Of cold warriors and Xenomorphs; a review of Dirk Magg’s Audible production of William Gibson’s “Alien 3.”

The ‘troubled third’ of the Alien franchise is a fascinating story in movie history. After two blockbuster hits that gave very different takes on the Alien story, the race was on for another unique perspective that would take the franchise forward and deliver another smash.
What happened was rejected treatments, confusion, recriminations, fall outs, and David Fincher’s story of bald Yorkshiremen on a prison planet being offed by a dog-Alien. It’s famous for its cold killing off of two of the previous films much loved characters (three by the denouement). The film has its admirers but was not a success by any means. The franchise never recovered, spawning a ridiculous fourth instalment with a cloned Ripley, a military spaceship and an uneasy mix of humour and really grotesque horror, include a human-alien hybrid. Then we get the Covenant films, with their weaponised ‘black fluid’ that mutates living organisms into monsters, an origin story that many disliked and thought unnecessary. It was nevertheless good to have Ridley Scott who directed the original ‘Alien’ back in the helm. But then we have Alien Covenant, one of my most disliked films of all time, that arguably has the negative power to retrospectively ruin the entire franchise with its idiotic reveals and nasty cynicism that it just hasn’t earned.
So we need alternative re-tellings, don’t we, to give a multi-verse like journey into different paths taken. So Alien 3, with its rejected treatments, gave us Vincent Ward’s wooden planet and monastic order (!) and William Gibson’s cold war tale with rival superpower stations set in tension in a neutral zone, and put at odds when the Sulaco is pulled into the fray. It is this one that has been adapted here. It has elements that would be explored in the above films; it has an alien-human hybrid, and a volatile alien substance that turn people into said hybrids. It gives us our beloved Hicks, Newt, Bishop and also Ripley, who is not really in the story, being relegated early on to unconsciousness then a life-pod.
It’s a cracking story, with a decent build up of tension before all Hell breaks loose, an, an intriguing take on this future universe, and a more sympathetic and less cynical take on its human protagonists. It intelligently fills out much of the back-story of previous films, giving new insights. We learn, for example, that the Colonial Marine ‘Bug-Hunts’ are resented by many for species genocide and destroying the eco-balance of other worlds, to make them habitable colonies. We learn that synthetics are afforded the status of citizens in the ‘Western’ worlds, and more.
Hicks is great, and has a cracking new toy, a wrist mounted plasma weapon. He is as laconic and courageous as ever. Bishop is the central narrator and his perspective frames the narrative. He gives us the films hopeful final message. The cold warriors will have to unite as single species again against the ‘anti-life’ that is the Alien breed.
The other minor characters are also well delineated and solid, from the weary station commander Rosetti to station crew Spence and Halliday, and the warrior from the ‘other’ station, Chang.
There are some cracking set pieces, from a lab accident that infects the space station, the infestation and destruction of another star- base, grotesque and violent transformations from human to hybrid, a climactic chase and an execution of space-borne Alien through ship cannons.
The story was also recently brought to life from its script treatment by Dark Horse comics. Check them out, they are a brilliant companion to this audible release. This audio treatment has original actors Michel Biehn (Bishop) and Lance Henricksen (Bishop) who give us a magical continuity to ‘Aliens.’ Music and sound production, like all of Dirk Magg’s releases, is atmospheric, dramatic and excellent, giving the whole a really cinematic feel. An audio drama must unobtrusively frame the action so we understand it, helping us to visualise and understand frenetic scenes in audio without taking us out of the action. It is a delicate balancing act, and Magg’s succeeds superbly. When a character shouts at another character cornered by an Alien to “try and get round it,” for example, we understand that the unfortunate character has been cornered without being told that directly.
Loved it.


Just another bug-hunt. A review of the Audible production ‘Sea of Sorrows’

‘Sea of Sorrows’ is the newest canonical Alien drama, a sequel to ‘Out of the Shadows.’  These audio dramas started life as novels by James A Moore and Tim Lebbon respectively.  They gently skirt the issue of Alien 3, with Out of the Shadows occurring after the events of the movie original ‘Alien,’ and ‘Out of the Shadows’ occurring decades after the events of ‘Aliens.’ Bridging the gap, we had ‘River of Pain,’ a novel / audio drama that was a direct prequel leading up the events of ‘Aliens.’

This production is another atmospheric, pacy audio drama that Dirk Maggs is making an name for on Audible, with his X Files and Alien dramas.  Great production values, writing and acting are pulling one win out of the bag after another.

In this tale, Alan Decker, a descendant of one Ellen Ripley, is kidnapped by Stockard Channing’s scenery chewing company hard case Andrea Rollins, and sent to advise a team of Mercenaries on their expedition to planetary mining outpost ‘New Galveston,’ scene of the Alien infestation of ‘Out of the Shadows.’  Decker is an empath, or telepath, it transpires, with an uncomfortable ability to get on the Xenomorph’s wavelength.  But as Ripley’s ancestor, they know who he is, and their cold hatred and desire for revenge awaits…

And here lies the main weakness of this tale.  The Alien’s are meant to emotionless, only fuelled by a desire to kill and survive.  Here they  display a full range of negative emotions, as well as telepathic ability.  It really stretches the Alien lore to breaking point.

The Mercenaries too are indistinguishable from the Marines of other Alien tales, and their personalities feel a bit too off the Marine conveyor belt. That said, there are some memorable characters here, such as ‘Silent Dave’ and a few Brits to add to the diversity.

And the tale ends a little too open for the sequel, and does not close events satisfactorily, for me.

All that said, this is still gripping stuff, that hits enough of the right notes to keep you on board and engrossed.  There are enough Queens, soldier aliens, chest bursters, face huggers, ambushers and fire-fights to keep events barrelling along in a fun way.  And the sound production is right on the money, with the face-huggers smothering its victim sounding uncomfortably close.

And John Chancer’s Alan Decker is a pleasingly complex character and likeable presence.

Not as tense and complete a drama as ‘River of Pain,’ this is nevertheless another recommended listen from the Maggs production stable.

“Winder!” W-I-N-D-E-R! Now go and clean ’em!” A review of the Audible Production of Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby”

This audible production of Charles Dickens’s classic Victorian melodrama has been released in nineteen parts (mirroring Dickens’s original print serialisation), averaging about two hours each. It has it’s own epic, sweeping theme music, and a ‘next time on Nicholas Nickleby’ teaser trailer to the next episode, which cleverly utilises Dickens’s original chapter headings.
Left Destitute after his father’s death, Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate travel to London looking naturally for family help from his Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately Ralph is anything but natural, he is a debased, scheming Usurer or money-lender, who has utterly disregarded his humanity in his quest for wealth. Ralph sets Nicholas on his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, who with his family run a brutal boarding school regime where physical, mental and emotional abuse are the norm. Nicholas is driven to an act of rebellion that leads to him going on the run with the friendless, abused, damaged and abandoned lad, Smike. This is only the start of Nicholas’s adventures, however, and through the course of the novel we shall encounter theatrical troupes, ruined dressmakers, suffering servants, heroic philanthropists and a range of heroes, villains and grotesques, moments of high comedy, incredible dramatic coincidences, edge of the seat drama, social criticism and satire that hits its mark every time.

What a joy this production is. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s narration is a wonder of character acting; from the rasping, biting tones of Ralph to the free ranging witterings of Mrs Nickleby, the wheedling whining of Squeers, the quietly spoken heroism of Nicholas, and much more. Narrator and writer seem perfectly matched,and the result is one of the happiest, most compelling listens I have found on audible. It is first class, and its production values and use of music lift the mood and atmosphere further.

My recommended audio-book of the year and definitely in my top five of all time.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.

A review of the audio-book “Ghostly Tales: An Audible Christmas Gift.”

Here are four classic ghost stories, narrated by Simon Callow.
Cast also includes Sally Phillips, John Banks and Dan Starkey.
The stories are ‘Between the Lights’ by E.F. Benson, ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ by J.H. Riddell, ‘Was It an Illusion’ by Emelia B. Edwards and ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens.

The whole is framed by a linking story of Simon Callow, playing himself, coming to ‘Audible Towers’ one Christmas to narrate the stories for the audio book you are listening to (meta or what?). Sally Phillips plays the producer Josie. There’s a rapport between the pair, and he settles in the recording booth whilst an increasingly unsettled Sally Phillips works on the production. It’s reminiscent of 70’s horror film anthologies, where you got short tales framed by a linking narration with a sting in the tale. And the ‘sting’ here is nicely in keeping with the unsettling mood of the whole. That said, the linking narrative here can be jarring, and have a distancing effect. This is because it serves as an advertorial, with Simon and Josie/Sally eulogising the power of audio books. The whole thing become a bit too cute for its own good, and I wished they had let the stories completely speak for themselves.

Because the stories are humdingers; real atmospheric Victorian ghost stories: the kind where you can smell an English Winter countryside, hear the ticking of a clock and the clatter of horse drawn cabs.
E.F. Benson’s between the lights is a story of psychological dread, as our hero has an apparent waking dream that brings on a mood of depressive terror. The dream is of a prehensile cave and creatures. And recovering on a walk in Scotland, the terrified protagonist finds that the dream has its roots in reality..

In ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy landowner is solved by a ghostly window into the past, whilst ‘Was it an Illusion’ sees a visiting Parson unwittingly uncovering the murder of a child, again through ghostly apparitions.

And Charles Dickens’s classic short ‘The Signalman’ reminds us why Dickens was a master of his craft: a railway signalman is terrified by a recurring ghostly visitor whose visits always immediately precede a disaster. And when the ghost appears again, he must solve the ghastly conundrum of what the next disaster is before it happens. What that is will leave you aghast and turning over the resolution again and again in your minds, studying it appalled from fresh angles.

Given the overall quality, you can’t begrudge Audible their sneaky advertorial and sometimes irritating linking narrative. Overall this is worthy free gift, and shows what a strong series the ‘Audible Original’ range is becoming.

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.

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.