Antidote To OblivionBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 29 July 2014 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton

Antidote to Oblivion
Released by Big Finish
Written by Philip Martin
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Jan 2014

To say that the character of Sil (played then and now by Nabil Shaban) was one of the antagonists with which this reviewer didn’t particularly engage during his initial (and subsequent) viewings of various serials from the sixth Doctor's era would be a gross understatement. Much as the more open-minded fans amongst us might champion the various highlights of Colin Baker’s tenure on the TARDIS – indeed, Revelation of the Daleks and The Trial of a Time Lord are both stuffed to the brim with ambition – there were undoubtedly times between The Twin Dilemma and The Ultimate Foe where Doctor Who’s then-terminal status at the BBC was, for the most part, justified.

Ever masters of the art of subverting expectations, however, Big Finish deserve considerable credit for refusing to be intimidated by using some of the more controversial adversaries in the show’s extensive backlog. Shaban’s hyperactive, sickeningly corrupt ‘businessman’ (if such a term can be attributed without causing offense to those real-life individuals whose job title reads identically) is back in full force in Antidote to Oblivion, “whether you like it or not” (to paraphrase a similarly loathed line of dialogue from The Twin Dilemma), constantly conspiring to manipulate the residents of a far-future incarnation of the UK on behalf of his equally-seedy superiors at the Universal Monetary Fund. Regardless of whether one adores or bemoans the construct in question, the relish with which Shaban portrays him is completely evident throughout and if nothing else warrants more than a little admiration.

On the other hand, writer Philip Martin’s insistence on mirroring the aforementioned guest star’s fidelity towards his past work cannot be excused so easily. Try as it might to differentiate from what’s come before by emphasising the somewhat refreshing character dynamic between the Doctor (Baker) and his incumbent companion Flip Jackson (Lisa Greenwood) as well as placing Sil in a far more vulnerable position than we’ve arguably seen him so far, Antidote could very well go by the alternative name Best of Sil and, if anything, would probably have received further plaudits for paying homage to the character’s previous appearances so accurately. That’s clearly not Martin’s intention, though, as by including a semi-indoctrinated community of underground dwellers in the narrative, he seems to attempt a form of dystopian satire aimed at our race’s present overreliance on financial gain and related paperwork, only for the all-too-familiar structure, cliff-hangers and underdeveloped characters presented within it to rob the drama of any opportunity to be credibly scrutinized and interpreted on an academic basis.

For every thorn, of course, there remains a hidden-yet-certainly-present rose (yes, that’s a slightly altered idiom, but what’s the use of a good quote if you can’t change it?), and in this instance, despite the other Baker’s rendition of Gallifrey’s one-time lone survivor not always being held in the same lofty esteem as Tom’s or the rest, the penultimate regular classic incarnation earns himself plenty of justice. Gone is the hilariously self-ridiculing take on the character which Colin offered in last year’s monumentally successful 50th Anniversary mockumentary The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, replaced by a far more passionate and consistent portrayal made possible by Martin’s accomplished distribution of worthy dialogue. Flip, meanwhile, mightn’t exactly rank up with Sarah-Jane Smith and Amy Pond as one of Doctor Who’s more beloved companions (though that’s through no fault of Greenwood’s own – quite to the contrary, it’s scriptwriters such as Martin who cruelly neglect to give the oft-forgettable character meaningful arcs), yet Greenwood’s actual performance is every bit as layered and engaging as her co-star’s work.

It’s ultimately the lack of ambition present in Antidote to Oblivion which overtly distinguishes it from superior Big Finish dramas such as (to name but a few recent examples) Starlight Robbery, U.N.I.T. Dominion and the exemplary Destiny of the Doctor range, an infuriatingly persistent shortcoming of late in the studio’s Doctor Who range which needs fixing as quickly as the twelfth Doctor needs to determine whether or not he can truly call himself a good man when the show returns to our screens next month. Whilst we’re all but guaranteed a resolution of some kind for the latter dilemma in Series Eight, that this flaw has restrained a number of storylines in the 2014 Who audio range offers us less cause for immediate confidence in the former department. Chances are that the studio are saving their piece de resistance for their impending multi-serial collection The Worlds of Doctor Who in October, yet given that their own 50th Anniversary Special – The Light at the End – was hardly flawless, not to mention that 2013 brought with it a commendable number of accomplished Big Finish dramas even before Light, the notion of remaining unperturbed by the increasingly diminishing returns-esque nature of their recent output is becoming ever more challenging as the months progress.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Audio - Sixth Doctor - 1781782989

Tomb ShipBookmark and Share

Monday, 28 July 2014 - Reviewed by Richard Watts

Tomb Ship
Released by Big Finish
Written by Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released: May 2014

The second of this year’s audio adventures featuring the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Nyssa of Traken (Sarah Sutton) sees the time travelling duo arrive on board a giant floating tomb: the final resting place of the God-King of the Arrit, an ancient civilisation who might one day have rivalled the Time Lords, had they not become extinct.

There’s little about the Arrit, as they’re portrayed by writers Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby (The Doomsday Quatrain, 1001 Nights) that suggests ancient and powerful intelligences – one of many flaws of this frankly rather flimsy tale. Save for the ultimate plan of their God-King, the Arrit come across as rather generic aliens, as does their giant floating tomb-ship, a musty labyrinth littered with occasional corpses and fiendish traps straight out of the ‘deadly room of death’ trope satirised so memorably in Galaxy Quest.

With the TARDIS crew pitted against the Arrit’s insectoid slaves, the Arrit-Ko, and only other adversary save for the tomb itself being a party of tomb raiders led by the mercenary Virna (Eve Karpf), there’s an awful lot of running around corridors in Tomb Ship and very little in the way of narrative tension, though thankfully the drama increases in the final chapter, as various plot threads combine.

Tension should arise out of the conflict between the Doctor and his antagonists, but neither Virna nor her hapless sons – Hisko (James Hayward), Heff (Jonathan Forbes), Murs (Ben Porter) and Rek (Phil Mulryne) – have much in the way of personality, rendering their interactions with the Doctor quite forgettable. The monomaniacal Virna is gratingly one-dimensional, and her children aren’t so much well rounded characters as a predictable collection of types: there’s the stupid one, the violent one, the slightly suspicious one – and of course the short lived one whose sole purpose is to show us how the traps work.

Also present on the tomb-ship is the mysterious Jhanni (Amy Ewbank), whose real identity will be easily guessed by listeners, while the sudden appearance of another character from an earlier Big Finish release late in the piece is forced in the extreme, straining willing suspension of disbelief almost to breaking point.

Performances, thankfully, are strong, though Davison sounds a little bored; the rest of the cast do their best with their underdeveloped characters. For once, Sutton does not have to play a possessed Nyssa. The sound design is excellent, one of the few highlights of this underwritten, unimaginative story.

Some of Big Finish’s audio adventures are true classics, easily comparable to such outstanding television stories as Kinda and The Caves of Androzani. Sadly, the company’s 2014 releases for the fifth Doctor to date are more akin to Time Flight and Warriors of the Deep – evocative of the period, perhaps, but hardly worth revisiting.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Audio - Fifth Doctor - 1781783128

Charlotte Pollard Series OneBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 23 July 2014 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen

Charlotte Pollard Series One
Released by Big Finish
Written by Jonathan Barnes and Matt Fitton
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Jan 2014

Charlotte Elspeth Pollard, “Charley” to her friends, played by India Fisher has been a mainstay of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas ever since her first appearance alongside eighth Doctor Paul McGann in the 2001 play, Storm Warning. The eighth Doctor and Charley parted company in 2007’s The Girl Who Never Was. However a surprise twist saw her being picked up by sixth Doctor Colin Baker, with whom she shared a handful of adventures in which she sought to hide the truth of having already met the Doctor’s future self. Charley’s story appeared to have reached an end in 2009’s “Charley finale” trilogy culminating in Blue Forgotten Planet which saw her left behind as an agent of the mysterious race known as the Viyrans.

Nicholas Briggs had promised that Charley would return in her series and five years later, following the eventual commissioning of Jonathan Barnes and Matt Fitton to write the scripts, it has finally arrived. At the start of The Lamentation Cipher we learn that Charley has spent centuries in the employ of the Viyrans, assisting them in their ongoing mission to rid the universe of a deadly virus. However due to being mostly kept in cryogenic suspension for decades at a time she has barely aged at all since the end of her travels with the Doctor. A chance encounter with a slightly nerdy would-be adventurer called Robert Buchan provides Charley with an opportunity to attempt to escape from the Viyrans. And so begins a new series of adventures which see our heroine transported from a pub overlooking a spatial phenomenon known as the Ever-and-Ever-Prolixity to an encounter with lost explorers in a remote uncharted forest and an unexpected reunion with her parents.

The Fall of the House of Pollard is possibly the highlight of the box set. Anneke Wills has previously played imagined versions of Charley’s mother Lady Louisa Pollard in the plays Zagreus and The Next Life and it is a joy to hear her bring the real Lady Louisa to life. She is joined by Terrence Hardiman who gives a richly layered performance as her husband Lord Richard Pollard. Lord Richard swings between being a delightful curmudgeon to a somewhat unhinged individual who has clearly been affected by Charley’s disappearance six years earlier. The plot may have some parallels with popular ITV drama Downton Abbey but the reunion scenes are worth waiting for and genuinely touching for those who have followed Charley’s story from the beginning.

Always in the background of events are Charley’s erstwhile employers The Viyrans. For the most part they are voiced by veteran actor Michael Maloney, reprising them from Patient Zero and Blue Forgotten Planet. Whilst for the most part very robotic, Maloney add some layers to the different Viyran voices, particularly as the softly spoken Rogue Viyran who has a central role to the story running through this set. The Viyrans are often at their most frightening when they use their ability to assimilate the language and voice of those they encounter.

The set concludes with the suitably epic The Viyran Solution, in which the mystery that connects Charley to the Lamentation Cipher and the Viyrans to the Ever-and-Ever Prolixity is brought to a head. Nicholas Briggs gets a welcome opportunity to steal several scenes playing corrupt businessman Bert Buchan, the father of erstwhile hero Robert, who attempts to exploit Viyran technology to make a profit.

Returning to the role after five years, India Fisher continues to inject Charley with effortless enthusiasm and reminds us why back in the days before the new television series Charley became such a popular companion and why she continues to shine as a lead character in her own right. Whilst not wanting to give too much away, although the label “series one” is fairly suggestive, the door is left open for Charley to have further adventures and this listener will certainly welcome a second series. However, the frequent references to Charley’s adventures with the Doctor act as a reminder of the slightly unsatisfactory conclusion to her travels and we can’t help hoping Charley will see her Doctor again one day.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Audio - 1781783039

The Dying LightBookmark and Share

Monday, 14 July 2014 - Reviewed by Ben Breen

The Dying Light
Released by Big Finish
Written by Nick Wallace
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: Dec 2013

Big Finish Productions strive to create audio adventures that can be enjoyed by everyone and their efforts for last November's celebrations were very successful in that regard. As part of their relentless quest to bring more and more original tales of the Time Lords to anyone who likes audiobooks, a three story run involving the slippery Quadrigger Stoyn came into being.

This trilogy consists of The Beginning, The Dying Light and finally, Luna Romana. The Dying Light is one of several audio adventures featured under the banner of "The Companion Chronicles".

Even though I received a Companion Chronicles CD with my special edition copy of The Light at the End, the main 50th anniversary adventure, I haven't got around to listening to it as of the time of writing. However, I was aware before delving into this story that they might be shorter adventures, partly due to them not being full cast audio dramas. Nonetheless, as I listened and wondered what twists and turns the plot had in store, I was actually surprised and a little disappointed to discover that there were only two episodes in this story. This allows for little background and character development to be accomplished in comparison to the more common full cast audio dramas, such as The Sirens of Time, which normally have around four episodes each.

The story is, to say the least, an intriguing one. The Doctor, in his second incarnation, along with Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury), land once again off-course, in a cave of some kind. After realising that the scanner isn't defective, as is first feared, the three time travellers then embark on an exploration of a great city. This takes them into some rather dangerous situations, one of these encounters finishing up the first episode. In what could be seen as an homage to the second Doctor's era - the time travellers are trapped both in progress and retreat by large stone giants. This does play a role in the second and final episode of the story, if only seemingly for dramatic tension. The planet on which the travellers land is said to be a dying one, orbiting a dying star. Well, no prizes for guessing where the adventure gets its name from.

The plot itself seems fairly sketchy in places, although since this review only covers the standalone story, there may be important links in the other sections of the trilogy which are missing here. Repeated listening may be preferable to discover exactly how the salient points are supposed to fit together.

The only criticism I could place on this story is that there was no dedicated cast member for Katherine, although Hines' performance is admirable. His second doctor, however, does deserve a mention and, as seen in The Light at the End, his performance does imitate the late Patrick Troughton relatively well.

The casting of Terry Molloy, well-known to most Doctor Who fans as the psychotic and maniacal Davros, creator of the Daleks, seems well thought out. Quadrigger Stoyn does begin as a particularly prickly character, aided by Molloy’s choice of vocabulary as much as his own vocal qualities. It progresses to a point at which we, as readers/listeners, might begin to sympathise with him, but there is nearly always an uncertain feeling about what he is going to come up with next, appropriate for a villain of this style.

All in all, The Dying Light is a rather intriguing two-episode adventure even as a standalone story, with what might be considered a minor lack of casting and a slightly puzzling story.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Second Doctor - Audio - 1781780889

Dark Eyes 2Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 10 July 2014 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen

Dark Eyes 2
Released by Big Finish
Written by Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes, Matt Fitton
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Feb 2014

Following on the success of the 2012 release Dark Eyes, which was awarded Best Online Only Drama in the 2014 BBC Audio Drama awards; it seemed inevitable that the popular pairing of the eighth Doctor and new companion Molly O’Sullivan would be back for more adventures. The original four-part box set which was written and produced by Nicholas Briggs was originally conceived to encapsulate a whole era of Doctor Who, as if Briggs were show-runner for the eighth Doctor. As such whilst the story of Molly’s adventures seemed to have been neatly rounded off with her resuming her old life as nurse in the Great War following the Doctor’s defeat of the Dalek Time Controller and its ally Kotris, there are always new dangers to be fought. Dark Eyes 2 sees the beginning of a new story-arc which is promised to continue over to further box set releases – Dark Eyes 3 & 4 – due to be released later this year and in early 2015. This time Briggs has shared the writing duties with Big Finish stalwarts Alan Barnes and Matt Fitton who have taken on responsibility for planning out the new arc.

The new set opens with Briggs’ contribution, The Traitor, which finds the Doctor on the Dalek-occupied planet of Nixyce VII where he is reunited with med-tech Liv Chenka, played once again by Nicola Walker. Liv first appeared in the 2011 seventh Doctor release Robophobia but she is naturally sceptical of Paul McGann’s Doctor's claim to be the same Doctor she encountered previously. Her role as an apparent collaborator with the Daleks will remind long-time Big Finish listeners of that the “Angel of Mercy” Susan Mendes in the spin-off series Dalek Empire and once again Briggs evokes a similar atmosphere of harsh life under Dalek-rule. Walker and McGann are given some great material to work with as their characters clash due to the Doctor’s ambiguous role in events.

The second story, The White Room by Alan Barnes, finally brings about the welcome reunion of McGann’s Doctor with Ruth Bradley as Molly. This is possibly the weakest of the four episodes although it still manages to be a fun romp with time-travel elements although the reveal of which recurring aliens from previous Big Finish releases are responsible may leave some listeners slightly underwhelmed. However this still sets the scene nicely for the adventures to come.

The remaining two stories are both written by Matt Fitton and in these the box set gets down to business and back to the more serious tone established by The Traitor. Minor spoilers follow.

Time’s Horizon sees the Doctor and Molly arrive on a space-ship in the distant future where the crew have just been revived from centuries of cryosleep. Amongst them is Liv Chenka who we learn managed to narrowly escape from Nixyce VII with her life and is therefore not very pleased to see the Doctor. For the Doctor however, in a twist worthy of Steven Moffat, the events of Nixyce VII have not yet happened so he has no recollection and faces the added complication of ensuring Liv doesn’t tell him too much. This story sees the return of another Big Finish recurring enemy, the sinister force known as the Eminence, played with relish by David Sibley. Ironically this release pre-dates their first chronological appearance opposite the fourth Doctor in the June 2014 release Destroy the Infinite although in typical Big Finish timey-wimey-ness, The Eminence first appeared in last year’s sixth Doctor adventure The Seeds of War. However this story does not require any prior knowledge to be able to follow.

The set concludes with the much anticipated reunion of the eighth Doctor with his TV Movie adversary, The Master. Alex Macqueen first appeared in the role in the 2012 box set UNIT: Dominion in which his true identity was revealed after he successfully masqueraded as a future incarnation of the Doctor. Big Finish have previously remained tight-lipped about this incarnation’s position in the Master’s time-line but a couple of throwaway lines including Macqueen describing McGann’s Doctor as “a sight for sore eyes” hints at an answer to satisfy most fans. Macqueen has made clear in interviews that he takes his performance from the scripts and doesn’t base his portrayal on any of the previous TV incarnations. However it is clear from the scripting that his slightly camp and brilliantly sinister Master sits comfortably between the calculated menace of Delgado and Beevers, and the unhinged villainy of Ainley and Simm. The Eyes of the Master sees the two Time Lords reunited in their familiar battleground of 1970s London. The story is a worthy conclusion to the set with some great scenes although we are promised a full on face-off between the Doctor and the Master in Dark Eyes 3 this November.

Overall, Dark Eyes 2 is a worthy continuation of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures which left this listener yearning for the next instalment. Paul McGann continues to live up to the promise of being “probably not the one you were expecting”.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Eighth Doctor - Audio - 1781783047

The War to End All WarsBookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 July 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The War To End All Wars (Credit: Big Finish)The War To End All Wars
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Simon Guerrier
Directed By Lisa Bowerman
Released April 2014
Doctor Who has traditionally been about the female companions and their combination of helping the Doctor and being protected by him over the course of their adventures. There have been a good number of male companions as well but they are clearly in the minority. The most number in a decade of the classic series were the four who featured in black and white. Steven Taylor was particularly badly affected by the video junking but there is enough material remaining (such as audio and telesnaps) for me to conclude that he was a decent character. Perhaps in comparison to pioneering companion Ian, Steven was a little less nuanced but he still could be well-written, and would always be played with skill by Peter Purves.

Purves' attitude to Doctor Who is interesting - he ended up having a wonderful career as a presenter and could easily have disregarded what was arguably still a children's show when he was involved. Instead he has been frequently involved with the DVD range, and he has also moderated/participated with audio narration for missing stories. The most notable missing story is arguably 'The Massacre' which had Steven front and centre in the action - much like 'The War to End All Wars'. This two part adventure heralds the end - for now anyway - of the Companion Chronicles that feature the original compelling version of the Doctor. It is a tour de force of strong themes, plot and dialogue, with two voice artists showing flair and commitment.

Steven Taylor played off well opposite the moody mentor figure of Hartnell's Doctor, but this particular story only chooses to employ the Doctor at the very beginning and very end only. Nonetheless the dynamic of the Tardis crew makes its presence felt and the listener wonders how the team of three will make their way back together when circumstances conspire to separate all of them. As many Doctor Who followers know, Purves' finale was in 'The Savages' which saw him go from plucky time-traveller to the leader of an alien civilization which had erred in segregating the intellectual from the 'primitive'. Guerrier has free reign to take the building blocks of this lost story and portray a reign of peaks and troughs for the proactive Steven Taylor. He thus add some more details to Ian Stuart Black's original conception and also uses continuity so as not to alienate those unfamiliar with this part of the Hartnell era or indeed monochrome Doctor Who in general.

When we join this audio adventure we are transported to a time when Steven has been deposed from his regal position of power. Languishing in a cell he is visited by a girl called Sida (voiced by Alice Haig) and conveys his story to the pleasant and open-minded visitor. The actual story which the play's title refers to is set on a world torn apart by conflict and political unrest which our heroes find themselves confined to, and for a potentially considerable length of time. Steven tells Sida with great gusto his reactions to a spiral of events where he is arrested and then separated from both the Doctor and Dodo, before becoming a solider in an army - fighting a war that seems to have no hope of resolution. As Steven tries to become proactive, the plot develops in a number of surprising ways..

This is a two episode yarn which is very deliberately formed as set-up and pay-off although the very end does leave open deliberately a lot of new questions. Having a first person narration is simple but effective in nature. with Steven realising just how much events are manipulated. Soon into the latter episode there is a clever change of direction in the plot with Steven suddenly becoming a figure right in the heart of the troubled political system - and he seemingly has little chance of escaping the confines of manipulation. The basic presentation of an older Steven relating the main plot of 'War' to a visitor in his cell is emotional and yet also elegant. There is enough world building both for the un-named planet of the Savages and its history in the wake of the Doctor's visit, as well as the planet that features the ceaseless war(s). There is not all that much time for Dodo to make her mark in the story and even less for the Doctor but this almost does not matter as Steven Taylor's regard for both shine through all the same - even one of his three daughters in the royal court was named after the curious Ms Chaplet.

The themes of this story are intriguing and rich enough that repeat playing of this story is certainly worthwhile. The futility of war, the downsides of so called democracy and the loss of independence and identity all feature. In some ways this two-parter could be adapted into a modern day TV story with minor change and comfortably fit the Saturday evening slot of 45 minutes. No doubt if Guerrier was a writer under Innes Lloyd or John Wiles he would have arranged his story outline for the-then-standard four episodes. Instead we have a medium which can allow for more flexibility and the brevity of the story is by no means a problem, although perhaps the role of the Doctor in events is a little too quickly covered in exposition after the fact and would have been a worthwhile subplot that could have added a few minutes of more time to either episode.

Purves puts in as good a performance of Steven as any that followed his very first in 1965. He knows this time travelling character like the back of his hand and he relishes being able to fill in some gaps given how often Doctor Who could be rudimentary in its characterisation of the companions. Haig has considerably less to do, but her inclusion prevents Purves from delivering a monologue, albeit a very lively and fascinating one. Also, the character of Sida is such an open canvas that she could potentially be given a lot of development should there be a follow-up story which the ending strongly calls out for. There are few flaws with the production as all concerned seem to know that Mr Guerrier has proven himself time and again and is not one to rest on his laurels, and thus requires the best possible realisation of his work. Very much recommended.

FILTER: - Big Finish - First Doctor - Audio - 1781780927