Saturday, 30 January 2016

Gardens of the Dead

In my mind I do a brilliant impersonation of Ronnie Corbett… “My producer said to me, no, no ah ha ha ha, captain of a gravy boat”. Mrs W has other ideas. She’s the same about my impersonation of Michael Parkinson. Mark Strickson however does a phenomenolimpersonation of Janet Fielding – just the right level of realism and exaggeration – Strickson portrays Tegan almost like an Australian seagull that has been strangled and is crowing for its life – it’s hilarious and this story is worth the £2.99 entry fee just to hear it. That could be the end of my review. But it isn’t, there is more…
The story is set immediately after Mawdryn Undead and like the other Short Trips is a narrated story read by one of the cast of the time – this time it is the aforementioned Mark Strickson. The story sees Turlough aboard the TARDIS, Tegan is cold and unwelcoming, not trusting him – and rightly so as it turns out. Nyssa plays peacemaker and the Fifth Doctor is, well, the Fifth Doctor – in control without actually appearing that he is.
As with other Short Trip releases, this is a small on events, big on character release and follows Turlough’s inner turmoil as he battles for control with the Black Guardian. This story is told by an older Turlough who is looking back on his time aboard the TARDIS with regret that he didn’t do things differently and didn’t get to know Nyssa better. STOP RIGHT THERE. This story is in direct contradiction to established main range continuity where Nyssa re-joined the TARDIS crew a short while after Terminus (from the Doctor’s point of view). Is this a deliberate continuity error or is this just following established TV continuity? I don’t know – this is just an aside and in no way ruined my enjoyment of the episode.
The Gardens of the Dead of the title are a memorial gardens with sentient dust that can become an avatar of the person the mourner has come to mourn. There are some touching scenes as Nyssa is reunited with a representation of Tremas – but a virus brought into the garden brings danger to mourners and to the Doctor.
The danger, even though small scale, allows Turlough to bring out an heroic side he probably didn’t know he had, and it also lets the listeners witness what is behind the very last door in the TARDIS.
Full of character and with the best (actually probably the only) impersonation of Tegan I have ever heard – a very interesting story that adds layers of depth to Turlough.

The Avengers - The Lost Episodes - Volume 5

We all know the Avengers, don’t we? Mrs Gale, Mrs Peel, Tara King, Bowler hats, brollies, Bentley’s and bonkers out–there plots involving groovy megalomaniacs in a bonkers version of swinging sixties Britain? Of course we do, it’s as much part of our shared TV heritage as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Sapphire & Steel or The Tomorrow People. However as Coldplay once sang in one of their mournful dirges: “I’m going back to the start”, and with The Avengers – The Lost Episodes that is just what Big Finish have done – you see before catsuits, kinky boots and Laurie Johnson there was another first series of The Avengers, a series not that well remembered…
Doctor Who has had its fair share of episodes wiped, but the crumb of comfort to us Who fans is that they at least exist as audio recordings – the same fate hit the first series of The Avengers, with only two of the twenty-six episode run existing in their entirety. However unlike Doctor Who no audio recordings are known to exist. The first series saw Ian Hendry as Doctor David Keel paired with Patrick MacNee as the mysterious bowler-hatted stranger John Steed as together they battled criminals and conspiracies in pre -swinging 60’s London. The title The Avengers comes from Doctor Keel and Steed coming together to avenge the murder of Doctor Keel’s fiancĂ©. Series One was an oddity in The Avengers canon, the lead was Ian Hendry with MacNee as his assistant and the show had yet to become the high-kicking high-camp show that it evolved into – the episodes were lost forever… and then Big Finish came along.
How do you follow an act like Patrick MacNee? The answer is simple: “You don’t”. So all kudos to Julian Wadham as John Steed for not just “Doing a MacNee” – he plays Steed, not MacNee playing Steed and interprets the role in his own way – still debonair and wry, still with a twinkle in his eye and a Bowler on his head, but very much his own man. Anthony Howell brings a world weary realism to Doctor Keel and the trio are rounded off by Lucy Briggs-Owen as Doctor Keel’s surgery Nurse Carol Wilson.
This is the fifth set of stories to be released in the range and has four stories:
Nightmare by Dan Starkey (from a storyline by Terence Feely)
When Doctor Keel’s patient is reported as missing by his wife Keel ends up taking his place to draw the kidnappers in to the open. The missing patient is a scientist in a top secret research unit that are looking in to the military appliance of new psychotropic drugs – as the stakes are raised and Keel is wounded by a gunshot, Steed and Carol are involved in a race against time to unmask the traitor and save Doctor Keel from death on the operating table.
Strong stuff and not The Avengers I was expecting – Steed is still debonair, but the air of whimsy just isn’t there, this is a lot more real world rather than “Avenger-land” and has a claustrophobic feel – I can imagine that the original was all shot on studio sets with little or no external scenes – this is an edgy and dangerous Avengers, more like Danger Man than its later incarnation, its an Avengers where bullets hurt and there is a palpable real world threat of imminent death – a grim austerity that I just was not expecting.
Girl on the Trapeze by Dennis Spooner (adapted by Rae Leaver)
Now this is odd – a “Steel-lite” episode of The Avengers. It’s hard to imagine that in the original series Doctor Keel was the main character, but he carries this slice of Cold War espionage admirably. This episode even has touches of the whimsy that characterised later episodes of The Avengers. Doctor Keel witnesses the apparent suicide of a trapeze artist from a visiting Soviet Bloc state circus – when the dying woman utters the word “Danilov” and Keel thinks that he recognises her from somewhere Keel and Carol decide to investigate and are drawn in to a world of defectors and murder. The lack of Steed does not diminish this episode one little bit, its a cold war era pulp detective fiction story brought to life with skill and care – again it feels just so authentic – just like a missing audio track from a studio bound story from the early 1960’s.
Crescent Moon by Phil Mulryne (from a storyline by Geoffrey Bellman and John Whitney)
If the preceding episode was “Steed-lite” this one is “Keel-lite”, the good Doctor only appearing in  a few scenes (which on broadcast I imagine were filmed weeks apart as Hendry was on holiday? answers on a tweet please…). Steed has been called in to investigate the kidnapping of the daughter of the recently deceased leader of a Caribbean Republic – the late General was a hero of the revolution that freed the island from its Western oppressors – so Steed’s intervention as the archetypal Englishman is unwelcome to say the least – but who are the kidnappers and is all really rosy in the post revolution era? By this point I am visualising Wadham as the audio version of Steed – he really does suit the part, his easy charm wins over (almost) all he meets on the island and like any good detective story there are bluffs and double-bluffs, plus a very “Avengerish” fate for the villain of the piece. Again a very dialogue heavy story with very few locations – betraying its origins as a TV show, this episode almost feels like a radio broadcast in its own right rather than an adaptation.
 Diamond Cut Diamond by John Dorney (from a storyline by Max Marquis)
Bringing the box set to a close is a tale of diamond smuggling, murder and airlines – taking on the guise of Australian air steward John Ryan – Steed investigates the going on at an airline to break a diamond smuggling ring. This is a particularly hard hitting and nasty story that pulls no punches in showing the underbelly of genteel early 1960’s Britain, the criminals are ruthless in their pursuit of their enterprise and think nothing of using blackmail to get airline staff to smuggle on their behalf and then kill them off when they have no further use for them. Steed is in a very dangerous place in this episode as the smugglers drug him and try to frame him for the death of stewardess Stella Creighton in order to gain his acquiescence to smuggle. A hard hitting and exhilarating end to the set.
It is a very authentic set, dripping with post 50’s pre-swinging 60’s charm – still very safe and at this time a small “c” conservative series, but loaded with with the wit and charm that wit blossom in coming seasons. A special mention must go to the incidental music, a sort of groovy jazz of the sort that Nigella Lawson has on her cookery shows  - and this style is used to great effect to punctuate transitions between scenes. Actually Nigella would be a great foil for Steed, hello Big Finish, if you are reading this hows about “Miss Lawson, were needed!”
But back in the real world what can I say about this release? Pre-King, pre- Gale, pre-Peel, all Keel – it’s The Avengers, but not as we know it, and a very good release it is too.


John Barrowman makes his return as Captain Jack Harkness in this month’s Torchwood release, and like his first appearance in the audio series this is quite a difficult release to review. Jack is a many faceted character, he has depth and the wisdom of ages, and a weariness that only immortality can bring. Jack can “see”, he is tenacious, and this story examines his tenacity and his manipulative side.
Uncanny Valley is an extremely uncomfortable story, it concerns the idea of self and identity and the boundaries that these concepts impose upon us. It feels like you really shouldn’t be listening to it, that the events taking place are of a private and intimate nature and that we are spying unwanted and unnoticed on a private conversation – and this story is just that: a conversation between Jack Harkness and Neil Redmond (Steven Cree) and a character I can only refer to as “NJ” for fear of spoilers.
Investigating the mythical “committee” that has been a thread throughout the preceding Torchwood stories, Jack is intrigued by reclusive billionaire Neil Redmond… you see Mr Redmond has not been seen for years after a traumatic car accident – but now he has emerged from his self-imposed exile and looks and sounds much better than he ever did before his accident. Can the committee be involved in his seemingly miraculous recovery, or is there a darker and more twisted secret that Neil Redmond is keeping? Dripping with a delightfully unsettling atmosphere charged with an electric tension, this story really pulls no punches as first Neil’s voyeristic desires and Jack’s carnal urges are tempted and tested, used and thrown aside – both characters have their souls bared in this intimate and destructive conversation.
Uncanny Valley may be many things, but a barrel of laughs it is not – and that is no bad thing. After the high-camp of last months “One Rule” this is something much more cerebral which may not be to everyone’s tastes, it could be a story to be appreciated rather than enjoyed, but as a two-hander it ticks all the boxes.

The Churchill Years - Volume 01

This is a bit of a landmark release for a couple of reasons. Yes it isn’t the first “New Series” box set that Big Finish have released but it is the first to contain the post 2005 Doctor’s (albeit narrated by McNeice as Churchill) and it is the first to have the post 2005 versions of the theme music, four different versions if my ears serve me well – The Series One Eccleston theme, Series Four Tennant theme, Series Five Smith theme and Series Seven Smith theme – a different theme for each of the four stories in the set -which is apt as they are all thematically different in tone and in approach to story-telling.
The box set takes its lead from The Early Adventures in that the stories are part full cast and part narrated, in this case narrated by Ian McNeice who reprises his roll as Winston Churchill and throughout this set we hear tales of his encounters with the Doctor in various incarnations at various points in Churchill’s career – from early World War Two when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, to the height of the blitz when he was Prime Minister, to the post-war years when he was no longer Prime Minister, to his later years when he was retired to Chartwell House – McNeice takes us on a journey through Churchill’s secret history…
The Doctor had always boasted about knowing Churchill, but it was only in Victory of the Daleks that we finally got to see this meeting on-screen, despite several documented meetings in Novels, audios and comic strips. Churchill was not surprised that the Doctor had changed his face and was used to different incarnations of his friend turning up at different points in his life, and usually at points when he was most needed.
If there is one genre that post 2005 Doctor Who has made its own it is the “celebrity historical” and this box set is a celebration of that sub-genre of Who story, so sit back relax and enjoy four tales of Churchill and his meetings with The Doctor…
 The Oncoming Storm by Phil Mulryne
The Ninth Doctor in A Big Finish Story? Surely you jest? And a year or so ago I would have thought this was a great big hoax – but no, it is real, and although Christopher Eccleston is absent from proceedings his Doctor complete with “wolfish grin” and “battered leather jacket” is all present and correct. Now being a bit of a Doctor Who fan I can only assume that this story takes place in the time at the end of “Rose” where he dematerialises after Rose has turned him down and he returns seemingly seconds later to tell her that the TARDIS also travels in time because Rose is absent throughout the story. Taking the place of the companion is the wonderful Emily Atack as Hetty Warner, Churchill’s secretary. The story is in many ways like The Empty Child – a damaged and psychologically traumatised Doctor stalks London in the blackout looking for some lost Time Lord technology whilst mechanical soldiers do the same. This is an excellent opening story that builds and builds to a frantic base under siege ending – McNeice’s narration will have you on the edge of your seat as he recalls the events, not yet Prime Minister, but relishing his role as First Lord of the Admiralty. Its also incredibly reminiscent of the all too brief Eccleston era, gritty, no nonsense and ever so slightly melancholy.
 Hounded by Alan Barnes
It is 1941 and Churchill is Prime Minister – but the burden of duty weighs heavily on his shoulders and he is plagued by self-doubt, anger, bad temper and depression – a state that he referred to as his “Black Dog”, but when Churchill encounters a real Black Dog, a giant salivating ghostly monster at Chartwell, his secretary Hetty thinks it is time to get the Doctor involved again – and is puzzled to be invited to tea by a member of the intelligence service who has intercepted her letter, a tall thin man in a “spiv suit” who calls himself John Smith…
This story is pure RTD – it has intrigue, horror, comedy and tragedy – again everything you would expect from a Tenth Doctor story. The story examines how we personify the very worst parts of our psyche and how that can be used against us. It also examines how the Doctor affects all those around him, how he can inadvertently cause them harm – as Rory put it in “Vampires of Venice” – he makes people want to impress him. And no more so than in the shocking ending to this story… If it were on TV it would be hailed as a classic.
Living History by Justin Richards
And so we come on to the Matt Smith era – and we get another sub-genre of post 2005 Doctor Who, well actually we get two in one – a “Doctor-lite” story and a celebrity historical within a celebrity Historical. Churchill has ceased to be Prime Minister and is semi-retired writing a history of the English speaking people. He is invited aboard the TARDIS for a trip and asks the Eleventh Doctor to take him to meet Julius Caesar. But the Eleventh Doctor is not alone, this story takes place within the story “A Christmas Carol” and the Doctor is accompanied by Kazran Sardick with Danny Horn reprising the role. The Doctor accidentally strands Churchill and Kazran in ancient Britain and as Churchill meets Caesar, Kazran meets up with the Celts and their Bronze God – a God who is giving them alien technology – a god who is actually a Dalek!
This is the most straightforward story in the set, but is no less enjoyable for it – and again it could fit very easily in to Matt Smith’s first season as a Doctor-lite episode.
The Chartwell Metamorphosis by Ken Bentley
Now elderly Churchill has retired to Chartwell House and fills his days keeping butterflies. He is nursed by a certain Lily Arwell (from The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe) reprising her role is Holly Earl – but is it a coincidence that two old friends of the Doctor have been placed together and what exactly is being bred in the butterfly house? A body horror story that reminds me of The Seeds of Doom with alien butterflies feeding on the bodies of Churchill’s staff – an alien invasion or an experiment gone wrong? This story has one of “those” New Who moments, one of the “punch the air the Doctor is on the way” moments – it happens at about twenty-five minutes in and even though I am not a fan of Smith I cheered when Lily finally found his number to call him in. A really gruesome tale to end the set.
How do Big Finish get it so right so often? Ian McNeice is pitch perfect as Churchill – and any worries you may have about none of the Doctor actors actually appearing in the set are dispelled seconds into the first adventure. McNeice is a fantastic actor and his performance as Winston Churchill easily carries the entire set. The sound design is pure post 2005 Who with all the orchestral pizazz of the TV show, and like the TV series this is very character based, no more so than Hetty Warner – because like the TV show Big Finish makes you care deeply about the characters and build a life around them. Hetty could quite easily have been an adequate cypher to get the plot moving along but she is so much more, a real person with a real life and a real background. A great box set and a triumph of character based story telling.

The Early Adventures 2.4 - The Isos Network

Before Doctor Who came back in 2005 my favourite story was “The Invasion”. I had loved it since reading the Target Novelisation and the VHS release didn’t disappoint (unlike Tomb) – I loved the pace, the almost hard boiled detective feeling, UNIT, Tobias Vaughn and of course The Cybermen. That scene of them marching down St. Paul’s steps is a classic; the threat feels really big and global. On my many, many watches of the story, from VHS to the DVD with animated episodes one and four, I didn’t give a second thought to exactlywhere the Cybermen who invaded the Earth had come from. But a certain Mr Nicholas Briggs has and this (in part) is what The Isos Network is all about.
Beginning as the Cyber-fleet in The Invasion is destroyed – The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe witness a single ship escaping and decide to follow it. They arrive on a deserted planet that seems to be populated only by empathic giant slugs with not a person or Cyberman in sight – but the Cybermen are not far away; they are lurking under ground, licking their wounds and planning the next phase in their desire to survive at all costs.
The planet in question is Isos 2 and it is indeed where the Cybermen launched their invasion of Earth from – their numbers are heavily depleted, their Controller is in hibernation, but as always the Cybermen have an indomitable urge to survive.
In showing us Isos 2 as a launch point for their invasion Nick Briggs shows us Earth as it could have been had the Doctor and UNIT not defeated the Cyber Invasion, he shows us a world where the population have been used literally as spare parts for a Cyber Army. This is personified in the character of Hilsee – a partially converted resident of Isos who befriends Zoe and helps her when she becomes separated from the Doctor and Jamie. Hilsee is a tragic character, a sorrowful reminder of just what it is the Cybermen take away from us and destroy what we are.
Frazer Hines reprises his role as Jamie and continues to dazzle with his portrayal of the Second Doctor.  He really has captured the essence of Patrick Troughton, all the vocal mannerisms, the throat clearing, pauses and bumbling facade all honed to perfection.
Nick Briggs has not only written and directed this story but also plays the Cybermen and as a true devotee his vocal performance is absolutely spot on and completely of their era – his Cyber Controller is particularly chilling…
The story itself is very “Season 6” and like some stories that season seems a little padded, it may have been snappier as a three part story? The content and structure are interesting, but there does seem to be a lot of too-ing and fro-ing – much as there was in the era so in that way it does retain its authenticity and lives up to the strapline of an audio adventure in Black & White. As a sequel to an all-time classic story this has a lot going for it: Cybermen, the Cyber Controller, a bonkers Cyber Plan (sorry for bonkers, read “completely logical”) a commanding performance as the Second Doctor from Frazer Hines – it just seems to lack a little bit of pace.

4th Doctor 5.1 - Wave Of Destruction

What type of Doctor Who fan are you? An odd question maybe to the ‘not we” but very pertinent to us fans. Long, long before the “Classic” v “New” debates that seem to plague fandom (solution – there is no classic or new its all called “Doctor Who”) there was the Tom Baker era. There was only one Tom Baker era wasn’t there? To the untrained “not we” eye the answer is yes – but us fans know differently. There are two Tom Baker eras the Hinchcliffe era and the Williams era. I could spend pages and pages discussing the relative merits of each particular producer (but I won’t) because I can categorically state Williams was better. Anyone who wants to argue can contact me via Twitter…
Where Hinchcliffe had “gravitas” (one of my least favourite words – it means a sort of pompous superiority if the internet is to be believed, Williams had joy in abundance – a sort of intelligent, knowing, delightfully silly joy – and this was honed to perfection in Season 17, once seen as the nadir of all Who is now revered as the classic it was.
Which brings me to the latest release from Big Finish in their Fourth Doctor range – Wave of Destruction, set during season 17 it has the classic combination of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward as The Doctor and Romana and as with the era it is a pastiche of the story is delightful, silly, pithy and yes, joyful.
With several nods to Douglas Adams and not a hint of “gravitas” in sight (or sound) the Doctor and Romana investigate a modulated frequency wave cancellation signal which really shouldn’t be on Earth in England in 1964.
During the course of the investigation Romana goes shopping for shoes and a handbag (a plastic one if you were wondering), the Doctor meets a detective who’s name is a fantastic in joke to fans of Broadchurch and Midsomer Murders, an old (and rubbish) enemy makes a reappearance and K9 gets to DJ on a Pirate Radio station called Radio Frantic who have some very addictive jingles, and last but not least breadcrumbs are used as an offensive weapon.
The story is a riot – a rollercoaster ride of jolly japes from beginning almost to end – in fact the end sees a somewhat darker tone to the story made all the more shocking after all the jollity and silliness that precedes it.
A great start to the series from one of my very favourite Doctor/Companion pairings and a great antidote to the dark January evenings.

208 - The Waters Of Amsterdam

So it’s early 1983, Tegan has just rejoined the TARDIS in Arc of Infinity and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are off to face the wrath of the Mara and Martin Clunes. Whoah there – not if Big Finish have anything to do with it they’re not.
This month sees a new trilogy of adventures of the post Adric pre-Turlough TARDIS crew of Season 20 and it begins just where Arc of Infinity left off.
The big difference between “Classic” and “New” Who for me is character progression – in Arc of Infinity the Doctor and Nyssa meet Tegan again and things carry on as if nothing had happened – The Waters of Amsterdam addresses this, and in episode one we find out what Tegan has been doing in the intervening year between Time Flight and Arc of Infinity – she has gone back to being an air hostess, been fired from being an air hostess and had a 3 month relationship with a man called Kyle who she dumped because he wastoo perfect. Wouldn’t it be odd if he turned up in Amsterdam as well? Well it would and he does – it turns out that Kyle is a bit of a fan of Rembrandt and wants to go to see a new exhibition of his work – but this is no exhibition that the Doctor has heard of, this exhibition shouldn’t exist – this is an exhibition of Rembrandt’s “Vessels of the Stars” – not only paintings of Spaceships, but designs that would actually work. Naturally the Doctor decides to have a word with Rembrandt…
This story wears many coats and has many tones – part one is a character piece filling in missing detail about Tegan, parts two and three are the much celebrated genre of “Celebrity Historical” in which are heroes and Tegan’s ex boyfriend Kyle meet Rembrandt and part four is a very “New Who” feeling episode with a divergent timeline, a vengeance set in place centuries earlier and a tearful goodbye.
So a very uneven story, well yes, but it flows a lot better than it sounds, in fact you will be so caught up in the dealings of the Goblin like Nix – creatures formed from Water and their conflict with the Countess Mach-Teldak that you will not notice – in fact the changes of pace and tone play very much to the stories advantage in a way as you really do not know what tangent it is going to go off on next – it has a freewheeling feel that really does not pause for breath as events in 17th century Amsterdam are trying to directly forge a new future for the world…
What about Rembrandt and the crew meeting him? Actor Richard James is given the part of the great master, and initially plays him like a grumpy harassed dutch man – but the delight to his performance is how this bluster and misanthropy is a shield to disguise his grief at the loss of his wife Saskia – there is a truly beautiful scene in episode three where he discusses the nature of grief and loss with Nyssa.
So a celebrity historical very much in the style of The Shakespeare Code, but still feeling more like the Visitation – very much of its era but with modern attitudes towards character and emotion. Definitely not a wash-out.

The Prisoner Volume 01

There are three Television programmes that have shaped the person I am today.
1. Doctor Who gave me my moral compass and my sense of compassion
2. Twin Peaks gave me my imagination and ability to look beyond the apparent.
3. The Prisoner fired my intelligence and made my question everything.
Actually The Prisoner was my “angry young man” programme – I discovered it in 1992 and it spoke to and shaped my 20 year old mind like no other, it almost turned me into a proto Number 48, rebelling against all conventions because they are there to be rebelled against. Today I look back at my 20 year old self and laugh – the long hair, the makeup, the attitude – you see the Prisoner stirred up something that had been dormant in me, it stirred up my very own internal number 6 which made me view the world as the Village.
Seventeen short episodes long – that’s all The Prisoner is, but in those episodes McGoohan and company have examined all that is good and bad about society and the individuals role in it and turned it into a mind bending, thought provoking, disturbing, life affirming TV Series. It asks the fundamental questions of our existence – are we free? are we in charge of our own destiny? who is pulling our strings? who are we in thrall to? It seems that if you conform, wear your number and just get on with living that the Village can be a happy place. But what of those who don’t want to fit in – McGoohan as Number 6 is the prime example of this – in one of his most famous speeches he says he “will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered” and he spends the series trying not to conform. Trying to bring him to heel are a succession of Village Chair people designated Number 2 – they are replaced periodically, sometimes mid episode and they sometimes come back to have another go at breaking Number 6. But Number 6 isn’t satisfied with dealing with the monkey, he wants the Organ Grinder, he wants to see Number 1…
The 2009 re-imagining with Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellan was interesting but didn’t carry the ethos – McKellan plays Number 2 for the whole series, and it somehow lacks charm – even though it deals with the same themes of paranoia and isolation – it doesn’t quite feel right.
So in early 2015 it was announced that Big Finish were going to be re-imagining The Prisoner my response was lukewarm. Under the guidance of Nick Briggs my response – hooray! and over the last 12 months they have teased out little morsels of information (information… information!), casting was announced and a brave decision to cast relative unknown Mark Elstob as Number 6 rather than going for a name, and Four outstanding actors to play Number 2 – John Standing, Celia Imrie, Ramon Tikaram and Michael Cochrane and that three of the four stories would be retellings or reimagining of TV episodes “Arrival”, “The Schizoid Man” and “The Chimes of Big Ben” with an original episode “Your Beautiful Village” written by The Briggs-Master himself. Surely it couldn’t fail???
No it couldn’t, of course it couldn’t – Big Finish have produced a bold and brave retelling of the original, keeping everything that worked in the original, but giving the series a lot more edge, actually a lot more cruel and disturbing feel. Elstob as Number 6 is a lot more angry than the wry performance by McGoohan – Elstob is a raging unstoppable torrent of anger at his situation – the actors playing Number 2 all have a glee and a zeal, they seem to enjoy their job and the power that it gives them over the village inhabitants – and this deliberate cruelty is the biggest change in emphasis – yes Number 2 is charming and avuncular but if they do not get what they want they will use extreme methods because they can and because they enjoy exerting their authority, not only over Number 6 but over the Village as a whole.
There are four stories in the set and they are:
Episode One: Departure and Arrival
Starting with a meeting in Belgium, Agent ZM73 resigns from his job as a top secret agent – he is about to go on Holiday to the Bahamas but blacks out and wakes up in The Village and in the Village he is designated Number 6. So begins the odyssey in this retelling of Episode One – it is expanded and added to but keeps the ethos of the original perfectly. There is an edge of hysteria running through the proceedings – technology seems much more of the “now” than of the 1967 that it should be – Virtual reality maps, tablets are “the latest thing”. There are also clones in the village, the Taxi Driver, the telephone operator, the announcer are all played by the same person. This episode also introduces us to Number 9 (Sara Powell) who will become very important to Number 6 over the course of the set. This episode has John Standing as a commanding and very British Number 2, only for him to be mysteriously replaced by Celia Imrie towards the end of the episode and she carries on as Number 2 in the next episode.
Episode Two: The Schizoid Man
Carrying on directly from Episode One – the new Number 2 (Celia Imrie) enacts her plan to crack Number 6. This is another retelling of a TV episode. Number 6 somehow forms a psychic bond with Number 9, she can read his mind and they perfect a mind reading act for the upcoming Village Festival. Then one morning Number 6 wakes up in a new house with a moustache and different hair and everyone is calling him Number 12, what is more unnerving is that an exact copy of him is living in Number 6 house and claims to be Number 6. Playing on the theme of identity and reality Imrie’s Number 2 has a delight and glee in what she is doing, she also has a cruel self confidence as she works to engineer a crisis point so that Number 6 will break. Cold, calculating and cruel but utterly compelling.
Episode Three: Your Beautiful Village
Some episodes of The Prisoner were just plain weird – Free For All, Living in Harmony and Fall Out being prime examples and this one is up there with these episodes – in fact it is my joint favourite Prisoner episode.
It is harsh cruel, demented and downright disturbing – Number 6 experiences the ultimate sensory deprivation, he has lost his sense of sight and smell, he can use the phone and does this to contact Number 9 for help -but no other sounds from the village can be heard – Number 9 is suffering this as well as apparently is the new Number 2 (Ramon Tikaram) who talks of a catastrophic system failure in the Village. Incredibly Kafka-esque (read Before the Law for a comparison) – you get the feeling that the Village is there for a specific purpose and also that for all their supposed power Number 2 is just as much an inmate and victim of the Village as Number 6. A classic.
Episode Four: The Chimes of Big Ben
The set finishes with another retelling of a classic episode, this time the highly regarded The Chimes of Big Ben. The new Number 2 is Michael Cochrane, and his doddery avuncular personality soon gives way to a hard edged tyrant.
Again this pretty much follows the plot of the TV episode with 6 befriending the new Number 8 and planning an escape to London. Those familiar with the TV episode may be surprised at how this pans out, it certainly caught me off guard.
There is also a fifth disc of bonus features and interviews.
What else is there to say? The Village is under safe hands under the Chair-Person-ship of Mr Nick Briggs – the series is given the respect it deserves and brought right up to date – if the original was analogue 16mm psychedelia, this is hard edged Hi-Def paranoia – and just like the original it makes you think, it fires the imagination and it makes you question, because the whole world really is The Village, you really are Number 6 and there really is no escape.
Be Seeing You.