Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fearmonger

It's time for some more brutal honesty. Earlier I said that I didn't enjoy the 6th Doctor's era on television. We'll I really didn't like the 7th Doctor's era. Even the greatest TV theme song in the history of the universe managed to get mangled during his run. One thing I can say about all the actors who have played the Doctor is that they are really good actors. With McCoy I say it through somewhat clinched teeth. There are times where I think he can be brilliant - mostly when he is understated. There are many times when he's acting angry or upset where I think he really overacts badly. One of the most cringe inducing elements for me was in "Battlefield" when he's arguing via telepathy with Mogana (shudder). His propensity for rolling r's also gets on my nerves, greatly. I also thought the quality of the scripts was even worse during this era. Even the "classics" from his era like... uh... like... well... I guess that would be "The Curse of Fenric" - while I find it entertaining, I still think it's a bit of a mess with way too many things crammed into one story. So, when I decided to start buying these Big Finish CDs from the beginning, I did have a bit of inner debate on whether or not to skip the 7th Doctor stories. I ultimately decided I would buy them all, which I have continued for the 152 of the monthly range that I have purchased so far. When I first heard this nine years ago, I had reservations.

Thankfully, "Fearmonger" gets things off to a nice start for the 7th Doctor. This is a political story with a sci-fi monster bent to it. The Doctor is travelling with Ace... (Sigh)... OK, let's talk a little about Ace. When the 7th Doctor's seasons were airing on PBS, I was probably around 1-2 years younger than Ace was supposed to be. One would think that might make me relate to her. Well, think again. I loathed Ace. She was another reason I didn't care for that era of the show. I found her incredibly annoying. I hated the fact that she called the Doctor "Professor". I hated her backpack full of nitro-9. I just hated Ace, period. These audios have warmed me to her somewhat, but I still often find her character pretty aggravating. To her credit, Sophie Aldred (like Nicola Bryant before her) slides right back into playing Ace without missing a beat. You'd never guess she was a decade removed from having performed the role for TV.

Back to the story. It does feature a couple of actors who appeared in Doctor Who on TV: Jacqueline Pearce who played villainess Chessene in "The Two Doctors" and Hugh Walters whose two most notable roles in Doctor Who were Runcible in "The Deadly Assassin" and toady, Vogel in "Revelation of the Daleks". I did recognize Walters' voice as sounding like Vogel's right away the first time I heard this. Pearce plays ultra-right wing, racist politician Sherilyn Harper, and Walters plays her chief adviser, Roderick. They are a good, villainous double act. All hell is breaking out in Great Britain and Harper's incendiary "New Britannia" political rantings are at the heart of it. But, something else is happening. This bloke Walter, who is seemingly crazy, claims that Harper is a monster. No, it's not just her political views that make her monstrous. He can actually hear a monster talking when she speaks. Of course the only ones that believe him are the Doctor and Ace - oh and also Walter's friend, Stephen, who apparently taught Walter how to hear the monster. Lending little credibility to Walter's claims is the fact that Stephen is currently in a psych ward. The monster (who for once has origins unknown to the Doctor - hence the nickname of "Fearmonger") appears to have taken over Harper and is using her to put fear into the hearts and minds of the public. It then literally feeds on their fear.

One other clever wrinkle in this story is the fact that parts of the story are told via broadcasts of a fiery political talk radio show. Vince Henderson is quite good playing rabble rousing political talk host Mick Thompson. The first time we hear his show, when the Doctor magically shows up in his studio while he's on the air, is great stuff. In fact for all my grousing about him earlier, McCoy is great in this story. He's mostly underplaying things, which is where I think he's most effective and likeable. Big Finish would explore the idea of telling a story with a radio show to a much larger extent in a later story, but we'll deal with that one later. Like a few of the earlier stories, there is a nice twist in this story involving the monster. It's a satisfying one, since there are plenty of hints for you. So, you don't feel cheated if you didn't figure it out in advance. (For the record, I didn't.)

Despite the fact, that this story was delayed from its original recording time due to McCoy's unavailability, there was apparently a lot of frantic last second rewriting for this. Author, Jonathan Blum, apparently nearly had a nervous breakdown getting it finished. It ends up being a pretty fine story, and is among the better 7th Doctor Big Finish plays. It didn't exactly make me fall in love with McCoy's Doctor, but it did thaw me on him somewhat. As it's one of my favorites featuring him, I'll be generous with the rating (plus it gets extra credit for actually having Ace get shot! I'm just kidding - I think....).

Rating: Great

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Land of the Dead

One of the nice things about these audio stories is it allows more stories to be told with certain short-lived Doctor/Companion tandems. Of the 5th Doctor's companions I always liked Nyssa the best, not that it's hard to see why. Tegan and Adric were always arguing with each other or the Doctor, complaining about their poor lot in life on the TARDIS, or just being otherwise annoying. Turlough was an interesting idea never really fully developed. I've always liked Peri a lot too, but she was only in two 5th Doctor stories on TV. Nyssa was smart, inquisitive, calm, and haunted by the tragedy that the Master bestowed upon her. I know that she was always a favorite of Peter Davison as well. Big Finish has done a lot of stories with this tandem, and they are one of my favorite TARDIS teams. There are also a really good number of excellent stories with this pair. Sadly, from a story standpoint, this pairing gets off to a bit of a slow start.

"The Land of the Dead" takes place in "present" day Alaska. The crux of the story is that an eccentric bazillionaire (Brett) has constructed this giant house made up of rooms built from extracting natural sections of the Alaskan frontier. Brett's father had been running an archaeological dig nearby years ago where there was some sort of cave in that killed a bunch of the native workers. This dig and the recent excavations for Brett's house unleashes some sort of ancient creatures (predating dinosaurs) that now threatens our heroes. The creatures seem to be nothing more than animated skeletons which have some remarkable energy field that allows them to be alive. The energy field also affects the minds of certain humans filling them with fear. Some other animals end up being mutated into monsters by the presence of these "Permians".

This story was a hasty replacement for Sylvester McCoy's first solo story "The Fearmonger" which had to be delayed due to McCoy being unavailable for recording. This left Stephen Cole a mere week to produce scripts for this fill in. All thing considered, he did a pretty good job. The story isn't bad, it just comes across as a bit bland to me. Nyssa and the Doctor are mostly split up for this story, which does give Nyssa plenty to do. She ends up in a philosophical debate with Tulong (whose father was among those killed in the dig tragedy from years  ago) about balancing spiritual traditions with the rational. The Doctor is saddled with the house's (conveniently British) interior designer Monica - who is clearly a surrogate Tegan. She comes off as sometimes amusing but more often annoying with her ceaseless babble and smart ass comments. The Doctor ultimately figures out how to deal with the creatures. In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, he has no qualms about finishing these creatures off, but he does have plausible reasons.

Anyway, this one has never done much for me. It's not bad, but it just never engaged me much when I first head it, and my opinion hasn't changed today. Better things were to come for the Doctor and Nyssa (although not necessarily right away).

Rating: OK

Monday, June 25, 2012

Whispers of Terror

Let me be honest: I was NOT a fan of Colin Baker's time on Doctor Who. I had managed to enjoy most of the Peter Davison era, even though I was crushed that Tom Baker wasn't the Doctor anymore. While the Fifth Doctor's era had it share of clunkers, it also had lots of returning monsters which appealed greatly to me at 10-12 years old. When I first laid eyes on "Twin Dilemma", I didn't get worked up over how awful a story it was. No, I was upset over the Doctor actually trying to kill poor Peri. This was just unacceptable. I knew the Doctors were all a little odd or erratic just after regeneration. Hell, Peter Davison was pretty much useless for 3/4 of Castrovalva and made people carry him around in a coffin for God's sake. But, the Doctor actually trying to murder his faithful companion?! No way. And of course the outfit was... not the right choice as nearly everyone except John Nathan-Turner seemed to know. But, really that one violent moment colored me against poor Colin for a while. It didn't help that they kept having the Doctor and Peri constantly bickering throughout his first full season. It all just made me predisposed to not like him, and when his boisterous smugness kept coming through, it just made me dislike him more. I get that they wanted us to not trust him at first, and then grow to like him, but they made him a bit TOO unlikeable for me early on. I also thought the stories for his first season were mostly bad. Even the much loved "Vengeance on Varos" which has some clever political satire, comes off as a bit dull to me. When I watch the DVDs today, I find the double episode length to be pretty excruciating. They kept telling stories at the same 25 minute pace, they just reduced the number of cliff hangers by doubling the episode length. That's my feel for it today. Back when they first aired on PBS, I had no idea the episodes were longer because they weren't broadcast that way. They simply had abrupt endings with no sign of a cliffhanger. This just made my reaction to the show worse. Baker's last full season "The Trial of a Time Lord" was better. The writing still has some problems - mainly related to deviating from Robert Holmes' and Eric Saward's original plans for the ending. But, they began to smooth the edges of the Sixth Doctor here. Plus, having him direct a lot of his vitriol towards the villains instead of the people we tended to like, made me laugh at his tirades instead of cringing during them. Big Finish (and Baker) both realized that they needed to further the rehab on the Sixth Doctor's likeability, and it happens right away with this story.

I suppose it was only natural that when making Doctor Who in an audio only medium that they would eventually do a "sound monster" story, and Big Finish didn't waste any time by providing one here in their third release. Writer Justin Richards wanted to do a story which couldn't have been done on television or novels, and he succeeded. The sound effects are quite dense in this and it was apparently a very difficult production to create. The setting of the Museum of Aural Antiquities ends up as the perfect setting for such a sound-oriented story. We basically have a political thriller centered around a recently deceased (or killed) politician named Visteen Krane. The museum has captured his last, unheard speech due to the former actor's obsession with rehearsing all of his speeches before delivering them to the public. The speech is about to be aired to the public for the first time as a tribute, where the public will hear who he was going to name as his running mate. This seemingly would have been his trusted adviser Beth Purnell, but naturally, all is not as it seems. Oh, and right before the speech is to be broadcast there is a sound monster running around the museum killing some people.

Hmm, I don't make it sound really good do I? Fortunately, it's a terrific story. The Doctor and Peri are great here. Instead of having irritating arguments with each other, there are just gentle quick jibes at each other that come across as slightly vexed affection instead of actual friction. It's hard for me to remember how I first reacted to this kinder, gentler Sixth Doctor now - since I first heard this story around 9 years ago before Big Finish had astoundingly transformed Colin Baker into my favorite Doctor. But the transformation for me likely began here or in his next story "The Marian Conspiracy". Listening to this now, the Doctor's boisterous arrogance puts a big grin on my face. As I listened to this last week while walking on the beach, I was even chuckling a bit out loud listening to the Doctor's rantings. Nicola Bryant slides right back into playing Peri as if she was filming the series the previous week instead of around a dozen years before this was recorded.

The most notable guest star (in my ears) is Peter Miles as the blind museum curator Gantman. Miles made his most famous TV Who contribution was as Davros' henchmen Nyder in the all time classic "Genesis of the Daleks". His voice is instantly recognizable (at least to me) in his opening lines. It's somewhat novel for me to hear him as a gentle "good guy" here. Matthew Brenher is also notable as the deceased Visteen Krane. Beth Purnell is played by Lisa Bowerman who also tackles the role of Bernice Summerfield for Big Finish. (I'll have plenty to say about "Benny" when she appears in some Doctor Who stories later.)

The story is suitably creepy when the sound monster is menacing the various characters and it's done with a lot of frankly disturbing audio. When I recently listened to this I noticed how VERY similar the music (done by Nick Briggs) was to the music of Colin's era. This isn't generally something I think Big Finish tries to do. Richards makes good on his ambition to tell a story that would only work on audio, and it goes beyond the presence of the sound monster. It's really a great story and the best of the first three. Big Finish would go on to dabble a bit more with the sound monster idea, but it never works as well again as it does here.

Rating: Great

Sunday, June 24, 2012

RIP Caroline John

I would be remiss if I didn't offer condolences to the friends and family of Caroline John. I first saw her while being scared to death by Primords in the (awesome) "Inferno". I thought it was shortsighted of (the also awesome) Barry Letts to discard her for a less intelligent (and much more annoying) companion in Jo Grant. John was a better actress and Liz Shaw was a much more likeable companion (at least to me). That first season of the Pertwee era with Caroline John is one of my favorites.


Sorry for the delay in updates. I have been on vacation at the beach for the last week. I had grand ambitions on updating the blog while I was there, but oddly enough found that I preferred going to the beach and drinking beer to sitting in front of my laptop reviewing Doctor Who stories. However, while I was not writing about Doctor Who at the beach I was listening to it just about every day, so I am currently half way through "The Fearmonger". Schedule permitting, there should hopefully be some frequent updates this week. Onto this review....

Mark Gattis is pretty well known for his writing (and acting) contributions to Doctor Who, and is also riding high on the success of his co-creation "Sherlock" (which is awesome), but the first Gattis written Doctor Who I ever encountered is "Phantasmagoria". In Series 1 of the "new" Doctor Who in the Gattis penned "The Unquiet Dead", Charles Dickens name drops this story when the "phantoms" first appear with the line, "What phantasmagoria is this?" (or something close to that). I enjoyed the cute nod to this story. The idea for this story came from a sketch from The League of Gentlemen stage show involving people playing cards against the Devil.

This features the fifth Doctor travelling with Turlough, which puts it sometime after the bloodbath of "Resurrection of the Daleks" and before "Planet of Fire". Personally, I think it's a shame that Mark Strickson chose to leave the series when Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Peter Davison chose to. I thought having the Doctor travel with only Turlough as his companion might have been fun. The character Turlough in itself seems like a missed opportunity. The idea of an "evil" companion seemed good on paper, but it just ended up being silly with the writers having to somehow come up with reasons for Turlough to keep bungling the murder of the Doctor - yet also keep him from being found out as the Black Guardian's agent. It was also odd how as soon as "Enlightenment" ended and "The King's Demons" began, it just seemed like everyone had brushed aside the fact that Turlough had been trying to kill the Doctor, even if he did choose to side against the Black Guardian at the end. After that, Turlough was a pretty bland companion who had mysterious origins that never really got explored until his final story. His somewhat darker nature wasn't really explored in any way other than him mainly looking after his own skin.

This story takes place in London in 1702. The audio just drips atmosphere and the performances are teriffic. The banter (in the Diabola Club) between the gamblers Flowers, Cartaret, and Jeake (who is played by Gattis himself) is delightful and harkens back to the Robert Holmes era and the banter between Jago and Lightfoot. The first lines of David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine just drip with menace and leave very little doubt as to who the villain of this tale is. Steven Wickham is great as old fuddy duddy Dr. Samuel Holywell who oddly has an interest in trying to contact dead spirits.

The plot does a good job of introducing seemingly separate but linked plot threads. Young men are being pursued and vanish (or in one case is killed) by "phantoms". There is a mysterious highwayman named Major Billy Lovemore who is robbing people in the streets. Dr. Holywell seems to be able to contact the spirits of the dead. A pair of aliens keep discussing a "client" who is hunting someone or something. A night watchman harasses Dr. Holywell's servant girl, Hannah, but then ends up murdered by the highwayman Major. All of these elements come together in a satisfying way with a nice twist to boot. Also, the Doctor performs some nice trickery to save the day.

Again with this story, it's the atmosphere that really makes it all come together. Nick Briggs' direction is top notch capturing the background sounds and the great performances of the guest actors. Turlough doesn't do much but run around with a couple of the gamblers, other than fleeing danger to save his own skin as usual. Davison sounds like he is having a lot of fun here getting a simple romp and not having to argue with several companions in an overcrowded TARDIS. If "The Sirens of Time" rates out on the high side of good, let's say this would be on the lower side of great.

Rating: Great

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Sirens of Time

This was not the first Big Finish I purchased and heard. Somewhere around 2000-2001 I decided to give audio Doctor Who a try with "Davros" and "Master". While I enjoyed both of them, (though I thought and still think they each have big flaws) I didn't immediately get hooked and it would be another year or two before I made the decision to begin listening to the whole range. I decided to start at the beginning and so I started with this debut "The Sirens of Time".

Given that Big Finish came out of the gates with Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy on board to do these stories, it's only natural that they wanted to start off with a multi-Doctor story. It makes a lot of sense from a marketing standpoint. They were a mostly new company that had only previously released Bernice Summerfield adventures. They were looking to greatly expand their audience and tantalizing fans with multiple Doctors in their first story makes perfect sense. As a fan, I kind of wish they had waited a while and built to the multi-Doctor extravaganza, but it's hard to argue with their logic.

Going in, I was peeking around at some reviews and had determined that this story didn't have a very strong reputation. Well, back then and still to this day I disagree. This is easily the best multi-Doctor story ever. (Ok, ok, I am damning it with faint praise.) It really is a nice story. Nick Briggs is maybe not my absolute favorite writer for Big Finish, but I think he generally does write consistently good stories, so I generally feel confident that I will like a release when I see he's the author. I think it was a great idea to have the first 3 parts be individual (but linked) stories for each Doctor and then bring them together and tie it all together at the end. It also has a pretty interesting new villainous race (though we don't learn a whole lot about them) and the nice twist of a "master villain" manipulating everything. Not for the first time the Doctors are coming together to save the Time Lords....

Hold it. Let's talk about these almighty Time Lords for a second. In the first story where we meet them ("The War Games") they are portrayed as these seemingly all powerful, nearly god like beings that seem to be in complete control. (Well, except for that one who gets killed by the invading alien soldiers trying to save the (awesome) War Lord.) As the series went on they seemed to get a whole lot less god like and a lot more useless. Omega drained them pretty much dry sucking all their energy through a black hole (I thought Time Lords were totally expert on black holes?) into his anti-matter universe in "The Three Doctors". In the "Deadly Assassin" the Gallifreyan Secret Service was so utterly hopeless they allowed the president to be easily shot and then blamed the wrong man. Then, they actually allowed their prime suspect to run for president due to a legal loop hole. Really?! Of course, in "The Invasion of Time" they got invaded TWICE by two different sets of aliens. They are totally hopeless. It's a wonder that the Doctor even bothers trying to save them considering they are always interfering with his life and acting so superior to him. One would think the Daleks would have crushed them easily in the Time War were it not for the Doctor (and presumably the Master). They prove to be equally inept here, and can't seem to make up their minds on whether they want help from the Doctor or just to kill him.

Anyway, enough with the tangent. The first episode features Doctor #7 and is generally highlighted by Maggie Stables completely over the top portrayal as the "evil old hag". Her performance is even more enjoyable after you've become used to hearing her lovely portrayal as Evelyn Smythe. Sancroft as the old, broken down, evil bastard war criminal is pretty interesting too. It's a shame we don't find out more about him. Episode two, with the 5th Doctor being stuck on a German submarine during World War I is the least interesting episode for me. Generally I think you need more than one episode in a historical setting to really draw the audience in and make them feel the time period being recreated. It's also made a bit less interesting by the fact that the Doctor does nothing so much as try to get back to the TARDIS. Even with the Time Lords imploring him to do so, it seems a bit out of character. Episode #3 on the space ship is fun with Colin Baker being his irascible self. Already, Big Finish is keeping his general temperament from the TV series, but making him a bit more likeable. The Sixth Doctor rehabilitation begins! When they all come together and the (somewhat convoluted, timey-wimey) plot is spelled out it leads to an interesting finish. I think it's interesting that the Sixth Doctor has the guts to make the tough decision before the other Doctors would, and then confronts them about it afterwards when they are giving him a bit of disapproval. While you only get this one episode worth of inter-Doctor banter, it's pretty fun while it lasts.

One other amusing side note: when I go back and break out these older CDs, it's striking how different the packaging quality was then compared to now. The cover art in particular has come a long way from these first few plays. But the audio production quality is pretty impressive right from the get go. It's also interesting comparing the Doctors' voices. I've always felt that Peter Davison sounds the most different from his time on the TV show. Colin Baker also has a bit more rasp and age in his voice. McCoy pretty much sounds the same. All of them sound a bit older now on the more recent releases. None of this detracts from my enjoyment of these plays.

This is a very solid debut for Big Finish. I am not sure what its general reputation with the Who horde is today, but I was pleasantly surprised all those years ago and definitely thought it exceeded the reputation it had back then. Some better things were to come in the near future, but I would definitely rank this on the high end of the good scale. And our (mostly) blissful journey through audio Doctor Who has begun... 

Rating: Good

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A little more info...

Today I listened to the first half of "The Sirens of Time" so expect my first review in a day or two. In preparation for reviewing these earliest Doctor Who releases from Big Finish, I decided to pull out this:

and review the history of how this whole range began. It's been several years since I read this and I didn't remember the type being so small!

Anyway, I also wanted to give you all a little background on my "fandom" of Doctor Who. I have been a fan for over 30 years. My first exposure to the program was when I was around 7-9 years old, and I caught the last 2-3 minutes of "Full Circle" Part 2. That was enough for me to briefly see the inside of the TARDIS, see the TARDIS disappear, and then see poor Romana get bitten by one of the large fruit spiders. Cue the sting and theme music, and it's pretty much been my favorite TV show ever since.

I would say I am definitely a pretty die hard fan, but I also know there are others who are more extreme about it than me. I don't own all the DVDs that have been put out (I do own most, and will probably eventually get them all, but I don't feel compelled to immediately get the stories I don't care for). As a kid, I definitely bought and read a ton of the Target novelizations, but never got into the New Adventures, Missing Adventures, or any other book ranges that came out after the 1989 cancellation. I haven't seen any of the missing episodes via fan reconstructions. I've never been to a convention (though I think it would be fun if one was ever close by).

As for the classic TV series, my favorite Doctors would go something like 4, 3, 5, 2, 6, 7, 1. I thought Paul McGann was great in the TV Movie, but think the movie as a whole was pretty bad. I am not much of a fan of the Hartnell era (with some exceptions). I like the Troughton era better, and really wish more of his stories would be rediscovered. I also think the show's quality took a sharp downward turn during the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras, though there are still some nuggets in them that I enjoy. Big Finish definitely helped rehabilitate my opinions on both #6 and #7 to different degrees. More on that later.

As for the blog, I hope it will be fun, and think it wouldn't be a bad idea to do some sort of writing just because I don't really do it very often. The bulk of the entries should be reviews of the stories one by one, but I may add some other chatty entries like this one from time to time, though I'll stick mainly to Doctor Who discussion. I am a big fan of the "new" series (if 7 years old can still be "new") and will definitely have things to say when new episodes of that air.

Look for the first review soon!

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Welcome to a little blogging experiment. I have been reading various blogs for years and have always toyed with the idea of doing one myself, but have never quite figured out what the "theme" of such a blog would be. I had a brainstorm this evening and decided that it might be fun to try doing reviews of the wonderful Big Finish Doctor Who audios. I have been enjoying these for around 8-9 years now, and as a whole I consider the Big Finish range of Doctor Who stories to be Doctor Who at its finest.

Tomorrow I will actually finish listening to #152, "House of Blue Fire", which happens to be the most recent release (that I own) of the main "monthly" range of Big Finish Doctor Who. (There are many other Big Finish Doctor Who (or related) releases, but for now this blog will focus on the "monthlies" until I decide to wander into other directions.) After I finish "House of Blue Fire" I plan to start all over with the first and then start this blog properly with reviews, thoughts, bad jokes, and other observations about this range of audio dramas that have entertained me for a long time.