Saturday, 28 November 2015

Planet of the Rani

Planet of the Rani, by Marc Platt, had the function of telling two potentially quite interesting stories. As it's title suggests, it takes us to the Rani's little empire on the planet Miasimi Goria. Yet it also needs to tell us what happens to the Rani after she is caught and sent down to the clink at the end of The Rani Elite.

Marc Platt chooses to concentrate on the former and concludes the latter very quickly. He has the Rani being frogmarched to her cell at the beginning, then when the Doctor and his new companion, Constance Clarke arrive for her parole hearing, 47 years too late, she not only has the run of the prison, but has made herself the governor. Her final departure from Teccaurora Penitentiary is concluded at the end of the first quarter episode. I felt just a little cheated by this. The Rani being in prison is such an interesting idea that one feels one would like to see a bit more of it. The problem with The Rani Elite was that it had our favorite evil Time Lady basically doing what she had been trying to do in Time and the Rani. It was fun, but slightly stale. It was just another evil renegade Time Lord plot. A story about the Rani trying to break out of jail is exactly the kind of original and fresh story Big Finish needed to do to breath some life into their new incarnation of the Rani. Sadly, they blew the chance.

Has anybody forgotten that the late Kate O'Mara played an ex-con in Dynasty? It would have been a lovely tribute for Big Finish to have given us a Doctor Who prison drama. Over the years, Doctor Who has done James Bond, westerns, Star Trek parodies and Hammer horror. Why not Prisoner Cell-Block H or Bad Girls? It would have been so much more interesting to have seen the Rani interacting with cellmates and bitchy prison guards. With the invisibility of audio, they could do strip searches and shower scenes without any difficulties. Admittedly, the level of camp involved would have suited O'Mara's Rani rather better than the more restrained Redmond Rani, but Redmond shows the occasional camp flourish here and there.

Related to the brevity of the prison part of this story, is the problem of pace. The Rani's jailbreak occurs at a breathless pace. Once that part of the story is done and we go to Miasmi Goria, the pace of the story slows right down and we end up feeling like the story is an episode too long.

I'm not a fan of Marc Platt, yet he does have a strength which suits the story of Miasmi Goria. He is great at creating an interesting alien landscape to imagine when listening to an audio story, as he showed with Quinnis. The world of Miasmi Goria is a striking and interesting place; it has a real sense of location, with its dinner plate tree-statues and polluted air. Platt gives this something of the quality of an Hartnell story, with a peculiar and unknown world being explored. Interestingly, he says in the production interview that he tried to give it an exotic Indian vibe, going with the origin of Ushas' alias. This raises some interesting thoughts about the Rani, being a white woman with an Indian name. It makes her a sort of colonial memsahib. I think this takes away the potential racial awkwardness of the name.

There are some great things about this audio. Siobhan Redmond has really taken to the role and has made it her own. Colin Baker gives yet another fantastic performance as the Rani. I loved the moment when he imitated the Rani's Scottish accent. I do like the way that Dr. Who feels a sense of tragedy about the moral corruption of Ushas. I love the fact that the two characters have a history from their school days. We learn here about a crazy experiment that the two young Gallifreyans had attempted in their youth. Constance Clark, the Sixth Doctor's new companion is also fun. Oddly, she almost becomes a sort of companion to the Rani in this story.

I think this was a fairly enjoyable offering, but I can't get over my disappointment that more was not done with the prison aspect of the story. The Rani is a camp character. We need just a bit more fun in a story with her. Hence, it was a really bad choice to get Marc Platt to write this. Platt's stories are always serious and heavy going, which is entirely the wrong tone for a story about the Rani busting out of jail.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Gods and Monsters

I'm not sure we really needed a sequel to The Curse of Fenric. The really interesting thing about The Curse of Fenric is that we were faced with the Doctor's greatest ever enemy, a character that we had never even heard of before that story. We were being given a glimpse of a strange unseen backstory to Doctor Who. It seems rather appropriate that after that episode, Fenric was never mentioned again, apart from the revelation that he was the Great Old One Hastur. Bringing him back makes this entity a lot less mysterious and therefore a lot less interesting.

I found it a bit difficult to appreciate this story, as it is the conclusion of a trilogy and draws heavily from the Ace and Hex range of Big Finish audios. Nevertheless, it was interesting and had some great drama. The audio was reasonably well paced and structured.

The Haemovores are definitely a problem. In Curse of Fenric, these were silent monsters and so lacked a lot of potential for translation to audio. In this audio, they are made to wail, moan and gurgle, which does not come across as nearly as terrifying as it ought to. They are a very ineffective menace here.

My biggest problem is the way that this story changes the nature of the Doctor's contest with Fenric. In Curse, this was a mythic battle between two gods. Here, the Doctor is reduced to just a helpless pawn of Fenric. Big Finish has little time for the Virgin New Adventures notion of the Doctor as a god-like elemental figure. It is hard not to feel that Big Finish is in a number of ways working to undo the legacy of the New Adventure era.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons (BBC Novel)

The Witch Hunters was one of the original line of BBC Past Doctor novels, but was recently released in a series of reprints. Unlike the majority of Doctor Who novels, it is a pure historical; the only Sci-Fi elements being those relating to the regular cast.

This novel is about the famous witch trials that occurred in Salem in late 17th century America. It is open about its inspiration, referencing Arthur Miller's Crucible several times. While Steve Lyons has clearly put in a lot of research, as a theology graduate, I winced at some of his mistakes about Puritan theology. The characters refer quite frequently to Purgatory. The people of Salem would most definitely have abhorred the 'Popish' doctrine of Purgatory. He also has Rebecca Nurse believing she is damned as a result of her excommunication. That is not how the Puritans understood excommunication. While Rebecca Nurse would hardly have been happy at the disgrace of excommunication, she would not have believed that the minister had the infallible power to consign her to hell. I also thought it was a bit odd that the Ian and Barbara had not attended church meetings in Salem until the outbreak of the witch trials. There is no way that they would have been able to absent themselves for months in a community in which non-attendance was punishable by law.

The Witch Hunters is very heavy on high emotional drama, perhaps a little too much so. It does feel like Lyons is trying too hard to get an emotional reaction. The scene with Dr. Who taking Rebecca Nurse to see the future and her own memorial reminded me a lot of Vincent and the Doctor, a similarly emotion-heavy story. This novel is unusual for a Lyons story in its lack of humour (The Final Sanction being another exception); he is possibly better at working with a more comic tone.

I'm one of Susan's few fans, so I liked the attention given to her in this novel. It made good use of her developing telepathic abilities, as seen in The Sensorites. I also very much appreciated the chance to see Susan interacting with other young people, which she did not get to do very much on screen. However, I am unsure that she would have been so ready to try to change history and in her feeble efforts, she does come across as a little bit daft.

The First Doctor in this novel is very reminiscent of the Seventh Doctor in the New Adventures. The idea of him preventing Rebecca Nurse from being pardoned and returning her to be executed is a bit grim. I very much liked the fact that we have the Doctor making a solo voyage in the TARDIS following the events of The Five Doctors. This creates a gap in continuity which allows such stories as the First Doctor's solo travels in the World Distributor annuals, his TV Comic adventures with John and Gillian and his contest with Fenric and subsequent travels with Zeleekah.

This is certainly not the best Doctor Who novel, but it is an interesting work from one of the finest writers to work in the expanded universe of Doctor Who.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Gallifrey VI

The cover of this audio shows the bronze 'Time War' Daleks from the BBC Wales Series. This was one of the first in a series steps toward the inclusion of the New Series in Big Finish Doctor Who. With the new UNIT series coming out and the River Song audios, this process seems almost complete. I'm not sure I'm altogether comfortable with Big Finish doing the New Series, as I regard it as a last haven of New Series-free Doctor Who.

This follows on from previous seasons of Gallifrey, but can be just about enjoyed without prior knowledge, just as long as you know who Leela and Romana are and what a Dalek sounds like. At the end of the day, the Gallifrey series is about the cast, not about the story. It's about the joy of hearing Lousise Jameson and Lalla Ward together. The story is ultimately rather confusing, driven by technobabble and not especially memorable. The ending in particularly satisfying. I'm not altogether sure I like the idea that one can reset Gallifrey like a computer game and download the minds of her inhabitants.

We get an absurd piece of continuity fetishism thrown into this towards the end that is really typical of Gary Russell. In a bid to save Romana from the Daleks, Coordinator Narvin orders the Celestial Internvention Agency to prevent the creation of the Daleks or alter their nature, thus firing the first shot of the Time War (at least according to RT Davies). He then finds out that Romana is safe and realises he just risked the entire fabric of time needlessly. This feels slightly silly and seems to have been thrown in the end, almost as an after-thought.

Having the Daleks in this series was a real treat. The Daleks work just as well on audio as they do on television, if not better. You have to love the way they sound so excitable in their shrill voices, like hyperactive children. Their presence means that Leela gets to do what she likes best, lots of fighting. The warrior of the Sevateem seems pretty impressed when her Lady President decides to grab a weapon and join in.

As could only be expected, Lalla Ward does not fail to delight as Romana. She shows a steelly maternal care towards Gallifrey, while at the same time betraying a strong sense of weariness. I love the part where she is about to be sent into exile in a Type 40 TARDIS, speculating that after 'stopping a few alien invasions' she will spend more and more time in the library and eventually go mad.

This audio also introduces a future incarnation of Romana, called 'Trey' for convenience. She is played by Juliet Landau, better known as Drusila in Buff the Vampire Slayer. This Romana appeared more recently in the audio Gallifrey: Intervention Earth. In my review of that story, I discussed whether she is the same as the Romana III in the BBC novels, so I won't go into that here. The new Romana is very striking and enjoyable. She hugs her old self and comes across as very extrovert and girlish, yet is also far more ruthless and manipulative than her earlier incarnaton. The two Romanas attempt to get each other exiled, and the new Romana succeed.

This audio has its faults, like most of Big Finish's output, but it is well worth a listen.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Masters of Luxor

The Masters of Luxor is arguably, the ultimate lost story, as it was intended to be the second Doctor Who serial, until it was dropped in favour of Terry Nation's Dalek story. The rest is history. It would be interesting to imagine how the show might have developed differently had Verity Lambert stuck with this story instead of The Daleks, though one might doubt that it would have experienced the same runaway success. This serial has been adapted by Nigel Robinson, author of a number of Target novelisations, as a narrated audio story by Big Finish. The Doctor and Ian Chestertong are voiced by William Russell, while Carol Ann Ford voices both Susan and Barbara. The other characters are voiced by guest actor, Joseph Kloska. I was very keen to listen to this, as the original script was penned by Antony Coburn, the author of the first Doctor Who serial, known to us as An Unearthly Child.

The show was in an embryonic stage when this was originally written and this serial has some religious elements to it, with a lot of discussion about God, souls and the afterlife. Nigel Robinson felt it was necessary to trim them down a bit, but they are still present. The Doctor's final line mentions God, which feels quite striking.

There is action in this story, but it tends to spend more time in conversation and dialogue. This suits the audio medium well. It is quite a cerebral, intellectual story that asks interesting questions. Yet it also has some beautiful descriptions, along with that slightly dreamlike fairytale quality that many Hartnell stories have.

This is a very long story which feels awkward when it has so few characters. It does feel rather padded. I suppose Big Finish felt it was necessary to keep the length for the sake of authenticity, but one is likely to get weary listening to it all in one go. One difficulty I had at times was telling apart the characters. Russell and Ford work hard at distinguishing the voices of the Doctor and Ian and Barbara and Susan, but I still got a little confused occasionally. I also felt uncomfortable with the way the characters came across at times. Ian is really angry and aggressive for much of this. It also felt a little painful, the way Barbara seems to bully the Perfect One. Nevertheless, this is still an audio that is very much worth listening to.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Counter-Measures Series 4

** Spoiler Alert **

I complained in a previous review about the lack of extraterrestrials in Counter-Measures. This is sort of remedied with the return of the Light from The Assassination Games, though I would have liked to have seen the sort of slimy seaweed-like aliens that you might expect in a series influenced by Quatermass. British Rockets Group make an appearance, however.

Unlike the previous series of Counter-Measures, the individual episodes are not proper stories, but blend into one big series arc. I felt this made for a somewhat less interesting ride. It also meant problems of pacing, as some of the episodes could not carry the arc forward as well as other parts.

There are a few nice moments in this series. I like the use of a monorail in the first episode. Monorails are very Sixties and evoke the spirit of all those Gerry Anderson shows and their spin-off comics. There is also a nice line from Gilmour about destroying the world from Hertfordshire. There is also a clever use of the audio medium, with Gilmour and Sir Toby being played with the wrong voices, without this being commented on until later in the story. Nevertheless, my feelings about this are the same as the previous series. Too much darkness and too little humour (as well as too few monsters). All the intrigue and betrayal becomes just a bit too much. What the Counter-Measures series has so badly needed is a few more light-hearted stories that simply enjoy the nostalgia of this era. A slightly lighter tone at times would really give the listeners a break.

Shockingly, it appears that Counter-Measures ends here. The series ends with Gilmour, Rachel and Alison all getting killed in a series of explosions while Sir Toby denies that the group ever existed. Does it really end like this? Quite possibly it is, given that there is no announcement of a new series. If this is the end of Counter-Measures, this is an horrible and lazy way to end the series. It would also contradict a number of Doctor Who novels, such as Millennial Rites, in which we learn Rachel Jensen became scientific adviser to the Cabinet.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

"Heroin Screws You Up": Nightmare of Eden

When I was at University, I showed two Doctor Who videos to my housemate and best mate, who had never watched Doctor Who in his life (he was a Trekkie). They were The War Machines and The Nightmare of Eden. These probably seem a weird choice of first stories to show a non-fan. They just happened to be the two VHS tapes I had bought from the Virgin Megastore (remember those?)that day. He laughed out loud when Nightmare of Eden opened with the model shot of the spacecraft. He suggested it looked like a washing up liquid bottle. Actually, that is one of the best model shots in Seventies Doctor Who. After watching the two serials, he concluded that Nightmare of Eden was the more interesting story, but he preferred the 'kindly grandfather' of William Hartnell's Doctor to Tom Baker (a shame he didn't watch An Unearthly Child). I think watching that VHS of Nightmare of Eden was a profoundly negative experience for me. I had loved the novelisation of Nightmare of Eden as a child and watching the actual serial just seemed so disappointing. Everything looked so depressingly cheap. After, that I never bought a Doctor Who VHS again.

The Eden jungle set looks good and it might have been a better story, had we spent more time there, but unfortunately, most of the time we are on a spaceship set that is very flat and dull looking, as well as far too brightly lit. The Mandrell costumes are no worse than most other Doctor Who monster costumes, but the way they filmed lets them down. We see so much of them and under such bright lights, they inevitably look hilarious. Equally hilarious are the uniforms of Officers Fisk and Costa. They look very... Village People.

It is not just the sets and the costumes that are bad, we also get some uninspiring acting. The worst offender is Lewis Fiander, playing Tryst. He completely sends up the character he is playing, refusing to take the story seriously. Even the regulars don't help much. The scene with Tom Baker getting roughed up by Mandrells is embarassing. Romana comes across as just a little too smug. If there is any story to give ammunition to JNT's argument that the TARDIS crew had become too clever, this is it.

A lot of fans praise Nightmare of Eden for offering an 'intelligent' story about drugs. As a professional drugs worker, I find it really annoying. It offers a very cliched Daily Mail idea of drug addiction. It follows the common assumption that you only need to try drugs once and you will be addicted forever. This really is not true. Heroin can be very addictive, but I have known users who only use heroin occasionally without becoming opiate dependent. It also offers the rather extreme scenario of a drug that is certain to kill you. Did the writers really imagine that people would actually use a drug that causes certain death? This is a horribly patronizing and insulting view of drug users. Drug users may make choices that are unwise, but they are not stupid. Maintaining an habit with inherent risks is a bit different from using a substance that kills you.

There are a few good lines in this story, but otherwise, there is not much to love here.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Doctor Who beyond the BBC

Our government is presently pushing for much needed reforms to the BBC. It is clear that the BBC is bloated and over-extended and needs to be cut down to the essence of what public broadcasting should be.

At some point, the question is likely to be raised as to whether the BBC should continue to produce a program as commercially viable as Doctor Who.

I think it would be in the interests of the public, as well as for fans for the rights to Doctor Who to be sold to a commercial production company.

Some of the best Doctor Who has been produced outside the BBC. Under Marvel and others, the comic strips have included some fantastic material. Virgin provided a genuine and natural continuation of the Seventh Doctor era in its novels. Big Finish are continuing to give us great Doctor Who.

One of the problems with BBC Wales Doctor Who is its obsession with the status of Doctor Who as a national treasure. The BBC considers itself to be a iconic national treasure and it treats Doctor Who as its fictional avatar. A lot of BBC Wales Doctor Who seems to take an horrible triumphalist nationalist tone. This goes hand in hand with the fetishization of the Doctor as its central character. I think if Doctor Who were to move into commercial hands, it would no longer be able to propagandize itself as a national treasure and would have to sell itself on the strength of its stories. This would mean a much fresher Doctor Who than we have seen.

I suspect also that a commercially run Doctor Who would be more targeted at us fans. As a public property, the producers of Doctor Who seem to feel that they have to make Doctor Who for everybody, trying to please everyone, throwing in lots of laughs, a monster for the kids, soap opera emotions and the odd throwaway continuity reference for the fans. While this is in many ways in the spirit of the classic series, it tends to make the tone of the episodes a little too wobbly. The episodes feel more like spectacles and events rather than stories. A Doctor Who that was targeted at fans (who will spend money buying merchandise) and the young adult Sci-Fi watching audience (who will also potentially spend money buying merchandise) would work harder to write better and more interesting stories.

I think the time has come for the BBC to finally take its hands off Doctor Who.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Revenge of the Swarm

I doubt many fans were campaigning Big Finish to bring back the Swarm from Invisible Enemy. It's not the most memorable monster, but it was not an uninteresting one. As laughable as the Nucleus shrimp-like appearance was, there was something appropriate about it. Some crustaceans may be good to eat, but there are a lot of crustaceans which are nasty parasitic creatures, which fits quite well with the Swarm. Could it be that the Swarm is not actually a virus, but a microscopic crustacean, a mini-Macra? I think there was a real potential for Big Finish to make the Swarm a terrifying adversary. Unfortunately, Jonathan Morris chose to send it up, continually mocking its Napoleon complex. It does appear that the origin of the Swarm has been changed. The Invisible Enemy told us that the Swarm had been floating in space for millennia. According to this audio, the Swarm was created in a laboratory. I find this new origin banal. The idea of a virus mutating in a test tube is not nearly as interesting as the very Quatermassy notion that space is filled with terrible things just waiting to infect us.

Revenge of the Swarm does not just send up the Nucleus. It does not seem like anybody involved is taking this story very seriously. We get an awful lot of silly voices here, like this is being made for young children. It does seem like the worst aspects of the Graham Williams era are being invoked in this.

I haven't followed the Hex arc, as I don't like the way that these stories fail to fit wwith the Virgin New Adventures development of Ace. I therefore have no idea how Hex came to have his personality replaced by Hector. It seems a bit odd to have a new character become replaced for much of his first story proper, though the New Adventures did exactly the same thing with Bernice n Transit. Which leads me to another interesting point about this audio. Although the plot of Revenge of the Swarm is disappointingly close to being a remake of The Invisible Enemy (as well as a prequel and sequel combined), it is also a plot that was done quite a few times in the Virgin New Adventures. An alien entity attempts to take control of cyberspace. This is basically a Virgin New Adventure story with the tone of a Graham Williams story.

Revenge of the Swarm manages to be fun, but it rather fails to do anything interesting with its source material.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Romana III and K9

I asked Inspector97 to draw this picture of Romana III with K9.

There is disagreement among fans about whether the Romana III voiced by Juliet Landau in the Big Fish audios is the same character as the ruthless Romana III in the BBC books. I would argue that they are the same incarnation. Hence, I asked the artist to give her an outfit inspired by the BBC books.