Thursday, July 26, 2012

RIP Mary Tamm

Like all Doctor Who fans worldwide, I was very sad to hear about the passing of Mary Tamm. It's very disheartening to think about how often it seems like we have to say goodbye to notable figures from the show's past. For Tamm to die at 62 is quite disheartening. Best wishes and condolences to her family and friends.

The Key to Time series (the only one to feature Tamm as Romana) is one of the first series of the show I watched as a child, and is certainly one of the most viewed seasons from my childhood. It's amazing how well most of the season still holds up today, and she was a big part of why. Her rapport with Tom Baker was a lot fun, and provided a lot of laughs. While I certainly also loved Lalla Ward's Romana, I can't help but wish Tamm had done more than one season. I'm happy that I will get to hear a season of her and Tom Baker reunited from Big Finish!

I started this blog a little over a month ago, and I've already had to do two of these RIP posts. I hope I get to wait a long time before another one is necessary.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Mutant Phase

Here is the third of the "linked" Dalek Empire stories and the first to feature the 5th Doctor. In theory, the three stories were also supposed to be linked and happening at the same time, but there is no link to be found to the previous two stories here. Of the first three Dalek stories, I think this is definitely the best, with only the somewhat befuddling ending letting things down.

What really makes this story work, is that it's a very different type of Dalek tale. While the Daleks are definitely still the villains of the piece, there is another monster that actually kills and terrifies the Daleks. This Mutant Phase represents a contamination of Dalek DNA, which mutates the Dalek creatures into a terrifying insect species which can natively travel through space. These creatures are so deadly they can pretty much swarm a planet and suck all of the life out of it.

The story takes place in three different locations and times. One is during the Dalek occupation of Earth in the 2150's (first chronicled in the classic serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"). Another is Earth in the farther future in 4250 where the planet appears to have been devastated (as we find out later, by the Mutant Phase) with very few humans left alive. Finally, some of the story takes place on Skaro in the far future with the Daleks under siege from the Mutant Phase creatures. Most of part one consists of the Doctor and Nyssa arriving on Earth in the 2150's. Nyssa is quickly stung by a wasp (which proves to be critical to the plot later on). It's a nice change of pace for the Doctor and Nyssa to escape quickly once the Doctor figures out where (and when) they are. Of course, they first have to escape capture from a Roboman and a Dalek. It's interesting to revisit this time, and it's fun for the Doctor to once again encounter some Daleks who actually don't know who he is. It harkens back to the show's earliest days.

Things really get interesting late in the first episode, when the story shifts to Skaro. Here some Thals are actually helping the Daleks try to understand (and find a way to eradicate) the Mutant Phase. It's fantastic when one of the Daleks begins to actually show signs of the genetic contagion and begins to mutate. The other Daleks go absolutely bonkers over this, and begin screaming their heads off in terror at what's happening in front of them. I never thought I would encounter a Dalek story where one of the episodes' cliff hangers involves the Daleks in peril! It really builds up the danger of these creatures since the Daleks are totally freaked out over them.

Nick Briggs wrote and directed this, and he's definitely the "Dalek expert" of Big Finish. I once again think his direction and music are outstanding. It sets a very sombre, tense, tone for the story as the Doctor in the far future devastated Earth keeps saying that things just don't seem right. This dark tone leaves a feeling of doom and that something really has gone terribly wrong. When the Doctor and Nyssa arrive in 4250 and encounter some of the few remaining humans, we are treated to a very creepy, disturbing performance from Mark Gattis as Karl Hendryk. Karl comes off as very sinister sitting in a nearly pitch black room and mumbling darkly about his devastated planet. It's fun when the Daleks come to capture the Doctor. He manages to make it to the inside of the TARDIS, but Nyssa and the remaining humans are stuck outside. When the Daleks begin exterminating hostages (and Nyssa only survives this by blind luck) which ultimately draws the Doctor out from sanctuary, it's another effective cliff hanger with the Doctor's quiet, "I surrender."

On the second CD the Doctor and Nyssa finally figure out what's going on. Somehow, the wasps from the 2150's managed to string and corrupt the DNA of one of the Daleks which ultimately leads to the Mutant Phase. The Dalek Emperor convinces the Doctor (and some Thals) to go back in time and prevent this from happening. Nyssa is appalled at the Doctor's willingness to go back and change "history", but the Doctor thinks he is actually setting things on the proper path. Of course, things aren't exactly as they seem. It's really quite funny when the Dalek Emperor of the future is trying to convince the Daleks on Earth that he's there to help him. It fits the Daleks' character perfectly that they don't believe him! The Doctor is great here too, completely undermining the Emperor's efforts. The ending then becomes one of those logic killing time paradoxes that's hard to wrap your head around. Even Nyssa flat out says that this is all bonkers in the story's final scene. The confounding, reset switch ending is the one sore spot that diminishes an otherwise terrific story. Still, the journey can often be more important than the destination, so this remains a very strong story, and still remains one of my favorite Dalek tales.

Rating: Great

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Holy Terror

"The Holy Terror" is the first Big Finish story written by Rob Shearman. After hearing his first few stories, some friends and I began considering him the "Robert Holmes of Big Finish". Later we would go on to call Steven Moffat the "Rob Shearman or Robert Holmes of the new series". In other words, his stories are generally top notch. It's interesting to read in the Big Finish Inside Story book that Shearman himself has a lot of issues with this script - considering how highly regarded it is by me and others.

We can't talk about this story without first mentioning its companion Frobisher. Originally, a companion to the 6th Doctor from the comics, I didn't know a thing about him prior to this audio. For those who don't know, he's an alien shape shifter who spends most of his time looking like a penguin! When not traveling with the Doctor, he's apparently a private eye in New York city! How completely, barking mad! Like (apparently) many fans, I was quite skeptical about a story featuring such a seemingly silly companion from the comics, but it ends up working out brilliantly. Frobisher is played with much aplomb by (Canadian actor) Robert Jezek (previously heard in "Red Dawn") even if I don't find his New York accent that believable (it's still light years ahead of he southern accent he will deliver in a future story.  More on that when we get to it). The truth is, this story wouldn't work nearly as well with any other companion.

The story takes place in some sort of medieval-ish castle. The opening scene sets one of the tones of the story right away when an old man is roused in a prison cell and told he was arrested in the middle of the night for blasphemy. When he is told about the painful death he is about to receive for his crimes, unless he wants to repent, he wisely repents right away! He is then freed (only after filling out several forms). This scene is hilarious, and it feels more like you're listening to a Monty Python sketch than a Doctor Who audio. There is a lot of comedy throughout the script, but there's much more to the story then just laughs.

The story explores the notion of the Emperor as a being of divinity, and what happens to the society's religion when one Emperor dies and another takes his place. It also explores the notion of how human language corrupts humans and how a god can be created by never allowing a new born to hear the language of humans. That by living in isolation, the child creates his own language and achieves a closer connection to the heavens because he would speak the language of God. (This idea actually intrigued King James I.) The consequences of one actually carrying out this quest for divinity end up beyond terrifying.

The Doctor and Frobisher end up stuck (after the TARDIS apparently goes on strike) in this castle where the people worship their Emperor as a god . There are tons of traditions around the cycle of crowning a new Emperor after the old one commits the sacrilege of dying (proving that they were not in fact, divine after all). These traditions are pretty hilarious, with the "proof" of the new Emperor's divinity, to the treatment of the former Emperor's widow. But, there's also a disturbing element to the pointless cycle this society is stuck in. Every time a new Emperor is crowned, the Emperor's brother tries to overthrow him. In this case, the new Emperor's brother Childeric, ends up making his child divine by never letting him hear a word of English, until it's time for his plan to usurp the throne. Once the child is unleashed, the story becomes terrifying.

I can't say enough about the cast for this story. They are simply magnificent. Sam Kelly is brilliant as Eugene Tacitus and is both hilarious and disturbing. Peter Guiness just oozes menace with his voice as the plotting Childeric. Stefan Atkins is hilarious as the unwilling new Emperor Pepin. And, let's not forget about the regulars. Jezek is just a riot as Frobisher, and the chaos he causes within the kingdom is a delight to hear. Finally, Colin Baker is magnificent as the Doctor. Any dislike I may have carried over for his TV characterization of the Doctor is now obliterated by this story. The scene when he goes back to confront the godly Boy is wonderful. He knows that if he is correct on his theory of who and what the Boy is, he will likely be killed. The interplay between the Boy and the Doctor gives me goosebumps as you can hear the controlled, utter fear in the Doctor's voice.

What's most amazing is how creepy and funny this story manages to be. That's what I think ends up making this story so brilliant: Shearman balances the two perfectly. It would be so easy for all the humor (and believe me, the humor is still around almost to the very end of the story) to undermine the horror, but it never does. You go from chuckling to shuddering from scene to scene, and the experience is fantastic. The ending is also pretty moving, and wonderfully ties back to the first TARDIS scene between the Doctor and Frobisher. If you've never heard "The Holy Terror", you have quite simply denied yourself one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever crafted.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Shadow of the Scourge

I never read much of the New Adventures books. A buddy of mine in college bought them and loaned me the Timewyrm series. I remembered liking Terrance Dicks' book in the series the best, but wasn't particularly tempted to keep reading them going forward. So, I wasn't overly familiar with Paul Cornell's work in the New Adventures prior to hearing this story. This is very much in the spirit of the New Adventures featuring the 7th Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. This was my introduction to the character of Bernice (other than some of the previews for the Benny adventures found at the end of some of the early Big Finish releases). From hearing the Doctor Who audios that feature her as a companion, I have developed very mixed feelings towards her. While I don't think this story is nearly as good as "The Fires of Vulcan" which directly precedes it, this is still good enough to keep the unlikely streak of 7th Doctor stories I actually enjoy going.

This is a mostly fun pan-dimensional invasion story taking place in a hotel with three separate conventions going on. One of them involves a "spirit channeler" who is a fraud, but not quite a total fraud. Another has a scientist demonstrating his temporal accelerator. Finally, there is a group of cross stitch enthusiasts. These three groups are somehow the perfect combination to allow the powerful scourge to invade by taking over the bodies of some of the hotel guests. Of course, the Doctor has made some agreement with these invaders, which is a plot to ensnare them in a trap. And, unsurprisingly, the trap doesn't work and the Doctor himself begins to be take over by one of the scourge invaders. This puts the Doctor on the sideline for a good bit of the second disc, as he is locked in a battle of will which leaves Ace, Benny, and some other brave hotel guests to try to save him.

Possibly the best thing about this story is that it allows the Doctor's companions to really shine. This was my first real encounter with Benny, and she's really quite likeable and hilarious. Lisa Bowerman, who was one of the cheetah people in the final classic Who serial "Survival" is very entertaining as Benny. The scene where she infiltrates the group of spiritualists is hilarious. Benny also twice enters the Doctor's brain to aid in his struggle to avoid be take over by the scourge, which is both courageous and amusing. Ace, on the other hand, has a creative and extremely brave way of resisting the Scourge's ability to issue commands, that any human hearing them, is forced at a primal level to obey. You can't help but wince when Ace's solution is put into play. Ace then running around shouting a bit too loudly at everyone is pretty well done by Sophie Aldred. Ace is also a hoot on the first CD pretending to yell at the Doctor for "betraying" the Earth - playing along with his attempt to deceive the Scourge.

The Scourge themselves are a mixed bag. Their great power to control humans, and their feeding off of human's fear is interesting. Cornell does a good job of making it seem like the Scourge are fully in control, and that there's no way for the Doctor to overcome their plot. But, there's a downside to the Scourge: they like to talk.... a lot. There's way too much dialog between the invaders, painstakingly discussing their plans and also constantly repeating their enjoyment of "feeding on these humans fear". It gets very monotonous after a while and the smug tone with which they discuss these things, over and over again, begins to undermine their menace after a while. It also extends this story's length so that it feels a bit overly long. Finally, the resolution isn't altogether satisfying, and it's hard for me to get a grip on what the "rules" for how they overcome the Scourge really are.

Still, even with these flaws, it's generally a very entertaining yarn. Ace is about as likeable as she gets for me, and Benny is delightfully entertaining and funny in this one. This play doesn't really play to McCoy's strengths as an actor, as he is forced to overact greatly at times while trying to hold on to his sense of self when fighting the Scourge. The guest cast are all able as well, with Holly King as Annie and Lennox Greaves as Brian standing out (when they're human). Looking back this is probably my least favorite of the 7th Doctor stories so far - as well as my least favorite Cornell penned Big Finish audio, but it's still pretty fun, and fans of the New Adventures novels will probably get even more out of this than I do.

Rating: Good

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Fires of Vulcan

Melanie Bush was not a particularly well received companion. She was perky to the point or madness, and was seemingly good for one incredibly high pitched shriek per episode. Of course in her first story with Big Finish, she is much more subdued and more likeable. In fact, I am generally always pleased to see Mel on the cover of a Big Finish CD these days.

Her Big Finish debut is also a really good story. The opening scene features a UNIT captain being escorted through modern Pompeii by an archaeologist. They dug something out that had been sitting buried in the ashes since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2000 years before. What did they find? A blue police box!

The story cuts to the Doctor and Mel arriving in the TARDIS. Fairly early on, the Doctor surmises that they are in Pompeii and it's the day before Volcano day. It's clear that the Doctor has somehow found out about his TARDIS being buried in the volcanic ash for 2000 years, so he takes on this air of resigned acceptance to his fate. This is a simply wonderful performance from McCoy. I always greatly prefer his underplayed performances and this is a fine one.

In many ways Mel is the true hero of this story. When the Doctor figures out what's going on, (it turns out that UNIT contacted the 5th Doctor and told him about the archaeological find. The Doctor not wanting to know about his personal future immediately left without seeing the TARDIS) he refuses to use his foreknowledge of the TARDIS' fate to change his behavior. He lets Mel decide whether they should get right back in the TARDIS and leave, or if she wants to stay a while. Mel, knowing they have a full day before the catastrophe chooses to stay. Once they finally decide to leave, the TARDIS has disappeared! It's kind of wonderful to hear Bonnie Langford portraying Mel as a real person with depth and determination and thankfully, she doesn't scream once! She won't give in, even if the Doctor already has. Later the Doctor is inspired by her determination and then decides to try to find the TARDIS and escape.

The search for the TARDIS is muddied by an unfortunate decision by first the Doctor and then Mel to lie that they are messengers from Isis. This white lie gets heard by both a priest of Isis (named Celcinus), and (unfortunately) a high priestess (Eumachia) who considers Isis a false, foreign goddess. A political, religious plot than ensues. The story does a good job in the first episode of making you think Celcinus is the bad guy since he attempts to surreptitiously follow Mel around. But it's Eumachia who ends up having the TARDIS stolen and tries to embarrass Celcinus by exposing his false messengers of Isis. The other notable character in the story is Murranus, a leader of gladiators who is masterfully portrayed by Steve Wickham (who was Dr. Holywell in "Phatasmagoria"). Murranus is every bit the arrogant, simple minded, people's champion, and develops a deep hatred of the Doctor when he realizes the Doctor has used his own loaded dice against him to win some money from him gambling. Murranus' feels humiliated by the Doctor and spends the rest of the story trying to find and kill him.

In the final part, when the volcano finally erupts, it's pretty exciting listening to Mel and the Doctor try to find the TARDIS and each other. The production (directed by Gary Russel) is superb with convincing volcano sounds, and really conveys the panic as the denizens of Pompeii try to flee the city. I guess, one can't help but compare this story to the TV series' episode "The Fires of Pompeii". This is a pure historical with a bit of time travel foreknowledge thrown in as opposed to the more overtly sci-fi TV episode where it is revealed the Doctor himself has to start the eruption using alien technology. Give Big Finish and writer Steve Lyons credit for tackling Pompeii first. As for when Mel and the Doctor escape, the trick for making sure the TARDIS is buried and discovered 2000 years later is actually pretty simple, and while it's a bit of a cheat, it isn't unsatisfying. All in all, this is probably my favorite McCoy story so far in Big Finish, and it's great to hear Bonnie Langford's Mel written as a real character and not a shrieking annoyance. It's also not the last great Big Finish story to be written by Lyons.

Rating: Great

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Apocalypse Element

I admit, the fanboy in me was pretty blown away by this story the first time I heard it. The Daleks invade Gallifrey and win! This doesn't quite hold up so well after repeat listens, but it's still a pretty good story, and there is some fun to be had. Stephen Cole's story is exciting and epic, but it's also a bit too much at times. The story is overly complicated and just goes on for too long. However, as part of the Dalek image rehabilitation, it works well. Not only do the Daleks invade Gallifrey successfully, they actually have one of their masterplans totally succeed, despite the Doctor's best efforts.

Once again we have the wonderful Evelyn Smythe traveling with the Doctor. Also, Romana (Lalla Ward) returns to Doctor Who. Following up on book continuity, she is the President of Gallifrey, although in this story she has been a prisoner of the Daleks for twenty years. Her dreary opening soliloquy at the beginning of episode two from her cell is fantastic and one of the highlights of the story. Ward works well with Colin Baker's Doctor, and there is definitely some good chemistry here. Also returning are the characters of the (interim) President, Vansell, and Captain Raldeth from "The Sirens of Time" which is a nice bit of Big FInish Gallifreyan continuity.

I won't even try to fully summarize this labyrinthine plot, as it's overly long and convoluted. Suffice it to say it satisfies the fanboy wish of the Daleks invading Gallifrey. The Daleks also set of a disastrously destructive chain reaction with their "apocalypse element" which needs Time Lord technology to contain it to stop it from burning out the entire universe. Interestingly enough, the Doctor and Romana's efforts to control the reaction ultimately fail, until the Daleks (who are finally able to gain full access to Gallifrey) step in and provide the power lacking to stop the element. The Daleks drain their own life energy completely in sealing off the galaxy already destroyed by the element. The Daleks also accelerate time so the element burns itself out. This leaves an unpopulated galaxy ripe for Dalek conquest which turns out to have been the Dalek's plan all along. (Kind of a mess, huh?) This is where the real seed of the Dalek Empire begins. There originally was a link between this story and "The Genocide Machine" where the Daleks would reveal that they found out about the apocalypse element from the library on Kar-Charrat, but this was trimmed due to timing reasons. They really should have cut something else as it provides the much needed link between these two Dalek Empire stories.

One again the Sixth Doctor is great here. He's fiery and full of entertaining rants. At one point he explodes at poor Evelyn who is failing to grasp the scale of the destruction that the element is causing, but then quickly does an about face and offers her a lovely heart felt apology. He's also quite heroic at many points. He enters the gravity well alone knowing he has to face deadly Dalek mutants free from their Dalek shell and deadly in the zero gravity environment. He also immediately abandons the effort to curtail the element to race to Evelyn's rescue when he realizes she's trapped by the Daleks. Evelyn gets a lot of good material here too. When the Doctor makes her retina print the only one able to bypass Gallifreyan security locks, her witticisms on this are hilarious. There's also some interesting subtle hints about Evelyn's eye being used to open the powerful Eye of Harmony which may be their way of undoing the silly "half human" Doctor claims of the 8th Doctor's disastrous TV Movie.

I guess I have gotten a little older and more jaded as I don't quite get the same enjoyment out of this epic Dalek/Time Lord war story as I did nearly a decade ago when I first heard it. The story is too long, and the plot is a little too convoluted. Still, that doesn't prevent it from being exciting. Nick Briggs knows exactly how to direct these Dalek stories and the music, sound effects, and Dalek voices are all done perfectly and add the requisite excitement to this Dalek war. We may never get to see, read, or hear how the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords ultimately played out, but this is about as close as we'll ever get. Perhaps it's better that the Time War will forever have taken place "off screen".

Rating: Good

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Winter for the Adept

For some reason I always remember Andrew Cartmel's first story for Big Finish as being boring, but then I revisit it and find I enjoy it more than I remembered. Perhaps I am just biased against him since he script edited one of my least favorite eras of the show. "Winter for the Adept" has the Doctor and Nyssa dealing with an apparent poltergeist in a girls' finishing school in the Swiss Alps in 1963. It also features Peter Jurasik (famous for being Londo in Babylon 5), India Fisher (who would go on to become the much beloved 8th Doctor companion Charley Pollard), and Sally Faulkner (who played Isobel in the classic Doctor Who story "The Invasion"). Big Finish has a penchant for bringing back alums from the classic show, which is a lot of fun.

The story is book-ended with narration from Alison with the wonderful piano tune which permeates the story. This helps establish the atmosphere right away, but doesn't do much to add to the plot. When doing a ghost story, the atmosphere is important and it's wonderfully done here by the music and audio sound-scape. Part one is a particular highlight as it mostly involves Nyssa alone. The idea that an experiment gone wrong in the TARDIS teleporting poor Nyssa into the Swiss Alps is amusing. Luckily, she is quickly rescued by Lieutenant Sandoz who escorts her to the school. Jurasik's Sandoz is somewhat distracting because I can't quite figure out what accent he is trying to produce. It's some sort of odd blend of American, English, with perhaps a touch of Londo Molari thrown in. Perhaps it's a Swiss accent - I'm not sure. In any event I do find it distracting. I think it's funny that Jurasik agreed to do a Doctor Who audio without having any idea what the show was. (He thought it was a medical drama!) In any event, the Doctor doesn't show up until late in part one which serves Nyssa well. She does a great job of trying to investigate the strange goings on at the school. Faulkner is terrifying as head mistress Miss Tremayne. She's a deeply religious woman who is unhinged by the strange goings on at the school. Fisher is surprisingly not that noticeable as Peril, since this helped lead to her being cast as Charley later on.

I really enjoy Peter Davison in this story. He sounds like he is having a lot of fun with the story, and the Doctor is written to be suitably eccentric and also in control - something I think was often lacking on many of the 5th Doctor's stories. I love his bumbling around for the on switch on one of his gadgets and it's hilarious listening to Nyssa almost refusing to help him for fear of being teleported away again. I also love the Doctor's calm reaction when their investigation into the "ghost" hits a dead end and when asked what next he calmly says it's time for a seance! (Even if that does make for a flat cliffhanger.)

The story goes a bit downhill in the final part. The odd explanation of an actual "ghost" (although the Doctor calls it an energy being with the memories of a dead man... huh?) having seizures which triggers Alison's latent telepathic skills, which in turn triggers Peril's telekinetic abilities is confusing and unsatisfying. The final reveal of the alien "Spillagers" comes off as silly and feels like a tacked on threat to end the story with. The ending's a bit of a letdown, but the journey is still pretty enjoyable. Better (much better) things are to come for the Doctor and Nyssa, but this is still a good bit of fun along the way.

Rating: Good

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Spectre of Lanyon Moor

This story, which features the Sixth Doctor reuniting with the Brigadier, harkens back to the stories of the (awesome) Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. The prologue features an alien who fails to make it back to his ship before it takes off leaving him injured and stranded. You just know he is going to stir up trouble, right? In addition to reuniting Colin's Doctor with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, it's also the second story to feature Evelyn Smythe. So, lots of good elements here should make for a good story, right?

Right! The Doctor and Evelyn arrive in Cornwall (unintentionally, of course). There is some lovely banter between Evelyn and the Doctor as Evelyn notes the wonderful "wet bracken" landing spot the TARDIS has chosen. It feels like the Doctor and Evelyn have had a few other travels between "The Marian Conspiracy" and the start of this tale. The pair quickly meet the boisterously cheerful Mrs. Moynihan, while she's out walking her equally boisterous dogs. She lets them know where they are and directs them to the village of Pengriffen, while also informing the Doctor of an archaeological team investigating a nearby fogou. The Brigadier seems to be haging out with this archaeological team. Meanwhile, mysterious things start happening around Pengriffen and people begin encountering ghostly "imps" at night. Apparently, strange things have happened around the fogou for many, many years, which is why the Brig is "unofficially" there as an observer.

First things first, it's great to hear the 6th Doctor "meet" (or perhaps "reunite" is the right term) with the dear old Brig. One nice touch is the Brig immediately figures out who the Doctor is without any of the "Who the devil are you?... Oh, you've done it AGAIN Doctor!" you might expect. The story does a lot of splitting the Doctor and Evelyn up so they can have the Brig be his primary "companion". It's quite fun to hear how well the two work together. But, Evelyn isn't simply thrust aside. She manages to have a key role in the story. It's when she is sent to do some research in (the archaeological team's local benefactor) Sir Archibald Flint's library that we get to enjoy the spot on performance of James Bolam. He's just perfect as the elder English gentleman. He's just a little too mannerly, obliging, and helpful to Evelyn, and it doesn't take hard to suss him out as a villain. Just hearing his voice you know he would have fit right into an early Tom Baker story in a similar villainous role.

Also in the cast is Toby Longworth as Professor Morgan. Longworth is a pretty regular performer in these early Big Finish Doctor Who's. His character is the target of a classic, blistering rant from the Doctor when he gets fed up with his closed mindedness. But what really makes the rant work is when Evelyn cajoles the Doctor into apologizing to him later. The Doctor does offer a sincere olive branch to the Professor - if not an outright apology - and it's another shining example of how Big Finish didn't alter the character of the 6th Doctor, but just nudged it a bit more likeable. Since it's been the better part of a decade since I first heard these it's hard to remember exactly when and how my attitudes towards certain characters in Doctor Who really began to change, but I am sure by this point, I was thawing towards Colin Baker's Doctor quite a bit. I am absolutely sure I was already falling in love with Evelyn. She gets put through the ringer in this story: witnessing a terrifying death, being captured by Flint (and then escaping on her own), and then bravely going back to try to stop him from his mad schemes. How could anyone not love Evelyn with such a strong start in her first two stories?

The story ends with the trapped alien finally getting his ship back, and being denied vengeance against his brother for leaving him abandoned on the Earth for thousands of years decides to take revenge on the planet he was imprisoned on. It's a mild surprise when it's the Brig who ends up saving the day, and not the Doctor. It's really a heartwarming moment. This may not be my favorite of the earliest Big Finish stories, but it's a great one. It's also probably the one I would recommend a classic TV Who fan start with if they want to ease in gently to the audio format. It really does feel like I could have watched this one on TV as a kid.

Rating: Great

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Red Dawn

This story features Peri with the 5th Doctor. As it turns out, in future releases there will be quite a lot of Peri and the 5th Doctor in Big Finish, which stretches belief a bit, since in "Caves of Androzani", Peri is wearing the same outfit as her debut story "Planet of Fire". Oh well. Big Finish is quite right to not let John Nathan-Turner's obsession with making the regulars wear a costume get in the way of an entertaining Doctor/Companion pairing. The other selling point of this story, is that it features the Ice Warriors.

I've never read many of the original Doctor Who novels, so I have no idea how the book range expanded the history of the Ice Warriors prior to this release. I think Big Finish generally sticks to TV continuity as a rule, and picks and chooses which book continuity to acknowledge. In any event, the Ice Warriors end up basically being "good guys" (albeit, trigger happy, violent ones) in this story. The first time I heard this story, it seemed like the Ice Warriors were being characterized a lot like Klingons. There's a whole lot of "honorable warrior" dogma thrown about, which I never really remember hearing about back in the TV series. It was a bit jarring and inconsistent with my memories of the Ice Warriors. The voices are done well, with the rank and file warriors whispering menacingly, and Lord Zzaal rasping in a low tone: both consistent with the TV series, but always audible and comprehensible.

The story involves a Mars probe that inadvertently (or not) disturbs an Ice Warrior burial tomb. As noted before, the Ice Warriors are basically good guys (although they do kind of act like jerks at times), and the villains are among the humans on the probe. The villain's plot seems a bit half baked, and the character turn near the end of the story for Tanya (played by a teenaged Georiga Moffat, who is Peter Davison's daughter, would go on to play Jenny (The "Doctor's Daughter") alongside the Tenth Doctor, and then actually marry David Tenant. I won't get into all the confusing relationship links this starts up....) is uninteresting. In fact, that's the basic problem with the story. It just doesn't feel like a whole lot happens. The villain keeps pissing off the Ice Warriors who come close to blowing up the humans but keep getting talked down by the Doctor. Peri spends most of the story trapped on the probe with the villain. There's also a lot of boring "NASA talk" involving the landing of the human ship, that just takes up time and isn't very interesting. I suppose they were going for realism, but it just brings the plot to a halt, and doesn't add the tension (during ship trouble) that they were probably going for.

All that said, the Doctor's interaction with Lord Zzaal is somewhat enjoyable, and while it was poorly received after its release, I don't think it's awful or anything. Certainly worse things from Big Finish were to come (thankfully not right away). Still that's damning it with faint praise for sure. Better things would come from Big Finish later for both the Ice Warriors and the 5th Doctor/Peri team.

Rating: OK

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Genocide Machine

"Genesis of the Daleks" is almost universally regarded as the best Dalek story ever. In my eyes it's an absolute classic, and Michael Wisher's performance as Davros was simply tremendous. One of the legacies of this story was that every future Dalek story in Doctor Who would feature Davros (though never again portrayed by Wisher). The Daleks would get pushed somewhat to the background in favor of their new "spokesman". The Daleks would also be seen as more and more comical (not that this wasn't already happening in some (or all) of the Dalek stories of the Pertwee era). So, the Daleks needed a bit of an improvement to their image, and Big Finish sought to do that with their first Dalek story "The Genocide Machine".

This Dalek tale takes place on the rain soaked planet of Kar-Charrat. On this planet is a secret library containing all (or at least striving to contain all) of the knowledge of the universe. Of course the old adage is knowledge is power, so obviously the Daleks want it. The library is defended by a Time Lord temporal force field which prevents access and prevents would be intruders from even seeing the library. One wonders why a library that is so dangerous that it has to be kept secret and is inaccessible to all but a very few would need to be created in the first place. Thankfully, that gripe doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment of this story. The planet has a native sentient life form which actually lives in the water (the constant rainfall). These "phantoms" of Kar-Charrat are mere legends, and the librarians dismiss them as myth... or do they?

It's with this backdrop the Doctor and Ace are reunited with the Daleks. The best thing about this story is there is no sign of Davros and the Daleks get some much needed legitimacy. They have a carefully wrought plan that they wait for centuries to carry out, and the plan would have actually worked, were it not for the Doctor's intervention, and that of the native "phantoms". The Dalek voices are handled by Nick Briggs and Alastair Lock, and are spot on. In fact, Nick Briggs carries on doing the voices today in both Big Finish and the TV series. The Daleks have the appropriate menace (this is helped greatly by the musical soundtrack). They have a plan, they carry it out, and it almost all works without a hitch. The only Dalek that comes off badly is the Emperor Dalek who keeps blustering at the Dalek Supreme to meet his schedule, and ignores all of the risks to the success of the project that he is being warned about. There is a nice menacing atmosphere that permeates the story.

There is also some nice light comic relief to keep things from being too dour. Chief Librarian Elgin (played by Bruce Montague) and Cataloguer Prink make for a hilarious double act. Elgin babbles on endlessly and complains about Prink never shutting up, when poor Prink never gets to utter a single word of dialog until the very end of the story! Dalek Duplicate Ace is also a lot of fun, and it sounds like Sophie Aldred had a ball playing this evil version of herself. The audio effects on the "phantom" dialog is suitably creepy and mysterious. McCoy is in mostly good form here, although his rant at Elgin late in the play shows his overacting at its worst.

Most importantly, this story forces the fan to take the Daleks a little more seriously again. This story is loosely linked with the next two Dalek stories (one per Big Finish Doctor) and all help to set up the (very good) Dalek Empire audio series (which does not include the Doctor). I think this is my least favorite of these first three Dalek stories, but all of them are good (and I reserve the right to change my mind when I revisit them in the near future). There are also some ideas in this story that would show up in the new TV series (life forms living in water, a library with all the books in the unverse, Daleks that aren't a total joke - to name three), though I have no idea if it was a direct inspiration. Most importantly, Big Finish starts the 7th Doctor's audio era off with two stories in a row that I like. Could they possibly do three in a row?

Rating: Good

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Marian Conspiracy

This is the one. This story is where I discovered that Big Finish was truly doing something extraordinary. For the first time I was told a Doctor Who story and it was as good or better than any of the original series on television. To put it mildly, I adore this story. This is also where the 6th Doctor really began worming his way into my heart. It's also where the wonderful Evelyn Smythe was introduced. It's a simply tremendous story by Jacqueline Rayner (and not her last).

The story begins with history Professor Evelyn Smythe giving a lecture. She is soon to be annoyed by a noisy gadget being used by the Doctor. He's tracking down some sort of nexus point in time, and after interrupting Professor Smythe's class, he quickly realizes that the nexus point is somehow tied to her. The Doctor charms his way into her apartment later. Dr. Smythe is leery and sort of views him as an entertaining lunatic. However, when she pulls out some historical documentation showing a supposed ancestor of hers who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and the words begin fading from the page before her eyes, she begins to take the Doctor more seriously. The Doctor quickly decides that he needs to go back to the court of Queen Elizabeth (the TARDIS has slightly different ideas) to sort things out (and prevent Evelyn from ceasing to exist) and he brings her with him.

Under almost any standard, this story gets off to a slow start. We spend almost the whole of the first episode listening to the meeting between the Doctor and Evelyn, and then listening to him try to convince her that something is wrong with history, and it somehow involves her. However, this episode pretty much flies by, as the Doctor and Evelyn (played by the brilliant Maggie Stables) have tremendous chemistry right from the start. Their interplay is so entertaining, and why it took the series so long to introduce an older companion seems baffling, given it works so well here from the start. The new series played with this idea with an even older Wilfred Mott, and the results were similarly tremendous. It's a whole new dynamic between the Doctor and companion, and this pairing ultimately leads to a such a strong, warm friendship. It's just impossible not to love Evelyn, and after hearing several more stories she became (and remains) my all time favorite Doctor Who companion.

The bulk of the story takes place at the end of the time of Queen (Bloody) Mary and involves a fictional plot to overthrow her in favor of Queen Elizabeth, with some real historical figures involved. It's a pure historical which harkens back to the Hartnell era with the only real sci-fi element being that this plot has to be stopped to prevent history from being changed, and Evelyn being written out of existence. The plot is perfectly fine, with one or two amusing and clever twists, but really in this story, it's not so much about the plot as it is listening to the characters interact with one another. The particularly entertaining interactions are those involving the 6th Doctor.

Colin Baker is just tremendous in this. It's with this story that Gary Russel (the initial head honcho/producer of Big Finish) and writer Jacqueline Rayner really begin to nudge the 6th Doctor into being a much more likeable Doctor. It's with this story that I began to love Colin Baker's interpretation of the Doctor, and he remains my all time favorite Doctor today, solely due to his wonderful performances in Big Finish stories. Yes, the Doctor still wears the ridiculous coat, and he's still at times brash, loud, and arrogant. But, it's tempered with real depth, as he also can be quiet, thoughtful, and empathetic towards other characters. Never is this "new" Doctor more apparent than in this story. The scenes between him and Queen Mary are just tremendous. Mary thinks she's pregnant (she's not) and the Doctor is inadvertently mistaken for a medical Doctor who is allowed to administer to the psychosomatic symptoms of the Queen. Mary instantly trusts and takes a liking to the Doctor and their talk shifts from her well being to her policy of burning Protestant "heretics" to death. This scene is just wonderful. The Doctor tactfully pleads with the Queen to reconsider (seemingly paying no heed to the natural course of history by doing so, but that's not the point). The Queen listens and makes a valid counter-argument, that she is doing what she knows to be the right thing based on her beliefs. The Doctor (almost against his wishes) empathizes greatly with Mary. In fact, he can relate to her. He has also caused the deaths of many people while trying to do what he thought was right. In another scene he expresses his feelings of empathy to the Queen's Lady in Waiting Sarah, in another scene showing the Doctor not as arrogant and loud, but melancholy and a little vulnerable, realizing how much he has in common with "Bloody Mary".

Of course, it's also the scenes with the Doctor and Evelyn that make this play. There is tremendous banter between them when locked in a cell in the Tower of London. They snipe at each other some, but it already feels more relaxed and warm than the constant arguing between the Doctor and Peri on TV. It's quite simply, the start of a beautiful friendship.

One other nice aspect of this story, is that while there are plotters planning to overthrow (and in fact murder) Queen Mary, it's hard to consider anyone a true "villain" of this story. Sure, Reverend Thomas is sinister, and Francois de Noailles is quite an unlikeable, nefarious French conspirator, but they both have clear and justifiable motives for their not quite justifiable actions. Mary herself, is the one burning innocent people alive, but she is also clearly the victim who needs to be saved, and really comes off as a very sympathetic character. Of course the Doctor and Evelyn sort the plot out, and Reverend Thomas shows his mettle by refusing to betray his beliefs, even though doing so would have slightly improved his fate.

Another lovely start to the new friendship between the Doctor and Evelyn, is when she convinces him to save the innocent, but imprisoned William Leaf and George Crow. When Donna convinces the Tenth Doctor in "The Fires of Pompeii" to save Caecilius and his family it harkens back to this moment in this story. Of course, after everything is sorted out, Evelyn has no intention of giving up the chance to see history for herself and convinces the Doctor to let her travel with him in the TARDIS. And, thank goodness for all of us that she did! "The Marian Conspiracy" is a masterpiece and can not be missed.