Friday 31 July 2015

Beginning Big Finish

On the unlikely chance that you're reading this blog without any idea of what Big Finish is let me explain. Big Finish make full-cast audio dramas. Usually based on existing fictional properties.

Here I'm going to concentrate on the Doctor Who productions. These feature Doctors from the Classic era of the programme - for now - and their companions. Not all the companions featured in the television series, some are Big Finish only, although Night of the Doctor has made the Eighth Doctor's Big Finish companions canon (if the idea of canon is something you care about.)

There are over 200 releases in the Main Range - which is the Fifth, Six, Seventh and Eighth Doctors. Plus countless other releases from The Fourth Doctor Adventures, Eighth Doctor Adventures (which have slipped out of the Main Range and into a series of their own), Philip Hinchcliffe Presents, Companion Chronicles etc. I haven't even started on the Doctor Who related spin-offs. We're probably talking 500-ish releases.

So where do you start?

Normally I'd say "at the beginning" but - for reasons - I'd say don't do that, particularly if you're dipping in from New Doctor Who. I would start with Blood of the Daleks. This is the first story in the Eighth Doctor & Lucie Miller 'era' aka Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith. I pick this for several reasons. The Eighth Doctor comes with the least amount of television baggage. We've only seen his beginning and his end on television. If there is a Doctor that is Big Finish's it is McGann, although I might argue the Sixth and Seventh are now better represented by Big Finish than their televised adventures. I digress.

Blood of the Daleks is also an entirely fresh start. Lucie Miller is a new companion. It's an ideal stepping off point. Not to mention that it is paced - and feels - like New Doctor Who. So start here and follow the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller through.

What then? Well pick a Doctor you like and dip in. I'd almost suggest dipping in to The Companion Chronicles first. With limited casts these cover stories from all eras of Classic Doctor Who from The First onwards, They're among the strongest stories Big Finish have produced and the quality almost never wavers.

The Big Finish website now has a nifty 'Collected' section on its website for each Doctor where their individual adventures are listed in order. I admit to being one of those people that likes to begin at the beginning (and you'll see in other posts on this blog that I've been working my way through from the beginning - again.) So you could do that. Or do it with an individual Doctor.

Or pick an adventure with a monster you like. Big Finish do exceptional Dalek and Cyberman stories. Particularly the Cyberman stories. I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that Big finish do Cybermen better than the BBC do. So go for a big Finish Cybermenfest.

As single adventures I'd recommend The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, which is the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe (the first Big Finish only companion) and an old friend of the Doctor. The Sixth Doctor is a revelation on Big Finish - unless like me you always had a soft spot for his televised adventures. Finally Colin Baker gets to be The Doctor he never really got the chance to be on television. The Spectre of Lanyon Moor though is a lovely taster of Big Finish's approach to Classic Doctors. If you like that you'll probably like Big Finish in the future.

This though is but the tip of an iceberg but you have to start somewhere. I think every Doctor Who fan should, at least, dip into Big Finish. They've breathed fresh life into Classic Doctor Who. Some of their stories are amongst the best Doctor Who full stop: I'd mention The Natural History of Fear here (but wouldn't necessarily start with that story for reasons of its strangeness. The same with Scherzo. Save them for later.

I digress. Again.

Where was I...ah yes....Listen to Big Finish. Once you've started - with Blood of the Daleks if you listen to my advice (or not) - then you can enjoy making your own journey through Big Finish. There's a lot to listen to.

And I've not even talked about the various Doctor Who spin-off series: Jago & Litefoot, Counter Measures, Iris Wildthyme, Dalek Empire, I,Davros, Gallifrey, Charlotte Pollard etc etc

So...what are you waiting for....

Monday 29 September 2014

Maggie Stables : A Tribute

A lot of Doctor Who fans won't know who Maggie Stables was, which is a shame. She played Evelyn Smythe, companion to The Sixth Doctor for Big Finish.

Evelyn Smythe is almost unique in Doctor Who terms. She's not young. She's a University lecturer. A Doctor. Of Philosophy. And she dovetails beautifully with the Sixth Doctor. To the extent that she might actually be THE companion of the Sixth Doctor.

Introduced in The Marian Conspiracy, Evelyn was a spirited, clever and strong woman. She never let the Doctor browbeat her. She lived a good life.

Now I never met Maggie Stables but it seems - reading the tributes to her elsewhere - that she was a woman who enjoyed life and lived it well. Apparently she started acting after a career as a French teacher. She certainly had that tone that teacher's seem to develop that made her ideal casting for Evelyn Smythe.

If you get a chance and you haven't done so already dip into Big Finish's Evelyn Smythe series to see what you missed. You should start at the beginning with The Marian Conspiracy but I'd really recommend The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, which puts the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn in Cornwall. With the Brigadier. It's a lovely story, well-acted and with the comfort of the known in the Brigadier.

But seriously don't miss out.

So RIP Maggie Stables. RIP Evelyn Smythe. You'll be missed.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Project : Twilight [Sixth Doctor + Evelyn Smythe]

Wow Project : Twilight. That was damn good that. Dark. Violent. Sinister. Packed full of nasty characters doing nasty things and with the Doctor and Evelyn caught up in events and, perhaps, making them worse. Then there's poor Cassie (Rosie Cavaliero) but more about her later.

This story starts off with things going wrong in an experimental facility. As is often the case in Doctor Who scientists are conducting rather unpleasant experiments in the name of creating super-soldiers. Once again the end justifies the means. It's one of Doctor Who's most common themes. The experiment, of course, goes wrong. Or at least they get free.

Which brings us to Bermondsey in the present-ish day. And a trip to a takeaway restaurant for the Doctor and Evelyn that leads to them into trouble. Big trouble. And a casino.

The casino run by the rather unpleasant Reggie Mead (Rob Dixon) and the less - at least on the surface - unpleasant Amelia Doory (Holly de Jong). Reggie in particularly is one of the most unpleasant characters in Doctor Who. A thug. A psychopath. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. In some respects he's not a Doctor Who character at all being anchored in the sort of character that we know from British gangster films (and real life gangsters).

In comparison, even though she's played with style by Holly de Jong, Amelia is a standard Doctor Who villain, although in her way more sympathetic perhaps than most. But, for me, it's Reggie who haunts this story. His torture - and there's no other word for it - of Cassie, even though we only hear its start and its end, is more unpleasant than anything Daleks, Cybermen or Sontarans might have done.

I suppose the word you might use is 'adult'. This is adult drama. This isn't the same as televised Doctor Who at all. You would never be able to broadcast this on television. The BBC wouldn't let you.

And The Doctor's all at sea in this story for a bit too. He's manipulated by Amelia and by Nimrod (a chillingly sinister Rupert Booth). His good nature is taken advantage of and he pushes Evelyn away. She wants to know why he's so concerned about what she sees as a pair of two-bit gangsters but The Doctor knows what they really are and won't - can't - tell her. There's a powerful scene between the two of them as they hammer it out. It's startlingly good stuff from both Colin Baker and Maggie Stables. But it always feels like the Doctor is out of step throughout. It's as if he knows he's not in Doctor Who but has stumbled into sf tinged version of The Krays.

Nimrod's another dark and horrid little bastard. He's hard to separate from the theoretical villains of this story. In fact you might argue that he is the villain. There's so many shades of grey here that he's almost a shadow.

Then there's poor Cassie. God, is there a character in any other Doctor Who story that is put through it quite as much as her. Tortured, wounded and caught in the middle of events she has no understanding of and yet she keeps herself from becoming something dark. She's not safe. Never that but she does have a strong moral centre. It's absolutely heart-breaking to hear her journey.

And at the centre of this we come back to questions of responsibility. Whose fault is all this? How much of it is the Doctor's fault? He's certainly slow on the uptake here. Tricked perhaps, but too slow to see what's going on. It's a bad night for the Doctor, even if there is a kind of victory at the end. The worst consequences are avoided but a price has to be paid. And the Doctor certainly seems to feel responsible. Unusually he even finds to for apologies.

Then this story ends but you get the feeling that this is just the beginning of something. There are too many loose ends. Too much left to do.

This is dark stuff. But its good. It makes Torchwood's pretensions of 'adult' themes look the adolescent fantasies they (mostly) were.


Wednesday 17 September 2014

Bloodtide [Sixth Doctor + Evelyn Smythe]

Bloodtide is set on the Galapagos Islands. The Doctor has bought Evelyn along to meet Charles Darwin (Miles Richardson) whilst he is visiting aboard The Beagle. Of course whilst that would be nice it would probably make for a less than exciting Doctor Who story. And what do we see here? Ah, Silurians. Look out, look out there's a Lizardman about.

It's a small group, led by maverick Silurian scientist Tulok (Daniel Hogarth). Tulok, as we discover at the beginning of this story, is a 'man' with ideas that his fellow Silurians disapprove of. He's on trial when we first meet him. Sentenced to be exiled to the dying surface of the Earth along with his 'blasphemous' creations.

Of course dodgy scientists in Doctor Who - human, Kaled or Silurian - are never that easy to get rid of.

The Doctor stumbles upon all of this via Greta (Jane Goddard) whose brother has been sentenced to death by Governor Lawson (Julian Harries). Governor Lawson is an unpleasant bugger and may or may not be up to no good. He's certainly a petty and vindictive little man.

One thing leads to another. The Doctor gets captured, escapes and then has to escape a fate worse than pantomime horses as The Beagle comes under attack by the dreaded Myrka. I'll say this for the Myrka. It is the perfect monster for audio. Meanwhile Evelyn and Charles Darwin go looking for the Doctor and get captured. The Doctor goes to look for Evelyn and Charles Darwin with Captain Fitzroy (George Telfer) and gets captured. Again.

There's a lot of time in cells here. A lot of time being overheard by various people. The Silurians get to push people around using their Third Eye, which actually functions as a psychic weapon this time as opposed to a nonsensical conversational light. Obviously. Because a conversational light would be idiotic on audio. So I'm not sure why I made such a big deal out of this.

Moving on.

I like the Silurians. Always have. They're one of those Doctor Who monsters that actually feel like a proper culture, although 'New' Doctor Who has taken away some of there uniqueness by changing their appearance to something more streamlined. Even if it has given us Madam Vastra. Big Finish have stuck with the odd electronic voices too that came with the original Silurian story back in the Third Doctor's era. It works really well to make them seem more disconcerting.

And one of things that makes the Silurians great is the fact that they make humans instinctively uncomfortable as a result of a long forgotten race memory. It drives some people mad. Or not.

This story gives a couple of twists to their story here though. One about their diet. One about why they never woke up from their cryogenic sleep. I won't spoil either. Although you might be able to make a guess.

I often go on about how good the performances are in Big Finish stories. So much so that its almost a given. Everyone in this story seems pretty good, even if there's a couple of odd accents going on. Particularly fab is Miles Richardson as Darwin though. His angry thinking allowed responses to realizing what the Silurian's existence means for his world view is so well-played. It's a man moving through a crisis of faith and through to a whole new 'faith'.

I'm aware that this is one of my quibbles with Big Finish stories. That they sometimes undermine a historical figures achievements by making them look like they were fed to them by the Doctor or their adventures with the Doctor. Actually this starts with Timelash where every one of H.G. Wells's ideas seems to come c/o that story rather than from Wells's own imagination. Big Finish do it a bit with Mary Wollstonecraft in her stories with the Eighth Doctor. There's a little of that here but actually the best thing about it is that you can here Charles Darwin thinking through his ideas and taking them to their logical conclusion.

Indeed Darwin is the counter to Tulok. One is human being realizing their might not be a divine creator. The other a Silurian who wants to be God.

My other quibble is the ending. There's a lot of luck and convenience involved. It's still enjoyable, which I suppose is the best thing, but it borders on the unbelievable. But this is a problem with the ending of a lot of Doctor Who. After all if you've set up an unbeatable, terrifying foe then finding a way to defeat them that doesn't involve a McGuffin, a big red re-set button or just plain dumb stupidity on behalf of the villain. It's tough to do an ending in a Doctor story that holds up to nit-picking analysis.

Actually I think I might be a tad harsh about the ending. It's set up well enough but there's one or two too many of those inexplicable reasons for not killing everyone or delaying departures long enough for the good guys to put their plan into effect.

However taken to its logical extent that kind of argument undermines the whole premise of Doctor Who. After all any bad guy with a brain would just kill him. If not the first time. Definitely the second time.

Oh and Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are wonderful again. The Sixth Doctor flies on Big Finish in a way he hardly ever gets a chance to do on the television series. Plus Maggie Stables gives Evelyn a fine line in chilled sarcasm that makes her rather delightful.

To cut a long blog short: listen to Bloodtide. It's great. Atmospheric, fun and with a bit of depth to it.


We're done.

Dust Breeding [The Seventh Doctor + Ace]

Dust Breeding is almost a story about an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, but not quite. It's has a suitably barmy premise involving sentient weaponry, art and unstoppable killer monsters, which makes it quite endearing.

We begin and end with Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. We then find ourselves on Duchamp 331 a planetary dustbowl that's home to some fuel supply dumps and an artists colony. And that's pretty much it. A planet which allegedly once swallowed a Dalek saucer and its occupants. But is there something alive in the dust? And what has it got to do with the impending arrival of art dealer Madam Salvadori and her mysterious 'surprise' cruise and what is the artwork that Damien Pierson is creating to surprise her guests? What's it go to do with Mr. Seta and why has a crew member been murdered in a pretty baroque style?

All these questions will be answered. Some more quickly than others. Some more obviously than others. It won't end well for some people. Alas.

Listening to this also reminded me of the 'dangers' inherent in listening to a lot of stories in a quick run. There are a couple of scenes, involving the Seventh Doctor in a mental battle with an enemy, which seemed a bit similar to those in The Shadow of the Scourge but that probably wouldn't have mattered if I were doing these on release dates because in that time line there's seven months between the stories. For me there's about a week. So that has to be taken into consideration, which is easier said than done sometimes.

Oh and we get to meet Bev Tarrant (Louise Faulkner) again after The Genocide Machine, which would have been released over a year before this in 'real time' so the return might have a little less impact this time. Bev gets to be the second assistant to the Doctor in this story, filling in for Ace when she's indisposed and you do wonder on occasions whether Big Finish were considering making her a permanent addition to the TARDIS crew or not. But perhaps, having already created Evelyn Smythe, they decided to hold off for a bit. Louise Faulkner does a fine job too. Again. I'm guessing here but I'm wondering whether this will be the last time we see Bev.

There's some great performances here. I'm a particular fan of Ian Ricketts's Guthrie, who shows how to bare a grudge. An ordinary bloke who weirdly reminded me of Griffin The Chef from The Enemy of the World. Still ordinary people in Doctor Who can achieve extraordinary things, which Guthrie certainly does.

Caroline John plays Madam Salvadori with a delightfully extravagant accent whose carefully structured plans fall apart quickly and horribly in the face of a rather unpleasant villain. Her loyal assistant Klemp (Mark Donovan) struggles to cope with what he finds himself involved in. They remind me as a slightly less arch version of Kara and Vogel from Resurrection of the Daleks. 

Johnson Willis does a fine job of portraying Damien Pierson's descent into artistic madness and beyond.

Sophie Aldred gets to do a lot more shouting than usual as Ace in this story, being driven close to the edge on a couple of occasions but she still *is* Ace, which is remarkable really considering how much time has passed since Survival. The Seventh Doctor and Ace are one of my favourite companion-Doctor relationships in the series history and Big Finish does a fine job of reminding me why.

Which brings me neatly onto Sylvester's performance. He's so good on audio, especially when doing the quiet-powerful bits.


It's also nice work from Geoffrey Beevers as Mr. Seta. Aka The Master. This is the Master's first Big Finish appearance and they've gone with him as the stripped down skeletal version from The Deadly Assassin, which is definitely the more terrifying version. He was the Ainley version but the creature that may or may not be the main threat here strips him back to that version as a punishment - of sorts. Beevers's Master is perfect for Big Finish as the vocal performance is liquid malevolence.


So another excellent Big Finish adventure concludes. Again it isn't mind-blowingly amazing but it definitely has its moments, especially in the final episodes as everything seems to spiral towards doom.

Worth a listen.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Loups-Garoux [Fifth Doctor + Turlough]

Loups-Garoux is rather good. It's atmospheric. There's some thought gone into the setting and the 'monsters' and its got the Fifth Doctor and Turlough in Brazil. All fine things separately but when combined together something rather excellent pops out of the mix.

It begins in 16th century Cologne where a man is on trial. A man who has stalked and killed in the guise of a wolf. He's a creature of the devil. He's Pieter Stubbe. He will be the Grey One.

Then we are introduced, slowly, to other characters. To Rosa Caiman, the girl with the forest in her head; to Ileana de Santos, the wealthy wife and head of her tribe; to Doctor Hayashi, the man trying to 'save' Ileana's son, Victor and to the Doctor and Turlough who are visiting Rio. This isn't contemporary Rio, this is Rio in 2080. A Rio surround not by rain forest but by desert. It's a world that's changed and that might not have space for the Loups-Garoux anymore. There's an air of a lost world about this whole story. A lost world that might just be savable.

The Loup-Garoux are werewolves. Not the werewolves of Hollywood myth but a race of creatures, of which Pieter Stubbe was the first and oldest. Their origins aren't exactly explained but the Doctor at one point says that mankind didn't exist when Pieter Stubbe stepped out of the mud. He's old is Stubbe. Old, hungry and looking for his mate, who was Illeana de Santos. They met in the snows of Russia in 1812 but she left him. Fled to South America and settled down with a human. They had a son, Victor, but Victor is turning into a wolf and Illeana has hired Doctor Hayashi to help her. But Hayashi has plans of his own. Mainly because he's the kind of idiotic scientist that fills many a-Doctor Who story. Too clever for his own good. And probably doomed to meet a horrible end.

Into this the Doctor steps. Along with Turlough. As usual Turlough is much less keen to get involved and finds himself surprisingly terrified and out of his depth, which is great because if there's something that Mark Strickson can do brilliantly it is Turlough losing it out of shear terror - see Frontios for a fab example of this.

The Doctor's very Fifth Doctor in this. Standing up to everyone. Refusing to judge the Loup-Garoux or condone their destruction, although he finds himself committed to something without realizing quite what he is committing himself to.

There's a streak of romance in this story. The Doctor and Turlough find themselves involved. Not necessarily committed but involved and the final conversation between The Doctor and Ileana is actually rather beautifully written by Marc Platt. It's also performed beautifully by Peter Davison and Eleanor Bron.

Eleanor Bron is the best thing in this. Her Ileana has real weight. Actually weight isn't the right word. Gravitas. She isn't a minor character in a Doctor Who story. This is a character who had a long life before the Doctor turned up and will have one now he's gone. She got an inner life. Or seems to. Which isn't always the case with characters in Doctor Who.

The other character that really shines is Rosa (Sarah Gale) whose the last of her tribe. It's another lovely performance. Full of life. Full of secrets.

Applause should also go to Nicky Henson as Pieter Stubbe, David Hankinson as Anton Lichfuss, Jane Burke as Inez.

The only slight disappointment is the legendary Burt Kwouk as Doctor Hayashi. Not because the performance isn't good but because he's the one character than approaches the bog standard Doctor Who character in the whole story. Everyone else seems so unique that he just appears a bit flat in comparison.

But that's really just a quibble. This is excellent stuff. Give it a listen.

A Minuet in Hell [Eighth Doctor + Charlotte Pollard]

Hello there. I'm back. It has been a while.

So 'Minuet in Hell', starring Paul McGann as the Doctor and India Fisher as Charley Pollard. Set in the fictional, soon-to-be US state of Malebolgia it features The Doctor's lost memory; devious politicians with diabolical machines; dirty old men; the reincarnation of the Hellfire Club; demons that turn out not to be demons (or Daemons) but Psionovores & Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewert (Retired...sort of).

The first thing that needs to be said is that it is far, far too long and takes a reasonably straightforward plot & stretches it until (almost) breaking point. It's as if the producers fell in love with the idea of the Doctor in an asylum but couldn't or wouldn't use it as a story on its own so tacked it on to a bog standard Doctor Who adventure.

And the stuff in the asylum is fun. It's atmospheric, if you like your atmosphere a wee bit creepy. The idea that the Doctor can't remember who he is & that his identity might be taken by someone else - in this case Nicholas Brigg's Gideon Crane - is nicely played. We, of course, know who is the true Doctor as we know it is Paul McGann. But inside the fiction the Doctor's uncertainty is disturbing. Especially as Gideon Crane - convinced that he is the Doctor - undertakes an taunting run through the Doctor's long term memory. Who is the most deluded? Why does Gideon Crane think he is the Doctor in the first place?

That story runs parallel to the 'bad guy trying to take over the world' storyline. In this case our main bad guy is Dashwood (Robert Jezek) , a preacher-politician trying to win the Governorship of Malebolgia. He's aided by Dr Dale Pargeter (Maureen Oakley), another in Doctor Who's long line of scientists who believe the ends justify the means. In this case experiments with a machine that transfer minds from person to machine allowing Dashwood to replace human minds with those of his demon allies. Dashwood thinks they're Lucifer's minions but...well appearances can be deceptive.

Dashwood is opposed by Senator Waldo Pickering (Morgan Deare) for political reasons. I'm afraid that there's so many Southern US accents being thrown around at this point that there's a danger of this sounding like an am-dram version of Gone With the Wind. Waldo is probably the most annoying character in this story & every time he appears (well almost) the pace of the story seems to slow down to sludge. Waldo has a grand-daughter - Becky Lee (Helen Goldwyn) - who is a kind of Big Finish version of Buffy. Sort of. Becky Lee and Charley have a lot of scenes together, which err on the side of the comedic.

That brings me on to why this story doesn't quite work. It is effectively two stories with two different tones welded together & as a result it is too long and too slow. There's one excellent horror story here & one rather bog standard Doctor Who run around. Join them together and neither of them works well.

Oh I should say that none of this has any impact on how brilliant Nicholas Courtney is as the Brigadier. He's older, wiser but still one of the best characters to emerge from Doctor Who. In the hands of a lesser actor the Brigadier could so easily have been a cardboard stereotype but there's a fine dusting of sardonic wit & sharp intelligence that makes the Brigadier so much more. This is as much a Brigadier story as it is the Doctor's.

So this has its positives but in the end it doesn't quite work for me & it felt at points like a real struggle to get through the thing. I suppose trying to do too much isn't such a bad crime. Better that than doing too little.

There's too much happening for this to be anything that a qualified success. The performances are all reasonably OK. McGann's great actually, especially during the scenes when he's not sure who he is or what's happening.

16/09/2014 note. This blog ends rather suddenly. I wonder why. Anyway it was written in April 2012 so make of that what you will.