Tag Archives: review

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…


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.


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.



Leave a comment

Filed under big finish, doctor who, review

Review: The Good Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Leave a comment

Filed under review, television

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under big finish, doctor who, review

Review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

DIRK-GENTLY-FinalI don’t know how to begin explaining Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Is it an adapation of the Douglas Adams book series? Not really – if anything it’s an adaptation of the title. Is it a science fiction series? Officially. What’s it about? The inter-connectedness of all things, I suppose.

Let’s get this out of the way: I really love this show. Season two just came to UK (and international) Netflix, so the whole series is now available and it really is a delight from start to finish – watch this clip if you don’t believe me.

The first season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency follows Todd Brotzman, a hotel bellboy who stumbles upon the scene of the gruesome murder of local billionaire Patrick Spring. Shortly thereafter, he’s sought out by Dirk Gently, a self proclaimed holistic detective who was hired to solve Patrick Spring’s murder – before it happened.


Meanwhile, Bartine ‘Bart’ Curlish, a self-proclaimed holistic assassin, has a new mission: to kill Dirk Gently.

Season one of Dirk Gently is one of the most perfect eight hours of television I’ve ever seen. Nothing is wasted, every plot thread connects back; it’s a puzzle, and once you get to the end it’s obvious there was only ever one solution, and that solution is, of course, time travel.

The final twist is likewise inevitable, and it is gutwrenching. The bar was set very high.

Did the second season live up to the promise of the first? Well, sort of. The show’s creator said the season two would make season one look like ‘an ordinary detective show’ and he really wasn’t kidding.

dirkgentlycancelledSeason two opens in the magical land of Wendimoor. Wendimoor is threatened by a great and terrible evil, and their only hope of salvation lies in the ancient prophecy: ‘find Dirk Gently’.

Back on earth, Dirk, freshly sprung from the clutches of the CIA, finds himself in the rural town of Bergsberg with a simple but cryptic mission: ‘find the boy’.

I had a great time watching season two. Wendimoor is beautifully realised and the central character arcs – Dirk, Todd, Amanda and Farah – are satisfying. Plus new characters Sherlock Hobbes and Tina Tevetino are a delight.

But it does have to be said, where the first season will keep you guessing till the end, the season season does get a touch predictable. Though perhaps that was intentional – the Wendimoor arc is an epic fantasty story, and the epic fantasy genre has conventions and rules. Regardless, the central twist of the season was obvious far too early for my taste.

Plus with so many characters and plot threads carried forward from season one, it was always going to be hard for a second season to juggle them all. A few key characters fall by the wayside and some new characters never get the development they deserve.

Those quibbles aside, it was, for me, more enjoyable than the first season – the brighter aesthetic really did it for me. I was in love from the first scene. And after all, the bar was set very high. It would be hard to repeat the sheer wow factor of the first season and I didn’t really expect it to.

Dirk Gently is my newest favourite TV show. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s one of the most creative shows I’ve seen in a while. In short, it’s some really good television, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Leave a comment

Filed under review, television, Uncategorized

Review: The 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under animation, films, review

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under review, television

Shoreline of Infinity – spring ’17

Shoreline-Issue-7-Cover-1000wThis month marks the seventh of what’ll hopefully be a very long run of Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s finest (and only) science fiction magazine. And it’s an especially exciting issue, because I’m in it – twice!

I really love Shoreline, and not just because they bought my work. I’ve been going to their monthly open mic nights (now at Banshee Labyrinth – second Wednesday of the month) since last summer and I own all seven issues in print format. I’d subscribe, but I like the experience of picking them up in person!

Unlike a lot of magazines, they have a somewhat loose and open-minded definition of sci-fi, publishing stories all over what one might call the SF spectrum, generally with a focus on character drama and emotion rather than science, which I really appreciate.

They also publish an ongoing comic about the history of science fiction, called The Beachcomber, and a great column on Scottish sci-fi history entitled SF Caledonia which is always a fascinating read, plus interviews and a selection of book reviews.

Issue 7 features one of my short stories, plus my review of The Girl with Two Souls by Stephen Palmer.

It’s more than just a fiction magazine – it really is a magazine for the Scottish sci-fi fan community, and I can’t recommend it enough!

This quarter’s line-up:

The Walls of Tithonium Chasma by Tim Major – a bleak and rather cold story set on Mars, in a future harking back to classic sci-fi.

An Infinite Number of Me by Dan Grace – one of the more abstract, less conventional offerings, this one’s the kind of story that could be taken as a metaphor, up until the final lines.

Brother’s Keeper by Shannon Connor Winward – I’d call this a character drama with a side of SF, rather than SF with character drama. Despite the time travel involved, it feels very real, very down-to-earth.

Message in a Bottle by Davyne DeSye – I confess, I’m not sure what to make of this one. A short and strange piece, perhaps more of a prose poem than a short story, I look forward to re-reading it.

Anyone Can Ask About Enhancement by Terry Jackman – a chilling and perhaps darkly comic tale set in a Brave New World-esque future.

3.8 Missions by Katie Gray – here’s my story! I shan’t toot my own horn, but it involves mostly cyborgs.

Quantum Flush by Daniel Soule – a very silly and very funny time travel story, if a little heavy on potty humour for my taste.

Something Fishy by David L Clements – a strange and unpredictable story about a singing fish on an alien world.

This issue’s Beachcomber is short and irrevent history of Martians, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Marvin, and it’s probably my favourite entry in the series to date. SF Caledonia covers 19th century novel That Very Mab by May Kendall and Andrew Lang, a fascinating and hard to classify book about Mab the fairy queen returning to Britain after a long sojourn in Samoa.

Issue 7 is dedicated to author and poetry Jane Yolen and features an extended interview followed by a selection of her sci-fi poetry (with an introduction by poetry editor Russell Jones). Finally, there’s Ruth EJ Booth’s regular column Noise and Sparks, which discuses Mervyn Peake and the importance of the arts in these interesting times.

It’s a really great and well-rounded magazine. You can pick up a digital copy through the Shoreline of Infinity website for £2.60 or a hard copy for £5.25, and you can also buy copies at their monthly Event Horizon sci-fi open mic for £5. Check it out, and read my story while you’re at it!


Leave a comment

Filed under books