Thursday, September 27, 2012

Big Finish - The Burning Prince

Big Finish 165 - The Burning Prince by John Dorney, directed by Ken Bentley.

Now this was terrific. The Fifth Doctor is travelling by himself and hoping to meet up with Tegan and Turlough in Amsterdam. As ever he drifts rather off course and ends up on board a spaceship where ... well let's just say that events accelerate rapidly and the story reaches a frenetic pace. It cracks along so rapidly for the first two episodes that I wondered whether the writer could possibly keep it up. Things do slow down a bit in the third part to allow for some exposition before it picks up again for a dramatic final act.

This was a good old-fashioned Doctor Who adventure. Unlike recent stories there is no back story or continuity to worry about, although there may be some stuff here that will carry forward in the future. This is just the Doctor on his own, mistrusted by the people he meets but still doing his level best to save their lives. He doesn't always succeed and The Burning Prince has a spectacularly high body count.

It's old school Doctor Who and tremendous fun. I really can't fault it at all. Writer and director do a great job as do the sound designers and composer, I particularly liked the monster sound effects. All the performances are great, I didn't spot Clive Mantle in an unusual role for him but he's really good.

I have looked back at my marking for all previous Big Finish stories and thought hard about what grade to give this one. I have had a suggestion that I am over grading some of the lesser releases and there may be some truth in that. However I enjoyed the Burning Prince so much that I cannot resist giving it the full 5 stars making this only the second story to get this grade, the previous one Spare Parts was also a fifth Doctor story.

Phew, what a scorcher that was. Next I will be jumping back in time to catch up with an earlier Ace, Hex and Seven mini series starting with Enemy of the Daleks.

The Art of Judge Dredd

Hot off the press this week is a large format, coffee table style art book which reproduces classic covers from 35 years of 2000AD.

After a short introduction from John Wagner the book starts working through the different eras of the prog. Each cover is reproduced in full colour on the right hand page with comments and recollections from various creators on the left hand page. Pat Mills, Brian Bolland, Steve Dillon, Henry Flint, D'Israeli, Alan Grant, Ben Willsher, Matt Smith, Pete Wells and many, many more chip in along the way. The result is a verbal history of the prog and, in particular, the art design decisions about the covers, and some of the techniques artists used to stunning effect.

This book concentrates on Judge Dredd and is obviously tied into the launch of the movie and the (hopefully) increased interest in Dredd. So you won't find covers from other 2000AD stories. What you do get is just about every iconic Dredd cover you can think of reproduced in all its glory. All the great artists are represented from Bolland, McMahon, Ezquerra, Dillon, Gibson and Smith to newer stars like Jock, Henry Flint, Greg Staples, Cliff Robinson and Ben Willsher.

There are about 130 full size colour pages including some of the wraparound covers. Other Dredd covers are reproduced as smaller images on the left hand pages. Inevitably there will be one or two of your favourites which you would have preferred to see full size instead of in miniature, but reproducing all the covers would presumably have been prohibitive in terms of cost and weight. But you do get to see small versions of the infamous Jolly Green Giant and Burger Wars covers.

Comic book fans are naturally drawn to visual imagery and the brilliant combination of the covers with short comments from the creators gives a real feel of how the comic and Dredd in particular have developed over the 35 years. The result is a book that acts as a history of 2000AD. You can read it straight through as I did or you can just dip into it from time to time. You won't have to flick through many pages before you find an image that makes you wish you had that prog or the original art.

Over on the 2000AD forums there was a plea for movie tie-in products. Well here's one. It's a lovely, hard-bound book which you can proudly show to anyone with an interest in art and design, or in Judge Joseph Dredd himself. I can't possibly give it any less that a full 5 star rating. It's a thing of beauty. Pop over to the 2000AD site and order a copy, you may even still be able to get one of the enhanced special editions. Or if funds are limited go to Amazon where you can save yourself a few pounds. Zarjaz!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Absalom - Ghosts of London

Absalom is a 2000AD strip about a London police unit that deals with the paranormal. Written by Gordon Rennie, illustrated by Tiernen Trevallion, and lettered by Simon Bowland and Ellie De Ville. It originally span out of another series called Caballistics, Inc. and has recently been collected in a Rebellion trade paperback.

The central idea of a special police unit that deals with paranormal incidents is a familiar one which we have seen in the X-Files and Fringe. Recently the Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch covered this territory in his Rivers of London books, and another Who writer Paul Cornell will venture into the same field in his forthcoming London Falling. What Absalom has that makes it stand out from this crowd is the central character.
Detective Inspector Harry Absalom is an unrepentant, hard as nails copper from the old school. Disreputable and shabby to look at, frequently sipping alcohol and morphine to control cancer pain, and always telling things like they are without any hint of political correctness. Imagine Columbo crossed with Jack Regan from the Sweeney with a bit of Van Helsing thrown in.

The paperback collects the original story Noblesse Oblige from progs 1732-1739 and the sequel Ghosts of London from 1765-1771, as well a one-shot story called Sick Leave that appeared in the Christmas special Prog 2012. Sick Leave filled in a little of Harry Absalom's history as well as dealing with his medical condition which I discussed in one of my previous medic-droid reviews. Rennie and Trevallion also fill the pages with in-jokes and references to other works which I am starting to annotate over on my other website. As ever if you can help out with any references then please email me.

I found the art on Caballistics, Inc. a bit too scratchy for my liking but Tiernen Trevaillion's work on this book is just fantastic. Likewise I am a big fan of Rennie's writing and his dialogue for Harry Absalom. Both tales are terrific, fast paced adventures which do what 2000AD has done so well over the years, namely introducing great characters in bizarre new worlds. The last new strip to get me this excited was Stickleback. Interestingly the two central figures do share some similarities.

Absalom is one of a host of interesting creations brought to us by 2000AD in the last decade. You can pick up a copy of this book on Amazon for under £8 and it's really worth it. 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Big Finish - Gods and Monsters

Big Finish release 164 - Gods and Monsters by Mike Maddox and Alan Barnes, directed by Ken Bentley.

Carrying straight on from the end of Black and White the four companions travel back in time to rescue the Doctor from a deadly trap sprung by one of his oldest enemies. The Seventh Doctor has a reputation as a master manipulator, someone who always has a plan and manoeuvres people into position like a chess grandmaster. But maybe this time he has gone to far, or has even been outplayed?

I still think of myself as a relative newcomer to Big Finish and, indeed, to great chunks of classic Doctor Who which I am watching for the first time. So I am only just finding out about about some of the key creators behind the scenes. Alan Barnes is someone I only encountered recently in a rather marvellous set of short documentaries called Stripped for Action about the history of Doctor Who comics which you can watch on youtube. He has edited both Doctor Who Magazine and the Judge Dredd Megazine in the past and is now a script editor and writer for Big Finish. If the Seventh Doctor is the fictional manipulator then Alan Barnes is the real thing, the mastermind behind the scenes who has been building up this story for some time. Clues have been left about different coloured Tardises, certain items of power, names and even the history and fate of some of the Doctor's companions.

Barnes and Maddox bring this altogether beautifully in Gods and Monsters. This is a battle on an epic scale and one that the Doctor may only be a pawn in rather than the King. I can't say much more about the plot without spoilers but the production itself is excellent. All the performances are great, and I particularly enjoyed Philip Olivier as Hex who has become a rather reluctant companion who doesn't really trust the Doctor. The music and the sound design are very good and I was delighted to hear the classic noise of the Tardis door mechanism towards the end of the story.

The finale is particularly moving although I found the short coda added after the end music rather detracted from the emotional impact of the ending for me. All in all an impressive production and a fantastic bit of slow build story telling by Alan Barnes. 4 out of 5 magical hammers.

Next will be some Fifth Doctor trouble in The Burning Prince.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Back Beats

Spoiler alert! This article contains some spoilers for The Power of Three. You have been warned.

There were some good moments in the latest Doctor Who story - The Power of Three, although it was basically a kiddie friendly version of Clive Barker's Hellraiser. What stood out for me was, of course, the stuff about hearts and the Doctor's dual cardiovascular systems. As UNIT descended upon the Ponds' house Kate Stewart identified the Doctor by his dress sense and then confirmed this with a hand held heart scanner producing a wonderful screen shot. (Click on the image for a larger picture.)

There we are, a nice colour image of two hearts. Unlike some of the previous images we have seen the hearts are shown arranged one above the other rather than side by side. We also see what could be lungs highlighted in blue, or this may be the Doctor's famous respiratory bypass system - a convenient "get out of jail card" for the writers on several occasions. There are also some rather truncated ribs which are helpfully kept out of the way of our view of the middle. Quite how this scanner manages to show them at the sides and not where they meet at the breastbone is a mystery but UNIT get all the cool toys.

Things take a turn for the worse when the mysterious cubes stop a lot of people's hearts. This also affects the Doctor's left heart and he struggles to continue with just one side beating. As his condition deteriorates Amy takes matters into her own hands and grabs a conveniently placed defibrillator from a hospital corridor. She shocks the Doctor and restarts his left heart. The reinvigorated Doctor can then program the cubes to act as some form of mass defibrillator and restart the hearts of all the affected humans. Happy endings all round.

Unfortunately this plot device makes the usual television error about what defibrillators actually do. When the heart is fibrillating it means that the muscle is contracting in an uncoordinated fashion and not pumping blood effectively. If you could look directly at a fibrillating heart it would be quivering rather than contracting regularly. Defibrillation applies an electrical shock which basically resets the electrical system of the heart and hopefully gets it contracting properly. If the fibrillation continues unchecked then eventually the heart stops altogether, at which point an electrical shock is going to make no difference at all. Sadly you can't "jump-start" a stopped heart with a defibrillator.

The Doctor's heart and the hearts of a third of the world's population have stopped. Defibrillation will not restart them. In fact using the defibrillator as Amy does would actually risk causing fibrillation in the Doctor's other heart. It is also interesting that the machine she uses is a rather old fashioned model that would only be used by doctors (of the human kind) or trained paramedics. You are much more likely to see something called an Automated External Defibrillator in public places or hospital corridors.

There is another problem. When the Doctor's left heart stops he still has his right sided organ to continue pumping blood to his brain. The humans who we see collapsing all around the world do not have this luxury. While their hearts are stopped no blood is getting to their brains so they are all at risk of serious brain damage. Unless I missed the bit where the Doctor managed to go back in time and somehow restart their hearts immediately after they collapsed then I don't think we would see people just standing up and carrying on as if nothing had happened.

However, the misconception about defibrillation is very common in film and television so the writer can perhaps be excused for making the same mistake. At least this episode gave us a nice view of the Doctor's two hearts. It also get brownie points for introducing Kate Stewart who I hope we see more of, and for mentioning the Zygons. Apart from that I found all the stuff about the Doctor living with the Ponds rather dull and that combined with the poor medicine made it rather a weak story for me. We shall see if the Weeping Angels can save the current series.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back from the Dredd

There are at least 2000 reviews of Dredd 3D out there. Here is another one.

2000AD has been one of the biggest proving grounds for British comic book talent over the last 35 years. So much so that it is a bit of a mystery why none of its iconic characters have been adapted into successful films before now. Obviously there was the other movie but we all try to forget that one. But think of the creators who started out with 2000AD: Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, John Wagner, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison to name just a few. Many of them have gone on to create stories for other comics that have been adapted for the screen, but still the only 2000AD character to escape from the comic pages is Judge Joe Dredd.

Dredd 3D arrives with an enormous weight of expectations from the fans, and also the big question of whether it can cross over and attract those who don't read the comics into the cinemas. Fortunately everyone involved seems to have been aware of the expectations and were committed to treating the character seriously. Another huge factor in the success of the film has been the involvement of the creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra who get first billing in the end credits. Getting the popular 2000AD artist Jock to help design the look of Megacity One was also a very smart move by the producers.

So how well do they succeed in adapting the world of Judge Dredd? The opening shots of the Cursed Earth, the wall, and then Megacity One along with Karl Urban's voice over set the scene quickly and efficiently. Director Pete Travis makes sure we know where we are straight away, and it is a believable world that doesn't seem that far from our own. The slums, the battered vehicles and the street crime recall images from films like City of God and even the riots that plagued London in 2011AD.

And then there is Dredd himself. Right from the opening shots of him donning his armoured clothing and helmet Karl Urban is Judge Dredd. Terse, brutal and deadly. Obviously the uniform had to be adapted from the comic book depictions into something more functional, but the interesting thing is Dredd's outfit looks well used and somewhat battered. Even the famous helmet is scarred and scratched in contrast to the Stallone movie where everything gleamed as if it had come straight out of the factory, or had just stepped off Versace's catwalk.

The storyline is kept fairly straight-forward and simple with the two Judges outnumbered and outgunned as they try to work their way up through Peach Trees block to the final showdown with Lena Headey's Ma-Ma. If I had any criticism it would be with the portrayal of Anderson as somewhat nervous and uncertain at the start of the film, I would expect a cadet Judge to be tougher but it does allow the the writer Alex Garland to give us her character progression through the 95 minute film. Those minutes are perfectly paced and it feels is just the right length for an adult action film which is not affected by the bloated running times that are increasingly common.

While on the subject of time the depiction of the effects of the drug Slo-Mo are central to the plot and allow for an impressive combination of slow motion filming and the 3D effects. The water splashing from Ma-Ma's bath and the shattering of a glass window later in the film are stand-out moments. I will don my medical hat for a moment to wonder how the drug works. Slo-Mo slows the user's perception of time passing to one hundredth of normal. It is taken taken through an inhaler device and appears to work almost instantaneously. To affect the experience of time passing I would assume that Slo-Mo must work on neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. That means the drug must be inhaled into the lungs, cross into the bloodstream and then get across the blood brain barrier which would take some time. It would be quick but not as fast as shown in the film but we will just have to allow some artistic licence here.

Along with Karl Urban the rest of the cast are fantastic. Fans of The Wire will enjoy seeing Dredd and Anderson arrest Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). It was also nice to see one of the Weasleys, Domhnall Gleeson, graduating to a more interesting film role as the Clan Techie, and Rakie Ayola makes the jump from Holby City to Chief Judge look easy!

Overall the film is a fantastic action adventure which remains true to the spirit of the comics while opening the character up for a wider audience. Let us hope that it makes enough money so that Travis, Garland and Urban can give us a sequel. The medic-droid gives Dredd 3D a full 5 stars. Film of the year for me.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Big Finish - Minuet in Hell

Big Finish number 19 - Minuet in Hell by Alan W. Lear and Gary Russell, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The last in the initial Eighth Doctor mini-series and it is another weird coincidence caused by the strange order I am listening to all my Big Finish because this shares some similarities with The Magic Mousetrap. Once again the traditional format is set aside and we are plunged straight into three separate story strands. Charley Pollard is having problems with her memory and finds herself as well let's say a hostess in an American version of the Hellfire Club. Meanwhile Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is on an undercover mission to investigate a rogue American politician and the strange machine he is using to launch his bid for the White House.

And the Doctor? Well he is an inmate in a secure psychiatric facility and is having even worse problems with his memory. And his cell-mate, a man called Gideon Crane, claims that he is really the Doctor and that somehow their personalities have been merged. Add in a female vampire hunter reminiscent of Buffy, plus a Demon who apparently has been summoned from Hell, and there is plenty to bring the story to a rolling boil.

So there is an awful lot going on here and it does take some time for all the strands to come together. There are two problems with this, firstly the Doctor isn't really himself for most of the story. And secondly we get an awful lot of American accents, and southern American accents at that. I go on about accents a lot on this blog but they bother me, and I say that in the full knowledge that I cannot do any different accents myself and my own limited attempts at radio acting were truly terrible. I know they are hard to do properly but if they are just slightly off then they stand out and take me out of the story. The script doesn't help as there is an awful lot of mumbo-jumbo psycho-babble going on.

The main leads' performances are all fine but it is a shame that Nicholas Courtney has to spend so much time narrating the emails he is sending back to base, which is a slightly clumsy trick the writers use to explain what is going on. On the other hand the confusion between the Doctor and Gideon Crane works better in audio drama than it would on television where the visual appearance of the actors would give things away (unless there has been some mind-swap device set up in advance). And it allows Nicholas Briggs to play the Doctor which is rather lovely.

Sword of Orion remains my favourite from the original Eighth and Charley series.
Minuet in Hell gets 3 out of 5 psionic interfaces. Next up will be some Gods and Monsters.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Big Finish - The Magic Mousetrap

Big Finish 120 - The Magic Mousetrap. Written by Matthew Sweet and directed by Ken Bentley.

This is the start of an earlier Ace and Hex mini series and it begins rather mysteriously. The Doctor finds himself on a cable car travelling to an exclusive sanatorium in the Alps. Except that the Doctor seems to be having problems with his memory and events seem to be repeating themselves. Plus there are two mysterious  patients in the attic who seem to know more than they are letting on.

How to start a Doctor Who adventure can be challenging. The standard formula of the Tardis materialising just in time for the Doctor and companion to investigate some strange goings on can become a bit repetitive. So here the writer and critic Matthew Sweet throws us right in to the middle of the mystery and we are as much in the dark as the Doctor. It is an effective technique but it is a bit confusing. There are also some strange accents to contend with. Sweet was influenced by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain so there is some weird experimental stuff going on here.

Acting and production are up to the usual high standards and the actors who had to do accents actually do a fine job and I didn't find them too distracting. I was confused by the story structure but that may be just me not paying full attention with my recent glut of Big Finish audios.

3 out of 5 straw boaters. Next up is my last encounter with the Eighth Doctor for the time being.

James Bond - From Russia with Love

The fifth Bond novel was published in 1957 and this is much more like it.

The first interesting thing is that Bond doesn't turn up in this book until nearly half-way through. Almost  80 pages deal with the construction of the SMERSH plot to lure Britain's most effective intelligence agent to Turkey and then kill him in a manner designed to cause maximum embarrassment to her majesty's secret service. All the stuff about the recruitment and training of the assassin Red Grant is neatly summed up in the first two scenes of the movie but here goes on for quite a bit longer.

007 is summoned to M's office and then sent to Turkey to meet the mystery girl who is promising them a Spektor decoding machine that will allow them to crack all the Russian codes. From there on things move very quickly and it isn't long before Bond and the lovely Tatiana Romanova are trying to escape on board the Orient Express.

This is probably the novel which had the most faithful adaptation for the big screen. Just about everything happens exactly the same apart from the final encounter with Red Grant and the subsequent escape and boat chase that was added in to the film.

From Russia with Love is a much more satisfying read than the last book. Bond and M clearly know that the whole thing is a trap but are curious as to what the trap is and why. Bond is much more active here and there is plenty of violence, although he is rather inconsistent in his views about killing in cold blood. It upsets him when Darko Kerim uses his shoulder as a rifle rest to assassinate the Russian agent who tried to kill him, Bond seems to have forgotten that he earned his 00 status by carrying out similar acts.

It is a gripping read and the idea of the Spektor machine is fascinating. In 1957 not many of the public would have heard about the German Enigma, Bletchley park and project Ultra, yet Fleming's work during the war in naval intelligence brought him directly into contact with them and the attempts to seize one of the vital machines. The Bond girl is more memorable as is the sex scene. Red Grant makes a memorable villain and all in all this is a much more satisfying Bond book..

One villain with a sort of medical condition, one Bond girl who juts in front and behind, no sporting encounter, no torture and several bizarre deaths.

James Bond will return in ... Dr No.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Big Finish - The Raincloud Man

Big Finish 116 - The Raincloud Man by Eddie Robson, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

This is a sort of sequel to an earlier story The Condemned which I have not yet heard. The Doctor and Charley return to Manchester and help the no nonsense D.I. Menzies solve a series of baffling murders. While the mysteries pile up the Doctor is obsessed by a pound coin that seems to have travelled back in time from 2012 to 2005.

If I can't have a ghost story then a good murder mystery will do nicely. And this has a splendid performance by Anna Ford as the tough police detective who, through her previous contact with the Doctor, has become used to cases with a certain degree of alien involvement. In fact I enjoyed her and Charley as an unlikely detective duo so much that I could have done with more of their investigations of the strange string of events that follow the unfortunate Raincloud man around. The other stuff about a floating casino ship and some warring aliens was rather less interesting but was probably necessary to drive the story on, and keep to the four act structure.

The mystery of Charley's timeline and the Doctor's memory deepens, and hopefully will be explained in the other dramas I have queued up on my iPod. 3 out of 5 time travelling coins for this one and on to The Magic Mousetrap.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Big Finish - The Stones of Venice

Back in time again to release 18 from March 2001, The Stones of Venice by Paul Magrs, directed by Gary Russell.

Charley Pollard joined the Eighth Doctor because she wanted travel and adventure, so it seems appropriate for the Doctor to take her to Venice. However this is a future Venice that is on the point of sinking beneath the waves for ever. Meanwhile party-goers celebrate the last days, a religious cult search for their most precious icon, and a mournful Duke waits and hopes for his lost love to rise from the dead. Of course the Doctor and Charley are soon up to their necks and while the Doctor investigates some strange artwork is it possible that Charley may somehow be the actual reincarnation of the long dead Lady Estella?

Unfortunately after the high points of Sword of Orion this story is all over the place. Only the Doctor and Charley seem to be speaking sense, and in Charley's case that is only when she hasn't been drugged. The rest of the cast spout portentous nonsense with perfectly annunciated received pronunciation. It sounds like a bad village hall Shakespeare production. Not even the talents of Michael Sheard, Barnaby Edwards and Mark Gatiss can save it. There is a fair bit of running backwards and forwards and the good old capture - escape- recapture game that was so beloved of Doctor Who writers on television.

I just didn't care for it. It never captured my imagination and has to go down as a bit of a dud really. 2 out of 5 Venetian masks. What I need is either a really good ghost story, or some Daleks. Any suggestions?

Let us see how I get on with The Raincloud Man.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Big Finish - Return of the Krotons

A bonus release from December 2009 - Return of the Krotons, written and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Sixth Doctor and Charley Pollard find themselves on a planet that is being mined by a group of survivors from a generational colony ship. But there is something very strange about the crystalline material they are digging out of the rocks, and deep in the mines something is reawakening.

One of the great advantages of audio drama is that it gives the writers a much broader canvas than the original television series ever had. And it means that monsters that seemed a bit silly on the small screen can be reinvented to sinister effect. So the original Krotons that went up against Patrick Troughton's second Doctor become much more menacing monsters for Colin Baker and India Fisher. It is neatly handled by Nicholas Briggs whose love of the original series shines through this script while he updates the threat level for a modern audience.

This is the first adventure I have listened to that pairs Charley Pollard with the Sixth Doctor and it is slightly confusing. As far as I know Charley first met the Doctor in his eighth incarnation on board the R101 in Storm Warning. So how the Sixth can be travelling with her and then not remember meeting her in 1930 raises some continuity problems which, I have no doubt, are explained somewhere else. But as I have hinted at before I don't get too hung up about this. The timeline of Doctor Who stories in the Big Finish universe is so long and convoluted that I am quite happy to ignore continuity glitches as long as the stories are good. And this one is pretty good.

Baker and Fisher are as good as ever and there are two other star performances to mention. Philip Madoc had a long and illustrious association with Doctor Who and this was his last role with Big Finish before his death earlier this year. He had a fantastic voice for a villain and it was great to listen to him here, and to hear him being interviewed by David Richardson in the CD extras. And as the voice of the Krotons themselves Nicholas Briggs manages to make the slightly silly mechanical voices from the 1960s sound suitably creepy.

An entertaining short story from Big Finish that gets 3.5 out of 5 Kroton teaching machines. Next I follow Charley back (or forwards?) to the Eighth Doctor in The Stones of Venice.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Big Finish - Sword of Orion

Back to February 2001 for release number 17 - Sword of Orion, written and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard are on deep space salvage vessel which encounters a huge, and seemingly abandoned, star destroyer. It could be the biggest salvage haul ever but it also contains the dark secret of a deadly deal made between humanity and some of the Doctor's oldest foes.

The Doctor and Charley work well together as a team and India Fisher more than holds her own against Paul McGann. I felt that Nicholas Briggs made Charley sound like a genuine Edwardian adventuress, and her vocabulary was more convincing than in Storm Warning. This adventure starts immediately where that left off and if I had a criticism of the writing it would be that Charley seems more familiar with the Doctor's methods and abilities than I would expect at this stage. She came across as a long-standing companion and not one who had only just met the Doctor.

The cover image reveals who are the bad guys here but I had not really looked at it, so the slow reveal of Cybermats and Cybermen was very enjoyable. A seasoned Doctor Who fan would not have much trouble identifying them from the characters' descriptions and by the sound effects, but you can't beat a good Cybermen story. I did find it rather easy to spot who the human villain was but that might just be because I am listening to so many audio dramas at the moment and my ears are becoming attuned.

On the subject of ears I have to give high praise for the music here which is a mixture of weird electronic sounds which took me back to the black and white era of Doctor Who on television. And that is appropriate because these Cybermen are contemporaries of those locked in the Tomb of the Cybermen, although Nick Briggs gives us some very spooky voices that are more like the Cybermen from the 1980s. As well as Briggs himself the cast also includes Big Finish stalwarts Toby Longworth, Barnaby Edwards and Mark Gatiss.

Apparently this is one of Big Finish's top selling stories and I can see why. It never quite hits the heights of Spare Parts but it is very good indeed. 4 out of 5 Cybermats. Next up is the Return of the Krotons!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Big Finish - Black and White

Right up to date with the very latest monthly release from Big Finish. Number 163 Black and White by Matt Fitton, directed by Ken Bentley.

Taking up right where Protect and Survive finished Ace and Hex find themselves in the black Tardis with two characters from previous stories. Captain Lysandra Aristedes was a member of the Forge in Project: Destiny, and Sally Morgan was "recruited" by the Seventh Doctor at the end of The House of Blue Fire. There is confusion as both pairs believe they are the Doctor's current companions, nobody can explain why there are now two Tardises of different colours, and the Doctor himself is nowhere to be found.

While the companions squabble the Black Tardis deposits them in the land of the ancient Danes and right in the middle of the tale of Beowulf and the monster Grendel. This is another Doctor light story recorded while Sylvester McCoy was in New Zealand filming the Hobbit. He does appear but for much of the time the great mystery is where the Doctor is and what is his cunning plan? Even when he is absent the master manipulator seems to be influencing events but maybe this time he has gone too far.

The two Tardis crews get re-arranged  allowing Hex to flirt with Sally while Ace and Lysandra argue. In fact after some recent more grown up stories for Ace this is a bit of a return to the petulant hothead from the 1980s. The pairs get separated in time and space and to be honest it does get a little confusing as to what is happening and when, although having two actors playing the young and old Beowulf does help. Interweaving the legend of Beowulf with a Doctor Who story is done quite cleverly by the writer Marc Fitton and I particularly enjoyed a nice little joke about Grendel's mother.

Quite an interesting story which sets up the final part of this mini series. It never reached the heights of Protect and Survive for me and I did get lost from time to time, so 3 out of 5 Tardis outer shells for me. Next up will be another Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard adventure.

James Bond - Diamonds are Forever

By 1956 Ian Fleming was turning out a Bond novel every year and they were proving to be hugely successful. Diamonds are Forever was even serialised in the Daily Express.

M sends Bond to take the place of an imprisoned courier and infiltrate the criminal gang responsible for a huge diamond smuggling scheme. Before long 007 is in America and mixing it up with a group of gangsters called the Spangled Mob. Along the way he will fall for the enigmatic Tiffany Case and meet up with his old friend Felix Leiter.

Diamonds are Forever is a quick and easy read. It does seem somewhat strange that Bond is basically working as an undercover policeman against a bunch of ordinary criminals with no connections to SMERSH. At least he is less objectionable in this book. Fleming seems to have toned down some of his more unpleasant views although he still finds time to be rude about the Irish, Americans, particularly their food (again), and Jewish people. There is also a rather extraordinary sequence describing Bond's flight to the USA and the irritations of air travel that existed even back then in the 1950s.

Bond is a bit more proactive this time and goes beyond the limits of his orders to stir up the Spangled Mob, although it seems clear that M expected him to do just that. There is a fair amount of violence and a sequence where Bond lives up to his double O status by shooting two nasty bad guys fairly quickly and efficiently. He is still using his Beretta pistol at this stage and has not yet been upgraded to his signature Walther PPK.

But it all seems a bit dull and low key for a James Bond adventure. There is no super-villain as such, the Bond girl is slightly more interesting than in Moonraker but still does not leave a lasting impression, and Bond himself seems a bit bored with it all. It feels like Fleming churned this one out fairly quickly in response to the public's reaction to the first three books.

The Bond check-list includes one minor villain with a medical condition (which Fleming gets wrong - there is no blood group F), no sporting encounter other than a rigged card game, a torture sequence which happens "off camera" between chapters, and one horrible and bizarre death (from hot mud!).

Bit of a let down really.

James Bond will return in ... From Russia with Love.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Big Finish - Storm Warning

Big Finish release number 16 from January 2001, Storm Warning. Written by Alan Barnes and directed by Gary Russell.

It is October 1930 and the Eighth Doctor finds himself on board the airship R101 where he meets the young adventuress Charley Pollard. There is a mysterious passenger in a locked cabin, a storm is coming, and the Doctor knows that the R101 has a terrible date with destiny.

This was the first time Paul McGann returned to the role of the Doctor since the 1996 TV movie, and he instantly slips straight back in to the part with no difficulty. Obviously McGann has the advantage over the other actors in that he had the shortest gap between his television appearance and his Big Finish audios. So his voice has changed the least, but McGann may be the most natural sounding of the actors and is completely convincing as the mysterious traveller in space and time. He is ably backed up by India Fisher in the first of her several appearances as his new companion Charley. There was another performance that stood out for me but for a while I could not place the voice until I realised that the actor playing Lord Tamworth was Gareth "Blake's 7" Thomas.

The story itself is a tricky one and I was perhaps spoiled a bit by having recently listened to Cryptobiosis which has a similar set up although it was written much later. In both adventures the Doctor is on a ship which is heading into a storm and cannot escape because his Tardis has been, inconveniently, lost over board. Both have mysterious passengers in locked rooms who require special equipment to keep them alive, and again the two stories involve the Doctor negotiating a settlement with some form of alien race. It may be a little hard on the writers but I would quite like a story which doesn't involve a meeting with a new set of aliens. There are plenty of existing creations in the Whoniverse that could be used. Likewise I am getting a little bored with writers creating new forms of radiation or particles for the Doctor to encounter but that is an argument for another time.

I also had a few problems with anachronistic language in this episode. In particular I am not sure that an Edwardian adventuress who was travelling to Singapore for an assignment with a young man would refer to it as "a date", but that is just minor quibbling on my part. At least the inevitable destruction of the R101 with the tragic loss of everyone on board provides an acceptable explanation for why the alien contact does not have lasting repercussions for the British empire. It was also nice to hear the Doctor quip about Mary Shelley knowing that she will later turn up briefly as a companion.

A slightly variable story but a great reintroduction of the Eighth Doctor, and a promising start for Charley. 3.5 out of 5 Vortisaurs. Now back to Ace and Hex and the problem of the two Tardises.