Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 2

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The end of July Big Finish gave Doctor Who fans another treat, with the release of the second volume of Classic Doctors, New Monsters. Four stories featuring classic Doctors fighting monsters from the modern post-2005 era, it's the second installment and hopefully the continuation of more to come.

The four fifty-minute adventures are currently available to download or buy on CD from the Big Finish website and are available on general release from the 30th September.

Here are the synopses for the four episodes...

Night of the Vashta Nerada by John Dorney

Funworld was set to be the happiest planet in the galaxy. A planet of joy, of euphoria, of laughter and delight. Except construction was marred by reports of a predator and then, a few days before opening, all communication ceased.

Owner Georgia Donnelly is desperate to open the resort and has hired Amanda Steele's crew to find out what happened on the planet. They're the best. But even they might not be up to the task.

Joined by the Doctor and being picked off one by one, they slowly start to realise that something terrifying lurks in the shadows.

Empire of the Racnoss by Scott Handcock
When a distress call rips the TARDIS from the Vortex, dragging it back through time, it arrives in the midst of a conflict between Gallifrey and an ancient foe.

The Doctor, as ever, wants to help, but in returning a wounded combatant home, he becomes further and further entangled in a web of deceit and recrimination. A web spun by an eight-legged Empress and her minions…

The Empire of the Racnoss is at war, and wherever he stands, the Doctor is on the wrong side.

The Carrionite Curse by Simon Guerrier
Katy Bell returns to her Midlands home to find strange goings-on at the buskers fair. A witch trial in the 1980s. A bonfire ready to be lit...

Luckily, a colourful visitor is already investigating, and the local vicar, Katy's dad, is versed in tales of the macabre. Terrifying forces are on the loose, and the town hall holds a secret. There is black magic in the Black Country, and the Doctor has the name of his enemy on the tip of his tongue...

Something wicked this way comes.

Day of the Vashta Nerada by Matt Fitton
As the Time War rages, Cardinal Ollistra of Gallifrey seeks to create ever more dangerous weapons to deploy against the enemy.

When the Doctor stumbles across Synthesis Station, he discovers that the Time Lords have sponsored a project to weaponise already-lethal creatures. But in doing so, Eva Morrison and her team have unwittingly used a colony of Vashta Nerada with a very unfortunate history of humanoid contact.

The Doctor finds himself leading a desperate race for survival, in which the shadows may be the least of their worries…

All four stories are directed by Barnaby Edwards.

I'll be joined in my reviews by my 11-year old son Ben, Doctor Who uber fan of the the classic and modern eras..

Night of the Vashta Nerada

Baz Greenland (aged 36)

Things kick off with the Fourth Doctor arriving on a deserted theme park ride to get over the departure of a recent companion (Sarah Jane or Leela?). It's a great little atmospheric tale to start the box set and follows a similar vein to the story in which the Vashta Nerada first appeared; the Doctor encounters a small team arriving to discover what happened to the 30-strong skeleton crew and find the 'piranhas of the air' waiting to kill them all.

Tom Baker delights as always, but he's backed up by an impressive cast, particularly Pam Ferris's no-nonsense Amanda Steele who is ready to take on the Vashta Nerada with a flamethrower and an iron will. Lorelei King's Georgia Donnell is a selfish owner of the planet who was willing to strip mine the entire forest planet to make the global tourist attraction without any consideration for the eco system she has destroyed. Needless to say, the eradication of their global food supply puts the Vashta Nerada in a revenge-fuelled fury.

On the flip side, there are some very likeable characters in Matt Devitt's Bennetto, a man made out of rock who finds himself torn apart by the enemy, while Emma Lowndes psychic Phelan, a woman indebted to Steele serves as a quasi companion to the Doctor, using her ability to make contact with the Vashta Nerada before she is horribly killed.

And it is a bloodbath of sorts. Not a single character makes it out alive, leaving the Doctor to lament that he couldn't save anyone by the story's end. Night of the Vashta Nerada makes good use of the audience's knowledge of the enemy from the 2008 episodes Silence In The LibraryForest Of The Dead; the sounds of people being consumed is particularly nasty and the story makes good use of playing with shadows and light, even though it loses a little something without the visual. The idea of an abandoned planetary theme park, swarming with the Vashta Nerada is delightfully creepy and there is a bit of an Aliens vibe in Bennetto and Steele taking them on and losing horribly. An strong start, and a great origin tale for the Doctor's first meeting with this unique enemy.

Ben Greenland (age 11)

The absence of Sylvester McCoy in this set is made up for by bringing Tom Baker in! The chilling sound effects of the shadows are quite the thing that will give children nightmares! The setting is unusual for this sort of creature and the Doctor’s regret at not being able to save anyone is really brought forward too.

When I listened to this I thought one thing: IDIOTS!!!!!!!! This time it was the humans hunting the Vashta Nerada. There is quite a lot of humour like the Sontaran reference and the Doctor snippet before the titles sequence. The sacrifice of the leader at the end was sad, even though, if you were like me, you hated her for most of the tale. The Vashta Nerada are truly menacing and paves the way for the last story of the box set…


Empire of the Racnoss

Baz Greenland (aged 36)

The action heats up in the second story, which sees Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor thrust back into the depths of time into the war between the Racnoss and the Timelords. Fans of Sarah Parish's delightfully OTT performance as the Empress of the Racnoss in Doctor Who  episode The Runaway Bride will be glad to hear that those dramatic, hissing and snarling performances continue through all the Racnoss characters present in this story. Adjoa Andoh, known to Doctor Who fans as Martha Jones' mother Francine and Sister Jatt from New Earth, takes up Parish's mantle as Racnoss Empress perfectly.

It's a fun story for Davison's Doctor with some great ideas at play; being drawn into the war by mistake, accidentally helping the Timelord's enemies, getting caught up in a galactic lover's squabble between Andoh's Racnoss Empress and Nigel Planer's equally ruthless Old Racnoss Emperor and then bringing the Empress on board the TARDIS as she squabbles with quasi Timelord companion Alayna (Lisa Kay). The visual of the Rachnoss Empress in the 1980's TARDIS control console room is wonderful and I loved the Doctor's comment about having two Tegans onboard.

Alayna makes less of an impression, though Kay does her best in the role and the episode sets her up as a potential Big Finish companion moving forward (I'm not sure where in the Fifth Doctor's timeline this story is set). I think playing alongside the Racnoss characters which verge on ham with all this hissing and maniacal laughing, she is a character that becomes easily lost at times.

Empire of the Racnoss plays a few great twists over its fifty-minute tale as the lover's quarrel takes a series of brutal turns, the emperor tricking the empress into killing her consort (Andrew French) and then attacking their unhatched spawn before he too dies in battle. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to save the last nest and take it to freedom is a surprising turn of events given how his last encounter with the Racnoss Empress goes in The Runaway Bride but there is the potential here for more stories featuring the Racnoss. They are a lot of fun and the war between this spider race and the Timelords feels ripe for development...

Ben Greenland (aged 11)

This is essentially a story of betrayal. And I think it works with a Doctor like Peter Davison’s. It almost feels like the Time War. Almost. It is an intriguing idea, going back to the war with the Racnoss, even though you know the outcome in Doctor Who. At first you believe the Empress. Then you can’t decide who to believe. And then you are certain it is the emperor...

It feels like there really will be a bloodbath, then there is and the Doctor tries his best to stop it and fails. I wasn’t really looking forward to this tale but it held up higher than the previous one I'm afraid. Wouldn’t it be a treat to see the resolution of this war?


The Carrionite Curse

Baz Greenland (aged 36)

The third instalment sees Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor face the Carrionites in a prequel to 2007 story The Shakespeare Code. The concept of The Carrionite Curse is delightfully British and barmy, starting with a local counsellor Eileen Nelthorpe (Adèle Anderson) discussing plans for the next village fete and descending into witch trials in 1980's middle England.

Enter the Doctor making good use of his outfit to play a rather terrible clown as the entire village assembles around a bonfire and three local women - including Andrée Bernard's local schoolteacher Mary Sissinghurst who reveal themselves as witches and beginning flying around hurling brimstone and destruction upon the local populace.

Simon Guerrier's script makes great use of the source material of David Tennant's Carrionite adventure, with excellent use of words to subdue the witches and Baker is more than up to the task, using wonderfully British dialogue to fight off the enemy. Anderson's Nelthorpe makes for a great counterpart as a witch finder, until the Doctor undermines her authority and sets the witches free. It also loved the idea of using the 'prequel narrative' - the witches gaining power through paradox - if they destroy the Doctor now in his Sixth incarnation, he won't be able to defeat them in the future.

Being a tale of witches there are some nastier moments too, including Nelthorpe getting consumed by the flames of her spell book and quasi companion Katy Bell (Maya Sondhi) being forced to sacrifice herself to defeat the witches in the end. There's a running theme in these stories - a lot of characters die. There's also a rather touching recurring tribute to the recently deceased Trevor Baxter, who played Professor George Litefoot in Tom Baker's The Talons of Weng-Chiang before having numerous Big Finish adventures with counterpart Henry Jago - including an encounter with Colin Baker's Doctor. His books on witch lore help the Doctor and Katy to defeat the Carrionites; given the timing it is likely more coincidence than deliberate tribute but it is lovely none the less.

Ben Greenland (aged 11)

Wow. All I can say about this tale. Seriously. Colin Baker is on top form, being mistaken for a clown, failing to juggle water balloons and stopping a witch trial. Also, the humour. When Mary sissinghurst says, "you do that! You do this! And now we burn the witches!" The pre-titles sequence resolution is surprising and shocking but obvious at the same time. I am… guilty! I wonder if the references to Litefoot are a nod to Trevor Baxter, who recently passed away?

Then we come to the villains of the piece. I was confused with their methods. In The Shakespeare Code, did the Carrionites feed on paradoxes? Anyway… The possession technique by the creatures themselves was a good idea. Also to note, Colin Baker seems like he is really there, in the moment, when rattling off word to hurt the witches. Best story of the set I reckon.

(As a side note, I didn’t review the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters set when it came out, but the Colin Baker tale was my favourite. That has certainly been replicated here).


Day of the Vashta Nerada

Baz Greenland (aged 36)

And here we come to the absolute highlight of Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 2. If Night of the Vashta Nerada served as a quasi origin story for the Doctor's encounter with this flesh-eating darkness, then Day of the Vashta Nerada takes this alien menace and does something really interesting with the concept while wrapping it up into the horrors of the Time War.

It's a story that sees the return of Jacqueline Pearce as Cardinal Ollistra, a mainstay of John Hurt's War Doctor audios, who finally appeared in but didn;t meet Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor in this year's Doom Coalition 4. Here she is recruiting human scientists to weaponise the Vashta Narada, harvested from Night of the Vashta Narada's Funworld, to fight the Daleks. It's a great concept and ripe for disaster as one scientist hopes to make a secret deal, shutting down systems and unleashing the Vashta Narada on the scientists (including quasi companion Dr Eva Morrison (Jan Ravens), Ollistra's War TARDIS crew and the Doctor himself, who has stumbled into the situation after answering the distress call before it has even been sent.

There is a very real sense of menace as the Doctor, Ollistra and Jan fight for survival, while Tim Wallers' Commander Roxita leads his Timelord soldiers through the spaceship as everyone is eliminated by the unleashed Vashta Narada. Like Night of the Vashta Narada  the audio makes great use of the flesh-eating kills as it descends into pure Aliens territory. If the first story followed Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead's use of slow menace, this is pure terror as the shadows break free of their glass cages and begin to hunt down their captors.

But where the brilliance lies is in writer Matt Fitton's imaginative use of the enemy; experimentations as an anti Dalek weapon have transformed the Vashta Narada from their original premise. We have the single Vashta Narada, massively enlarged, leading to the Doctor using a Pavlov's Dogs premise to think the enemy's food source is elsewhere to the Narada Vashta, a light version that cannot function in darkness.

And of course, it ends in tragedy again, only the Doctor and Ollistra surviving the onslaught after a tense moment where the Vashta Narada infiltrate the TARDIS and escape into space in their suits; poor Jan finds her helmet filled with darkness, making her another tragic figure and companion who never was. This boxset seems littered with them.

I've always has a fondness for Paul McGann's Doctor Big Finish audios over all others, and here he continues to demonstrate how brilliant he is; certainly much more than the 'forgotten Doctor' on screen. Jacqueline Pearce also continues to deliver a ruthless, commanding figure in Ollistra, a central figure in Big Finish's Doctor Who dramatisation of the Time War. And this is another excellent entry for both these characters...

Ben Greenland (aged 11)

This story is essentially a sequel to the first with the references to Funworld and more of the Vashta Nerada. But the one thing to take away from this story? Do not, whatever stupid idiotic thought is in your head, experiment on the Vashta Nerada. Or should I say Nerada Vashta. Seriously, are they trying to make kids terrified of light as well as darkness now?

Also, I should acknowledge how awesome the giant Vashta Nerada is. Shame they didn’t use it on screen really. Both Paul McGann stories reference the time war in different ways. The first box’s The Sontaran Ordeal, had the war affecting the planet, while this one has time lords in it. It was odd having Cardinal Ollistra in this story, as to me, she is a War Doctor character. Still, there are echoes of the first story of the set, in that no-one is saved, save for the exception of Ollistra this time...

9 and a half/10

The Extras...

You get plenty of behind the scenes extras with this box set, ten tracks in fact, and they offer a great insight into the making of these stories. It's wonderful to hear Tom Baker, director Barnaby Edwards and writer of Night of the Vashta Narada John Dorney talk about their approach to David Tennant's vicious foe, the use of this gothic violence fitting in the Fourth Doctor era as well as the challenges of doing a silent alien on audio.

There's a bittersweet moment too when Tom Baker laments that he will lose but his Doctor will always win too. Hopefully we've got him for some time yet. I also adore Pam Ferris's line "there's nothing more fun than working with Tom Baker and playing a galactic vermin exterminator!" as she and Baker reminisce about working together 20 years ago...

Moving on to the behind the scenes from Empire of the Racnoss, and there are some nice insights into use the Raccnoss, an enemy of pure war against Peter Davison's Doctor, which is the most peaceful. I love Doctor Who stalwart actress Adjoa Andoh's talking about delivery the throaty cry of the Empress. It's also interesting to hear how they expanded the Racnoss within the story - the spider masterclass would be worthy of audio of it's own -  while introducing Lisa Kay's Alayna in her second Big Finish appearance as an actress.

Colin Baker continues to be hugely infectious as he talks about playing his Doctor in The Carrionite Curse, playing a rather self deprecating persona as he references the brilliance of David Tennant's incarnation. There's a nice discussion about the interplay between Baker's Doctor and Maya Sondhi's tragic Katy Bell, whom Baker would loved to have had more adventures with.

There's also a nice irony in Andrée Bernard playing a victim of the Carrionites in The Shakespeare Code before upgrading to one of the witches here. She also has a nice insight into the return of Doctor Who and its popularity. Again, can we have the witches cackling class as an audio extra of its own?

Finally we have Day of the Vashta Narada - as director Edwards callas this the Deep Blue Sea to Day of the Vashra Narada's Jaws. Like Tom Baker, it's great to see Paul McGann gives his thoughts on the alien menace, while touching upon his Doctor's role in the Time War.

There's also great insight from the crew, McGann and Jacqueline Pearce on the decision to bring in Time War character Ollistra and the conflicted interplay between these two powerful Timelord characters.

Some Final Thoughts...

I don't usually write a final summary, but there is so much to this box set, it is certainly deserving of one. The idea of pitting classic Doctors against the monsters of 'Nu Who' is a simple but effective one and it works very well here. The two stories of the Vashta Narada provide a strong narrative bookend to the box set, delivering chills a plenty and making imaginative use of an enemy you can't hear. Rather than feeling cheated by having three monsters, the connected stories enhances both while adding something new to the Vashta Narada themselves.

Both middle stories are lot of fun, the Racnoss and Carrionites providing a delightfully over the top contrast to the subtle nature of the Vashta Narada. But rather than being all action and no substance, both audios challenge the Doctors and bring out some delightful dialogue which really expands on their characters. Most significantly, these tales add something new to these monsters, encouraging the listener to revisit the Doctor Who episodes from which they originated.

All four Doctors excel in a set of strong stories; this be the highlight of Big Finish's Doctor Who range this year.

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Last updated: 31/08/2017 11:22:28

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