Friday, 30 September 2016

A FULL LIFE

Its not often I insist on anything really, but after listening to a full life I insisted that Mrs W listened to it. And she did. And she was inspired to write her own review (more of which later on). Because I had to listen to this one twice, and on second listening the impact was even greater. I was even tempted to write a one word review, just one word “Exceptional” because that is what A Full Life is – truly an exceptional piece of writing, directing, acting and sound design – I would go as far to say that it is one of THE very best releases from Big Finish. But why? you may ask, please read on….
 Adric – I was 10 when Earthshock was broadcast, I cried when Adric died. My little 10 year old self had no idea of the received fan wisdom that Adric was not a companion that you should like so I cried for a long time at a pointless death. But what if Adric got to live a full life, what would he do, who would he become, what would be his legacy and what would be the price, because everything has a price.
 Set during season 18 Adric tells the tale of the time he, The Doctor and Romana were trying to leave E-Space and came across the planet Veridis – a planet where a scientist has learned to bring the dead back to life, where his grief for his lost granddaughter compelled him to discover how to break the circle of life – and then everyone wanted their loved ones back – so no one died and the population grew and grew until rioting broke out – there is always a price.
 Told as an audio diary with rewinding, stopping and self editing Matthew Waterhouse is stunning, truly stunning in this production as he reminisces about his time with The Doctor and Romana, remembering things maybe not quite as they happened but with a sense of nostalgia for a past that has long gone – its a very natural performance and utterly believable – the listener is completely drawn in to Adric’s story – you could have heard the proverbial “pin” drop in our house as Mrs W & I listened to it.
 And then tears, my tears – in 1982 I cried when Adric died – in 2016 I cried when Adric lived and I really will never look at the character in the same way again.
 So thats me – this is what Mrs W thought:
 “A character much derided, Adric. An annoying, obnoxious teen, we said; but when Earthshock took him away, his loss was truly felt and maybe he wasn’t such an irritant after all.  The opportunity for growing up and out of social awkwardness would never be realised. What could Adric have become? What kind of man would experience have given us?
 The beautiful and heartbreaking ‘A Full Life’ addresses this. Circumstances, (no spoilers), allow Adric to bypass his Earthshock fate and lead the life un-lived. It offers us the chance to see Adric develop, through initial grief and loneliness, into a wise, brave and splendid adult, deserving of happiness, companionship and what is revealed to be ‘a full life’. 
 Matthew Waterhouse has truly never been better. His voice had developed a richness and maturity which adds, so brilliantly, to the tone if this excellent piece. He suggests the attitudes of the Doctor and Romana so well and brings each character, no matter how minor, to life. Hats off to him. He has developed into such a fine actor, as fine as the adult Adric became. 
 Joe Lidster – a script of pure excellence. Rarely have I been so moved. Your words and vision for the Adric that could have been, were truly beautiful.
 Big Finish at its glorious best. Thank you, thank you.
 A Full Life is a masterpiece pure and simple, no scores for this one just my insistence that you go and spend £2.99 of your hard earned money on this gem right away.

DOOM COALITION 3

If only the TV series was THIS good will be a recurring theme of this review. Because this set is better than anything broadcast on TV under the name of Doctor Who since at least new years day 2010 – Big Finish really have captured the sense of epic, of tragic, of moving and of characterful that has been sadly lacking since Messers RTD & Tennant left the building.
 So the third box set in the Doom Coalition saga and this series just gets better and better. I think there must be some sort of equation that proves that the more time Doctor number 8 spends with River Song then the better the adventure – because in this series of stories Doctor number 8 finally gets to meet River Song. But wait wasn’t the Library the first time that the Doctor met River? Well yes it was and a very big SPOILERS to everyone as the way that 8 and River meet is so simple and so effective that it allows them to adventure together keeping the future intact.
 As always I get ahead of myself – whereas the previous two Doom Coalition releases have dealt with the character of “the Eleven” – this delves a little deeper into the coalition itself and the various miscreants that make it up – chief amongst these is The Clocksmith (Nicholas Woodeson) a deranged time-lord artist who created “The Doomsday Clock” and with the mention of that artefact so the plot begin. Imagine there was a clock that predicted the end of everything, that predicted the actual time, date and coordinates of literally the end of the universe – well that is what the Clocksmith has created – and Doom Coalition 3 follows the repercussions of that creation backwards and forwards through earths history and to a dark and desperate future. But to begin with things start off a little more small scale, in fact very small scale on Earth, England 1998……
 3.1 Absent Friends by John Dorney
 There I am building up an epic to end all epics and then to begin with we get this. And it is magnificent. Truly magnificent. Because it really isn’t the sort of story you think it is going to be. At all. The Doctor, Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) & Helen Sinclair (Hattie Morahan) arrive in England in 1998, thing is The Doctor was trying to get to Gallifrey & the TARDIS has been drawn off course by an anomaly. As Liv & The Doctor investigate the new mobile telephone mast, mysterious phone calls & creepy “Supervill” corporation running the mobile network, Helen decides that 1998 is not too far in time from 1963 and seeks out any surviving members of her family in London. Its a story about loss, about family and about regret, its beautifully acted and written and the tone is perfect – it sets you up to expect a Pertwee style season opener and instead presents us with an RTD era tear jerker. Magnificent.
 3.2 The Eighth Piece by Matt Fitton
 Tracking the mysterious “Eighth Piece of the clock to the past and the future of Earth, The Doctor goes to Tudor England leaving Liv in Prague a century earlier & Helen in contemporary Italy. And then there is River Song (Alex Kingston) complete with Nun outfit, “psychic wimple” and sassy comments. On TV this would be your standard “timey-wimey” episode – but Big Finish are better than that, all the timezones fit together perfectly with cause and effect being just that – what happens in Prague has an effect on the future. The Doctor meets Thomas Cromwell (John Shrapnell) and is imprisoned in the Tower of London in his search for the missing piece of the clock where Liv and River confront the deranged Clocksmith. Helen has a very interesting meeting at a Rome museum in 2016 with the almost complete clock and its fanatical Professor….
And we are back to cause and effect as the cliffhanger is a perfect example of how history is inevitable. Edge of your seat stuff, the plot thickens and the tension builds….
 3.3 The Doomsday Chronometer by Matt Fitton
 Is this episode a cheat? No, I don’t think so. Yes it shows us things that have happened previously that we were not privy to, but that is definitely not cheating, simply put its another intricate piece in this fascinating puzzle box of a story. Teaming Helen up with River is a great move letting Helen experience History as they trace the history of the Doomsday clock and the cult that protect its secrets – we also have the Doctor teamed up with the alien queen Risolva (Janie Dee) leader of the puzzle box style clockwork robots that have been hunting down him and his companions since last episode. And then there is Octavian (Tim McMullan) the Monk from the Tudor era about to play his part in proceedings. All the pieces of the puzzle are coming into place – the endgame is approaching and not everyone will be the same after this episode….
 3.4. The Crucible of Souls by John Dorney
 In the words of River Song “Spoilers” because there isn’t really a lot I can say about this one without spoiling the plot completely, so I will tread carefully. It features Gallifrey, the end of the universe, and a further addition (or two) to the Doom Coalition. And its epic, stupendously so – think The Stolen Earth meets The Avengers Assemble and you get the idea – the gangs all here and the universe is going to hell and there really is nothing that The Doctor can do about it. John Dorney has played with our expiations not once but twice in this set and all I can say is this WILL leave you gasping for breath and shouting “NOOOO” at the ending and counting the hours until March 2017.
 If only the TV show were THIS good – because this is feature film blockbuster good, but not only that it has a human side, people get hurt and listening to them get hurt is painful to the listener – because Messers Dorney & Litton have made even the smallest characters important and imbued them with enough character to make the listener care. And then there is Paul McGann & Alex Kingston – total chemistry, they sizzle and zing and riff off each other like they were made to be together. This set has everything, drama, heartbreak, an aeon spanning conspiracy & a universe that really is in peril. Betrayal, loss, bravery and, well “spoilers” if I were to say any more. A stunning box set, utterly stunning – Doctor Who as it should be, ticking all the boxes and THEN leaving the audience wanting more. And I couldn’t really ask for any more than that. As my review clock counts down to its final score, I can do it no greater honour than awarding it 10/10.

THE CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT - LIMITED EDITION VINYL

Some stories are talked about in a sort of reverent hushed awe, Talons, Web of Fear, Inferno, The Curse of Fenric from the classic series, Blink, Human Nature & Dalek from the new series. Dalek – I wonder what happened to the writer of that one???? I jest of course as Rob Shearman is the writer of this months very very special release from the Big Finish archive (and yes I know he wrote this before Dalek :-) ) So back to classics, on TV we had a sum total of one full story and a regeneration for Doctor number 8 – his era was firmly in the audio realm at Big Finish (as confirmed by his Regeneration speech) and he had a fair few classics (and probably will have a fair few more) but The Chimes Of Midnight is one of “those” stories, talked about in the same hushed reverent tones as The Daemons & City of Death, yes indeed ladies and gentlemen we have one of those rare beasts, we have a classic.
 Voted the most popular Big Finish main range release this was always going to be the first release to get a very special edition – Vinyl no less, a four L.P (remember them) release with the story re-cut into a six parter one part each taking up one side of 33 rpm disc and the final disc being the special features. At £79.00 its not cheap, but it is strictly limited to 500 copies so will almost become an instant collectors item and it is rather beautiful – the artwork really conveys the atmosphere of the story, and if you are one of those people who view listening as a tactile experience there is the smell of the vinyl, the feel of the cover and the slight hiss and crackle as the L.P spins on your turntable that you just don’t get with a CD or a download – there is something almost reverent in the act of playing an L.P – but what of the story and why is it a much heralded classic? If you have not heard it then where have you been since February 2002 (WHERE have 14 years gone???) but I will try to capture a little of the flavour of it.
 The Doctor (Paul McGann) and Charley Pollard (India Fisher) materialise in an Edwardian house on Christmas Eve, all the trappings of an upper middle class or lower upper class household are present, the Butler, the Cook, the Scullery Maid, the Chauffeur, the Ladies Maid – all very Upstairs Downton (see what I did there :-) ) but the Doctor and Charley have seemingly jumped a crack in time as they are not quite “there” yet, they cannot interact with their surroundings, pulled crackers reverse, broken jam jars repair – and the household staff cannot interact with them yet either – only Charley & Edith the scullery maid (Louise Rolfe) seem to have an affinity through the void, and then Edith is murdered and the Doctor & Charley “arrive” cast as amateur sleuths, and then everything goes to hell as a murder will be committed on the hour every hour up until the Chimes of Midnight and the arrival of Christmas Day. First of all this is a scathing social comment on the attitudes of the early 20th century of the class system and how those servants with a little bit of pull feel that they can lord it over the servants lower down the order – Edith is constantly told by Mrs Baddeley the cook (Sue Wallace) & Mr Shaughnessy the Butler (Lennox Greaves) that she is nothing and no-one that she is stupid and dull, secondly this story is not at all what it seems – on the surface a by the numbers Agatha Christie style murder mystery Rob Shearman utterly subverts the genre of both the murder mystery, the Doctor Who story and lays the foundations for the more character based, emotional Doctor Who we have enjoyed since 2005 – because at its heart this story is about a single act of perceived kindness and strip away all the sci-fi or fantasy trappings and we are back to the British class system and the changing attitudes of the era and the consequences of the attitudes of a strict pecking order…..
 If you have the money and own a record player then its a no brainer, just go out and buy it. If not then the download of the original release is available for a mere £2.99 here. Its a classic pure and simple – to misquote Mrs Baddeley “Christmas really wouldn’t be Christmas without the Chimes of Midnight” 10/10.



THE EARLY ADVENTURES - 3.1 THE AGE OF ENDURANCE

Authenticity, thats what its all about in The Early Adventures and this months first story of the third season is no exception, in fact its a text book example of how to write, direct, produce and score a Season 1 period Hartnell story. Unlike some attempts at recapturing the Hartnell era in other media Big Finish have really captured the soul of 1963/1964 in The Age of Endurance. Unfortunately the wonderful Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright) is no longer with is so in a move possible inspired by last years casting of  Elliott Chapman as Ben Jackson, this story introduces Jemma Powell taking on the role of Barbara Wright. Jemma has already played Barbara on TV in Mark Gatiss’ wonderful “An Adventure in Space and Time” so was a natural choice to try to fill Jacqueline Hill’s unfillable shoes and she is superb in the role. Barbara really was the heart of the first two seasons of Doctor Who, and contributed more than any other character to the mellowing of the Doctor. But what of the story? Well, read on.
 As I said at the beginning of my review it is very very authentic. It begins like any other season one story, the TARDIS materialises and the crew have literally no idea where they are and set out to examine their surroundings. Its slow paced, deliberate and just a little bit “stagey” – you can imagine it being filmed in a tiny studio at Lime Grove under too hot lights with not enough time for rehearsal. There is only just enough time for the crew to discover a dead body when the spaceship they have landed on is boarded by soldiers and our heroes are plunged into the middle of a war between the soldiers and the shape-shifters known only as “The Shift” and their leader Arran (Tom Bell) – things become even more desperate when Barbara is taken prisoner by The Shift and a chase through space ensues to rescue her.
 The whole story is one gigantic game of cat and mouse throughout the vastness of space and just like early Doctor Who there is a moral ambiguity to all the characters because both sets of protagonists are very well drawn, the seemingly evil Shift are much much more than the standard rubber suit villains and have some redeeming features and conversely the “heroes” under their leader Myla (Rachel Atkins) are not a whiter than white set of square jawed do-gooders.
 The TARDIS crew are on top form with William Russell giving us the heroic Ian that we expect, but also a spot on Hartnell complete with hmm, harrumphs and line flubs. Carole Ann Ford as Susan is just like she was on TV, and it strikes me as how different her actual voice is as narrator to her “Susan voice” and Jemma Powell really does capture the spirt of Barbara Wright without resorting to an impersonation of Jacqueline Hill, in fact we don’t quite hear enough of her as Barbara is captured early on in part two and is not in the story again until part four – however this happened regularly on the TV show as cast had their holidays, so again Big Finish spot on with the authenticity.
 So overall a strong start to the third season of Early Adventures, slow paced, ponderous and almost plodding – the story is a chase but with all the infinity of space to chase through it lacks a little urgency but what it does lack in pace it more than makes up in period feel and season one charm. An Enduring pastiche of the Hartnell Age 7/10.

216 - MAKER OF DEMONS

The Doctor is a good guy, on the side of the angels, always doing things for the greater good with the best of intentions. But isn’t there a phrase about the road to hell being paved by good intentions? (answer YES THERE IS) and this phrase is very very apt when applied to this months main range release.
 The Seventh Doctor in this trilogy isn’t quite the master manipulator he becomes in seasons 25, 26 & beyond, but neither is he the clown from Season 24 – he is a work in progress still trying to work out who he is and still believing in a universal good as is evidenced by the pre credits where he an Mel aid human colonists from their Colony ship The Duke of Milan find a new colony world, make peace with the indigenous population “The Mogera” and discover a new source of energy, a mineral hubristically named “Doctorium”. The day is won, peace is attained an all happy ever after before the credits even roll. Of course, its not that simple….
 Precisely 100 years later The Doctor, now travelling with Ace and Mel decides to go back to the colony of Prosper to see how it getting on, he expects a paradise, but the paradise has been lost if indeed it ever really existed – the humans are at war with the Mogera, the Mogera have mutated from meek mole like creatures into frenzied armoured battle trolls. And this hell on Prosper is all the fault of the good intentions of The Doctor.
 We don’t get often see the repercussions of The Doctor’s interference in the affairs of planets, and this story is a real wake up call to him, a picture he does not often see because in all the stories where he saves the day what really does happen after he has ridden of into the sunset. Are there hundreds of planets all over the universe where the good intentions have gone to hell in a handcart  ? makes you wonder…
 I like a Doctor Who story that makes me think and this really does make you re-evaluate past triumphs. But there is more to this story than the mistakes of the past, oh yes indeed there is, to begin with this is a very very smart story and very cleverly written. 396 words in and only now I mention Shakespeare and I may as well throw in Shakespearian as well because it is; not overtly, not written in iambic pentameter or anything, but this story is heavily inspired by The Tempest. Just look at the names of the characters Miranda, Caliban, Alonso, Gonzalo & the planet is named Prosper – its not a direct reimagining or retelling, but it really has the ambiance of the Tempest – and each character has a line of Shakespearian dialogue thrown in as well, its a joy to listen to and to pick up the references. If you are not that much of a Shakespeare aficionado then the references are so subtle that they will not spoil your enjoyment of the piece.
 The story allows both companions time to breathe and develop at their own pace as Ace & Mel are split up for 80% of the story – Mel being partnered with The Doctor and the crew of the Duke of Milan trying to resolve the war situation, Ace is partnered with Mogera warrior Taipa (Ewan Goddard) who really does go on a journey of character development from generic snarling beast to, well, you will just have to listen to the story to find out. And as for the Seventh Doctor, this can really be seen as another building block in his development from clown to manipulator, its subtle and its slow, but the changes are there especially in the last part of episode 3 and all of episode 4, his experience on Prosper seems to harden him and make him more remote.
 A sprawling epic, a cautionary tale, a picture of greed and selfishness and the legacy of Machiavelli and an homage to Shakespeare all on two shiny CD’s – to quote the bard “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” – and this is a bit more of a late summer nights nightmare than a Midsummer Nights dream, but is a tale that needed to be told 9/10.

PHILIP HINCHCLIFFE PRESENTS: VOLUME 2 - THE GENESIS CHAMBER

When an an era is so beloved any release associated with it comes with certain expectations. Hinchcliffe conjures images of dour gothic horror, of Hammer pastiches and of a morose restrained Tom Baker. This release is none of those things. Its an odd release and very difficult to review – the name Hinchcliffe carries a lot of weight and I want to do this release justice as a story in its own right. Unlike the era in which Philip Hinchcliffe was producer, this is a story that was actually written by the man himself rather than something that had his overall input and vision all over it. This is a very different proposition with not a 1930’s horror themed cliche in sight (or earshot) in fact it could be seen not as a revisit of the Hinchcliffe era but a story that could have been written by him but produced in the Graham Williams era.
 Now I am a HUUUGE Graham Williams era fan, its my joint favourite era of the “classic” series along with Cartmel and this story has many of the tropes of his era – an overtly funny Tom Baker, an epic plot that probably looked better on paper than it could ever have done on screen, in fact listening to this release I kept wondering just HOW ON EARTH could this have been realised in 1977 on a BBC budget? Want to know more? Then read on…
 It has a very interesting beginning  – the Doctor is having a nightmare, he wakes and is visibly disturbed by what he has dreamt – the dream involved him being a creature with 13 heads (obviously referring to his 13 incarnation) and Tom plays this in a haunted distant way that we don’t often see in his portrayal. The main plot is very typical mid 1970’s style Sci-Fi involving colonies that have degreased into factions (think Face of Evil) where one faction have embraced technology to the extent that they cannot function without their city wide system “Inscape” and the others have rejected technology and gadgetry altogether and set up a commune outside the city. Obviously the leaders of each faction are at loggerheads and Never the twain shall meet, but when the President of the City’s children steal a car and go out to the commune everything is about to change. There is romance, danger, death, disaster, long hidden secrets and a charming manipulative villain…
 So far, so familiar. And that I think is the problem, the story is very very familiar, it is almost a greatest hits of the late Hinchcliffe, early Williams eras and is incredibly by the numbers. I hate being negative so lets look at the positives – Tom Baker sparkles as Doctor number 4, his default setting seems to be the Williams era version of his Doctor, all charm, madcap grins, random lunacy boggling eyes, Louise Jameson adds yet further levels of character to Leela, we see in her blossoming romance with Dack (Elliot Chapman) how she is her own person and will make her own choices in life. The villain of the piece Volor (Gyuri Sarossy) is again a very interesting character – on the one side an oily supercilious toady – on the other a dangerous game player with his own agenda and morality. There is a lot to like in the performances and in the characterisation and also the sound design, but the plot seems far too stretched out over six episodes, maybe a there of four parter would have tightened the plot up. As Groucho Marx once said “give the people what they want” and Who fans of a certain type are always clamouring for more Hinchcliffe era Who – Big Finish have been very brave here giving the people what they want, but not maybe what they might expect. A very 1977 story that could never have been made in 1977 written by a producer who never wrote a story for the TV series and executed in the style of story from the first year of his replacement – definitely not what I was expecting – a simple familiar story that outstays its welcome by an episode or three, but is full of charming performances and lovely little character moments. Not nearly as gothic a Genesis as its Dalek themed namesake 6/10.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

DAMASCUS

Viewed from inside the UNIT family the third Doctor is a charming avuncular patrician with a healthy dose of disdain for bureaucracy. Viewed from the outside though, especially if you happen to be one of the bureaucrats he has such disdain for how would you view him? Would he seem so avuncular, would he appear so charming, would you like his patrician attitude – these are questions that this months Short Trips story “Damascus” both asks and answers.
 This as quite a different take on a standard UNIT era story as it is all seen from the point of view from one not in the UNIT bubble, and a very important someone that is too, none other than the Prime Minister of the UK who here is only referred to as “Jeremy”. The PM has received reports of a spaceship hovering above Norfolk, UNIT are playing politics laming government budget cuts on their inaction and the Doctor seems completely disinterested so Jeremy decides to go to UNIT HQ to confront the Doctor face to face.
 The characterisation of the third Doctor is very interesting – Jeremy is told by Jo Grant that the Doctor is in a bad mood, and the Doctor is downright rude to him. Rude in a way that has only been hinted at in the TV series, abrasive, dismissive and callous. If you recall the way he speaks to the Brigadier when he is displeased, or the way he chastises Jo in The Daemons when she takes his side against the Brigadier, well its like that but a lot more aggressive. Then again, we are only seeing Jeremy’s point of view and he may be an unreliable narrator with an axe to grind….
 Tim Treloar narrates the story, you may recall that he plays Doctor number three in the Third Doctor box set and again he captures the essence of Pertwee without doing an impersonation of him. The whole story has the feeling of a 1970’s political thriller, of a power play and of trying to establish the pecking order in a line of command. And when you are up against the Prime Minister it may be better to hold your tongue and respect your place in the order of things especially if you are an alien that could be perceived as a threat…..
 A very interesting take on how the Third Doctor is perceived and how he really is given a long leash by the Brigadier – I feel we may be hearing a lot more of “Damascus” in further Third Doctor stories – 7/10.