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Big Finish Review: Sixth Doctor Short Trips

He’s back! I confess: I was a little worried when 2017’s Short Trips lineup from Big Finish contained no stories for old Sixie. His place in the lineup seemed to have been taken by an assortment of (very good, for the most part) New Who based stories, and pleased as I am that BF are producing New Who content I was a concerned that some of their Classic content might fall by the wayside.

But for January and February of 2018 they put out two Sixth Doctor stories in a row, one for each of his TV companions (and there’s another one coming in August for BF’s own companion Constance Clarke). I listened to them more or less back to back, and had a great time…

61

The Authentic Experience by Dan Starkey

Peri is a soldier in an unknown war, teased by his fellow soldiers for his sensitive nature and love of plants. He doesn’t remember how he came to be in the army, or even where his home is.

The Doctor and Peri Brown land in a drab, grey city in the future, drawn in by a temporal disturbance. They quickly track down the source… a travel agency.

I called the reveal in The Authentic Experience very early on, but fortunately the story doesn’t hinge too much on surprise. Once the initial mystery is solved it blossoms into something fun and globe-trotting and delightfully creative.

This is author Dan Starkey’s second Big Finish writing credit, and first solo story. (You may know him as Strax.) A really delightful Short Trips debut. The strengths of the Doctor and Peri’s relationship are showcased in spite of the story being light on characterisation.

The central idea of The Authentic Experience may not be the most original but it’s well-executed and, by the end of the story, made into something truly mind-bending.

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Mel-Evolent by Simon A Forward

One morning in the TARDIS, Mel finds the Doctor brooding in the TARDIS theatre. (She didn’t know the TARDIS had a theatre.) Exploring she sees, reflected in a mirror, her own face, but somehow twisted and sinister.

Something has invaded the TARDIS. Something has stolen Mel’s face. Something very old and very malevolent.

Mel-Evolent goes to some strange places. Like the best Sixth Doctor and Mel stories it’s superficially comic – the image of an evil version of Mel, one of the sweetest, most upbeat, most harmless companions the Doctor has ever had, borders on the absurd – but beneath the comedy and the trappings of fantasy there’s a sense of real fear.

The imagery is gorgeous, an eerie and surreal blend of science fiction and fairy tale. The reveal about the origins of the ‘Witch Queen’ is simultaneously some classic Doctor Who stuff whilst also being genuinely surprising and unsettling. The ending may take you by surprise.

The 2018 Short Trips lineup promises some really exciting and novel stories, including I Am The Master, written and performed by Big Finish’s original Master Geoffrey Beevers, and Erasure, an exceptionally niche story featuring the Fourth Doctor, Adric, and CIA Co-Ordinator Narvin of Big Finish’s Gallifrey.

But the quality of the range as a whole is best judged through more classic, more run of the mill stories like The Authentic Experience and Mel-Evolent. And both of these were a delight to listen to. Season eight off to a very strong start.

 

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Review: The Good Place

311711-1I took philosophy for a year at university.

I’d really enjoyed studying it in school – so much so that my original plan was to do a joint honours in classics and philosophy. But sadly the University of Edinburgh doesn’t offer that particular combo.

Anyhow, second semester I had to buy a big, big textbook of articles about moral philosophy. I came to hate it with a passion. In retrospect? I think the turning point may have been the lecture spent discussing the trolley problem.

So there’s a runaway trolley – a trolley is like a tram but no-one really calls them trolleys anymore which makes the whole thing surreal and confusing – there’s a runaway trolley and there’s five people tied to the line, but if you pull a lever you can shift the trolley onto a different track, which only has one person on it. Do you pull the lever?

What if you’re the driver and not a bystander? How about if the five people are on the line as a result of their own incompetence but the one person was an innocent victim? What if instead you’re on a bridge and there’s a really fat guy on the bridge with you and you can stop the trolley by pushing him off? But what if the big fat guy was the real villain all along?

I came to hate studying moral philosophy – and I love The Good Place.

Eleanor Shellstrop has just died in a freak accident (involving shopping trolleys, ironically). She wakes up in the Good Place, the afterlife for good and virtuous people. But there’s been a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop, full-time misanthrope and fake medicine saleswoman, has been mixed up with Eleanor Shellstrop, human rights lawyer and and lifelong humanitarian.

If anyone finds out Eleanor is not Eleanor, she’ll be sent straight to the Bad Place. So she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a deceased moral philosophy professor, and presents him with a desperate (and ethically fascinating) challenge: teach her how to be a good person.

The Good Place is funny, charming, clever, and deeply philosophical even as it mocks every classical philosopher to hell and back (ha). Chidi’s lessons cover the trolley problem in season 2 and let me tell you, as a former philosophy student, it was cathartic viewing to say the least.

Don’t get me wrong, though. As much as The Good Place pokes fun at moral philosophers (everyone hates moral philosophers, after all), it does so with understanding and respect. Studying from books doesn’t make Eleanor a better person, but it certainly helps.

The grab bag of ethical ideas she arrives at over the course of the show will be familiar to anyone who’s studied moral philosophy. The fact is, there isn’t and won’t ever be a single, all-encompassing theory of ethics. But thinking through theoretical debates will deepen your understanding of yourself and the space you occupy in the world.

Much as I might hate to admit it, I learned from studying the trolley problem. And I learned from watchin NBC’s The Good Place.

If you’re interested in moral philosophy, give The Good Place a watch. If you’re not interested in moral philosophy, watch it anyway. It’s very funny and it has some killer plot twists.

I leave you with this article from Slate which says what I’ve been trying to say in this post but more intelligently, and my all-time favourite ethical thought experiment: Hitler’s Waller.

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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Review: Doom Coalition 4

doomHere we are: the final installment. Looking back, Doom Coalition represents an interesing Big Finish transition, as they got the rights to and, naturally, wholeheartedly embraced New Who. Here we have River Song, we have the Time War… we have the Weeping Angels.

Ship in a Bottle: Picking up from volume three’s nailbiting cliffhanger, the boxset gets off to a strong start. The Doctor, Liv and Helen are hurtling forward into the time vortex, into a future that no longer exists. They have the contents of their semi-functional escape pod. They have their wits. They have each other.

What follows is, perhaps surprisingly, volume four’s character piece. There’s never any real doubt in the listener’s mind that they’ll find a way out. The drama comes from listening to the characters grapple with their situation, from their at times starkly different ways of dealing with the horror of their circumstances. It’s ingenious and, ultimately, triumphant. I’d say this is probably my second favourite Doom Coalition story, after Absent Friends.

Songs of Love: River Song, left alone in the lion’s den, does the natural thing… teams up with the enemy. The Doctor is gone, Liv and Helen lost in a rapidly diminishing future; this is River’s story and for the first time in the series (IMO) she really shines, spectacularly conning the Time Lords while simultaneously grappling with her own heritage.

River visiting Gallifrey for the first time has a potential for character drama which isn’t lost here, even as the story stays as quick and action-packed as ever. River is not a Gallifreyan; she is not an alien. The Time Lords struggle to identify her, but she knows exactly who she is and what she’s doing, and she has the villain wrapped around her little finger. River Song at her heroic best.

The Side of the Angels: And now for something completely different. Tracking the Eleven, the Doctor lands in New York in the 1970s, where he finds more than one old enemy lurking. Reverend Mortimer, aka the Meddling Monk (played here by a deliciously camp and scheming Rufus Hound) has joined forces with the last free Time Lords to create a stronghold against the end of the universe. And to that end, they’ve recruited the Weeping Angels.

This is the point in the boxset where things start to get really complicated. I admit: I’d forgotten who Cardinal Ollistra was or why I should care, and between the main arc, Ollistra’s scheming, the Eleven’s counter-scheming, and the addition of the Weeping Angels, I got a bit lost.

That said, once you reach the inevitable carnage the story really comes into its own. Big Finish has done an impressive job of realising the Weeping Angels on audio, and you feel them here even if you don’t see them. Unfortunately the weak link in the boxset, but still a great ride.

Stop the Clock: Returning to Gallifrey to face down the Doom Coalition, the Doctor, Liv and Helen are working against the clock. The Doom Coalition have one chance to unleash their wave of destruction on the future. The Doctor has one hour to stop them. The race is on.

As with The Side of the Angels I got a little lost here, between all the returning characters and all the threads, but the characters ring very true. The Doctor, Liv and Helen haven’t had as much room to breathe as some other TARDIS teams but here the Doctor trusts both of them absolutely, letting both of them play vital and dangerous roles in his plan, and it feels right.

And what is, in retrospect, the true arc of Doom Coalition comes to a head, as Caleera AKA the Sonomancer. The two aspects of her character, the tormented, maligned young woman and the fearsome villain coming together for a conclusion that’s at once satisfying, tragic and straight up chilling.

Verdict: I do have to say, looking back I think Doom Coalition 3 was the strongest installment. It’s almost inevitable: with so many threads to bring together and tie up, the final installment of a series like this would be… unforgiving to write, to say the least.

That said, the highs are really high: Ship in a Bottle, the Doctor confronting the Monk for the first time post-To the Death, River at her best, another team TARDIS facing the Angels… Caleera’s reconciliatin with Helen and their ultimate face.

In retrospect, it’s blinding obviously what Caleera’s fate would be. I did find the handling a little lacking: given her insistance that she is not and was never a monster, I do wish the tragic irony of her becoming what she did had been dwelt upon. But it was a shocking and thrilling moment, nonetheless.

As I’ve said in previous reviews, I found Doom Coalition a little lacking in characterisation, but it more than makes up for it in excitement, drama and plot twists – oh, there are twists! – and when it slows down and focuses on its characters, it sings.

All four boxsets together are a tense, concisely-plotted ride and if you want a jumping in place for the Eighth Doctor, you could do a lot worse.

Up next for Eight is a four-part Time War boxset and as pumped as I am, I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Liv and Helen. Don’t leave us hanging Big Finish. Please?

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Review: The British Invasion

britishI confess: I’m a little late with this here review, given that Big Finish have already put out their next two Monthly Short Trips (and it looks like an exciting pair, too!). But I was never not going to review something as relevant to my interests is this: The British Invasion.

I love BF’s Short Trips (the books, the audio collections, and the monthlies) and I love the Second Doctor, so a Two-era Short Trip is always an extra special treat for me. And this one didn’t disappoint!

The TARDIS lands in London, in the summer of 1951, perfectly situated to take in the Festival of Britain. The Doctor is enthralled; Jamie and Zoe are less so. When you can go to the past and the future whenever you want, what’s the point of a museum? Museums, the Doctor declares, tell you what people think about their own past and future.

Soon, all three TARDIS crew members are united by a common purpose as they become determined to help a scientist make her exhibit work – to send radio signals to the moon and back.

The Festival of Britain was an ingenious bit of history to highlight. One of the strengths of Doctor Who, especially BF Doctor Who, is its ability to put to the forefront oft-looked historical events and this is an especially apt example.

Though it’s a historical the setting harks back to the roots of Doctor Who itself, the optimistic, ‘shining vision of the future’ era of sci-fi to which sixties ‘Who belongs. In many respects it’s a world away from sci-fi today.

The British Invasion is also one of those (in my experience, rare) Two-era stories that does justice to all its characters. A lot of writers seem to struggle with three-person TARDIS teams, but Jamie and Zoe both get a chance to shine here, in there own, strange way. Ultimately, though, it comes down (as it ever does) to a battle of wits between the Doctor and an old enemy.

And that, for me, is where things started to get disquieting, and not in a good way. The reveal of the enemy-of-the-week is ingeniously done and I shan’t spoil it. It’s a great use of a Classic Who monster.

But with the reveal of the monster comes the reveal that the characters have been manipulated all along, that their enemy has literally been putting thoughts in their heads that were not their own. Which, in a story as introspective as this, makes you wonder what you can trust. And if you can’t trust the narrative you’re listening to, what’s the point?

Jamie has some fascinating character moments. He sympathises with the scientist because he, too, feels that he’s not taken seriously because of his background, which is a remarkable step for a character who earlier stories had shown to be openly sexist at times. He’s the only character to notice, and be troubled by, the propagandistic nature of the festival. Are any of these moments genuine? It’s never made clear.

This ambiguity isn’t a bad idea, but the short form means there isn’t really time for the narrative to deal with the consequences. It feels a touch truncated, the ending a bit rushed. It’s unexpectedly dark.

That said, I fully expected to enjoy it more on a second listen and I did. It’s a fascinating little story and I continue to be glad I subscribed to the monthy Short Trips.

 

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