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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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My Week In Writing (30/07/17)

20170730_155734Well, the big bit of news this week is: I found a new (temp) job, starting tomorrow! Which means I’ve spent this weekend a) relaxing and b) buying new shoes. I don’t know what the dress code for my new office is so I’m not sure if the new shoes are strictly necessary, but I figured it was about time I had a pair of smart shoes I can walk in.

All in all, operation ‘quit my job’ has been more or less successful – I was unemployed for five weeks, which is longer than I hoped but not as long as I expected, and I have a (hopefully glowing) reference for what I was doing.

In other news, my data recovery was a success – they weren’t able to recover my entire hard drive but I should be getting back all the writing I lost, hopefully tomorrow after New Work.  Very relieved and very much looking forward to sorting my writing projects out!

This week, I’ve been plugging away on the same writing projects, with variable success – between wanting to relax a bit before starting work and knowing I’ll be able to commit better after getting my files back, it’s been difficult to motivate myself these past few days.

I listened to the first three episodes of Doctor Who: Doom Coalition 1, which I have complicated feelings about. I’m enjoying it more than Dark Eyes, though, which I found grim and a bit disappointing.

I watched Captain America: Civil War, which I found acutely disappointing – I don’t know anything much about the comic arc it’s based on, but as a sequel to Age of Ultron it’s not wholely satisfying and as a sequel to Winter Soldier is a full-on disappointment. It did get me hyped for Black Panther, though.

And on a whim, I watched Psycho and enjoyed it more than I expected to – I was a little nervous about watching it on my own because I don’t do well with scary (I’d been informed that it isn’t scary but I’m very easily frightened) but I’m glad I did because there are certain, um, sequences that the people I generally watch films with probably wouldn’t have taken entirely seriously…

Anyway, the first act is definitely the highlight but I was sort of expecting that. If anything I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the rest of the film – I was half expecting to be bored stiff.

So, next week: new job!

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The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 2: Part Two

montage_image_largeContinuing from last week’s post, and with an excess of colons in the title: here are some thoughts on The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor: Volumer 2. Part two.

The Bonfires of the Vanities by Uma McCormack, starring Anneke Wills as Polly Wright:

I was really looking forward to The Bonfires of Vanities – it’s Big Finish’s first Hartnell-era Ben and Polly story and a rare Doctor Who story by a woman. But as it is, it’s been a couple of weeks since I listened to it and it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on me.

Though that said, I had a good time listening to it. Like Fields of Terror it delves into a lesser-known chapter of history, but this time it’s a more light-hearted affair. The Bonfires of Vanities is about the Lewes Bonfire, apparently the most famous bonfire night celebration in the country (I’d never heard of it).

Thinking about it, it’s sort of weird that there’s such a proliferation of creepy stories set during May Day festivities, but almost none that I know of about Guy Fawkes Night – it’s a celebration that literally celebrates burning people at the stakes (yes, Guy Fawkes wasn’t burned but the Lewes Bonfire also commemorates Protestants Martyrs who were burned alive), it takes places at night, in winter… the only thing I can think is that, unlike May Day, it doesn’t have any especially ‘sexy’ associations.

The Bonfires of Vanities has a palpable tension running through it. The initial reveal of the monster of the week – a Guy come to life – is suitably creepy, but the real threat ultimately comes from the townspeople of Lewes. They’re so unpleasant that the Doctor saving them from themselves doesn’t feel fully deserved. But that’s sometimes the case in Doctor Who.

Ultimately, I think the issue is it’s just less focused than the other stories in the boxset. It feels a bit like a four-parter crammed into a Companion Chronicle, which isn’t a good look – CCs are short-form stories and should, ideally, be very tight.

It also has this weirdly sexist tone at times, which I’m willing to give it a pass on because, firstly, it’s by a woman, and secondly it’s obviously trying to faithfully recreate the tone of sixties Who, but I could have done without it.

I do feel like The Bonfires of Vanities (I still don’t get that title) is the weakest story in the boxset, but given how strong the boxset is overall, that’s hardly an insult.

The Plague of Dreams by Guy Adams, starring Anneke Wills as Polly Wright

This was fantastic, in more ways than one.

The whole boxset has an unsubtle but low-key arc running through it: as established in the trailer, a mini-drama in and of itself, someone is messing with the First Doctor’s time line in order to prevent him fighting in the Time War. I didn’t listen to the trailer till afterwards, and honestly I’m glad I skipped it – the Time War stuff was a pleasant surprise, and I think I’d have been very apprehensive about how it’d be intergrated into a Hartnell-era story!

I can say with some certainty that Plague of Dreams is… not what I’d have expected. It has an entirely new twist on the Companion Chronicles format: Polly and an unnamed ‘Player’ are on a stage, performing the events of the story for a mysterious audience.

It’s unsettling, strange, and (as you’ve probably guessed) very meta. The Player, revealed over the course of the story to be a benevolet Time Lord, has been following the Doctor’s exploits and has an idea of how his adventures are usually constructed. In essence, he’s the author, a Doctor Who fan writing a story of his own.

When the true nature of their situation – I won’t spoil it – is revealed, it’s a tiny bit of a disappointment, but I don’t think anything would have lived up to the level of mystery established over the first episode.

My only real complaint isn’t really with Plague of Dreams but with the overall arc: it was written with the express purpose of accomodating more First Doctor, Ben and Polly stories, which I don’t think was necessary.

Strictly speaking, there’s no time in TV continuity for these stories to take place – they’re in three stories together, which are continuous – but who cares? If anything, more adventures with the First Doctor serve to strengthen and deepen Ben and Polly’s character arcs and it’s easy enough to handwave the continuity issue.

(Really, Big Finish? You inserted a whole arc of stories between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani even though it’s heavily implied they take place on the same day with nary a handwave but you wrote this whole arc to explain… actually, never mind. It’s better not to think about it too much.)

Conclusion

I have to say, this is the strongest Companion Chronicle boxset to date. The First Doctor Volumer 1 was a little samey, the Second Doctor Volume 1 was patchy. This one was consistently strong.

The Darkened City and The Plague of Dreams are both, in my opinion, masterpieces, and I’m sure Darkened City is destined to be a classic of the Companion Chronicles range. I’d give the whole boxset a solid 8/10.

 

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The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 2: Part One

ccsBig Finish’s Companion Chronicles range was my gateaway drug into Doctor Who on audio – I started with 2009’s The Glorious Revolution and basically never looked back. It’s still my favourite BF range (and the one I’d most like to write for).

The monthly Companion Chronicles came to an end in June 2014, but the series has continued in the form of annual boxsets. I’m not sure how I feel about this change, to be honest – aside from anything else, so far it seems they’re only going to be making Firsst and Second Doctor era chronicles, which is a bit disappointing.

I also find the boxset approach a little samey – it makes it harder to appreciate each story as a work in and of itself.

That said, I really did enjoy last month’s First Doctor boxset. It’s a really surprising mix of stories – not only are Susan, Ian and Barbara (William Hartnell’s most iconic companions) entirely absent, a full two of the four stories are devoted to Polly Wright and Ben Jackson.

I’m more of a Second Doctor fan and Ben and Polly are more Second Doctor companions, so I was really excited to see them getting so much ‘screentime’ – they’re two of my favourite companions and sadly all bar one of their serials is wholly or partially missing from the BBC archives, so they don’t get the love they deserve.

Big Finish has done a lot to revive both characters, but as Frazer Hines – Patrick Troughton era companion Jamie Mccrimmon – generally plays the Doctor in Second Doctor releases, it’s rare to see them get an outing without Jamie and vanishingly rare to see them together with the First Doctor.

Anyway, that little fan-squee aside, here’s what I thought of the stories:

Fields of Terror by John Pritchard, starring Maureen O’Brien as Vicki:

One of my favourite things about Big Finish is the way it’s inherited Doctor Who’s educational bent. Their historical stories more often than not delve into lesser-known periods of history, and Fields of Terror takes the Doctor and friends to the War in the Vendée, one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in the French Revolution.

The story stands as a kind of spiritual sequel to the 1960s story The Reign of Terror, the events of which the Doctor refers to directly in episode one. However, I’m not sure it’s as successful as its predecessor: a big part of what makes The Reign of Terror successful is the way it challenges the Doctor’s character.

It’s stated early on that the Reign of Terror it’s the Doctor’s favourite historical period and he’s excited to be able to see it for himself. He and his friends are promptly mistaken for counter-revolutionaries and very nearly sent to the guillotine. In my opinion, it’s an important step in the First Doctor’s character arc, part of an ongoing realisation that he can’t be a mere observer in history.

Fields of Terror, while it’s a very exciting story, doesn’t have that character-driven backbone – which is a pity, because Big Finish have dealt really well with similar themes in the past.

That aside, it’s one of the creepiest Doctor Who stories I’ve experienced in a while. The events take place in a single night, moving from bloody battlefields to the claustrophobic setting of a manor house as the Doctor, Vicki and Steven are held captive by a group of French soldiers who are being pursued by something sinister.

There’s some great atmosphere and the tension doesn’t let up until the very end. I was a bit disappointed by the ultimate conclusion – I do think that not having a conventional monster was the right move here, but it still struck me as a little weak. Otherwise, though, good, scary stuff.

Across the Darkened City by David Bartlett, starring Peter Purves as Steven:

This one was absolutely the highlight of the boxset. Across the Darkened City is one of those stories that throws you in right at the deep end: Steven, separated from the Doctor and Vicki, held captive by a group of Daleks. He and his fellow prisoners attempt to escape but it goes horribly wrong, and soon Steven finds himself stranded on an especially nasty planet, with his only hope of salvation a critically wounded Dalek.

As with Fields of Terror this one does not let up until the end and Steven’s fear and exhaustion are palpable as he goes to increasingly desperate lengths to save himself and his unlikely companion.

Across the Darkened City is the newest iteration in a line of stories that ask the question: could a Dalek ever become good? The Dalek in this story is revealed early on to be a mutant, and it certainly acts strangely, allying itself with Steven and seemingly at times genuinely touched by his attempts to protect it.

Steven goes from protecting the Dalek for his own sake – it can operate the transmat that’s his only hope of getting back to the Doctor – but he can’t help but bond with it through their shared adversity. Once he starts thinking of the Dalek as an ally, he wants to protect it – it’s human nature.

Like the audience, Steven knows enough about the Daleks to know how unlikely it is, but he wants to believe it could be on his side. Listening to the story, you want to believe the Dalek could be on the cusp of real change.

As a result, when the Dalek inevitably turns on him it’s gut-wrenching. The story as a whole is, in some respects, a sobering reflection on the dangers of anthropomorphism: Steven’s mistake is projecting human feelings onto a creature that is fundamentally alien. It’s inevitable that the Dalek will want him dead, just as it’s inevitable that he’ll come to want to keep it alive. Both of them act in accordance with their natures.

The final post-credits twist ties these themes into the Second Doctor serial Evil of the Daleks, with a reveal that’s both shocking and, looking back, somehow blindingly obvious.

Well, this post went on longer than expected, so I’m going to split it in half! See you next week for The Bonfires of Vanities and Plague of Dreams.

 

 

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My Week In Writing (03/07/17)

20170630_202109Well, to lead with the bad news: my harddrive suffered a mechanical failure yesterday. It happened too quickly for me to be able to back up, so I lost a not insignificant amount of writing. I’ve sent it off for data retrieval so, keep your fingers crossed for me.

Fortunately though, most of the writing I’ve done since my last full back up was novel drafts, which I backed up on completion, so all things considered the damage is minimal!

In better news, I found out this week that my story 3.8 Missions is going to be featured in Shoreline of Infinity’s special anthology of Scottish science fiction for the Edinburgh Book Festival, which I’m very excited about. I’m going to be rubbing shoulders with some book festival authors, as well as Shoreline reprints. I feel very honoured!

This week, I’ve been taken a break from long form fiction, so I wrote two new short stories… both of which may now be gone for good. Fortunately, the two slightly longest stories I started I have at least some of and I’ve written as detailed notes as I could manage on what I’ve lost, so re-writing should be relatively easy…

I went to Hear Hare Here at the Golden Hare Bookshop, where I heard some really great poetry and picked up a very tiny book containing an essay by Phillip Pullman, an excerpt from his upcoming Daemon Voices.

I listened to the first two stories of Big Finish’s newest volume of Companion Chronicles The First Doctor: Volume Two. Fields of Terror, starring Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, is a historical, a kind of sequel to the William Hartnell serial The Reign of Terror. It’s one of the creepiest Doctor Who stories I’ve encountered in a while, delving as it does into a dark portion of French history.

Across the Darkened City, starring Peter Purves as Steven Taylor, is a Dalek story co-starring the incomporable Nicholas Briggs. In my opinion, the Daleks are at their best when their numbers are low, and this is a story that really gets that; Steven is stranded on a strange and deadly world, his only companion, and only chance of survival, an injured Dalek.

Along the way, he grapples with a question that has occupied at least three Doctor Who stories: could a Dalek ever become good? However, unlike its predecessors Across the Darkened City comes to a bleak and unsettling conclusion that’s both shocking and inevitable, with a delicious final twist that I did not see coming.

(If you listen to this boxset, be aware that Across the Darkened City is best listened to after familiarsing yourself with the Patrick Troughton serial Evil of the Daleks).

Next week, I’m planning to listen to the next half of the boxset, plus I’m going to be starting some volunteering work. And I’ve ordered a 2-in-1 tablet to replace the somewhat creaky backup laptop I’m currently reliant on, so that should be an improvement!

 

 

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My Week In Writing (25/06/17)

20170614_192709Well, the big news for this week: I finished Settlement 359! Final count: 153,000 words, ish. I may or may not write a sequel – for now, it’s a happy ending.

So, what next? For now, I’m planning to do a little work on a short story collection I’ve been picking at for a while, featuring characters etc from my everpresent novel (the one I haven’t figured out how to write yet).

I planned to work a lot more on Summer this week, but life got in the way. I’m still not over my lingering cold, and I’ve had a total of three job interviews, with a fourth one coming up on Tuesday. I’m at 2/3 on rejections, so far.

I also had a Doctor Who short story rejected by the charity anthology I sent it to, which means I can now post it only whenever I want, without having to hack it to bits to fit a wordcount. Silver linings.

Still working on my entry for Big Finish’s short story contest. I’ve written the section I wanted to use for a sample, but it’s over twice as long as the word limit.

I started reading After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry, which I found really gripping for the first couple of chapters, but now it sort of feels like everything’s been resolved and it’s still going… I assume it’ll pick up again, if I keep at it.

This week’s Doctor Who was… well, I have complicated feelings. Loved the plot, loved the classic Who references and the final twist, in deep denial about the ending. I’ve no doubt they’ll reverse it next week but frankly it was unnecessarily dark.

Next week: figure out what I’m doing with my life, now I’m unemployed.

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Doctor Who: 12 Stories for 12 Doctors (part 3)

rose-touches-dalek-doctor-who-20059. Dalek (Christopher Eccleston, 2005)

I’m part of the New Who generation. This was my introduction to the daleks – I was aware of them, naturally, but I’d never seen more than brief clips (actually, until the title card came up, I thought they were the darlecks). And I was hooked. Dalek both confirmed my belief that the titular cyborgs are fearsome monsters… and challenged all my expectations.

I didn’t listen to Jubilee, the Colin Baker audio play that Dalek was adapted from for another decade, and I’m glad I experienced them this way around. Dalek is Jubilee boiled down to a skeleton, forty-five minutes of more or less condensed action, and if I was familiar with the source material I’d probably have hated it. As it was, I was thrilled and moved and loved every minute of it.

Looking back, there’s some shaky awkwardness characteristic of season one, but also some touches I missed first time around – the 70s cyberman in the case! The lines taken straight from Jubilee! – and I still love it. One of my most re-watched episodes.

Runners up: The End of the World, Boom Town

a276dfe19bb9b3cdfb76d1a6eb8582ae10. Human Nature/Family of Blood (David Tennant, 2007)

Some Doctor Who stories are just instant classics, and Human Nature is one. I remember one reviewer at the time going so far as to call it the first true classic of the new series. From start to finish, it’s a compelling and beautifully constructed two-parter. The in media res opening was an unusual decision for Russell T Davies Who, and a really welcome one, allowing the episode to skip over the set-up and exposition and dive straight in.

David Tennant is brilliant as Mr John Smith, treading the fine line between ‘entirely new person’ and ‘the Doctor, but a human’, and Freema Agyeman does a wonderful job of carrying the story in the Doctor’s absence.

For me, the highlight is this sequence in which the Family of Blood and their scarecrow minions mount an attack on the school. Harry Lloyd’s chilling performance as Baines, the conversation about WWI, Sister-of-Mine’s laughter, the hymn that plays as the boys start firing – this really is RTD Who at its best.

The aesthetic is gorgeous and the doomed love story is sincerely touching. As I said: an instant classic.

Runners up: Midnight, The Waters of Mars

Pandorica-Opens-411. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Matt Smith, 2010)

The Pandorica Opens is my favourite New Who episode, and a good contender for my all-time favourite Doctor Who story. If Human Nature is RTD Who at its best, this is Moffat Who at its strangest, funniest and weirdest.

There’s just so much packed in here, and yet somehow it all works and all comes together for a ride that’s pure fun while also being touching and genuinely epic.

The best thing about Moffat Who, in my opinion, is its unpredictability. When Rory was killed and erased from time part way through the season, most viewers probably expected him to come back – but for him to suddenly show up, in an apparent period piece, as a Roman centurion? What. The Romans are actually Autons? What. The episode ends with Amy dead, the Doctor imprisoned, and the universe ending… and the next episode picks up with the opening scene of The Eleventh Hour, but without the Doctor? What?

It really is a delightful two-parter. My only issue with it is that the following seasons totally failed to satisfactorily resolve the loose threads – but that doesn’t hurt my enjoyment on re-watches.

Runners up: Cold War, Vincent and the Doctor

doctor-who-pearl00112. Season Ten (Peter Capaldi, 2017)

I thought long and hard about which Peter Capaldi episode to put here. The trouble is, I really didn’t enjoy his first two seasons – my favourite episodes, Flatline and Time Heist were, if I’m going to be honest, the ones I disliked least. The best episode, in my opinion, was Heaven Sent which unfortunately I found disturbing in an unpleasant way.

But so far season ten has been absolutely stellar! Trouble is, the episodes are all so new that I haven’t had time to properly digest them. So, I’m going to cheat, and talk about the whole season.

The highlights: Smile was firstly aesthically absolutely beautiful, and secondly one of the scariest episodes of Who I’ve seen in a long time. It had that constant feeling of danger that I haven’t experienced since the last time they did a Weeping Angels story.

Thin Ice, while average in times of sci-fi, did a great job of recreating a historical period that’s quite rare in Doctor Who, and of properly tackling period-appropriate racism (I could watch the punch all day) while also talking about some political and ethical issues which are, sadly, eternally relevant.

Extremis was one of those episodes I’d put with Heaven Sent and Midnight – super weird and profoundly unsettling, and in their own way instant classics. I won’t talk in detail because, frankly, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it is terrifying and it will punch you in the gut.

For the first time in a couple of years, I’m really excited to see where this season is going. It’s a pity Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat are leaving so soon, because I’d love to see more of this.

And that’s my list! It can change from week to week, but most of my number one picks are set in stone at present. I love all of these stories and if you’re a Who fan, I’d recommend you check each of them out, if you haven’t already.

 

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