Sunday, October 28, 2012

Voyage To Venus [6th Doctor, Jago & Litefoot]

This is corking good fun.

The Sixth Doctor goes to Venus in the company of Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter). Once there they find themselves involved in all kinds of magnificent machinations.

The story has a Victorian SF element to it but with a dash of humour: Jules Verne meets Mark Twain, which befits the use of Jago and Litefoot. It also draws on lots of Jon Pertwee era Venusian jokes. I particularly love the Venusian lullaby joke at the end so well done Jonathan Morris for that bit of writing.

Actually, Jonathan Morris should be praised for a generally excellent script that exploits the vocal skills of all the actors concerned whilst doing a fine job of making The Doctor, Jago and Litefoot sound right. The bombastic vocabulary of Jago in particular just rolls majestically by in audio but as a trio, their fondness for and beautiful handling of language is theatrically magnificent. It's like being gently assaulted by a thesaurus. These are experience actors having fun with good lines. It must have been great fun to do.

Balancing out the gentlemen are Juliet Aubrey as the Empress Vulpina, who has secrets to protect, Catherine Harvey as Felina and Charlie Norfolk (which is a great name btw) as Ursina. Mainly because it is Venusian females that we get to meet. The male ones are...well...less talkative shall we say.

It's nice to have a Big Finish story as fun as this, although that isn't to say there's not a lot of ideas buzzing away in here: on evolution, on colonialism, on men and women, on war and the causes of wars and on (human and animal) rights. Nothing too heavy or obvious but it is there. It's not just in-jokes about the Pertwee era.

I'm always aware with my blogs on the newer Big Finish releases that there is a severe danger of spoilers so they tend to be shorter than usual for I fear that if I keep writing I'll spill some terrible secret, which ruins someone's entertainment.

I'd use the word 'romp' to describe this if that didn't seem like a pejorative  Doctor Who can't always be dark and threatening but doing a more light-hearted story takes careful handling for fear it can slip into something that's just silly. There's an art to it and Jonathan Morris seems to have that art.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Unquiet Dead

The Doctor and Rose find themselves in Cardiff, 1869. It's Christmas time but all is not well. There are corpses walking and one of them has gone to the theatre to see Charles Dickens...

I think I enjoyed that more this time around than I did on the original broadcast, which is surprising. It isn't the most original of plots but it does get the right balance between pace and character I think. It doesn't feel like padding when there are quiet, talky bits and there's a lot of exposition dumped in entertaining ways. It never feels rushed or forced.

The Gelth, who are the ethereal blue villains of the piece, have been victims of the Time War. This is the first time we hear a long-ish explanation of the Time War and The Doctor's guilt clearly motivates his actions. Rose even picks him up on it when she tells him not to use Gwyneth (Eve Myles) to fight his battles for him. We also get hints that The Doctor meeting Rose has helped him in the post-Time War shock he is suffering from.

This is a theory of mine so I could be reading too much into it but the post-regeneration, post-Time War trauma has basically re-Time Lorded him. He's back to Hartnell pre-Ian and Barbara. Rose brings him back from that and gradually Doctors him up again - and that Tennant's very human Doctor is the result. It's a theory. I raise it only for academic interest.

Christopher Eccleston is mostly excellent in this, although I still don't think he's as comfortable with some of the more light-hearted stuff. It feels a little forced sometimes but perhaps that's a deliberate choice. I think though my favourite moment is the short scene with Gwyneth right at the end. It's rather lovely and again Eccleston shows most of his responses with minimal gestures. I always think this video ( Proof - I Am Kloot ) shows Eccleston's expressiveness off best. But I digress.

Billie Piper's good too. Her desire to protect Gwyneth from both the monsters and The Doctor is nicely played as is her telling off of Sneed (the excellent Alan David). Her reaction to stepping out into the past, like her future shock in the previous episode, is convincing. Sadly the longer Doctor Who runs the less this gets shown until companions become quite blasé about the whole thing. It requires the occasional minor character to do the 'shock and awe' bit.

Simon Callow does Charles Dickens, which is nice. I like that his reaction to the events is to be given a new lease of life and that this parallels the Doctor's re-emergence from the Time War. (OK, I'll shut up now).

Eve Myles is brilliant as Gwyneth with her second sight and faith. Her scenes with Billie Piper are great but the best has to be when she steps into the conversation between the Doctor and Rose that's effectively about her. The danger of writing people from the past is making them stupid because they don't know things. Lack of knowledge doesn't make you stupid, just uninformed. Mark Gatiss does a good job avoiding this in his script.

Two quibbles: firstly the Doctor's panic, when trapped towards the end, doesn't quite ring true. The Doctor always believes there's a way out. He might struggle to find it but he never stops looking for it. In this story, he flaps and descends into self-pity. It doesn't quite feel right. Secondly, was it necessary to go completely unsubtle with the Gelth at the end. Ooh, they're evil now let's make the red and demonic. It's laying it on with a trowel in my book.

Quibbles aside though I enjoyed this.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The End of the World

The End of the World sees the Doctor and Rose traveling five billion years into the future to watch the world get blown up. They're joined aboard Space Station One by the 'great and good' of the Universe, which as the Doctor says really means 'the rich'. Included in their number is a large flap of skin and lipstick called Cassandra. She's the last human, apparently.

This being Doctor Who, of course, there's no way this is just going to be a simple exercise in watching. Something is bound to go wrong.

And it does.

I enjoyed this more than Rose. It didn't feel quite so rushed. It feels like it was deliberately meant to be a slower episode designed to let the characters of both the Doctor and Rose breathe a little as a result both Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper seem to shine a little more.

I like the fact that Rose herself doesn't just take everything in without shock or questioning. Her reaction to being in a room full of alien aliens whilst watching the world about to be destroyed seems pretty real to me: you'd freak out a bit. The questions that you'd have running through your mind. The shock of seeing all these new, strange things. Human beings find changing schools hard enough, let alone jumping five billion years into the future to drink cocktails with weird aliens.

Billie Piper does a great job of conveying the shock and the need for questions. The scene between her and Christopher Eccleston that ends with him fixing her phone is brilliantly played by both of them. Even the awkwardness seems right.

However, if Piper is excellent for me this is Eccleston's episode. From his remarkable moves to 'Tainted Love' through the scenes with Jabe (Yasmine Bannerman) to the cold confrontation with Cassandra and into the chips moment he's stonkingly good. It's the way he can do so much with just his eyes as in the scene when Jabe points out that she knows what race he is and that she's sorry. He's doing almost nothing. In fact, the Doctor's occupied but you can see he's listening and you can see how much he's remembering and it is all done with barely a movement. Amazing stuff.

It's nice to see Doctor Who do a wide and wonderful selection of aliens too, even if almost none of them get much of a chance to be anything but moving costumes. There's a nice little blue alien plumber called Raffalo (Beccy Armory) who gets a chance to show us how nice Rose is compared with a lot of the guests onboard. Unfortunately I think she then gets bumped off. I'd like to think she isn't actually killed but imprisoned somewhere but based on what happens elsewhere I suspect not.

Cassandra's fate reminds me that the recent controversy over the Doctor's decision to let Solomon die isn't quite the one-off event the people seem to think. People with bad memories I assume. Rose even explicitly asks the Doctor to help. But he doesn't because he's angry. Both Rose and the viewers learn something about the Doctor then. I'm not sure Rose ever really takes it on board.

It ends with a lovely little coda and talk of chips. The Doctor explains to Rose that he is the last of the Time Lords, mentions a War than his people lost but ignores Rose's 'against who' question. It's a nice end to a nice episode.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Last Post: A Companion Chronicle [3rd Doctor + Liz Shaw]

This was brilliant.

Moving and quite simply one of the best Big Finish stories I have listened to and possibly one of the best pieces of Doctor Who full stop.

It was recorded five months before Caroline John's death so this seems a remarkably apt last story for Liz Shaw. John is excellent here as the main story unwind whilst weaving in and out of the Pertwee era with a reference here and a name there. It obviously leans towards the events of Season Seven but not exclusively. Like The Time Museum, it is both an interesting story in itself and a wonderful tribute to an era and an actress so I can only applaud the writer James Goss for doing a fine job.

I don't want to spoil things. So I'm going to be a bit more careful than usual.

This is basically a two-hander. Caroline John is ably supported by Rowena Cooper who plays Emily Shaw, Liz's mother.

Liz Shaw's interest has been piqued by a number of deaths that have been preceded by letters announcing it. The Doctor and the Brigadier preoccupied with their own problems seem uninterested in the problem so Liz turns to her mother for help.

It's played out as a series of telephone calls and letters. Both Caroline John and Rowena Cooper are exceptional. One particular letter monologue, leading up to the end of Part One, acted by Cooper is wonderful. I can't say much more for fear of spoilers.

I'm not sure how or why but Big Finish seems to raise the bar when it comes to the Companion Chronicles. I don't know whether it is in selecting writers that love the era they're writing about or whether it is the actors involved that give them that extra oomph. Perhaps it is my own nostalgia. Whatever it is I haven't heard a dud one yet.

So I whole-heartedly, absolutely and without equivocation recommend this story. I can see myself listening to this over and over again even unto the last syllable of recorded time.

Honestly, do I have to tell you again. This is another one you'll thank me for later.


Welcome to 2005. Welcome to NEW Doctor Who.

It seems a long time ago, in a galaxy far...sorry. It's hard to watch this again without it being affected by what's happened since and what was happening before.

I was so excited but also a little fearful of how it might turn out. When they announced Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor I thought - forgive me - FANTASTIC! A 'proper' actor with the right kind of baggage. Not a superannuated celebrity wanting to break into 'drama' but Christopher Eccleston. If he was in it then surely this time it was serious. Then they announced Billie Piper would be the companion and I thought she would be terrible. All I knew about her was she released some terrible music and was married to Chris Evans. It was swings and roundabouts.

So when the 26th March 2005 came around I had my fingers crossed. I knew that this wouldn't be the same as Classic Doctor Who. Gone were 25-minute four-parters, replaced by 45-minute single episodes (although there was talk of a couple of multi-part stories, but I was so out of the loop at this point as to be in an entirely different loop). So I watched and enjoyed. But it seemed to fly by at breakneck speed: Rose-Autons-The Doctor-Rose-Micky-Autons-Nestene Consciousness-The Doctor Wins-Rose. And breathe. But director Keith Boak keeps it pretty coherent even as it dashes along. Yes, the plot is a pretty bog-standard Doctor Who one but that's not really the point.

Now, of course, we're used to the 45 minutes episodes so re-watching Rose it seemed a lot less rushed. In fact, having watched Spearhead from Space again recently there isn't a huge amount of difference in the pace (but Spearhead from Space is unusual in that regard). It still rattles along though. There's not much in the way of action before we're at the climax.

The Doctor doesn't show up immediately. Initially, we're in the company of Billie Piper's Rose Tyler as she goes about her normal day. Here I admit to being absolutely and totally wrong about Billie Piper. She's magnificent here from the off and her reaction to entering the TARDIS is one of my favourite moments in all my Doctor Whoing. She's a normal human being. She's got a Mum (Camille Coduri) and a boyfriend, Mickey (Noel Clarke). They live on a recognizable housing estate. It would seem quite soap-opera if it wasn't for the presence of  The Doctor. I'll talk more about Billie Piper as we go on. Suffice it to say I remain as impressed with her performance now as I was then. A great piece of casting.

What of Eccleston? Well, he's good. He's clearly much better at the serious stuff than the lighter stuff at this point but I wonder how much of that is a deliberate choice based on the Ninth Doctor being newly regenerated. (Yes, I know that's not explicitly stated but the mirror scene in Rose's flat suggests that it is the first time he's seen himself since his regeneration from Paul McGann* so I am going to stick with my belief that he's new to his body). He certainly has a presence.

I wasn't sure about his costume, to begin with, but I can see why he picked it. He's supposed to be inconspicuous I think and in the context of 21st century Earth, it works.

However, it is early days yet. I accepted him as a Doctor almost immediately so that's always a good sign but first stories are never the best for judging how things are going to turn out. Just ask Colin Baker.

Which brings me to my one quibble: Mickey Smith. The way he's written makes him seem both stupid and rather cowardly. Now the latter might be a temporary result of the culture shock that comes from being kidnapped by a big plastic bin and then rescued in an alien spacecraft occupied by a crew of plastic people. I can see that RTD's making a point about how not everyone reacts in the 'right' way to become a companion and perhaps Mickey is drawn more broadly there to show how cool Rose is in comparison but his stupidity doesn't quite work for me.

Rose is many things but she's not an idiot and I can't see her putting up with Mickey for a minute based on his behavior and I don't like how condescending the Doctor is to him. It seems slightly odd, but again maybe to show that difference between those who are companions and those that aren't.

If truth be told I suspect most of us would be Mickey not Rose when faced with an alien attack.

I like Camille Coduri too but here again, she's drawn with broad strokes as if to emphasize the dullness of the people that surround Rose. Perhaps I'm being unfair. O I should add the scene in Jackie's bedroom when she's flirting with the Doctor always makes me laugh.

There should also be a small round of applause for Mark Benton's Clive, a real life Doctor Who conspiracy nut who turns out to have been right with his theory of who the Doctor is but only realises as he's staring down the barrel of an Auton gun.

So it's a good start. Lots of fun, lots of action, lots of running around but just the beginning. How will the Eccleston's Doctor develop? Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

Perhaps we'll find out next time at The End of The World

*Update...from John Hurt.

Immortal Beloved [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

You know I'm not sure if I like this or not.

It is based around a really interesting take on how to achieve immortality and its consequences so kudos to writer Jonathan Clements for that. I also like the fact that the ending flags up the temptations that still exist for Kalkin (Anthony Spargo) and Sararti (Jennifer Higham) even after apparent victory.

Plus it is rather lovely how the Doctor and Lucie start of the story interfering and then are gradually shown the true state of affairs, which angers and disgusts them in equal amounts, although the Doctor's begrudging admiration of the ancient technology involved is in character.

It reminded me in little ways of State of Decay but without the Vampires. Zeus's method of achieving immortality less bloody but equally horrible in its consequences. Or at least it is to some. To others, it is a privilege and an honor.

So all that's good but there is a lot of talking.

It helps that the cast is pretty damn good. Ian McNeice makes Zeus a genuinely threatening figure without the need to raise his voice too often. He's charming when he needs to be and willingly takes on the Doctor's arguments. He's also got a great voice for audio.

Best of all though is Elspet Gray as Hera. She manages to sound (initially) rather sweet but businesslike: the sort of tones used by Miss Marple that leads people to totally underestimate her. But then - and it is best shown in the scene between Hera and Ares (David Dobson) that takes place in the garden - there's a cold, ruthless streak beneath her and then realistically afraid when she seems about to die, again. It's brilliant acting.

Which - with a leap of total illogic - brings me on to one of my problems with this story: Kalkin and Sararti. It isn't the actors, who do a fine job. It's the fact that they are rather annoying young lovers. I suppose I'd be more forgiving if they were Romeo and Juliet so perhaps I'm being grumpily harsh but I did find myself wishing they'd stop being so...loved up. I think because their love is supposed to be the key to exposing the inhumanity of Zeus's method of immortality my lack of sympathy for them rather limits things. I suspect this is just me. But these are my views and I'll stick to them for now.

I should also mention that Paul McGann's son, Jake, makes an appearance here as Zeus's favorite Ganymede. It's very sweet. As is McGann's obvious pride on the CD Extras.

The setting is great. The way that the 'Gods' talk about technology in private but have given primitive names to various pieces of modern technology is rather amusing.

Having said all that - and it is mostly complimentary - I still feel vaguely unsatisfied. Once more, like with Horror of Glam Rock there seemed to be a distinct lack of threat or tension. For all the Doctor and Lucie's involvement (and Sheridan Smith is exceptional here I think), it does almost feel like they're observers rather than anything else. The Doctor is a good moral voice here but there's no real oomph.

That's my problem.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Horror of Glam Rock [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

From Red Rocket Rising to a Motorway Service Station somewhere on the M62 in 1974 filled with passing rock bands and their roadies, staffed by the unflappable Flo (Una Stubbs) and besieged by some rather unpleasant creatures with dinner on their mind this is Lucie Miller's second adventure with the Doctor and a rather good base under siege story.

There's another fine supporting cast. The aforementioned former Aunt Sally, Una Stubbs. There's an excellent turn from a post-PC Tom Campbell, pre-Wilfred Mott Bernard Cribbins (as Arnold Korns, Manager of Rock Bands). There's Clare Buckfield as Trisha Tomorrow. Trisha is, with her twin brother Tommy, one half of Arnold Korns' latest find, the Tomorrow Twins. Off on their way to London for Top of the Pops and super-stardom.

Tommy Tomorrow is played by Stephen Gately. Yes, that Stephen Gately. The ex-Boyzone Stephen Gately, which is something of a surprise. He gets to do a bit of singing (and the full song is a CD extra, alongside a glam rock version of the Doctor Who theme tune.), a bit of stylophone playing and a bit of acting. He's not bad, He's not asked to do too much and what he does do is fine, although you do wish his character wasn't quite so naive (or stupid, depending on your kindliness) but his character is key to what happens in the story.

The last, main character is Lyndsy Hardwick as Pat. Pat's stuck at the services having been part of a band that's just split up but that's not quite all she is. (Dodges spoiler)

This is a Big Finish story you can imagine being made a New Who story, even down to the villains who are the audio equivalent of New Who CGI ethereal beasties. The Doctor's victory is achieved in a fun fashion.

My only complaint would be that you never really feel the peril. A couple of peripheral characters gets torn to shreds, cars get smashed, aliens pontificate and there's the horror of a stylophone but apart from that you never feel there's any real danger here. The single episode sixty minutes seems to fly by and everything gets wrapped up with almost minimal effort. It feels like a training exercise for the Doctor. At no point do you ever wonder if they're going to escape, just how? It's as if Paul Magrs, who wrote this, doesn't want to kill anyone off, which is to his credit. He's obviously a nice chap. But a bit more grit would have been good.

O and the fact that everyone seems to take everything that is happening to them far too much for granted. It's as if Monsters and Time Lords meet on the M62 on a regular basis.

But all that seems like quibbling as in truth the whole thing is entertaining nonsense of the best Doctor Who kind. Horror of Glam Rock does its job and in Una Stubbs and Bernard Cribbins gives two lovely actors a chance to strut their stuff.

Mostly harmless.

Blood of the Daleks [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

So here we are. It's all change as the Eighth Doctor meets Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith). This story, written by Steve Lyons, and released in 2007 was made at the request of BBC Radio 7 (as was). Accordingly, it reflects a style more like the new television series. Made up of two episodes, approximately an hour each and featuring the introduction of a new (very) Northern companion with a Time Lord entanglements and an air of mystery this is a whole new era for Paul McGann's Doctor.

And what better way to usher in a new era of Doctor Who than with the Daleks.

The Doctor finds himself 'lumbered' with Lucie Miller who - it seems - has been placed in his care as part of a Time Lord witness protection program. Or something. Suffice it to say they do not hit it off. The Doctor doesn't like doing Gallifreyan dirty work and Lucie isn't the sort of girl who is going to take anything lightly. After some verbal sparring and an attempt to take her back home (and being blocked from doing so), The Doctor and Lucie find themselves on the planet Red Rocket Rising.

Red Rocket Rising has to be one of the unluckiest planets in the Universe: struck by a meteor, invaded by Daleks and breeding ground for a homegrown mad scientist of its own and then once saved by the Doctor alm...ah but spoilers. I should beware.

Blood of the Daleks rattles along at a good pace and has some interesting parallels to Genesis of the Daleks, which make the Doctor's responses all the more interesting. He's not pulling punches with anyone and becomes the focus of all hopes and expectations with glorious naturalness. This is an old school Doctor. Perhaps the Daleks bring the best out of him. They certainly do out of McGann who gets some great Doctor-ish moments, particularly when going head-to-head with Asha (an rather excellent Hayley Attwell - who has and is developing into something of a proper movie star these days. But I digress.).

He's also rather good at grumpy clashes with Sheridan Smith's Lucie. As with Hayley Attwell, Big Finish nipped in and grabbed Sheridan Smith before she took that step towards genuine stardom. Her Lucie Miller might have been invented to define the word 'feisty' (or 'gobby' depending on your point of view) but she's able to make Lucie seem genuine at almost every point. Being Northern helps I think. I don't know whether Big Finish went for a northern companion as a sort of ironic echo of a northern Doctor but most Doctor Who companions seem to have been drawn from that odd part of London and the Home Counties (even if they were aliens and even if the actors playing them were northern.) The only exception being the lightly northern Dodo. So it's rather refreshing.  The point being I think we've all met women like Lucie. She feels, sounds and acts pretty much like a real human being.

That's partly the writing, of course.

McGann and Smith are given excellent support from the rest of a rather strong cast: Anita Dobson as Eileen Klint, the most senior politician left on Red Rocket Rising. She's political down to her toenails and generally unable to see the danger the Daleks present until it is almost too late. I said this story has echoes of Genesis of the Daleks, it also has much in common with Power of the Daleks. Kenneth Cranham (one of my favourite actors btw) does a lovely job as the tin-foil hatted Tom Cardwell. A man whose conspiracy theories and fears turn out to be true, even if people struggle to take him seriously in that tin foil hat. There's a scene in Part Two where he's describing to Lucie Miller what happened to him at the hands of the Daleks, which is hairs on the back of the neck rising brilliance. All hail the Cranham. (Oddly he always reminds me of the Madoc.)

There's some real bite to this story too with the Daleks being at their devious best (at least initially) and their superior race complex is given an excellent twist (if that's the right word).

If you want to start with McGann's Doctor on audio and are more familiar with the New Series than the old this might be a good place to start.

Army of Death [8th Doctor + Mary Shelley]

Army of Death is an odd story. Its tone is all over the shop. On the one hand, it has a certain degree of horror to it; on the other, it has moments of comedy. Like Hartnell historicals with a comedy element, this sometimes jars a little.

However, in general terms this is not bad.

The Doctor has bought Mary Shelley to the continent of Zelonia on the planet Draxine. In his usual style, he promises restfulness and friendliness but because this is Doctor Who they manage to turn up at just the wrong moment: the City of Garrak has just been blown up by it's (allegedly) mad and bad President Harmon. Meanwhile, in the City of Stronghaven things are afoot. There are tales of the walking dead and what is the horrible thing that visits President Vallan (David Harewood) whilst he is alone. And why did Nia Brusk assassinate Stronghaven's former President Karnex?

It's all rather odd.

Gradually - and rather neatly - the threads of the story are drawn together ending in a rather spectacular (and rather tragic) conclusion. Mary Shelley is certainly affected by events. One of the things I do like about Big Finish's Mary Shelley is that she is believable empathic. Seeing the best in the worst (as she does in the 'Silver Turk' too). Julie Cox does an excellent job with the part too. She sounds just right. What does annoy me about the Big Finish Mary Shelley is that - and this is a rather personal view - they undermine the real Mary Shelley's achievements by having her writing be based on adventures she had with the Doctor. So rather than coming from her imagination, she's reduced to writing Doctor Who novelizations without the Doctor. I feel the same way about H.G. Wells in Timelash.

Yes, I know that's a rather personal view but it is mine own (and don't get me started on the way Byron, Shelley et al are portrayed in 'The Company of Friends'. As an alternative I recommend Red Shelley by Paul Foot, which is probably out of print.)

There's an excellent cast here: David Harewood, Carolyn Pickles (Lady Meera), Eva Pope (Nia Brusk) and Joanna Christie (Sherla). It's also rather nice to hear ex-Star Cop Trevor Cooper pop up in a series of different voice roles. Cooper is one of my favourite actors. Also doing the multiple parts thang is Mitch Benn (best known as a stand-up comedian/musician and stalwart of 'The Now Show'). Benn's got a great voice and it is shown to its best in some creepy head-to-head scenes with David Harewood. He also gets to do a fine 'action hero' voice as Commander Rayner.

McGann's good in this - as usual. I don't often stop to praise McGann as his standards are usually so high so I take a moment here to praise McGann. He's good.

Next up, we begin the Lucie Miller adventures.