Mistaken identity, dopplegangers, clones, duplicates, robot doubles – all staples of Doctor Who story telling for a very very long time. The Dalek’s robot Doctor in The Chase, the parallel universe in Inferno, Commander Maxil, The Android Invasion, Caecilius – even the Meta Crisis Doctor – the Whoniverse seems to be littered with people who look like our heroes for one plot reason or another. And this months Short Trips release uses the hook of a lookalike to draw us in to the story – but maybe not the lookalike that you were expecting.
Remember Peri’s first story Planet of Fire? Remember her Step Father Howard? Well he is the lookalike that drives the story. But I get ahead of myself. This story is VERY Sixth Doctor its setting is a giant casino in space and you can just imagine the awful gaudy 1980’s costumes and too bright lighting used to great effect as The Doctor & Peri play detective to find out what exactly is going on and why “Howard” is on board the casino & WHY is he winning so many “Prime Wins”?
Nicola Bryant is a fantastic actress – I tend to forget that she is not an American – I am so used to her playing Peri, but in this story she slips effortlessly from herself as narrator, to in character as Peri, to getting Colin Bakers’ bombastic intonations off to perfection, to imbuing all the minor characters with a sense of individuality. The writing is very visual – Nigel Fairs has completely evoked the feeling of a Saturday night in 1985 (If the hiatus hadn’t happened), in fact with the running time of 42 minutes this episode would have been a perfect one part story (if such things were done back then) the pacing is excellent, slightly longer than the usual Short Trips release but the extra 12 minutes or so are used to good effect fleshing out the rather complex but perfectly resolved plot. Yes its a mistaken identity story, and quite a small scale bit of villainy – but written and performed this well, this release can hold its head up high with the most epic of releases. A definite Prime Win and an odds on 9/10.
The power of words is a wonderful thing. Think back to New Years day 2010 – David Tennant was on his last hurrah as the Tenth Doctor and during the episode Gallifrey is coming back, but it isn’t the Gallifrey of the past with bumbling ineffectual dusty old Timelords, this is the Gallifrey from the darkest days of the Time War, as the Doctor says that everything from that time will come back “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, and the Could’ve Been King with his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres” all horrific sounding, all evocative of the Hell that the Time War must have been in the last days – how awful it must have been to make the War Doctor consider using The Moment…..
This second box set is subtitled “Infernal Devices” and is made up of three stories, each focussing on a different weapon of mass destruction from the height of the Time War and further sees the descent of the Time Lords into a force for evil. The War is at its height and an increasingly desperate Time Lord War Council look for new ways to win the war. Just think about this – The Time Lords, guardians of the time lines, who observe but do not interfere have been changed by this war, they have become almost a mirror image of the Daleks – they will do whatever it takes to win – in many ways by engendering this change in the very nature of what it is to be a Time Lord , the Daleks have already won the Time War, because the Time Lords have become as merciless, as corrupted and as single minded as their enemies. As always I digress – but this set is a challenging listen, it takes everything you thought you knew about the Time Lords and turns it on its head, it asks many questions of the listener, offers many moral dilemmas on the nature of war, humanity, survival and victory – the three stories are:
2.1 Legion of the Lost by John Dorney
The Time War has changed the nature of the Time Lords, they are exploring different ways of achieving victory and are (to coin a phrase) “thinking the unthinkable” – at what cost should victory in a war be achieved, is there any circumstances where losing what make you the people you are is worth sacrificing in the name of a greater good? These and many more questions are posed here, but it is up to the listener to answer for themselves.
The story begins with The War Doctor disabling a weapon known as the Annihilator – a weapon so powerful that it can remove a whole timeline from existence but the memory is retained. This however is only the tip of a very dark and desperate iceberg. On the planet of the Technomancers, Mages who fuse magic & science to horrific ends – their leader Shadovar (the wonderful David Warner) has offered the Time Lords a deal which could ensure victory, but it is a deal with a great cost.
This is a chilling episode, really chilling. The moral ambiguity is uncomfortable because we look on the Time Lords as the “Good Guys” but are they? Are they really any better than The Daleks – the language being used by them is horribly reminiscent of Davros’ justification for victory – its an episode to be appreciated rather than enjoyed, and an episode to be admired for its courage in posing ethical dilemmas.
2.2 A Thing of Guile by Phil Mulryne
In story one we witness desperate Time Lords resorting to desperate measures – this episode turns the scenario on its head. Asteroid Theta 12 is a secret Dalek research base where Daleks are thinking the unthinkable and trying to find a way to win the war. Whereas the previous episode has seen the Time Lords losing more and more of their “humanity” (for want of a better description) this sees the Daleks trying in part to regain theirs……
The Time War really has changed the nature of what it is to be a Dalek as well as a Time Lord. The weapon in this is “The Anima” a device that Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) would like further information on and tasks the War Doctor with investigating it. Another grim and bleak episode with very little hope, because even The Doctor is not the Doctor who saves the day any more – he has been changed by the War…
2.3 The Neverwhen by Matt Fitton
The Neverwhen Flux is an horrific weapon, it traps those in its field in a time bubble and evolves and devolves those in the bubble throughout their species evolution. It also does not allow the combatants to die. Eternal war, eternal death, no rest. pure Hell – For for Cardinal Ollistra an opportunity for victory – for The War Doctor an opportunity to stage manage peace. He may deny his heritage, but the Doctor of old has to be in there somewhere. This is a wonderful story. A difficult story, a harrowing story, a brutal story BUT, there is a glimmer of hope, because in the midst of all this hate, all this death, all this horror the War Doctor tries to find peace, tries to engineer a peace. Whether he succeeds or fails is immaterial the fact is he TRIES and this is a wonderful thing because after all his protestations he is deep down inside still THE Doctor what we know and love – he just isn’t ready to admit it yet. To admit it will take another weapon, a special “moment” – but that is another story….
Tinged with the horror of war, overtly harsh and brutal and pulling no punches this is a very brave box set. By focussing on weapons and how they affect the people that use them a picture is painted of corruption on an epic scale of a once noble race ruined and brought low by a never ending war – but in this bleakness is the War Doctor, a guttering, flickering flame of hope, a candle that has nearly gone out, has nearly been made dark by the war. But not quite.John Hurt is phenomenal – he is utterly vulnerable, full of self loathing, and in denial of his actual nature and a perfect Doctor for the utter hell that is the Time War. It is not that difficult to see why the horror of the War made him want to use The Moment, but why the Moment made him hesitate and confront who he really was. Infernal Devices is a descent into the maelstrom of madness and a very worthy 9/10.
Audio is a wonderful medium – it fires the imagination way more than TV could ever do, and the reason for this is that we the listener create the pictures. Now as Doctor Who fans we all know what the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa look like, and a cursory glance at the cover of this months main range audio release “Aquitaine” will give you a good idea what Hargreaves (more of him later) looks like – but two listeners can listen to the very same story simultaneously and come up with a very different interpretation of the the overall visuals.
Something about this story screamed Tim Burton at me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Hargreaves (him again) has the art deco gothic stylings of a Burton character but it wasn’t until I listened to the isolated music score at the end of the release that the penny dropped, the score reminded me of Danny Elfman and brought back warm memories of Edward Scissorhands. The music has a sweet, charming melancholy – an otherworldly, not quite of this universe, dream-like quality. Listening to Aquitaine I imagine the Fifth Doctor looking like the image on the left…
It’s that sort of story, visual and intellectually stimulating – the sort of story that fires the imagination. It’s also very sad, very melancholy and introspective, and will make you consider your own place in the grand scheme of things.
This story may have the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan, but this really is a story about Hargreaves. Third mention of him, so I had better explain.
The Aquitaine of the title is a spaceship in orbit on the outer most reaches of a Black Hole and Hargreaves is the ships computer, butler, gardner, medic – basically Hargreaves is the personification of the Aquitaine – and can I raise my virtual hat to Matthew Cottle for an extraordinary performance, full of pathos and tinged with heartbreak. Each day Hargreaves tends to his daily tasks, cleaning, running diagnostics, cooking the crew their meals. Hargreaves is reminiscent of the “Jeeves” style of Butler – typically English and attentive to his tasks to the point of obsession. The problem is Hargreaves is just going through the motions as the crew are missing and he is all alone aboard the Aquitaine doing his daily tasks because that is what he does. It’s all quite sad, but at the same time charmingly quaint. Just imagine that somewhere in the vastness of space there is an abandoned spaceship with a robot Butler and this robot Butler will tend to the ship until the end of time because that is what he does… never complaining, never taking time off, just repeating his tasks century in and century out….
Charming is most definitely how I would describe this story – utterly charming and it really is down to Peter Davison and Matthew Cottle who carry the heart of the story. It is also filled with abject horror; the Aquitaine is filled with ghosts and monsters, it has dangerous plants that carry an incurable infection. It is also a time travel story. Stop! I usually don’t like those, “all that “timey wimey” nonsense is just a cheat” (is what I usually say) but when it is done as well as it is here, Aquitaine is the exception that proves the rule. The whole thing makes perfect logical sense, the “sci fi” of the gravitational effects of the Black Hole are more than adequately explained and really do work as a device to drive the drama forward rather than making me roll my eyes. Actually when the effects of the black hole do become apparent the story becomes even more interesting…
Episode three has an absolute belter of a cliffhanger that is up there with part three of The Caves of Androzani, the cliffhanger in The Stolen Earth and the cliffhanger to part one of Big Finish’s Protect and Survive – it’s one of those moments when the Fifth Doctor completely loses his cool calm and collected persona and does something utterly reckless and dangerous.
The remainder of the cast, Harry Myers as Dr Akunin, Nina Sosanya as Captain Maynard, Gerald Kyd as Lt. Savinio and Danusia Samai as Lt Jennings are all given interesting build ups before actually being introduced and how they interact with Hargreaves and the regulars depending on when they meet adds to the clever jigsaw puzzle feel of the story – listen to it and you will see (or hear) what I mean.
The four episodes just fly by – the story really is that absorbing… time travel, infection, greed, ethics beeswax and tea-making have probably never been in the same sentence together, but Aquitaine has made it possible. It is a story that demands to be listened to on multiple occasions to fully appreciate the nuances of the script and how it works hand in hand with the musical score and the subtleties of the cast. A real gem of a story and utterly charming.
Season 17 – you knew where you were with Season 17 – starts with a TARDIS scene with pithy dialogue, and cuts to a pretty over-the-top villain with a scenery-chewing plot to take over the universe. Tom clowns around making silly flippant comments, Lalla does all the serious bits – there’s a big explosion and they all go home. Perfection.
This months Fourth Doctor release is a very “un-season 17” like experience. Well it is and it isn’t. It starts in Budapest with some delightfully Adams-esque dialogue between Tom and Lalla – this is pure City of Death territory – beautiful lines about songs of Copenhagen and Budapest and getting tulips – it all seems very familiar – and then… well it then takes a very dark turn. We go from the pithy flippancy of Williams right back to the Gothic horror of Hinchcliffe in the space of one scene. Put it this way – imagine if Robert Holmes had been script edited by Douglas Adams, silliness and slaughter hand-in-hand is the order of the day here. And being set in Budapest it’s not too long before a Vampire is the suspected culprit…
For all the gothic homages during the Hinchcliffe tenure, Vampires were not really touched upon and horror homages were not really a Williams trope – but The Labyrinth of Buda Castle beautifully melds together the sensibilities of both eras – we have the overt horror of Hinchcliffe combined with the wise cracking zingy dialogue of Williams – oh and the villain of the piece played by Mark Bonnar has a fabulous in-joke of a name – Zoltán Frid. Tweet me if you want an explanation!
Joining the Doctor and Romana on this perhaps Vampire hunt is Celia Soames (Kate Bracken) a Vampire Hunter who has come to Budapest in search of Dracula. Their search leads them to the Labyrinth of Buda Castle (of the title) where the army are holding back a monster and its maker – it seems that Zoltán Frid has been playing a very long game and he is very very hungry…
Suitably flippant, cleverly written and very gory, this is pure “B” movie heaven. It has a labyrinth, a monster, a plan that has been hundreds of years coming to fruition, women who want to be the bride of Zoltán Frid, a silly Tom, a serious Tom and a stern Romana! The tone swings like a pendulum between horror and humour, always wrong-footing the listener and making the Doctor even more unpredictable than he usually is in his Fourth incarnation.
A story to make you hunger for a stake (sorry, couldn’t resist!).
Let me start by saying that More Than This is a journey. A short journey that only takes place over a couple of hours but a journey of self discovery, a journey of despair and a journey of hope. It doesn’t start with a journey, though – it starts with a phone call…
What is extraordinary about this story is the scale. It is very very small scale – yes it has aliens, time leakage and a hole in the universe – but all these are peripheral – the central point of the story is in the title and through Roger Pugh’s journey we get to experience his darkest moment and his realisation that there may be “More Than This” to life. Or maybe this is all there really is and we need to make the best of it.
So we start with a phone call… Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is calling up Cardiff City Council to chase up planning permission for a new Torchwood hub – what follows over the next couple of minutes are missed answerphone calls back and forth between Gwen and Roger Pugh (Richard Nichols), the planning application officer who informs Gwen that the application will take at least four months. Gwen decides to take matters into her own hands and goes to see Mr Pugh to convince him how important it is to grant Torchwood planning permission, so she decides to take him on a mission…
Pugh could be just your usual officious jumped up little jobsworth but he is so much more – in 57 short minutes he goes through literal and emotional hell as he witnesses Gwen saving the world from behind the scenes. This story is virtually a two-hander between Gwen and Pugh (although Tom Price does make a cameo as Sergeant Andy – keep listening after the end credits) and what starts off as an odd couple comedy buddie movie becomes something much more as the day goes on.
There is a beautiful scene during which Pugh and Gwen pause for a moment and look out over Cardiff Bay – it is pitched perfectly, not maudlin or sentimental, just honest and truthful. Pugh used to come here as a child and imagine a larger world than Cardiff, but as an adult he has come to believe that his life is all there is. Pugh has suffered a great loss in his life and his mundane job seems to stop him from confronting this.
The story really is about coping with grief – does a single life matter, will we see our loved ones again when we die, is there really More Than This?
The characterisation is top notch. Eve Myles as Gwen was always the heart of Torchwood and on this mission she still takes phone calls from husband Rhys which is a clever juxtaposition of the mundane safe domestic life Gwen lives alongside the strange, dangerous job she does, yet the character happily inhabits both worlds. Oh but Richard Nichols as Roger Pugh – what an extraordinary performance! He goes from officious to terrified, to accepting, to despairing, to a beautiful epiphany – and every single emotion is real and believable. Huge kudos to Guy Adams for writing such a character, and Scott Handcock for directing, actor Richard Nichols for bringing Roger to life and Eve Myles for facilitating the emotional resonance – because these two character just “work” together - in a situation neither of them expected to be in that morning. Both actors absolutely nail it – think of Gwen in Random Shoes and you will be pretty near the mark. The extraordinary situation forces Roger to confront his darkest day, and in another touching emotionally charged scene of acceptance.
You may get the impression that I enjoyed this one – and you would be correct! This is an extraordinary piece of writing, acting, and direction – an occasion where all the constituent parts come together to create something greater, where they really do become More Than This.
I am very much a “feels” sort of person – I cry buckets at Nu Who and I absolutely adore what Murray Gold’s music has done for the emotional intelligence of the show. The reason I am saying this is to let you know that when I listen to a Big Finish audio adventure, I feel. I am transported to a realm where I can “see” the action taking place and in my head and I am the director of the visual style. This new series of Vienna, to me is reminiscent of 1980’s graphic novels – it has a smattering of Alan Moore dystopia, the smarts and satire of 2000 AD and an impossibly glamorous lead (the penny will drop later…) – yes indeed in Vienna Salvatori Big Finish have created their very own genre – the graphic novel in audio format – because listening to this I visualised not actors with Hollywood production values but hand drawn panels in a graphic novel.
But who exactly is Vienna Salvatori? Lets rewind. Vienna was introduced to the world in the main range audio The Shadow Heart and went on to star in her own spin-off series. Vienna is played with sass, wit and charm by Chase Masterson, as an intergalactic Bounty Hunter – a gun for hire with a heart of gold - part Strontium Dog, part Barb Wire, part Philip Marlowe – all Vienna. In her third series she has teamed up with ex-cop Jexie Reagan (Samantha Béart) who has decided to go freelance. The box set comprises of three linked stories which form an arc – it really is a graphic novel for the ears…
First of all the negative – I don’t usually like to be negative but I have to ask – what has happened to the theme music? The theme music from series two was fantastic, one of my favourites from any Big Finish range, and whilst the theme music in series three is good, it’s not quite as evocative. Had to ask, sorry…
With that one little niggle aside, it’s on to the box set.
This set is really one big sci-fi epic – but is broken down into three distinctive chapters – like all good stories it has a beginning a middle and an end
Self Improvementby Ian Potter
Vienna and Jexie are called in to help protect Doctor Ludovic Glospan (Terry Molloy) – you see Dr Glospan has a secret, an amazing secret, a discovery that will literally change the universe – he has discovered the secret to a “good day” – literally, you know those days you get sometimes where you are at your very very best, where you brim with confidence, wit and charm? He has discovered a formula to make every day like your best day. Great eh? Well yes, but his employer the “Helping Hand” corporation seem to think that he is under threat and hire our heroes to protect him. What follows is a tense stand off with bluff and counter bluff and a conspiracy to keep the “good day” discovery remaining a secret. From the outset this is a blockbuster – the effervescent sexy Vienna plays well off the dour realist Jexie – their attitudes to their plight could not be different. A small cast featuring guest performances by Terry Molloy and Elizabeth Morton – but the fact that there is a small cast is outweighed by the threat level. High octane thrills with a hook to keep you listening – just what issue one of any graphic novel needs to be.
Big Societyby Guy Adams
I do like a bit of satire and the middle chapter of this epic is just that – a satire on modern Britain. Chasing down Dr Glospan’s formula Vienna and Jexie find themselves in the ruins of a once prosperous city, a city where everyone was declared bankrupt due to the economic downturn, a city where sentient buildings are taxed and are driven insane by the burden of taxation, a city where a futuristic version of The Apprentice (which feels very like the Strontium Dog story The Killing) takes place. This a darkly comic second movement – the character of Jonah Hall is hilarious and I don’t think anyone will have to think too hard to work out who Chairman Sweet (Bernard Holley) is based on. Again very 2000 AD – futuristic, sardonic, crushingly satirical and quite tongue in cheek – in the words of Alan Partridge: Lovely Stuff!
Impossibly Glamorousby Steve Lyons
And so on to the finale – another biting satire on shallow consumerism – visiting the planet London (complete with Buck House, bobbies, corgis and red buses) Vienna is a changed woman – she is the “impossibly glamorous” (see I told you the penny would drop) poster girl for the Helping Hand corporation – extuing the virtues of consumerism and vanity – has she been seduced by the acquisition of things or is she deep under cover? London it seems is the result of the misuse of Dr Glospan’s formula – it has been subverted by Helping Hand to maximise profits. Playing the head of Helping Hand, Kensington Fox, is none other than Sophie Aldred. Sophie is completely unrecognisable in the part – it’s very arch and fantastically acted, a real cartoon villain which does suit the tone of the whole set. Like the 1980’s graphic novels that I see this set as an homage to the London we are shown is another exaggerated version of our own time – populace in debt and in thrall to corporations, eking out a living to buy more useless consumer goods whilst many rely on food banks to survive. Social commentary, explosions and glamour – what more could I ask for!
A great box set that entertains, but also makes you think – because for all the spaceships, sentient buildings and tech – the worlds Vienna presents us with are an exaggerated version of the world we live in, and to be honest they are not that exaggerated – how far away are we from a Hunger Games style TV show or corporations making laws? A graphic novel for the ears? Undoubtedly! Vienna could grace the cover of 2000 AD with honour.