Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Vortex Ice Cortex Fire

The latest release from Big Finish (due for general release next month), continues the tradition set by Alien Heart Dalek Soul of having two interlinking two-part stories. This time it's the turn of Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor with Big Finish companion Philippa "Flip" Ramon, née Jackson, voiced by Lisa Greenwood.

Both stories, Vortex Ice and Cortex Fire, have been released on digital audio and CD. It's available for Big Finish customers now and goes on general release on the 30th June. Here's the synopses...

Vortex Ice by Jonathan Morris

In search of ‘exotic particles’, the Doctor and Flip arrive 700 feet underground, in a mine in Northern Mexico – only to run into a scientific expedition. Among their number, an exobiologist. They’re all on the hunt for alien life! Deep underground, the team finally uncovers a cave of vast crystals – like ice, despite the heat. And inside the crystal: something frozen. Something trapped in time. If only it were something simple, like a monster. But it’s far, far worse than that.

Cortex Fire by Ian Potter

The Doctor brings Flip to the futuristic city of Festin, the best vantage point to witness a unique astronomical light show. In a city governed by the all-powerful network known as the Cortex, they’re soon identified as outsiders – nihilists, perhaps, responsible for a wave of terror that’s been sweeping the city… But the truth is different. The people of Festin are burning up. Spontaneously combusting. And no-one knows why.

As usual, I'll be joined by my 11-year old son Ben, one of the biggest Doctor Who fans this side of Gallifrey.

The Review...

Baz Greenland (age 35)

Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor has been served quite well by Big Finish; his two series of Doctor Who are often considered the nadir of the show and I've never found a Sixth Doctor story I've loved (rather surprisingly, Terror of the Vervoids might be my favourite of his era). But in audio form, he's had some cracking tales; like Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, he has finally gotten the stories he deserved.

Vortex Ice Cortex Fire continues to follow the split two-part stories begun with Alien Heart Dalek Soul and were my first experience of listening to Sixth Doctor companion Flip (Lisa Greenwood), fitting in between Peri and Mel, both companions I rather disliked. Flip I noticed has a similar brashness to her, but feels quite likeable too. She's certainly got the modern, down to Earth feel of companions like Rose or Bill. As for the stories themselves, they don't have the same connection that Alien Heart and Dalek Soul had but they're both arguably as strong as each other, even if the second installment Cortex Fire struggles at first.

On to the first story and there is a great timey-wimey mystery to Vortex Ice, a story that sees the Doctor and Flip arrive in a cave structure 700 feet underground, in a mine in Northern Mexico. That immediately adds a sense of claustrophobia to to the proceedings and the mystery of a 100 miners in an explosion 20 years ago and the tracking of Arton energy, found only in the brain of a Timelord or a TARDIS, makes it a personal quest too. The supporting cast, an expedition into the tunnels led by Sai Chopra (Shobu Kapoor) are all decent too, a mix of eccentric personalities to make this feel more than just a team of generic redshirts. But they only support the story, and the real joy is in finding out what is buried deep within the abandoned mines.

The discovery of the Doctor and Flip buried in the Vortex Ice, a kind of temporal freeze, is a great twist, the Doctor picking up his own distress signal from the future. or is it the past? The description of the pilot in the crash, a kind of cyborg octopus alien, is evocative too, the kind of thing that classic era Doctor Who would liked to have done but might never have had the budget to achieve and when it wakes and starts roaring through the tunnel, it is the stuff of nightmares.

Part one ends nicely with Flip meeting her future self, but going into the concluding part you really have to pay attention! Just when you think you know what is happening, Jonathan Morris's script turns things on its head. Discerning which Flipp is the future Flipp adds a fun addition to the mystery, doubled up by the arrival of the Doctor in the TARDIS to greet the current Doctor and help save the day. The jumping between different versions creates a little bit of a narrative headache a times, but it's one hell of a ride. There's a particularly strong moral dilemma for past Flip too, questioned why she let two of her friends die when she already had past knowledge of those events. It's nice to see this companion all to aware of the consequences of time travel and builds on her feisty character at the beginning of the story.

The pursuit of the alien cyborg is exciting stuff too, director Ken Bentley ramping up the tension as the supporting characters are killed off one by one and the vortex ice begins to fill the tunnel around Flip and the Doctor - thus fulfilling their fate glimpsed in part one. The arrival of a third TARDIS provides another head scratcher but also ups the fun too, making Vortex Ice a blast from beginning to end as the Doctors and Flips fulfil their roles and save the Earth from the alien menace.

But if there's one thing I take from Vortex Ice, it'll be this exchange between the Sixth Doctor and Flip that might be my one of my favourite moments of this Doctor to date.

"He has to be the most rude, encourageable..."
"He is you..."
"Handsome, intelligent and perceptive person I have ever met!"

After such high standards in Vortex Ice I found the first part of Cortex Fire a little frustrating at times. Having no connection to the previous tale, this story was at times confusing and I struggled to keep track of what was going on. At the same time, Ian Potter creates a vivid futuristic of city of Festin on an alien world, full of flying cars and and a people suppressed, conforming to their designated places. The scattered transformations of people into flame monsters suggests a menace at the heart of the place and the cliffhanger - the atmospheric Cortex is going to destroy every living thing is a great one. It just takes a long twenty five minutes to realise what is happening.

Fortunately, the second part of Cortex Fire is much, much stronger, the setup of part one really paying off here. The Doctor finds himself arrested, leaving his new ally Halus (Simon Dylan-Kane) to alert the people. Flip too finds an ally in Rebecca Todd's Khoralla as they forge a thrilling jailbreak to rescue the Doctor.

It's at this point that Potter's story steps up, with the idea of nihilists, people believing that life has no intrinsic meaning or value stepping out of their own myths and legends and transforming into the flame monsters. Why? because they can no longer suppress their emotions. The real villain emerges as the Cortex itself, an alien entity that has controlled the populace of the planet through elation and well being and is now setting the people's negative emotions, the urge, free. The Doctor faces the Cortex and learns that is is trapped from another dimension and had engineered this world to create a glyph that when lit up by the force of an exploding sun will destroy the people on the planet and return the Cortex home.

It's a surprisingly innovative take on the suppression of negative emotions, here at the hands of god like entities. Both the Doctor and Flip get to play the heroes, Flip diverting air ambulances to disrupt the thoughts of the populace while the Doctor takes the TARDIS into space to divert the energy of the dying star and save the planet. There's the suggestion at the end that the Doctor spent many, many years doing this, despite his assertions that it took a couple of days. It's a story that plays to the strength of the Doctor's long life, something we've seen more recently in the tales of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors.

In the end, both Vortex Ice and Cortex Fire emerge as great Sixth Doctor stories and my first experience of companion Flip is a positive one. Both require a great deal of concentration, but the payoff on both is remarkable. There are plenty of twists across both tales, but they showcase the Sixth Doctor at his very best.

Ben Greenland (age 11)

This time around, the first story is the better instalment in Big Finish’s monthly range. It all starts as a big mystery, wan expedition. If you haven’t listened to the Sixth Doctor audios before this, the character of Flip might not make much sense but she is a wonderful companion. After the discovery of the duo in the ice, possibly their future selves, you are immediately intrigued. Part one of Vortex Ice impressive story. As for the mystery, you do get lots of explanations, but only in the last track. It is also really timey-wimey to! It hurt my brain!

But it does give insight into the Doctor meeting himself once again. There are some humorous moments, such as:

DOCTOR FROM FUTURE: "You can’t just go off in my TARDIS!"
PAST DOCTOR: "I think you’ll find I can. Goodbye!"

Overall I thought it was a fantastic story, and a great way to spend your time!

Cortex Fire was the weaker instalment. Frankly I was bored by it. They could have done more with the story, because after part one, I was honestly confused. I got the gist, what the Nihilists and Cortex were, but there was only about five minutes in total of action, which was disappointing. Part two slightly improved the story but it also felt kind of rushed. It was frustrating we never got to see the fireworks, but if that did happen, the Urge would have taken over!

Colin Baker can still be a great Doctor though, and as I said, Flip is a wonderful companion and I thought this boxset was another treat, though last month's Alien Heart Dalek soul was better with both stories more consistent. I loved Vortex Ice but I could live without Cortex Fire, but I guess Doctor Who is always going to have its ups and downs!

The Extras...

The first disc ends with an excellent 16 minute music suite from Vortex Ice. It's a wonderfully atmospheric piece, perfectly capturing the mystery and suspense of the tale with an added, whimsical twist in keeping with the Doctor himself. I also loved the somewhat bombastic, dramatic moments that could have come out of any 90's computer game. Most significantly, it also feels absolutely in keeping with the 80's era of the Sixth Doctor adventures.

The second disc has a trailer for the upcoming Seventh Doctor tale Shadow Planet World Apart, which looks set to have plenty of mystery and suspense. I particularly like the idea of 'shadow selves'...

Finally, the second disc also contains interviews with the cast and crew of Vortex Ice and Cortex Fire. There is a delightful interview with Colin Baker about Vortex Ice, who delights in the timey wimey nature of the first story. He’s also incredibly over enthusiastic, embracing the opportunity to continue Doctor Who in audio form. We also get a few interesting thoughts from Lisa Greenwood and Baker on the character of Flip, who she’s been playing for five years.

There’s also some interesting conversations with the cast of Vortex Ice and Director, and a nice discussion about accents and the use of time in the story and how to play it from the perspective of someone who is relieving an event from their past. It’s interesting to see how Greenwood talks about the limitations of radio and how she wants to move around when confined to her recording booth. These discussions continue to provide nice little additions to the continuing Big Finish range of Doctor Who stories and are well worth a listen.

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