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

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Sandman


After our last disastrous story, this is a little more like it. "The Sandman" is a pretty unique tale (later copied by new Who) exploring the idea of a civilization (not an evil one) who is terrified of and reviles the Doctor. To the reptilian Galyari, the Doctor is their deepest fear. He is literally a figure of terror embedded into their genetic psyche. The tale takes place in a pretty awesome setting, "The Clutch". The Clutch is a massive fleet of spaceships of various origin, slowly (sub warp/light speed) migrating across the galaxy. I love this idea of a group of "space gypsies" made up of all kinds of different aliens travelling together in (mostly) harmony. When Galyari start to be killed off in gruesome fashion with they reptilian skins removed form their corpses, the victims naturally know who to blame - The Doctor! He is the horrendous "Sandman" who is the most frightful monster the Galyari ever encountered!

Of course a couple years after these murders begin, the Doctor and Evelyn show up. It's a fun setup to have the Doctor come back to check up on the species that loathes and fears him. He really doesn't let on to Evelyn what's going on (how Doctor-like of him), so she is rightfully appalled when he immediately begins making demands of the Galyari "Orchestrator" and giving him dire threats. The flashback scene in episode two for how the Doctor came to be known as The Sandman is effective, since as told from the point of view of the Galyari, he does come off as terrifying. Granted, we fans are shrewd enough to know that the Doctor's actions will later be justified, but it is a fun juxtaposition for him to be portrayed as evil. Evelyn's reactions are quite reasonable given the Doctor's lack of denial for the Galyari's accounting of their first meeting.

This is a perfect story for our lovably grumpy Sixth Doctor. The scenes where he terrorizes the Galyari are full of the usual Colin Baker bombast, and you can tell he is having a good time portraying this "evil" version of the Doctor. Maggie Stables as always is a delight as Evelyn, appalled at the story being told of the Sandman, and as usual full of amusing quips at the Doctor's expense. They are truly Big Finish's dream team.

Also fun, is the casting of former companion Polly actress Anneke Wills as the hell bent for revenge Nrosha. The story comes close to her being a one note character - frothing at the mouth and seeking bloody revenge against the hated Doctor. But, the scene where Mordecan shows her his "merchandise" shows a completely different side of her.

I do have a couple of complaints. For one, the 2nd part cliffhanger is terrific, but it's one of those "cheat" cliffhangers where in the next episode's reprise they insert some action that was omitted from the previous episode's ending. Yes, Doctor Who has played these tricks occasionally in the past too. But, it always makes a resolution to a cliffhanger less satisfying when they cheat in this way. Also, the Doctor wins over the Galyari to his side a little too easily. I understand that since this happens in the final episode, that time is a bit short. But, it's a little hard to swallow that the Galyari who have been living with centuries with a shared racial hatred of the Doctor that is encoded into their DNA will suddenly begin helping him with very few questions asked. Still, the conclusion remains mostly satisfying.

After the last couple of stories, "The Sandman" is a bit of a relief. There's just no tonic for getting Big Finish on the right track like a 6th Doctor / Evelyn story. Simon A. Forward's script is a captivating and entertaining twist on the Doctor's character. I don't like his other Big Finish Doctor Who script nearly as much, but we can talk about that later. This story is a lot of fun, with a cool setting which is ably realized by the top notch production crew.

Rating: Good

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Rapture

As was the case with "...ish", I had read some fan opinion on "The Rapture" which colored my impressions going in. To put it mildly, fans seemed to really dislike it. Oddly enough, the first time I heard it, I thought it wasn't bad at all. I must have been delirious (or perhaps I was on some of Gabriel's "angel dust"). The major highlight of "The Rapture" is the superb cover. In many ways this story represents everything that bothers me about the 7th Doctor and Ace. Oh, and it adds in plenty of soap opera too. What's not to love?

This story is set on Ibiza and boils down to a pair of nefarious alien brothers who portray themselves as "angels" and run a dance/trance club called "The Rapture". Except, one of the brothers (Gabriel) actually believes he's an angel. Their master plan is to mesmerize their patrons one night with their hypnotic music and whisk them off back to their own dimension to fight in a war for their people. Oh, and Ace has a brother she never knew about.

Writer Joseph Lidster would go on to do much better work for Big Finish. But, his debut story is very weak. In episode two where she meets her long lost, and heretofore unknown brother, we descend into melodramatic soap opera. The prolonged scenes between the two are just painfully bad. Sophie Aldred's whinging is completely unconvincing, and David John (as her brother Liam) is little better. In fact, the cast is generally awful in this from the leads down to the guests - with the notable exception of Tony Blackburn, playing himself.

One interesting part is when Gabriel takes the manic depressive Catronia to "Heaven" via a drug induced hallucination. The audio work here is impressive as her trip gets worse and worse. There is a bit of nifty foreshadowing of the next story when she has auditory hallucinations of the Doctor calling himself "The Sandman". Well, it would be nifty foreshadowing, except it makes absolutely no sense for her to have any knowledge of it.

Most painful is the climax where Jude threatens to kill Ace. At this point, (and it isn't the first or last time) I was praying for him to let her fall to her death. The most painful part here is McCoy. My main knock on McCoy is he is very prone to overacting, particularly when having to convey anger or excitement. He is at his worst here. It's genuinely painful to hear such a pitiful performance from the leads. There are times when I find McCoy's Doctor quite engaging and lovable, but not here.

So, this is not on my list of favorites to put it mildly. An alien invasion which amounts to a kidnapping of dozens as opposed to a worldwide (or even city wide) threat. Add in some generally deplorable acting by virtually the whole cast. There are some nice moments. When the Doctor brings Ace to Ibiza for a proper holiday after her harrowing time in both "Dust Breeding" and "Colditz", it's really quite sweet. The introduction of the Doctor's heretofore unknown old friend Gustavo is very enjoyable, until the pointless twist near the end where Gustavo (played by Carlos Riera) has to join the overwrought acting club. I also like it when the Doctor relaxes and works behind the bar. McCoy can be so good when he is understated. Too bad it doesn't last. The silly soap opera elements with Ace and her brother Liam are uninteresting and poorly performed. The alien story is generally uninteresting and has a flat climax. But, at least the trance/techno version of the Who theme is mildly amusing... The 7th Doctor with Ace won't be around for a while, and thankfully it's much better when they return.

Rating: Poor

Rating:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

...ish

With a couple of exceptions we'll discuss later, I really didn't start listening to Big Finish until around 2004. So, when I was listening to things like "...ish", I was excitedly pouring through these audios excited to get from the awesome ending of "Neverland" to the 30th anniversary followup in "Zagreus". At this point, I was always previewing releases by checking out a web site (the Doctor Who Ratings guide which is still around) and skimming (to avoid spoilers) fan reviews of whatever I was going to listen to next. The fans seemed to really love "...ish" as a unique story, and by this point I was always excited to devour any new Colin Baker story. So, I was quite excited to check out "...ish". But, I confess I don't have much enthusiasm for this one.

Fundamentally, this is a story about language. The setup is a university where the ultimate lexicon is being assembled. To assist in this an incredibly advanced A.I. hologlyph called "Book" is used as a tool to collect all the known words of the English language. Meanwhile, the top researcher (an old friend of the Doctor's) is found dead - presumably murdered - in her locked office. And there's definitely something odd about Book.

For lovers of the English language, there is a lot to love here. Your vocabulary will be stretched to its absolute limits listening to this audio (more like ripped apart in my case). It was clearly written by a very clever man. And, the character of Book is quite creepy and the audio effect for his voice is terrific. There is some clever humor here too, and I am particularly amused during the parts where the titular suffix is temporarily censored.

But, ultimately for me, the central premise of the "Omniverbum" just doesn't resonate with me. Science Fiction, to me, is really just plausible sounding fantasy. And, this concept just doesn't ring true to me. I had trouble wrapping my head around it, and once I (thought) I did, I just thought it was silly. So while I was intrigued by "...ish" for its first half, the explanation just came off as nonsensical and (even worse) unbelievable to me. Author Phil Pascoe even admits the plot doesn't really make sense.

On my most recent listen I did enjoy this slightly more than way back in 2004, ten years ago. So, while this has been among my least favorite Big Finish stories for a decade, it did come off a little better than I had remembered it. I appreciate the cleverness of the dialog, which is loaded with all the color you could imagine being squeezed out of the English language. I also enjoy the change in attitude the Doctor shows in the American colloquialisms of English by the end of the story. Still, I can't muster up the same enthusiasm fans had for this story a decade ago. A well acted, and clever story, that I just fail to enjoy as much as I might wish to.

Rating: OK