Viewed from inside the UNIT family the third Doctor is a charming avuncular patrician with a healthy dose of disdain for bureaucracy. Viewed from the outside though, especially if you happen to be one of the bureaucrats he has such disdain for how would you view him? Would he seem so avuncular, would he appear so charming, would you like his patrician attitude – these are questions that this months Short Trips story “Damascus” both asks and answers.
This as quite a different take on a standard UNIT era story as it is all seen from the point of view from one not in the UNIT bubble, and a very important someone that is too, none other than the Prime Minister of the UK who here is only referred to as “Jeremy”. The PM has received reports of a spaceship hovering above Norfolk, UNIT are playing politics laming government budget cuts on their inaction and the Doctor seems completely disinterested so Jeremy decides to go to UNIT HQ to confront the Doctor face to face.
The characterisation of the third Doctor is very interesting – Jeremy is told by Jo Grant that the Doctor is in a bad mood, and the Doctor is downright rude to him. Rude in a way that has only been hinted at in the TV series, abrasive, dismissive and callous. If you recall the way he speaks to the Brigadier when he is displeased, or the way he chastises Jo in The Daemons when she takes his side against the Brigadier, well its like that but a lot more aggressive. Then again, we are only seeing Jeremy’s point of view and he may be an unreliable narrator with an axe to grind….
Tim Treloar narrates the story, you may recall that he plays Doctor number three in the Third Doctor box set and again he captures the essence of Pertwee without doing an impersonation of him. The whole story has the feeling of a 1970’s political thriller, of a power play and of trying to establish the pecking order in a line of command. And when you are up against the Prime Minister it may be better to hold your tongue and respect your place in the order of things especially if you are an alien that could be perceived as a threat…..
A very interesting take on how the Third Doctor is perceived and how he really is given a long leash by the Brigadier – I feel we may be hearing a lot more of “Damascus” in further Third Doctor stories – 7/10.
This set is many things. Its a wry, ironic look at some of the more silly aspects of Doctor Who, its an exploration of the aftermath of an awful Universe spanning time smashing war (sound familiar?) Its a silly superficial romp on the surface but with an incredible amount of depth that will reward the discerning listener as they spot the clever lines, references and pastiches of the Doctor Who we know and love but that have necessarily been skewed off kilter to take into account that we are in a whole new Universe.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that, this is no ordinary Bernice Box Set, yes she travels with the Doctor – but, its not “her” Doctor, actually its not any Doctor from our Universe, the Doctor of this set is played by David Warner – THE DAVID WARNER, from the parallel unbound universe where he is the Third Doctor to catch up, take a listen to this & this and come back in about three hours, there will be a test…
OK, sit at your desks and turn your papers over, you have one hour. No really of course, but now that you are all caught up – David Warner eh? Fantastic casting and a fantastic take on the Doctor – curmudgeonly, sardonic, sarcastic but something of the grand wizard about him a sort of Colin meets Hartnell meets Capaldi but not really – Mr Warner is very much his own Doctor. But how does he interact with the force of nature that is Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield?
Ah Bernice – I am eternally grateful to Paul Cornell for creating her, she is just magnificent, charming, sarcastic, witty, intelligent, drinks like a fish and has better one liners than Roger Moore as Bond – she even holds the (bit of shameless self promotion here) “The Edward Watkinson Chair of Archaeology” at St. Oscars University. Yup, Benny is up there, top of the pile as my all time favourite companion of the Doctor in any format and to those who say the word “canon” I say “PAH!” Benny is as canon as Sarah-Jane, Jo Grant and Donna Noble. So there
As to her interaction with this alternative Doctor – she is her usual wisecracking self, not at all fazed by the virtual stranger that materialises in her lecture hall and sweeps her away for an adventure in another time and another space – problem is, the Universe that the Warner Doctor comes from is about to end. Literally. It has all but run out of time, the star really are going out and the Doctor as de-facto King of the Universe (a purely honorary title apparently) calls on Benny to help him prolong the inevitable:
1 The Library In The Body by James Goss
When the Universe is coming to an end the only thing that seems to have any value is knowledge. There is one vast Library left in the Universe and it is drawing in the great and the good – the Sisters of Saint Beedlix led by their Mother Superior (Rowena Cooper) in search of the lost hymns, The Sage of Sardner (Guy Adams) and the Doctor & Benny. It also attracts the unwanted attention of the Kareem – a rag tag band of space luddites who believe that all knowledge is evil and that the Library must be destroyed. Add to this the traditional “body being discovered by The Doctor and him being caught discovering the body and being accused of the murder” and you have a pretty standard traditional Who tale. In fact you don’t – what this set does very very well is take the trappings of a typical Who story and turn it on its head – it may not be for everyone but this is a set of stories for listeners who like their stories with a lot of layers and levels of complexity that are there if you want to delve deeper. It also has singing nuns so what isn’t there to like????
2 Planet X by Guy Adams
Planet X is a “B” movie sci-fi staple – in this case it isn’t (again) Planet X is called Planet X because it is so dull that they couldn’t be bothered to think of a name for it. Benny is reluctantly taken there by The Doctor – and yes it is dull. But there is a sinister edged to the dullness – the dull mediocrity is enforced lethally by the Government headed by Prime Minister 470 (Julie Graham) – those who show any spark or promise are conveniently “disappeared” as they represent a threat to the social order of utter blandness. Tyranny comes in many forms and the Doctor being the Doctor decides that enough is enough. Warner is on top of his game in this episode, his verbal sparring with the Prime Minister is a joy to hear. In a funny way this is reminiscent of the TV story “The Happiness Patrol” but painted in shades of grey and beige rather than glitz and gaudiness and an interesting take on the “Doctor destabilises a whole regime” style of story.
3 The Very Dark Thing by Una McCormack
In Doctor Who, when a planet seems idyllic it usually isn’t. In this story the planet in question is Tramatz, and it seems, well, idyllic so obviously isn’t. Not at all. In any way. The Doctor has been on Tramatz for a while enjoying the singing rivers, the emerald forests, the Unicorns and the tranquility. There is a space fleet orbiting Tramatz sending messages and threats to the population – Fleet Admiral Effenish (Deirdre Mullins) pleads with the population to respond or she will be forced to take lethal action against Tramatz. But why? Why does she need to do this, why cant the population hear her, and why CAN Benny hear her and WHAT is the “very dark thing” that everyone can see but no one wants to admit is there?
This is a classic, a grade A cast iron classic. Not to everyones tastes, there may be some who dismiss it and miss the point but this story is all about imagination. Because sometimes to quote Love & Monsters “we forget because we must” – in fact this has a very “Love and Monsters” feel about it a multi layered story told from different angles and viewed in completely different ways once it has been experienced. What begins as a trip to fantasy land ends with a sense of regret and melancholy that is justified. Highlight of the box set.
4 The Emporium At The End by Emma Reeves
At the end of the Universe, everyone goes to the shops – to the emporium at the end of the Universe where large amounts of cash or the sale of some of your memories will buy you a lottery ticket and a chance to escape to another Universe. Presiding over the shop is “The Manager” played by “Sam Kisgart” actor extraordinaire with a CV stretching back to the 1960’s – its well worth listening to the extra features for an exclusive interview with this most elusive of thespians. Of course the Manager is a pretty rubbish pseudonym for this universe’s version of The Master and the Emporium is the latest in a convoluted series of schemes to keep himself alive at the expense of his shoppers. New writer to Big Finish Emma Reeves really knows her Who, fans will delight in her use of dialogue from the series within the confines of the story. Its a totally off the wall plot as has been the case with much of the box set, but again beneath the surface has a familiarity that long time fans will see. It also has the return of the singing nuns and Bernice getting drunk with the Mother Superior so what isn’t there to like?????
Wry, ironic and silly – and why not – some of the very best Doctor Who stories are the silly ones, and this set has silliness in spades. But very very cleverly, the silliness and the avant grade take on Doctor Who masks a seriousness and a trauma that all the characters in this “Unbound” universe have been through, an awful total war that has pretty much ended their reality – so with hindsight the silliness is pure dark gallows humour.
We are blessed to have David Warner as the Doctor, the old curmudgeon works a treat with the effervescent, witty Professor Summerfield and I hope that this is not the last we have heard of “Sam Kisgart” as a beautifully arch Master.
This really is a Bernice Summerfield set though and the first lady of Big Finish Lisa Bowerman continues (after nearly 20 years in the role) to astound as THE greatest companion that the Doctor has ever had the privilege of travelling with – and giving her a new Doctor and a new Universe to play with is a just reward for the longest running Big Finish character, and long may she be Unbound. A sideways take on Doctor Who, a full on new direction for Bernice – 9/10.
Strong tea and a currant slice. Bet you weren’t expecting my review to start like that. But it had to, because this is the first thing I think of when I think of Sherlock Holmes. There are certain trigger memories and Sherlock Holmes is one of them. Whereas I was and am primarily a Doctor Who fan, this was a very solitary fandom for me as a child and teenager, none of my family or friends seemed to be that bothered with it and it was merely tolerated as an eccentricity I would grow out of. In Sherlock Holmes though I had an ally – a wonderful now sadly departed ally – my Taid (welsh for Grandfather). Good old William Edward Williams was a staunch fan of the exploits of Mr Holmes, he introduced me to his adventures through the repeats of the Basil Rathbone films on a Friday evening, and this became my highlight of the week after finishing school on a Friday off to see Taid, strong tea & a currant slice provided and we would lose ourselves for an hour or so in the murky world of 1940’s wartime England as Holmes and Watson saw off Nazi spies. As I grew a bit older I graduated to Jeremy Brett and the sublime ITV series, again watched with Taid, tea & a slice. Ah memories.
This nostalgia trip leads me nicely on to the latest release from Big Finish – The Sacrifice of Sherlock Holmes and right out of my comfort zone. To begin with this is not set in the foggy gas-lit victorian streets of Brett or the war time of Rathbone, no dear reader, this is an altogether stranger and more dangerous setting. This story is set in a cold, grey wet November in 1921, and Holmes is an old man past his prime, almost a relic from a more genteel age, the four stories also happen in quick succession over the space of twelve hours or so. Gone is the slow, ponderous pace that I have been so used to replaced by a manic sense of urgency and a situation that very very soon gets out of control and has our heroes on the back foot.
Normally I would break this down in to a review of all four stories as separate entities, but they really are just all chapters in an epic so here we go:
The Society – a group of terrorists whom Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) accuses of the murder of his brother Mycroft through his eulogy at Mycroft’s funeral. Holmes as always is correct, but this day is going to be one of the most trying days of his long and distinguished career for The Society have a plan to bring London and the British Empire to its knees, they will commit an terrorist atrocity every half an hour until the British Government decides to parlay with them and meet their demands. Time really is of the essence in this story and this really does not play well with Holmes’ method, he is used to meticulously taking in the evidence, but here he is almost blundering about like a headless chicken as the horrifying events of the day almost overtake him. At his side as always is the dependable Dr John Watson (Richard Earl) who’s marital strife with his third wife Eleanor (Elizabeth Rider) is being used as a tool by The Society to further their ends.
Ladies and gentlemen – we are in never experienced before territory for a Sherlock Holmes set – a fast paced, action packed blockbuster very much in the mould of TV series 24 – the stakes begin high and throughout the four episodes are raised again and again to almost a stratospheric threat level. And then there is Agamemnon (Alan Cox) the main “villain” of the piece, head of The Society and a face from Holmes & Watson’s past – utterly deranged, a complete split personality who genuinely believes that he and his insane plan to assert the agenda of The Society is the correct thing to do – murder, terorrism, viral warfare and a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the Government of the British Empire – it really is end of days epic stuff with a fair few tearjerking moments in episode four, I wont spoil anything but you will know them when you hear but just to say one just involves the word “loved”….
Would Taid approve though? It is a million miles away from the sedate pace of Rathbone & Brett – but I think the late great William Edward would heartily approve of Messers Briggs & Earls’ take on the great man & the redoubtable Dr – and for me they pass the “visual listening” test I put my Big Finish listens through, because as I hear Holmes speak I see Mr Briggs speaking the words in costume as Holmes and can think of no other playing the part at the moment – Briggs & Earl have passed the test, they enter into the realm of all time great Holmes & Watson actors, they occupy the parts so much that the words Sherlock Holmes makes me think of them almost as much as strong tea & a current slice
A high octane roller coaster ride of an adventure that really does leave the listener gasping for breath at the events that take place on that fateful November day in 1921. Holmes & Watson may be old but they are by no means past it and bring their skills to a new age with a new determination. I raise my mug of tea to them & gladly share my currant slice at 9/10.
With Mel back on board the TARDIS the new trilogy of adventures for her, Seven, Ace continues in Fiesta of the Damned. Whereas last months was a slick clever postmodern take on a heist movie, this release is a very traditional Doctor Who story in its construction, which is no bad thing as we have not had one for a while. Its an opportunity to step back and enjoy the bread and butter of why we all love Doctor Who so much and why it has lasted so very long – this is a “pseudo historical” very much along the lines of The Time Meddler or The Masque of Mandragora where the TARDIS team arrive in an earth historical setting but encounter an alien menace – and the setting they find themselves in is very interesting.
Fiesta of the Damned is set in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War and involves the TARDIS team wanting a taste of the real Spain, but instead falling in with the remnants of a Republican army who are on the run from Franco’s Fascist Nationalist army. The troops are led by the charismatic Juan Romero (Enzo Sqillino Jnr) who before the war was a Farmer and just wants to go back to being a farmer – but as a man of conviction he is doing what he feels is the right thing. There is also a plucky english journalist reporting on the war George Newman (Christopher Hatherall). Arriving in the middle of a nationalist bombing raid the Republicans, George & team TARDIS head to the nearby town of Farissa for shelter. So far, so traditional in its construction, the story even satisfies the original remit of the show by being educational – I found myself learning some interesting facts about the origins of the civil war and of the terrible aftermath which left tens of thousands of Republicans executed and General Franco as dictator of Spain for 36 years.
As I said earlier though, this is a pseudo historical and does have an alien threat, an alien seeding device which transforms anything it comes into contact with into, well, a sort of hotchpotch alien creature made up of all the species that it has assimilated over the years – if you think of the Tula spaceship and how it “repaired” people in The Empty Child you wont be far wrong – the seeding becomes a zombie like infection but transmitted via touch rather than bite and as the Doctor, Ace & George try to stop it at its source, Mel is teamed up with Juan as the town of Farissa falls under siege to the infected humans.
The story is very much a throwback to sixties & seventies Who, but the characterisation is really something special. Big Finish have done wonders in the past giving Bonnie Langford’s Mel a more rounded, likeable and believable character and this is added to in this story as we see a blossoming but ultimately doomed romance with Juan, their conversations about the nature of war and going back to the life you had after it is all over are moving and full of pathos. Mel has a wistful & mature quality to her that was missing on TV and scenes like she has in this story only confirm what a missed opportunity her TV appearances were.
So a story of no surprises but a story of immense character and a story that has fired my passion for history & made me want to find out more about the Spanish Civil War. It may be an old school Fiesta but it has definitely passed its MOT – 7/10.
If you cast your minds back to the finale of Doctor Who series 5 (the Matt Smith one not the Troughton one) and the episode The Big Bang there is a rather elongated pre-credits sequence which ends up with little Amy Pond opening the Pandora to find older Amy Pond inside said plot device, on which the older Pond says something like “hold on kid, this is where it gets complicated”, well dear readers that phrase is an apt description of the finale of the fifth series of Fourth Doctor stories from Big Finish – Casualties of Time.
This is not a story for the feint hearted or uninitiated on to the audio world of Doctor number 4 and Romana (or Ramona if you like to deliberately annoy her like Cuthbert does) – this story goes all the way back to The Key to Time in its roots taking in the Cuthbert stories from audio series 2 for seasoning and simmering with a pinch of foreshadowing that has been haunting this latest season Oh and its also the second part of the season finale started last month with The Pursuit of History (which you can buy HEREand the review is HERE)
So what can I say about Casualties of Time? Well, its complicated and involves Cuthbert (David Warner) and the Conglomerate that he controls – it also features a villain who was revealed at the end of The Pursuit of History and who I will NOT be revealing the identity of here – but he is played by David Troughton. However as much as this is an epic about time travel and long hatched plots of revenge when you peel back the layers this really is a story about redemption and knowing the part you play in the greater good – its almost A Christmas Carol like – and not only for one character, because what we think we know is only half of the story and perspective is everything. It also features the Parrot I was so enamoured of in the last episode.
A story of paradoxes and plots and redemption with an Adams-esque take on the more preposterous aspects of Sci-Fi and a charm that is all Nick Briggs all wrapped up in a nice Season 17 level of silliness (again space Parrot = certified brilliance) and a rather satisfying if confusing end to the season that really doesn’t pan out as you expect it to. Not a casualty of a story more of a heartwarming reaffirmation that there is good in everyone 8/10.
We have had shocks, scares, adrenaline fuelled chases and emotional meltdowns. We have had Cardiff buddy movies, Victorian romps and Russian mysteries. But we have not had anything remotely like this. Ever. Ladies and gentlemen I have gone down the rabbit hole, left Kansas and found Narnia at the back of my wardrobe – I have been listening to the last in the current series of Torchwood – “Made You Look” and this really is a whole new world (not in the Aladdin sense) for Torchwood.
I could use words like creepy or atmospheric or unnerving – these just do not do it justice. Yes it is all of these things in fact the whole play has a nightmarish creeping dread to it and a downbeat lo-fi feeling. Yes, creeping dread, that horrible feeling that you get when you think something awful is about to happen – it permeates the being of Made You Look like nothing I have listened to so far this year, or in a very very long time – the last time I was this disturbed by an audio was possibly Dark Shadows – “The House by the Sea” or “Beyond the Grave”. This for me is the audio equivalent of Eraserhead or Jacobs Ladder, two films that have always stayed with me as particularly nightmarish, not due to gore or scares but due to the feelings they engendered.
So what is this lo-fi nightmare all about? It stars Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper, Marilyn Le Conte as Mrs Rhodes, Ross Ford as James and Matthew Gravelle as The Darkness. A very small cast and a small scale happening. Gwen is investigating the seaside town of Talmouth, a town that has literally died. No one has gone in or out for days, no communication at all – everyone (well pretty much everyone) has vanished. After a disturbing pre-credits we join Gwen in Talmouth an deserted out of season seaside town, empty, dead, forgotten and we begin to unravel the visceral primal horror that has occurred there. There is a voice, a silky, smooth, urbane persuasive voice, it needs you to turn around and if you see him three times then you die, horribly, really horribly. And thats it really, thats all I can say without ruining the story. It goes to some really dark places – the sequence on the beach is particularly haunting in a Silent Hill sort of way – it gets under the skin and stays with the listener in the imagery it creates, this really is not a release for the feint hearted.
As always when I listen to an audio I listen to it visually – this release for me was filmed in the style of the early 1970’s Amicus films, quite washed out looking and lots of fast cuts – and whist mentioning the 1970’s the sound design is a pure horror nostalgia trip, the theme that follows the story is haunting and downbeat and suits the atmosphere of the story completely.
There have been some fantastic releases from Big Finish so far this year, and no disrespect to them but “Made You Look” raises the game to a whole new level. With this release Big Finish have a strong contender for release of the year. So, no scores, no pithy comments, just go out and buy yourselves a copy. Oh, and watch out for a voice asking you to turn around……