Saturday, 30 September 2017

THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BERNICE SUMMERFIELD VOL 4: RULER OF THE UNIVERSE

Indulge me if you will, before I review this at times exhilarating  at times downbeat, at times frustrating and at times utterly wonderful box set while I start with a musical interlude dedicated to the one and only, the greatest companion The Doctor has ever had, this song never fails to make me smile and raise a glass or three of Shiraz to Benny:


Good isn’t it? And so, now I have that out of my system on to the box set, and what a set – as I said it has it all, highs, lows, excitement, dullness (mid numbing dullness I will have you know – I mean you cant expect The Doctor NOT to be bored as ruler of the Universe can you?)  Yes you read that right The Doctor is the ruler of the Universe, but its the wrong Doctor and the wrong Universe – this is the “Unbound” Doctor played with grumpy petulant disdain by David Warner and this Doctor doubts he is up to the job of saving the whole universe, but maybe he can create a safe zone to protect some of it, this is a Doctor crushed by the weight of his responsibility and bored with the inanity of politics, a Doctor who wishes he was somewhere ANYWHERE else, but doesn’t have the option to quit – and by his side is the wonderful effervescent, intelligent sarcastic expert drinker Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) – an unstoppable force for doing the right thing with a wry smile, who is being brought down by this Doctor who isn’t really the Doctor doing something that the Doctor really shouldn’t do.
Sounds a grim really doesn’t it. And it is a bit grim really but you cant really have a situation where the Universe is contracting and the stars are going out without it being grim. We are not talking grim on a Scandi-Drama scale but this really is new territory for Bernice, she is usually so up, so wry, so downright sarcastic and drunk and witty and clever and here she just seems a bit, well, downtrodden – this new take on her personality is wonderfully played by Lisa Bowerman who just so IS Bernice, she has to be the hero while the Doctor is wallowing in the enormity of the task he has to undertake. And then of course there is Sam Kisgart (see what they did there) as The Master added to the mix, just what you need as the Universe ends. But the story begins with a clock, a special Clock called the Apocalypse Clock, a clock that may be able to avert the destruction of everything:

1) The City And The Clock by Guy Adams

Bernice is back to doing what she does best – a bit of archaeology to try and unearth the mythical Apocalypse Clock as the time the Universe she is in runs down. Its great to hear Bernice again, so enthusiastic about doing what she does well, and then her and her team run in to some rather nasty ghosts, and then there is the matter of keeping The Doctor and his publicity machine under control. This story really sets up the dynamic for the rest of the set – Bernice as the go getter and doer and The Doctor as a morose curmudgeon hating every second of his existence as President of the Universe, an existence where everything is controlled by soundbites and buzz words and the Doctor is in danger of forgetting what being the Doctor actually is….

2) Asking For A Friend by James Goss

There have been a few stories that are actually about what it is to be The Doctor and examine the person him (or her) self. We have had stories about the absence of the Doctor (Human Nature), stories about longing for The Doctor (Love and Monsters) and stories about breaking The Doctor (Heaven Sent) but not many about what makes them who they are. Then we have this. Its unlike any other Doctor Who story before and it is such a simple idea that I cannot believe its not been done before, this is the story where The Doctor goes into therapy and lays his soul bare to therapist Guilana (Annette Badland) – but The Doctor being the Doctor nothing is really as it seems, his fundamental lack of understanding of the situation that he is in sees tragic personal consequences. Beautifully written, sensitively performed – Badland and Warner both underplay perfectly and give the material the respect and gravity that it deserves. A classic.

3) Truant by Guy Adams

Bored of his time as President, working on equations to make the use of the Apocalypse Clock viable the Doctor takes off on an impromptu adventure to relieve the tedium leaving Bernice sent off after him to retrieve him like a naughty truant schoolboy – but The Doctor is trying to stop an invasion but it turns out he is several generations too late. A bit of a morality play mixed in with some Pythonesque absurdity (you will know it when you hear it, just listen out for the ward “Liberals”) – because when do invaders stop being invaders? should the grandchildren be made to pay for the warlike nature of their grandparents and what if the person entitled to rule does not want to rule? all these questions and many more will be addressed as will the question of what happens to the ruler of the Universe when he runs away from the responsibility of his job? that ones easy and is answered in the final part…..

4) The True Saviour Of The Universe by James Goss

When the Doctor gets deposed as ruler of the Universe, there is only one man who can take his place – The Master (Sam Kisgart), all smarm and sneer and as arch as they get, The Master will be the one to save the Universe, The Master will be the one to start the Apocalypse clock and the Master will be triumphant. Anyone see any flaws in that plan? A roller coaster of an ending where everyone seems to get what they deserve and a rather lovely coda leading on to hopefully more adventures for Mr Warner & Ms Bowerman.

Loved that – a different sort of story arc for Bernice and a long dark night of the soul for The Doctor – a real journey of discovery and character development with silliness and bleakness in almost equal measure, a downbeat Bernice a dour Doctor and a dangerous Master, a Universe in peril – what else could you want? 10/10.

230 - TIME IN OFFICE

This is a bit of an odd one, and do you know I really cannot decide if it is odd good or odd bad or just plain odd, its a puzzler.
First of all the tone – the Davison era wasnt really known for its comedic tone, but this is a very funny story, or to be more accurate set of stories, this actually feels like a mini series rather than a complete story all written by the same writer set in the same place and telling of a time in the Doctor’s life rather than an adventure in the Doctor’s life.
So Time in Office sees the Fifth Doctor the up the reigns of office and finally become Lord President of Gallifrey and it is a light hearted look at what those times were, almost being told by an unreliable narrator – because this set of tales does not paint the Time Lords in a very positive light, they are presented as a bunch of conniving incompetent power hungry xenophobic back stabbers who are slaves to pomp and tradition. A race of all powerful beings stagnant and insular – but to the mix Eddie Robson adds the Fifth Doctor at his most wry and Tegan Jovanka at her most acerbic, lights the blue touch-paper and retires.
Never was there a more unwilling President than The Doctor – and the feckless Fifth seems to view his appointment with wry amusement siding with student revolutionaries against the establishment, sulking when he has to go on diplomatic missions and generally shaking things up a bit in the dusty dry old corridors of the Panopticon. He of course isn’t alone, he is accompanied by Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) who to avoid deportation as an undesirable alien is made Earth’s ambassador to Gallifrey – and boy does she enjoy it. Also making a welcome return is the wonderful Louise Jameson as Leela who we have not heard paired up with the Fifth Doctor before and it is a joy to hear.
When this release was announced I was expecting a tense political thriller, fort of The West Wing on Gallifrey, what we got is more Yes Minister with big collars and endless relics “of Rassilon” – sort of four stories about one story about a time when The Doctor was in charge but didn’t really enjoy it, where he had all of time and space at his command but the biggest enemy was inertia and protocol rather than Daleks and Cybermen.
A very different take on a Doctor Who story, an experiment that while not producing quite the results I was expecting I am glad the experiment was attempted if for nothing else for the fact that the “thimble of Rassilon” is now part of Who Lore and for that alone it deserves a 7/10.

THE EARLY ADVENTURES 4.1 - THE NIGHT WITCHES

Long time readers may remember that I lament the loss of the “pure historical” – and while I enjoy the pseudo historical and celebrity historical nothing really matches the drama of the pure historical from the first couple of Hartnell seasons. Even the sole Troughton entry into the historical sub-genre “The Highlanders” was more an amalgam of historical novels and folklore of the time rather than a true historical. This months release, the first in the fourth series of The Early Adventures redresses the balance somewhat and gives us a true Hartnell style “ordeal historical” and also educated me. so bring on “The Night Witches”….
 Featuring the season four TARDIS team of The Second Doctor (voiced superbly by Frazer Hines), Jamie (Frazer Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (the late Michael Craze being replaced by Elliot Chapman) sees the TARDIS heading for The Winter Palace at St Petersburg. Well, they get the right country but unfortunately the right time, our heroes find themselves just north of Stalingrad in 1942, not a great place to be – World War 2 is in full swing and the Germans are advancing. Rescuing a young Russian pilot Lilya Grankin (Kristina Buikaite) when her plane crashes the team are taken to the base of the fabled Night Witches, a crack team of female pilots who carry out silent night raids on the german lines and are very soon taken as German spies by the leader of the Night Witches Nadia Vasney (Wanda Opalinska) – and to top this all off Polly gets the shock of her life when the best pilot in The Night Witches Tatania Kregki (Anjella Mackintosh) is her double – Tatania can even mimic Polly’s voice as before the war she worked on stage as a mimic.
 So far all the ingredients are there for a classic historical – and unlike the more “larking about having fun” style stories that the Troughton era this goes back to the gritty ordeal style historical of the Hartnell era – the team are split up, forced to go through terrible experiences and are used as pawns in the war that the Night Witches are fighting against the Germans, in war even the good guys lose their morals in the pursuit of victory for a greater good.
 The story plays out as you would expect and the fact that Polly has a double is used as a plot point that really reminded me of The Enemy of the World, but the fact that the double is Polly who is separated from The Doctor for the majority of the story leave Anneke Wills as the star of the show and allows her to give us much more of the Polly that remained hidden in the few TV episodes that survive – Polly is brave and resourceful and plucky and really does have grace under pressure and an instinct to survive and do the right thing.
I also need to mention the rest of the regulars who really do knock it out of the park and the production, though set in the vast snowy wastes of Russia does feel claustrophobic and somehow “studio bound” close your eyes and you can probably see the fake snow and painted backdrops and filmed inserts – it is that authentic.
 A cracking start to a new series and a fab reboot of one of my favourite genres – a well deserved 9/10.

4th Doctor 6.9 - The Thief Who Stole Time

When we left Romana (Lalla Ward) last month she was abandoned on the surface of the planet Funderell, abandoned by her erstwhile classmate Sartia (Joannah Tinsey) and left to die. It was the shock at the end of a rather uneventful first part of a season finale, but enough of a shock to make me want to hear more and find out how Romana fared – being one of my favourite companions it was upsetting to see her haughty, confidence picked apart from the bottom up by Sartia, to see what we as viewers see as charming quirks seen as negative spoiled brat arrogance and superiority is quite jarring – and the relationship between Romana and Sartia really does remain the high point of the story, in fact the story depends on it.
As I said last month this feels very “Bidmead” – all high concept sci-fi of the sort that I find incredibly dull. Sorry, but I just do I am much more of a Graham Williams man. However there is a very interesting story in this denouement and Tom Baker plays against the tone of the story to supply most of the laughs as he investigates the great book of Funderell and its relationship to the time-lords and any strange artefacts that may have been left behind. And there is a very strong story here its just swamped by whole stodginess of the production, it just seems a bit too worthy and po faced.
However not wanting to end on a downer, because no one likes a party pooper and this IS a season finale after all and I really don’t like it when I don’t enjoy one of Big Finish’s releases what this story is is an excellent vehicle for Lalla Ward, she shines, she excels – hearing her self doubt and witnessing her brought low and to the point of despair is new territory  for her, and in giving her her own arch enemy in Sartia then SURELY this can be seen as a back door pilot for a series of Romana in E-Space adventures? Because you really cant have enough of Romana the Second.
As a season finale the story comes together at the end with a satisfying pay off, there is even a very funny literary joke (you will groan) but overall the four parts seem a bit lacking focus and meandering 6/10.

229 - THE SILURIAN CANDIDATE

If I were to say that Warriors of the Deep was not the most popular story in the world then there would not be too many of you who disagreed with me. So WHAT ON EARTH was the pitch meeting like when Matthew J Elliott (for he is the writer of this release) sat in with Mr Briggs et al and said “guys, I have a plan for a sequel to Warriors of the Deep. Not only that I may just have the very best title for a Doctor Who story EVER. AND it is going to be a bit of a classic”. Gauntlet well and truly thrown down. But it is and it has and it is in that order.
 And that most fantastic title is “The Silurian Candidate” which says pretty much all you need to say about the tone of this episode, but for those of you who don’t get the reference it is a tense political thriller set in a futuristic Cold War setting where a third party is trying to provoke world war three for their own ends. Add to that The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) at his devious best, Ace (Sophie Aldred) being stroppy and Mel (Bonnie Langford) knocking every scene out of the park and becoming the companion she was never allowed to be on TV and you really do have a modern classic.
 As a sequel to the much loathed Warriors of the Deep it made me want to dig out the old dust covered DVD and give it a rewatch, the writing of the Seventh Doctor is just perfect – he is in his dark brooding and manipulative phase here and McCoy seems to relish the material he has been given to work with, but this really is Bonnie Langford’s finest four episodes. Separated from The Doctor and Ace for the majority of the story we get to see the sort of woman she really is as she exhibits grace under pressure, plucky resourcefulness and a strong moral code that will not be corrupted.
 So the story has a modern cold war, set in 2085 one year after the events of Warriors of the Deep the world is split in to two power blocs, one led by the boorish Australian Chairman Falco (Nicholas Asbury) and one by the cool and collected Director Shen (Mai Newberry). The world is on the brink of war and the leaders have a summit to plan peace treaty, however some of the original inhabitants of the earth have different ideas, they want their world back from the upstart apes who inhabit it and have a plan to bring about armageddon to achieve it. In to this world of paranoia comes the Doctor who has some unfinished business to attend to, and the humans may not like the solutions he has developed to the ongoing situation with the humans and SIlurians – this dark seventh Doctor always sees the bigger picture, always has a plan and always plays to win.
 The “Silurians” are presented again not as monsters or aggressors but as people with different points of view to us, as a genuine race rather than a generic mono-culture and the politics of their ruling triad are fascinating to listen to.
 Tense political thriller sums this story up, but does no justice to the layers of story telling, the character development and the scope and scale of its ambition. It has the best name for a Doctor Who story ever and is on course to end up top of the pile for this years main range releases. A classic that needs to be heard. 10/10.

SHORT TRIPS - THE BRITISH INVASION

If I were to pick two words to describe the Troughton era those words would be “charm” and “Whimsy” and this months Short Trips release “The British Invasion” has both charm and whimsy in abundance, its as if writer Ian Potter has distilled the essence of the era into one short story, which to a great degree he has. In fact for three quarters of the story this is nothing more than a charming interlude where The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe lark about at the science exhibition at the Festival of Britain. Sorry, I should have mentioned this story is set in post war London – a London recovering from the horrors of World War 2 and, as the Doctor puts it the country is channeling their energies into into looking outwards.
 But in all this positivity and looking forward Jamie sees a sinister side, where the Doctor sees a pioneering spirit and a new scientific dawn Jamie sees nothing but propaganda wrapped in the Union Flag where the Highlanders and their clans are consigned to the dustbin of history. And herein lies the cleverness of the story and how it acts as a metaphor for the whole of the Troughton era, pull away the charm, the whimsy and the general larking about and the stories themselves were pretty dark with an edge to them sometimes softened by focussing on the camaraderie between the three leads, and this story does just that, there are just enough smoke and mirrors to make us take our eye off the ball and not notice the little clues that something altogether darker may be going on.
 Wendy Padbury narrates the story and gives life to the regulars and the lady scientist they meet and try to help fix her radio transmitting device.
 I do like a story that makes you think it is one type of story and ends up being a completely different take on a Who story when it ends, and the clever thing is you done even see it coming.
 A very satisfying little story and on repeated listens a lot darker than its original whimsical approach, a little gem 9/10.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

THE PRISONER VOLUME 02

How to start? I was going to start with one of my semi regular musical interludes but that won’t work any more (thats not to say there WON’T be a musical interlude) But no, the song I had selected is totally inappropriate for the opening salvo of this second volume of reinterpretations of The Prisoner so I had to have a rethink and I will start by tipping my metaphorical hat and raising my real glass to Mr Nicholas Briggs – a true auteur, a visionary who has taken a much loved and much discussed enigma of a source and made it more compelling, more confusing, grander in scale, bigger in ambition whilst remaining utterly respectful to the 1967 original.
And this box set is just that and very very much more. Last year we had volume 1 (review HERE) which introduced us to the world of The Prisoner, let us know how the world of The Village works, added a few Briggsisms (for that is what they are) to make it new and fresh and different and darker and then Volume 2 is released and the rug is pulled completely out from under the listener’s feet as Mr Briggs attempts the seemingly impossible and adapts the episode “Many Happy Returns” to open the set. For those of you unfamiliar this episode sees Number 6 escaping from the Village and getting back to London but the first twenty five minutes or so have pretty much no dialogue at all.
Any how, I get ahead of myself – this is a very different beast to the first more “out there”, more Free For All than Arrival or in Twin Peaks talk more Season three than Season one and two. Nick Briggs is a man with a story to tell, a definite take on McGoohan’s masterpiece and he tells it over four linked stories:

2.1 I Met a Man Today (adapted from Many Happy Returns)
So as I said earlier Mr Briggs begins this set with an adaptation of Many Happy Returns. Beginning with Number Six (Mark Elstob) already having escaped from the Village and back in London hanging around outside his old flat he meets with its new owner Kate Butterworth (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and despite himself begins to trust her and tell her of his time in The Village. Kate is a beautiful character played to perfection by Lucy Briggs-Owen, she is just so real, so relatable, so believable and so genuinely a good person – but in the world of The Prisoner is everything as it seems? Six even visits his old colleagues and is subjected to an interrogation – has he defected? is he a plant? is is all going to end in tears? There is a feeling of fatalistic inevitability about this episode all the way to its utterly crushing last minute or so. Not an obvious choice to open a set but done so well and with so much passion that with hindsight I couldn’t wish for a better opener.

2.2 Project Six (adapted from A, B and C)
VERY loosely adapted from A, B and C. Six believes that he can no longer trust any food or water supplied by the Village and goes on a self enforced hunger strike viewed with glee by the new Number 2 Played by ***REMOVED FOR SPOILERS*** who takes a detached joy in witnessing Six drive himself insane through hunger. This episode is one of those very strange and nightmarish episodes that The Prisoner does very well, the listener really cannot tell what is real and what is an illusion as Six relives incidents that happened to him last series and is given a chance for a final escape from The Village….
If you enjoyed Fall Out from the original series then this will be right up your street – this is a surreal kaleidoscopic nightmare of an episode with a shock ending that I really did not anticipate. This is a brave bold and different take on a TV episode and is as much as anything a mission statement for Briggs take on The Prisoner.

2.3 Hammer into Anvil (adapted from the TV episode of the same title)
A slightly more traditional retelling of a TV episode where Number Six takes a dislike to a particularly nasty and vicious Number 2 (John Heffernan) and proceeds to dismantle him piece by piece. It follows the general plot of the TV episode but the emphasis are different – Six uses Number 26 (Helen Goldwyn) one of Number 2’s trusted aides against him, by making 2 think they are conspiring and that Six has been sent to the Village to assess 2.
A portrait in paranoia in which the world the inhabitants of the Village occupy are used against the Village chairperson. After the mind-bending events of Project Six here we see a strong confident Number 6 using the apparatus of his oppressors to destroy the system from within.

2.4 Living in Harmony (not adapted from the TV episode of the same title)
Difficult difficult episode to even discuss without ruing the myriad surprises, twists and indeed turns that Mr Briggs has written for us. Unfamiliar surroundings, an old friend, a daring plan and a choice pretty much sum it up but that is all you are getting from me. And then it ends, with a statement from Number 6 reaffirming his status as the outsider, the man with the secret never to be told who is learning very quickly how to beat the system from within – or is that just something those in charge want him to think?

There is just so much to praise about this set, the acting, the sound design, the writing, the direction all ooze class, care and attention to detail, the Village is safe in the hands of Big Finish and Nick Briggs and long may number Six remain there.
A definite contender for Big Finish release of the year and an unreserved 10/10.
Oh and before I forget a musical interlude https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJ1tBzH1Cek