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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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Review: Doom Coalition 3

doom3

Absent Friends: The TARDIS is (once again) drawn off course by an unknown force, landing in a quiet English village. The Doctor and Liv’s only lead is the nuisance calls the locals have been getting on their new mobile phones: creepily good impersonations of dead relatives. But every line of investigation turns up… nothing.

Meanwhile, finding herself only a few decades away from home, Helen goes behind the Doctor’s back to see her family again – and learns some harsh lessons about time travel.

I adore this story. The idea of the Doctor investigating lead after lead only to find mundanities is ingenious, Helen’s subplot is handled superbly (and ultimately gut-wrenching) and the final twist, when it comes, is lovely.

The highlight of the story is Liv’s final conversation with her father. I was doing laundry when I listened to it. It was a strange experience.

The Eighth Piece: Intrigued by the device at the centre of the time distortion in Absent Friends, the Doctor sets out to uncover its secrets. It’s a small piece of a greater whole and so he, Liv and Helen travel to three different periods of European history. Each of them is dogged by a malevolent Clockmaker, a madman, and a very irregular nun.

River’s back, she’s one step ahead of the Doctor, and she’s wearing a wimple. And unfortunately, I’m less and less in love with how Big Finish are handling the character. I’d probably have enjoyed the portrayal were it not for The Husbands of River Song. As it is she comes across kind of shallow. But then again, she’s not the star of this story – I should give their Diary of River Song a listen before passing full judgement!

That aside, The Eighth Piece was a really enjoyable story. The different time periods lend it an epic feel and it’s a nice twist to have the Doctor and friends bound by linear time while other characters bounce in and out of the story around them. Really good fun.

The Doomsday Chronometer: Following on where The Eighth Piece left off, the Doctor struggles to survive and solve the mystery of the titular clock while River and Helen go on a time-hopping adventure to find the missing piece… because the Doctor wants them to put it together, right?

Aptly, given the subject matter, the pieces fall into place. The title of the series is explained, the Doctor meets river (though not technically face to face), the chronometer is completed and in a heartbreaking final twist the identity the identity of the third figure pursuing the clock is revealed.

It’s a little hard to judge this one on its own because it and The Eighth Piece really are a single story. But the pace and the stakes picked up and I had a great time listening to it – and it has one hell of a final cliffhanger.

The Crucible of Souls: In the Clocksmith’s TARDIS the Doctor and ‘Sister Cantica’ head for the mysterious Crucible of Souls, only to make a terrifying discovery: all of future history beyond a certain point has ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, Liv and Helen are in the TARDIS with a man they believe to be a newly regenerated Doctor… actually the Nine, a younger Eleven, with a disturbing agenda of his own…

The Nine passes himself off as the Doctor while the Doctor pretend to be the Clocksmith and the real Clocksmith waits at the Crucible of Souls and River is still dressed as a nun… round and round they go and where they stop I’m not telling.

If there’s one thing Doom Coalition does well it’s straight action, and The Crucible of Souls does not let up from start to finish. It’s all go and by the time I got to the breathless conclusion I was not ready for it to end.

Verdict: Doom Coalition isn’t the best thing Big Finish has produced, and it doesn’t match up to the epic, twisty series that was Dark Eyes, but so far it’s been consistently solid, consistently fun action-adventure Doctor Who. And for me it just keeps getting better!

That said, the highlight of volume three is absolutely Absent Friends, the slow, contemplative character piece of the bunch. Which I think goes to show the issue with this boxset format – it doesn’t really allow for standalones and doesn’t allow for nearly as much characterisation.

I’m three volumes deep now and as much as I like Helen I haven’t to to know her the way I got to know, say, Lucie Miller or Charley Pollard or even Molly of Dark Eyes. It’s especially difficult here because vocally, Helen and Liv aren’t that different from each other and neither of them is as fleshed out as I’d like, so I confess, I occasionally lost track of who was speaking!

This isn’t solely a problem with Big Finish – there’s been this shift in recent years away from ‘conventional’ television programmes towards what I’d seen described as ‘long form cinema’ and Big Finish is reflecting that. Unfortunately, I don’t think it entirely works for Doctor Who and I really hope that they go back to making ‘regular’ Eighth Doctor Adventures… but they’ve already announced two more boxsets, so I guess not.

I’m also less and less enamoured with their characterisation of River Song. I adore River and I’ve always felt she had the potential to be a far more interesting character. The Husbands of River Song really brought out that potential and I’m disappointed that Big Finish has done so little to develop her.

But then again, I don’t know when this was written in relation to The Husbands of River Song so maybe I’m being too harsh. One of these days I’ll listen to her solo series and see what I think!

Anyway, those tangents aside, I really enjoyed Doom Coalition 3 and I’m super pumped for volume four (waiting for me in my library!) so they’re doing something very right.

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My Week In Writing (24/09/17)

shrink final

I’ve been busy! The above is where my novel is currently sitting, roughly speaking – it’s shrunk down a little more since then (about another hundred words) but you get the idea. I’ve renewed my subscription to Agent Hunter, and I have… a variety of query letter resources tabbed. It’s on!

In other news: Annique is sitting just shy of 35k, which is surprisingly short, given how long I’ve been working on it. It’s a strange project and while I’m determined to finish it, in all honesty once it’s done I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with it.

I also started two new stories: one is tentatively titled Quiet, Loud and is about a werewolf who becomes an interdimensional police office. It’s part of the collection I’ve been working on and of all the stories I’ve written so far, it’s the one that I think would make the least sense to, um, people who aren’t me.

The other one is for Shoreline of Infinity’s flash fiction contest and it’s 371 words long, at present. I’m remaining hopeful that I can get it written in 1000 words or less by the end of the week – I’ve already had to scrap one idea for being too complicated.

I’m three episodes deep into The Night Witches, which is very enjoyable, so far. It’s what Big Finish does best – four episodes of solid Doctor Who. Looking forward to finishing it off.

I listened to the first episode of Doom Coalition 4, which was very strong and I really hope the rest of the boxset follows through.

I finished reading The Shock of the Fall (review forthcoming) and started reading The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, which I’ve been looking forward to. I also reviewed Room on Goodreads.

Next week I’m off to the literary salon (hopefully – I didn’t make it to the creative salon) and settling back into work after a short and impromptu holiday.

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My Week In Writing (17/09/17)

20170905_185544Whoops, I took a bit of a, er, unintentional week-long hiatus there. I’ve been busy! But not with anything interesting, sadly.

First off, the big news: my short story The Pit is going to be in Microtext 3, an upcoming anthology from Medusa’s Laugh. They’re open for submissions right now (750 word limit) and you can tell they have great taste cause they accepted me, so go send them something.

Anyway, getting accepted generally puts me in the mood to submit more short stories, so I’ve sent something off to F&SF and I’m planning to submit to another anthology in a couple of days.

This week, I’ve been listening to more Doom Coalition. I finished volume 3 today and I’m super pumped for volume 4. Definitely the best volume so far, absolutely phenomenal cliffhanger. I’m working on a full review, so watch this space.

I also started listening to The Night Witches, which is a release I’ve been looking forward to for… literally years. As yet it hasn’t disappointed! Wonderful concept for a historical and it’s always a joy to listen to a story narrated by Anneke Wills.

And there’ll be another one next month! I didn’t love the last run of Second Doctor adventures so I’m trying not to get too excited but the last season of the Early Adventures (featuring the First Doctor) was really strong so hopefully this season will be something special. The summaries are certainly tantalising!

I finished reading Strata and reviewed it on Goodreads and then I blazed through Room in two days flat. I also read Doctor Second, which was a delight and totally a necessary purchase.

Next up I’m reading The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, a charity shop impulse buy. I’ve also picked up a couple of miniature volumes of poetry (Robert Burns and Emily Dickinson) which I’m planning to read pretty soon.

My novel is shrinking down nicely:

cmon

My goal is 125k, so I’m getting there! 26 more pages to edit.

My other project, Annique is sitting at 33k and rising. Still not sure it’s going to work out. I’ll probably use it for my NaNoWriMo project this autumn, so if I haven’t figured it out my November adding another 50k to it should help. Prooobably.

Since my last update, I’ve been to Inky Fingers at Monkey Barrel Comedy and to Shoreline of Infinity’s special Event Horizon with Ken Mcleod. Great stuff.

And I’ve been watching the new season of Rick and Morty, which for all its faults (there are many) has been putting out a really phenomenal run of episodes. I’m excited for the finale.

Next week: I’m going to finish Night Witches, and on Tuesday I’m off to the Creative Salon at Summerhall. I’m also probably going to get my novel down to size, which means I’ll be moving on to the next stage… the dreaded query letter. I have no idea how to write one of those. Oh dear.

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