reluctant hero Rory dominated by his assertive wife, and patrons expecting to see a musical version of Rory will be disappointed. But in the role of Guy, Darvill is outstanding. It is a role he has played on Broadway and one in which he excels, bringing a reality and grit to what could be an over-sentimental piece.

The musical takes place at the Phoenix Theatre in London, but on entering the auditorium you find yourself in a Dublin bar. Indeed, a real bar with real drinks being served stands at the back of the stage, with members of the audience being encouraged up to spend some money and listen to some good Irish music. It's a very clever device which puts the audience in the centre of the action from the very start, literally mingling with the show's cast, and you hardly notice when the stage managers gently move the audience members into the stalls and the action begins.

In the show Darvill plays a Dublin busker and vacuum cleaner repair man, pining for a lost love. It's a role he seizes with relish and it gives him a chance to return to his musical roots. He belts out his numbers with a passion and energy that lifts the whole show. He has a fine strong voice and as he pours his heart into the songs you really feel his pain, passion and frustration.

In the story he meets a young Czech woman in the bar who is moved by his music and they start to fall in love. The girl is played by Zrinka Cvitešić who has been with the production since its London premiere and who is delightful in the role, bringing a playfulness and vitality and a zest for life to the role, which sees her tease and cajole Guy into performing his music and bringing him out of the depression he was mired in.

The whole cast perform their own music, and as the musical proceeds bring a whole raft of characters to life, from the girl's eccentric flatmates to the Irish bank manager with a hidden secret. The fact that there is no orchestra churning out a backing track, with all the music coming from the players on stage, again feeds into the reality of the show and draws the audience into the action.

All in all, it is a very entertaining evening. Darvill is with the London cast until 10th May, with the production booking into next year.

For more information on the production visit the official website or the Once, The Musical Facebook page.
Thanks to Dewynters

FILTER: - Events

Afterlife (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 April 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Produced by Big Finish
Written by Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: December 2013
Strangely enough for an audio drama which packs countless nods to the past and exists entirely within the continuity of Doctor Who’s ‘classic’ era, Matt Fitton’s latest Seventh Doctor release captures the essence of modern-day Who more faithfully than any of its predecessors. Where the show in its 1980s guise would rarely place a significant focus on the consequences of the titular Madman with a Box’s journeys through time and space, barely an episode goes by these days without a past action coming back to haunt the character or a spur-of-the-moment decision forcing him to contemplate the limits of his moral compass and the extent of his ability to aid those in need of liberation. No longer will a regeneration be casually cast aside mere moments into the new Doctor’s first adventure, nor a companion’s departure left unacknowledged in the episodes which follow it. Afterlife gracefully echoes this grounded, sympathetic take on the Time Lord’s adventures and their effects on his assistants, and- despite a few tonal mishaps along the way- comes off all the better for it.

In stark contrast to recent Big Finish releases such as Dark Eyes 2, the premise of Fitton’s narrative is relatively straightforward: Thomas Hector Schofield (better known to Doctor Who fans as ‘Hex’) was killed by Fenric in 2012’s Gods and Monsters, a calamitous event which has (with good reason) turned Ace against the Doctor, leaving the latter to contemplate how to redeem himself after his being directly connected to the demise of one of his most loyal allies. Not since Earthshock and (albeit briefly) Time-Flight has a pre-21st Century Who yarn sought to have its eternal protagonist’s psyche and endless internalised guilt go quite so far under the microscope, and indeed, Fitton utilises the rarity of such a narrative opportunity as this to his significant advantage, providing a script which offers its lead stars their strongest material in years in terms of emotional and dramatic scope for future development. If there remain fans out in the big wide world who doubt Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s talents, then this just might be the drama to convince them otherwise.

Inevitably, Ace is of the most paramount importance to the listener (and her ‘screen time’ reflects this suitably) as their entry point into proceedings, and to this degree, Aldred conveys beautifully the pathos of the character’s loss of a close friend, of someone who perhaps could have been something more than that had he not bitten the proverbial bullet before his time. Too often in the final episodes of the show’s 1980s run before its cancellation, this feisty and yet wholly sympathetic companion was cruelly robbed of a satisfying personal arc, with The Curse of Fenric coming the closest to matching Father’s Day and The Fires of Pompeii in its representation of its human protagonist’s utter disbelief at their extra-terrestrial hero’s detachment from emotion, yet still somehow falling short. In this respect, Afterlife excels without limits, casting Ace in an entirely new light and in doing so presenting Aldred with potential aplenty to continue this developmental and refreshingly formative arc for her character in months to come.

Where McCoy fares best is in his mirroring and evolution of the detached, uncharacteristically repulsive version of the Doctor glimpsed in Curse, the latter attribute central to the early stages of the narrative in which he and Ace are both literally and metaphorically separated not only by the gravity of Hex’s passing, but by the Time Lord’s inability to comprehend his friend’s grief in light of the frequency of meetings and partings such as these for a seasoned time traveller. An extended metaphor referenced by him and ex-TARDIS voyager Sally Morgan involves the concept of his companions being kites, the character himself being the one who controls them to varying avail, a notion which once again achieves its purpose of subverting our perspective on the titular wanderer’s morality magnificently.

Scribes before and after Fitton have and surely will continue to draw the line on this semi-psychological interrogation at this stage, yet to the immense benefit of Afterlife, Fitton steps once more unto the breach in his narrative’s final moments, teasing his audience with hints of the man who will become “a warrior” and seemingly commit double genocide in days to come as McCoy’s incarnation revels in his increasingly apt mythological title of “the Oncoming Storm” and the likelihood that, on occasion, his enemies could perceive him as “[their] worst nightmare”. Once the narrative’s final confrontation between its uncovered antagonist and its concerningly-omnipotent protagonist is done and dusted, it’s difficult to shake the sense that the Doctor has commenced a self-instigated psychological metamorphosis, whereby the character who represented nothing more than “a mild curiosity in a junkyard” to his first human onlookers has slowly but surely become a source of fear for the universe’s plethora of terrorising menaces, a thematic strand which of course only continues to build as we analyse and evaluate the implications of modern tales including The Pandorica Opens and A Good Man Goes To War today.

If you’ve noticed the omission of discussion of Afterlife’s alien adversary so far in this review, then feel free to treat yourself to a sizable bag of Jelly Babies and/or Jammie Dodgers at some point today: while her presence isn’t detrimental enough to derail the drama as a whole, Mandi Symonds’ Lily Finnegan (whose true identity this reviewer shan’t spoil, since the revelation itself is undoubtedly one of the narrative’s finest moments) is presented in a pantomime-esque manner at times, since the tiresome stereotypical representation of her Irish cultural roots (clearly intended by Fitton to act as a satirical element of comic relief) becomes more of a running gag than anything else in a rightly sombre storyline which could easily have done without it. It’s rare that Doctor Who’s inhabitance of the science-fiction genre proves to be disadvantageous for its scribes, but in this instance, Finnegan seems to be intended as little more than a means through which Fitton can assert his narrative’s (arguably unnecessary) conformation to the programme’s generic conventions.

Such is the mark of any great singular instalment of Who, however, that in spite of its minor shortcomings, the strength of its narrative, its performances and its construction prevail as the dominant elements for which we will remember and cherish it in the years following its debut. Afterlife is one such defining example of a chapter of this ilk, for quibbles regarding its slight structural blemishes and tonal missteps (the former manifesting as a result of the latter in Fitton’s somewhat awkward utilisation of Finnegan in the rushed cliff-hangers which tail-end Parts One and Two) become near-irrelevant in light of Fitton’s subversive, emotionally riveting script, Aldred and McCoy’s potent evolution of Ace and the Doctor’s personas respectively and a genuinely shocking final sequence which could set the Seventh Doctor audio range off on a completely unique trajectory with unprecedented consequences down the line (or to put it another way: “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon!”). This gripping audio drama is one of (if not the) best releases that Big Finish have produced in years, and consequently, it ranks up there with Doctor Who’s superior 21st Century works overall.

FILTER: - Seventh Doctor - Big Finish - Audio - 1781780811

The Dr. Who FannualBookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 April 2014 - Reviewed by John Bowman

Publisher: Fannual Distributors Ltd
Published: 25th February 2014
Various writers and illustrators
Cleverly billed as an unofficial annual for an unofficial Doctor, this fan-produced publication inspired by the two 1960s Dalek movies starring Peter Cushing has been designed to go with the flow of the authorised World Distributors offerings, which were like manna from heaven to followers of the show in those far-off fiction-starved days.

And it's a publication to treasure indeed - one that sits perfectly between the second and third official volumes. Its bumper 172 pages are packed with stories, features and strips lovingly created by a plethora of inspired, talented writers and artists - familiar names as well as new ones - all with a shining passion for the subject matter. And they've all risen magnificently to the challenge of taking Dr. Who, Susan, Barbara, Ian, Louise and Tom off on different adventures with, as the cover says, "splendid tales of the unknown based on the fabulous films". One can truly imagine Cushing et al uttering the words and thinking the thoughts given to them, while the illustrations - in their widely varying styles - cleverly capture the essence of the artwork in the official annuals.

As such, the fannual not only echoes the wonderful innocence of its '60s counterparts, it is also afforded the luxury of hindsight that allows some fun to be had without ruining continuity. And the contributors' broad-ranging knowledge does allow for some delightful in-jokes - the "Omnirumour" makes an appearance in one place, while lyrics from Not So Old, as sung by Roberta Tovey on the B-side of her 1965 cash-in single Who's Who, are neatly woven in elsewhere!

It'll come as no surprise that the Daleks feature quite often in the fannual, either directly in a story or referenced elsewhere, but it did come as a nice surprise to see another classic monster (I won't say which) make an appearance too.

Being a fan production, with so many other demands on the contributors' and publishers' lives, it's taken a while to see the light of day, the idea having been initially sparked back in October 2012. Co-publisher Scott Burditt told Doctor Who News that what also contributed to the somewhat lengthy gestation was the fact that he didn't want to go down the PDF-delivery road, preferring instead to provide a physical copy for people to leaf through, which also meant they weren't tied to a computer (or similar) if they wanted to read it. "Paper doesn't need a battery," as he succinctly put it!

That then meant investigating the best way of getting it printed, which again took time. In the end, print-on-demand self-publishing was deemed the most suitable production method in order to be able to offer all the desired variants, although he admits that that isn't without its drawbacks when it comes to pricing.

With so much to offer (just take a look at the contents page reproduced here), it almost seems churlish to single anyone out for praise. Different readers will, after all, prefer different prose styles and genres, and this publication seems to have it all - sci-fi, action-adventure, history, comedy, tragedy, philosophy, and romance - but it all starts very cleverly with It All Begins Tomorrow, by Mark Hevingham. I also particularly enjoyed The Trial of Dr. Who, by co-publisher Shaqui Le Vesconte, which sees the scientist brought to account by the Knights of Chronos for the apparent time paradox caused by allowing Tom Campbell to nab the jewel thieves at the end of the second Dalek film, while Happy Ever After and The Girl At The End of Time, both by Katherine Lopez, are extraordinarily poignant and moving in their treatment of the characters (no more details, sorry - spoilers!).

On the artwork side, again, it's a toughie, but shout-outs must be given for Westley James Smith, who provided the cover, as well as Tony Clark and Dave Golding for their work inside.

If I had one criticism of the fannual, though, it's the spelling errors that crept in. One practically expects the occasional clanger these days, but after all the hard work poured into the fannual, there seemed - to me, at least - to be an uncomfortable number of schoolboy howlers in there that let the side down and could so easily have been removed beforehand with a decent proof-read.

Depending on the format and cover chosen - hardback or paperback, with colour or black-and-white pages - the price of the fannual veers upwards from £5.96, via £16.46, to a whopping £37.80. Don't forget the tax (where applicable) and shipping as well (£3.99, £7.99 and £13.99 payable for that in the UK, depending on the preferred delivery speed). The various formats can be viewed and ordered via this link.

So, if you're looking towards the deluxe end of the range, it could put a serious dent in your wallet, but the choice of outlay is yours. And it's well worth remembering how much the commercial overlords at the BBC charge fans these days for the disappointingly slim official annual and what the fans get in return. I know which of the two - fannual or annual - I'd prefer to have, and the fact that the fannual has already had to be reprinted would indicate that many others readily agree.

A follow-up U.N.I.T Fannual 1974 is in the works and scheduled for publication just before Christmas 2014. Certainly, if the Dr. Who one is anything to go by, then it will be something to relish and savour just as much.

FILTER: - Books

Luna RomanaBookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 April 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Luna Romana
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Matt Fitton
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: January 2014
ISBN: 978-1-78178-089-3
"Help me, Luna Romana! You're my only hope!"
Quadrigger Stoyn

Luna Romana marks the third and climactic chapter in The Companion Chronicles' "Stoyn" trilogy which, along with Big Finish's The Light at the End and the 1963 saga, celebrated Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in late 2013. For the uninitiated that have not listened to the earlier instalments (including this reviewer), Quadrigger Stoyn is the hapless TARDIS engineer who was inadvertently aboard the First Doctor's Ship when he and granddaughter Susan first fled Gallifrey in the audio The Beginning. Several lifetimes later, an embittered, maddened Stoyn returns to confound the Fourth Doctor and his Time Lady companion Romana – twice over . . .

According to author Matt Fitton in an interview in Doctor Who Magazine, Luna Romana was always intended as a three-hander play that would be told from the perspectives of Romana's TV incarnations, as played by Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward respectively, and Terry Molloy's villainous Stoyn. However, as fate decreed, Ms Tamm sadly passed away in 2012. Fitton and producer David Richardson decided to continue with the story as a tribute to Tamm and ingeniously drafted in Juliet Landau (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) to tell Romana I's story. Landau, fresh from having portrayed a future version of Romana in the final season of Big Finish's Gallifrey saga, therefore narrates Romana I's account from the standpoint of her future incarnation while Ward directly supplies Romana II's side of the story.

Fitton is no stranger to drafting (in his own words) "timey-wimey" stories, as he so ably proved with The Wrong Doctors (which also saw the Sixth Doctor and Melanie Bush cross their own time streams), and Luna Romana is an equally clever and carefully plotted tale. The story begins with the Fourth Doctor and Romana I arriving at the Temple of the goddess Luna in ancient Rome in their search for the final segment of the Key to Time. The first act is substantially slower in pace than you'd normally expect of a Doctor Who tale and it is difficult to fathom at first exactly where the narrative is going as the Time Lord pair visit a Roman arena production of what is more familiar to modern audiences as the farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the two Time Lords even meet the playwright Plautus). However, as the Doctor is heard to remark later, this is no coincidence, merely an instance of "spatio-temporal synchronistic serendipity"!

It is from mid-way through the first episode (this story is still structured like a four-part classic Doctor Who serial) that the drama really picks up pace. Episode two is particularly action-packed as Ward assumes the narrative duties from Landau. The story jumps forward a "season" (in TV terms) as the Fourth Doctor and Romana II materialise in what also appears to be ancient Rome. The jigsaw pieces gradually fall into place - although not necessarily in the right chronological order! - as Romana II finds herself reliving part of the adventure of her first incarnation, all whilst trying to avoid as little disruption to her time stream as possible and thwarting Stoyn's final roll of the dice in his grudge against the Doctor.

The three performers all excel in the storytelling. Landau magnificently conveys the sense of naivety, innocence, haughtiness and impatience that personified Tamm's Romana I, while Ward from the get-go contrasts Landau's performance with the more confident, comfortable and upbeat demeanour that typified her Romana II. Landau even does a passable impression of Tom Baker's Doctor, complete with booming voice and embellished oratory, while Ward uses a subtler authority in her voice to deliver the Doctor's dialogue. It is also a feature of good acting on Ward's part that she convincingly manages to spar with herself when expressing retorts between the Doctor and Romana II: "Well, they always did say I was ahead of my time at the Academy!" "No, they said you were always late - not the same thing at all!"

Molloy's talents are also put to very good use in this story, as he provides all the voices for the acting troupe of Plautus's Roman play as well as Stoyn. While some of his inflections inevitably remind you of his often-brilliant turns as Davros, Molloy for the most part manages to earn sympathy (from both Romana I and the listener) as both victim and villain. You naturally assume (given this is a three-hander) that Molloy also substitutes for a multitude of different voices amongst the acting troupe. It is therefore a pleasant surprise - and an inspired twist - when this proves not to be as obvious as it sounds! In the DWM preview of this story, Fitton rather spoiled the surprise. Needless to say, I'm not going to give a spoiler here - but it is a very smart use of sound to hide a major plot point. The surprise could not have been so easily hidden if Luna Romana had been recorded as a full-cast audio drama.

Long-term fans may question why half of the story is set near the end of the Key to Time season and not during Big Finish's second series of the full-cast Fourth Doctor Adventures, which sadly marked Tamm's last work as Romana I. I've personally always been a little irritated by past efforts by authors (notably David McIntee in the Virgin Missing Adventure The Shadow of Weng-Chiang) to shoe-horn their stories into the Key to Time saga, especially when it is obvious that a segment of the Key won't be recovered. However, I'm prepared to let Luna Romana off on this count for two reasons. One, I don't think the portrayal of Romana I would work as effectively without it being set in this timeframe (again, she is more naive in this tale than Tamm's portrayal in the Fourth Doctor Adventures). And two, it seems that there is indeed a missing piece of the Key - despite the Doctor and Romana I possessing five of the six segments and the sixth still awaiting them on Atrios! How could another segment of the Key exist in ancient Rome, you ask? The twist is simple yet nevertheless logical. We also eventually understand why the Doctor would prefer to watch a play in Rome, much to Romana I's chagrin, than complete their mission. It makes perfect sense and is consistent with the Fourth Doctor's eccentric character and moral code. He is, fittingly in the spirit of the story, not just playing the fool!

Luna Romana is an excellent chapter in The Companion Chronicles series and an entertaining Doctor Who audio adventure in its own right. Despite its small cast and longer length (at 120 minutes, it is twice the length of a regular Companion Chronicle), Luna Romana is a solid story and it has many memorable, emotive and witty moments that wouldn't always be captured in a full-cast drama. While the story may have been intended more specifically to celebrate Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, Luna Romana is ultimately a fitting mark of respect to Mary Tamm, "beautiful, brilliant, shiny" (to quote Landau's future incarnation) and for many fans (including yours truly) one of the noblest Romanas of them all.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Audio - Companion - 1781780897