Monthly Archives: January 2018

Review: Doctor Who: The Early Adventures 4

Big Finish’s Early Adventures range has been running since 2014. The series acts, in many respects, as a follow-up to The Lost Stories, audio adaptations of unproduced Doctor Who scripts and story outlines.


Between the Lost Stories and the Companion Chronicles Big Finish have a lot of practice recreating sixties Who, and they’ve produced some really phenomenal stories over the years. The returning cast members are always a delight, the recasts (Elliot Chapman as companion Ben Jackson and Jemma Powell as Barbara Wright) are on point and some of Big Finish’s most celebrated writers have written for the Early Adventures.

In short, I had high hopes for this series, but it turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Season one’s An Ordinary Life and season two’s The Black Hole were, in my opinion, instant classics. But scrolling over the first three seasons, I find myself struggling to remember what even happened in some of the stories.

So: let’s talk about season four.

ea1The Night Witches by Roland Moore

Landing in 1942, in the midst of the Eastern Front, the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie are captured by the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment – better known as the Night Witches. As per usual, they’re presumed to be spies and swiftly locked up.

But in a strange twist of fate, Polly turns out to be the spitting image of Tatiana Kregki, the Night Witches’ ace pilot – and while all they want to do is go back to the TARDIS to safety, the uncanny resemblance draws the Doctor and all his companions deep into the war effort.

The Night Witches is in many respects representative of the series as a whole: perfectly enjoyable to listen to, but it smacks of unfulfilled potential. The Night Witches make for brilliant material for a historical Doctor Who serial, but that’s really all there is to the script. The Night Witches are themselves – which is to say, fascinating and kickass – while the lead cast tries to survive and escape.

The script continually hints that there might be something deeper going on – some strange, timey-wimey explanation for Polly and Tatiana’s resemblence – but nothing comes of this. I spent the whole story waiting for a twist or pick up which never came.

That said, I still had a good time. The Night Witches were worth the price of admission, and I’m always here for this particular TARDIS team.

ea2The Outliers by Simon Guerrier

In the distant future, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in a strange underground city. The ordinary suburban houses are brand new and ready to be lived in. The streets are flooded. Something is living in the water.

The Outliers is a story in the vein of The Macra Terror, one of Patrick Troughton’s best loved stories – which is to say, it’s eerie, social conscious, and utterly bizarre.

The twist – such as it is – about what’s in the water is spelled out fairly early, but any predictability is more than made up for by the time-bending sequence which follows the reveal. It’s both poignant and fascinating from a sci-fi point of view – and there’s some delightful continuity porn to boot.

This isn’t a subtle story, in terms of its storytelling or its politics, but then again neither was The Macra Terror. Fully in-keeping with the era and genuinely unexpected.

ea3The Morton Legacy by Justin Richards

In London, Ben and Polly find themselves in the right place but the wrong time. It’s the 1860s and they’re as far from home as ever. The Doctor thinks that he can make a controlled jump a hundred years forward and get them home… but before he can put this plan into action, the TARDIS is stolen.

It’s been spirited away by Josiah Morton as the newest addition to his collection of antiquities and to get it back they need to befriend him – but Josiah Morton has just been accused of murder.

I was excited for this story most of all, for one very simple reason: the plot summary is uncannily similar to 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks, one of the best-loved Classic Who stories and (for all its faults) a truly epic ride. The TARDIS stolen by an antiquarian… in the 1860s… who has a beautiful daughter who Jamie falls in love with… I was so sure the resemblence must be significant.

But as it turns out, it’s entirely irrelevant. Apparently the TARDIS just got stolen by two separate Victorian antiquarians on two separate occasions!

I was expecting something interesting, possibly involving alternate timelines, possibly involving daleks. What I got was a solid enough story in which the final twist is that the events depicted were actually entirely prosaic.

It’s an enjoyable murder mystery and I may well enjoy it more on second listen. But as it is, the whole thing just felt rather uninspired and lifeless.

ea4The Wreck of the World by Timothy X Atack

Attempting vital repairs in the deepest of deep space, the TARDIS is caught, impossibly, in the gravitational pull of a vast, unknown object.

Almost before they know what’s happening, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe collide with the remains of an ancient colony ship. With Zoe lost inside, the Doctor and Jamie set out to rescue her, only to find that they’re not alone.

This is the World, the first colony ship to leave earth. It never reached its destination. The colonists are all dead. And the Doctor and his friends are about to learn why.

The Wreck of the World is by no means a perfect story, but it has the quality that was missing from the previous three. I’m not sure exactly what’s different, but there’s a spark here that the Early Adventures is usually lacking.

Maybe it’s that the author actually seems to love the central characters and love writing them. This is Timothy X Atack’s first story for Big Finish and perhaps testament as to why they need some new blood.

The story itself I’m not in love with – for such a hard sci-fi setting, the big reveal seemed to belong more to the realm of fantasy to the point that I found it jarring. But it’s fast-paced (despite the narration), genuinely poignant and also very funny. And it has Jamie singing Hey Johnny Cope! What’s not to love about that.

Verdict: this is, overall, a stronger run of stories than series two. I’d recommend all of them to a friend bar The Morton Legacy. At their best, these stories deepen the characters and their relationships and that’s exactly what all good expanded universe stories should do.

Unfortunately, with the exception of The Wreck of the World, every one of them bored me to some extent. It’s partly the narrated full cast format, which slows the scripts down enormously, and partly that the first three stories feel, to be blunt, phoned in. It’s a difficult quality to pin down, but given how long Big Finish have been making Doctor Who – nineteen years this year! – it’s not hugely surprising that some of their stories might feel a bit, well, tired.




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My Week In Writing (28/01/18)

I’ve not had the most eventful week! Worked three days, attempted to make arrangements to take time off work to see Hamilton in mid February with limited success. I went to the Edinburgh Creative Salon at Summerhall, which this month was very puppetry-focused so not my thing but interesting.

I finished reading It Devours! which I enjoyed very much and started reading Alias Grace which so far I’m struggling a little to get into but we’ll see how it goes. I also listened to (most of) Planet of the Rani from Big Finish.

I’m coming up on the halfway point of this (hopefully final) edit of The Summer Masque. Only six chapters to go – hopefully smooth sailing from here.

The Green and the Gathering Tide is now just shy of 192k and now over the halfway point. I’m on an arc I’ve been looking forward to for a long time concerning a shapeshifting detective.

I’ve also now officially made contact with my agency to tell them I want to move on. No response as yet, I intend to follow up by phone call asap.

Next week, I’m going to the Literary Salon at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and I plan to approach 200k on this seemingly neverending novel I’m writing.

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Adventures in Novelling: Keeping it Brief

When I was in primary school, I always got the same feedback when I wrote a story: never enough dialogue. My characters didn’t talk to each other. I was in too much of a rush to just go ahead and tell the story.

I think, after a while, I began to overcompensate, because my stories became virtually nothing but dialogue. Often without any dialogue tags or any indication as to who was speaking… I thought it would be obvious. It was not.

I suppose the elegant way to put it would be to say that I was a sparse, minimalist writer when I was a kid. Alternatively I just didn’t know how to write prose.

It wasn’t till I was in my late teens that I figured out how to write long, and then… well, look what happened:


This novel is only halfway down. This novel is going to be way too long. Hopefully it’ll work out for the best, ultimately – The Summer Masque started out at almost 150k. It’s now sitting at a pleasing 122k and by the time I’m finished editing it, I should – hand on heart – be able to confident state there’s nothing in there I don’t need.

That’s the key thing, I think: stories tend to end up too long because sometimes you need to write material that the reader doesn’t need to see. It’s the literary equivalent of the extra lines on a sketch. The finished work only has the strongest, cleanest lines.

Some common offenses I’ve noticed in my own writing:

  • Dialogue tags. Totally necessary for me to keep track, often unnecessary and clunky in the finished draft. The Green and the Gathering Tide in particular is bedecked with them – during NaNoWriMo I tag all my dialogue. Cheap and dirty way to up your wordcount.
  • Saying the same thing twice. Can’t decide on an adjective? Like both turns of phrase? Use them both. Realise later you only need one. Throw out whichever’s weaker.
  • Extraneous scene setting. It’s useful for me, the author, to know exactly when a scene is happening in relation to previous scenes. For the reader? Probably note. In theory, once I’ve got it straight in my head, it should be clear. (That’s the theory.)
  • Slow pacing. Maybe this one is just me but I write scenes to slow the pacing down all the time. I can’t just skip ahead to the good bits – it’s against my whole philosophy of life. But I can and often should.
  • Bumf. Nonsense. Extraneous matter. When I was editing down The Summer Masque I’d say ‘extraneous, extraneous, extraneous’ to myself over and over. I imagine I sounded like an editorial dalek.

At present, though, the main issue is quite simply that I’m enjoying myself too much. I just want to keep on writing these characters, and a lot of the time they virtually write themselves.

Eventually I’ll have to cut this draft down to size, but for now I’m happy to go on playing.

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My Week In Writing (21/01/18)

20180117_221615.jpgI was in London with my family yesterday for the ballet – specifically, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells. It’s the third Matthew Bourne production I’ve seen (saw The Nutcracker in 2016 and The Red Shoes in 2017) and I think Cinderella was my favourite to date – love the setting and the period, loved the abstract, dreamlike story and choreography.

Next year’s Christmas ballet is a revival of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake so naturally we’re all excited already!

I finished reading Pulp Literature’s Summer 2017 issue, which I mostly enjoyed but given my tendency to read issues out of order, I’m starting to struggle due to the frequency of novel extracts and serials. But I suppose that’s on me for not starting at the beginning!

I started reading It Devours! the second Welcome to Night Vale novel, which so far I’m really enjoying, possibly more so than its precursor.

The Green and the Gathering Tide is now up to 186k and somehow still only halfway done. I have another two arcs before I hit the halfway point!

And I’m working on getting The Summer Masque into a fit shape to start querying agents – I’m reading 20-ish pages a day but it’s slow going because I keep finding stuff I want to cut or move. Editing is a neverending task. I’m going to have to call it quits sooner or later.

I’m at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire now. The snow seems to have followed me from Edinburgh – it was snowing when I woke up and didn’t let up until the afternoon. It’s raining now, so I expect it’ll be gone as quickly as it arrived. I’m off back to the city tomorrow.

Next week, I’m off to the Creative Salon at Summerhall for the first time since last year (ha). Looking forward to catching up with some people and getting to go to a mixer when I haven’t been at work all day, for a change.

I may also be going to contact my agency about switching to a new contract – watch this space, I suppose.

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Review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

DIRK-GENTLY-FinalI don’t know how to begin explaining Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Is it an adapation of the Douglas Adams book series? Not really – if anything it’s an adaptation of the title. Is it a science fiction series? Officially. What’s it about? The inter-connectedness of all things, I suppose.

Let’s get this out of the way: I really love this show. Season two just came to UK (and international) Netflix, so the whole series is now available and it really is a delight from start to finish – watch this clip if you don’t believe me.

The first season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency follows Todd Brotzman, a hotel bellboy who stumbles upon the scene of the gruesome murder of local billionaire Patrick Spring. Shortly thereafter, he’s sought out by Dirk Gently, a self proclaimed holistic detective who was hired to solve Patrick Spring’s murder – before it happened.


Meanwhile, Bartine ‘Bart’ Curlish, a self-proclaimed holistic assassin, has a new mission: to kill Dirk Gently.

Season one of Dirk Gently is one of the most perfect eight hours of television I’ve ever seen. Nothing is wasted, every plot thread connects back; it’s a puzzle, and once you get to the end it’s obvious there was only ever one solution, and that solution is, of course, time travel.

The final twist is likewise inevitable, and it is gutwrenching. The bar was set very high.

Did the second season live up to the promise of the first? Well, sort of. The show’s creator said the season two would make season one look like ‘an ordinary detective show’ and he really wasn’t kidding.

dirkgentlycancelledSeason two opens in the magical land of Wendimoor. Wendimoor is threatened by a great and terrible evil, and their only hope of salvation lies in the ancient prophecy: ‘find Dirk Gently’.

Back on earth, Dirk, freshly sprung from the clutches of the CIA, finds himself in the rural town of Bergsberg with a simple but cryptic mission: ‘find the boy’.

I had a great time watching season two. Wendimoor is beautifully realised and the central character arcs – Dirk, Todd, Amanda and Farah – are satisfying. Plus new characters Sherlock Hobbes and Tina Tevetino are a delight.

But it does have to be said, where the first season will keep you guessing till the end, the season season does get a touch predictable. Though perhaps that was intentional – the Wendimoor arc is an epic fantasty story, and the epic fantasy genre has conventions and rules. Regardless, the central twist of the season was obvious far too early for my taste.

Plus with so many characters and plot threads carried forward from season one, it was always going to be hard for a second season to juggle them all. A few key characters fall by the wayside and some new characters never get the development they deserve.

Those quibbles aside, it was, for me, more enjoyable than the first season – the brighter aesthetic really did it for me. I was in love from the first scene. And after all, the bar was set very high. It would be hard to repeat the sheer wow factor of the first season and I didn’t really expect it to.

Dirk Gently is my newest favourite TV show. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s one of the most creative shows I’ve seen in a while. In short, it’s some really good television, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


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My Week In Writing (14/01/18)

20180113_155702-1.jpgSame old same old – I didn’t have the best week at work but probably shouldn’t talk about that.

I’ve been trying to get back on track with my various projects and to that end I’ve been doing a final-final readthrough of The Summer Masque, with mixed success – I’m very much sick of reading it at this point and I find the first few chapters in particular quite tiresome. Also, I’m putting off beginning work on a query letter as I’m still stuck for ideas on that front.

The Green and the Gathering Tide hit 181k this week (almost 182k), which is somewhat terrifying as it’s still maybe halfway done at most. At present I’m working on an arc about very Catholic wizards having an uncomfortable family Christmas.

Officially I’m ahead on my Goodreads challenge, having read two books, but one of them was a miniature collection of Emily Dickinson poems so I’m not sure if that counts! In theory I’m currently reading Pulp Literature’s Summer 2017 issue but I’ve been struggling to find the time.

I’ve been bookshopping, with a book token I was given as a late Christmas present: The Last Unicorn, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Wide Sargasso Sea and A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Three books which have been on my to-read list for a while – exception being We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which was an impulse purchase.

I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art yesterday, largely to meet some relatives for lunch (and acquire my book token) but it turned out they have an exhibition on about children’s book illustrations which was good timing as there were two small children in the party.

We also had a look around the general collection and saw some works by Ed Ruscha, who I’d not come across before and will probably be looking into further. Good time had.

I listened to the first half of Planet of the Rani and played a lot of Submachine – I just bought the entire series in HD so expect a post about that in the near (ish) future.

Next week, I’m headed off to London to go to the ballet.

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Big Finish Review: December Short Trips

I’ve talked about Big Finish’s monthly Short Trips range twice before (The British Invasion and A Heart On Both Sides/All Hands On Deck) so I shan’t reiterate myself. Suffice to say I bought my 2018 subscription a couple of months ago and I’m very excited for this year’s lineup, especially I Am The Master, a short story written and performed by Geoffrey Beevers (who’s been reprising his Master for Big Finish since 2001) and Erasure, performed by Sean Carlsen of Big Finish’s Gallifrey range.

Last month Big Finish put out not one but two Short Trips: their regular monthly story and a special release, the winner of their annual Paul Sprague Memoral Short Trip Contest. I listened to both stories this week, so here’s what I thought:

short2Landbound by Selim Ulug

Ronald Henderson, once the captain of a cargo ship, now a pub landlord, meets the Doctor one day in Whitby. The Doctor saves him from a mugging – and so begins a strange and rocky friendship.

I confess: having entered the Short Trip Contest myself last year, it’s difficult for me not to go into the winning story with a touch of resentment. I came away from last year’s Forever Fallen grudgingly impressed and wondering how they were going to top it. Unfortunately I came away from Landbound somewhat frustrated.

As a concept for a Third Doctor story it’s solid – the Doctor grounded on earth befriending a landbound sea captain haunted by memories of the impossible sea monster that destroyed his ship. The first act of the story was very effective – but to be honest, felt to me complete, the remaining 15-20 minutes of runtime seeming more of an extended epilogue.

And the ending, ultimately, did not ring true for me. By the last scene I fully expected this to be a story in which the Doctor makes a mistake that he can’t make right – but then he did, and with no effort at all.

That said, I’m just not a big Third Doctor fan in general. If you are a fan of this era it’s definitely worth checking this one out – it slots very nicely into seasons 7-10 and setting the opening scene in the aftermath of The Silurians was a masterstroke.

I feel a little weird giving this story a bad(ish) review, having admitted to entering the contest. But the honest truth is, I very much wanted to like it, and I didn’t.

short1O Tannenbaum by Anthony Keetch

And now for something completely different: Big Finish’s annual Christmas Short Trip, this year read by Peter Purves.

The Doctor and companion Steven Taylor land in a beautiful pine forest, where they find a charming cottage, a frightened little girl, and dying old man. In the cottage there is a Christmas tree. Daddy, the girl tells them, cut it down that morning. Then he went back into the forest for firewood… and he hasn’t come back.

O Tannenbaum has the kind of simultaneously simple and utterly bonkers concept that’s characteristic of Doctor Who. It’s an uneasy, spooky story with a final twist that turns out more heartwarming than you might expect – in the spirit of the season. (Is the history of the Christmas tree the Doctor recounts to win the day true? Probably not, but what does it matter?)

Peter Purves is my favourite reader for First Doctor stories. His William Hartnell voice is stellar and he never fails to capture Steven Taylor’s character, even fifty years on. Some actors you have trouble picturing them exactly as they were in the sixties; Peter Purves you’ll never question.

I’d call this Big Finish’s best Christmas Short Trip to date, but given that there’s only been two that hardly seems fair! I do, however, think it’ll be hard to top come Christmas 2018.

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