re; recent events regarding “The Monk” and his suitability as our strategic invasion planner
Its not gone very well has it? foiled at every turn by that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as “The Doctor” this lecture he is about to give is his final chance to show us just what he is made of and that he is definitely and undoubtedly THE man for the job of ensuring our galactic domination and we were right to pick him and not that mad woman dressed like a Nanny for the job….
Ah Rufus Hound, what a performance – he now IS the Monk having squared off on audio against Doctors 2,3,4 and 8 but in this particular Short Trip Mr Hound takes centre stage (Literally) as he delivers his presentation to the Darkon Corporation. The whole story is set as a corporate lecture full of awful business speak, peppy and banal and just flipping marvellous as the Monk regales us with tales of his failures at the hands of the Fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane – marvel as his plans to own all property on earth fall over, revel in his plan to change the outcome of the Russian Revolution becoming an away day on a beach and prepare to be amazed as his turn as a professional foreteller of all things leads to a surprising win on Strictly Come Dancing. Sounds crazy, well it is and it is all the better for it because basically, deep down, I think the Monk isn’t really that bad a guy – no one who is that bad at being bad can really be that dedicated can they. Of all the Doctor Who “villains” he was almost the most loveable in his Peter Butterworth incarnation, not evil, just a bit mischievous and constantly out of his depth, and Rufus Hound channels this beautifully – he almost seems to see being evil as a game he is playing and is almost pleased when he fails – a bit like the baddies in “The Web of Caves” (not seen it? what sort of fan are you? check it out HERE).
Thirty five minutes is almost too short for a story of this quality, it feels just like the “Doctor-Lite” stories we used to get on TV back in the day, a completely different approach and a chance to do something very different with the structure of the Short Trip – and by jingo is it a success (unlike The Monk’s plans) If I were appraising I would say something along the lines of “full of blue sky thinking, with out of box aspirations and all boxes ticked” and I would award a big bonus and 10/10.
So here we are, six months and approximately twelve hours of drama later and the end is upon us. We have followed our heroes from the court of Korvosa through desert to haunted fortresses in their quest – and now, the final chapter beckons and we are back to where we all began its the final showdown between heroes Ezren (Trevor Littledale), Harsk (Ian Brooker), Merisiel (Kerry Skinner) and Valeros (Stewart Alexander) and the evil Queen Ileosa of Korvosa (Kate Brown). The Queen has grown in power, her body now harbours the soul of an undead Dragon making her virtually indestructible – luckily Valeros wields the magic sword which is the only thing capable of defeating her – surely it cant be that easy though?
A suitably pumped up epic finale to the season with the kitchen sink thrown in – Pathfinders couldn’t do subtle if it tried and literally everything from the series is thrown in – there is treachery, battles, deception, magic, double dealing and several punch the air moments – and characters from the last six instalments all turn up to help make sure that good wins out. Which it does, its that sort of story, we know the good guys are going to win, but it is just so much fun going along for the ride.
This is very much what I expected the finale to be and I was not disappointed. Pathfinders isn’t the range to seek out for deep meaningful life changing stories, if you want that check out Dorian Gray or Graceless – but what Pathfinders is is good old fashioned swashbuckling good versus evil blockbuster action – and as that it does not disappoint. The story is almost told in flashback as Valeros states in the pre credits that the Queen has won, we know she wont have done, but the journey to get to that point is exhilarating and fun and does not take the path that the listener might expect. With thrills and spills aplenty this is a fitting ending to a very entertaining series, it wont change your life, it won’t make anyones story of the year but it WILL entertain, and after all that is the purpose of listening. 8/10.
Things move on, people rebuild, the world starts again. This is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Survivors Series 6. It sees the world two years on from the pandemic that killed 99% of the population – links are being formed between communities, a fledgling society is incubating – tenuous links are being formed with the Norwegian Federation, Norway even has a rudimentary postal system and some industry, but everything is very very tenuous and could all come falling down. And in Britain things are pretty much like they are now (apart from a decimated population) but the British attitude seems to have survived the pandemic and a lot of communities want to remain isolated. Yes indeed the plague may have destroyed the world as we know it but the UKIP gene seems to have survived intact and as Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) finds out some communities are not as welcoming and outward looking as the world needs them to be to thrive.
This set takes a slightly different approach to the other sets, rather than one big story told over four chapters these are four separate stories about different characters, but they share a thematic and tonal link – the theme of isolation versus engagement runs through the stories like the words in a particularly bleak stick of rock bought just out of season and as always there are four stories:
6.1 Beating the Bounds by Ian Potter
Continuing her search for her son Abby Grant comes across an isolated community where feudalism has become the normal way of life. Its a big community with over 200 people, they have a Countess in charge (Sheila Reid) who is a focal point for the community – but this community has long been hidden away from the world and was not at all affected by the pandemic – and Abby Grant may be a carrier. A tense opener and a microcosm of the problems facing the world, fear of contact with outsiders may be a way to keep yourselves safe, but for how long? How long can a small community with diminishing resources and a small gene pool survive? How long can a community that relies on an elderly matriarchal figurehead to unite the people survive? what happens when she dies? This is a tense opener – the community is on borrowed time but only Abby can see it the residents are just too close to their lives to see any different. Bleak and cautionary.
6.2 The Trapping Pit by Christopher Hatherall
As Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and Ruth (Helen Goldwyn) pay a trade visit to Evelyn Piper’s Foundation – they are attacked by bandits, two young scared starving survivors Craig (George Watkins) and Spike (Hannah Genesius) – and soon the tables are turned, Spike has fled and Craig has fallen down a trapping pit and is impaled on a tree root and it is up to Ruth to save his life. And she is determined not to let him slip away. Relentlessly grim with some incredible performances especially from Helen Goldwyn as Ruth and George Watkins as Craig as Ruth tries with rudimentary equipment to keep Craig alive until help arrives, Craig tells Ruth stories about his childhood as he loses more and more blood an his body goes in to shock from the pain this is the most human episode of Survivors and is the ethos of the series personified in one episode.
6.3 Revenge of Heaven by Simon Clark
Greg Preston (Ian McCulloch) has made it to Norway and is in discussions with the Norwegian Federation to form trade links with like minded communities in the UK and there are rumours of a cure for the plague discovered by a Russian scientist Professor Raskova (Tracy Wiles), but she has been kidnapped and is about to be shipped to Poland – so it is up to Greg and his new friend the mysterious Katherine Tanner (Julie Graham – who was also Abby Grant in the 2009 remake!) to undertake a life or death race against time to rescue the professor. The most action based episode of Survivors I have heard, almost a blockbuster in its production and tone – this has a similar theme of selfish isolation versus the good of all but on a much larger scale – the future of the human race is at stake and Greg Preston is on the case.
6.4 Lockup by Andrew Smith
Abby Grant discovers the community of Peacetown and is surprised to find out that it is based at an old Prison, converted to house a community and keep it safe. Peacetown claims to be self sufficient and will not trade with neighbouring communities, but comes down hard on those that break their rules, and one of the people who has allegedly broken the rules is one Greg Preston…
Presided over by the tyrannical Brendon Glover (James Wilby) an ex Prison warden who has his own ideas about crime and punishment. A brutal end to a pretty brutal set. Abby Grant has never been better with her disdain for Glover and all he stands for and Greg plays the hero with authority but not with arrogance, a born leader who us reluctant to be cast in that role but a role circumstances have forced him to take on.
A very different take on Survivors, much more stand alone but much more desperate for it, having the main players split up and having to try to be, if not heroes, then the best that they can possibly be in awful circumstances is refreshing to hear, there is hope for the future, there s a way forward but it will be slow and it will be hard and the most difficult thing is convincing others to look outwards and embrace a brave new world and not inwards to self destruction. A million miles away from easy listening but a well deserved 10/10.
This is a fairly downbeat set – I will admit that from the beginning. Four stories all dealing with the worst of humanity and alien-kind, of the cruelty that we can impose on each other for wearing a different coloured uniform or speaking a different language – fear bred by ignorance, superstition and design from those with a vested interest and the effects that it has on those caught up in the mania and the violence that inevitably follows. A horrible mirror held up to the times that we live in now, a set of cautionary tales, a wakeup call that we are better than this, yes we ARE better than this. And then there is the final act of the final story and a beautiful use of some of the most beautiful words ever strung together and do you know – the ordeal of the first three and a half stories seem almost wth it, the dark places seem worth visiting, the ending seems earned the lesson given and hopefully learned.
Its bleak isn’t it? A bit too downbeat. I do these stories an injustice because in each and every one of these stories there is a very special ingredient – the perfect antidote to all the awful things happening and that ingredient is hope – from revolutionary France to the planet Shade to Lewes to Renaissance England and beyond far in to the future there is always hope.
Four stories make up this set and they are:
1 Fields of Terror by John Pritchard
Landing in revolutionary France at the height of the Reign of Terror, The Doctor, Vicki and Steven are caught up in the middle of an awful situation. Revolutionary soldiers are killing all whether they be revolutionaries or royalists, the bloodshed and human suffering is appalling, and then trapped in an inn with these butchers something begins to terrorise them a strange hooded figure that scratches and beats at the windows, a figure who is immune to bullets and soon the terrorisers become the terrified. So we have a base under siege story set about two years before they became fashionable – Maureen O’Brien gives a great performance as the petrified Vicki and several of the other characters whilst Robert Hands sneers and bullies his way through as the leader of the French Soldiers “Lagrange” in a story light on laughs but heavy on seat edge drama.
2. Across the Darkened City by David Bartlett
Steven Taylor has lost. he has been captured by The Daleks and is on the Planet Shade, separated from The Doctor and Vicki – things look desperate. And then he forms an alliance, an alliance born from mutual need, an alliance no one would have thought possible – Steven forms an alliance with a very special Dalek, a genetic variant who thinks differently from other Daleks – an injured Dalek who needs Steven’s help to get it to a transmit through a city in perpetual darkness – a city teeming with the Chaons, unspeakable monsters who have even forces the Daleks to retreat. Desperate times, desperate measures – but can a Dalek, even a very special Dalek be trusted or is a Dalek always a Dalek? Edge of seat stuff, knowing that death can be at any turn (forget that you know Steven survived this and it is even better) – we see a side to a Dalek we have not seen before, this one seems more “human” and in fact this story can be seen as a prequel to a Dalek epic…..
Peter Purves really delivers the goods as a desperate Steven, and a “punch the air” moment when he gives his wonderful Hartnell impersonation is a lovely reward for the listener. In a word “intense”
3. The Bonfires of the Vanities by Una McCormack
I always found the news stories of the Lewes Bonfire parades and effigy burnings rather distasteful – something of the unthinking mob mentality and making a bogey man and scapegoat rather than actually taking the time to find out about that person. In this story the First Doctor, Ben & Polly arrive in Lewes in the late 1950’s and the Bonfire revelries seem to be a lot more out of hand than they usually are. Again the intensity is there, at the Doctor is ill, near death, his regeneration being held back by sheer force of will meaning that it is left to Ben and Polly and librarian Mary to tackle the immediate problem of the gangs of “Bonfire Boys” and the alien Guys that have come to life. A story of hate breeding hate and this being perpetuated by tradition and a cautionary tale for the uncertain era we live in.
4. The Plague of Dreams by Guy Adams
And then there is this. Possibly the best Companion Chronicle I have ever had the honour to listen to, beautifully written, beautifully framed and set, perfectly pitched by Anneke Wills & Elliot Chapman this is a story unlike any other told in the vast pantheon of Doctor Who, and proof positive that the “infinitely variable format” is as alive and well today as it was back in the 1960’s – this adds layers of mystery and clarity the first Doctor’s regeneration and his part in the great scheme of things that leads to….. Well, I will let you find that out. Utterly compelling, magical and wonderful.
So there is always light, there is always hope – even in the darkest places, there has to be and this set proves that there is, but sometimes it really does need to be looked for. Beginning with the cruelty of revolutionary murder and ending with a bow – as varied a tapestry as the first Doctor era ever was condensed into four stories – a well deserved 9/10.
Question – what has been my most anticipated TV show return of the last 20 years or so?
Minus several million if you said Doctor Who, it was ticking along quite nicely under the benevolent leadership of Big Finish until those upstarts in Cardiff decided to bring it back to TV where I am told it has done rather well….
No, my most anticipated, genuinely COULD NOT WAIT returning TV show was Twin Peaks – and it could have been a retread of past glories, but it isn’t, it is something altogether darker and altogether more beautiful and horrifying. Anyhow the reason I bring up Twin Peaks is related to this months release “Shadow Planet/World Apart”, well the first part of it anyhow – you see in Twin Peaks Deputy Hawk says this to Agent Cooper “My people believe that the White Lodge is a place where the spirits that rule man and nature reside. There is also a legend of a place called the Black Lodge. The shadow self of the White Lodge. Legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self.” And this was the first thing that came in to my head when I read the synopsis for Shadow Planet a story of the hidden part of you that is always with you, albeit in a Sci-Fi setting rather than in a red curtained room with dancing dwarves and screaming dopplegangers…..
Shadow Planet by AK Benedict
The planet Unity is a very special place, a psychic planet, a place of peace and healing, a place where you can come face to face with your shadow self (without the need for a backwards talking dwarf or a one armed man) and work through any issues you may have in the safety and seclusion of the Unity corporation compound. Idyllic and therapeutic we are led to believe. As you may have guessed that is about as true as a certain Mrs May being leader of a “Strong and Stable” government. It is wonderful to hear Philip Olivier as Hex again especially in two roles as our Hex and the shadow Hex – yes the shadow selves – amalgamations of the negativity in the person, Ace’s comes across as mean spirited and arrogant and then there is the shadow self of the Doctor….
A great guest cast consisting of a very arch Belinda Lang as Unity Corporation head Mrs Wheeler and her assistant Professor Grove (Nikolas Grace) keep the story moving along and the revelations about the true nature of Unity coming thick and fast. But underneath it all this is a story about the repressed rebelling and trying to exist when they really shouldn’t exist at all.
World Apart by Scott Handcock
The words “written by Scott Handcock” give me as much pleasure the the words “directed by David Lynch” – both are visionaries and constantly push the boundaries of the medium in which they work, both give their lead characters a really hard time and boy do Ace and Hex go through the wringer in this one.
Carrying directly on from Shadow Planet, linked by a cliffhanger of a planet appearing in the Vortex Ace and Hex are soon marooned as The Doctor realises that he really shouldn’t be on the planet at all and leaves. Hex and Ace are left to fend for themselves on the planet Nirvana, an anomaly in space and time, a planet where there are piles of dead bodies from the previous marooned travellers, where food is scarce, where they are being hunted and where there really is no hope of rescue. Remember the “Doctor lite” episodes on TV where the absence of the Doctor made you realise how much he is needed – well this is almost the opposite as his actions have led to the situation that Ace & Hex find themselves in. Sylvester McCoy always was the most amoral and alien of all the Doctor’s but here his aloofness and detachment for the situation – his almost universal view of things and his companions place in the great scheme of things is cold and analytical and we are reminded that though he may look like us he is very very alien.
Two very different stories both dealing with identity and how we define ourselves by our experiences and our friendships with Handcock again supplying a very different take on what a Doctor Who story can be as a contrast to the more traditional Shadow Planet – neither story contain red rooms, coffee, dwarves or giants – but I wont hold that against them and award this release a none too shadowy 8/10.
Now dear readers, I know what you are all thinking – “Ed, you haven’t provided us with a musical interlude for a while, isn’t it about time for another?” And do you know I think you are right, not since last November or so have I delved into the old musical interlude – but for this months Fourth Doctor release I think a musical interlude sets the tone, so sit back, relax and enjoy Underground by Tom Waits
There you go, that was fun want it? and it ties in very nicely with Subterranea – a story of a world going on underground, a story of mole people and sort of Cybermen-like monsters called Silex all driving around in giant mining machines called drill towns – and it is rather fun. Again it may look like a Season 18 story, it may have the theme tune from season 18 and Tom may be in burgundy but this story is pure season 17 in its ethos. The supporting cast of Maxwell Wilberforce Bell (Matthew Cottle), his wife Lucretia Bell (Abigail McKern) and Mr Jelicho Wigg (Robbie Stevens) are pure panto and chew the scenery almost as well as their mining vehicles chew the earth that they travel through. Tom and Lalla seem to be having a ball with the script and you can just see them on screen with “Underworld” level of production values mugging to the camera for all they are worth and playing the script for laughs, because believe me this is a script in which all the players get to “give a turn”and it is all the bette for it. Maxwell bell COULD have been played completely straight, but as a slightly camp Captain who insists on wearing his hat all the time he is a memorable addition to the story rather than a forgettable bit part, and his wife Lucretia may not have written the book on arch but she has certainly bottled the ink.
The weak link in the story is in fact the monster o the month – as a steam powered derivative of the Cybermen the Silex are meant to be a terrifying threat but come across as a distraction – I wanted to hear more of Maxwell Wilberforce Bell and his drill town not a rampaging converted monster (maybe its just me, but think of it like The Stones of Blood, wouldn’t you have fathered Tom & Amelia Rumford waxing lyrical rather that the actual plot? well its like that)
But overall its a fun romp, not earth shattering (no pun intended) but a fun little runaround with some peril, some thrills, some spills, some explosions and some very funny lines. The story fails as a season 18 pastiche, but rewind a year to the glory years of Graham Williams and this would fit rather nicely alongside The Creature From the Pit and is all ht better for it. A steam powered, slightly silly 7/10.
Ok, so Doctor Who post 2005 – whats the first thing that comes in to your head? Well obviously David Tennant, thats a given and Bille Piper too – they are the poster boy and girl for the glory days of the RTD era, but coming not too close behind and definitely not a Pointless answer (Jimmy Vee would be a pointless answer) is one Captain Jack Harkness played by the irreplaceable John Barrowman. From his debut in The Empty Child, Captain Jack has firmly cemented himself as a fan favourite, so popular that he even got his own spin off series in Torchwood (but thats another story) this story, or more accurately set of four stories are about Captain Jack post Parting of the Ways, pre Empty Ccild and post Children of Earth. Confused? then please read on.
If this were Trial of a Timelord I would describe these four stories as four “epistopic interfaces of the spectrum” but its not so I won’t – what we have here are four stories about Captain Jack when he is at his most vulnerable, friendless, alone almost crushed and how he copes with the situations he finds himself in from a devastated Earth following the events of Parting of the Ways we follow Jack on a personal journey seeking acceptance above all else and trying to be the bet man he can, we even go back to his origins as a time agent and discover many things about his past – but I am getting ahead of myself. We begin not at the beginning of Jack’s life but the beginning of his time after the events on the Gamestation….
1. The Year After I Died by Guy Adams
A very good place to start. Jack is seeking solitude but a young journalist Silo Crook (Shvorne Marks) is determined to tell his story and elevate him to the position of hero. Jack wants nothing to do with this. But as the story progresses we see Jack as the good person we know he can be as the very worst in humanity prey on the weak and forlorn personified by Sarah Douglas in a scenery chewing performance as the very Theresa May like Vortis Trear. This is a story of the rich doing whatever they like to survive, of the desperation of the survivors of the Dalek attack and of Captain Jack coming to know himself a little bit better.
2. Wednesdays For Beginners by James Goss
You cant beat a bit of Jackie Tyler can you? Camille Coduri take a bow, its like you have never been away and boy have we missed you. Playing almost like a Companion Chronicle this two hander sees Jackie just a little bit enamoured of the handsome new American resident of the Powell Estate, and when they meet its, if not exactly “moider” then its actually the end of the world. Jackie & Jack are a double act made in heaven, a comic pairing that just writes itself no matter what the peril Jackie seems to think the resolution is a nice cup of tea or a bit of a knees up. The laughs keep coming as Jack tells Jackie the name of the threat (sorry, too spoilery) and the only music for the knees up is pan pipe east end classics. Sounds camp and cheesy? Well the execution is but the threat is actually huge but it is Jackie’s response to it that grounds this story in reality and in pure RTD pastiche.
3. One Enchanted Evening by James Goss
On his final lap of honour The Tenth Doctor introduces Captain jack to one Alonso Frame (Russell Tovey) – a hot date being set up we all thought? But there is a lot more to it than this because the station that they are on is about to be invaded by the evil Mother Nothing (an unrecognisable and decidedly menacing Katy Manning) and forms a basis for a will they/wont they? escapade involving some excellent action set pieces. It feels like a bit of a blockbuster with Russell Tovey stealing the show coming across as a cross between his character in Being Human and Michael Baker from Count Arthur Strong. High on humour, high on peril and escapade this is the heart and soul of the set.
4. Month 25 by Guy Adams
Ever wanted to know Captain Jack Harkness’s real name? Intrigued? You will be. This goes back to the beginning, before The Empty Child when Jack was a time agent and lost two years of his life. And Thats all I am saying about that. Suitably intriguing isn’t it and well worth a listen.
So there you have it Jack sans Torchwood. Its very RTD era which is to be expected and there are some wonderful pieces of character in the quieter moments, the ending of One Enchanted Evening will bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical of fanboys. It felt frothy and perhaps a little bit shallow in places – a bit like the man himself, but it is a beautifully polished box set that adds to what we already know about the man known as Captain Jack Harkness and leaves the audience wanting to know a bit more. I salute this set at 8/10.
Oddball or experimental or brave or edgy or creative or just plain different are just some of the adjectives that could be used to describe torchwood_cascade_cdrip.tor. And they would all be right, because this is a very very different release in the Torchwood canon playing with expectations, playing with the audio medium and pushing it just as far as it can be pushed without quite irreparably damaging it. Part story of unrequited love from two lonely people, part urban techno thriller, part cautionary tale on the consequences of acquiring media from non standard (read illegal) sources this is as different a story as Big Finish have released in any of their ranges – and coming from the pen of the creative genius behind the sublime Dorian Gray series Scott Handcock – could we really expect anything mundane and straightforward? Of course we couldn’t.
So what is it actually about? Well, that would be telling, but the about is not really as important as the “how” – and it is the structure and the storytelling method of this release that makes it truly striking and unique, this is pieced together found footage of a corrupted media file illegally downloaded, it skips, it jumps about from perspective to perspective, it is non linear, it is a difficult listen but it is a rewarding listen to those who give it their full attention – and after two listens I got two distinctly different interpretations of what I had actually listened to and experienced – its that sort of story, the more engaged the listener is the more rewarding the story is.
Naoko Mori takes top billing in this story as Toshiko Sato, invited to London by an old colleague from Torchwood One called Stephen (Robbie Jarvis) who has been investigating the disappearances of people of the same age at the same time in different parts of the world – what is the link and why are they being hunted and why does Stephen think he is newt on the list and why did he ask Toshiko to help? these questions and many more will be posed and as with all good fiction the answers are there but are open to interpretation.
Scott Handcock brings in some of his trademark macabre, claustrophobic style of story telling that he is rightly praised for in Dorian Gray – the story is horror dressed up as a techno thriller and an ethical conundrum on the evils of illegal downloading and has that dreamlike ambiguousness that makes the listener doubt what they have just heard and give it a second third and fourth listen to get the most out of the story.
Naoko Mori slips back in to the character of Tosh effortlessly, a conflicted character at once brilliant but wracked with social awkwardness and self doubt and this is an exceptional “Show don’t tell” performance, it really is a privilege to have Toshiko back in Torchwood again.
There is no way that this release could be called “easy listening” its probably as far away from easy listening as you can get, what it is in almost equal measure is disturbing, upsetting, challenging, intelligent and quite quite brilliant. Hats off to Scott Handcock, Naoko Mori and all at Big Finish for pushing the boundaries on what a Torchwood tale can be. 10/10.