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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.

62

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: 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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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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Big Finish Reviews: A Heart on Both Sides & All Hands on Deck

Big Finish’s Short Trips Monthly range started up in January of 2015 and I’ve been a regular subscriber more or less ever since. And as of this year BF finally has a license to start producing New Series themed material.

Short Trips has always been an especially varied and creative range, so I was excited to see three special short trips blending new and old Who concepts; March/April’s The Jago and Litefoot Revival and for September and October a pair of stories sending two of Big Finish’s most popular companion characters into the Last Great Time War.

A Heart on Both Sides, featuring BF veteran performer Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, and All Hands on Deck featuring Carole Ann Ford as Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and the original Doctor Who companion caused some high emotions amongst the fanbase when they were announced. Not because people thought they would be bad; it’s that Nyssa and Susan are both exceptionally kind and good characters, and Big Finish don’t you dare hurt them.

Needless to say, I had some big expectations for these stories. Did they live up to them? Well, sort of.

heartA Heart on Both Sides by Rob Nisbet

A Heart on Both Sides dives straight on in. We find Nyssa and her new assistant crewing a hospital ship, the Traken, trying desperately to help as many people as they can while the Time War rages around them.

But when their arrival on a neutral planet is followed closely by a Time Lord attack, Nyssa finds herself the object of suspicion and tensions run still higher when her assistant is found to be a Time Lord himself…

Nyssa’s assistant is, of course, the Doctor (as played by Paul Mcgann). She doesn’t recognise him and he never reveals herself, which, surprisingly, actually works. This is a Doctor who is working hard to stay detached from events. He involves himself in Nyssa’s life only as long as is necessary to save it and then he’s gone.

The emotional stakes are high and on that level this story is a tense and often moving listen.

Unfortunately, the premise doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. It’s a fairly ordinary war-time story but the trouble is, the Time War isn’t an ordinary war. As far as we know, the opposing side are the daleks. The whole concept of Nyssa having ‘a heart on both sides’ (as the Doctor claims) is puzzling to say the least and never really explained.

A Heart on Both Sides sets out to prove that the Time War was more ideologically complicated than it might seem at first glance, but unfortunately doesn’t pull it off. I’ve thought about it a lot and the only ‘two sides’ I can think of that make sense in this context are fighting against the daleks vs remaining neutral, but if that was the intention, it really ought to have been explained more fully.

handsAll Hands on Deck by Eddie Robson

I had a lot of expectations for this story. I did not expect it to open with a dalek machine spewing custard. Suffice to say this one was a surprise!

Susan has now helped Earth weather not one but two dalek invasions and lost most everyone she loves in the process. But she’s determined to help her adopted homeworld rebuild. Life goes on.

Then one day she finds herself dealing with a dalek machine spewing custard. An asteroid that disappears before it can hit the Earth. A series of curiously harmless crises. Almost like someone is playing games with her.

It’s the Doctor, playing a very clever and dangerous game indeed. His appearance late in the story where it would normally be a relief is here an unsettling twist. The Doctor is, very unusually, here the antagonist. A sympathetic antagonist but an antagonist nonetheless.

His goal? To keep Susan from realising that Gallifrey is trying to contact her… to draft her into the military. To fight in the Time War. This reveal when it comes is hardly a surprise but its consequences are gutwrenching.

All Hands on Deck is a study into Susan’s character and her relationship with the Doctor, who hasn’t been the world’s best grandfather. The climax harks back to the famous ending of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, wherein the Doctor locked Susan out of the TARDIS and out of his life for her own good, starting her new life on 22nd century Earth.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth has long been praised for its emotional weight and criticised for its sexist, paternalistic undertones in equal measure. Once, the Doctor took away Susan’s right to choose her on path in life. Now their positions are reversed, and now she takes it back.

The decision of have the Doctor play the villain for once was a very interesting one, especially in a story about Susan, perhaps his closest companion of all. And it’s equal parts carthartic and heart-breaking, especially for listeners of The Eighth Doctor Adventures who know exactly what Susan has been through to reach this point.

Verdict:

A Heart on Both Sides was more or less what I’d expect from a New Who based Time War story, which is to say, an enjoyable narrative but ultimately unsatisfying. I hope Big Finish does better in their Time War boxset (I haven’t listened to it yet!).

All Hands on Deck was not at all what I’d expected, and it’s brilliant. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s familiar with Susan’s character. It’ll break your heart.

 

 

 

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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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My Week in Writing (01/10/17)

20170930_151417.jpgI can’t quite believe it’s October already! This year has flown by. I really wish it wouldn’t.

On the flip side, this has been a slow week. I’ve been trying to do a final read-through of my novel but things will keep getting in the way and progress on my other projects has been slow too.

I did, however, finish and submit my story for the Shoreline flash fiction contest and I was pleased with the finished product. It took some editing but I finally managed to have at least one reader get what I wanted from it so hopefully the judges will too!

I finished listened to The Night Witches and listened to Songs of Love, the second installment of Doom Coalition 4. Both were pretty excellent and I look forward to reviewing them!

I finished The Greengage Summer and toyed with watching the film… but I, do not like the sound of some of the changes they made for it, so I think I’ll give it a miss.

Next up I’m reading Anita and Me by Meera Syal. And after that, I only have one book left on my to-read stack… a terrifying prospect. I may have to actually go book shopping.

I also went to the Edinburgh Literary Salon, where we heard a bit about Book Week Scotland (coming up this autumn) and I got introduced to Charlie Stross. Very strange experience as I wasn’t sure how to bring up the fact that we were recently in the same book. Thankfully Noel from Shoreline helped me out!

And I started watching Red Dwarf.

 

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