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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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Fringe 2017 Reviews: Julius Caesar (With Pirates)

fde992_527ef8796fe0460f800cb789ce6bd666~mv2There’s mutiny afoot on the pirate ship, Rome.  Fresh from his victory over former captain Pompey, Caesar’s tyrannical command causes unrest amongst the crew. A mutiny supported by first mate Brutus might help restore democracy to the ship, if greed and in-fighting don’t get the better of the mutineers’ good intentions.

This is the second production I’ve seen by Some Kind of Theatre. Last year’s Steampunk Tempest was a little rough around the edges, but inventive, funny, and ultimately true to the source material.

I’m surprised they chose Julius Caesar as a follow-up – if I had to guess, I’d have expected them to stick with the comedies, not tackle one of Shakespeare’s heaviest plays. The other productions of Julius Caesar at the fringe this year include an all-female production described as ‘relevant and gritty’ and a production set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Some Kind of Theatre takes a totally different route, presenting Julius Caesar – with PIRATES! And you know what? I’m all for it. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, and the soothsayer is a talking parrot.

Aesthetically, for the scale of the production it looks great. It’s part of Some Kind of Theatre’s Shakespeare on the Sofa project, portable productions designed to fit into any venue, intended to make Shakespeare accessible to a wider audience.

The storybook backdrop is ingenious, simple but very effective, and the piratical aesthetic is very slick. If you’re smart enough you don’t need a whole lot to make a real impression. It’s a nicely choreographed, visually appealing, concise little production.

The concept of Julius Caesar as a pirate captain is an interesting one – sailing the ship of state, perhaps? Ha. There is some cognitive dissonance from the fact that the characters are now ostensibly outlaws rather than the state government, but given what a light-hearted production it is, I’m willing to let that slide.

I was pleased to see that, silly as the premise is, they didn’t shy away from the play’s darker moments – despite the talking parrot and the swashbuckling swordfights, it’s still a story about politics and murder, and the bloody heart of it comes through.

Julius Caesar has (I gather) a complicated plot and a lot of characters and for the most part they’ve done a good job of condensing it down into an hour and the minimum of players. However, I was a bit uncomfortable the resulting handling of Mark Antony.

In this production, Mark Antony is a woman – and Caesar’s wife, combined with the character of Calpurnia. On one level, the gender flip is a bit of a masterstroke.

When Mark Antony is a woman, you get a story in which Caesar’s murderers don’t expect any retribution because they’d never expect Mark Antony to declare war on them. They let her speak at Caesar’s funeral because they assume they can control her. The line Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s /In the disposing of new dignities takes on a whole new meaning.

But did she really have to be Caesar’s wife? I recognise that someone had to have the portentous dream (that Caesar ignores) but that role could have gone to Antony without their being married.

I’m of the opinion that, as a general rule, you can either have two Shakespearean characters who are, in the original text, close platonic friends be lovers or have one of them be a woman. When you do both, the implications get a little unfortunate.

I’d be more charitable here were it not for the fact that last year’s Steampunk Tempest also contained some… strange cross-gender casting (I’ve never seen a woman play Caliban before, and frankly it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat). I’d suggest that they think through the possible implications in future!

Otherwise, though, I had a good time! It’s not the smoothest Shakespearean production you’ll see at the Fringe this year – some of the cast do struggle at times with the dialogue, making the plot hard to follow for those of us who haven’t read the play – but it’s certainly one of the cheapest, and the only one with pirates. And a talking parrot (puppet).

Julius Caesar (With Pirates) is on until August 18th 7PM @ Black Market. Entry is free, suggested donation £5. Take your friends, get some culture, enjoy some pirate antics.

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Review: Doom Coalition 1

doomDoom Coalition is the second in Big Finish’s run of Eight Doctor boxset series, a sort of series of mini-series. The first, Dark Eyes, was something of an experimental piece – the first volume was actually intended as a standalone. Doom Coalition was apparently planned as four boxsets from the outset.

And I’m not going to lie, it does feel like a little bit of a cashgrab. Dark Eyes was experimental and a big risky and it paid off, so naturally they have to do another one, equally ominously-titled.

But I can hardly complain. After all, I did buy all four volumes, and it’s not as if I didn’t have great fun listening to the first four stories:

The Eleven by Matt Fitton

The Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey to deal with a dangerous escaped criminal: the Eleven, a Time Lord who, for reasons unknown, has retained the consciousnesses of all his previous incarnations.

The Eleven is mostly an action-packed thriller, a solid hour of the heroes trying (and failing) to keep the Eleven from escaping Gallifrey, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Classic Who’s handful of stories set on Gallifrey are, in my opinion, generally a bit weak. They generally lack both the budget and the creativity to properly realise the seat of the Time Lords. The Eleven is a rare gem, playing up both the familiar (graduate students) and the alien (mind probes) elements of Gallifreyan society.

The Red Lady by John Dorney

The Doctor and his companion Liv travel to London circa 1963, where they meet new companion Helen Sinclair and find a deadly menace lurking in a collection of antiquities.

This is some seriously creepy stuff. I think the only word for it is Moffat-esque; eerie, psychological, and mysterious. It follows in the footsteps of Blink and The Impossible Astronaut, but still manages to feel fresh and original.

The Galileo Trap by Marc Platt

The Doctor, Liv and Helen travel to Renaissance-era Florence in search of the Doctor’s old friend Galileo, only to find the city beset by a mysterious plague, terrifying monsters – and that Galileo wants them as far away from him as possible.

I remember that I enjoyed listening to The Galileo Trap, but a week or so on it’s some of difficult to remember the plot. There’s just so much going on, the script juggling setting up the boxset finale with a complicated plot involving Galileo, outer space bounty hunters, and cyborg police officers. The result is a bit of a jumble, but a fun one.

The Satanic Mill by Edward Collier

Straight into the next adventure, the Doctor decides to spring the trap and goes straight to the Eleven’s new stronghold – a planet-sized factory floating between Mercury and the Sun.

The Satanic Mill is seriously atmospheric, with a setting that’s viscerally disturbing. Left on their own, Liv and Helen really get a chance to shine, rallying the factory workers into a revolution.

In retrospect, though, the main focus of the narrative is really just the Doctor figuring out what’s going on in the factory. Once that mystery is solved, the remainder of the story is mostly just him escaping the Eleven’s trap with relative ease, a lot of running about and shouting, and a whole lot of unanswered questions as the Eleven refuses to explain his grand plan.

That said, the concept behind The Satanic Mill is so twisted and so brilliant that it’s hard to complain.

Overall, as I said, I had a really good time listening to Doom Coalition 1. It’s four hours of good, solid Doctor Who.

The standout story is definitely The Red Lady, which is a little disappointing as it’s the only standalone story in the boxset – it’s a pity it outshines the main drama.

Helen Sinclair has the potential to be a great addition to the TARDIS team – I like Liv Chenka in theory, but in practice she’s such a grim, jaded character that she can get a bit wearing. She’s definitely at her best when she has a brighter, less cynical companion to balance her out.

After her first story Helen didn’t have as much to do as I might have liked – she spends a lot of The Galileo Trap being bewildered at what’s going on and The Satanic Mill is focused heavily on the Doctor and the Eleven. However, there’s still three more boxsets (twelve more episodes) to come so room to grow!

I have mixed feelings about the Eleven. The idea of a Time Lord with multiple consciousnesses in the same body is a logical and interesting extrapolation from existing canon, but it’s saddening that the writers felt that such a character naturally had to be a villain, given how stigmatised DID and other similar disorders are in real life.

Even leaving that aside, in the stories I’ve listened to he’s come across as ‘the Master, but he does funny voices sometimes’, which is a disappointingly common trap for Doctor Who writers to fall into, when writing Time Lords villains!

I’d give it a solid 7/10, and I’m looking forward to volume 2.

 

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Review: The Cat Returns

220px-Cat_Returns

(Note: between job interviews and anthology submissions, no time to write a proper blog post this week. So, here’s one I made earlier –  ie, dug out of my drafts from 2013.)

Whisper of the Heart was a reasonably complex and original coming of age story with a perfect blend of fantasy and realism – but evidently the most popular part was the dapper talking cat, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, for he got a kitty-themed film all to himself.

It’s a much shallower film than its predecessor, with less detailed animation and a straightforward fairytale plot. Schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat transpires to be the Prince of Cats, and his father, the Cat King, is so grateful than he insists Haru take the prince’s paw in marriage. Not enthused at the prospect of marrying a cat, Haru seeks the help of the Cat Bureau. Therein enters the Baron, a living cat figurine who is determined to save Haru before she is transformed into a cat forever…

It’s pretty standard children’s fantasy far, with a lot of kitties – and I mean a lot. If you’re a cat person you will probably like this film. If you’re not a cat person you might come out of it hating them.

The ending is something of a disappointment, with Haru having grown as a person by virtue of… I don’t know, adventure? And cats? But it’s worth a watch, partly for the star-studded English dub (Anne Hathaway as Haru, Tim Curry as the Cat King, Cary Elwes as the Baron) and partly because it’s pure kitty-filled fun.

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Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events

5db16efdb30f9cd831a2484f3af36cad6cb97ee7A confession: I didn’t think the 2004 film of A Series of Unfortunate Events was all that bad. Sure, a lot of the changes it made irritated me (Klaus doesn’t have glasses! Why does Klaus have no glasses?) but compared to some book-to-film adaptations… it was pretty okay?

As such, while I do prefer the new Netflix series, I just don’t see as much to choose between the two. In my head they’ve already turned into a sort of Unfortunate blur. Doesn’t help that some elements in the series are actually from the film rather than the books!

Anyway. The aesthetic and tone of the series are absolutely perfect – they really nailed it there. Including Lemony Snicket himself as a character was a masterstroke. And I love the theme song!

I also loved all the new material. Introducing the VFD arc earlier was definitely the right way to go and it was really nicely done. I especially liked the whole Zombies in the Snow sequence, which is, if I recall correctly, a dramatisation of a very strange chapter of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorised Autobiography.

However, the big downside of the extra material is that it does sometimes diminish the Baudelaire siblings. Ideas they came up with themselves in the books are now indicated to have been orchestrated by VFD agents. It makes the children into less smart, less active protagonists, and it kind of takes away from the ‘you’re on your own now’ feel of the books.

And, I admit, I’m still not sold on Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. He does a perfectly good job – it’s just that Neil Patrick Harris is such a distinctive actor that I can’t see him as anyone other than Neil Patrick Harris. I never found his Olaf fully convincing or, to be honest, threatening enough. Similarly, Patrick Warburton is a fantastic narrator, but he’s not how I imagined Lemony Snicket.

It’s not perfect, and I’m not as excited as a lot of people seem to be. But it was a very enjoyable and very faithful adaptation and I look forward to the next season.

 

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2013 Film Reviews: More Comedy

kinopoisk.ruThe Way Way Back

Here’s a rare thing: The Way Way Back is a film that can only be described as awkward – and that’s a compliment. Somehow.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a shy fourteen year old boy getting a job at a water park while on vacation with his mother and her boyfriend. And that’s really about it, in terms of plot. The dramatic climax is a ride on a water slide. But somehow it really does work.

The Way Way Back excels at evoking awkward social situations in a manner which is played primarily for awkwardness, not for comedy – though it often is funny. It’s something of a socially awkward fantasy. A recurring theme is apparently awkward situations the protagonist is forced into turning out to be entirely positive. Is that a thing that happens often? I don’t know, but it’s a nice idea, motivationally speaking.

All in all, it’s a really nicely written dramedy that I suspect will be overlooked somewhat – the premise is not an easy sell and its trailers misrepresented it as a rom-com – and very much worth seeing. Especially if you’re a community fan – Jim Rash a.k.a. Dean Pelton co-wrote and directed. If that’s not something to recommend it I don’t know what is.

MV5BMTU0NzE0Mzg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY2MDY3OQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_In a World

Now here’s a thoroughly unusual comedy. Lake Bell’s directorial debut and (presumably) pet project, it’s a feminist comedy about trailer voice-overs.

Bell plays Carol, daughter of legendary trailer voice-over artist Sam Sotto. She works as a freelance vocal coach, but dreams of breaking into the male-dominated field of movie trailers. The film is firmly grounded in reality: the gender disparity in voice over work is very real, as is the domination of a tiny number of performers. It even opens with documentary footage introducing the late great Don LaFontaine before seguing into the fictional world. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line is at times: the film trailers Carol voices are entirely fictional, but at least some of the characters are real people.

But the world of trailer voice-overs is largely a backdrop. Much of the film is concerned with Carl’s personal life, her budding romance with her sound-mixer, her sister’s struggling marriage, and her changing relationship with her father as the two of them come into competition for the same job.

In a World is ultimately a meditation on the important of the female voice, literally. Women’s voices are a recurring theme throughout the film and Carol’s voice is eventually heard by the whole world. It’s an important message and it’s delivered, though not perfectly, without being heavy handed.

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