A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Stolen Lives”

“The X-Files: Stolen Lives” is a direct follow up to “The X-Files: Cold Cases” in the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, and various monsters and supernatural happenings menace the world. Grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.

This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as agents Mulder and Scully, and they are clearly having a blast stepping into these familiar shoes. And their enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome also to the return of the Lone Gunmen, in an amusing but credulity stretching development here holed up in a secret lair under Arlington Cemetery, and grab your favourite pack of smokes (Morleys) it’s the return of Spender, the Cigarettes Smoking Man, here a tortured clone doomed to die violently and repeatedly. He becomes strangely sympathetic.

He’s not the only clone afoot. There’s a sinister army of them, comprising of old faces from the original show, the titular ‘Stolen Lives.’ These are mainly baddies, the dreaded Syndicate for one, the Cabal responsible for orchestrating the original alien invasion conspiracy. They are ruled over by a fearsome new Prime Elder with an agenda of his own. His identity and some of his agenda are revealed in the final story of this collection, ‘Elders,’ and it’s the conclusion of a satisfying arc that began Cold Cases and has run through both releases. There are stand alone stories here as well, as in the last collection, mirroring the format of the original show. And unfortunately as patchy as the original. It begins with a powerful story of possession that I thought was going to be the start of a whole new arc, it felt so epic. But it wasn’t. It’s chilling, violent, and has a number of real gut punching scenes of visceral power. As a heads up there is a scene of a mass shooting that some will feel especially unsettling and upsetting given recent real world events.

After this there follows a tale of a ravenous swarm of flesh eating Scarabs, that’s ok but feels very generic. Then we find out what happened toAgents Dogget and Reece after their disappearance in Cold Cases. Again, it’s ok, but there’s a feeling of it not quite living up to it’s premise. Just a quick tidying up of loose ends.  

Then the weakest of the bunch, an investigation into Government produced psycho-active substances with a much too protracted gag involving Mulder getting stoned. Real life legal highs are much scarier.

And it wraps up with the superior story arc conclusion mentioned above, and a promising set up for the next series.

On the whole a great, patchy listen, faithful to the strengths and the weaknesses of the original, and taking it in some interesting new directions. And there’s one powerful reveal and link to the original that I have not given away here. Enjoy.

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A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Cold Cases.”

“The X-Files:  Cold Cases” is an addition to the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is.  I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous.  However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier,  show stopping episodes.  The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun.  The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious.  Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man.  That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan.  Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy.  I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature.  It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived.  When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.

A review of the Audible Original drama “River of Pain.”

“River of Pain is the second Audible Original Original adaptation of a novel expanding the Alien franchise.  The first, “Out of the Shadows,” was gripping enough and an effective drama.  This, skipping the second in the novel trilogy, “Sea of Sorrows,” is better, boosted by closer and better continuity to the movie it’s most closely linked to, ‘Aliens.’  This film was James Cameron’s big screen stand off between Ellen Ripley and a band of colonial marines, and an army of Xenomorphs and their Queen.  This is a direct prologue to that film, and skillfully weaves in key early scenes from the movie, as well as sometimes expending them a little (watch out for how they riff off “There goes our salvage guys”).  This is fascinating and very well done.  Kudos to the cast who brilliantly step into the skin of the originals, especially Laurel Lefkow as Ripley.  You get some of the ‘Aliens’ original cast returning as well, including Mac MacDonal as unfortunate Colony administrator Al Simpson, and William Hope as Lt. Gorman (“you always were an asshole, Gorman”).
The action, flashing between early scenes from the film and parallel events on the terra-forming colony Hadley’s Hope on the planet Archeron (the mythical original of the titular “River of Pain”), leads to events starting with Ripley’s rescue by the salvage team, the arrival on Archeron on a new troop of marines led by the tough but principled Captain Damian Bracket (superbly portrayed by Colin Salmon) and up to no good Weyland Yutani scientists.  The population of Hadley’s Hope are worn down and beleaguered by the grind of colony life, and are fighting amongst themselves.  Newt’s mom and Dad are fighting (Anne Jordan is sympathetically played by Anna Friel), and when news come of a big mysterious site to explore that could prove lucrative, the Jordan’s seize on it as their possible salvation.  Unfortunately the fate of the colony is rapidly being sealed.  The first 2 hours effectively build up the tension and atmosphere of the world of Aliens.  Fans will be delighted by familiar sounds, the distinctive whirring of the colony doors, the bleeping of trackers, and so on.  Scientists, military, administrators all clash, and Ripley slowly works through the chain of events that slowly lead her to Archeron.  It isn’t long before face-huggers, chest-bursters and warrior adults all do their violent thing and start munching through the colonists, or worse.  It’s good drama when you know the colony’s fate and the fate of key characters, dread getting to that point but are behind them and rooting for them nevertheless   I was expecting a very down-beat finale, and yes the horror of dreaded events is there, but there’s also an unexpected shot of hope and redemption at the end that will make you cheer.  In fact there’s two, when we get to a first meeting between certain characters that the drama has been building up to.
Brilliant and recommended.
sigourney-weaver-as-ripley-in-james-camerons-aliens

Don’t deny the Power…catching up with a lost Who treasure

‘Power of the Daleks’ a Doctor Who story by David Whittaker, first broadcast in 1966 was a landmark show in the series history; it was the first ‘regeneration story.’  William Hartnell, exhausted from his first struggle with the Cybermen in “The Tenth Planet,” had collapsed at the end of the previous series and the audience had gasped as his face changed before their eyes.  This story begins with that moment, and William Hartnell becomes Patrick Troughton.  Imagine the strangeness of that.  Doctor Who fans are used to this now, and new incarnations of the Doctor are always preceded at least a year in advance by an immense media buzz and speculation, as we are seeing now in the “best woman to play to Doctor” discussion.   But then this concept was as alien as the Doctor himself.  The cast, crew, writers and production team must have been holding their breath.  Would this work, or was this the show going off a cliff?
Sadly this entire show has been lost from the BBC archives, so we’ll never see this moment as the audience first saw it.  But the audio survived, and from this we have two recent constructions, a narrated audio drama using the original soundtrack, and an animation.   This gives us very good representations of this first regeneration scene, and as far as I’m concened, it does work spectacularly well.  The Doctor’s disorietntation and the baffled and frightened reactions of his companions Ben and Polly, and some hostility (from Ben), are all understandable and dramatically satisfying reactions.
And that’s not all that works well.  This is tense, satisfying and scary story that continues many of the hallmarks and repeating motifs of a great Doctor Who adventure.  Stumbling and dazed from the abrupt transformation of the Doctor, the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive on fog shrouded, swamp infested world and are hailed by an Earth official who is promptly shot.  The Doctor is then knocked unconscious, and a button pressed into his hand, to the purpose of framing someone else for the murder.  Our heroes are then taken to a human settlement on this alien world of Vulcan.  This is a colony under tremendous internal pressure from politicking and factionalism.  There is a rebellion against the Colony’s Governor that is on the verge of turning violent.  In the meantime, scientists have discovered an alien ship crashed on the planet and have taken it into the colony (never a good move!), and the chief Scientist, Lesterson (Robert James)), has discovered in the ship deactivated Daleks and is attempting revive one, ignorant of course as to the nature of this creature.  Posing as an Earth Examiner (the identity of the murdered man), the Doctor is horrified to learn of Lesterson’s experiments and even more horrified when a Dalek activates, screeching out in an iconic moment, “We…are…your..servants!”  Lesterson and others  become convinced they can get the Daleks to serve them.  (Literally) disarmed, the Daleks play along with this.  Dalek weapons are also discovered, and the scheming Bragen (Bernard Archard), conspiring with the rebels to seize power, decides to try and use the Daleks to seize power.  Meanwhile, the Daleks pursue their own agenda of extermination and conquest.  It’s all going to end in tears.
This story and prodcution has many of the hallmarks of a great Doctor Who story.  Let’s look at these:
1) Doctor and companions on top form: the chemistry and intreaction between them is a joy, given the trauma of the regeneration.  Troughton quickly brings into play the Second Doctor’s playfulness, mischief, and ‘clownish,’ antics whilst retaining the gravitas and seriousness of the first.  Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) are companion gold, stumbling into traps, voicing confuison, being kidnapped.  Listen to one show with them and you feel they have been around forever.
2) The Daleks: deadly as ever, their menace is given  a new edge by the way they ‘play’ the humans in this story, scheming and fooling them into helping them create an army! It’s such a transparently diabolical plan, and yet we accept it. We get to see, clawed, slithering Dalek mutants too, and there’s  memorable scene where we see a Dalek production line, with a mutant being placed into the case of it’s new machine.
3) The cliffhangers: they are great, from the first story’s mutant scuttling for freedom, to the “we are your servants” cry of an activated Dalek, to the monstrous production line, to the twitiching eyestalk of the final moment.
4) A human colony under pressure:  here in all its dysfunctional glory,  with it’s stratas of ruling governors, scientists, guards and citizens.  The human and Dalek schemeing coming together makes for an interesting dramatic tension.
5) Action packed, uncompromising pay off: Play with Daleks, you’re going to get exterminated.
A stand out performance must go to Robert James as Lesterson the Chief Scientist. In many ways a stereotype, he’s a compelling character in how he develops,  through his organal scientific hubris, to his dawning horror at what he’s done, to going slightly mad.
What, then, do the audio and animation bring to the story, and how well do they tell it?
 power audio
1) The audio
Released by the BBC as part of its BBC Radio Collection series in 2005, this has the original audio of the series with linking narration by the actress who played Polly, Anneke Wills.  She does a fantastic job, and the story flows with perfect clarity.  It’s immersive, tense, compelling listening.  It’s great to listen to this first before the animation, as you can then compare how you imagined the scenes with what is represented there. The audio can be found on Audible.
power dvd
2) The animation
Released by BBC DVD in 2016 this links the audio drama with a crisp black and white animation, retro and basic in style but appropriate given the similarly basic (as by today’s standards) original visuals.  It’s the closest you’ll get to seeing the original.  It’s got an impressive range of extras, with interviews from some of the original cast and production team, original stills, and the entire audio drama with the linking narration provided by the audio release above.
This is manna for Who fans everywhere, but if you are new to classic Who, do check this out, it’s a great, tense sci-fi drama in it’s own right.

A review of Brian Lumley’s “The Burrowers Beneath”

A continuation of the H P Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” cycle of the stories set in 1990’s Britain, the eponymous Occult scientist Titus Crowe and his Watsonian sidekick Henri Laurent de Marigny face off against eldritch horrors burrowing beneath the Earth.
It has the tone of Victorian gothic melodrama, being told in an epistalatory  fashion, with heroes who have a curiously old fashioned vibe of daring do about them.  And although its set in the 90’s, there are very little by way of cultural signifiers that would place the story there, apart from the odd mention of oil rigs, phones and cars.  Taken together with the above mentioned style, for the first quarter of the narrative I genuinely thought I was in pre-war Britain.
And for the most part it works, adding to the feeling of fog shrouded streets and tentatcled, timeless horrors in the shadows.  It gets off to a good start, with a series of letters about the discovery of mysterious spheres in inexplicably carved tunnels underground.  We soon learn of other underground scientific expeditions that have ended in horror, madness and disaster, and of a race of terrifying burrowing tentacled monsters and their place in a pantheon of alien horrors that have existed before our world began.  They are not interested in a planet share…
There are some great set pieces; the destruction of an oil rig; battles between telepathic fighters, explosive harpoons and giant creatures; a renevant creature with a body of slime holding a human brain, and more.
The narrative as a whole, though, is a little too reliant on massive info dumps and chunks of exposition, as our heroes consult and reference various occult sources to explain the nature and history of this threat.  There are also a lot of passages that are there purely to set up future stories in the Titus Crowe series.  And it has a very open, cliff hanger of a conclusion.  As a result this reads more of an account of a skirmish in a bigger war, rather than a stand alone story.
That said it does not require any previous reading or knowledge of Lovecraft’s works, and could be a good jumping on point for a very rich tradition in horror fiction.  I listened to the audio book of this novel, and it’s read by Simon Vance, whose cool, civilised tones suit the tale perfectly.  And kudos to him for his seemingly effortless pronunciation of the tongue twisting, syllable crashing Cthulian chants and alien names.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Robert Jordan’s “Lord of Chaos: Book 6 of ‘The Wheel of Time’.”

My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open  the “Wheel of Time. ”  Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle.  I remember key events in the book.  I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon.  And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through.  Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years.  Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series?  This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a  multitude of locations and perspectives.  It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined.  Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through.   The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One.  This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more.  There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death.  There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar.  If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results.  Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel.  This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand.   Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines  (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach.  Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’  that they have come across  whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand.  Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf.  He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration.   The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book.   I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it.  There are lots of descriptions of clothes.  The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times.  The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting.  The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional).  Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages.  And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics  arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings.  Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.