Big Finish - January Round-up
December was a bumper month for Big Finish releases, but we're back to normal this month, with the usual three Who releases - the main range audio, the "Lost Stories" release and a Companion Chronicle - and the last in the first season of the new Crime Chronicles stories. On we go.
A Thousand Tiny Wings by Andy Lane
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor
Running Time: 101:38
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released: January 2010
It was nearly eight years ago now, but I seem to remember that at the time of Colditz's release the general consensus was that Steve Lyons's story could have been a classic but for some shoddy sound design. I never quite agreed with that - I'm a fan of Lyons's work, but he'd already done a historical tinged with timey-wimey paradoxes in The Fires of Vulcan which had been far more affecting, while any Who set in Nazi Germany inevitably sanitizes the setting to some degree, which does neither it nor the time any favours, so that in the end the adventure was for me not as powerful as it might have been. (The fact it was also burdened with Ace at the beginning of her "I'm all grown-up now" McShane stage was a further minus, although that was a diktat from above rather than Lyons's own choice.)
I was also never particularly taken with the character of Klein, the story's villainess from an alternative timeline who ended up disappearing into the night with a dire warning that she and the Doctor would meet again. Many others were, though, which makes it a bit surprising that it's taken Big Finish nearly eight years to get Tracey Childs back in studio to record that long-promised rematch. Now she's back with a vengeance, the entire McCoy three-story season which kicks off this year's main range releases dedicated to his and Klein's further adventures.
Sadly, once again I found myself struggling to find anything particularly thrilling about the character. Childs never manages to find anything memorable to do with her, never injects any memorable quirk or delivery into her performance, while her persona and background, while vaguely intriguing, don't have that umph needed to raise her to the upper echelons of Who lore. She's just... there. Indeed, if it wasn't for the fact her "arc" is the main focus of the Jan-March releases I very much doubt I'd even remember she'd been in the audio a few months down the road.
That said, Andy Lane finds some interesting parallels to draw between her Fascistic point of view (in her timeline, the Germans won WWII) and British Imperialism, and even with the Doctor himself. This slow-burning story positively swelters under the Kenyan sun, set as it is during the Mau-Mau uprising of the 1950s. Huddled in fear in a lonely house in the middle of a jungle, a nervous group of colonials keep a nervous look out for rampaging tribesmen as they await rescue, amongst them Klein, little knowing that the most serious threat they face is a rather less earthly one. In the end it's not the British cavalry who turn up but the Doctor, who soon bumps heads both with Klein and others in the party who can't understand why on earth the natives would think being under the thumb of the British Empire was anything other than splendid. Soon they are visited by Joshua (Chuk Iwuji), a Kenyan who claims to be friendly, but can he be trusted? And what about the strange, injured, unearthly creature they've rescued from outside? Or, for that matter, the Doctor, whose touching faith in the goodness of all might for once lead his followers very seriously astray...?
Lane's ambigious story paints his characters and their situation in pleasing shades of grey. The slow pace is very different from the often frenetic tone of the main range in recent years and all the more welcome for it - you really do get a sense of the blazing African sun slowing everyone and everything down, with the result that is one of the most convincingly presented, fully rounded settings for quite some time. With well judged performances and a superior script, more interested in debate than action (the alien menace, when finally revealed, is rather unremarkable), this is quite the finest main range play there's been in a good long while, even if it won't be to everyone's taste. I just wish Klein was a little less low-key.8/10.
Leviathan by Bryan and Paul Finch
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Peri
Running Time: 115:40
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Released: January 2010
I'm loving these Lost Stories. It's possible they're one of my favourite things Big Finish have ever done, along with the Unbounds and the first two McGann seasons. It's not that the stories are particularly good - indeed, out of the three we've had so far, one has been pretty dire, one hasn't worked as an audio, and this month's Leviathan is somewhat uninspired - but they feel so authentic. Having just completed a run through of Colin's TV stories, following the release late last year of The Twin Dilemma onto DVD, I'm still fully immersed in that oh-so-difficult era and these audios so far have managed to capture completely that same grungy, edgy, slightly unpleasant feel that characterised Season Twenty-Two (at one point in this audio the Doctor actually teaches a character where to stick a sword.) It's fully possible to believe these are audio recordings, ala the BBC releases, of stories once screened but now missing, right down to Simon Robinson's musical pastiches of Peter Howell's original scores.
This month's was not originally part of the line-up planned for the series. Written by Brian Finch before being stuffed in a drawer and all-but-forgotten about, it was only when his son Paul heard about this upcoming series that he contacted BF and made available his father's script, which he himself subsequently reworked for audio. Despite the fact it's full of battles, medieval castles, space ships and other extremely visual elements, it's arguably the most successful adaptation so far, the set pieces easily imaginable from many similar ones from other tales.
Unfortunately, it's that very familarity which means that it will never be mistaken for a classic. There isn't anything remotely original in the mix whatsoever - everything you hear you'll have encountered before, from the idea of a community unaware its environment is very different to the one it believes itself to be in (Star Trek used to that do that plot all the time) through to scavangers feeding on an indigenous population and yokel characters who rise above their station to become greater than one would have thought. Neither performances nor characters help to elevate the play above the ordinary, either, meaning that while it's splendidly diverting for the nearly two hours one listens to it (a time which never drags) ultimately it's all a bit disposable.
But I still loved it. 5/10.
Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code by Eddie Robson
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Benny
Running Time: 60:05
Directed by: John Ainsworth
Released: January 2010
Now look here. Never mind Companion Chronicles, and McCoy Lost Stories and all the rest of it. Isn't it about time we had some more New Adventures audios, proper ones, with the Doctor, Ace and Benny once more teaming up as played by McCoy, Aldred and Bowerman? In Big Finish's eleven years we've only had a pitiful two, one of which was superb, the other pretty dreadful and while neither of them sold especially well, now that BF pump out six hundred titles a year (approximately) isn't there room in the schedule to give some more love to the range that more than anything kept Who alive in the 1990s (and also bred the generation of writers who have gone on to bigger and better things)? On the face of it, there's never been a better time. Under the current system of four mini-seasons a year, there's surely enough room to indulge in some commercially-questionable but fan-pleasing romps starring that cast? This year we get the Seventh Doctor and Klein, and the Sixth Doctor and Jamie, and if those unusual combinations why not a tried and trusted one? Go on Big Finish, do it. You know you want to.
This has been a (non-paid) advertisment on behalf of the SoFoMNASoA - Society For More New Adventures on Audio.
Sorry, what? Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code? Oh yeah, it's fine, the usual witty stuff from Eddie Robson. Intergalactic war, secret hidden language the key to solving it, Benny goes digging, etc etc. Good stuff. Terrible McCoy from Bowerman, though, which just proves my point. 7/10 but it loses two points for not being full cast so 5/10.
Judge Dredd: Crime Chronicles
Double Zero by James Swallow
Starring: Louise Jameson (Judge Anderson), Toby Longworth (Judge Dredd)
Directed by: John Ainsworth
Released: January 2010
The last of the first season of BF's revived 2000AD series is a return to form following last month's somewhat dull episode. Narrator Louise "Leela" Jameson doesn't make an entirely convincing Judge, her voice not really having the steel it needs for the character, but she has a good go, and Swallow, marking his second entry into the series following November's Blood Will Tell provides what is possibly the most exciting of the four stories, suitably dramatic for a season finale. Jameson plays Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson who loses her psychic powers following a run in with a weapon known as the Pariah. As she comes to terms with her loss, she and Dredd team up to track down the weapon in a race against time.
It's a good story, told as always well by Swallow. However, this is also the first of these "Crime Chronicle" audios (which, like the Doctor Who Companion Chronicles, use a maximum of two actors and are a cross between a talking book and a traditional audio play) that I felt would have worked better with a full cast. In this instance a few more characters would have benefitted the sense of rising peril (there's at least one more role, that of the boy, that should have been carried by someone else), while the stakes don't feel quite as high when being related later - this should have been a "real time" adventure if ever there was one. It's still a strong end to the season however, and with three out of the four stories hitting the mark, I hope we hear more from the range soon. 7/10.
As ever, many thanks to Big Finish for their help with this review.