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 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 Peter Newman’s “The Vagrant.”

In a desolate, demon blasted landscape, a lone Seraph night, and his winged, eyed sword, treads the road.  Behind him trails a goat, and hidden under the flaps of his coat nestles a small baby girl.  He finds corrupt and corrupted humans, out and out monsters and demon Lords on his travels.  He eschews companions but where the need greatly outweighs the harm, and where it will aid his quest, he does take on various companions.  A petty criminal named Harm, a raging demon yearning for its lost innocence and humanity called The Hammer, and other more transient helpers, some more ambivalent than others, join the quest.  Their quest is to return the winged and eyed sword to the Seven, the original Seraph rulers.  But what this will mean is uncertain…

Peter Newman has accomplished an incredible feat of world building.  My initial feeling on starting this work was disorientation.  Was this Earth of the far future or a different reality / dimension?  The archetypes are ours (people, Hell, Knights, Demons, Animals etc.), and yet the strangeness, the otherness, is bewildering.  Twin suns in the sky.  A demonic invasion through a huge breach (crack) in the ground that has remained dormant for centuries.  A demonic essence that infects and mutates like radiation.  An ancient order of Seraph Knights that has ruled before the Infernal invasion.  A technology including sky-ships, Centipede tanks, laser lances, all framed in medieval and feudal archetypes.  It is head-spinning stuff.  Then there’s the adventure, the quest, which is more straightforward; lone hero, a man with no name, must deliver a powerful talisman to the high powers to rid the world of a massive evil.  But that itself is spun by the wonderful tricks in the narrative.  The titular, eponymous Vagrant does not speak.  Instead his thoughts are reflected by his expressions, actions and interactions, including with the baby he protects, and with his companions.  And his goat!  How the Vagrant got to this position is told in intervals in a thrilling back-story that begins with the demonic invasion.

Characterisation of subsidiary characters is also very well done.  The baby (Vesper) and the Goat are powerful characters in their own right.  In the audio-book, wonderfully voiced by Jot Davies, Vesper’s infant gurgles and expressions are convincingly done.  Also, the main companion, Harm, is a wonderful piece of character development,  from jittery low-life to a redeemed man both grateful and anxious about the shelf life of his redemption.  Again, Jot Davies’s audio-book narration imbues him with humanity.  Other characters such as snarling demons and Knight Commanders are given a wonderful range of expression.  The monsters are truly alien and frightening.  Shape shifters that feed off souls and clothe themselves in corpses, or inhabit and posses and mutate live bodies, they are a cross between Anime/Manga monsters and HP Lovecraft.  The chief baddies have wonderful names like “The Uncivil.”

The Vagrant himself is a true Knight in that, where he can, he will right wrongs and save lives.  He won’t where it will mean the failure of his mission and where he does have to leave people to die, it is shocking and he is racked with anguish.  He also redeems others and wins followers of the most broken in humanity in a very Christ like way.  Harm vocalises this more than anyone, speaking about how he has been changed and his life give new meaning.  This goodness is set against an  evil that can only consume, corrupt and destroy, not build anything new.  The book portrays good versus evil with a refreshing (take note Game of Thrones) lack of cynicism.

If there are weaknesses, it’s that sometimes the multiple strangeness’s combine to make the action confusing.  Events seem to be heading for an epic conflagration that never quite happens.  Yet.  There is so much here the book could have been much longer.  There seems so much to explore.  I hope there is more from this strange, compelling and yet familiar world.  Very recommended.

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.

A review of the Big Finish audio drama, “Cyberman: Fear.”

Part 2 develops the conspiracy and starts to flesh out some of the android characters, if you’ll pardon the contradiction.  These androids are not to be confused with the Cybermen, they are the android race humans created and who have rebelled against their masters in horribly costly war in the Orion belt.  However, human and android alike are now united against a common foe, the titular silver giants themselves.

Sarah Mowatt’s President takes a back seat in the action and we mainly follow her second in command Liam Barnaby (Mark McDonnell) as he struggles to get to the heart of what has happened to his boss and friend (now in a brain washed state I presume by Cyber technology) and as to who or what Paul Hunt really represents.

An android agent joins the chase and events propel Liam to a “refugee processing centre” in a chilling scene where the scale of the Cyberman threat begins to be understood.

In my previous review I erroneously ascribed this depiction of the Cybermen to the 80’s model.  I was wrong, they are based on the early Troughton incarnation, with the electronic, flat monotone voice, possibly the most chilling version.  I remember in the 80’s they were all hands on hips and booming voices over fond of the word “Excellent!”  They are used sparingly in this drama but Big Finish are very good and conveying a massive threat with very little, due to the quality of the production, sound effects and writing.

A bargain as well at the current price of £5.  You can order cd or download.  I recommend cd at present, you benefit from the art-work, and you can also import onto your pc / portable device when you receive.  Playback from downloads direct from their website can be problematic at the time of writing unless you pay for an additional app such as “Good Reader.”

But back to the audio drama.  An atmospheric, nostalgic, entertaining blast, Big Finish really do deliver with this story.

A review of the Big Finish audio-drama, ‘Cyberman: Project Scorpius.’

Project Scorpius is a military project gone dark, off the books.  Paul Hunt is engaged in a conspiracy to supplant the President with a popular and efficient military commander whose strings he is confident can be pulled by the horribly familiar silver hands at the core of Project Scorpius…

This is an energetic, wonderfully entertaining listen from 2005 that puts you back in the Whoniverse that contained the ‘1980’s model’ Cybermen, with the synth effects, voices, and some sample music themes familiar from that era.  The leads, Sarah Mowat and Mark McDonnell, are great.  Ms Mowat gives a riveting performance as military leader propelled into the President’s seat by the hand of Project Scorpius, a tough yet very human woman bearing the unbearable of leading an unwinnable war against a massive android threat.  Will she be led by Hunt to acknowledge his mysterious (to her) silver clad soldiers as allies?

The Cybermen are used sparingly and are all the more effective for that.  There’s a fantastic scene where they teleport into the Whitehouse.  The android threat, a familiar sci-fi staple of humanity’s creation turning against it, is a compelling backdrop.

An atmospheric blast of a listen, and a good value download at £5 from the Big Finish range currently.