Sunday, October 26, 2014

Flatline/Forest

I absolutely loved "Flatline". Jamie Mathieson is welcome back any time. A great concept, very well executed. The Boneless when they finally appear properly, are quite creepy. They are getting very adept at making (and masking) these Doctor-lite and Companion-lite stories as they did in this story and the previous one. Other than Capaldi's changing hair cut, it's all pulled off perfectly.

And then there's "In the Forest of the Night". This is definitely my least favorite story of season 8 and one of my least favorite stories of "new Who". While it's not dull and unwatchable like say "Fear Her", it just felt so stupid and poorly conceived. Where are all the people?! Isn't London a giant city with millions of people living in it? Where are they?! And even if I believe the trees can grow overnight and then magically disappear in fairy dust the next day (which I don't), you mean the buildings, streets, and landscape are perfectly unscathed afterwards? Really? And how exactly does the missing sister magically reappear with the disappearance of the trees (and apparently one bush)? So, this story featured a natural event that seems to threaten the Earth where the Doctor figures out the proper course is to do nothing. Didn't I already watch this in "Kill the Moon"? Oh, and I didn't like that one much either. Let's do it again a few episodes later.

I am however, giddy with excitement for the two part finale. That trailer looked fantastic.

Zagreus

"Zagreus" was eagerly anticipated. First of all, it's the followup to the tremendous cliffhanger from the end of the epic story "Neverland". Furthermore, it was billed as the 40th anniversary story featuring all four of the Big Finish Doctors united for the first time. I can imagine the excitement of fans in 2003, speculating that Doctors 5-7 would team up to somehow help their future self, who had been corrupted by anti-time and transformed into the evil, Zagreus. Earlier in the year, Big Finish teased a multi-Doctor story starring the 6th and 7th Doctors in "Project: Lazarus" which ended up not being the case. Surely, for the big 40th anniversary release, they wouldn't pull that bait and switch again would they? Would they?!

I came to "Zagreus" somewhere between 1-2 years after it's release. I didn't know any details about it, but I had heard some rumblings that it was considered a disappointment. Even knowing its reputation, I savored listening to all the stories in between "Neverland" and "Zagreus" (in part because most of them were quite good), building up my anticipation for this epic story. Looking back, the 10th and 20th anniversary multi-Doctor stories are pretty underwhelming. Sure, they have a lot of fun multi-Doctor interactions, but I know few people who would hold them up as classic stories. (The less said about the 30th anniversary "special" the better.) So, I expected "Zagreus" might not be all that it was cracked up to be, but at the least it would be a fun time with all the Doctors squabbling and eventually teaming up with each other, and would provide a nice resolution to the anti-time infected 8th Doctor. How wrong I was. Plus, I was very curious how all of these old companions (actors) were going to be thrown into the mix. (The giant cast list is prominently advertised.)

Well, we all know by now that "Zagreus" is not what is billed to be. Instead of a reunion of Doctors and companions we just get a lot of "holo-projections" from the TARDIS where all these actors do not play the roles they made famous in Doctor Who. Plus, these roles aren't even truly real people, but simple TARDIS projections. So, Big Finish has the audacity to once again yank the rug out from under fan expectations, and do it for the 40th anniversary of the program! This might be forgivable if the story had at least been satisfying, but it's really just a long winded bore. McGann spends almost all of the first third of the story running around the TARDIS ranting. The idea of the TARDIS turning on the Doctor was just.... horrible. All of the allusions to "Alice in Wonderland" lose their charm quite quickly. The three events Charley are shown by the TARDIS are not really to aid the Doctor, but to simply introduce the Divergents. This could have been done much more quickly, just by skipping ahead to everyone being in Rassilon's foundry. And, what's the deal with Rassilon anyway? Is he dead or not? This is never really made clear. Romana encounters him in the matrix. But, by the end he is physically shoved into the alternative Divergent universe. So, what was the deal? If he wasn't dead, who is the body in the tomb? And, what were they possibly thinking in dredging up the old recordings of Jon Pertwee? Many of the clips are impossible to understand, but even when they are comprehensible, the conversation between him and McGann is so stilted and awkward. Finally, the fact that they shoved so much Doctor Who continuity into this and provided unneeded (and unsatisfying) explanations for so many parts of Doctor Who lore was terrible. Any one of these revelations might have been a bombshell in a Doctor Who story. They are all greatly diminished by just being haphazardly thrown out one after the other during this unending bore.

There are a few parts that I do end up enjoying. Colin Baker's performance as one of the vampires, is quite sinister and entertaining. The revelation that the vampires didn't feed on any sentient creatures until after Rassilon waged war on them, could have made for a fascinating reveal in its own story. But, instead it just gets lost in all the other flotsam that's thrown around in this mess. It's also worth noting that McCoy is fabulous as Uncle Winkie. Truly, the perfect character for McCoy and the 7th Doctor to be pigeon holed into. Of course, the entire idea of the robots at the amusement park being at war with each other, is completely ridiculous. But McCoy is a riot as the character. The meeting between Leela and Romana, and the acknowledgement of there being two K-9's on Gallifrey is great. It sets up a nice dynamic between the two which would be followed up nicely in the "Gallifrey" series, but again just gets swallowed up and mostly wasted being in this mess.

Perhaps worst of all, is when the 8th Doctor (still infected) decides to leave our universe forever, and won't take Charley with him. The 8th Doctor and Charley dynamic was so wonderful, and you can feel it being completely and irrevocably shattered in their painful "farewell" scene in the TARDIS. Her awful whinging over being "dumped" just makes me want to smash my iPod. This dynamic will never, ever be the same again. At the end of the story, it does seem genuinely interesting that the Doctor and Charley will be entering a brand new universe. It seems like a bold idea to thrust new rules and adversaries into the show. When the Doctor was exiled to Earth and worked for UNIT, it revitalized the show and was better than ever. So, a new universe and robbing the Doctor of time travel could have been a bold, refreshing change for the show. Of course, once we get to this new universe, we'll just be counting the stories until we get back home. Clearly, the TARDIS had to jump over a shark en route to the Divergent Universe.

Obviously, I find this story to be an epic failure. It also signals the start of what I consider a major down period in the quality of Big Finish. There are many more great stories ahead from Big Finish in the main monthly Doctor Who range. But, for a while, we are going to have to get through a lot of woeful stories, while enjoying only a few bright spots along the way. A truly bloated disaster of a story and the worst "proper" anniversary special.

Rating: Poor

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express

Are you my mummy?

I loved this one. A cool idea, really well shot, and I remain hypnotized by Peter Capaldi. I loved the jelly babies in the cigarette case. The mummy was a cool, creepy monster. All the times you watched the clock added real tension to each death. Just a superb episode. I admit to grinning at the Doctor when he is clearly so pleased when Clara tells him she wants to keep travelling with him. I am sure Danny will be non-plussed, but who cares about him? (I continue to hope that Danny is some sort of bad guy.) This episode, "Listen", and "Time Heist" are the stand outs this season for me so far.

I am only 1 disc into "Zagreus" so far. So, it will be at least a couple of days before I lay the leather to Doctor Who's only 40th Anniversary story.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Master

This is the concluding tale in the Big Finish villain trilogy. It was my 2nd Big Finish that I heard, and left a somewhat negative final impression. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy it. I think its first half is simply superb. It's very well acted and it's just dripping with atmosphere. But, the revelations of the Master's (and the Doctor's past), I really don't care for. I also think the villain is a lame cop-out, and not the type of thing Doctor Who normally does.

The primary strength of "Master" lies in the performances. The most notable guest stars are Who luminaries Geoffrey Beevers and Philip Madoc. Beevers is once again teriffic as the Master. It's really unfortunate that he only got the one appearance on the TV show instead of the somewhat ridiculous caricature played by Anthony Ainley. (This is purely the adult me opining this. As a child, I was absolutely terrified of Ainley's Master.) Beevers is the perfect Master for audio drama since he has such a rich and (as the Master) malevolent voice. Madoc was in many Doctor Who stories, probably most famously as Solon from " The Brain of Morbius". My favorite classic Who Madoc moment was his icy performance as the terrifying War Lord in "The War Games". He is excellent here as the warm, but dark adjudicator Victor Schaeffer. 

In this story we find the Master living in a small village having lost his memory. He has been a surgeon there for years and has saved numerous lives. It is his "birthday" (commemorating the day he was discovered in the village) and as such, has invited his two closest friends to visit him. Since this predates (the televised version) of the Paul Cornell story "Human Nature" (and I hadn't read the book) this seemed a highly original idea. Beevers is beyond charming under his current (ironic) alias, Doctor John Smith. The first episode is mostly a warm conversation between himself, Schaeffer, and Victor's wife Jacqueline (wonderfully performed by Anne Ridler). While three people sitting in a room chatting with each other for nearly a whole episode sounds somewhat uninspiring on the surface, it's actually quite charmingly entertaining. Plus, the conversation references some odd goings on (murders in the village and a possible curse), and it's clear some even odder goings on may be happening in Dr. Smith's house that night. The atmosphere in the house is wonderfully done. The ticking clock, whispered voices, and eerie music lend a both pleasant and sinister atmosphere. You know this dinner party isn't going to end well. And, things start to go downhill right around the time the Doctor shows up.

The Doctor is very cagey in this story. It seems like he didn't intentionally come here, but at the same time he seems to know what's going on with the Master. It's more like he was avoiding making this trip and is unhappy to know the time has come for him to reenter the Master's life. Episode two is largely Doctor Smith and the Doctor ("Smi.... uh Sutton) having a discussion about the nature of evil and the motivations of murderers. Dr. Smith can sense that the Doctor knows more about his unknown past than he is letting on, and their philosophical discussions are quite engaging.

To this point, I love the story, but in its second half things go down hill for me. When the villain of the piece is revealed to be "Death", I groaned. It seems an odd thing to have a superstitious personification actually be "real" in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. And, the idea of the Master living his life compelled to be Death's agent feels like a cop out. There is also a story of the Doctor and the Master as children being swept into the murder of another child, and subsequently covering it up. I was really being uncomfortable with the Doctor being linked to such an act, and then was even more uncomfortable with later revelations about the nature of this deed. Other fans, may not have the same reservations with this bit of back story. But, I find it belittles the Master and really changes the way you fell about the Doctor. This is one of those things where I am not sure I am willing to accept it as canon.

Another odd thing about this story is that the Master is actually barely in it. Beevers at various times gives hint to the "Hyde" struggling to reawaken within Dr. Smith, but there is really only one proper scene with the Master in it late in the play (supposedly added on at the last minute). As charming as Beevers is as Dr. Smith and as compelling as it is to experience the Master as a good man (it worked great again on TV in "Utopia"), it seems odd that they originally weren't going to have the Master (proper) appear in the story, and it feels like a bit of a cheat that a story focused on the villain has so little of him in it.

Still, despite my serious reservations with the second half of the story, I really do enjoy it on the whole very much. It's just incredibly atmospheric with great dialog and wonderful performances. I also enjoy the device of having the Doctor tell the story to a stranger to be effective, and the revelation of who the stranger is serves as a nice late twist. My qualms with the villain and the nature of the back story for the Doctor and Master aside, the bulk of this story is still very engaging. So, while "Davros" probably left a better impression on me ten years or so ago when I first heard these stories, I think I actually prefer "Master" today. I also think the trilogy of villains stories was a great idea, and all of them are well worth owning. The latter two stories of the trilogy were good enough to get me to dive into the Big Finish catalog, so for that I will always be eternally grateful.

Rating: Good

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kill the Moon

I'm still not sure how I felt about this. It was different. The Moon thing was an idea I hadn't heard of before. It was interesting how the Doctor left the humans alone to work things out. I was really annoyed at Clara at the end. It was good, but not one of my favorites of the new season...

Davros

I will always have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for "Davros", since it is the first Big Finish story I ever heard. My feelings on it then were a bit mixed, and I feel the same way about it now. But, it was certainly good enough for me to not regret buying two Doctor Who audio dramas, and while I didn't immediately begin purchasing others right away, I was certainly intrigued enough by "Davros" and "Master" to eventually start buying the main Doctor Who range from the beginning. I think "Davros" is very much a tale of two halves. The first half is excellent, providing some interesting back story to Davros, but in the second half I feel like Davros is lessened significantly, and there is a plot turn I really don't care for.

The opening of the story, and the first several seconds of audio Doctor Who I ever heard, are fantastic. It's a brief soliloquy from Davros. At the time, the context of the dialog is unknown, (it is revealed later) but it doesn't matter. It's a great speech, starting quiet and somber, while building to a ranting climax that perfectly leads into the Doctor Who theme tune. I remember driving in my car on a short road trip while listening to this, and kept repeating the opening gambit a few times before settling into the story. The first half of the story deals with the CEO of an intergalactic company and his historian (her specialty being Davros) wife finding the "corpse" of Davros and returning it to their home base to try to revive him. Back at the home base a journalist named Willis - a heretofore unknown friend of the Doctor - has summoned the Doctor because his friend Kim (an employee of the evil CEO's company TAI) has revealed to him that the nefarious company is about to close the mines on many planets which will devastate millions of lives. It's a clumsy reason for the Doctor to be there, and the mine thing never goes anywhere, but I guess they had to get them there somewhere. Of course, the Doctor spies Davros' arrival and butts in immediately.

"Davros" features a notable cast of Doctor Who luminaries. Terry Malloy returns to reprise the role of Davros which he owned in '80's Doctor Who. I am definitely one of those fans that stands firmly in the Michael Wisher "camp" of "best Davros EVER" discussions. It's probably not fair, since he had by far the best story to feature Davros in the show. Terry Malloy was a bit too much mad shouty ranting for me. Even his more nuanced performance in "Revelation of the Daleks" falls flat for me since it's such a bonkers story (one I feel is overrated). In this story, however, Malloy is fantastic. Davros is characterized throughout the entire emotional spectrum here and Malloy pulls it off in dominating fashion. It's a teriffic performance, and a good thing too since Davros dominates the play (quite rightly). Also in this story is Bernard Horsfall, who was in many Doctor Who stories - most famously Goth in "The Deadly Assassin". Here he plays the nefarious TAI CEO Arnold Baynes. Finally, Wendy Padbury plays Lorraine Baynes the historian obsessed with Davros. Padbury, of course, played Zoe, companion to the second Doctor. Padbury and Horsfall starred along each other in "The Mind Robber" one of the better stories from Troughton's final season.

The first half of "Davros" is great. You get some great insight into the character's past through flashbacks of the nuclear attack that deformed him, various scenes of the hopelessness of the war going on between the Kaleds and the Thals, and the aftermath of what the Kaleds wanted to do with him after his "accident". These scenes give a lot of depth to how Davros became the monster he is now. Meanwhile, in the present, both Davros and the Doctor amusingly become employees of TAI. There's some truly great comedy here with the Doctor continuingly infuriating Davros.

I don't care for the second half nearly as much. In fact, I would say in many ways it ends up neutering Davros a bit. My least favorite bit is when you find out Davros didn't come up with the idea of the Daleks on his own. He (literally) copied it off a subordinate's paper. Sigh.... really not a good idea. Also, he ends up being full of unrequited love for this scientist (Shan) and at times comes off as a sniveling love struck child. I get that it adds some motivation for his character, but to me it really just belittles him. My other main issue with the story is the introduction of Davros' magic (mathematical) formula which can predict the stock price of any stock at any time. This is one of these ideas I just can't buy at all. Then, Davros' plan to bring the economy down by distributing the formula to everyone also makes no sense to me. Even if I bought the idea that the formula would work (I don't), do I buy that if everyone used the formula at once the system would fail? No, because if everyone used the formula, the formula wouldn't work anymore! Or, is this formula so magical it can even predict stocks when people begin using it? (Head explodes.) The formula ends up being a non-starter anyway since it never ends up being used by anyone.

One thing I will give credit to in this story was removing Davros from the Daleks. Having Davros in a story without Daleks makes him a lot more interesting. While I have criticized a lot of aspects of this story, I still generally like it a lot. The performances are strong, and while it is very long, it's a lot of fun throughout, without ever feeling like it's dragging.  My nit-picks aside, it's easy to recommend the story for providing a lot of great background on the character, and for the engaging performances of the actors.

Rating: Good

Monday, September 29, 2014

RIP Maggie Stables

Like all Big Finish Doctor Who fans, I am very sad to hear about the death of Maggie Stables. I have made no secret that I absolutely love the Evelyn character. I am hard pressed to accept any Doctor Who/Companion pairing was ever as effective or ever will be as effective as that of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn. While I give a lot of credit to Gary Russel and company for conceiving such a different idea for a companion, a lot of the credit must go to Maggie for breathing so much life into the wonderful Dr. Smythe.