Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fear Her

I was dreading re-watching this. I remember watching this at the time and thinking it was awful.

I wasn't wrong.

This is pretty terrible. It isn't so much the plot, which has aspects of interest. The atmosphere to flirts with being quite dark and scary. But...oh the buts for this one.

Unfortunately, it is let down drastically by some awful acting.

I'm loathed to criticize child actors but Abisola Agbaje as Chloe Webber is horribly wooden. I'm sure she'll grow up to be a fine actress someday but for me, her performance makes the whole thing unbalanced, which is a shame as her story is a moving one: the lonely, abused child threatened by a post-traumatic nightmare

It doesn't help that the conclusion is narrated by the most wooden voiceover by Hugh Edwards (who isn't an actor so I don't really blame him either). I particularly don't blame him for the huge amount of cheese piled on at the end. It's one of the first of those 'saved by love' stories that infest New Who.

Love being effectively a McGuffin in the New Who Universe, which is an insult to an infinite number of poets. Love shouldn't be a get-out clause for writers struggling to find a way to wrap up a story. It's not the sonic screwdriver.

But forgive the rant.

There's something about this story that really irritates me. It's like everyone knew that this was a placeholder before the main action begins in the next two episodes so eyes were taken off the ball and Matthew Graham's script got turned into something much worse than it deserved.

There's a lot of dodgy performances from the supporting cast. I can't really fault Tennant and Piper, although there is a bit too much of the rapid smuggery from the Tenth Doctor again for my liking. However, I think Billie Piper's pretty good, even at the end which is as blatant a signpost for what's going to happen next. Rose might as well be wearing a 'New Who Companion: Best Before 1st July 2006' T-Shirt.

I'm sorry to be so negative because I can see inside this is a good story fighting to get out. About love, loneliness, and family. About fear and what it can do to us. It would be dark and atmospheric. It could still have a cheesy ending, but without Hugh Edward's voiceover.

There are bits of it I like. I like how the pictures 'live'. I love the 'Scribble Monster' and the bit where the Doctor rubs a little of it out is neatly done. I like the Doctor's 'not a cat person' line. I like how frightened Trish (Nina Sosanya) is of her daughter and the Doctor's little speech about 'out of the corner of your eye'.

But the final product is a letdown.

Maybe someone will let Matthew Graham do it again and they'll do it better one day. Like Robert Holmes made Caves of Androzani out of The Power of Kroll.

Grand Theft Cosmos [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

That was fun.

Doctor Who meets the First Great Train Robbery meets The Thomas Crown Affair. Well, sort of.

The Doctor and Lucie find themselves in 19th Century Stockholm taking a ride on the world's first electric railway, which proves to Lucie the Doctor's trainspotter credentials. Lucie is rather surprised to bump into Karen (Louise Fullerton) from Human Resources. Not as dead as Lucie thought and up to something nefarious. And who should she be in cahoots with but our friend The Headhunter (Katarina Olsson. Have I mentioned how much of a Katarina Olsson fan I am.)

They are trying to steal a work of art by 17th-century Italian artist Tardelli, which is being shipped to the King's vaults by his 'consultant' Simonsson (Michael Moloney, which is an impressive piece of casting. Big Finish do have a habit of persuading rather impressively cv'd actors to appear in their productions.)

The Doctor - who has a thing about Tardelli's, which I won't entirely spoil - decides that he and Lucie must steal the artwork before Karen and The Headhunter. Thus triggering off a rather light-hearted adventure as each pair of would-be thieves tries impersonation, mesmerism, technological trickery and plain old style feminine wiles to get hold of Tardelli's work.

It's witty, amusing, slick, clever and well-paced and tightly plotted fun. Everyone seems to be having a whale of a time and puts in a lovely performance. Sheridan Smith's Lucie is on top form as Big Finish takes advantage of her rather impeccable comic timing.

It's even got Christopher Benjamin in it for heaven's sake. He of Jago & Litefoot fame. And Colin Spaull and his gruff tones. How can it not be rather fabulous?

Indeed I think this is the most fun I've had listening to a Big Finish story in ages. The bus and tube journey simply flew by darlings.

Highly, highly recommended if you like a light-hearted heist with a Doctor Who touch.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Love & Monsters

Well, I loved that. With one major quibble and a couple of minor ones.

The major quibble is Peter Kay. As Elton himself says, LINDA was great until Mr. Kennedy came along. And Love and Monsters is ticking along rather nicely until Peter Kay turns up. It isn't a bad performance, it just tonally too jokey.

I know this isn't meant to be the most serious of episodes, even if it does make a serious point about the fate of those left behind and about life being stranger and madder than we are led to believe, but everyone else stays just the right side of that invisible line between light-hearted and unsubtle. I don't think that's necessarily Peter Kay's fault because that's how I suspect he was asked to play it. The problem is it unbalances the episode.

Everyone else does a great job. Marc Warren as Elton has to hold together the episode and does so rather well. It is the first of the 'Doctor lite' stories and uses the Doctor's occasional appearances to revisit some of the themes in Rose about how dangerous it is to 'touch' the Doctor, even just a little and the impact it has on friends and family: they also serve who only stand and wait as the poet says.

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed this was I *know* Elton. In some respects I AM Elton. Yes, LINDA is clearly modelled on Doctor Who fandom but it is a rather sweet little group and inside the tale is the truism that after a while The Doctor becomes the excuse for meeting people who have become your friends. The Doctor is a topic of conversation, but not the only topic. Sometimes he's not even the main one. And then someone comes along who takes it far too seriously and spoils it for the rest of us.

Shirley Henderson is a sweet but strong Ursula; Simon Greenhall is awkwardness personified as Mr. Skinner; Moya Bradley does a similarly good job as Bridget, the woman looking for her daughter and Kathryn Drysdale as Bliss is a smarter version of her character from Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

The highlight for me though was Camille Coduri's return as Jackie Tyler. She's magnificent. The scene in the laundry is brilliant witty writing by RTD. He might over-step the mark with one line at the end, which isn't really necessary but apart from that & the rather silly Benny Hill chase at the beginning this is lovely writing.

As I said it doesn't all work but this is far, far better than it gets credit for. It's not a classic but by Jove it is fun and at points just a little moving.

And yes, I'm as surprised as you.

The Skull of Sobek [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

The first thing that needs to be said about The Skull of Sobek is that it has a wonderful cast: Art Malik as Abbot Absolute, Barbara Flynn* as Sister Chalice, Giles Watling (sister of Deborah, son of Jack) as The Old Prince, Sean Biggerstaff as Snabb and the Big Finish regular and vocal miracle worker Katarina Olsson** as Sister Thrift.

You'd bite a casting director's hand off if you were offered that cast for virtually anything but for audio drama, it is virtually a miraculous collection of memorable voices.

And that helps sell a rather odd story.

Written by Marc Platt, whose Ghost Light is regularly held up as rather confusing, it does seem to have a rather bizarre quality of 'what's this supposed to be aboutness' to it. Is it deep? Or is it just another 50-minute episode in a long-running science-fiction adventure series with nasty monsters (in this case Crocodilians), Companions in jeopardy and the Doctor saving the day? Does he even save the day? What, in the plainest of language, the bloody hell is going on?

There's a Skull, which has interesting hallucinogenic properties.

There's a planet ending civil war between two factions of Crocodilians, which has been going on forever. Unfinished. The Skull wants it finished.

The two factions of Crocodilians are old so The Skull is going to find champions to do the hand-to-hand war-ending battle for them. Unfortunately, this will make Lucie's life rather difficult. For a while. Lucie has a weird thing for Crocodiles. They haunt here anxiety dreams. The tick-tock terrors of the Peter Pan crocodile twisted but she's fascinated by them too. Dangerously so it turns out.

Do the Crocodiles represent anything? Does it matter? Perhaps Marc Platt just picked them because he's scared of them? Does there have to be something behind everything? Sometimes a crocodile is just a crocodile.

There's some stuff in there about balance, symmetry and the universe, which is nice. There's a lot of blue. There's a bad camel pun. There's some throwaway stuff about small print, which may or may not be....oh look...I'm trying too hard here.

It's fun. It's brilliantly acted. Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith seem to have developed a rather lovely relationship now. The worst of the antagonism has drifted away and they genuinely sound like friends. Or the sort of friends I have. The ones that take the piss out of you but in a way that is never really touched by anger or cruelty.

There's probably loads of stuff going on that I've missed.

Or nothing.

But I enjoyed it. So everything else is spectacular irrelevant.

*I have something of a crush on Barbara Flynn. This dates back to her appearances as Jill Swinburne in various Biderbeckes and then as Rose Marie in 'A Very Peculiar Practice'. She has a voice that I could listen to forever. This may colour my response to this story.

**Katarina Olsson deserves some kind of eulogy. She's appeared in loads of Big Finish stories, can do not just different accents but different voices. To the extent that she's unrecognizable, which is really rare. She does a fine job whenever she appears and seems inexplicable that she is not to be massively and deservedly famous.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Impossible Planet - The Satan Pit

There's much to praise in this Matt Jones scripted two-parter.

It's well-paced, well-directed and atmospheric as hell. An old-school base under siege scarefest. There's a dark, sinister voice - the work of Gabriel Woolf who memorably voiced Sutekh all the way back in Pyramids of Mars - with the worst of intentions. There's possession: of Toby Zed (Will Thorp), of communications and en masse of the Ood.

The Ood are an excellent addition to the Whoniverse* and Rose's reaction to their slave status is correctly shocked and a little disgusted. "Why do humans need slaves?" she asks. It's a question worth answering and the fob offs from the Sanctuary Base crew might as well be a litany of the excuses humans have used forever to justify slavery. "The deeds of men" indeed.

And now I'm going to have to reel back a bit. You'd think by now I'd be getting into the swing of this reviewing lark.

Basically the Doctor and Rose turn up in a cupboard on a 'Sanctuary Base' that turns out to be sitting on a planet that shouldn't be where it is. An Impossible Planet you might say if you were so inclined. It orbits a black hole, which of course is impossible. But like Alice, I try to believe three impossible things before breakfast and it is a rather impressive idea. Even more so when it turns out to be a massively elaborate prison for....well...for something at the high end of the unpleasant scale.

They then lose the TARDIS forever setting up one of the more irritating scenes in Doctor Who history when the Doctor contemplates settling down in one permanent location and Rose tries fishing for a commitment to - well, at minimum house share. I know I'm going to come across like a miserable, grumpy old-school Doctor Who fan but I found Rose and the Doctor spectacularly irritating in this story. I've said before how their relationship is beginning to make me feel excluded from their adventures and this is a perfect example.

I ended up caring more for the members of the Sanctuary Base crew than I did Rose and the Doctor, which is definitely not what the production team is aiming for. When, right at the end, the Doctor talks about swapping Rose for Ida (the brilliant Claire Rushbrook) I almost wanted him to I'll take Ida. O Ida would have made a great companion. But obviously, that's not going to happen. The Rose and Doctor relationship must continue on its path, which contains - like capitalism - the seeds of its own destruction. For however wonderful the Doctor and Companion relationship is, he can't settle down and fall in love properly because...well that's not Doctor Who. That's a whole other television series.

And I'm sorry to go on about this but when I find myself shouting 'O for heaven's sake get on with it' at David Tennant during his Rose speech to the Horned One then there's something wrong. That wrongness is probably mine. I admit it.

But you know....just get a ROOM.

Anyway, there's something trying to escape. It might be the devil. Or it might not. The idea of a devil shakes the Doctor's own belief system. And its talk of 'before time' drives him to distraction. But we never learn what The Beast is. Or where it comes from, which I don't mind. Let's find space in Doctor Who for loose ends. Not everything needs to be tied up. The real world is untidy, perhaps the Whoniverse can be sometimes too.

Fundamentally the best bits in this are in The Satan Pit. The conversations between Ida and The Doctor. I like that. It feels intimate without being exclusive and it feels like they are talking about meaty stuff and you know things are bad when the Doctor chooses to retreat from entering the Pit. At least initially.

The supporting cast does a fine job too and MyAnn Buring as Scooti Manista gets one of the more disturbing exits of any character in Doctor Who history. Danny Webb as Mr. Jefferson gets one of the most stoic. But overall its a strong cast doing good work with the addition of exceptional voice work from both Gabriel Woolf and Silas Carson doing the Ood voices. When the Ood go bad it is very creepy indeed.

I suspect this is one of those stories that would have had me hiding behind the sofa as a child.

In the end, it is a pretty solid base-under-siege story supported by an attempt to be more than just an adventure story. The talk of faith and the Doctor's 'Ark in Space'esque tributes to the brilliance of mankind add something to the story.

I enjoyed it, which is the best thing that can be said of any Doctor Who story, even if I do have grumpy middle-aged Doctor Who fan quibbles about the Rose-Doctor 'get a roomness'.

*No, I don't like the word Whoniverse either but needs must as the devil...oh

Thursday, February 14, 2013

House of Cards-A Companion Chronicle [2nd Doctor, Jamie, Polly+Ben]

This may be rather short as I'm struggling to put together a review that doesn't spoil this story for the listeners.

This is - almost - a game of two halves. I was feeling slightly disappointed with the first episode. Something about Polly's reaction to the 'monsters' didn't ring entirely true to me and the set-up seemed rather tired: a gambling casino. An alien gambling casino. With 'monsters'. Whoopee.

But things began to get more interesting as we rolled towards the cliffhanger. Then the second episode when off somewhere I wasn't expecting at all. It got all rather clever and interesting.

The final confrontation between Doctor and villain was amusingly done and felt spot-on for the Second Doctor.

The other bothersome thing about this one is it is the first time - with a Companion Chronicle - that the obvious gaps in the cast really hit home. You wanted to hear Patrick Troughton and Michael Craze, but you can't.

I always had a soft spot for Michael Craze's Ben, especially with Anneke Wills as Polly. There was something 'real' about those two as companions. You could picture both of them as normal people. Their reactions always seemed pretty normal too: Ben's cynicism and distrust of the newly regenerated Doctor, Polly's arguments with the Cybermen. So for me, his absence was keenly felt.

Anneke Wills and Fraser Hines do a good job with the reading and the drama. Whilst I'm heaping praise I should add that Fraser's Jamie is still the companion by which all other companions should be judged. There's an unusual amount of maleness in the TARDIS at this point in time and Fraser Hines does his usual excellent job. Especially when he describes Jamies response to something he couldn't possibly understand. (Sometimes I think I'm over-avoiding spoilers. If that's actually possible).

So - after my initial doubts - I judge this another successful Companion Chronicle. They'll be missed when they're gone as the standards are consistently high. This isn't up there with Last Post or The Time Museum for example but its fun, fiendish and feels just right as a Second Doctor story.