Friday, August 31, 2012

The Silver Turk [8th Doctor + Mary Shelley]

This is an excellent story. It is brilliantly cast and brilliant creepy. It is also another great Big Finish Cyberman story.

I have in this blog talked often of how few good stories the Cybermen actually get in the Classic Series. I stand by that. It is astonishing to me sometimes that they are second only to The Daleks in terms of Doctor Who classic monsters but then I can see it is the potential of them that works on the mind. The memory that they were once like us. Time and circumstances removed that humanity. They have no emotion. Their blank eyes a symbol of the lack of soul. Their terrible desire to survive at all costs. To make us like them. There is horror here.

Occasionally the Classic Series delivers on that potential horror but Big Finish has done it every time. Seen through Mary Shelley's eyes their almost humanity becomes pitiful. Only the Doctor knows what they really are and what they can do but he sounds brutal. The Doctor's tone is not dissimilar to that of the Ninth Doctor in Dalek. Initially, it appears to be the Cybermen that need protection from him. Their battered, broken state making them appear in need of help rather than hatred. Mary Shelley's point of view gives us a chance to look upon an old enemy anew.

Of course, in the end, they are still just The Cybermen. Implacable enemies trying to survive.

These are Mondasian Cybermen and Nick Briggs brings back that sing-song electronic voice which makes them seem so freaky. It adds something to the story I think because it makes them seem more human and more sympathetic. The sing-song cry of pain that one of them gives at one point in the story is truly horribly sad.

I won't dwell too much on the plot as I don't want to spoil too much. Suffice it works for me, with everything coming together nicely at the end. Sort of. My only quibble is that the female parts are given as much depth as the male.

So Gareth Armstrong (formally of 'The Masque of Mandragora' ) is a magnificent evil son of bitch as Dr Johan Drossel. The final confrontation was wincingly horrifying. Then Christian Brassington does a fine job of Alfred Stahlbaum desperation to be someone and to hang on to what he has got beyond the point of sanity. David Schneider gets to do light-relief almost jobsworth as cab-driver Ernst Bratfisch. Finally, Gwilym Lee does a neat job of Count Rolf Wittenmeier within the constraints of the part.

Poor Claire Wyatt though doesn't get much to do as the Countess Wittenmeier (Mitzi) except fret, fear, and flap, which is a shame. There's a hint of steel there but it's never quite allowed out.

Julie Cox as Mary Shelley does get a lot more to do and it is nice to find a companion whose first run-in with time travel, monsters and the potential of death has at least a few moments freaking out. It might all be all right in the end (rather too neatly perhaps) but there's a real culture shock here, which I like. Not every companion should settle right down comfortably straight away.

She also works quite well with Paul McGann's Doctor, who seems a little harder here than previously. Less excitable and more focused but I continue to feel comfortable with the Eighth Doctor. Even if his name dropping is reaching almost Pertwee proportions.

So well-worth a listen. In fact if you want to get started with Big Finish this might not be a bad place to start but then I think almost any of their Cyberman stories is worth a punt (from what I've heard so far)

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Company of Friends [8th Doctor + Various]

The Company of Friends is a light-hearted little collection of one episode mini-adventures between the 8th Doctor and four companions. The usual thing is that the four companions are drawn from different media or in the case of Mary Shelley from throwaway references in earlier Big Finish stories.

The first, Benny's Story, features Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman). This is I think the best of the stories. Benny is doing some archaeological work for Venhella (Su Douglas), which turns out to revolve around a TARDIS key dropped 50 million years before by...guess who? Yep. It's a jolly little story, which manages to combine adventure, conspiracy theories about TARDISes; digs at aristocrats with too much money and too little time plus a hint of Edge of Destructionness in how the TARDIS tries to defend itself.  Good, tidy and rather fun.

Fitz's Story, features Matt di Angelo as Fitz Kreiner. Fitz- just in case you don't know (and I'd didn't as I'd stopped reading the BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures before he turned up) is a companion from the BBC Eighth Doctor range of novels. He's a bit different to the average Doctor Who companion being something of a wide-boy blokey bloke: a kind of Doctor Who Danny Dyer if you like. This one too is quite fun. Total fluff but fun.

Izzy's Story features Jemima Roper as Izzy. Izzy was the 8th Doctor's companion in the DWM Comic strip. This is the silliest story of the four. And the worst. I think it is because I quite liked Izzy in the Comic Strip. They gave her an excellent storyline and she seemed as real as any Doctor Who character gets - in any format - by the end. In this, though they make her like an annoying kid, which she isn't. Or wasn't. I don't mind the silliness of the story - after all this whole collection is reasonably light-hearted in tone - but its the silliness of the character I object to. (The following sentence is dangerously pompous. I do apologies) I think it shows disrespect to the source material. (Sorry)

Mary's Story introduces us to Mary Shelley (Julie Cox). I have a similar problem with this as I did with Izzy's story oddly enough and I regret to say that because it is based on taking this far, far too seriously. But taking Mary Shelley, Shelley, Lord Byron, Polidori, and Claire Claremont together in the Villa Diodati is one thing. It's a situation that is calling out for the Doctor to walk into it but making the story basically the seed for Frankenstein somehow undermines Mary Shelley. And the portrait of the rest of the 'real' people involved is rather insulting. Shelley's a bit of a hero of mine (see Red Shelley by Paul Foot if you want to know why) and in this, his brief appearances make him out to be...well a drug-addicted fool really, which he wasn't. Byron's such a cliche he might as well be played by Rik Mayall in Lord Flashheart whilst Claire Claremont just simpers. Only Polidori gets a fair crack of the whip. So whilst the story itself ain't bad I found it rather irritating.

I admit that in the case of Mary's Story I'm taking the whole thing far too seriously. It's half-an-hour so there isn't much time for subtle characterization but taking some of the most interesting, radical and exciting figures of their time (Byron wasn't mad, bad and dangerous to know for nothing) and making them so...unexciting is a sin really.

So - if you don't take this too seriously - 'A Company of Friends' is a rather nice breath of fresh air. A cleansing of the pallet after the departure of Charley and C'rizz. But for me, it only partially works. Perhaps I should get out more.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Girl Who Never Was [8th Doctor + Charley]

As with yesterday's blog. There are SPOILERS here if you haven't stumbled across this since December 2007.

The fall out from the death of C'rizz continues. Charley wants to leave. She intends to disappear, knowing that she's supposed to be dead. Instead of dropping her off in France amongst the wreckage of the R-101, he intends to leave her in Singapore. After all, that's where she was heading when they first met.

But the TARDIS has been knocked off course and whilst they have made Singapore it is 2008, which Charley thinks is deliberate but the Doctor reckons something is afoot. It turns out there is. A ship, missing since 1942, has turned up, the SS Batavia. There's a man called Byron (Danny Webb) looking for it. And his 85-year-old mother, Charlotte Pollard (Anna Massey). The elder Charlotte doesn't remember The Doctor having been found in a lifeboat, memory wiped in 1942. The sole survivor of the SS Batavia.

Following some jiggery-pokery, The Doctor finds himself in 2008/500,002 and Charley in 1942, which is when the SS Batavia disappeared. With only one survivor.

I love a haunted ship story and this has the added complication of a rather raddled, battered and messed up gang of Cybermen who have fallen out of the vortex during a time experiment then decide - as is the wont of Cybermen - to take over the world and convert everyone. We will be like them apparently.

Alas for them and their old school Invasion style Cyber Controller the best-laid plans of Cybermice and men oft gang agley. Especially when the Doctor's concerned. Poor things.

Charley gets chatted up by Byron's granddad in 1942 and then taken over by the Cyber Controller, Byron and his mother - the Australian Borgias as the Doctor describes them - get into something of a hassle, alongside the Doctor. Byron gets part-Cybernetized - or whatever the correct term is - and kills his Mother who isn't Charlotte Pollard but Madeline Fairweather who we've met  - as her younger self - back in 1942. Are you keeping up? Good. They'll be a quiz at the end.

The Doctor causes the Batavia to sink in two time-zones by two different methods - iceberg and torpedo, rescues Charley from the Cyber-Controller (during which process he accidentally wipes Madeline's mind), tries to hypnotize her into forgetting him and everything about him in order to save her brain from collapsing as the result of the damage done to it by the Cyber-Controller. Phew. Busy day for the Doctor. Charley throws off the attempted memory wipe and seems about to go back to the TARDIS again, all post-C'rizz trauma forgotten.

Unfortunately, the Cyber-Byron is waiting inside the TARDIS. Now when that happened I actually got really annoyed. It seemed like such an unnecessary extension of the story - I actually said "O for f**ks sake" at that point.- but I should have had patience. It's a virtue you know.

Cyber-Byron seems to have killed the Doctor but taking Charley outside they run into some Cybermen...and now I shall skip to the end.

The HADS system in the TARDIS kicks in before Charley can make it back and deposits the Doctor back in Singapore. He'd faked his death but discombobulated his memory. He can't remember what's happened and thinks he is back right at the beginning of the story. He finds the message left for him by Charley all those episodes ago and thinks she's left him. He leaves.

Charley meanwhile has washed up on a desert island after escaping the sinking Cybership. She's hoping for rescue. Sending Morse messages out on a homemade radio. Then the TARDIS lands. Charley is delighted. The doors open. And...well there's a little piece of a tiny surprise for you.

This is a nice story. India Fisher does her usual excellent work in her final story. Her relationship with Paul McGann's 8th Doctor is well played out as it comes to an end. It's a shame to see her depart. I've enjoyed her company: feisty, funny, over-excitable, posh and sometimes a little annoying she's been a good companion.

Danny Webb plays Byron, the Australian. I'm not entirely sure about his accent but he is as realistically annoying as a certain type of Australian man can be: all mouth and no trousers. Anna Massey is exceptional as Charlotte Pollard (the Elder) who at 85 has abandoned all pretense of tact in favor of a certain directness, which is rather refreshing. Her and Byron have an interesting relationship, which involves verbal sniping and occasional violence. It's an odd family set-up.

The rest of the cast do a fine job too but really this is Charley's story and it is a nice one to go out on. In fact - actually not in fact but in my opinion - these post-Divergent Universe stories have been the most enjoyable run in the 8th Doctor's Big Finish era. They have their share of darkness and angst but it doesn't quite weigh down the stories as much as perhaps it did during the 'Dead Charley Arc' and the 'Divergent Universe Arc'. McGann certainly seems enjoying it a little more. Perhaps (and this is probably total bollocks) the fact that by the time he was doing this run he was no longer 'THE DOCTOR' but the 8th of 9 (and then 10) took a little pressure off. He could be his own Time Lord.

It's a theory.

Absolution [8th Doctor]

Warning: I know this was released in 2007 and therefore I'm probably being over-cautious about this but if you haven't listened to Big Finish and you intended to come to them 'fresh', which I'm hoping I may have persuaded one or two of you to do then the following review contains a SPOILER. So do not read any further. If on the other hand you could not careless then follow me into the next paragraph.

Absolution is an interesting story with an interesting mixture of tones, at least in the first couple of episodes. However, it gradually builds up into something dark and tragic. It is also the beginning of the end of an era for the 8th Doctor.

We begin with C'rizz dreaming and then Charley and C'rizz talking. Charley is being a little nosey, picks up a piece of C'rizz's religious paraphernalia - a Reliquary - and opens it. C'rizz has been a bit fidgety about opening the box and when Charley does all hell breaks loose. Perhaps literally.

The TARDIS is falling apart in a forbidden zone and everything seems to be falling apart. C'rizz is pulled from the TARDIS whilst Charley and the Doctor - after escaping from a rather unpleasant TARDIS breakdown and alarm (of a similarly cryptic nature as in The Edge of Destruction but in this case rather more unpleasant) - land inside The Citadel.

The Citadel is run by Cacothis (Christopher Villiers, formally of The King's Demon's) who has taken up prayer as the only hope for a benighted world. Inside the Citadel all is safe. His daughter Lolanthia (Nathalie Mendoza) is still more scientifically minded and scalds her father for his faith. Outside the genetic wreckage of a scientific catastrophe wander, including Borarus (a demon of sorts and a safe indicator to Cacothis of the impending end of days). Outside the Citadel is hell and the Doctor is welcomed to it.

C'rizz is with The Outsiders and has been chosen by Aboresh (Christopher Glenister, formally of The Caves of Androzani) to help him take the Citadel. Aboresh works on C'rizz's extra-mental abilities. Teaching him to control minds and move objects. It's a sort of low key version of Luke Skywalker and Yoda but with less swamp and more demons. Aboresh is turning C'rizz into the weapon that Big Finish has been hinting he could be all along: The Absolver.

The full story of who and what C'rizz is - or was meant to be - spills out over the four episodes. Aboresh is undoing the Doctor's influence on C'rizz and making him what the Eutermesans intended him to be. By the end, the changes are physical as well as mental. C'rizz is the Absolver and he intends to 'save' The Doctor and Charley just as he 'saved' so many others.

Aboresh wants revenge on Cacothis and the Citadel and it turns out to be all for the love of a woman, which C'rizz finds rather astonishing. Cacothis had - has - a wife, who Aboresh had an affair with. It all builds up to a wild confrontation, the Doctor's attempt to rig up a solution and a confrontation between Charley, the Doctor, and C'rizz.

When the Doctor's 'weapon' is set off there seems no way to stop it. But C'rizz absorbs it and has doomed himself to die as a result. C'rizz's death is well-played and rather moving - fortunately not quite moving enough to make me blub in full view of the passengers of the train I was on when listening to this episode.

Returning to the TARDIS the Doctor seems almost unmoved by C'rizz's death, which triggers Charley's anger and her desire to leave. Charley's response is one of the more genuine responses to death in Doctor Who. I don't know if the television series could do it like that. Grief makes her angry and the Doctor's almost unbotheredness and the Doctor finds it impossible to articulate how he feels. He only makes it worse. Why he doesn't just say, "Sorry Charley, I'm not human. I might look human but I'm not. I don't feel things the same way as you do." I don't know. But Charley's rage is grief driven. It's quite hard to listen to. You find yourself changing sympathies throughout. Angry at the Doctor's glibness, then at Charley for her unreasonable accusations, then you want to whack the Doctor for saying stupid things. It's a great scene.

So C'rizz is dead. Conrad Westmaas does a brilliant job in his final story, especially as he sways between darkness and light at the end. India Fisher is wonderful too. Particularly in the final scenes. The supporting cast is great, although I feel Glenister is a little under-used. Everyone seems to raise their game in the final episode.

This isn't the best Big Finish story ever but the final episode with confrontations, deaths and their aftermath is exceptional.

Bye Bye C'rizz.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Memory Lane

This is rather fun. It is neither too heavy nor too heartbreaking, which is nice.

The Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz materialize in the front room of the snooker watching, tea making Mrs. Braudy (Nina Baden-Semper) and her grandson, Tom (Neil Reidman).  Neither of them seems too perturbed by the TARDIS  arriving.

Tom is building a spacecraft out of Lego.  He's also fascinated by this odd programme that keeps breaking into the snooker that seems to show the struggles of the crew of a spaceship. O and he's behaving like he's ten (and a half) but is an adult.

These little mysteries are as nothing as those presented to the TARDIS crew when they finally go outside - to buy an ice-cream. The whole street seems to be identical houses, stretching as far as the eye can see. All occupied by Mrs. Braudy and her teapot. It isn't surprising then that they lose track of the TARDIS. That is until the Doctor sees it disappearing into the distance in one of the series oddest, least dramatic but still rather lovely cliffhangers.

This is a rare story that almost does without a villain. There is a prison and a prisoner but everything that happens seems to be more the result of a misunderstanding as opposed to any genuine nastiness. No one is plotting the subjugation of the entire universe or wreaking their revenge on the Doctor.

There's a couple of characters: Lest (Charlie Ross) and Argot (Neville Watchurst) who are effectively a 'villainous' combination of Rupert Murdoch and Brian Johnstone (the cricketing commentator for those of you younger than me and/or less aware of cricket commentators ).  Their only real vice is greed. Even when they try to get something back from the Doctor their attempts at torture are distinctly second rate and charmingly amateurish in comparison with Mr. Twyst and Rawden's professionalism in Something Inside.

It is all rather jolly and palate-cleansing after Something Inside.  Only the regular hints - which have been more obvious recently  - that C'rizz might not be the Eutermesan he appears to bring any gloom to the story. C'rizz's true nature has been the rather subtle arc of Big Finish's 8th Doctor stories since they escaped the Divergent Universe.

India Fisher gets to do 'kid Charley' again who seems a rather sweet little thing. All excitable and enthusiastic. The kid Charley is as much an Edwardian adventuress as the adult one will be.  Kid Charley also means we get to see Anneke Wills reprise her role as Lady Louisa Pollard, which I always rather like.

Yes, this is another story about memory and yes, it's another prison as C'rizz rather sourly points out. But it is a nice straightforward, old school romp, which is a rarity in Big Finish's 8th Doctor range, which gets quite draining at some points.

I admit that might be more because of the slightly artificial circumstances my 'Ruthless Doctor Who Schedule (TM)' has imposed upon events. Trying to listen to all the 8th Doctor audios in time to hit my 8th Doctor Starburst column deadline has forced the gap between stories to a minimum, which can distill themes and tones. The artificiality comes with the territory and my Douglas Adams attitude to deadlines.

Anyway, this is worth a listen at any time as it is rather nice. I know nice is a terribly weak word. The verbal equivalent of 5.5 on a 'how much do you like' scale. It's such a lightweight word that it feels like toleration rather than real enjoyment: nice bloke, nice people, nice food, a nice cup of coffee.  A lukewarm piece of faint praise.

However, it'll do. This is fun. Give it a listen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Something Inside

This is another fine piece of Doctor Who from Big Finish. Written by Trevor Baxendale it is a dark tale of experimentation, imprisonment, torture and unintended consequences. Not everyone survives.

This is also my favorite Paul McGann performance as the 8th Doctor. Truth be told he's been pretty good throughout but there's something about this story that brings out the best in him. Baxendale's writing seems to hit a sympathetic vibration with McGann's performance and how he sees the Doctor. Even when The Doctor is struggling to find his memories whilst being 'questioned' there's an extra bit of va va voom and later when The Doctor is riffing off how clever he is or when he's explaining extra-time to C'rizz or right at the end where he says, "I've had better days" there is a real rightness about this performance. This feels like the 8th Doctor discovered. It's quite exciting.

Something Inside has other excellent performances too. One of Doctor Who's common problems, in whatever format, is that by its nature a Doctor Who story sees a lot of people die. A lot of the time they're identikit soldiers, henchmen or members of the public. Sometimes they get names and lines. Sometimes those names and lines combine together to create memorable people. People whose deaths actually matter and whose looses make you feel genuinely sad or even angry. Griffith's death in Attack of the Cybermen is one of those. I was - and still am - really pissed off that they killed him off. Something Inside has those types of characters.

The main supporting cast - at least the non-villainous part - are that kind of character: Jane Thirgood (Louise Collins), Tessa Waylund (Liz Crowther), Gordon Latch (John Killoran). All looking for a way out and all doomed not to find one. It's the combination of the writing and the acting that makes you care about these people and the gradual, creeping realization that death might be the fate of all of them. Death is a constant presence in the Doctor Who universe but because of the programme's history and target audience, it doesn't always feel like death hurts: physically and emotionally. In Something Inside it does.

The final ingredient that makes me like this so much is Garth Twist (Ian Brooker) and Eryk Rawden (Stephen Elder). The two initial villains of the piece and arguably two of the nastiest villains in Doctor Who. Twist is a torturer and Rawden the military scientist who has let things get a little bit out of hand. He is a Doctor Who archetype: the scientist blinded to conscience and focused on his work. The supreme example, of course, is Davros. Rawden might well have gone along with Davros if asked the virus question by the Fourth Doctor. They really are nasty pieces of work and the performances by both actors are excellent but Stephen Elder's is magnificent, especially as Rawden's best-laid plans start to fray at the edges. It's nice to see genuine terror in a villain as....well. let's not spoil it all.

Add the usual excellent supporting work from India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas and you've got a rather good little story on your hands.

Loved it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Time Works

You know I think this might be - just might - my favorite 8th Doctor Big Finish story so far. It is a wonderfully well-told tale that not only demonstrates the Doctor's ability to bring down an unjust government in rapid order. It has a fine satirical touch too with its talk of efficiency and effectiveness, of 'completion' and 'cutbacks'. It also has entertaining things to say about free will and the courage required to rebel. There's also a little about love too.

The Doctor, Charley and C'rizz have landed on a mysterious planet where time seems to have 'set like amber'. People are frozen in the middle of their daily grind, which initially makes the Doctor wonder whether they have jumped a time track a la The Space Museum. With his usual nose for the curious, The Doctor explores further until coming across a woman frozen in her flight from the militia. She is carrying an object which causes the Doctor alarm. He insists everyone makes for the TARDIS immediately but just as they are about to enter it The Doctor disappears, jumping backward in time to before the time freeze they have just witnessed.

Time Works then becomes two parallel stories as Charley and C'rizz try to find and then help the Doctor whilst Paul McGann's Doctor embarks on his most Doctor-ish adventure so far. Flexing his interference muscles as he charms his way into the - apparent - centre of power and proceeds to stick a spanner in the clockworks.

The mysteries and history of the planet are gradually explained in a nice subtle way so that nothing ever feels like info-dumping. Different voices tell their tales and we find out more about the most sinister of the planet's problems: The Clockwork Men.

It is The Clockwork Men who do the dirtiest of the dirty work. Removing the time wasters and cutbacks in the invisible moment between the tick and the tock. It's a particularly unpleasant form of that favourite tool of dictatorships the world over: the disappearance. But instead of the fearful knock of the secret police on the door, these things remove their victims without being seen. The existence is talked of but they are the most invisible and effective of secret policemen. It's a cruel cherry on a particularly impressive dictator's cake.

This planet is the tyranny of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder - inventor perhaps - of time and motion studies. This place is an extremist wing of Taylorism, efficiency as terrorism.

The Doctor, however, is on the case and this clockwork smooth society is about to get a shock as he, in his own words, "brings down an unjust society in two and a half hours." This is an excellent Paul McGann performance as he gets to shake off some of the shadows and baggage and just be the Doctor doing what he does best: causing chaos and changing regimes.

The cast is excellent. Ronald Pickup gives voice to the weary Kestorian, the King. The Doctor mentions he's the oldest person that they've seen and he's been trying to keep everything together for the sake of his people whilst expecting to be 'cut back' and replaced by his coldly cynical son Zanith (Adrian Schiller). The relationship between the two is played out brilliantly. It is, once again, a believable relationship.

The Doctor is aided by Vannet (Beth Vyse), a market trader whose husband Collis was 'cut back'. By sheer coincidence Collis ends up - unwillingly at first - helping C'rizz and Charley with their end of the story. It's a perfect example of one of those questioning and protesting characters that the Doctor and his friends catalyze into action. The Doctor lights the blue touch paper.

Vannet's brother Revnon (played with conviction by Merryn Owen ) is an almost Judas. A realistic portrayal of how most of us would probably behave if we found outselves in these cirumstances: head down and getting on with the job. Worried about his sister's dangerous lifestyle and trying to protect her without betraying himself. Revnon is us perhaps. The average, ordinary Joe.

In the end this is Paul McGann at his finest aided and abetted by sterling work from India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas. Charley and C'rizz really rise to the occasion here. Ignoring the Doctor's advice and generally doing a fine job of teasing out the plot and the background to this story without making it feel like we're being force fed.

So bravo Big Finish. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Other Lives

Welcome to the 150th Patient Centurion blog. It's an emotional moment. (Waves to huge and happy crowd)

Other Lives is a reasonably light-hearted tale set around the Great Exhibition of 1851. It isn't without its emotional undercurrents, especially in the Doctor's relationship with Georgina Marlowe (Francesca Hunt) and there's a little darkness via C'rizz's exposure to Joseph Crackles (Mike Holloway) and his freak show and C'rizz's vengeance on Crackles.

There's also a nod to realities of Victorian England with talk of revolution & Charley's run-in with the Dickensian named Rufus Dimplesqueeze.

But fundamentally this is just a romp. Everyone gets separated and involved in Other Lives. Charley gets friendly with the Duke of Wellington who is desperately trying to cover up the sudden disappearance of the de Roche's, French diplomats who stumbled into the TARDIS. Coincidentally it turns out that the De Roche's bare a remarkable resemblance to Charley and C'rizz (although the latter requires a wig & some make-up). All of that might seem rather confusing. Forgive me if it lacks clarity. It's like trying to explain one of Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies without getting twisted and lost.

The Doctor gets arrested, mistaken for an assassin - Griswold - who is out to kill the De Roches and then released when Georgina Marlowe claims he is her husband. The Doctor gets dragged into Georgina's attempts to save her home from a rather grumpy Uncle of her husbands (the said Mr. Dimplesqueeze by coincidence). And it is nice to hear the Doctor go through a period of quiet domestication without too much emotional trauma, although there is a little. Francesca Hunt does a lovely job breathing life into Georgina who is trying to keep her emotions in desperate check.

India Fisher is brilliant in this story. One of my favourite Charley stories I think. Her friendliness with the Duke of Wellington, her reaction when she realizes that Dimplesqueeze thinks she is a lady of ill-repute, her dismissal of the Duke's rather pompous aide de camp (for want of a better phrase) Mr. Fazackerly. It's a great performance. She also plays Madame de Roche (as Conrad Westmaas does M. de Roche and Paul McGann does Edward - Georgina's actual husband), which is a rather nice touch.

Matching India Fisher for brilliance though is Ron Moody as The Duke of Wellington. I think he's a little more gentle than the real Duke. (The real Duke is part of one of the most terrible, but characteristically Victorian stories I have ever heard. I may tell it one day.) However, Moody's performance does feel 'right' in its own way and his comic timing is rather delicious.

So a light comedy with dark edges then. Certainly, Mr. Crackle's fate at the hands of C'rizz is rather unpleasant but everyone else - with the exception of Griswold we assume who is heading for prison, if not the gallows - gets a happy ending.

It's nice.

Which once more is a dangerous word to use. It is damning by faint praise again. There isn't much really at stake in this story, even if C'rizz doesn't have the best time of it (to put it mildly). This feels like a holiday story in comparison with the usual heavy stuff that goes down in the Eighth Doctor's world and it's all the better for it.

A breath of fresh air.

I actually did laugh out loud a few times, which isn't that normal when listening to Big Finish. So if you want to be introduced to the Eighth Doctor without the baggage then this - and Invaders From Mars - would be the story I'd pick up, No real continuity, no piece in a huge story arc just a fun historical adventure.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Uncertainty Principle-A Companion Chronicle

Another diversion into a newly released Big Finish Companion Chronicle, The Uncertainty Principle.

This is the third in a series featuring Zoe Herriot (Wendy Padbury). Now I haven't heard the first two in the series, which is something I intend to sort out as soon as possible, but it doesn't particularly matter.

There's enough sign-posting of what's happened previously for you to get the gist of what's happened: a mysterious 'Company' wants access to Zoe's missing memories - for unspecified reasons. This Company is ruthless and Zoe's life is at risk. Her interrogator is a woman called Jen (Charlie Hayes), who has issues of her own.

I've mentioned a number of times in the blog perhaps the saddest departure of a companion (or companions) is Zoe and Jamie's exit at the end of the War Games. The fact that both of them have their memories wiped remembering only their first adventure with the Doctor is achingly sad and played beautifully by Troughton, Padbury, and Hines. Zoe's final line - "Oh yes, I thought I'd forgotten something important. But it is nothing." - is a heart-breaker and these stories are about trying to get to Zoe's hidden memories.

As the story starts Zoe isn't convinced of the truth of her own memories either, initially fobbing her previous discussions with Jen off as 'just stories'. But further probing leads to her remembering another adventure, that starts with a funeral.

It's a nice little story too. [Possible spoiler follows but I'm not 100% sure it really is so if it is I apologize and if it isn't then nothing to worry about then] Nothing too drastic is at stake but we do get to see Zoe's heart get a little broken, which she was probably glad to forget and we get some rather interesting lectures on Feynman Computers; Quantum mechanics and one of my favorite bits of physics, Schrodinger's Cat. In fact, Zoe's memory seems to be an experiment of a similar kind. She remembers nothing until under observation, then she remembers everything. As she says, "I remember everything, I remember nothing"

Wendy Padbury does a fine job and again Big Finish doesn't make her struggle to act the age she was as Zoe (when I think she was a bit higher pitch) and that helps. She's a wearier, cynical Zoe than the television one, which I also like. She doesn't do a bad Jamie and Doctor impression either.

The question with The Companion Chronicles, of course, is whether my nostalgia for these old characters makes me softer on them than I might be on a new adventure and perhaps there's an element of that. But to me, these stories seem to be deliberately more reflective and I like that. In the end, there's nothing wrong with nostalgia in small doses, it is when the past becomes a glorified, unreal standard by which all things present are judged that it is problematic.

Charlie Hayes - who is Wendy Padbury's daughter apparently - does good supporting work and all in all, this is rather good stuff.

Scaredy Cat

Scaredy Cat is a short, sharp Eighth Doctor adventure. A small cast on a little planet fighting not to save the Universe or the Galaxy but just to let one planet go on its merry little way. It's also a return to one of Doctor Who's great motifs: the Base Under Siege.

It's pretty old school after the weighty and arc heavy stuff we've seen from the Eighth Doctor so far. In that sense, it is refreshingly 'light' even if the subjects it covers might not be. It rattles along at a surprising pace but that might be as much to do with the short episode times. Three of them clock in at under 18 minutes and the fourth at a smidgen over 22 minutes. I'd complain about being short-changed but that would be petty.

The Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz decide to visit Endarra, a supposedly unpopulated little planet. It's sister planet Caludaar has had a long ban on visiting it. So the Doctor is bending a rule a little expecting to find no-one there, except there is.

Arken (Arthur Bostrom) is here conducting rather dodgy experiments, which he thinks can eliminate the 'evil' inside people's minds. Arken is not the first deluded scientist in Doctor Who history and you suspect from the off that this isn't going to end well for anyone. And then there's the secrets room. What or who is Arken keeping in there and why? No one - Bronik (Spencer Maclaren) or Niah (Rosalind Blessed) - wants to talk about it but there's clearer something nasty in the woodshed.

Then there's the planet's own little secret. A mysterious little girl whose taunting little chorus of Scaredy Cat gives the story its title. Who - or what - is she?

All will be unravelled. The nasty thing in the woodshed will turn out to be Flood (Michael Chance) a rather unpleasant Caludaarian serial killer with a convincing line in charm and another of those slimetastic voices. Flood turns out to be trouble for everyone, but most particularly C'rizz.

There's a use of the TARDIS in Image of the Fendahl stylee mid-adventure to help explain who the mysterious little girl is; there's unpleasantness around biological weaponry and a riff on the Gaia hypothesis. The Doctor also reveals that Time Lords are told to avoid mucking about on newly formed planets for a reason. It's a rule even he sticks to. This story explains why.

It isn't the greatest tale ever but the combination of performance and pace makes it rather enjoyable if a little fluffy. But then after Terra Firma with its continuity filled baggage and all that heavy stuff in the Divergent Universe that does make a rather nice change.

It's not one of Charley's best stories because poor old India Fisher gets sidelined into a more old-style 'Penelope Pitstop' type companion in this rather than her usual feisty self but Conrad Westmaas gets some good stuff to get his C'rizz teeth into, especially in his confrontations with Flood in the final episode.

So enjoyable enough but not the best that Big Finish can do. Scaredy Cat, consider yourself damned with faint praise.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Terra Firma

I'm back. And I'm more powerful than ever before!!! (Manic, evil laughter)

So are The Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz. Back in 'our' universe and walking smack bang into The Daleks and Davros. Not the best of welcomes but this is The Doctor and if there's trouble to be found, the Doctor will find it.

This is excellent stuff. The dialogue sparkles, particularly the scenes between Davros and the Doctor, which seem quite playful at times but there's an undercurrent of menace there at all times. This Davros feels more like The Revelation of the Daleks Davros with a broader emotional range and a sense of humour. There are one or two moments here where I found myself feeling sorry for Davros, which takes some doing. It doesn't last long but here is a three dimensional Davros and much kudos to Terry Malloy for his performance, especially as Davros is a person with serious problems here. Malloy manages to portray Davros at his most gigglingly insane - and the laugh is horribly off-beam - and at his most piteous and tragic without making him seem just another villain. It's exceptional and it brings out the best in McGann too.

Their discussions range over issues and ideas. There's a nice moment where McGann's Doctor squishes the Fourth Doctor's well-known Genesis of the Daleks philosophical concerns with the words: "Do I have the right yadiyadiyah". They're evenly matched and even as the full scope of Davros's plan emerges the Doctor manages to resist the temptations he is offered. Davros wants revenge and has gone to exceptional lengths to get it.

[What follows may be considered a SPOILER but as this has been out since August 2005 I think I  can get away with it].

The saddest companion departure in Doctor Who - for me - has always been Jamie and Zoe's departure at the end of The War Games. Doomed to forget their time with the Doctor they move on and Zoe's last line is heartbreaking. In Terra Firma though we get something worse in Gemma's fate. Her time traveling with the Doctor wiped from his mind by Davros, turned into a Dalek agent and's a bloody tragedy. So, it doesn't have the emotional impact of Jamie and Zoe's departure but it does pack a punch of its own.

Yes, clever little Big Finish introduces two companions who traveled with the Eighth Doctor who we've never seen or heard of because Davros got to them and the Doctor, Gemma (Lizzie Hopley) and Samson (Lee Ingleby). There's also their Folkestone based partying mother, Harriet (Played with panache by the wonderful - if you like Spaced - Julia Deakin). Folkestone is the only bit of the Earth that the Daleks haven't got around to exterminating and converting for no obvious reason (but which does get explained nicely later on). The survivors are partying away as if making the best of a bad lot.

It's a typically convoluted Doctor Who villain plan. One even the Daleks scoff at towards the end when they're getting a little uppity. Why not just kill him? The question that must be asked over and over again. Davros's plan is a magnificently baroque attempt to not just get revenge on the Doctor but to break him. Completely. There are so many different elements and so much time spent that it was bound to go wrong somewhere. Something a bit simpler next time. (It does have a certain fellow feeling with The Stolen Earth-Journey's End if you ask me but once more perhaps I'm putting 2 + 2 together to get 2212.)

The acting is top notch. I've already mentioned Malloy, McGann, and Deakin but Lee Ingleby does sterling work as the confused and virtually broken Samson; Lizzie Hopley makes you like Gemma a lot in the short time you get to know her, which makes everything worse; India Fisher makes Charley sparkle as is her usual wont and Conrad Westmaas brings a darker side to C'rizz than expected.

I should also mark one of the great short but sharp lines in Big Finish so far: "And then America went...silent." It's like "All my pretty ones" in Macbeth. A short line that conveys so much. (How's that for a pretentious comparison then people of the interweb).

If nothing else though you should listen to this for a masterclass in Davros-Doctor dialogue.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Time Museum: A Companion Chronicle

A bit of a change for the blog today in order to get my blogging technique back up to scratch after the holiday break, which went on slightly longer than intended due to the problems of the real world aka work.

So The Time Museum isn't an Eighth Doctor Big Finish but a bang up-to-date just released Companion Chronicle starring William Russell as Ian Chesterton and Philip Pope as Pendolin. It's a two-part tale and rather charming.

Ian awakes to find himself an exhibit in a Time Museum. He's an older Ian scooped out of time and his memories plundered to fill a dusty section of this Time Museum. It's a rather natty little conceit. It also turns out that he - and the Museum - are under attack. His memories being sucked dry by some creatures that can be best described as Memory Vampires (Mnemovores perhaps, although they're never given a name in this story). Ian is aided by Pendolin who is - or claims to be - an attendant in the Museum.

However, the occasional slip leads us to think that there may be more to him than that.

The story is a well-acted tribute to the earliest days of Doctor Who as Ian remembers (and mixes up) adventures he was involved in, including some other Big Finish stories. It's a clever way of marking the forthcoming 50th Anniversary without over-egging the pudding.

Having Ian as the older version of himself, reflecting William Russell's real 87 years is a good touch too. There is a weariness and wisdom to the older man that makes some of the scenes in the second episode really ring true.

Also, without spoiling, I was impressed with the discussion of a pivotal scene from an early Doctor Who story looked at from a fresh and interesting angle. Admirable.

It also reminded me how much I liked Ian and Barbara as companions. They're often forgotten in 'best of'' polls but they're up there with the Third Doctor and Jo; the Fourth Doctor and Romana II and the Seventh Doctor and Ace as companions for me. Perhaps the forthcoming 50th will get them the recognition they deserved.

There's not much more to add. I should mention that Philip Pope does a fine job as Pendolin too. As a two-hander, it is always good if the actors work well together and these two do, particularly in the second episode.

Well worth a listen both as an adventure for Ian in its own right and a nice tribute to the first seasons of Doctor Who.