Tuesday, 31 January 2017

THE WORLD BEYOND THE TREES

This is a very odd story, made even odder if you are not familiar with the Short Trip story “Damascus” (review HERE).
Set in the mid 1970′s this involves Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) at a bit of a loose end at The Doctor’s house in Baker Street, she is stranded there with Dark Eyes herself Molly O’Sullivan placing this story sometime during the Dark Eyes Saga.
 As I said a real oddball story, but told in an engaging fashion by Liv Chenka herself Nicola Walker. We are really lucky to have an actor of her calibre play a companion at Big Finish – her delivery of the story is world weary, spiky, tired, and at some points where she recalls her relationship with her late Father almost wistful.
 But what about the story? It is quite surreal, The Doctor only features in a dream sequence that Liv has that tells her things that she needs to know including “knock four times” – that got my attention, I had images of a certain Mr Cribbins in full Grim Reaper mode but no, it was just a clever play on expectations, the four knocks are just that – four knocks.
The story is very dreamlike – Liv is the only one in London awake as everyone else is rendered insensible by a “listlessness field” and as Liv investigates the cause she meets up with the only other person in London still alive and is taken to the mysterious Project Damascus.
 The title of the story is very poetic, and the story has a very ambling freewheeling fairy tale lyricism to it – in fact in ambiance it reminds me of the TV episode In The Forest of the Night, though the actual story is completely different, there is something of the fantastical and the other worldly – like Doctor Who is only really pretending to be a science fiction show and is really a fantastic fairy tale about magical worlds, sleeping princesses, wise old Wizards and secret doors in Worlds Beyond The Trees….
 Does it feel like Doctor Who? Well that begs the question “what does Doctor Who feel like?” – to me it does, to others it may be just a bit too left field, but me being me – I LOVE left field and could see this as an animated episode in the style of Coraline, a Doctor Who story – undoubtedly, a strange fairy tale? definitely? a 9/10? most deservedly.

PATHFINDER LEGENDS 3.1 - CURSE OF THE CRIMSON THRONE: EDGE OF ANARCHY

This is a bit of a departure for me – its the first time I have listened to a Pathfinder Legends release and therefore it is the first time that I have reviewed one. And coming in at season three I was a little bit apprehensive about what I had missed before – would I understand the plot and the character? And what exactly IS Pathfinder Legends? Well after a bit of research I can tell you that Pathfinder Legends is based on the role playing game of the same name and is set in a fantasy world of magic and monsters much like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones and it is right up my street. You see during the 1980’s I was a keen role player, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Rune Quest – all my sort of thing – and listening to this first release in series three gave me a warm nostalgic glow as I was transported back to long Saturdays , oddly shaped dice, painted lead figures and adventure!
Curse of the Crimson Throne: Edge of Anarchy does not hide its RPG roots, in fact it glories in them, it almost feels like you are listening to some players completely in character playing out a campaign – the structure is pure RPG, the story is pure RPG and boy does it feel like the beginning of an epic with lots of plot threads to tantalise the listener.
The story involves our heroes Valeros (Stewart Alexander), Ezren (Trevor Littledale), Harsk (Ian Brooker) & Merisiel (Kerry Skinner) waiting in a tavern in the city of Korvosa for Merisiel’s friend Kyra to show up, and just like Godot, she singularly fails to do so. This leads to a series of events that lets them in to a conspiracy regarding a murdered King, a machiavellian Queen, a city in ruin and riot and an awful miscarriage of justice in which our heroes may be culpable.
As I said, pure fantasy stuff, pure RPG but also edge of seat adventure – you may see the twists and turns coming a mile off, and they really do feel like chapters in an RPG campaign or “Fetch quests” but they are played out with such conviction that the band of heroes who I only joined in series three already feel like old friends – and it is this familiarity and genuine likability of the characters that drives the plot – I felt like shouting at them that they were being manipulated from the very beginning as they searched for a lost set of Harrow cards, were asked to return a lost brooch to the grieving Queen and the were charged by the Queen to hunt down her husbands alleged assassin – there is something going on and it does not bode well and only the nest five instalments will reveal the full answer.
I was hooked immediately, completely drawn in to the world of Pathfinder Legends – it may not be the best story ever, it may be predictable, but the ride you are taken on will transport you away from your normal everyday life to a world of magic, heroes and monsters and you will not want to leave. Pathfinder Legends feels like meeting old friends again for new adventures and I cannot wait for the next instalment. 8/10.

GRACELESS IV

I don’t even know where to begin, for once my (admittedly)  flowery and verbose style is at a loss because how do you begin to review a Graceless box set? Really how? Because Graceless is a rare and beautiful thing that defies categorisation and is completely unlike anything else you may have heard. In a word, Graceless is unique.
OK, thats a starting point I suppose –  Simon Guerrier has created something “unique” so I will take that and freewheel on with my usual flowery verbiage until I come to an end? Are we all sitting comfortably? then I will continue…
 Graceless follows the story of two sisters Abby (Ciara Janson) & Zara (Laura Doddington) and how you view them depends on your view of the magic vs science debate – are they hyper evolved created beings with powers derived from the physical universe or are they two witches with magical powers who happen to live in a Science Fiction universe? Being an old romantic I go for the latter, it fits in better with my universal view that not everything needs to be quantified and explained and sometimes a bit of magical power is good. SO Abby and Zara, created by a being called “The Grace” to aid in the search for the Key to Time (see here) and then when it cast them out into the universe to fend for themselves, beings of almost infinite power with hardly any moral compass, who can do anything, literally anything – its almost like giving a cat a machine gun because Abby & Zara are still really children in their understanding – they try to do what is right and good – but what they deem as right and good may not be the morality that you and I have – their concept of right and wrong has been moulded by their experiences and they are learning all the time, learning what they can do, what they wont do and what their powers can do.
 As I said earlier I can only describe this series as unique, the episodes as a whole do not have a defined structure, some are like streams of consciousness, a drifting in and out of half heard and half remembered conversations, whimsical, dream-like, fairy tale like – Abby and Zara are like a couple of cosmic Babes in the Wood doing what they can to make a difference. And they do make a difference, not always in the way they had intended but they do, they try, they have a universal view, they genuinely do see the threads that bind the universe together, and they are not scared to pluck at the ball of twine and everything unravelling is just another possibility.
 Graceless is something that has to be experienced, not read about but just imagine words and music were paint and canvass and Simon Guerrier has painted an audio experience that is many things to many people – well its not really like that at all (even though it sort of is) because no amount of rambling can prepare you for this.
 Now in its fourth series, and taking place a long long time after series three Abby and Zara are old, retied, have lost their powers are know by the names Amy & Joy and are played by Annie Firbank & Sian Phillips – but even in retirement there is always one more mission for them, they will always be Graceless….
 4.1 The Bomb
 Joy/Zara (Sian Phillips) is approached by the mysterious and rather charming stranger Pool (Adam Newington) to come out of retirement to help him deactivate a bomb which is going to devastate the planet that they live on, one last chance to make a difference, one last shot at glory, one last roll of the dice to do the right thing. A very different take on Graceless, Annie Firbank & Sian Phillips capture the essence of Abby & Zara perfectly, elderly, but with a twinkle undoubtedly the same ladies that we have known over the last three series, time has not dampened their curiosity or their spirit of adventure even if it means their death. Which it might…..
 4.2 The Room
 Getting involved, trying to do the right thing – but shifting the balance just a small amount can result in catastrophic consequences. This is an exercise in how to stop a war. Kidnap the generals of the opposing armies and give them a common enemy? Or just go for a pieman breakfast at Marcella’s cafe and hope it all blows over, or just do nothing, or give said Marcella (Victoria Alcock) her wish of ending hunger, or ending war or get the Generals Cormorant (Nichola McAuliffe) & Slink (Carol Starks) to be captured by the neutral denizens of the orbiting moon and work as slaves. Or all of this, or none.
 4.3 The Ward
 If you are an immortal being of infinite power and want to do some good why not work in a hospital? Why not put your powers to good use saving lives, why not work in the frontline and get your hands dirty. And this is what Abby & Zara do – but as always there is a deeper and darker reason for their time spent at Space Dock Hospital – their relationships with Gutierrez (Carolyn Pickles) & Chaff (Dan Starkey) are the seeds in a very long game that whilst may benefit the greater good will leave pain and agony in its wake and on the flip-side a much much greater good – but was it a price worth paying?
 4.4 The Dance
 Nothing to see here. Its over, the end, the final song has been sung and a choice has been made. Move along, nothing to see….
 If Graceless were a TV show it would be on BBC 4 not BBC1 – it really is an acquired taste and a challenging listen in almost equal measures childlike, intense, surreal, cruel & joyful – its a fairy tale, its a tale of cosmic angst, its a tale of good intentions and bad decisions but most of all it is the story of Abby & Zara and their struggle to find their place in the Universe. And it is magnificent.

4th Doctor 6.1 - THE BEAST OF KRAVENOS

Where do I start with this one? It has all the makings of a bit of a classic. Lets look at the evidence – It has one of my favourite classic era Doctor/Companion combinations in Tom & Lalla, it features those investigators of all things infernal Professor George Litefoot & Henry Gordon Jago AND (and it is a very big AND) if features a victim of an horrific murder who may or may not (lets face it its “may not”) be a Great Grandfather of mine in Theodore Watkinson. Mr Watkinson only appears as a corpse but my imagination was well and truly fired when I heard the name – spitting out of breakfast tea & choking on toast nearly ensued as Mrs W laughed out loud at my nefariously nobbled namesake :-)
 And so after that trip down my fictional family tree, I finally come on to the actual story of The Beast Of Kravenos – and not only does it have the makings of a bit of a classic – it actually is a bit of a classic. The Doctor (tom Baker) has been detecting some strange energy readings at Jago (Christopher Benjamin) New Regency Theatre and has loaned K9 (John Leeson) as an act so that he can stay there in deep cover and trace the source of the energy spikes. On top of this a mysterious thief known only as “The Knave” is committing a series of utterly impossible robberies from locked rooms AND (and yes it is another big AND) a medical man called Dr Theodore Watkinson has been found murdered by an unknown and particularly vicious beast – all in a days work for those investigators of infernal incidents Jago & Litefoot, but add the Doctor, Romana & K9 into the mix and you have the makings of a classic caper. Because thats what this is – a great big jolly caper, a runaround with all protagonists acting at crossed purposes whilst all investigating the same thing with often unintentionally hilarious consequences. The dialogue sparkles with the dry wit of Romana 2 (Lalla Ward) & George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) & the more silly comedy of The Doctor & Jago, even Inspector Quick (Conrad Asquith) is in on the caper and his scenes with Tom Baker are laugh out loud funny. In fact the whole cast feels like they all contribute to making this one of the very best Fourth Doctor adventures.
 What about the Knave, the villain of the piece? His (or her) identity remains a secret for most of the story, but it wont take a genius to work out who they are and how all the happenings are inked together – in fact it is this tight plotting mixed with the beautiful interplay of the characters that really makes this something special – it doesn’t feel like a Jago & Litefoot adventure with the Doctor as guest of a Doctor Who adventure with JAgo & Litefoot as guests, both ranges contribute to make this story work building on their particular strengths – heck even K9 gets a comedy turn as an act at the new Regency :-)
 And while this story is very funny, it is a “Season 18” story so isn’t as silly as the “Season 17” season of last year – Tom hasn’t hit the morose characterisation that dominated the latter part of his last year and retains a lot of the joy of his Williams era persona (albeit with a burgundy outfit) thanks mainly to messers Jago & Litefoot, the actors all seem to love working together and the sense of fun, camaraderie & mischief that these elder statesmen of the Whoniverse bring to the table. Again the bar has been set very very high with this release, sometimes things just work and The Beast of Kravenos is one of those times – I have no hesitation in awarding a this classic Kravenos caper a congratulatory 10/10.

221 - THE STAR MEN

And so we begin another year of main range releases, what will 2017 bring us? and can it match the very high standard of 2016? To quote Tom Baker “who knows?” Well, Big Finish probably do but for now the future is a secret known only to Mr Briggs and co…..
January 2017 sees the release of the first in a new trilogy of adventures for the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his season 19 crew Tegan (Janet Fielding) Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) & Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and the first of these stories is “The Star Men” and it continues the trend began in last September’s “A Full Life” (review here) of doing something rather wonderful with Adric – it gives Adric time to breathe as it were and have character development that he just didn’t get on TV – yes he is still petulant, yes he is still arrogant but his character is given layers that were either totally absent or just pushed aside in a very crowded TARDIS. and who better to write this new better characterised Adric than the man who wrote his debut story – Andrew Smith.
 Now I have made it sound that this is a very Adric-centric story, and to a degree you would be right but as well as all the characterisation there is a plot. A lot of plot that shoots off in all sorts of unexpected directions and what begins as a disaster movie spins off to a resume mission to an inter-universal invasion to a base under siege and there is even a doomed romance in there too. Kitchen sink, whole kit and caboodle but the plot never seems overloaded and muddled it develops rather nicely and organically, the actions of the characters drive the plot forwards and the events naturally follow omg from each other, so I had better talk about the plot in more detail…
 The Doctor is trying to teach Adric to fly the TARDIS and not having much success in the simulation the is running, he decides to take his crew to visit the astronomy of Gallius Ultima to help Adric with his study of astronomy, unfortunately The Doctor has arrived at the wrong time period and soon a returning explorer class spaceship is on a collision course with the base – but this is only the beginning the ship has been sent back to destroy the base it came from by the mysterious “Star Men” beings of energy from another Universe who have crossed to ours to exploit the energy given out by the creation of stars in Nebula and using this power to slowly enslave our Universe. This is Adric’s story, and his blossoming romance with Autumn Ace (Sophie Wu) has Matthew Waterhouse taking Adric in directions we have not seen previously in the main range (those who have heard A Full Life will know Adric longed to be loved & accepted) but it is these little touches that make Adric a joy to listen to. As for the rest of the guest cast Sue Holderness (of “Marlene” fame) plays base commander and mother of Autumn, Kala Tace in a role that is a complete departure from her comedic alter ego, she is tough as nails and a good person to have on your side in a crisis, I can just imagine her playing the role of Kala on TV in the 1980’s completely against type and knocking it out of the park.
 The story is very “season 19” but season 19 viewed from a 2017 perspective, it is faithful to its era but relies a lot more on character and has more heart than the sometimes sterile Davison era had on TV. A breakneck pace, so much goes on in each episode that you may have to pause and reflect before moving on to the next instalment – there is rather a lot to digest and the tone and direction of the story moves so very quickly but never to the stories disadvantage. In fact it makes the little oasis’ of calm we get as Adric & Autumn get to know each other even more special, because in a story where time is against the protagonists small moments of charm are even more important. A very good start to the main range releases for 2017 that may need multiple listens to fully appreciate 8/10.

THE AVENGERS - THE LOST EPISODES (VOLUME 7)

And so it ends. This is the very last box set of “Lost Episodes” as every single one of the missing episodes of Season One of The Avengers have been lovingly recreated by Big Finish, and bring the run an episode was actually found and returned!
But what a venture, recreating an entire season with hardly any reference material, making TV scripts work on audio, and most importantly of all recasting John Steed and getting it completely right. I am talking bullseye, on target and owning the role level of right – Julian Wadham take a bow because you have done the almost impossible you have made the role of Steed your very own, you didn’t take the easy path of “doing a Macnee” and hoping for the best, you took the character and you made it work for you – and now when I listen to these sets I see Steed with your face.
 But The Avengers wouldn’t be The Avengers without a sidekick for Steed, or as with the early episodes Steed was a sidekick for Dr David Keel, played on TV by Ian Hendry and brought to life on audio by Anthony Howell – Keel the medical man who’s life is thrown into despair when his wife is murdered in episode one assists Steed to “Avenge” against the criminal underworld, and this dual top billing saw episodes which both men would take the lead, indeed Steed didn’t appear in a few at all which is inconceivable to those of us who came to The Avengers through the Mrs Peel era – but Hendry was the star of the show in Year One.
 And so we come to the episodes, three in this final set, one Steed only, one Keel only and a final pairing up for a final hurrah:
 Dragonsfield, written by Ian Potter, from a script by Terence Feely
 Steed is sent to an experimental facility developing space suits to supply the American space mission. A murder has taken place and espionage is suspected – but who is the spy and why would they want to sell out to the Russians? A lovely start to the final set, Wadham is firing on all cylinders as Steed all suave, urbane charm on the one hand and hard edged agent on the other as he tries to untangle a web of office politics and office romances to get to the bottom of the mystery. A Steed only (or Keel lite if you like) episode that shows its roots in a television script but is effortlessly transferred to a very visual audio.
 The Far Distant Dead, written by Tom Mallaburn from a script by John Lucarotti
 Flipping the emphasis to Dr Keel in this second story (the “Steed Lite” if you like) Anthony Howell gives an earnest performance as Dr Keel, a genuinely good man and humanitarian who just wants to help heal the world. On holiday in Mexico Keel teams up with Dr Alvarez (Karina Fernandez) to provide medical aid to the victims of a cyclone – but he finds another disaster because food aid given to the victims is not all it seems and is killing those who cook with it. Keel uncovers a conspiracy spanning the Atlantic and discovers just how much suffering the greed of one man can cause. Different in tone to the first episode – Keel is a man on a mission, he sees injustice and fights it, he also cares, sometimes too much. Keel has a real depth of character and Howell really brings out his striving to do the right thing and help everyone as his way of “Avenging” his wife murder. Really cracking stuff.
 The Deadly Air, written by John Dorney from a script by Lester Powell
 And here it is, the very last “Lost” episode – Keel and Steed together for the last time investigating the sabotage of an experimental vaccine facility. Its a tense final episode rich with all the trapping that made the early episodes of The Avengers so memorable – Steed’s charm, Keel’s steadfastness and a serious threat, a threat so serious that Steed makes a grand farewell speech when he believes he has been infected by a killer manufactured infection. Being the last episode this is alluded to in the final scene, which is reminiscent of the Steed/Peel “tag” scenes of the later episodes – its an acknowledgement of all good things coming to an end but a reaffirmation that The Avengers are “needed”.
 And thats it. Big Finish have done a wonderful job of recreating these genuinely lost classics and breathing life into the long lost and sometimes overlooked Year One of The Avengers. Thanks to the hard work put in by all involved Avenger fans have a complete run of the whole series created with authenticity, enthusiasm & dare I say it with love.
A lovely set to end the series Mr Steed & Doctor Keel take a bow, your work is done 9/10.


THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG VOLUME 2

Two words to begin this review. Can you guess what they are? What other words are appropriate  to welcome back her of the magnificent hair apart from “Hello Sweetie”:
Right, I got that out of my system, thanks for bearing with me, but River Song – well she is rather special to me, from her debut in the Library through to Twelve taking her to the towers of Darillium I have found her a fascinating, intriguing and engaging character (with magnificent hair) – a tragic heroine for the ages, an impossible woman doomed by her love of but blessed by her love from The Doctor – basically I can never have too many River Song stories and when this set was announced I was suitably intrigued – River with not one but TWO Doctor’s – how would Professor Song get on with Old Sixie (Colin Baker) and Seven (Sylvester McCoy) and how would the very fragile and very very complicated web of her life be maintained? Well dear reader, read on.
This box set is a little bit complicated – it deals with a lot of high concept Sci-Fi elements lots of what the Moffat era has deemed “timey-wimey” while still maintaining  enough heart and soul to make me well up on several occasions and there is a very very funny in joke that I was hoping would get a mention in the fourth story “The Eye of the Storm” – because thats what this set is really its a storm, on a cosmic and a personal scale, certainties are ripped apart by a maelstrom of coincidence, the larger picture then effects ordinary everyday people as the stage is set for a storm to end all storms. One River, Two Doctors – who could possible want more??? And it all begins with a spaceship…
2.1 The Unknown by Guy Adams
On the spaceship Saturnius River Song and the rest of the crew including Maddie Bower (Anna Maxwell Martin), Ellen Byrne (Gemma Saunders) & Robert Murphy (Justin Avoth) are investigating a phenomena that has appeared in Earth’s Solar System and they are stuck, cannot go backwards or forwards just stuck in its thrall – lucky there is a stowaway on board in the shape of the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). What a way to start it complex, its intriguing and it is very very dreamlike with characters misremembering the most simple things about themselves as the effects of the phenomena accelerate. River and Seven, how does it work, how are they together? Well to quote Miss Song “spoilers” but they definitely have a spark, not as strong or romantic as with 10,11 or 12 more of a respect. The story has the feeling of a sci-fi disaster movie with added paradoxes and is a rip roaring beginning to the set.
2.2 Five Twenty-Nine by John Dorney
Now this is rather special. Very special indeed. After the fast paced beginning the pace is rolled back to what can only be called “sedate” and yet there is a sense of urgency, something in the air, something about to happen, something awful, something heartbreaking and something final and it is going to happen at Five Twenty-Nine.
River arrives alone on an island investigating this phenomenon and is taken in by Emmett Burrows (Robert Pugh), his wife Lisa Burrows (Ann Bell) and their synthetic daughter Rachel (played by real life daughter of Alex Kingston – Salome Heartel) – this is the future, but the only real sci-fi element is Rachel – Emmett & Lisa live a simple life as sheep farmers on an island where they get on with living. And then reports come in of the world losing communication with the USA as a wave of nothingness travels from time zone to time zone on the earth arriving in each at Five Twenty-Nine. This is heartbreaking, its beautiful and it is a wonderful story about the love of an ordinary couple. I was reminded of the writing of Raymond Briggs, ordinary people, awful circumstances and no apparent way out. The highlight of the set.
2.3 World Enough and Time by James Goss
Having met Seven in the opening story it is now time for River to bump in to the force of nature that is Old SIxie. But Old Sixie here is masquerading as Managing Director of Golden Futures and  has a growing number of unanswered emails to cope with, and the he spots a beautiful lady with magnificent hair in his typing pool and his hearts so full of bombast and verbosity melt. Yes indeed Old Sixie is smitten with River & she is VERY keen on him. Old Sixie and River really sizzle together as they investigate the goings on at Golden Futures. Very much a “buddy-movie” style story as Old Sixie and River investigate and discover a conspiracy linked in not only to the first two episodes but to the actual end of the world. And the root of it all in money, greed, profit and an audacious plan to use the Doctor’s potential future as a source of energy AND then there is project Elysium but any more would be #Spoilers so thats all you are getting!
2.4 The Eye of the Storm by Matt Fitton
I do like a good joke and I am so glad what went on in my mind was paid off in the last scene before the credits. Anyhow, no more on that for the moment on to the final instalment. A Storm is coming, the worst storm in Earth’s history, the great storm of 1703 – thing is this storm may herald the end of the world. So far we have had River & 7, River solo & River & Old Sixie – in this finale we have River, 7 & Old Sixie all at once at a temporal nexus point – all apparently working for the same ends from different perspectives and getting their wires crossed. And the eye of the storm are a young couple called Isaac George (Paul Keating) & Sarah Dean (Jessie Buckley) and their love for one another may (or may not) cause history to be fractured forever. It is a very very complicated script, but it is humanised by some exceptional characterisation (and a very funny in joke) River shows herself as more astute than either of the Doctor’s in knowing the only way out of the situation and the price that must be paid for the correct outcome.
A melancholy ending with a smitten Old SIxie, an intrigued Seven, and a loose end from Five Twenty-Nine tied up very nicely indeed.
I didn’t think I could be any more of a fan of River than I already was – but this set adds so much to her character, her romance with Old Sixie, her trying to outsmart Seven, her humanity in trying to do the right thing for the Burrows family even though she knows it is futile – her poetry, her understanding of the power of a love so strong that it transcends time and space. And also the magnificent hair, never forget the magnificent hair :-) I know this was released in 2016, but this box set is my first review of 2017 & has already set the bar exceptionally high and is one heck of a ride. So as I award this 10/10 I will leave the final words to the lady herself as you anticipate listening to the series:



Written by Ed Watkinson