Sunday, August 17, 2014

Creatures of Beauty

This is one of my old favorites by Nick Briggs. When I first heard this a decade or so ago, after I realized early on that the tale was being told out of chronological order, I first thought naturally of "Pulp Fiction". This is definitely not one of your run of the mill Doctor Who stories for other reasons as well. In many ways I always thought of the 5th Doctor as more vulnerable than his immediate predecessors. While the 3rd and 4th Doctors always seemed to take charge of things quickly, it always seemed like the 5th Doctor would be swept up in events, and struggle to work his way out of them.

This is a very bleak tale. It's can easily be interpreted as an allegory on pollution and/or global warming. The setting is a planet which has been half way destroyed by a lethal radiation that was accidentally delivered to their atmosphere by aliens trying to dispose of a dangerous source of power. By taking some illegal short cuts, the aliens ultimately doomed the world of Veln when they had an accident near the planet. The vast majority of the people of Veln are now genetically deformed and will not live beyond a few more generations. This leaves them understandably full of bitter hatred towards the Koteem who doomed them to their tragic end.

As noted above, this story is told out of chronological sequence. While it would be easy to call this a gimmick, it truly does work well. It also allows Briggs to leave out some details that would seem like huge holes in the story, but ends up working well with the listener already trying to fill in gaps just because they know they are hearing things out of order. The star of this show is David Daker, who was unforgettable as Irongron in the Pertwee classic "The Time Warrior". On the surface, Daker is the most villainous character in the story. The head of a corrupt government police force which brutally arrests Nyssa, he is beyond bitter at the cruel hand fate has dealt him. He also has contempt for the few "beauties" he has to encounter. Besides Nyssa, the ultra-wealthy have expensive surgeries to restore a "normal" appearance. As nasty as Daker's character Gilbrook is, he isn't a cartoon villain. One of the final scenes where he recounts how his grandfather told him about the Koteem ship's explosion (visible in the sky) which rained down the deadly dyestrial pollution that would doom their planet, his performance is very understated. As awful, and unlikeable as he has been in this story, you can't help but feel pity for him.

This is really a perfect story for the 5th Doctor. Briggs wanted to have a story where the Doctor doesn't really try to save the day, but just tries to escape. In that regard, this reminds me of the best 5th Doctor TV story "The Caves of Androzani". Briggs also cleverly explores the notions of unintended consequences of the Doctor's arrival on planets. It's a rare story where the listener ends up knowing much more about what really happened on this doomed planet than the Doctor and Nyssa do once they escape in the TARDIS. There is also a lot of moral ambiguity. There seems to be a group of well meaning rebels who have a "cure" for the people of Veln. But, when the plan is revealed to the Doctor (and the listener), a lot of ethical questions are brought up.

Briggs also directed the story, and provided the music. Briggs' music is generally recognizable. It's often consists of dark, sinister melodies, and that is certainly the case here. It really adds to the overall atmosphere of the story. My only real gripe with this production is that the voice effect of the Koteem is a bit too similar to that of the Cybermen in "Sword of Orion".

This story is another example of how Big Finish at times makes a much more adult brand of Doctor Who. I am also surprised the TV show has never ripped off this idea of telling a story completely out of sequence. I really enjoyed this story the first time I heard it a decade ago, and my opinion hasn't changed listening to it this week. There are a lot of nice touches, like the creepy echoing of Daker uttering the word "beautiful" at times in the story. It's great when late in the story, you hear the context for the quote. The ending is a great shocker as well, further punctuating the depressing tone. While this couldn't be more different than the classic it follows, it just emphasizes how diverse Doctor Who can be. This is part of strong run for Big Finish in the show's 40th anniversary.

Rating: Great

Monday, August 11, 2014

Doctor Who and the Pirates

This one is among my favorite Doctor Who stories ever. If you've never heard this before, then I strongly advise you to check it out for yourself so (like me the first time I heard it) you listen to it without any warning of what's coming. Suffice it to say that it is unique, funny, tragic, and brilliant. I am somewhat amazed that the TV show has never ripped it off (or adapted it). So, if you have never heard this story, just stop reading now, order the story and enjoy. Feel free to yell at me if you don't like it. (Seriously, stop now.)

Of course this story is famous (or infamous) for being "the musical one", but as completely delightful as the 3rd part is (and I love it), it's really so much more. This is really a story within a story. The heart of the story is Evelyn telling a suicidal student a story in a desperate attempt to convince her to change her mind. The genius of the story is that having the Doctor and Evelyn recount a genuine recent adventure in a way that allows for embellishment by both characters, makes this story simply hilarious at times, but doesn't undermine the tragedy and how deeply it affected Evelyn.

The humor is really sublime here. Evelyn's insertion of every pirate cliche is nearly as funny as Sally's complete annoyance at it. Having a character narrate a story is not a unique convention, but I can't ever remember it being used so appropriately and brilliantly as in this story. It's not just a literary device for getting the story told, it's essential for the story's pace and humor. I also love the way Evelyn (and later the Doctor) just barge into Sally's apartment and begin regaling her with this outrageous story. The first half of the story is full of laugh out loud moments. The episode two cliffhanger is one of the funniest ever. I was both amused and aghast to think of what was to come in episode three when I first heard it. Little did I know that episode three would be the one I would listen to the most out of all of the entire catalog of Big Finish!

The songs are just superb. Adapted from various Gilbert and Sullivan songs, the lyrics are both genius and hilarious. Colin Baker's performance of Gallifreyan Buccaneer is simply spectacular. I can't imagine any other Doctor pulling it off, and he just knocks it out of the park. I doubt there will ever be so many Doctor Who continuity references crammed into a few minutes ever again. Die hard Who fans will be dazzled by the sheer volume of stories, characters, and villains mentioned, but be too busy laughing to bother trying to remember them all. The other songs are wonderful too, and are used as a brilliant segue into letting you know what the story is actually about and why The Doctor and Evelyn barged into Sally's apartment. The singing performance of the cast is heroic. Special mention to Helen Goldwyn (Sally) whose voice is simply gorgeous. The work of music director Tim Sutton is amazing here. While some of the music is a little too obviously synthesized, the fact that Big Finish could pull off a production like this at all is a near miracle given the time they had to do it and the budget they operate with.

It's quite a shock when things turn violent. When Jasper has a crewman's tongue cut out, the sound effects are quite over the top, and they need to be to put across the change in tone. The beginning of Jem's death is quite disturbing too, and it establishes how traumatized Evelyn was by it, despite most of it happening "off camera". These two horrific events are the crux of the story, since they establish why Evelyn is in the state she is in, and why the Doctor was willing to help her with Sally. But, more on that later... Oddly enough, this is the start of a mini-arc for Evelyn where she is put through the emotional and physical ringer.

Things get back on their mostly silly track after this. The two funniest characters in the story are the villainous Red Jasper, and the incompetent Captain Swan. Both are performed admirably by Bill Oddie and Nicholas Pegg. Being a Yank, I am unfamiliar with Oddie (or The Goodies) but his performance is just the right mix of silly and scary. Oddie is so over the top he almost, but never quite, goes too far.

Despite all of the fun to be had on this (mostly) silly romp, my favorite part is the end. When Evelyn leaves we are left with a quiet scene between the Doctor and Sally. Colin Baker is magnificent here. This is another one of those stories where Big Finish makes me weep for what could have been for the Sixth Doctor on TV, if the planned arc for the character could have been completed. Colin's quiet performance here is so lovely. He lets on how he is bending the rules here, allowing Evelyn to offer Sally one chance to change her mind. He is doing it because Evelyn is so sad, and he can't bear to have his best friend deal with another tragic death so soon. This is another one of those scenes that makes Colin Baker my favorite Doctor. I love the brash, angry, arrogant, blustery side of the Sixth Doctor, but in Big Finish he also gets scenes like these, and he is simply magnificent.

So, in case you can't tell, I really like "Doctor Who and The Pirates". Writer, Jacqueline Raynor recently tweeted that this was the best thing she ever wrote. While I can't claim to have read nearly enough of her work to truly know whether she's right or wrong, I do not hesitate in the slightest in agreeing with her. It's a masterpiece of comedy and drama. It's a uniquely told, original tale, and pushes the boundaries of what Doctor Who can be. This story is right around the peak of a lot of great Sixth Doctor and Evelyn stories, and now that those stories appear to be over, I already have great feelings of nostalgia for this classic pairing.

Rating: CLASSIC


Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Dark Flame

This story features the 7th Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. This was my second go round with this story, and my memory of this was not good. Much like with "Nekromanteia" before it, I had a slightly different reaction this time.

The first time I listened to this, I really found Bernice's constant snarky remarks to the villains to be excruciating. I thought it undermined both the villains, and the story. It also made me violently hate Bernice Summerfield, who I had only previously experienced in "The Shadow of the Scourge" where I had found her much more palatable. (I never read many New Adventures novels, as I never liked the 7th Doctor or Ace enough to bother after trying out a few of the early ones and not really feeling any desire to continue.)

Thankfully, I enjoyed the story a bit more this time through. Benny does grate on my nerves a bit, but not enough to derail the story. I suppose it could be argued that her flippancy works somewhat since it makes her more effective as a villain when she is taken over near the end. But, I'm jumping ahead a bit.

This story is an outer space romp, featuring another relic (perhaps this should have been placed a few slots away from "Nekromanteia"), and one of many God-like villains which seem to be littered throughout the Doctor Who universe. The Dark Flame is some all powerful so and so from the end of time that could break through and destroy the universe. Of course, there is some mad cult that worships this and is working to help it, for reasons that can only be known to the most devout wackos. Here we have devious villains, undead skeleton warriors, a friendly robot origin story (for fans of the Benny range), and of course Ace being her usual loud, abrasive self.

Still, it ends up being pretty fun overall. The peformance of Andrew Westfield in the dual roles of Remnex and the evil Emissary Vilus Krull is quite good. He does a good job of sounding quite different between the two characters, and Krull has the suitable amount of menace and cool confidence. McCoy does alright here. He's a little over-the-top at times, and annoyingly rolls his r's in some inappropriate times, but generally keeps his overacting to a minimum. Some of the twists in the plot work better than others, but the one setting up the cliff hanger for Benny's take over is well done. The ending is incomprehensible gobbledegook, but isn't any more guilty than say... the defeat of another all powerful god at the end of "Pyramids of Mars".

So, all in all, nothing spectacular, but a perfectly fine outer space, end of the universe romp. At least, this time through I wasn't outraged that Benny survived, and could see myself tolerating her in future stories (though I could use a break for now). A more permanent break from Ace would always be welcome. I still generally prefer the 7th Doctor with Mel, or (better yet) on his own. This is certainly better than "The Rapture" which will probably require a herculean effort to get through a 3rd time... far, far in the future.

Rating: Good

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nekromanteia

On today, the 15th anniversary of the very first Big Finish Doctor Who release, it seems only appropriate to review a classic Doctor Who audio that exemplifies how brilliant Big Finish is. Sadly, I will instead be reviewing "Nekromanteia". This story has one particularly noteworthy moment, but is otherwise unexceptional.

In this story we are reunited with the 5th Doctor and his fairly new and engaging TARDIS team of Erimem and Peri. One of the highlights of this pairing is the sisterly relationship between them. Peri is in the role of big sister, while Erimem is actually the one who can more properly take of herself. It's a fun dynamic. So, of course, they spend nearly the whole episode away from each other. Sigh...

The story boils down to three groups trying to protect or get a hold of an extremely powerful relic, that is a great source of power. The group protecting it are a band of necromancy practicing witches. The leader of this coven Jal Dor Kal is a completely over the top parody of the wicked witch in the west. Within a couple of minutes of her first few lines of dialog, you'll have to resign yourself to the fact that this one note performance is going to grate on you for the remainder of the story. One group seeking the relic is a group of indentured mercenaries working for an evil corporation with a fairly stereotypical evil CEO. Also trying to get a hold of the relic is an unethical archaeologist. None of these players come off as good guys, so it's fairly obvious early on that they will all lose. The mercenaries start off as the only somewhat likeable characters, but that is certainly taken care of later in the story.

The TARDIS team starts out at the Garazone bazaar in an overly long intro that takes way too long to get the team on their way to the action. It just seems odd that after hearing a dodgy prophecy from a dubious begging soothsayer that naive Erimem insists they go to Nekromanteia to follow up on it - and the Doctor agrees! This overly long intro sets the pace for the story as it just feels overly long throughout.

Once they arrive, the team is quickly split up with Peri on her own and the Doctor and Erimem captured by the mercenaries. There is a fairly shocking sequence of events later where the mercenary leader Harlon, who up to this point has been portrayed as a fairly sympathetic character due to his family being used as hostages to ensure he fulfills his mission, attacks Erimem violently. In fact, for a while it is highly implied that he actually raped her until later it is made clear that the beaten Erimem managed to fight him off. I get the need for gray characters, but this seems a little over the top even for the more adult brand of Doctor Who that Big Finish provides. It also is a completely pointless aspect of the story. Erimem suffers no long term trauma from the attack, and it is dropped and never mentioned again almost immediately.

There is one truly remarkable aspect of this story: it has one of the most memorable cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. It's shocking, extremely violent (much more so than anything they would even think about doing on the TV show), and is one of those endings where you think, "In the next episode, it will be made clear that what we thought we heard happen didn't happen." Well, it did really happen. Granted, the resolution for this seemingly irrevocable cliff hanger is a confusing, uninteresting mess, but it's quite a stunner when it happens!

Generally, while this story isn't awful, I had fonder memories of it from my first listen a decade ago. This time, I found it a mostly inoffensive, but drab, unsatisfying story. The silly ending which (thankfully) writes out Erimem's cat doesn't help. While I think this is entertaining enough to avoid my lowest rating, there would be a lot of better stuff to come for this TARDIS team in future stories.

Rating: OK

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jubilee

The debut Big Finish story for Doctor Who's 40th anniversary year, is also its best - which is not to say there aren't other awesome tales from that year. "Jubilee" is the 3rd story from what I call (in my head at least) "Rob Shearman's Trilogy of Awesome": "The Holy Terror", "The Chimes of Midnight", and "Jubilee". I didn't think I would ever love a Dalek story more than I love the classic "Genesis of the Daleks", but, I do. I've watched and heard so many Doctor Who stories over more than 30 years, that I don't think I am capable of picking a favorite. I don't even think I could pick a favorite Big Finish story. But, this is at or near the very top of the heap.

"Jubilee", perhaps more than any other Dalek story, has a Dalek in it that is a genuine character. It's funny - the Dalek in this story, fundamentally bears all the same attributes of the power hungry, murderous, one-note Daleks that have come before and since, but through the brilliance of Shearman's script, (and the performance - more on that later) this Dalek feels so unique compared to every other.

This story is set in a deranged, frightening England. An England that was invaded by the Daleks back in 1903. The Doctor and Evelyn arrived and thwarted that invasion. One hundred years later, the Doctor and Evelyn arrive just in time for the Jubilee celebrations. But, the Doctor and Evelyn don't know anything about an invasion in 1903, and they certainly don't recognize this "English Empire" they encounter in 2003. As the story progresses, the Doctor seems to think he is in 2003 and fighting the Daleks in 1903, at the same time. Something has definitely gone very wrong.

The world of this English Empire is frightening. England rules the Earth, and they are not a benevolent ruler. The President and his wife (played by real life husband and wife Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayers) are deeply disturbed. Both performances are at times over the top, and at others very understated. The script takes you on a roller coaster with them. There are times you feel horribly for the poor wife of the evil president. Later, you realize she's just as barking mad as her husband. The President wants to cap off the grand jubilee celebrations with the public execution of their lone remaining prisoner from the invasion: one lone Dalek.

Hmmm, a lone Dalek left over from a war and imprisoned. Sound familiar? Yes, Rob Shearman would later do a (very loose) adaptation of this story as "Dalek" for the first series of the revamped Doctor Who a couple of years later. I do not in any way want to besmirch "Dalek". It's one of the best stories of that first series, and as an action story that did major rehabilitation to the image of the Daleks, it was a triumph. But, this is a very different, greatly superior story. In "Dalek" you get the tiniest taste of interactions between the lone Dalek and the Doctor and then later the Dalek and the companion. Here, you get a feast, and it's so succulent.

I really have to sing the praises of Nick Briggs. He always does a superb job of voicing the Daleks, both for Big Finish and TV. Here, his performance is simply extraordinary. The scripting and writing manage to make you feel sympathy for this Dalek, while at the same time loathing it. Evelyn's one on one scenes with this Dalek, are just mesmerizing. Evelyn is terrified of this Dalek, but desperate to help it. Their interactions are incredibly compelling. Both Evelyn and the Dalek come away from their encounters transformed.

There is a mix of dark humor and just well... dark in this story. All of the characters in this story are fundamentally off. The revolution against the tyrannical government is just as evil and twisted as the regime they want to overthrow. In a fight between the humans and the Daleks, there are no good guys to cheer for. Shearman set out to make the Doctor and Evelyn the only likeable characters in this story, and succeeded. There's something wonderful about the "fun for the whole family" aspect of Doctor Who, that I really wouldn't want to ever change. This story, however, is a great example of how triumphant Doctor Who made strictly for adults can be.

I just can't say enough about "Jubilee". It's so dreary, while at the same time hilarious. You'll chuckle and then try to stifle it because it's also so disturbing. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are terrific here (as always), but they really just NAIL it in this story. This is one of those stories where Evelyn is so well written and performed that it further cements her status as the greatest Doctor Who companion of all time. Fortunately, at this stage, there are many more stories with this pairing to come. Big Finish did really good Dalek stories before this one, and would do some great things with them after this one, but no Dalek story has ever come close to being as powerful (and at times as ridiculous) as "Jublilee".

Rating: CLASSIC

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bang-Bang-A-Boom!

Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman had written a comedy classic in the Christmas 2001 release "The One Doctor", so it's hard to blame Big Finish for going to the comedy well again a year later with "Bang-Bang-A-Boom!" Of course, lightning doesn't always strike twice, and sadly this is nowhere near as good as "The One Doctor". The primary problem is that it's simply not nearly as funny. Oh it's amusing, and I certainly get a few out loud chuckles while listening to this, but it pales in comparison to the earlier story. Both Roberts and Hickman have indicated that it may have been better if there was more time in between the two stories. I see a few problems. For one, "The One Doctor" felt like a love letter to Doctor Who, while they were parodying it. This feels like a much more mean spirited jab at the flaws of Babylon 5, Star Trek (all of them), and Space 1999. I say this as someone who likes Babylon 5 (but thinks it's overrated), likes Star Trek and TNG, loves DS9, found Voyager painful, and never bothered with Enterprise, and has never even seen a single episode of Space 1999. So, it's not like I am offended by the jabs at the shows - in fact I find a lot of them quite accurate. I also feel like the story is a bit overly long, and has a bit too much crammed into it. In addition to making fun of these shows, there is also a parody of the Eurovision Song contest, and an Agatha Christie murder mystery thrown in. Perhaps, it's all just a bit too much for one story?

It is natural for a story like this to have Bonnie Langford return again, this time paired up with Sylvester McCoy. The two leads are great in this - both well suited for the comedy. It's really quite funny when they assume the roles of the murdered commander and pilot whose ship they accidentally materialize on, just before it explodes. One of the funnier moments for me is when they are in the Commander's "Ready Room", when the Doctor's communicator goes off and he asks if it's Mel's or his! The guest cast are all amusing too, particularly the equally incompetent medical and science officers. This is a fairly all star cast (at least in the U.K), and Graeme Garden would make a welcome return to Big Finish later on in the 8th Doctor/Lucie audios in a much meatier role.

The Agatha Christie mystery is the main driving plot, and is generally very well done. The mystery's resolution is actually far more satisfying than that of Roberts' (also very amusing) actual Agatha Christie story for TV ("The Unicorn and the Wasp"). The song contest humor is more hit and miss with me. But, being a "Yank", I have never seen the Eurovision Song contest, so maybe some of the jokes are just lost on me. The writers wanted Bonnie Langford to end up performing the Earth entry in the contest, but were vetoed by Gary Russel, which seems like a foolhardy decision to me. Another noteworthy item on this story, is that it's the first Big Finish Doctor Who story to actually use the period appropriate version of the Doctor Who theme. (It would have to be my least favorite "official" version of the theme.) But, I am happy that each Doctor gets their own theme (or themes) used from here on out.

So, with the high hopes I had for this, I can't help but feel disappointed. But, I don't want it to come off like I dislike the story, because I don't. It's still a fun (if long) ride with a few chuckles and grins along the way. The cast are all good, and it sounds like there was a lot of fun to be had making this. If you enjoyed "The One Doctor", I am sure you will have some fun with this followup, just not as much. If you haven't heard either, definitely start with the earlier story.

Rating: Good

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Church and the Crown

Here we have Doctor Who and the Three Musketeers. Thinking about it, it's really pretty surprising they never did this story back in the 1960's. It does harken back to the early days of the show since this historical is "pure" in that there are no aliens or any other time manipulation going on (aside from the TARDIS team showing up). This is a fun and funny romp. There is a great deal of levity and humor throughout, and it sounds like the cast had a great time making this. It also is the second story to feature Erimem, and starts to really establish the relationship between her and Peri.

So, we have the TARDIS team arriving in 17th century France (by accident, of course) where they all quickly get embroiled in a dastardly scheme. Much like the historical stories of the Hartnell era, a companion (Peri) is pretty quickly separated and kidnapped fairly early on, and thus begins the Doctor's and Erimem's quest to rescue her. I admit to not having a ton of knowledge about the Three Musketeers, never having read Alexandre Dumas. For the most part this story has most of the real people from history who appeared in Dumas' story - the Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII, Queen Anne, and George Villiers the Duke of Buckingham. Instead of three musketeers we have two, Delmarre and Roufett, who are such an amusing double act, you could almost believe Robert Holmes dreamed them up. Amidst Peri's kidnapping, there is tension between the Cardinal and the King, and a dastardly scheme by the Duke of Buckingham. Much hilarity and swashbuckling ensues.

Nicola Bryant deserves praise here for her lovely double act of portraying Peri and Queen Anne. I could groan at the contrivance of Peri being a doppelganger for Queen Anne, but Bryant's terrific performance has me blindly accepting it. Andrew McKay deserves praise for his amusing portrayal of the fool of a King Louis. But, most of my praise goes to Peter Davision. He seems generally engaged by the script here, and seems to put a bit more oomph into this than some of his other performances. In fact, the whole cast seems to be enjoying the material as there is a ton of energy and delight in all of the performances.

Perhaps most significantly, this story really establishes a new dynamic and chemistry for this TARDIS team (in spite of Peri and Erimem not having many scenes together). Peri and Erimem fairly quickly fall into the roles of older and younger sister. It's a very interesting dynamic since Peri is a bit of a mentor to Erimem, but Erimem is probably the more "useful" of the two companions with her experience both in leadership and combat. That's particularly true in this story. But, the dynamic really works and establishes them as the scheming sisters plotting at ways to manipulate the Doctor who comes off as an exasperated, but affectionate father figure. It's really a lovely team, that works so much better than the other multitudes of combinations the poor 5th Doctor was stuck with for companions.

So, this is really just a lot of fun really. Writers Cavan Scott and Mark Wright poured a lot of humor and fun into this script. To say it strikes a different tone than their magnificent "Project Twilight" is an understatement. I kept waiting for the "All for one, and one for all" line to be delivered, and they didn't disappoint as it's a hysterical scene. Despite there being deadly explosions and even a scene where the Doctor is tortured, there's no real sense of peril or dread, since it's all just a lot of jocularity. With a quick paced story and energetic performances, this romp works very well, and is a great indicator of great things to come from this new TARDIS team.

Rating: Great