Monday, December 31, 2012

Big Finish - Night of the Stormcrow

Subscribers get more at Big Finish and this Christmas the bonus release was Night of the Stormcrow, written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs. At the moment it is only available with a subscription and won't be available to buy for another year.

The Fourth Doctor and Leela arrive at a remote observatory on Mount McKerry. The Tardis has misbehaved and this seems to be related to a power surge that has damaged the astronomers' instruments. The clue to the mystery may be a strange signal that the scientists were scanning before all their equipment failed. Have they discovered a new life form? Or has it discovered them?

This is classic Doctor Who territory. A remote base in peril, a group of scientists who are pushing things a bit far, some lurking danger outside, and a splendidly eccentric Doctor who wades into the middle of things with scarf and teeth flowing in the wind. The first act of this two part story is wonderfully creepy as something dark and nasty starts to pick off members of the group. I was reminded of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape which has the same mixture of old and new, and science coming up against an ancient evil which it believes it can control until events spiral out of control.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are on top form and are ably matched by Ann Bell, and by another Big Finish appearance from Chase Masterson. Both of them play characters who are not completely sympathetic  but whose actions are understandable. Their scientific curiosity drives them towards things they don't comprehend and it may be asking too much for even the Doctor to save them.

After a sinister and compelling first part the second chapter has a lot to live up to and perhaps inevitably it falls short as Marc Platt has to explain what is going on and provide some resolution. The air of menace from earlier is dispelled by some of the techno-babble. It's not bad and the music and sound design by Jamie Robertson are fantastic, but it doesn't quite reach the five star standard set by the opening.

Let's give it 4 out of 5 Janus thorns and applaud Big Finish for such a high standard in its recent releases.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Big Finish - 1001 Nights

The latest Big Finish monthly release is 1001 Nights by Emma Beeby and Gordon Rennie, Jonathan Barnes, Catherine Harvey. Directed by Barnaby Edwards.

This is one of Big Finish's releases which features four single stories. However this time they are linked by a back story which places Nyssa in the role of Scheherazade telling the stories to entertain a bored Sultan while the Doctor languishes in the palace dungeons. And there are stories within the stories and a deeper fiction which will be resolved by the end of the tale. The Doctor himself is involved in an escape attempt which reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo.

Unfortunately the four stories in one format doesn't quite work for me. I have grown used to the four act structure of the monthly releases. There is nothing wrong with any of the adventures that Nyssa relates to the Sultan, they just seemed a bit short and inconsequential. The first is a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma, the next puts Nyssa in a Victorian version of the Exorcist, and the last story does that inn at the end of the world where stories are currency that Neil Gaiman and others have covered in comics. I am getting quite picky about these audio dramas aren't I?

On the plus side Sarah Sutton is much better than she was in Castle of Fear, I could listen to Peter Davison's Doctor nearly all day, and Alexander Siddig and Nadim Sawalha have excellent voices. The music and sound design by Jamie Robertson are very good, particularly in the dungeons with the incarcerated Doctor scratching at walls and shifting large stones.

December is turning out to be a packed month of releases for Big Finish and I suspect most of the others are going to overshadow this one. Fairly middle of the road so 2.5 out of 5 regenerations.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Big Finish - Wreck of the Titan

The second story in the Jamie trilogy, 134 - Wreck of the Titan. Written and directed by Barnaby Edwards.

The Doctor decides to give Jamie a trip on the Queen Mary but his navigational skills seem to have betrayed him again and they end up on the Titanic. As they struggle to get off the ship before the Iceberg strikes, reality shifts around them and they find another doomed vessel, the Titan from the novel Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. As the world of fiction bleeds over into the real the Doctor and Jamie struggle to uncover the true villain behind all of this.

Sounds great doesn't it? Add in the submarine Nautilus from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and this should be a recipe for a great adventure but it left me rather perplexed. Part of the problem may be the character of Captain Nemo. After his strong portrayal in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels I was expecting something similar here. However, at one point somebody says "Captain Nemo? What a disappointment", and that was how I felt. He seemed a rather anonymous nobody, although that does fit with his name.

At least the Doctor and Jamie are forming a good relationship, although the 18th century Highlander still seems to be too much at ease with all the technology he encounters. This was similar to the issue I had with Charley Pollard in Sword of Orion, the plot requires that the companion be fully immersed in the Doctor's world right from the start and we don't see any of the future shock that might actually happen.

The rest of the cast just passed my by apart from one dodgy accent which stood out for the wrong reasons. At least it all sounds very good and the music and post-production by Howard Carter are great. A middling 2.5 out of 5 Giant Squids for Wreck of the Titan.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Big Finish - City of Spires

Big Finish release 133 - City of Spires by Simon Bovey, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Sixth Doctor visits the highlands of Scotland and finds himself in the middle of a battle between English Redcoats and Black Donald's Highlanders. Except Black Donald turns out to be Jamie McGrimmon who travelled with the Second Doctor and whose memory was wiped by the Time Lords at the end of the War Games. Something very strange and anachronistic is happening and the Doctor must discover who is the mysterious Overlord and why he is pumping oil from wells at least 100 years before the industrial revolution.

Phew! This is more like it. It is not an absolute classic but it felt reassuringly more like the norm for Big Finish Doctor Who. Colin Baker gives us a good Sixth Doctor, and it was great to hear Frazer Hines as no older Jamie who has no idea why this strange traveller knows so much about him. Their double act is impressive and one of the best things in this story. Perhaps Jamie adapts too quickly to all the time travel and technology stuff but the story sort of demands it, and there is a suggestion that Jamie's previous experiences are starting to come back to him.

There is also a bit too much of that standard trope of capture, escape and then recapture, but that is classic Doctor Who and I can forgive them that for now. I was slightly confused by all the different time periods in this story but that may be explained in the next two parts of this Jamie trilogy. As will the big villain behind all this. For the moment the monsters in this story had a suitably creepy voice, and all the actors were pretty good.

A quick enjoyable story which gets a just above average 3 out of 5 Dirks from me.

Big Finish - Castle of Fear

Big Finish monthly release 127 - Castle of Fear by Alan Barnes, directed by Barnaby Edwards.

After the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa encounter a traditional Mummers play in 1899 they travel back to Stockbridge in 1199 to discover why the Doctor himself has become part of the George and the Dragon story. And to solve the mystery of the Castle of Fear itself.

Oh dear, oh dear. What a disappointment. The title itself had me excited, Castle of Fear is just a brilliant name for a Doctor Who story, and written by Alan Barnes himself. I was really looking forward to something spooky and unsettling, but instead I heard a weak attempt at recreating the humour of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are puns, strange bits of word play, silly accents and scenes and lines that are either a knowing homage, or just a straight steal from the film. None of it worked for me I'm afraid. I once had the misfortune of getting stuck on a school bus next to someone who recited entire Monty Python sketches to me word for word, and this reminded me of that long and painful journey. The original sketches and films are indeed funny, but don't try to recreate them. They are what they are and any attempt to copy them has to be extremely good or it falls flat.

Apart from the title and the cover image I cannot find anything good to say about this one. Peter Davison is his usual amiable self but Sarah Sutton seems wooden and the rest of the cast just ham it up. John Sessions is in there and his performance is even more bizarre than anything he did in Gormenghast. Oh, it was all disappointing. Maybe Alan Barnes is better as a script editor.

Shudder. My current favourite Big Finish Doctor gets a mere 1 out of 5 electric knights. Here's hoping that the Sixth and Jamie can restore my faith.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Big Finish - Blue Forgotten Planet

From September 2009 comes the main range monthly release number 126 Blue Forgotten Planet, written and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Sixth Doctor and Charley Pollard arrive on Earth but all is, as ever, not well. A documentary film team may hold the solution to a terrible sickness that plagues the last humans, and the mysterious Viyrans are back with a deadly plan of their own. The Doctor will need all his wits about him to get through this, and what will be the final fate of Charley?

This is a bit like reviewing the final chapter of Great Expectations without having read the rest of the book first. The rather nifty companions search function at the Big Finish website tells me that there are 34 titles featuring Charley Pollard, and I have only listened to a handful of them. Which is a shame because I like the character and love India Fisher's feisty performances. And here is her last appearance and she bows out with grace and characteristic courage.

Whether this is a fitting adventure for her final Tardis journey is perhaps beyond my critical faculties. It is clearly the conclusion of something which has been building up for some time but it all left me feeling a bit puzzled. And I can't make up mind about the Viyrans who seem to switch between behind the scenes benevolence and direct menacing villainy. I know that they were created by a very young Nicholas Briggs and I'm a big fan of his, also it's good for Big Finish to have their very own monsters to add to the Doctor Who bestiary.

I suspect that this was a story that meant quite a lot to regular listeners at the time so I'm going to limit my comments and give it a middle of the road 3 out of 5 question marked collars.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Big Finish - Death Trap

Getting these slightly out of order but the second 2000AD release from Big Finish was Judge Dredd: Death Trap, written by David Bishop and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

As Mega-City One is commemorating the twelfth anniversary of the events of Necropolis Dredd makes as annual visit to check that his nemesis Judge Death is still safely imprisoned. Meanwhile Amy Steel is investigating the actions of a cult of Death's followers who are campaigning for the fiend's release.

Now this adventure is much better. Dredd's encounter with his infamous enemy in the iso-cubes is fantastic. That "geek made good" Mark Gatiss plays Judge Dredd with sibilant relish, and their meeting has a real Hannibal Lector feel to it. There are also nice little comic cameos from Walter the Wobot and Mrs Gunderson, both of whom are characters from the comics. Having Death locked up in maximum security does rather limit where the story can go, so no great surprise when he escapes to wreak havoc in MC1 all over again.

David Bishop has a nice feel for that balance of action and humour that characterises the best of 2000AD. I'm looking forward to his other stories in this series. Longworth, Gatiss, Buckfield and Reagan all give great performances and the whole thing cracks along nicely. Death Trap just edges out the Simon Pegg Johnny Alpha adventures as my favourite of the Big Finish 2000AD stories so far. 4.5 out of 5 suction traps.

Big Finish - The Killing Zone

The fourth 2000AD release from Big Finish, back in 2002, was Judge Dredd: The Killing Zone. Written by Dave Stone and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

Dredd investigates a secret underground killing game that has become an internet and gambling sensation in Mega-City One. To find those responsible he will have to team up with an undercover member of the  "Wally Squad" and a rogue Psi-Judge. And it won't come as too much of a surprise to learn that Dredd will eventually end up in the Killing Zone himself, although strangely that is a sequence that doesn't work very well in a radio play.

This one didn't engage me as much as the opener Wanted: Dredd or Alive. Amy Steel is absent and Judges Traven and Janus seem less interesting by comparison  Fortunately Toby Longworth is as good as ever and I enjoyed Regina Reagan as the newscaster Enigma Smith, who is a regular in these stories and again helps to fill in the background for listeners unused to the comics. Dredd descending into the Killing Zone would work well in comic format, and there is a similar storyline going on in the Megazine at the moment, but in an audio drama it is just a series of bangs and crashes with little idea what is actually going on.

It all ends fairly abruptly with a bit of a cliffhanger that won't pay off until the twelfth release War Planet, and it seemed rather short. Just 2.5 out of 5 belt pouches and onwards to Death Trap.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Big Finish - The Chaos Pool

Released in March 2009 the final part of the Key 2 Time trilogy was The Chaos Pool, written by Peter Anghelides and directed again by Lisa Bowerman.

There's a spaceship crewed by evolved and highly aggressive Slugs. On another ship there is a President who looks and sounds just like Romana but isn't. The Doctor has two companions now called Amy and Zara, or possibly just one of them at a time. There's a weird old professor who spends a lot of time moaning about his hip. And somewhere in the middle of all this confusion there is a satchel holding the parts of the Key, and something called the Chaos Pool which may end the Universe, or save it, or something. I wasn't really paying attention was I?

Good points first: Amy is more interesting in this one, as is her evil twin Zara. Peter Davison sounds like he is having fun, Lalla Ward does good voice acting for someone who is more or less retired, and Toby Longworth does great monster voices. But I was not really engaged with the story or bothered about the outcome.

I prefer my Doctor Who stories on a slightly smaller scale with more human consequences from the action. If there could be some spooky stuff as well, or a good monster, then so much the better. These bigger stories with some cosmic quest and nearly invulnerable super-beings arguing about an artefact that does everything or nothing just don't grab me. It would be interesting to go back to the Big Finish forums and try and dig up the thread about these stories when they first came out. I know a lot of Doctor Who fans love stuff like this and I would like to read what they said at the time. I still consider myself somewhat of an outsider looking in at the Doctor Who universe, although I am getting pretty well versed in the Big Finish stuff. But I have seen so few of the original serials, and can't really remember the ones I watched in the 1970s that I still feel like a bit of a newbie here. And some of my views are clearly out of step with the majority. Love and War got rave reviews from just about everyone but I hated it.

2 out of 5 pools of chaos for this story. My decision not to buy Unit: Dominion is looking more and more dodgy. I may crack in the New year. Now I need something to cleanse my palate and relight my listening pleasure.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Big Finish - The Destroyer of Delights

Second in the Key 2 Time series is The Destroyer of Delights, written by Jonathan Clements and directed by Big Finish's very own Lisa Bowerman.

Continuing their quest for the missing segments of the Key Amy and the Fifth Doctor find themselves in 9th century Sudan and caught up in a battle between Lord Cassim and the Caliph. Plus there is the almost inevitable crashed spaceship and the beginnings of several legends from the Arabian Nights including blue skinned Genies, caves of wonders and magic words which open doors. And somewhere in all of this are both the Black and the White Guardians who both want the key for themselves.

Hmmm. I'm not sure this is the series for me. I do like Peter Davison's Doctor and he almost matches Paul McGann for his naturalistic radio performances. David Troughton and Jason Watkins have great fun as the two Guardians, they inject a great deal of comedy into their parts. They are both good British character actors and it is particularly nice to hear the son of Patrick Troughton in a Doctor Who adventure.

But apart from that there wasn't much for me here. I was especially bothered by the scripting for Amy who is a constructed person with little character as yet. Unfortunately this gives us a rather flat emotionless performance  I look to the Doctor's companions for some normal reactions to the madness around them, and for some decent character development. Big Finish have done this so well with Evelyn Smythe, Hex, Charley  Pollard and many others. So this was a real disappointment. Maybe they will let her develop a bit of a personality in the third episode.

I am also bothered that every famous work of fiction in the history of Earth turns out to have been influenced by the Doctor and a conveniently new Alien race. Could we have a few more historicals like the Marian Conspiracy where the Doctor has to deal with the locals and not another random race from space?

Slightly better than The Judgement of Isskar so a middling 2.5 out 5 ( or maybe that should be 40?) thieves.