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 the Audible Original audio-drama ‘Out of the Shadows.’

This is a fast paced, massively entertaining treat for ‘Alien’ fans, part of the ‘Audible Original’ range.   It’s an audio drama production as opposed to an audio book (so different cast parts, music, sound effects) based on the novel of the same name by Tim Lebbon.  You can read my review of the novel here.  The Audible Original sequel ‘River of Pain’  is due soon (26/04/2017).
In terms of the story, it’s based on-board the mining ship Marion, which in the opening chapters is devastated by a collision with a shuttle.  Chris Hooper, engineer, and his horrified colleagues watch on the shuttles security cameras as the surviving crew is decimated by a handful of Xenomorphs.  As they watch, the pilot’s chest explodes as she births an Alien infant.  The shuttle has been on planet LV178 where they have been mining Trimonite, a rare mineral harder than diamonds.  There they have made the discovery which causes their deaths.  The shuttle ‘Samson’ docks and it’s only a matter of time before the station itself is infested. Meanwhile, another ship hoves into view.  It’s the Narcissus, and on board is one Ellen Ripley and her pet cat Jones, in hyper-sleep decades after the destruction of the Nostromo and it’s one terrifying Alien.  In terms of continuity this is between the first and second films.  If you are wondering how Ripley never mentions this phase of her adventure, I won’t spoil the reason, but it works better here than it did in the novel (where I think the convenience of this particular contrivance felt rather forced) because you are carried along by the faster pace and you don’t dwell on the contrivance as you may if reading.   If you are asking how the Narcissus found the space station, then it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that one homicidal android from Alien chapter one has downloaded his programme /consciousness onto the Narcissus, and that consciousness has steered the Narcissus to the Marion’s distress call, which contained details of the Aliens.  You see, Ash is still intent on fulfilling his ‘special order’ to bring an Alien back to Earth and the ruthless company, Weyland Yutani.
Ripley is revived and is understandably none too pleased that her nightmare on the Nostromo is not over.  The stage is set for a battle between human crew, Aliens, and Ash…
The production works very well and is full of sound effects recalling the world of ‘Alien.’  The hum and beep of the computer on the Narcissus and it’s clicking of its retro keyboard, the, clanking and rumbling of industrial vessels, the hissing and chilling Alien cries.  And Laurel Lefkow’s reading of Ripley made me wonder if they had Sigourney Weaver on board as I first started to listen, so accurate is she to the weary, bitter heroism of that character.  The other standout is Rutger Hauer.  He’s superb as Ash, distinctive from Ian Holm but still capturing the cold, ruthless analytical character of Ash, inhumanly human.  And the rest of the ensemble cast complement each other well, keeping things moving at a cracking pace under the able direction of Dirk Maggs.
At 4 hours 31 minutes it compresses and follows the contours of Tim Lebbon’s novel closely.  It’s a recommended listen for those who can’t wait for Alien: Covenant (or the Neil Blokaamp re-boot).

A review of the Big Finish audio drama ‘Doctor Who: The Lost Stories; The Fourth Doctor Box set

This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’  Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music.  For more on Big Finish, see here.

‘The Foe from the Future was originally intended as the conclusion to Season 14 of the classic show, with Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor and Louise Jameson’s feisty alien savage.  However, the writer, Robert Banks, was reassigned to work on a troubled soap for Thames television.   And the story was not able to survive without him, so Robert Holmes gave us the fan favourite “Talons of Weng-Chiang” instead.
The element in ‘Foe’ that echos in its replacement concerns its chief villain.  ‘Talons’ Magnus Kreel is a genocidal disfigured maniac from the future, also a brilliant scientist.  As is ‘Foe’s’ Jainik.  Thereafter though, we have two very different stories.
Ghosts are haunting a peaceful Devon village, and a mysterious new owner of the local Mansion is not blending in.  His name is Jainik, a spurned and disfigured lover, a brilliant scientist warped by his disfigurement and his terrible plan to evacuate a doomed future into the present.  Aliens called Plantaphagens, huge insectile monsters, have invaded the future and there is only so long humanity can keep them at bay.  They are creatures who live in the time vortex and they may have just have been unleashed on the future earth by Jainik and his colleagues ill advised time travel experiments.
Jainik’s mutation (he fused his DNA with a Plantaphagen in the time vortex) has also left him with a hunger for raw meat.  So that’s a few minor characters done for then.  It’s up to the Doctor and Leela, played by the wonderful Tom Baker and Louise Jameson reprising their original roles, to save humanity by battling these foes in the present and future, helped by Louise Brealey’s Charlotte, a villager who is swept up in the adventure.
When the story leaps from 70’s Britain to the year 4000, however, the story moves from mist shrouded, country lane gothic horror to sub-Douglas Adams 80’s era Who wackiness, as we see a future with mock ups of British life from the 70’s, rehearsal areas for an invasion from the future.  There is a very ill advised scene of rescue from an alien infested desert by Ford Contina, that may work in ‘Hitchhikers Guide,’ but it just creates a massive jarring change of tone here.  Leela also lasso’s a flying alien with the Doctor’s scarf and then pilots it armed with a laser pistol.  It’s just daft, and doesn’t hold up.  It’s a huge shame, as there is some good stuff:  the cast are great, Paul Freeman as Jainik chews the scenery, portraying evil glee, paranoid rage, thwarted genius and pathos.   Tom Baker is as fantastic as ever, with disarming humour and wit.  Close your eyes and you can see him in his teatime tv glory.  Leela nails what made her companion work so well; holding back her homicidal aggression as “The Doctor tells me that in ths time it would not be considered polite.”  The cast clearly have a great time, and that is contagious, it is great fun.  The story re-cycles earlier and later concepts from Who and sci-fi;  (Time traveling parasites in the Vortex, witness “The Time Monster” in Pertwee Who,  the Jainik mutation joins a line of disfigured maniacs in Who, but also references “The Fly” in the fusion of man and insect.  The Plantaphagen’s are also distinctly “Wirrin” like.  But they are used in this story with an entertaining verve
As a coherent piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t hold up, let down by an uneven tone and scenes that are just too wacky and nonsensical for any medium.  It feels more like a Comic Relief tribute than a substantial adventure.
‘The Valley of Death’ is based on a story idea by Phillip Hinchcliffe, producer from my favourite era of Baker’s Doctor, and one of my favourite eras from the show as a whole.   His stories were rich in concepts and ideas and had a thrilling vein of gothic horror, with very physical body horror transformation scenes.
This story is less about the horror and more about the high concepts and ideas.  Here an investigation by a Grandson of a missing explorer attracts the attention of Unit and by default, the Doctor and Leela.  Soon they have crash-landed in the Amazon Jungle, apparent victim of a second Bermuda Triangle as they appear to be in a middle of a plane’s graveyard, with planes from differnt decades of modern history.  The missing explorer was looking for a lost city of gold, and it turns out that this city exists, but it’s a construction made by giant circuitry and ruled over by a Wizard of Oz like projection of a ship-wrecked Alien, Emissary Godrin.  Godrin has surrounded the city by a time bubble that interferes with navigation systems (unintentionally) causing planes to crash.  The time bubble puts him  in a small sphere of influence where time moves slower than the outside world.  This is because he wants time for a sufficiently advanced being to find him and help him fly his ship.  He’s also created giant frogs and spiders to terrify the natives and also scare away unwanted attention.  His race are called the Lurons, and they are yellow skinned, have glowing eyes, pointed ears and Piranha teeth.
You can see how many ideas are fizzing around already, and the story has hardly got going.  Godrin captures the Doctor and his party, (the grandson Edward Perkins, a mannered, polite and very decent Englishman, and Valerie Perkins, a brash US reporter who has a knack for moving at the wrong time and activating traps) and they journey to 70’s London, where Godrin hijacks the BBC transmitters to call a Luron Mothership to Earth.  Professing peace, they want to colonise the arid places of the Earth as their planet is dying.  But can they be trusted?  What do you think?
Later they create doubles of military and political figures, the Doctor and Leela, to trick Earth Authorities into giving the Lurons an easy ride.  Meanwhile their ship turns out to be powered by their captive sun, held in a force-field, which has also eroded and sapped their sanity.
So you can see, high concept piles on high concept, ideas trip over each other, and somehow it works, rattling along to deliver a fun 4 part adventure that feels like Saturday teatime adventure with a throwback to flash Gordon/Dick Barton adventure serials in its innocence and unabashed love of storytelling.  Many concepts will be familiar to Who fans; giant creatures, megalomaniac aliens, body doubles, which helps this feel part of the Whoniverse.  It’s less baggy than ‘Foe’s’ 6 parter and more consistent in tone (it’s consistently zany).   Tom Baker is on top form, sarcastically taunting villains, displaying inventive wit and anger when he has to, in well judged combination.  Nigel Carrington cackles with manic glee in his portrayal of the viciously ruthless Godrin, a classic alien Who baddie, I could picture him clearly on my childhood’s tv screen from the 70’s.  Louise Jamison is wonderful with Leela, showing the character with its winning combination of toughness and naivety, and giving her loads to do.  Anthony Howell’s Edward Perkins is a decent, bumbling Englishman much in the Harry Sullivan mode.  Jane Slavin’s brash but accident prone Valerie Carlton is a good foil to him.  They make good temporary companions.
Sound production is excellent, recreating the sound and feel of this show from the 1970’s.
This is a pricey box set and I would say that it’s not the best jumping on point for Big Finish (unless you are a pretty established classic Who fan already) but on the whole it’s a fun listen, and a fascinating attempt to bring these lost stories to life.  And how wonderful to hear Tom Baker and Louise Jameson in action again.

A review of the Audio-Drama Podcast “We’re Alive”

We’re Alive is a zombie apocalypse audio drama that ran for 4 seasons that ran between 2009 – 2014. A side story continuation ‘Lockdown’ finished has just completed as a podcast mini-series (April 2016).

And what a piece of work it is.  Starting life in season 1 it immediately established its credentials as a high quality audio drama with laudable production values.  An army sergeant Michael Cross (Jim Gleason) is pulled away from his studies on a college campus when he’s called up to deal with apparent violent riots.  Said riots turn out to be the rise of the undead.  Michael is reunited with his army buddies Angel (Shane Salk) and Saul (Nate Geez) and they realise that the established order is crumbling rapidly and they need to find a safe haven.  Banding together with fellow survivors Pegs (Elisa Eliot) and Riley (Claire Dodin), and eventually stumbling across gravelly voiced veteran Burt (Scott Marvin), they hole up in a tower block which they turn into a fortress.  This is the location of the first 2 seasons, which are centred on the defence of the tower block from monsters.  These monsters are the infected, but also humanity at its most monstrous in the form of “The Mallers,” ex-convicts who occupied a Mall and represent human survival at its most vicious and violent.  One of the Mallers leaders, ‘Scratch (Jenna McCombie),’ is a human nemesis whose battle with the tower dwellers becomes intensely personal when her brother is killed in an invasion of the tower.  Scratch will take her battle to the very end of the finale of season 4.

So season 1 starts feeling pretty generic, survival horror with a military bent, a template that has been well established.  As the story deepens over the next few seasons, however, we find that have bonded with main characters, and are engrossed with the developing lore and story arc of the series.  The creatures mutate into a range of monsters, from lumbering behemoths to smaller faster creatures.  They seem to be guided by a hive mind intelligence, and who is the tattooed figure who seems to appear as a watcher and leader of the undead army at key moments in the story?

The origin story of the creatures is hinted at in the early seasons and developed more fully in the later ones.  Whilst I’m not convinced that all the strands of this hang together, it makes for an intriguing and suspenseful listen.

The series has some stand out set pieces that live in the memory; the initial outbreak; the discovery of a grisly arena where survivors are brought to die apparently for the creatures’ amusement; battles at the tower; encounters with the behemoths; a chase through a prison with hideously mutated creatures, and more.  The story keeps its locations pretty tight and does not become too sprawling and fragmented.  We move from the tower to a colony, a series of safe houses, and war-torn streets and locations in between.

The cast are uniformly brilliant.  Michael is a solid lead, a sympathetic and very human leader who clings to his identity as a soldier.  Burt is a memorable fan favourite.  Gravelly voiced doesn’t begin to describe his tones.  It sounds like he’s gargling with gravel.  He’s an old school gun fetishist and veteran.  There’s a scene where Scratch almost breaks Burt by torturing his gun (named Sheila after his dead wife) which is probably one of the series most suspect scenes.  The female characters are varied and interesting and fight on an equal footing with their male counterparts (the apocalypse is an equal opportunities employer).  Pegs is maybe overtly cookie at times but still someone you are always glad to get back to.

Scratch is a stand out performance, Hell-bent fury and icy cruelty.

What I love about this whole series is that it is an amazing achievement that is testament to the democratic creative power crowd funding today.  Production values are cinematic in scope, and the intention to be a “theatre of the mind,” wholly immersive audio, is a successful one.  The sound effects and musical score are solid and laudable and together with the top notch voice acting, pull you in.  The snarls and roars of the creatures, especially the behemoths, are particularly memorable, and not what you want to hear in the dead of night.  It’s great that we can enjoy the whole series free (get it here) and the whole enterprise deserves your support, if you care about stories and particularly love this genre.  You can pledge support here.

A review of the Big Finish series “I Davros.” A four part series of audio-plays starring Terry Molloy

I came to this ‘origins’ adventure with expectations that this would be a pathos filled tale of a scientist whose perhaps good principles are corrupted and through a series of terrible accidents becomes a monster.  Superhero and sci-fi and other genre tales are full of such tragic falls from grace.  They are what makes the resulting uber-villain or monster so compelling.  From Batman’s Two-Face to Dr Jekyll, such stories abound.  In recognising the humanity in the monster, we recognise a little of the monstrous in ourselves.

With the Davros in this series, however, there is no such light and shade.  None to speak of anyway.  Davros starts in Part 1, “Innocence,” as a cynical and sadistic and sociopathic child, and really just degenerates further from that.   It’s just a descent from one kind of moral darkness to another.  As such, although there is much to thrill and entertain in this series, it did not quite have the impact I hoped for.

The whole thing is explicitly and knowingly framed in an “I Claudius ” world of a dysfunctional, powerful family, ruled over by a scheming matriarch, Lady Calcula, Carolyn Jones here channelling SIan Phillip’s Livia.  As in Robert Graves tale and the BBC drama, the good characters are culled ruthlessly by a cynical elite.  It’s framed in such a world but this is very much the Skaro heading towards the blasted Hell of ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’  A delight is how especially the later episodes reference the music and sound-scape of Genesis.  In part one Rory Jennings plays Davros in short trousers.  The kind of boy who will pull the legs of a spider not out of enjoyment but out of a detached scientific “fascination.”  Warped by his world and his family, we her see him already locking teachers in radiation chambers and other such hi-jinks.

In Part 2 Terry Molloy takes over the reins (he played Davros in a number of the tv show adventures) as Davros, here a soldier desparate to join the scientific elite.  He is sent on a seeming suicide mission with a team, and displays real courage, and shows the most human range of characteristics in the series yet.  He does get to rant, though, in true Davrios fashion, over a crippled comrade, shouting at him for his weakness.

Part 3 picks up the ‘Shan’ plot-line first sketched in the Colin Baker adventure ‘Davros.’  What begins as a very human attraction and flirtation develops, in true Davros fashion, into denial, murderous betrayal, and bitter contempt (on the part of our titular scientist).  He also has his body changing accident.

Part 4 brings us nicely to about the year before the events of Genesis.  Davros has near perfected his experiments on people with radiation, creating genetically evolved mutants.  Here he meets Nyder, a classic character from Genesis, and it’s a treat to hear Peter Miles reprise his role, and the two get on like a city on fire.  Davros demonstrates his love for children by turning them into radiation soaked monsters, the first Dalek creatures that will go on to pilot the ‘travelling machines.’  The story ends with the demonstration of the Mark 1 travelling machine (Genesis has him just finishing Mark 2 when Tom Baker arrives).

And during all this his family, friends and country men die and are massacred around him.  It is an entertaining, well produced and clever tale, and it’s a powerful and logical extension of the world of ‘Genesis.’ But it is also a bit depressing in its catalogue of atrocities, and eh Davros origin tale, as I have mentioned, is I think harmed by the lack of subtlety or human change.  He just goes from monstrous to more monstrous to experimenting on children scale monstrous.  You miss the light touch of the Doctor, any Doctor, and the sparring that would bring, which is what Genesis captured so well.

There’s also a disc of ‘extras,’ interviews with cast and crew which are good and illuminating, but I did wonder at the discussion on whether Davros was at all misunderstood.  Er…no?

A review of Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels.”

I remember just before I started university going to the local cinema to see a film I knew next to nothing about called “Hellraiser,” intrigued that it looked both horrible and unpredictable by its poster of a grimacing demon looking like it had been overdoing the acupuncture, holding something like a Rubik’s cube, and underneath the tag-line “It will tear your soul apart.”  I emerged from the cinema a few hours later reeling from the film’s impact and power, it’s swirling orchestral score full of doom and foreboding, it’s vision of  a very real Hell breaking into our world in the form of highly stylised sadistic demons, all mixed up with a kind of violent eroticism.  I had never quite seen anything like it.

Later I read some of Clive Barker’s other works on the strength of this film, including the short story series “Books of Blood” from which this tale was culled (Hellraiser was based on the story “The Hellbound Heart”).  One of my favourite of Barker’s other works was “Cabal” later made into the disappointing film “Nightbreed.”  Cabal’s strengths included a fierce imagination, sympathetic monsters, human monsters worse than the visibly monstrous, and a touching portrayal of the devotion of human love.  But It also shared the weaknesses of other Barker works I ventured, not all of which I finished.  These included “The Great and Secret Show” and “Imajica.”  All of the above books have powerful and imaginative openings that pull you in and promise much.  But the books themselves can become baggy, too episodic, and leading to a false conclusion where the intention was to develop a trilogy or longer.  But this, in all of the above cases, never happened.

The above strengths and weaknesses (apart from it not being the false start of a trilogy) are on show in Barker’s latest, “The Scarlet Gospel,” which takes the demonic protagonist of Hellraiser, “Pinhead,” and the protagonist of other Barker stories, the detective of the supernatural Harry D’Armour, and pits them against each other in a tale set both in Hell and Earth.  Characteristically, we have a strong start, with a cabal of contemporary magicians in emergency congress as they are being slaughtered one by one for their arcane knowledge of magic by Pinhead himself.  Pinhead crashes their party and engages in some imaginative slaughter and sadism before taking one of their number (the unfortunate Felixson) as his slave.

We then move to Harry and his world. Tormented by the memory of the grisly death of his detective partner at demonic hands, he finds that one of his dearest friends Norma Paine (she sees dead people) has a job for him in New Orleans.  The job is a trap, a set up to get Harry to lay his hands on the puzzle box that summons demonic forces called “The Lament Configuration.” This brings Pinhead and Felixson (now sporting some imaginative hellish re-constructive surgery) and Harry has a narrow escape.  He discovers that Pinhead is at war with Hell and wants total dominion over the infernal regions (and of course he won’t stop there).  He wants a witness for his “Scarlet Gospel” that will tell his story and has chosen Harry because there is a delicious irony in Harry being a scourge of Hell in previous struggles, giving hope to the damned.  A sequence of events has Norma dragged to Hell as bait by Pinhead and Harry, with his friends Kaz, Dale and Lana in tow (dubbed “The Harrowers”), gives chase.

This is a very physical and corporeal Hell.  No extended metaphorical interpretations here.  It’s a physical world and has at its heart a real solid city called Pyratha.  This is a fusion of epic Byzantium and Roman epic structures with physical improbabilities that could be from the mind of Escher, and drab squalor, shanty towns settlements, Stalinist terror and poverty and politicking.  There are forests and seas, although any life form is of course twisted and monstrous.  The strength of this Hell as a narrative and imaginative creation is that it gives a tangible and visceral reality to the setting and story, and it’s entertaining to discover new regions and torments.  As a weakness you can’t but help expecting something more from Hell.

The pace of the narrative always quickens when the Hell Priest Pinhead is at large and this is very much his story, as he takes on not only his own Cenobite order but Hell itself.  Some of the most entertaining passages in the story are the various coups that Pinhead stages.  In one grotesque sequence he unleashes a plague fog that mutilates anything it touches, causing new monstrous growths to form on bodies that it touches.  In an imaginative flourish Pinhead also releases curse bearing paper birds fashioned by Origami!  Then there are the concluding scenes in Hell as Pinhead battles a very Miltonic Lucifer, after dispatching various of Hell’s armies and generals.  These passages relegate Harry and friends to the sidelines as horrified bystanders as various blows and mutilations are traded.  The amount of false endings to the battles where one of the protagonists comes back from their demise in the style of 80’s cheesy horror sails close to farcical, but in my judgement gets away from it.

Less successful are the human protagonists.  Their banter often does not convince and the playful profanities seem forced.  The psychic detective that Armour represents feels a little overused now, witness various US series such as Angel, comic book heroes such as Hell-blazer.  Lucifer himself seems too close to that as depicted in the “Sandman” graphic novels.  And another main weakness in the book is the imaginative integrity of Barker’s world.  On what is it based?  It mocks Christianity but embraces some of its archetypes from its history, such as most obviously Hell, Heaven, Angels and Demons.  And what kind of God would be mocked by its bored Angels?  And how do the worlds of the dead and its ghosts work? Who gets to be damned?  The role of magic is also not convincing, with its recipes and conjugations.  In all, this is world-building where the parts do not constitute a convincing whole.

But it’s a wild and enjoyable ride of pulpy horror.  Those expecting meta-physical greatness (as some were judging by the bitter disappointment of some Amazon reviews) will be disappointed.  And it does not have the impact of that first Hellraiser film I previously describe.  But as fast paced gory tale with demons it entertains.  I listened to the audio-book and an honourable mention must go to John Lee for his splendid narration.  I loved Pinhead’s sardonic tones.

A review of the Big Finish production “Doctor Who: Spare Parts”

This is a four part audio drama with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Sarah Sutton reprising her role as Nyssa from that era of tv Who.

It’s a complex, surprising production that keeps you guessing as to which way it’s going to jump in terms of its direction.  The 50’s setting alien world of Mondas makes you think initially that it is going to overdose on quirkiness.  But then it plays out as a classic, chilling Cyberman adventure that does not downplay the horror of the conversion process or the loss of humanity and identity it involves for the poor souls involved.  The Cybermen here are modelled on those of the Troughton era, with their never bettered drawn out synth voiced monotones.  “Youuuuuu willll beee like usss….”  Gary Russell does a fantastic job of world building on his Mondas.  It’s a world stuck in the 50’s due to the squalor and retrogression caused by living underground on a dying world, whose path is wandering into that of a nebula.  The underground survivors send selected enlisted parties to the surface to try and start the giant propulsion engines that may move their planet to safety.  It’s a world of curfews, power-cuts, dimly lit streets, boarded up shops and homes, tram-stops, and a town-square with a huge “Committee Palace” with iron gates where the mysterious committee rule.  Meanwhile cyber augmentation runs through this society like veins of silver through rock.  The classic cyber-mat creatures scuttle through the streets like vermin.  People have augmented budgies for pets, and cyber chest units and artificial limbs to help with medical difficulties.  It’s a technology in its infancy.  Meanwhile cyber augmented police on cyber augmented horses keep order.  And this all heading in a direction that the Doctor, and us if we know our Who history, know only too well.

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive on Mondas, with the Doctor clearly knowing where he is and immediately filled with foreboding.  They find a struggling family, the Hartleys, Yvonne (Kathryn Gluck), Dad (Paul Copley), and Frank (Jim Hartley).  Dad has a chest unit and Frank dreams of being enlisted to the surface which fills Dad with horror.  Dad loves his tea and Yvonne is consumptive but popular in the community and pretty much the glue in the family.  The actors bring all these characters to believable life and make the distinctly odd setting believable.  And when horrible cyber things do happen to certain family members, you really feel it and are appalled by it.

The Hartley’s, the Doctor and Nyssa become tied up with the comically horrible body-snatcher Thomas Dodd (Derren Nesbitt) whilst being watched by the snooping official Sisterman Constant (Pamela Binns) in discovering the terrible truth about the hidden Committee and its plans.  On the way they meet a Doctor involved in leading the cyber augmentation, the conflicted Doctorman Allan, and come face to face with a Cyber nemesis Zheng (played by Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs).  The Doctor finds he must do what he can to bring a kind of redemption to Mondas without breaking the strictures of history, his own prime directive.

The story surprises, scares and entertains and has some truly memorable ideas, scenes and set pieces, and I won’t spoil them for you, but the revelation of the true nature of the Committee is a treat.  The production scores on every level.  The 50’s level is a rich and resonates with themes from that era, such as the Stalinist Committee and it’s Palace to the domestic scenes of the Hartley family.  The Cybermen are a nasty and dehumanising evil here, and a fitting monster for our current age of upgrades and increasing reliance on technology and apps.

Get a copy if you can.  I was staggered to see it selling on Amazon for £90, but I grabbed a copy for a tenner from a high street genre comic/book store.  And you can download it for £2.99 on the Big Finish Web site.