Big Finish - December Roundup

It was a bumper end of the year for Big Finish, with two Christmas specials, the release of their annual "Subscriber Freebie" An Earthly Child, and the second audio in their new Sherlock range.

Doctor Who

Plague of the Daleks by Mark Morris
Number: 129
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Running Time: 120 minutes
Directed by: Barnaby Edwards
Released: December 2009
Buy: Here.

Meh. After the occasionally heavy McCoy and "Goodbye Charley" trilogies, it's obvious that the PTB had decided to end the year on the main Who range in a more light-hearted vein with the Davison Stockbridge trilogy, of which Plague of the Daleks is the final part. And, you know, it's been perfectly fine. Okay. Nothing special, but it passed the time. But it's also been wholly unmemorable, the three plays certainly not being a patch on the DWM strips which served as their inspiration (indeed, it's telling that the most memorable scene in any of the three plays, in last month's The Eternal Summer, was a dramatisation of a scene from one of the finest Stockbridge strips, rather than anything new). Take this month's conclusion. It's the sort of play which happens when you release multiple Dalek stories a year. The Daleks have used Stockbridge to set a trap for the Doctor, they chase him around, etc etc. It doesn't feel especially Stockbridgey, it doesn't do anything new with the Daleks, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. It's just there, uninspired but competent, like the trilogy as a whole. Meh. 4/10.

Death in Blackpool by Alan Barnes
Number: 4.01
TARDIS Team: The Eighth Doctor and Lucie
Running Time: 60 minutes
Directed By:
Released: December 2009
Buy: Here

I've never really been that big a fan of Lucie Miller. It's nothing against the character per se, or Sheridan Smith's always enthusiastic performance, but compared to the likes of other Big Finish companions like Evelyn Smythe, Lucie's predecessor Charley, or even someone like Erimem, Lucie has always come across as a bit one-dimensional, her characterisation ultimately boiling down to little more than a series of colloquialisms and wearing her heart on her rather-short sleeve. I've also never particularly bought the chemistry between her and the Doctor - they do seem to have little in common - and as a result the pair's affectionate sparring has always felt to me rather forced rather than based on a natural friendship. Thus it was that approaching what has been widely advertised as her final story I wasn't especially bothered one way or the other how she departed, although the ominous-sounding title seemed to ironically guarantee at least one thing: she wouldn't be killed off.

It's a bit of a surprise for me, then, to come to the end of this audio and feel slightly annoyed. After Charley's botched leaving trilogy earlier in the year I would have hoped that this companion's exit, at the very least, would have been relatively straightforward and, in keeping with the character, not especially traumatic. But no, for the umpteenth time we get a companion leaving the TARDIS in high dudgeon, majorly pissed off with the Doctor for his machinations behind her back. This sort of thing, which was already getting old by the end of the New Adventures over ten years ago, is now such an overworn device that any power it might once have had has long since dissipated, to be replaced with a numb sense of ennui. Can't anyone leave the Doctor feeling happy and uplifted about their adventures with him? Isn't that, in truth, what Doctor Who should be all about? In the past year and a bit we've had to go through the wringer with Donna, Charley, and now Lucie, and I for one am a bit sick of it. Tegan's "It stopped being fun," was a powerful statement (indeed, about the show as a whole.) Lucie's "I can't trust you, Doctor," just sounds like Ace reheated. Although I didn't especially warm to the character she, and indeed the Eighth Doctor after Charley's "death", deserved something a bit different. No wonder he ended up blowing up Gallifrey, given how miserable he must have been.

The story itself is a bit of an "anti-Christmas" story from Alan "Bah, humbug" Barnes, who determinedly, and understandably, draws a contrast between his festive tale and RTD's more traditionally jolly television offerings. Although I didn't like the manner of Lucie's end I'm all for a festive downer once in a while, but the odd thing about the story is that, despite the presence of a nut who thinks he's Father Christmas, this doesn't feel Christmassy, of the good or bad sort, at all. Despite copious references to presents, the weather and large meals it has no atmosphere of the season - the hospital in which much of the story is set doesn't ring with the sound of bells jingling, we don't actually get anywhere near anyone opening presents or scoffing turkey, and aside from the afore-mentioned Santa doing his best Noddy Holder by yelling "It's Christmas!" at several points there's precious little tangible connection with the holiday. Instead, we get a Casualty-set story in which Lucie, following a near-fatal run-in with a speeding car, is chased by a renegade Zygon (called, a little unconvincingly, a "Zynog") who has designs on her body wholly unrelated to her short skirts, while the Doctor and her Auntie Pat (who is, as The Zygon Who Fell To Earth revealed, also a Zygon) work out what's happened to her. It's not an especially gripping story, but fortunately the sixty minute length manages to just not outstay its welcome, while McGann and Helen Lederer, who replaces the earlier audio's Lynsey Hardwick as Auntie Pat, work well together and have the best scenes in the play. Overall, though, this is a bit lacklustre and at times misjudged, but after a stronger last season hopefully the arrival of a new companion in the next McGann audio will give this range the push it needs. 4/10.

Mission to Magnus by Philip Martin
Number: 1.02
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Peri
Running Time: 100 minutes
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released: December 2009
Buy: here.

I'm probably not the best person to review Mission to Magnus because I unreservedly love Philip Martin's Doctor Who work, even when it's not very good. Big Finish's 2002 audio The Creed of the Kromon is generally considered to be one of the company's most boring stories ever, but I can quite happily listen to all its two-hour plus running time in one go, even if most of it is little more than a series of capture-and-escape. I don't quite know why Martin's tales of alien bureaucracy appeal, but both Creed and his two television stories, Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp (AKA Trial of a Time Lord Parts 5-8), have very similar grungy atmospheres that fit perfectly with the style of Doctor Who in the mid-Eighties when he worked on the show. There's always a hint of unpleasantness and toughness, almost Soviet-like worlds where no one can be trusted and society is one of utter misery, which go well with the abrasive era (even if the counter-argument, that said style is almost exactly what Doctor Who shouldn't be like, has considerable merit.)

And so for me the fact that Mission to Magnus replicates that atmosphere almost perfectly is a hearty recommendation that I suspect few others will appreciate. Like last month's The Nightmare Fair director Lisa Bowerman, sound designer Jamie Robertson and the story's cast have managed to recreate that Season Twenty-Two vibe to perfection, so much so that at times you would almost swear you were listening to an audio recording of a story made back then. The good news is that, unlike Nightmare Fair, Magnus actually works as a purely audio story. Whereas the former was a highly visual affair that, despite the best efforts of all involved, didn't translate well to the medium, Martin's talky script works fine. Sure, we don't see Sil (Nabil Shaban returning to the role after over twenty years) writhing around and flicking his tongue, but the character's voice is so distinctive (and Shaban remembers exactly how to do it) that we don't really need to, while Magnus itself probably benefits from being rendered purely in the listener's imagination rather than the cheap look of something like Timelash or even Mindwarp itself. And, as with Fair, Robertson has composed a suitably synth-heavy mid-Eighties soundtrack which is, if somewhat less grating than many of the TV stories, at least sounds completely authentic.

Unfortunately, the era's problems, and those of Martin's stories in particular, have also survived the transition and passage of time. Viewed entirely dispassionately Magnus is not very good. Structurally it's a mess, with story strands being picked up and dropped, from the Doctor's childhood bully Anzor (Malcolm Rennie) wandering off not long after he's introduced through to the late arrival, Attack of the Cyberman-style, of a pair of resistance fighters. The story itself is wholly uninvolving - Sil, following the events on Varos, is once again trying to negotiate a deal, this time with the matriarchal society led by Rana (Maggie Steed), little realising that the Ice Warriors are lurking in the shadows with their own plans for the planet. There's an amusingly old-fashioned degree of sexism about the portrayal of Rana, especially at the end when some men move in and assure her she's going think the "intermingling" of the sexes will be splendid, while the Doctor and Peri's involvement is not especially great, nor the former's meeting with Sil that thrilling. Indeed, the most memorable scene is the very first, in which the Doctor is cowed into submission when Anzor pops up on the TARDIS's viewscreen (although a less likely incarnation of the Doctor to be bullied than the Sixth it's difficult to imagine.)

But I don't care. I loved it. I don't know why. There's really very little to love. But I did anyway. I suspect the audio won't go down particularly well apart from people with as warped opinions as mine, but for we happy few it will take us back to the television Baker era (something, again, few would willingly want to do) so that, in finally producing the story, warts and all, Big Finish have done a service to Martin and to us Sil-lovers out there. 8/10 if you're like me, or, I dunno, 4/10 if you thought Mindwarp was rubbish.

An Earthly Child by Marc Platt
Number: Subscriber's Special 7
TARDIS Team: The Eighth Doctor and Susan
Running Time: 60 minutes approx
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Released: December 2009 (Subscribers), December 2010 (general release)
Buy: Here.

This is not the first time we have returned to post-Dalek-Invasion Earth to find out what happened to Susan after the Doctor abandoned her all those years ago. In 1998 John Peel achieved a near miracle with Legacy of the Daleks in writing a novel that was actually worse than his previous effort War of the Daleks, a book which lives on in Who infamy to this day and seemed to exist almost solely to retcon the events of Remembrance of the Daleks out of history. The thing about that book, though, was that in all its ill-judged, poorly written, laughably plotted mess it was also hugely entertaining, in the same way that watching someone make a complete mess of things always is, whereas Legacy, set in the same timeframe as An Earthly Child, committed the cardinal sin of just being rather dull (as well as having, as far as I remember, surprisingly few Daleks in it.)

Marc Platt's take on the subject is also lacking in the Dalek department, but otherwise is a galaxy removed from Peel's travesty - aside from the fact both feature the Eighth Doctor returning to meet an aged Susan, they are almost totally dissimilar. Although it doesn't have quite the emotional punch one might have expected from this long-awaited reunion (although given that The Five Doctors had already sort-of-brought Susan back, perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising) it's a decent story, a big improvement both on the last couple of freebies as well as, needless to say, the Peel book. The story sees Susan, now a widow, secretly communicating with an alien race in the mistaken belief they can help the still ravaged planet recover from the Dalek's decimation, at the same time, ironically, as her son Alex (the Doctor's great grandson!) campaigns against any further alien intervention.

Full of youthful rebellion and misguided beliefs, AEC goes off in directions one wouldn't necessarily have expected given the brief - with its productive education system and healthy-sounding society there's not much evidence of a post-apocalyptic malaise afflicting this corner of the globe, despite the protestations of various characters along the way. I didn't quite buy the portrayal of the world, nor did I go with what makes up the main focus of the story, the Doctor's acquisition of a dysfunctional family of his very own - such a thing seems almost mundane, domesticating the Doctor in a way that doesn't feel right at all. Far more crucially, though, the pivotal scene where Susan is first reunited with her grandfather, essentially the moment the entire play lives for, has the emotional resonance it needs, and goes a long way to justifying the entire play. Carole Ann Ford has sometimes been accused of being a less than competent actor, but this audio yet again reinforces the impression that this is very unfair - both this and her other appearances for BF have been strong and given a wholly convincing picture of an older, wiser, but indisputably same Susan. Equally, it's amusing that McGann's son Jake plays Alex, even if the pair don't get a great deal of "screentime" and McGann Jr does well, convincing us that his casting was not just a case of pleasant nepotism. Although I didn't particularly care for the family portrait it painted, the three characters work well, and interact convincingly enough, to make sure that the play's less absorbing moments are forgivable. As ever with Platt, wider issues of xenophobia and environmentalism lurk in the background - even his weaker plays have a solid thematic basis (well, maybe not Time Reef) - and although the drama unfolding here isn't especially gripping, nor its resolution especially thrilling, there's enough subtext to make sure one isn't allowed to disengage one's brain, just as the Doctor and Susan's scenes won't allow you to leave your heart at the door. Flawed, but with enough good moments to make it worth a go. 6/10.

Cyberman 2 by James Swallow
Starring: Mark McDonnell, Hannah Smith and Barnaby Edwards
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Released: December 2009
Buy: Here.

In preparation for this release, last month I went back to relisten to the first Cyberman miniseries, and in doing so was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I think it's fair to say that author Nick Briggs doesn't have the same love for the monsters that he does for Daleks and which informed what remains his finest hour at Big Finish, the passionate, enthralling first two Dalek Empire series, but he produced a very competent technothriller which, even if was surprisingly sparse of Cyberthrills, still managed to entertain. Like its spiritual predecessor Sword of Orion, it was highly derivative, but there's an argument to be made for both titles that that was intentionally so (although I'm sure his critics would make other, less flattering observations) and that all he wanted to do was produce a pulpy, amusing story.

The sequel has been a long time coming, partially because the original series was greeted with only muted applause but mainly because Briggs's ever-expanding list of commitments just didn't allow him the time to write one. Finally he has handed over the reins to James Swallow, a highly dependable genre author who has turned his hand to everything from Star Trek novels to Warhammer tie-ins. His Big Finish career, so far, has been fine if not particularly distinguished, with 2008's Cyber-runaround Kingdom of Silver(notable mainly for a pleasingly dour conclusion) being his calling card for this new commission.

The difference in authors brings a number of stylistic changes, most notably the fact that there's a far more tightly focused story this time rather than the first's rather episodic approach - you can see why the decision was made to release all four parts in one chunk rather than over a number of months, as building momentum is all-important here. Picking up six months after the first series, the three major plot strands - President Paul Hunt (Barnaby Edwards) continuing to do the Cybermen's bidding, Liam and Samantha's attempts to save the day (and, somewhat improbably given the fact she's an android, slowly developing a romance) and newcomer Hazel and her induction into a resistance group - all interweave as they head toward episode four's final showdown, making for a far more satisfying narrative arc than the first series had.

All the cast give a good account of themselves, and it's fun to hear Toby "Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf" Hadoke, as a freighter captain with whom Liam gets embroiled, even if that particular story goes on a bit too long. Another newcomer, Jo Castleton as Hazel, also gives an enthusiastic performance and it would be good to hear more from her - it's just a shame that from an early stage where her story is going is thoroughly predictable. The big surprise, though, is that the Cybermen (voiced, as ever, by Briggs) once again play such a subsidiary role to the protagonists - one of the main criticisms of the first series was that they were kept in the background, especially in the early episodes, far too much, and that's the same again here. While one wouldn't expect them to take centre stage, given their nature, it's still a little disappointing that we don't get to see them being more, well, evil (it's also notable that the gory detail, in the main, is kept very low, a mildly regrettable side effect of the TV show's popularity.)

If there is a Cybermen 3 it would be good if the title characters were finally given some more "screen time" along with those they wish to control. I'm not sure, however, that there will be. It was a pleasant surprise, given BF's propensity for endless cliffhanging endings, that this series ends in such a definite way, and a very welcome one. The last episode is possibly the finest of the eight so far, and makes for a worthy conclusion to what is, like its predecessor an enjoyable, if ultimately not especially memorable, release. 7/10

Iris Wildthyme

Iris Wildthyme and the Claws of Santa by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Number: 2.05
Starring: Katy Manning and David Benson
Running Time: 60 minutes approx
Directed by: Gary Russell
Released: December 2009
Buy: here.

Ahh yes, this is more like it. A proper, silly, Christmas panto, in which everyone's second favourite Time Lady (after Romana, of course) is reunited with her lost companion Panda, battles Santa's mad Mrs and still has time to knock back a few Babychams. Taking a leaf out of RTD's book, this Christmas Special is as Christmassy as a mince pie wrapped in tinsel, with Scott and Wright's script having great fun injecting Iris's warped world into the North Pole on Christmas Eve. After some of the miserable other titles from BF this month this was a welcome relief, and it'd be wrong to criticise anything as jolly as this. Merry Christmas! 8/10

Sherlock Holmes

The Death and Life by David Stuart Davies
Number: 1.02
Starring: Roger Llewellyn
Running Time: 120 minutes approximately
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Released: December 2009
Buy: here.

The second of BF's three Sherlock Holmes plays is a follow-up of sorts to last month's The Last Act. Although the stories aren't directly connected, both are written by Davies and star Llewellyn as an introspective master detective and each in their own way explore and analyse the mythos of Conan Doyle's work. While The Last Act had an elderly Holmes reflecting on his life following the death of Dr Watson, this spiritual successor examines Conan Doyle's increasingly antipathetic relationship with his own creation and his disdain for the work that made him famous. Once again it's a one-man show, but unlike the first play Llewellyn here takes on multiple roles, as the fictional worlds of 221B and the reality of Doyle's decision to kill off Holmes intermingle, resulting in a confrontation between creation and creator. Watson falls asleep as Holmes relates a case just as his creator does.

It's a somewhat curious piece, far too long in all truth, and one of which at times I struggled to see the point. We all know how Doyle felt about Holmes, and his ultimately fruitless attempts to break away from what he saw as potboilers towards work which he felt had more merit are well known. The play doesn't particularly offer any new insight into the author's psyche, and while Davies artfully draws parallels between some of Holmes's most famous cases and Doyle's life at the time ultimately it feels more like a literary exercise rather than anything else, tricksy for the sake of it. Perhaps the problem is that it doesn't translate as well to audio as The Last Act - some of Llewellyn's voices for secondary characters, most notably Inspector Lestrade, tend towards the comical (and it doesn't help that his Doyle doesn't sound remotely like the real deal, as this clip shows.) It's entirely possible when I return to this one at a future point I'll find more to it, but at the moment I don't think this was as strong as its forerunner. 7/10.

Judge Dredd: Crime Chronicles

The Devil's Playground by Jonathan Clements
Number: 1.03
Starring: Gemma Wardle (Wendy Plainfolk), Toby Longworth (Judge Dredd)
Running Time: 60 minutes approx
Directed by: John Ainsworth
Released: December 2009
Buy: here.

After two strong opening stories, this is the first dud of BF's relaunched 2000AD audios. Clement's story features a Mormon-like young girl visiting Mega City One - or "The Devil's Playground" as her sect will have it - only to find herself caught up in a murder investigation when a previous visitor from her home is found murdered. Wardle gives a good performance, but the character herself is deeply tiresome, a wide-eyed stereotype reheated from every other Mormon-visits-the-big-wide-world story you can think of, so that by the half way stage I was struggling to keep awake. The investigation itself is tedious, so that by the time the murderer is revealed you really couldn't care less. Deeply boring. 3/10.

Doctor Who

The long-running BBC TV science fiction series that started in 1963 and recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary. 2017 saw Peter Capaldi regenerate into the show's first female Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker. The Thirteenth Doctor's first season debuts in 2018, with Chris Chibnall replacing Steven Moffat as the current showrunner.

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