Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Quick update...

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. My wife and I have been busy preparing to move. I was hoping to get Loups Garoux and Dust Breeding reviewed prior to our move, but that just isn't going to happen. Hopefully I can get back to 2-3 reviews per week after things settle down in a week or two.

Oh and I will absolutely check in some time this weekend with thoughts on Asylum of the Daleks!!!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Minuet in Hell

We conclude the fun first season of the 8th Doctor with a resounding thud. Of the first 20 Doctor Who releases from Big Finish, this is by far the worst. Even the presence of the Brigadier can't save this sorry story. Apparently, the production was pretty troubled: writer Alan Lear was very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, the script was needed very quickly, and Gary Russel had to hastily rewrite most of the second half of the story. The recordings ended up being way too long, and some harsh edits had to be made. It's obvious that there were problems here as there are some very abrupt transitions from scene to scene throughout the play.

The story takes place around the birth of a new state in the USA. The new state has the dubious name of Malebolgia. I have no idea who thought this was a plausible name, or that the idea of a new state seceding from another was somehow going to happen in 21st century America. We are also subjected to some simply atrocious southern accents in this story. Canadian, Robert Jezek, is very unconvincing as a southern, religious politician named Dashwood. Morgan Deare (an American) sounds a lot like Foghorn Leghorn in his portrayal as Senator Waldo Pickering. Then again, since Pickering is nothing more than a cartoon character, perhaps that's appropriate. But what really makes this story hard to take seriously is the "demon" Marchosias who is not in the least bit threatening, and in fact comes off as more of a comedic character. Poor Nicholas Courtney is mostly wasted in this story. It's a huge drop in quality from his previous Big Finish story "The Spectre of Lanyon Moor".

There is one bright spot to this story: the sub plot with the Doctor losing his memory. The Doctor wakes up in Dashwood's horrific mental institution. He seems to be completely out of his mind and unable to remember who he is. Another recent inmate in the asylum, Gideon Crane, (improbably British) seems to remember more about the Doctor than the Doctor himself does! Crane is played wonderfully by Nicholas Briggs. As Crane seems to be more and more confident that he is in fact the Doctor, you almost become convinced yourself. When Crane and Becky Lee (a pretty transparent rip off of Buffy) are plotting an escape from the asylum you can't help but ponder the idea of Nick Briggs actually playing the Doctor! I also find Dashwood's quiet singing of "Dashwood to the White House...." to be pretty amusing.

In any event, the "demons" are defeated, the evil politician Dashwood is hoisted on his own petard, and the Doctor and Crane's respective memories are restored, but it's a mostly a tedious listen to get there. While it's nice that Nicholas Courtney got to act with all of the first eight actors to play the Doctor, it's a shame that his debut with McGann had to take place in such a mess of a story. At times, there are some funny moments in this story, and I think it would have worked better as an all out comedy. It's certainly hard to take a whole lot of this disaster seriously. 

Rating: Poor


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Stones of Venice

The first season for the 8th Doctor continues with possibly its best story. "The Stones of Venice" was actually the first McGann story to be recorded. Paul McGann and India Fisher show great chemistry right away, which is pretty remarkable. The story has a great introduction with the Doctor and Charley frantically escaping into the TARDIS from armed pursuers. It's nice to come in at the end of an off-screen, unrelated adventure. The Doctor promises Charley a holiday so he takes her to Venice. Of course, they don't simply get to enjoy some time off.

The story actually takes place in the future, but other than the amphibious Gondoliers (more on them later) it feels like it could have been set in the present, and feels even more like a story set in the past. Our pair arrives when Venice is seemingly on the point of destruction (via flood). This imminent destruction is apparently based on a curse. The ruler of Venice is Duke Orsino who has governed the city for over a century. Apparently, in his hubris he gambled away his true love, Estella, and she cursed the Duke (prolonging his life) and Venice. Then, she is believed to have drowned herself. Apparently, the imminent destruction of Venice is caused by this curse. Meanwhile, a nefarious cult has sprung up over the years that worships Estella and supposedly secrets her remains in a crypt. They believe she will return from the dead and save them and the city from destruction. The curator of the Duke's collected artwork, Churchwell, is despondent about the forthcoming loss of the Duke's sizable collection (which the Doctor notes seems to have art not from Earth). The Duke is indifferent about the imminent destruction of his city and artwork, but only longs to see his lost love one more time.

This is the backdrop where Charley and the Doctor find themselves when they arrive. They quickly meet the mysterious Ms. Lavish who lets them know that at dawn the flood will come and the city will be lost under the lagoon. (It becomes pretty obvious who Ms. Lavish is fairly quickly.) They also encounter the Gondoliers, an amphibious, web-footed under class who work as... well, gondoliers. They are eagerly awaiting the flood which will allow them to emerge from under the rule of men and live as kings of the underwater city. Frankly, the plot of the story is serviceable, but full of some plot holes. The Gondoliers are never properly explained. Are they some sort of evolution of men? Are they relatives of the Sea Devils or Silurians? Are they aliens? They are simply introduced with no real explanation. If your monsters are so uninteresting to not warrant any kind of explanation, then they simply come off as padding in the story. Their plot to distract the Duke with a fake Estella seems pointless, other than giving Charley some peril to be involved in. It's also silly when the cult leader, Vincenzo, and the Duke go to look at the remnants of Estella in the crypt. The Doctor and Churchwell both know that the sarcophagus is empty and at the end of episode three protest that they tried to warn them both not to open it. But, in reality, they didn't really make much effort to warn them. A simple "It's empty!" would have worked better than their vague "You don't want to do this." protests.

Still, this story really works, because the plot is more of a means to an end. We get some fantastic performances helped by stellar dialog from writer Paul Magrs. Orsino is wonderfully played by classic Who veteran guest actor Michael Sheard (perhaps best known in Doctor Who for playing Laurence Scarman in "Pyramids of Mars". As an unrelated aside, I improbably, actually met him once.) Sheard is wonderfully over the top here, wringing out every line of dialog with angst or anger. He's quite a lot of fun here. Also great is Mark Gattis as the evil Vincenzo. Gattis' name keeps showing up in the cast list of many of these earlier stories, and I am struck by how I almost never recognize his voice, unlike say the similarly oft cast Barnaby Edwards (who yes is in this as main Gondolier, Pietro) who I usually can spot after one line of dialog. Elaine Ives-Cameron (who was in the classic Doctor Who story "The Stones of Blood") is full of doom and gloom as Ms. Lavish. The cast clearly has a lot of fun with some very witty dialog.

The direction goes a long way in this story as well. Gary Russel does a great job of making you feel like you're in Venice. As mentioned earlier, we are supposedly in the future, but it doesn't really feel that way. It seems like Venice is largely the same as it is today (and was yesterday), which is kind of wonderful to hear. The party sounds like a riotous good time with the band playing jauntily in the background (and having fewer and fewer band members as the night wears on). It's interesting how you never feel any particular peril or impending doom as we get closer to the dawn. This is perhaps a good thing as it might make this story feel a little too much like "Fires of Vulcan". The final explanation of the curse is satisfying, and the romantic way the curse is averted makes for a nice ending.

Despite some of my misgivings with the plot, this remains the highlight of the first proper season for the 8th Doctor. It particularly shines bright given the absolute dreck that concludes the season. Again you can't help but be charmed by both the 8th Doctor and Charley. They seem to be having a ball together, and you can't help but feel like you're in on the fun. Bigger and better things will come for this duo in their second season together, but this story is a lot of fun along the way.

Rating: Great

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sword of Orion

The second story in the first season for the 8th Doctor features the Big Finish debut of the Cybermen. It strongly follows the format of the "base under siege" formula that many of the 60's Cybermen stories had. While better things would come from Big Finish for the Cybermen in the future, it's still a pretty fun story.

The most interesting aspect of this story is the idea of the war between humans and androids who have taken control of the Orion system. The twist involving the androids' involvement in the events on the abandoned space ship remains a highlight. The very human actions of the android in saving Charley add to the moral ambiguity about just who is in the right in this war (if you even think it is ambiguous). On the other hand, the subplot with Grash and Ike's smuggling operation adds little to the story, and could have been left out entirely

In addition to being our first Cybermen story, it's still just our second story featuring the 8th Doctor and Charley. McGann and Fisher have tremendous chemistry, and Charley seems to be having a ball at the "galactic bazaar" they start the story in. The guest cast are good with special attention to Bruce Montague as Grash. He couldn't sound more different from his performance as Head Librarian Elgin in "The Genocide Machine". Michelle Livingstone is also quite good as the ruthless Captain Deeva Jansen.

As for the Cybermen, the voice work from writer/director Nick Briggs is definitely based on the 80's Cybermen stories. Big Finish will go on to try different variants of Cyber-voices as the range goes on. Since the Cybermen spend the bulk of the story reviving from hibernation, they perhaps don't seem as threatening as in other stories. This is made up for somewhat by very effective use of a Cybermat. The Cybermat wreaks havoc on the human ship, and given the unimpressive visual realization of the Cybermats in the past, works quite well in the audio format.

The biggest criticism I could levy at "Sword of Orion" is that it's just not remarkable. It's fun hearing the Cybermen for the first time, but it doesn't do anything new with them. (This would be remedied greatly in the near future.) Still, it's a fun time, and McGann continues to charm as the 8th Doctor. The first season of the 8th Doctor is progressing along nicely.

Rating: Good

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Storm Warning

Before there was new Doctor Who in 2005, there were the Paul McGann Big Finish stories. While I was delighted by all the new Doctor Who featuring classic Doctors, I had an extra feeling of anticipation as I prepared to introduce myself to the 8th Doctor audios. This was new Doctor Who featuring the current Doctor. This was also the first "season" of Doctor Who from Big Finish.

"Storm Warning" does not have what I would call a great plot, but it does a terrific job of reintroducing the 8th Doctor, and introducing new companion Charley Pollard. Over the first two seasons of 8th Doctor audios Paul McGann and Charley would establish the kind of chemistry between Doctor and Companion not seen for a long time, and with a new vibe. India Fisher who was fine, but not overly remarkable as Perril in "Winter for the Adept" almost instantly becomes one of the all time great companions. The "Edwardian Adventuress" has a lust for life outside of the normal confines of her upper crust upbringing. She has the same zeal for travel and exploration that the Doctor does, so it's no wonder that they get along right away - even if Charley does think the Doctor may be completely crazy at first!

The story focuses around the doomed air ship the R101. I confess to not knowing a thing about this piece of history prior to hearing this story. The R101 crashed in France in 1930 on its maiden voyage, and writer Alan Barnes constructs a fun sci-fi story around this tragedy. This story also lays the seeds for a multi-season story arc for the Doctor and Charley that takes the series to some epic highs (and some ghastly lows). Over the course of the story, the R101 has a rendezvous with a UFO, and when we meet the aliens the story becomes a bit of a let down to me. The alien society just seems implausible and not particularly interesting with their factions of Creators and Uncreators with the Law governing both sides. It's also a big let down when the Creators are freed from their (literal) chains and end up being a pretty threatless alien monster.

But, there's a ton of fun to be had along the way in this story. McGann charms right away in his opening monologue in the TARDIS. I felt that the TV Movie was mostly awful with the exception of the incredible production values (I mean that TARDIS interior was just gorgeous!) and of course McGann himself. I remembered being devastated by the low US ratings which doomed the fledgling co-produced reboot (although it was obviously a blessing in disguise) because I really wanted to get to know this new Doctor. Well, he's finally back here! Listening to him talk to himself - and then chide himself for talking to himself is a delight. McGann sounds like he is having a ball and has the same boundless enthusiasm he showed in the TV Movie. (I also love the clever foreshadowing of "Mary's Story" in this which doesn't come to fruition for many years - although I doubt it was actually intentional back when Barnes wrote this.) McGann really is a bridge between the classic show and the current one, as his characterization feels more energetic and emotional like the new series portrayal, but the stories are structured in a more classic series format.

The guest cast is highlighted by Gareth Thomas (most famous for being Blake in Blake's 7, which I have actually never seen) as Lord Tamworth. Tamworth comes off like a pompous fool in the early goings, but there's much more to him. Barnaby Edwards is amusing as the villainous Rathbone, but at this point it feels like Edwards is in almost all of these early stories, so it's pretty easy to spot his voice early on. Maybe I'm just used to hearing him on the CD extras of the newer releases.

As mentioned earlier, the most significant plot element to come from "Storm Warning" is the fact that the Doctor saves Charley from the death she was supposed to have crashing on the R101. This tweak to history ends up having serious repercussions later on, but in this season we just get some hints about its seriousness when the Doctor broods about it. This story gets this new era (at the time) of Doctor Who off to a fun start.

Rating: Great