Friday 23 November 2012

UNIT: Dominion (Big Finish audio)

* Massive great spoiler alert!*

When the announcement was made about a year ago that Tracey Childs would be reprising her role as Elizabeth Klein, I was absolutely over the moon. I totally fell in love with the character of Klein in her trilogy.

UNIT: Dominion is possibly one of the most ambitious projects of Big Finish. This four-part audio series features not only the return of Elizabeth Klein, but also a new team of UNIT, the later era Seventh Doctor re-united with Raine and a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor. Furthermore, this unlikely team are faced against a bewildering array of extra-dimension alien beings across several international locations. This is a story on an epic scale that could never have been realized on the small screen.

As anyone who heard the Klein trilogy would have expected, Tracey Childs puts in a glorious performance as our Aryan heroine. This is not the Nazi Klein we have previously seen, but a Klein who worked as scientific advisor to UNIT. She is portrayed as psychologically troubled, haunted by the 'Umbrella Man' and the sense that he is spying on her.

I had assumed that the UNIT Klein is the version of Klein that was mean to exist in our universe and which had existed prior to the Second World War when the timeline diverged. This is not made clear in this audio. No details of Klein's past in this timeline are given, leaving open the bizarre possibility that she just materialised in this timeline as somebody working for UNIT. I do hope the writers did not intend such a notion. Dating UNIT stories opens up a minefield of complexities, but the timing of this story is left vague, leaving open the possibility that this is the same Klein who was presumably born in the 1930s (in my fan fiction I pegged Klein as born in 1935). This story is clearly set before Battlefield. There is no mention of internet phenomena such as Google. The only certainty is that it is set after 1985, as Sergeant Wilson is pictured holding an SA 80 rifle.

On the whole, Klein is written well. She may not be a Nazi, but she is cold and ruthless. Her interaction with Raine shows she likes being the alpha bitch. This is softened by her real emotional problems as a result of her awareness of the Doctor. On the other hand, she does come across as a little two-dimensional at times. We are led to believe that she spends nearly all her life in a laboratory. Clearly she does not, as she obviously goes to the hairdressers to keep her helmet-shaped hair in trim. A few more details about Klein's life would help to humanize her a bit more.

The lack of detail about Klein touches on the other difficulty with the way the character is portrayed. She very much props up a rather sexist trope about powerful and successful women being lonely, isolated and frustrated. There is a definite cultural subtext here about women being unable to have a high-powered career without sacrificing a meaningful and well-adjusted personal life.

Alex McQueen plays the Other Doctor. The characters are led to believe that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor, until they discover the truth. You can certainly sympathize with them, McQueen gives an immensely Doctorish performance. I can't be the only listener who was expecting some really complicated explanation for the Other Doctor, probably involving parallel universes. The last thing I expected was for him to be the Master. Yes, the Master. An explanation so obvious that it does not occur to any sensible fan. It just shows that an old trick can work if it is done right. Remarkably, McQueen gives a performance as the Master which could almost equal those of Delgado. He is certainly the campest Master we have seen, yet he absolutely ruthless and cruel. He is the Master done right.

With Klein occupying the limelight, Raine is left a little in the shadow. I'll admit I am not a big fan of Raine. She comes across as too much of a generic companion. Yet Beth Chalmers still gives a good performance and works well as a contrast to Tracey Childs. I can see why Big Finish chose to run with Raine; they used her for 'Season 27' and they wanted to give her a comeback.

The UNIT we see here are not quite as Dad's Armyish as the Seventies UNIT, but both their commanders are rather inept. We are given a bit of emotional drama with Sgt Wilson, who is about to become a father. This might have come across as more refreshing if it were not for the irritating and sentimental obsession with fatherhood displayed in the last couple of Doctor Who seasons under Moffat.

Near the end of the story, Klein is injured by a gunshot and we are teased with the possibility that the character might be at an end. Yet she survives and we can hope that she will make another appearance with a revitalized UNIT team. My only hope is that they get Klein out of the laboratory a bit and give her a bit more of a life. Maybe even give her scene in an hairdressing salon!

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Separated at Birth? Elizabeth Klein and Martha Stewart

I love them both. Two powerful mature ladies.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Happiness Patrol

Like Delta and the Bannermen, the title of The Happiness Patrol is a reference to Indie music. This is just an example of the way the McCoy era exudes cool. No other era of Doctor Who has this sense of being in touch with pop culture.

As with so many Seventh Doctor stories, The Happiness Patrol completely divides fan opinion, with a large segment of fandom dismissing it for its camp excesses. My own opinion is that The Happiness Patrol is among the greatest of Doctor Who stories.

The Happiness Patrol is perhaps best remembered for the Kandyman. This Bertie Basset lookalike has drawn much mockery. Yet I would suggest that he is one of the greatest Doctor Who monsters ever created. Unlike so many other monsters, the Kandyman manages to avoid looking like a man in a suit. It's high pitched voice is delightfully sinister. A quite wonderful piece of terrifying surrealistic madness. He is also given a fascinating symbiotic relationship with his creator, Gilbert M.

Probably the greatest strength of this serial is how differently it looks and feels from other Doctor Who stories. It feels so fresh and original. It has a striking visual look with an immensely effective use of colour and shade. It also has a plot free from half-thought out hard Sci-Fi elements always end up creating confusion.

The subtext of The Happiness Patrol has been endlessly discussed and dissected by fans. Sheila Hancock is clearly imitating Margaret Thatcher and her husband is obviously Dennis. Yet the story is not simply a satire of Thatcherism. The references to townships echoes Apartheid South Africa and the disappearances bring up the spectre of South American dictatorships. Some have seen in it a subtext about homophobia. It is a multi-faceted story, but not one which becomes didactic or attempts to do too much as the audio Jubilee does.

What is particularly striking is how prophetic this story was. Not long after this story was broadcast, the Communist dictatorships would fall in a similarly bloodless manner to the downfall of Helen A's regime. People in these countries would simply get tired of doing what they were told and living under lies.

Sheila Hancock's performance as Helen A is very impressive. It is rather a shame that she was herself dismissive of the story. It is very clear from her portrayal that Helen A genuinely believes in her ideology of forced happiness. I also very much like Priscilla P. She seems to be the only inhabitant of Terr Alpha who tries to look happy. This perhaps fits with her fanatatical nature. Sylvester McCoy's performance shows considerable improvement from that of the previous season, even if it does become a little bizarre towards the climax.

The sets have been criticized as looking tacky, but I quite like them. They have the look of a faded, worn-out old theatre. It is interesting how the very stagey, simplistic sets are reminiscent of the less polished sets of the Hartnell era. The costumes are wonderful; they are so colourful. Of course, it is absurd that the Happiness Patrol dress that way. That is the point. Dictatorships always have something ridiculous about them. Just look at the way the North Koreans celebrate the birthdays of their leaders. The music also deserves a lot of praise, with both the lift Muzak and the bluesy harmonica. I especially like the moment when Earl switches to a happy tune as the Happiness Patrol go by.

I am glad that Helen A is not killed in the end. In a Hinchcliffe or Saward story, she would died an horrible death. Here she is defeated by her own inconsistency. It is a beautifully poignant moment when she weeps at the death of her pet. Presumably, she is tried and imprisoned for her crimes later.

The story suffers a little in places due to editing, but on the whole the fast pace works very well and it is a great example of how three-episode stories can be effective. The Happiness Patrol is one of the highlights of 80s Doctor Who and one of the greatest of Doctor Who serials.

Friday 9 November 2012

Arrived This Week!

My copy of UNIT: Dominion arrived this week. After my experience with Counter-Measures, I should have known better than to pre-order this release from Amazon UK. As with Counter-Measures, the order ended up being delayed. I was told it would taken another month to arrive. I hastily cancelled the order and got it directly from Big Finish.

I have been eagerly anticipating the return of Tracey Childs as Elizabeth Klein all year. I totally fell in love with Klein after listening to the Klein trilogy. I predict that this series will retcon all my Klein fan fiction though.

Wednesday 7 November 2012


You know, the really big problem I have with Dragonfire is that it is set on an ice planet, yet nobody gives the slightest indication that they are cold. This might seem like a small fault, yet it is glaring all the more for the fact that this story is so visually strong. Dragonfire is blessed with beautiful sets and pretty decent effects that have been achieved on a woefully low budget. Yet the failure of direction displayed in the lack of 'cold acting' lets them all go to waste. If ice does not feel cold, then it is just glass.

Dragonfire is most notable for its introduction of Ace. Ace is a refreshing in having much more depth of personality than other characters. The moment at which she is tempted to serve Kane as a mercenary is beautifully done. Yet Sophie Aldred never really convinces us in her portrayal of a rough teenage girl. Aldred was always at her best when she forgot about trying to sound like an aggressive working class girl and just played Ace as a slightly otherworldly middle-class girl. That was not how the character was supposed to be, but it suited Aldred far better. Aldred saying "I don't need no mum and dad" just sounds embarrassing.

As well as the arrival of Ace, we get the departure of Mel. Her decision to leave the TARDIS is as hurried and unprepared for as that of any companion. It is slightly disappointing because she has such a great rapport with Ace. Perhaps a few adventures featuring Ace and Mel together might have made the latter more fondly remembered. Note that Mel is wearing combat boots with red laces. Everybody in this era of Doctor Who seems to have a slightly Punky appearance, even Mel.

The return of Sabalom Glitz is a disappointment in a season remarkably free from past references. His transition to lovable rogue is rather jarring, even if he has a good chemistry with McCoy.

The plot leaves an awful lot to be desired. One might have thought that after over a thousand years, Kane would have found a way to escape or at least to find the secret of the key hidden in the dragon creature. It does not feel very well thought-out. We also get some appalling direction, such as the literal cliffhangar with the Doctor.

McCoy does quite a bit of clowning in this story. I think on the whole his performance was better in Delta and the Bannermen. However, I love the moment when he regretfully tells Belazs that she will never be free from Kane. This is very reminiscent of the dark Doctor of Cat's Cradle: Warhead who passes judgement on characters in that book. His intellectual discussion with the guard is also a nice touch.

The multitude of film references in Dragonfire is very clever and works well with the strong visual elements of this story. It is just unfortunate that this story does not quite lift itself above mediocrity as Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen do. Dragonfire lacks both the sinister and surreal atmosphere of Paradise Towers and the joyous magic of Delta and the Bannermen.

Friday 2 November 2012

The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton (Virgin Missing Adventure)

The late Craig Hinton's novels are best remembered for their multitude of continuity references. Personally, I find these rather fun. They were rather well done in Millennial Rites, which I very much liked. They got a little silly in Quantum Archangel, but that novel was alright in places. The Crystal Bucephalus is perhaps most well known for offering an explanation for the absence of Kamelion for most of the stories of Season 21, as well as the change of look to the Console Room in The Five Doctors.

I read most of Crystal Bucephalus in one go. It has the makings of a very good Doctor Who novel. It handles the regulars very well and gives them a much needed temporal change of outfits. It has a fascinatingly soap opera feel, with an odd emphasis on the relationships between the non-returning characters. The premise of the Doctor investing in a time-travelling restaurant is an imaginative one. We also get some hints about the future destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, which are poignant now that we have seen the new series. The influence of Douglas Adams in its themes is very apparent.

What lets down The Crystal Bucephalus is the unbelievably high volume of techno-babble. This could rival a Star Trek novel in its use of jargon. I'm afraid to say I found much of the plot practically incomprehensible. Coupled with this techno-jargon are a number of 'time-wimey' elements that typically add to the confusion.

Still, it has some fun moments and offers a somewhat different take on the team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough than what we saw on screen. For instance, where on television, Tegan did a lot of very unfeasible running in high heels. Here, she does a Romana I and kicks them off to run about in her stocking feet!