Thursday, August 30, 2012

Big Finish - Protect and Survive

Catching up with a more recent Big Finish release this is last month's main range number 162 - Protect and Survive. Written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley.

The Doctor has vanished and the Tardis lands near a remote Yorkshire cottage where Ace and Hex find themselves in a version of When the Wind Blows. It is the late 1980s, the sky is filled with the bomber planes, an elderly couple are stocking up their fallout shelter, and in the distance could that be the sound of an air-raid siren?

I vividly remember this time period and the fear of nuclear war which seemed like a distinct possibility. Although the infamous Protect and Survive leaflet was never officially released we certainly knew all about it, and I remember watching the public information film of the same name when it was leaked to the BBC. So I was fascinated by this story and how the writer could fit it in to Doctor Who's web of time. We know that Hex comes from a future England where there has been no nuclear war, so how can a nuclear device have fallen on an airbase in Yorkshire in 1989? Yet that is what seems to have happened and Ace and Hex are forced to seek shelter in Albert and Peggy's house.

The first two chapters of this drama are completely gripping and incredibly poignant. It feels quite claustrophobic stuck in that shelter with just the four characters. In fact this is a very stripped down production with a small cast and all set in and around that small cottage in the hills. Inevitably the twists and turns unfold and we found out what is really going on. To be honest I found the explanation slightly less interesting than the set up. However the Doctor does turn up in the fourth part and sets an interesting variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma with a neat twist involving the title of the story. So I take my hat off to the writer here, this is one of best Big Finish scripts I have heard recently.

Great performances particularly by Ian Hogg and Elizabeth Bennett as Albert and Peggy, and Peter Egan does a lovely version of Patrick Allen's original narration for the Protect and Survive films. Apart from the slight dip in the third chapter it is difficult to fault this production. I even spotted little nods to two infamous BBC films Threads and The War Game which we have covered on British Invaders.

4.5 out of 5 all clear sirens. Next up will be an early appearance from the Eighth Doctor.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Big Finish gives you extra

One of the things I am really enjoying about my current Big Finish marathon is listening to the extended extras. The CD releases usually have a bonus track at the end of each CD, the first is the music composed for the story and the second is interviews with the cast and crew. But if you buy the CD or download as part of a subscription from the Big Finish site then you can also download an extended version of the interview track which is usually about 30 minutes long, and it is well worthwhile.

It is great to hear from the actors but somehow even more interesting to listen to the writers, directors, producers and, on occasions, some of the the technical wizards. I now look forward to these interviews almost as much as I do the stories themselves.

I gather from my British Invaders co-host, Brian from Canada, that the extras were one of the features that Nicholas Briggs introduced as executive producer. As far as I can tell the extended extras became a feature with release number 121 Enemy of the Daleks in May 2009 and I'll be getting round to that story soon (Yes, I have ordered another 12 CDs!). I will report back on those interviews when I get there.

When Brian and I met Nicholas Briggs at Big Finish day we had the opportunity to record a brief interview with him which you can listen to here. He signed off the interview with one of Big Finish's tag lines: "Subscribers get more at", and indeed they do.

Big Finish - Lurkers at Sunlight's Edge

Big Finish monthly release 141 - Lurkers at Sunlight's Edge. Written by Marty Ross and directed by Ken Bentley.

The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive in 1934 in a remote part of Alaska and find a scientific expedition investigating a strange citadel in the ice, and the dark horrors it contains. As is traditional the companions get separated from the Doctor and make their own discoveries about a medical institute and the strange writer who lives there. Meanwhile the Doctor gets to make a few nice in-jokes about his literal cliff-hanging act in the TV story Dragonfire.

As with many Big Finish stories the clue to this one is in the title which sounds like something written by H.P. Lovecraft. The writer of weird horror stories about Elder Gods and nameless terrors appears here in thinly disguised form, and this tale has his fingerprints all over it. There is indeed some dark horror lurking in the dark, icy wastes which will threaten all life on Earth unless the Doctor can stop it. Think about the Cthulhu mythos and you will have a fair idea why the scientific team led by the determined Emerson Whytecrag should probably not disturb whatever lurks in the terrible Citadel.

I really enjoyed the writing on this story, all the Lovecraft references, and the nods to continuity from the television series. Unfortunately what I didn't enjoy so much was the accents chosen by some of the actors. Even Michael Brandon who is American attempts a regional accent to sound like whatever Lovecraft himself sounded like. Unless the story specifically calls for a particular accent then I would rather they didn't bother. Accents have to be really, really good or I just find them distracting.

Apart from that bugbear of mine this is a fairly good Big Finish story but possibly just a linking piece between the terrible events in A Death in the Family and what is to come in the Black and White mini-series. It gets a solid 3 out of 5 Tentacles.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Big Finish - Luther Arkwright

In 2005 Big Finish produced an adaptation of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, scripted by Mark Wright and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery.

Luther Arkwright was a comic written and illustrated by Bryan Talbot who I first encountered in a 9 issue series published from 1987 to 1989. I still have them safely bagged and boarded in my comic boxes. My recollection is that I was a bit confused by the parallel world hopping storyline but impressed by Talbot's lovely artwork. I am a big fan of his more recent books like A Tale of One Bad Rat and, in particular, Alice in Sunderland.

This audio drama adaptation was another recent purchase in a Big Finish sale and it has an interesting cast. David Tennant plays Arkwright, and this story was released just one month before he was announced as the tenth Doctor Who. Paul Darrow gives a typically sinister performance as Cromwell, and Siri O'Neal plays Arkwright's fellow agent, Rose.

The plot concerns the attempts of the evil Disruptors to destroy the Multiverse and, in particular, a parallel world where the English civil war has rumbled on for centuries and the Puritan parliament is led by a descendent of Oliver Cromwell. Luther Arkwright has the ability to move between the different worlds and leads the resistance with the help of his telepathic fellow agent, Rose Wylde.

It is a long and complex story spread over three CDs, and it is rather terrific. Perhaps I was not paying close attention in the 1980s but I found that the story made a lot more sense in this adaptation. It certainly has an epic feel and Big Finish deliver a perfect sound-scape with noises of war as well as the interrogation scenes where Arkwright reveals much of the back story. Perhaps it was that device that meant I understood this interpretation so well.

And the cast are all splendid and the two big names deliver. Paul Darrow works best as a villain and David Tennant is as good as ever. He is using his English accent here and it is rather strange to hear him talking to a companion called Rose before he joined Billie Piper in the Tardis.

I found this a very enjoyable break from the main range Doctor Who adventures. A high flying 4.5 out of 5 Union Jacks for Luther Arkwright.

Big Finish - Cryptobiosis

A Big Finish bonus release from December 2006 - Cryptobiosis, written by Elliot Thorpe and directed by Gary Russell.

I picked this one up recently because it was in the Big Finish for a Fiver sale. The Doctor and Peri are passengers on board the steamship Lankester travelling from Madagascar to New Orleans in 1907. There's a mysterious woman confined to her cabin by illness, the ship is heading into a perfect storm and, to top it all, there is a murderer on board.

After the complex four part stories I have been listening to recently this single CD adventure seemed rather lightweight and forgettable. It also needed more suspension of disbelief than even Doctor Who normally requires. Characters do things that don't make sense, say things that no-one would say, and the Doctor's refusal to explain what was going on was even more irritating than usual.

The big reveal about the female patient in the wheelchair turns out to be exactly what we thought it was all along and, once revealed, the villain quickly descends from sanity into insane cackling. It is not a terrible story but just not up to the standards of the recent adventures. 2 out of 5 sea legs.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Big Finish - A Death in the Family

Big Finish release 140 - A Death in the Family. Written by Steven Hall and directed by Ken Bentley.

So this is it. The conclusion of a long arc of stories featuring Evelyn, The Forge, Ace and Hex, and the villainous presence of the Word Lord. And this was not what I was expecting at all. The story starts out with a fairly straight-forward first part that ends in a dramatic cliff-hanger. Then the narrative splits and we get chapters featuring first Hex and then Ace, before Evelyn returns in the final part and the grand plan of the Seventh Doctor, the great manipulator, is revealed. With the Word Lord drawing his powers from language itself it takes a remarkable scheme to overcome him and I cannot really say much more about the plot without giving too much away.

With the Doctor away from the action for most of the story there is a lot of work for his three companions to do. I confess I am still unsure about the character of Hex but he is growing on me. Sophie Aldred gives us a grown up Ace who is more than just baseball bats, bombs and youthful rebellion, and I really enjoyed her chapter. But yet again it is Evelyn who won me over. There is something about the feisty Dr Smythe that appeals to me and Maggie Stables gives another completely convincing performance. As does Ian Reddington as a new incarnation of the villain who uses words as weapons. and does so with considerable relish.

The production values are up to their usual high standard and there is little more I can add. This was a surprising, but very satisfying conclusion to a long series of stories. 4 out of 5 seals of Rassilon. Tremendous stuff.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Big Finish - Project: Destiny

Big Finish number 139 Project: Destiny by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, directed by Ken Bentley.

Hex has been shot during the Crimean war in The Angel of Scutari. The Doctor and Ace rush to get him to the familiar medical surroundings of St Garts, the hospital they first met him in. However something is very much amiss, London is empty and quarantined because of an infection that turns its victims into huge insectoid "Contaminants", and the mysterious department C4 are investigating. Except that C4 is The Forge by another name and soon the Seventh Doctor is locking horns with Nimrod again. Meanwhile Hex is discovering some unpleasant truths about his family history.

At the end of Thicker than Water I said I wanted more bangs and crashes and this story delivers. Right from the start the Doctor and his companions are dealing with an army of the infected trying to get in at them, helicopter gunships, and the malevolence of Nimrod and his Forge troops. Stephen Chance is more restrained as Nimrod and appears all the more more evil for it. I liked that all his Forge agents have codenames from Greek mythology, Maggie O'Neill plays a character called Aristedes. The story also dips in to the Dracula mythology from Hammer horror films to regenerate agent Artemis who appeared in earlier Forge stories.

Continuity is a knotty problem for fans of any long running characters. We like history to be respected, and for elements from older stories to be referred to in newer adventures. But we also want to hear new stories, and to conveniently ignore some of the more outlandish moments from the past. Personally I have a fairly flexible approach to continuity but it is fantastic how Big Finish is building their own version of the Whoniverse with recurring characters and groups like The Forge. This continuity comes back to haunt Hex, almost literally in this case.

This is a terrific conclusion to the Forge arc of stories and I hope it is not the last time the Doctor will encounter them. 4 out of 5 phials of the Twilight virus antidote. Next will be the story this has all been building up to: A Death in the Family has a lot to live up to. Will it meet the challenge?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Big Finish - The Word Lord

The Word Lord is a Seventh Doctor short story from Big Finish 115 - Forty Five. Written by Steven Hall and directed by Ken Bentley.

The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive in a secret, underground bunker in the Antarctic and find they have 45 minutes to solve an impossible murder mystery which threatens to bring international peace to a violent end.

This is a very brief adventure for the Tardis crew and is mainly set up to introduce the character of the Word Lord, a mischievous and malevolent figure from a dimension where language governs everything. In the same way that the Doctor has mastery of Time so the Word Lord has control of spoken words, which give him his power.

There is a fair bit of word play going on here and Sylvester McCoy gets to roll his Rs with gusto. At the end of the story the Word Lord is briefly defeated by the Seventh Doctor's quick thinking, but clearly this character is coming back and will not be so easily brushed aside next time. I continue to wonder whether Big Finish will create a recurring villain that can rival Davros or the Master, and maybe the Word Lord will prove worthy of the challenge. Or maybe Nimrod and the Forge will return as the big bad of this story arc. Time will tell.

This story is available as a free download from the Big Finish site so you can pop along and listen to it yourself. For me it was over too quickly and left me wanting more but mainly because this story somehow failed to satisfy. 2.5 out of 5 Thermo-Spanners. Next up will be Project: Destiny.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Big Finish - Thicker than Water

Big Finish monthly release 73 – Thicker than Water. Written by Paul Sutton and directed by Edward Salt.

The Sixth Doctor is travelling with Mel and decides to make a return visit to Világ and find out how Evelyn Smythe is getting on. It is three years since Evelyn returned to marry Rossitor who is now the governor of the alliance between three countries, and she is his political advisor.

I am developing my own internal categorisation for Doctor Who stories. There are the historicals which I traditionally have problems with. Then there are the bases in peril, or under siege, stories. Obviously there are straight forward monster stories, invasions, and regular clashes with the Daleks, Cybermen and Autons, plus a few murder mysteries thrown in for good measure. You can probably think of other genres as well. This drama is what I would call a political story. And Doctor Who has been doing political stories since the days of the Curse of Peladon and even earlier stories with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctors.

Obviously Rossitor and Evelyn are in the thick of the political intrigues, as is Rossitor’s daughter, Sofia, who happens to be a medical doctor. In fact there are probably too many doctors in this story and it does cause some confusion. There is also the question of Evelyn’s heart and what was done to her when she had life saving surgery on Világ. Plus there’s controversy about what to do with the technology they captured from the invading Kiloran forces in Arrangements for War.

Everyone is on fine form although Bonnie Langford as Mel doesn’t get much to do, so I’m still unsure about her as a companion. The villain of the piece turns out to be exactly who you would think right from the start, and the poor Doctor just has to do a lot of running around in corridors before suddenly appearing towards the end to put everything right.

I am getting spoilt by the high quality of these Big Finish audio dramas. So much so that I wanted a bit more from this story. Perhaps it was because I listened to this in several sittings with lots of interruptions, or perhaps it is because I am keen to get back to the sinister Forge project. It’s a good story and it’s nice to hear Evelyn finding some happiness, but I was ready for more bangs and crashes. 3 out of 5 Kiloran blood soaked swabs. Now on to The Word Lord.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Big Finish - Medicinal Purposes

Big Finish monthly release 60 - Medicinal Purposes from August 2004. Written by Robert Ross and directed by Gary Russell.

How is this for a list of ingredients? The Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe, spooky Edinburgh, the body snatchers Burke and Hare, David Tennant, and the fabulous Leslie Philips. I was always going to enjoy this story. Not least because I was in Edinburgh earlier this year and visited the Greyfriars graveyard where the Doctor an Evelyn begin their investigations. I also looked round the Surgeon's Hall museum which includes a rather gruesome book bound in leather made from William Burke's skin

I am on record as not liking the Doctor Who historicals, but this story about the Doctor wanting to meet two minor figures whose criminality inspired medical breakthroughs is really rather good. Especially when the Doctor discovers that something is seriously wrong and that history is not unfolding in the way he expects. I bought this story in Big Finish's recent David Tennant sale but his character is a rather minor one. Far more interesting was the wonderful voice of Leslie Philips, and hearing his villainous Dr Knox go up against the Doctor.

Dr Smythe rather let me down in this adventure. There is one anachronistic clue which the Doctor (and myself) picked up on but Evelyn missed, which surprised me knowing that she is a historian. Maybe travelling in the Tardis has confused her perception of time. Strictly speaking it is not her area of expertise so I will let the writer off on that one. The other slight problem with this production was the background noises of the Edinburgh streets and the public house where much of the story takes place. I found the constant hubbub rather intrusive at times but again this is a minor quibble about an otherwise excellent, and rather spooky, Big Finish drama.

4 out of 5 bumps in the night I think. Next up the Sixth Doctor returns to Világ in Thicker than Water, but where is Evelyn?

In Blogs we trust

A quick mention for some of the other fine blogs that are covering Big Finish releases.

Red Rocket Rising
Doc Oho Reviews
Kiss of the Dalek
Chair with a Panda on it
Mike from TimeVault's reviews

More links in the side panel over there on the right.
In particular:
British Invaders (I have no shame)
The Type 40 Podcast

We're all in this together!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Big Finish - The Harvest

Big Finish release 54 from June 2004 - The Harvest by Dan Abnett, directed by Gary Russell.

Leaving the perils of Evelyn Smythe and the Sixth Doctor to one side for the moment this is a Seventh Doctor story which introduces a new companion. It is 2021 and Thomas Hector Schofield, or Hex for short, is reporting for work as a nurse at St Gart's hospital in London. It is also his birthday but the celebrations do not go according to plan and when he saves a mysterious young woman from an attack he finds himself caught up with the Doctor and Ace and their investigation into a secretive medical research project.

This is quite an entertaining story indeed. I certainly enjoyed the Doctor and Ace as a team of paranormal investigators, with Ace as the on the ground agent and the Doctor as the computer hacker and co-ordinator. The villain is not given away by the above cover image or the cast list so I won't reveal the identity either. Suffice it to say that the reveal when it comes manages to make perfect sense and still be surprising. I am not sure about the character of Hex yet but I know he is going to be important in some upcoming stories including the very latest mini-series from Big Finish.

It almost goes without saying how good the cast and the production are. I was particularly impressed by Richard Derrington as Doctor Farrer, his voice sounds like a young Bernard Cribbens. So much so that I began to wonder whether Big Finish could somehow manage to bring his character of Tom Campbell, from the Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 film, into their version of the Whoniverse.

The writer Dan Abnett is quite well known for his comic books and he does a terrific job with this story. I do  not know if he is done other Big Finish stories but I will be looking out for them. Likewise the director, Gary Russell, is well known for his long association with Doctor Who in all its different forms. There are some medical errors in this drama which you would expect me to pick up on. If Big Finish should happen to need a free medical consultant for their writers I would be happy to help out!

The Harvest is a terrific Big Finish episode that gets a high flying 4 out of 5 on the Tardis console. Next up will be a return of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn, and a story featuring the body snatchers Burke and Hare - Medicinal Purposes.

James Bond - Moonraker

April 1955 brought the third Bond novel Moonraker.

M invites Bond to his club, Blades, to help determine if Hugo Drax is cheating at cards. Having spotted how Drax is doing it Bond then takes him on and beats him at his own game. Afterwards Bond is assigned to investigate Drax's Moonraker missile project and uncovers a plot to destroy London itself.

This is a much more interesting Bond novel. It sees the beginnings of what would become the formula particularly for the sixties movies. Bond meets the villain early on, beats him in a sporting encounter and then goes on to foil some huge, technological plot. Fortunately it is a much easier book to read than Live and Let Die with less bigotry on display, although Germans come in for a fair amount of abuse. The Bond girl, Gala Brand, may be one of the least memorable in all of the books, She doesn't even make it into the film version.

At the heart of the book is the great Bridge game played between Bond and Drax. I remember when I first read this I was so fascinated that I learnt the rules of Bridge and spent some time recreating the hands that Bond deals to defeat Drax. I also spent ages trying to work out how Bond switched the decks at the crucial moment. After the card game the stuff about the missile and the targeting codes is rather uninteresting. It's the atmosphere in Blades, the food and drink, and that card game that make this novel.

The Bond check list includes one villain with a medical condition, one sporting encounter, some self-inflicted torture in the missile exhaust tubes, and one Bond girl with a distinguishing mole on her breast but nothing else to remember her by.

James Bond will return in ... Diamonds are Forever!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Big Finish - Arrangements for War

Big Finish monthly release 57 - Arrangements for War by Paul Sutton and directed by Gary Russell.

Consequences. That is what the Doctor and Evelyn are dealing with as this story begins exactly where they left off at the end of Project: Lazarus. Seeking a break from the death and violence they land the Tardis on the planet Világ, just as the natives are negotiating a peace treaty to end a century of war. However with the Doctor around things usually start to happen and this is no exception.

I liked the political intrigue in this story. The mix of court diplomacy with science fiction reminded me of some of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels which is high praise indeed. It was also very moving to hear Evelyn struggling to come to terms with the events of the previous story. The Doctor's failure to save one of the victims of Project Twilight has really affected her. Unlike the Doctor she is not used to those around her dying and now she has her own brush with mortality to deal with as well.

A word about the actress Maggie Stables who retired as a teacher and decided to try her hand at acting. She appeared in a stage version of Jane Eyre with Nick Briggs who recruited her for a part in The Sirens of Time and then Big Finish created the role of Evelyn with her in mind. I really like the idea of an older companion for the Doctor, one who isn't so easily impressed by his brilliance and who can hold her own in their arguments. There has been a nice arc in their relationship over these last few stories with consequences of their actions affecting the atmosphere in the Tardis. Well done to Big Finish, and the writers, and to Stables and Baker for bringing all this to life.

Meanwhile the planetary politics continue with Evelyn taking on an advisory role at the peace talks, while the Doctor's involvement just seems to make things worse. Can Dr Smythe unite the opposing forces in team to repel an Alien invasion?

This adventure does seem like a deliberate change in pace after the frenetic action of the two Project stories. The supporting cast all do fine work and the political intrigues are good fun, even if the Doctor does fall for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Another good instalment in the Evelyn Smythe saga that gets 4 out of 5 (regraded) heart murmurs. Next up will be a Seventh Doctor adventure called Harvest.