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 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 “Davros”

This is one of the standalone star villain dramas Big Finish produced in 2003.   others include “Omega” and “Master.”

In this the titular Dalek creator takes centre stage without his creations.  It’s part origins story, part standalone adventure with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor.  The Doctor is brought by a reporter called Willis to a world in which a company called TAI has a huge domed complex and is apparently exploiting and about to fire a lot of its workforce.  It’s this story of corporate greed that reporter Willis (Eddie De Oliveira) is investigating. Willis may or may not be a companion type role from other stories I’m not sure, I haven’t listened to enough Big Finish.   Willis is primarily interested in TAI’s CEO Arnold Baynes (Bernard Horsfall, a more familiar name including from previous Who tv adventures).  But Baynes and his historian wife Lorraine (Wendy Padbury, another familiar Who name) have brought to their company from deep space a resurrected figure from the past, Davros himself, for whom they are both apologists, believing him wronged by history, and potential beneficiaries as they intend to put him to work for their company, harnessing his twisted genius to the markets.

Of course the Doctor sees the flaws to this plan based on his own history with Davros, and joins Baynes “blue skies thinking” team to keep an eye on his old nemesis.  It’s a cracking adventure that at times treads a precarious line between satire on corporate greed and management speak, origins story for Davros and sci-Fi thriller, also seeking to capture the flavour of the era of Colin Baker’s Who, with its high body count and sudden shifts in tone.

Of most note are Terry Molloy returning as Davros,  including his flashbacks to his former life as Kaled scientist.  Molloy brings back the maniacal hysteria and twisted grandeur and even pathos of his chair bound creator.  The origins story is intriguing and a lot is told in a short snippets of drama.  We learn of Davros’s paranoia and mania to be the top scientist, and how he is horribly disfigured.  We learn of the importance to him of a colleague, Shan, and the terrible impact and legacy she has on his life and events.  There are some surprises.  Some of this material was developed further in a subsequent Big Finish Davros origins series.

Colin Baker is also great value.  Big Finish did a great job in rehabilitating his sixth Doctor from the fraught days of his tv productions.  He has a dry wit, and juggles pomposity, jocularity and deadly seriousness.   Bernard Horsfall does a good turn as a corporate kingpin and the rest of the cast turn in satisfying performances that propel the adventure along.  Production values are good, rooted in 90’s Who.  All in all a recommended listen for genre fans.

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.

A big shout out to Big Finish

The Fireside Table will now be reviewing the excellent audio stories on offer from Big Finish.  If you love genre stories that riff on your favourite sci-fi, fantasy, and horror shows (as well as in some cases comic book, they have a 2000 AD range, and adaptations of novels, as with the recent “Night of the Triffids,” ) look no further.

Their main range is Doctor Who.  All the Doctors, including Paul McGann, and the unfairly (in my view) maligned Colin Baker, have extensive ranges.  Colin Baker has enjoyed a renaissance with these dramas.  They have also recently rejoiced to include Tom Baker in their dramas, who held out for some time.  There are  series of  dramas based on the various companions, series based on tangential characters as with The Talon of Weng Chian’s “Jango and Litefoot,”  and loads more.

They cover a wide range of other genre stuff as mentioned, stuff you wouldn’t see coming (or necessarily want!) like “Terrahawks” most recently.  Looking forward to catching up with their drama’s based on the classic “The Prisoner” series though.  They have their own entertaining pod-casts that often contain generous clips from the shows and trailers, and their own magazine Vortex.  The website containing all the above is well organised, fun to use and accessible, see the above link.  You can shop for their extremely collectable cd’s and benefit from some stunning artwork, or download.  You can download MP3’s or audiobooks.  Recently they released a “Big Finish player” for mobile devices as a beta download, and it now runs smooth and well.  So you can listen on your phone, i-pod etc.

The dramas use music, synth and sound effects, where possible original cast, from the original shows. These in part accounts for their addicting qualities, it’s a huge nostalgia fix.  But what really makes them of course is the quality of the writing, performances and production, which are usually commendable considering they are not operating with the resources of a big production stable.

So to follow, a review of a 2005 production, Cyberman:  Scorpius.