Doctor Who Big Finish and Audio stories review blog...

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22 Jan 2014, 1:40 am

REVIEW: Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn't! by Jacqueline Rayner, adapted from the novel by Paul Cornell

SERIAL:
BS1.01, 110 minute play

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

The first Big Finish audio play was not based on Doctor Who, but rather, was based on the New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield novels. As they couldn't get the licence for Doctor Who, they could get the licence for the character from the spinoff novels. So now, I go for the first play in the series, Oh No It Isn't!...

On the world Perfecton, Bernice Summerfield is leading an archaeological expedition to find out what caused the native civilisation to die out. But the sun of the world is in danger of going supernova, and more immediate dangers lurk. During an attack by Grel data pirates, their ship is struck by a missile. Waking up in a verdant forest, Bernice believes at first that she's in the afterlife, and a very strange one indeed, where her cat Wolsey is sentient and walking on two legs, her students are dwarves, and everything is strangely fairytale. Struggling to avoid both the rampaging Grel, who have been brought into this world, and the pressures of what now seems to be a bizarre story, Bernice may not be dead, but even in a pantomime world, she may yet be...

Some time ago, I read Oh No It Isn't!, the original novel. I can't say I remembered that much, other than the bizarre setting of a world that is basically pantomime brought to life. However, it is certainly a good choice to begin the series, as it mixes humour with strong drama, with some nice twists and turns. A shame they cut out some elements that would otherwise had explained some things sooner and better, though, as the ending feels rather rushed, and it's a rather simple story to begin with.

Being Lisa Bowerman's debut as Bernice Summerfield, you'd think that there'd be some evidence of it, and yet, she slides into the role as if born for it. Nicholas Courtney is a delight as Wolsey, a very different role from the Brigadier, the role he usually plays, and yet, he is so right for the role of what is basically Puss in Boots. The other cast are fine enough, though I thought that the Grel were played a bit too much for laughs, as was the Perfecton Genie. I would have thought that they should be more like serious villains in a pantomime world, played utterly straight and menacing to underline their villainous nature, although the Perfecton voice heard at the end was certainly good and chilling. And I'm not sure what to make of the usually quite good Mark Gatiss' performance as the Vizier. It wasn't quite dripping with the sort of ham one would expect from such a role.

In a way, being Big Finish's debut story, I expected Oh No It Isn't! to be a lot more rough around the edges. While not quite at the cinematic levels of later audios, it still manages to be quite good. My only issues are nonetheless notable ones. I noticed a distinct lack of suitable sound effects, particularly in the second half of the play, for example, during the genie fighting the Drel, or the Vizier's spells, the latter of which sounded very generic indeed. And there's a distinct lack of music that's very telling to someone weaned on the later releases. Too little music can often be as bad as too much music, though Alastair Lock did put in some nice touches, including a Row, Row, Row Your Boat motif in certain scenes.

Overall, Oh No It Isn't! was quite the good start to Big Finish's plays. Not brilliant, but a worthwhile adaptation of a novel, and a decent enough start to the adventures of Bernice Summerfield.


SCORE: *** 1/2

The next story will be The Valley of Death...


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24 Jan 2014, 12:56 am

REVIEW: The Valley of Death by Philip Hinchcliffe, adapted by Jonathan Morris

SERIAL:
FDLS2, 4X30 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

After leaving the series, former producer Philip Hinchcliffe, using ideas he had thought of during his last season as producer, submitted a story to then script editor Douglas Adams. Adams considered The Valley of Death too expensive to do, though considering his debut story had many expensive effects, that seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Not to mention having similar elements to stories already under consideration. But now, with the Lost Stories, a chance has come to hear this story for the first time...

In the 1870s, explorer Professor Cornelius Perkins vanished deep in the Amazon jungle, trying to find the city of gold and the tribe of the Maygor. Now, in 1977, his descendant, Edward Perkins, has mounted an expedition to find out where he ended up. The Doctor and Leela, having heard extracts from the recently discovered diary of Cornelius, realise that he discovered a crashed spacecraft, and accompany the expedition. But when their plane crashes in the middle of the jungle, where a temporal bubble shields a magnificent city, the Doctor soon realises that something is very wrong. An alien is present, the Luron Emissary Godrin, and he claims to have been waiting until Earth has reached a certain level of civilisation so that he could grant them technology beyond their wildest dreams. But is Godrin really the last of the Lurons? What is his real purpose? And even if Perkins' expedition can escape the Valley of Death, can they find out what is truly about to happen?

In the liner notes, Jonathan Morris, who adapted this story from Hinchcliffe's story outline, claimed that this serial, with every episode making a big twist to the story, was very like The Hand of Fear. Indeed, the story is not lacking for either incident or twists or rather interesting concepts, like time bubbles and a spaceship hanging over Windsor Castle a la Independence Day. While one could say that the story line, stripped of all this, is rather simple, I nonetheless enjoyed it immensely. Some stories that have a similar format (like The Chase or The Keys of Marinus) don't do well, and yet, this one managed it. And despite the fact that the then showrunners of the time would have been hard-pressed to realise this on screen, it still feels very much like a Doctor Who story.

Tom Baker is a delight as always as the Doctor, and Louise Jameson is well-characterised as Leela. Perhaps the only major concern I have is that Godrin is very Bond-villain-like in his sadism and stupidity, and yet, Nigel Carrington's performance more than makes up for it. So too do the performances of Anthony Howell as Edward Perkins, David Killick as his glory and riches-seeking ancestor Cornelius, and Jane Slavin as Valerie Carlton.

What can I say about Big Finish's production values that I haven't already said before? I have used words like cinematic to describe them before, and I do so again. In fact, cinematic is a very good word to use for this story, as for a Lost Story, it would have needed cinematic resources to make it to the screen. But the sound mixing is spot on, and my only real complaint was that no voice processing at all was used on the Luron voices, although there is an excellent use of subtle voice processing on...characters who should not be named to preserve spoilers, but let's just say that it supplements the acting wonderfully.

Overall, I loved listening to The Valley of Death. Like The Foe from the Future, it is amazing how such a great story managed to be adapted from a relatively sparse story outline, and it ensures that the Fourth Doctor Lost Stories boxset is a must have for not only any fan of Big Finish, but also any Whovian.


SCORE: *****


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25 Jan 2014, 4:43 am

REVIEW: Doctor Who and the Pirates, or: The Lass that Lost a Sailor by Jacqueline Rayner

SERIAL:
7C/H, 4X30 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

The first time I met a Doctor, it was Colin Baker, performing in pantomime at Jack and the Beanstalk. He had an excellent singing voice, singing Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and while he didn't hit all the notes, he was nonetheless a damned fine singer. So it was no surprise to learn that Big Finish did at least one musical story, of sorts, with Colin Baker in the role, but there's more to Doctor Who and the Pirates than just songs...

Evelyn Smythe's old student, Sally, is surprised to find that her former teacher has arrived, along with the mysterious man known only as the Doctor. Sally doesn't want them there, but Evelyn and the Doctor are determined to tell her a story about pirates, about how the insane Red Jasper has raided the Sea Eagle, in search of someone who may know the last whereabouts of Ezekiel Bones' treasure. Why does Sally want to be left alone? What secret does the Sea Eagle's cabin boy Jem hide? Can Evelyn stop the Doctor from singing? And does any story have a happy ending?

The pirate story itself is rather simple and frankly often silly, something that is often pointed out by the other half of the story, which involves the Doctor and Evelyn telling their tale to Sally. The story manages to mix both comedy and tragedy in equal measure. The songs are wonderful and enjoyable, and despite the silliness and ludicrous nature of the story, it all works, even when the story dives into much darker themes. It's both enjoyable and sad in all the right ways.

Colin Baker is wonderful as the Doctor, as he often is in the Big Finish audios, and this story gives him the opportunity to show off his singing. Meanwhile, Maggie Stables as Evelyn gets put through the emotional wringer. Helen Goldwyn as Sally seems rather too abrasive at first, but her tragedy unfolds so well, it is perfectly understandable. Bill Oddie is a surprisingly inspired choice as the insane Red Jasper, despite the pantomime nature of him and the other characters in the pirates sequences, who are also well cast, despite the silliness and affected acting, which is necessary for those sequences.

As usual, Big Finish is on top form for the audio mixing, especially where a musical episode is concerned. The music is on top form, the dialogue is audible when necessary, and the sound mixing is excellent. The sound effects are just a tad below par, but that's a mere quibble.

Overall, I enjoyed Doctor Who and the Pirates immensely. Both funny and dark, and managing to balance the two very well, it is an oddity and a great one as well.


SCORE: *****


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28 Jan 2014, 2:46 am

REVIEW: Colditz by Steve Lyons

SERIAL:
7U, 4X25 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No


One character who persisted throughout the Big Finish audios was that of Elizabeth Klein, who, after appearing in one key story of the early Big Finish releases, went on to appear in releases much later, including the epic UNIT Dominion. Intending to get that work before long, I thought I might as well acquaint myself with the origins of the character first, at the very least. But her origins lie in a historical story, with a classic setting and an intriguing twist....

Encountering a disruption in time and space, the Doctor and Ace, upon landing, are promptly captured, the Doctor getting shot in the process. For this is Oflag 4-C, otherwise known as Colditz Castle, in October 1944, a prison camp for notorious escapee POWs. As Ace runs afoul of Feldwebel Kurtz, a sadistic Nazi officer, the Doctor finds that his unusual physiology is causing some concern amongst the higher-ups in the camp, including the weary Hauptmann Schafer, who is sympathetic to the prisoners' plight. While Ace works to escape, the Doctor is confronted by Elizabeth Klein, a mysterious woman who seems to be working for the Nazi's command, and who knows rather too much about the TARDIS. Who is Klein, really, and where, or more precisely, when does she come from? Will Ace escape the predatory Kurtz, or die escaping? And will the TARDIS win the Nazis the war, or is there something else at work?

Colditz is one of those Big Finish stories that you could conceivably do on a Doctor Who budget of the time it would have been made if it had been done for the TV series, not least because of its setting. The BBC had done a series on Colditz before, and I reckon it could have been done. Even so, the story, at least until the end of the first episode, seems like a straightforward historical, and mostly remains that way, albeit with an added element of time travel involved. I'll try not to spoil the major details, but certainly themes of what it would be like to an inhabitant of an alternate timeline would be to be told that their timeline is not meant to be abound. We also have Ace being forced to grow up, and being confronted with the consequences of her actions, which works out well indeed. The final twists about the time travel aspects are very well done, if slightly confusing.

As usual, Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace are excellent, with the latter having to go through a period of growth. The two main Nazis are a bit more problematic, with Kurtz being an almost stereotypical jackbooted nutjob, and Schafer being so weak and sympathetic to his own prisoners, I couldn't see him remaining in any form of authority in Colditz for long, though David Tennant (in a very surprisingly psychotic performance) and Toby Longworth's respective performances help paper up the worst of the flaws. Nicholas Young as Gower and Peter Rae as Tim are perhaps a bit better, but the star of the show besides the regulars is Tracey Childs as Elizabeth Klein. Although a despicable villain, she is also the most complex of the guest characters, with understandable motives and an intriguing new perspective on how the Doctor acts.

As usual, Big Finish does well with their sound mixing, although there are occasions when Colditz falls down. The music certainly feels like it came from Sylvester McCoy's era. Some sound effects seem to lack a certain organic feeling, feeling like they were dropped into the world, and on occasion, there were curious changes in sound quality during at least a couple of Sylvester McCoy's lines, and I couldn't find any damage to the disc. Finally, on two occasions during the final episode, the sound mixing went pretty bad, with dialogue being obscured by sound effects and music at the wrong points.

However, these are minor quibbles. Not perfect by any means, but Colditz was certainly an enjoyable story, with dark themes, and Ace needing to grow up, and the Doctor getting a dark look into an alternate time...

SCORE: **** 1/2

The next story will be The Light at the End...


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01 Feb 2014, 4:32 am

REVIEW: The Light at the End by Nicholas Briggs

SERIAL:
50th Anniversary special, 2X60 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No


For the Doctor Who 50th anniversary, two specials were made. Most people know of the TV version, The Day of the Doctor, featuring three Doctors, one of whom had only been recently introduced, with brief cameos from the others. But Big Finish made another special, featuring the first eight Doctors, though Big Finish is by no means obscure. The Light at the End is an ambitious romp, but would they manage a multi-Doctor story with so many Doctors?

The 23rd of November, 1963. It should be a date like any other. But somehow, the Doctor in his first eight incarnations are getting drawn to these coordinates, and to a pocket dimension. Within this pocket dimension is the Factory of the Vess, a race of war manufacturers, and ensconced in the Factory is the Master, watching events unfold. A light flashes on the TARDIS console that hadn't been there before. The Doctor's companions begin to vanish. And in a suburban street in Hampshire, Bob Dovie's family has gone missing after he helped a strange, burnt man. What is the Master's plan? What weapon did the Vess allow him to use? And can the Doctors stop what seems to be the inevitable destruction of the TARDIS? The light on the TARDIS console is the light at the end, and the Doctors all face oblivion...

One of the key difficulties in creating a multi-Doctor story is giving each of the Doctors plenty to do. The Five Doctors, in dealing with effectively just four, managed it just. The Light at the End, thankfully, manages to do so too. The story is a simple one, more about the Doctor's fighting to survive the Master's plans, but it's an effective one. The first three Doctors, given how their original actors are deceased, are given less to do, but this still means juggling five Doctors, and Nick Briggs manages it. My main issue is that the Vess aren't quite fully developed (and I'd like to see more of them), and that it's not quite explained how the Master managed to ready the weapon inside his patsy. But overall, the story, while not stellar, is nonetheless an enjoyable, if simple, epic.

Characterisation isn't always a priority in many a multi-Doctor story, but it is more than made up for it by the performances. Doctors 5-8 are played superbly by their respective actors, with only Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor given comparatively little to do in the story. The reduced role of the first three Doctors is also handled well, and while I'm not so sure about William Russell's First Doctor and Tim Treloar's Third Doctor, Frazer Hines is almost indistinguishable from Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. The companions are played suitably well, even though many of them are swiftly written out throughout the story. Geoffrey Beevers' Master isn't written quite as well as he was in Master or Mastermind, but he nonetheless gives a suitably masterful performance, if not quite on par with some of his earlier performances. Finally, Oliver Hume as Straxus and John Dorney as Bob Dovie round out the cast with good performances.

Sound-mixing wise, I have a few small problems with The Light at the End. The music of Jamie Robertson is excellent and suitably epic, and the sound effects work well. But the sound mixing, at times, has that old bugbear of obscuring dialogue. One particular annoyance was the distortion used on the time echoes. Vital dialogue was hard to discern, save when significant concentration is used, and while this helps disguise the difference in the first three Doctors' voices from the originals, the effect is a double-edged sword.

Ultimately, though, these were minor quibbles. The Day of the Doctor was a wonderful epic, but The Light at the End managed to take it up just a notch. Nowhere near perfect by any means, but a wonderful celebration of a wonderful series.


SCORE: **** 1/2


I'll be taking a break. Then, I'll be listening to another selection of audios, which will definitely include 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men, Project: Twilight, Project: Lazarus, The Creed of the Kromon, The Next Life, and Blood of the Daleks.


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07 Feb 2014, 11:32 pm

At Last, the 1963/1982/2013 Show! Warning, spoilers below.

REVIEW: 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men by Eddie Robson

SERIAL:
Unknown, 4X30 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

During the later months of 2013, Big Finish released a trilogy of stories set in 1963, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. The first of them, funnily enough, was based on throwaway dialogue in the very first episode of the series, An Unearthly Child, where Susan discusses some of her favourite music group, John Smith and the Common Men, with Ian. That was combined with a tale that, while about the Beatles, couldn't have them or their music for tricky reasons of copyright and law. Eddie Robson had a tough time ahead of him, living up to expectations...

Hoping to show Nyssa more of human culture, the Doctor takes her to an airport in 1963, where the Beatles are due to get off the plane. But there are only three band members who get off the plane: Mark Carville, James O'Meara, and Korky Goldsmith. They are a band from Liverpool, but they are the Common Men, a band that seems to have usurped the Beatles from history. And someone in the crowd tries to shoot them with an impulse laser. Nyssa tries to catch the gunman, only to be taken through time and space to Hamburg, 1957, where she meets the Common Men as they are starting out. Meanwhile, back in 1963, the Doctor, realising something is very wrong with time, teams up with Common Men fangirl Rita. The Common Men seem to be somehow influencing their fans into greater obsession with them. Or someone behind them is, anyway. Who is Lenny Kruger, and what is his true agenda for the band? What is the hideous power that not even the Common Men know they have? And between time travel, aliens, fame, and the hideous force of the galaxy known as fangirls, can the Doctor and Nyssa survive, let alone get time back on track?

Eddie Robson is a rather prolific writer at Big Finish, but this is the first time I have listened to any of his work. Given the ambitious nature of the story, one could be fearful that he could stuff it up, and badly. However, he manages to create a story that's about the Beatles, and yet not about them. It seems like a paradox of some kind, but the story not only uses the period to the full, but also the conceits of fame and music, not to mention time travel. There's even a streak of humour throughout, though I daresay that Beatles fans will probably get more out of it than I did. The revelation of the true power of the Common Men at the end of the third episode was certainly startling and clever. But I have one fairly big complaint: the villain's plan doesn't quite make sense, as he intends to use the power the band will gain indirectly, but the events of the third episode cliffhanger suggest that he would find it hard to wield that power, even indirectly, so part of the story doesn't quite make sense. A shame, really.

As usual, Peter Davison as the Doctor and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa are done very well, with Nyssa getting almost as much to do as the Doctor. Of the guest cast, particular praise should go to Alison Thea-Skot, who pulls double duty as the Doctor's ally Rita, and Kruger's psychotic fangirl sidekick Sadie, and manages to sound somewhat like two different people, certainly with two different personalities. I found the voicework of the actors playing the Common Men to be a little dull and flat, though this actually works for their characters, and certainly it helps in the climax of the third episode involving Mitch Benn as Mark. The main sour point was Ryan Sampson, who is rather too overtly hammy as Lenny Kruger. I think if the ham was toned down, he'd be a bit more menacing, though it has to be admitted he's still an effective villain anyway.

As usual, Big Finish scores highly in the sound design department. This time, a number of songs get thrown into the mix, and while they're not on the level of the Beatles (which is itself a plot point), they still give the feel of the Sixties period. The music and sound effects and the sound music are all just right for this release, which is great.

Not perfect by any means, nonetheless, 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men is a classic of Big Finish's releases. It cleverly uses the Beatles without using them, and a throwaway bit of Doctor Who minutiae to construct a clever story.

SCORE: **** 1/2

The next story will be Project: Twilight...


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10 Feb 2014, 1:23 am

REVIEW: Project: Twilight by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright

SERIAL:
7C/E, 4X25 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

Okay, so it has Twilight in the title and has vampires. But I'm fairly sure that it ain't so bad. After all, Project: Twilight started the Forge story arc, a story arc that would affect the Doctor's relationship with at least two of his companions. And Cavan Scott and Mark Wright also wrote the very excellent The Church and the Crown. So, let's go...

Southeast London, and the Dusk casino is one of the best casinos in the area, if you can overlook the dodgy owner Reggie Mead and his associate Amelia Doory. The Doctor and Evelyn, when stumbling across a nest of gruesome animal feedings, are drawn to the Dusk when one of its staff is attacked by a man with a crossbow. But no ordinary crossbow is this, for it is wielded by Nimrod, a man Reggie and Amelia are too familiar with. Evelyn tries to help new waitress Cassie, only to learn that she is being blackmailed into being a spy on the Forge, lest her son is murdered, while the Doctor soon discovers that there is more to the Dusk than meets the eye. What experiments is Amelia running? Why are the Dusk's owners and their dubious associates so strong and capable of healing? And what links them to the ultra-secret organisation known as the Forge, and a nearly hundred years-old government secret called Project: Twilight? The Doctor and Evelyn have found themselves in a bloody and dark situation, one that will shake them to the core...

Maybe it was because I was impressed so much by The Church and the Crown, or maybe it was because this story are the writers' debut, but this doesn't feel as good. Not that Project: Twilight is at all bad. It's certainly a good yarn with a few twists and turns coming all the time, and it's a good romp. But on the whole, I am left dissatisfied. I didn't know who left the detritus Evelyn and the Doctor found at the start of the story, and while now, after having listened to it, I suspect Nathaniel, I dunno for sure. And perhaps more annoyingly, why doesn't the Doctor tell Evelyn straight away about the vampires? She would have been sceptical, sure, but she would have been on guard as well. This was one of the story's more blatant faults, I have to say. The rest of it is nonetheless a good yarn.

Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are great as usual as the Doctor and Evelyn, with Colin Baker in particular being put through the wringer. I have to confess that out of all the other characters as written, only Stephen Chance as Nimrod and Rosie Cavaliero as Cassie struck me. Reggie Mead is too much of a one-dimensional thug, and Amelia seems...not quite as fleshed out as I would have hoped, though the respective performances of Rob Dixon and Holly de Jong make up for these shortcomings.

As usual, Big Finish is a master when it comes to sound design. Certainly, the sound mixing is spot-on, and the music atmospheric. But it also felt like the soundscape was, ironically enough for a vampire story, a bit on the anaemic side. Not that much, to be fair. I just wanted something a bit darker and creepier.

I am nitpicking, somewhat. Project: Twilight is certainly on a par with most of Big Finish's output, and of course, it sets events into motion that will have an impact on the series to come...


SCORE: ****

The next story will be Project: Lazarus. Which is, incidentally, the direct sequel to this story.


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11 Feb 2014, 12:10 am

REVIEW: Project: Lazarus by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright

SERIAL:
7C/J/7X, 4X25 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

Hot on the heels of Project: Twilight, I have now listened to the sequel, Project: Lazarus. While one multi-Doctor story has been done for Big Finish previously (Big Finish's debut Doctor Who story The Sirens of Time), this was the second. Like The Ark back in William Hartnell's day, the story is basically two stories, two episodes apiece, but sharing the same story elements. But I didn't like The Ark. Would Project: Lazarus go the same way?

Two Doctors. Two parts of the same story. The Sixth Doctor, having found a cure to the Twilight virus, tracks down vampirised waitress Cassie, only for the TARDIS to materialise some years after they last met. Cassie, embittered, is now a member of the Forge. But is Nimrod truly trustworthy? And what secret does Evelyn hide from the Doctor? The Seventh Doctor, some time after these traumatic events, is forced to come to the Forge once more to stop disturbances in the time vortex, only to find that Nimrod has an unexpected ally. Why does the Sixth Doctor, after all that Nimrod put him through, work for the Forge? And can two Doctors stop both the Forge and an alien invasion? Friendships will be broken. Trust will fall apart. Hope will be lost. And the darkest secrets of all may be revealed...

Like Project: Twilight before it, Project: Lazarus is, in the end, a fairly simple and straightforward story, albeit bifurcated. But this is by no means a bad thing. Indeed, it's a dark and morally ambiguous story. The first half revolves around the Doctor's relationship with allies and companions, and it doesn't end well. The second half is where the meat and potatoes of the Forge story works out. I'm not so sure about the Huldran subplot, which feels slightly wasted, but it's otherwise a level above the already quite good Project: Twilight.

Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as their respective Doctors are excellent, as usual, with the former getting some scenes that bring about some of the best acting from him. So too does Maggie Stables as Evelyn, who gets one of the most traumatic experiences ever travelling with the Doctor. Nimrod, particularly towards the end, seems like a particularly stupid megalomaniac, not caring that his actions might provoke a war, but even so, Stephen Chance's performance is excellent all the same. The rest of the supporting cast are all good too, especially the return of Rosie Cavaliero's tragic Cassie.

Finally, what can one say about the sound design of the Big Finish audios that I haven't already? This time, they're spot on, with many creepy atmospherics and excellent music. This time, everything just works.

Overall, Project: Lazarus was a great sequel to a good story, and I look forward to the final Forge story, when I finally get it. Project: Destiny, here I come...


SCORE: **** 1/2

The next story will be The Creed of the Kromon...


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12 Feb 2014, 1:29 am

REVIEW: The Creed of the Kromon by Philip Martin

SERIAL:
8P, 4X30 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

Big Finish usually brought in new writers for the audio stories, but on occasion, they brought in people who had written for the classic series. Philip Martin had written the acclaimed Vengeance on Varos in 1985, and the Mindwarp segment of Trial of a Time Lord, and Big Finish brought him in for the debut of a new companion, and one of the first of the Divergent Universe arc for the Eighth Doctor. So would an old writer turn out well for the Big Finish audios?

Having lost the TARDIS during their initial sojourn into the Divergent Universe, the Doctor and Charley are accosted at the barrier into a new zone. After an initial interrogation by the mysterious Kro'ka, they are allowed through into the Eutermes Zone, where a vicious insect race called the Kromon have enslaved the Eutermesans and the Oroog, turning a once lush land into desert. They rescue a Eutermesan called C'rizz, a reptilian humanoid in a universe which is not meant to have humanoids, but soon, they are all captured by the Kromon. The Doctor is forced to help the Kromon's space program, while Charley is about to be forced to undergo a terrible transformation, one that has already befallen C'rizz's lover, L'da. Do the Kromon possess the TARDIS? Can C'rizz overcome the despair he feels? And can the Doctor stop the Kromon and save both Charley and C'rizz?

One can see many of the same tropes in Martin's previous works, including horrific transformations and corporate exploitation. The story is not that bad a one, albeit with a touch too much humour given the story. But in the end, it's a fairly bog standard, if decent, alien occupation and rebellion story, with little truly original touches, and a few things pulled out of midair. A shame, really.

Paul McGann and India Fisher are good as the Doctor and Charley, although Charley's character in the second episode seems a little out of character. Conrad Westmaas plays C'rizz fairly well, especially given his tragedy, while Brian Cobby is okay as the Oroog. Stephen Perring is fairly interesting as the Kro'ka, but while his work as the Kromon, as is that of Daniel Hogarth, isn't quite as good, though this may be partly the writing.

Big Finish's sound design is usually pretty damn good, but there are times when The Creed of the Kromon falls down. I like the music, and the sound effects in general are good, but the sound mixing at times falls down. The sound mixing sometimes obscures vital dialogue, and this isn't helped by the voice treatments on the Kromon and the Oroog, the latter of whom is sometimes very hard to discern.

While not quite at the usual level of Big Finish, The Creed of the Kromon is nonetheless a good enough story, and a decent introduction to a new companion...


SCORE: *** 1/2

The next story will be The Next Life...


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13 Feb 2014, 5:02 am

REVIEW: The Next Life by Alan Barnes and Gary Russell

SERIAL:
8V, 6X30 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

Out of some necessity, I listen to the Big Finish stories in anachronic order. One of the first stories I listened to was Terror Firma, set just after the end of the Divergent Universe arc. Now, I have listened to Zagreus and The Creed of the Kromon, which are at the beginning. But now, I come to the grand finale, just before Terror Firma, a six-part epic from the team who brought me Zagreus. But would I like The Next Life as much as I did Zagreus?

The Doctor and his companions may have regained the TARDIS, but they aren't out of the Divergent Universe yet. But the TARDIS soon crashlands onto a blue moon. After being drawn into dreamscapes, Charley and C'rizz find themselves confronted by Rassilon, and his lackey, the former Divergent underling the Kro'ka. Rassilon reveals that the Doctor has been free of anti-time for some time, and may yet wish to leave the Divergent Universe, without his companions. Meanwhile, the Doctor washes up on an island, and is found by Perfection, the wife of hunter, billionaire, and head of the Church of the Foundation, Daqar Keep. Framing him for the murder of a native, Keep hunts the Doctor, as well as Perfection, through the jungles, while Keep's Eutermesan underling, Guidance, has an agenda of his own. Will Charley and C'rizz keep faith in the Doctor, let alone each other? What is truth and what is lies in Rassilon's words? What are the deadly secrets Keep, Perfection, and Guidance hide? And can the Doctor and his companions escape, or will they succumb to the end of a universe without time?

I am aware of some of the stories that went on previously, and while I haven't actually heard many of them, I know enough to follow the story. Like Zagreus, The Next Life is a big, sprawling adventure over three massive hours. They share a number of things, though it would spoil the story to even hint at them, but is ultimately a less surreal adventure. Some parts are surreal: the first episode, concentrating mostly on Charley and C'rizz's memories, is reminiscent of the similar first episode of The Mind Robber in being almost divorced from the rest of the storyline, and indeed, some parts seem placed to plump up the story. Not that this is a bad thing. Filler is good as long as it's entertaining. Ultimately, the story is a lot of answers to a lot of questions, tying up loose ends, but doing so in a way that's enjoyable.

Paul McGann, as usual, is good as the Doctor. However, it is India Fisher as Charley and Conrad Westmaas as C'rizz who, as regulars, get a lot more to do, with a lot of interesting character conflict between them that isn't quite resolved at the end, but in a good way. Stephen Cornicard is fine as Keep, who seems like a standard villain until his true nature is revealed. Daphne Ashbrook returns to Doctor Who in the very different role of Perfection, another character who isn't what she seems, and in a good way. Paul Darrow has a very understated role as the fanatical Guidance, certainly more interesting (if a little less entertaining) than his previous role in Doctor Who (as Maylin Tekker in Timelash). Finally, Don Warrington makes a welcome return as the manipulative Rassilon, and Stephen Perring as the obsequious Kro'ka.

What can I say about Big Finish's sound design that I haven't already? I know you must be getting sick and tired of my praise for them, and using the previous sentence so often, but it's the truth. And here is one of those stories where the stars align, and everything works just right. After some of the disappointments of The Creed of the Kromon's sound design, it's wonderful to listen to The Next Life directly afterwards, to remind me of what it's really like to listen to good audio drama.

What can I say about The Next Life to sum it up? Everything comes together to make sure that the Divergent Universe arc ends on a high note. Loved it. Epic and enjoyable, to the last moment...


SCORE: *****

The next story will be Blood of the Daleks...


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17 Feb 2014, 12:40 am

REVIEW: Blood of the Daleks by Steve Lyons

SERIAL:
EDA 1.1, 2X50 minute episodes

LISTENED TO IT BEFORE?: No

The Eighth Doctor Adventures were a series of four seasons' worth of adventures, produced in the style of the new series. But although I had listened to the story Max Warp from the second series, I am yet to listen to anything from the rest of the series. Until now. The debut of the EDAs started with a two-part story called Blood of the Daleks...

The Doctor is startled, and distinctly unimpressed, when a young woman called Lucie Miller from the 21st century ends up on his TARDIS. She is not impressed either, and seems to have been dropped off with the Doctor by the Time Lords, and the Doctor can't take her home thanks to their actions. The pair end up on the human colony Red Rocket Rising, where a meteorite strike has rendered the local population desperate and hostile. Between a dithering politician, a haughty scientist, and a paranoid conspiracy theorist, the Doctor has his work cut out already when the Daleks arrive, offering help to the colony. What are the Daleks' real purpose in coming to the colony? What does this have to do with the human scientist Martez? And can the Doctor and Lucie stop bickering long enough to save Red Rocket Rising?

The plot is a fairly simple one. While not always a bad thing, here, it's more of a straightforward romp than the more impressive Colditz, by the same author. Certainly some excellent themes and points are raised, and it's not a bad story at all. But I am left wanting by the experience.

I believe that part of the problem is the characterisation. Paul McGann is definitely still good as the Doctor, but I have reservations about Sheridan Smith's Lucie Miller. Her performance is good, and to be fair to her character, her abrasiveness to the situation is somewhat understandable, but it also doesn't endear her to me very much at all. The other characters are acted okay, but are mostly cardboard cutouts as scripted. Klint is a typical indecisive politician, Tom is a typical conspiracy theorist/nutjob survivalist, and Gryvern, while more promising, could have been written just a touch more hammy, and her actions towards the end seem to come from very little. It says something when the Daleks are the most interestingly scripted versions of the guest characters.

But the sound design, as is the norm for Big Finish, at least makes up for these disappointments. Cinematic, bombastic, everything is spot-on, and all contributes to bolstering up the story where it needs to be. There's a few hiccups here and there, but nothing major, and the erratic voice treatment on the 'second race' Daleks actually helps give them a novel air.

Overall, Blood of the Daleks was something of a disappointment. Not a great one, as it still is a good story to listen to and a decent introduction to the Eighth Doctor Adventures. But some shoddy characterisation and a few story bumps here and there bring it down in my expectations, unfortunately.


SCORE: *** 1/2

I'll be taking another break, and then will be listening to and reviewing the following: Prisoners of Fate, Whispers of Terror, Bang-Bang-a-Boom!, UNIT: Dominion, Persuasion, Starlight Robbery, Neverland, I, Davros, and The Davros Mission.


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