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. 





Torchwood - Dissected (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Doctor Who - The Maze of Doom – By David Solomons – BBC BooksBookmark and Share

Saturday, 18 April 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Maze of Doom, by David Solomons (Credit: BBC Books)
By David Solomons!
Available from Amazon UK
 
“I am driver Graham O’Brien of the Stage Coach Sheffield Squadron. I hereby invoke Six – Three – Three – Bravo – Two – Zero – Broadsword.”
 

An ancient artefact buried deep within the TARDIS leads the Doctor back to London, where a deadly predator prowls the tunnels beneath the city. As the Time Lord and her friends investigate, they uncover a mystery that will take them from a secret mountain base to the depths of the ocean - and if they cannot solve it, one of them will perish.

 

In order to save her friend, the Doctor must solve the riddle of ... the Maze of Doom!

The Maze of Doom is a new story by David Solomons, author of the award winning My Brother is a Superhero. The suggested age range for this book is seven and up, although it reads very much like a Target novelisation from back in the day.
 
After finding an ancient artefact in a bag of mouldy jelly babies (guess whose old coat pocket they were found - here’s a clue, a long scarf was on the same hook in the TARDIS wardrobe), the twelfth Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz are thrust into a new adventure that takes in ancient Greece, contemporary London, a Bond like villains layer in Switzerland and the Aegean Sea.
 
The book is stacked in Greek mythology, that is actually quite educational. Imagine if the legend of the Minotaur had the labyrinth based still in Crete, but on a crashed Nimon ship. There are some great ideas here that are for the most part, very well executed. Stand out pieces include Daedalus telling his son Icarus that “they should get him out of the sun.” (which made me chuckle). There is also a frantic chase in London’s underground that involves a moving (quite fast) giant bronze Nimon statue and our ‘Fam’ that was very reminiscent of The Web of Fear, there is also a massive finale set on a Nimon ship, deep in the Aegean sea.
 
The book is very well written, engaging and at 288 pages, fast moving. The key characterisations are pretty much pitch perfect – which all results a rather enjoyable read. If I had anything slightly negative to say about the story is that the book can come across as quite continuity heavy. I counted eight references to the classic show in quite a small amount of the book. This is great for us rabid fans, but may put off newer inductees.
 
The Maze of Doom is available from various outlets from 30th April 2020.




Torchwood - Fortitude (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Image of the Fendahl (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 April 2020 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Image of the Fendahl (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Terrance Dicks
Read By Louise Jamesona

Released by BBC Worldwide - February 2020
Available from Amazon UK

To be totally honest, I barely remember the TV version of Image of the Fendahl.  I remembered the image of the golden priestess at the end of the story, but the bulk of it has faded completely from my memory.  So as I entered this Target Audiobook, I was very much like the fans who originally picked up these Target Novelizations.  Repeats were uncommon and chances are the book was going to be your main source for re-living a story.  As a book, I enjoyed it. I think I actually enjoyed it more now than the TV version, even though my memory is definitely vague.

Apparently, this is a story that involves a small village, witchcraft, and an ancient evil alien.  Yep, seems like a Tom Baker adventure. His era, particularly in the first half of his run, was filled with gothic horror elements...so a small village with a Witch and ancient evil seems just about right. 

As expected, Terrence Dicks' writing is easy and engaging.  Louise Jameson does a solid reading, and the production value for the audiobook (featuring some music and sound effects to add to the drama), are excellent.  If you, like so many of us, are now trapped at home looking for something to fill the air as you work from home,  why not pass some of the time with one of these Target Audiobooks?