Big Finish - February Round-up
Survival of the Fittest by Jonathan Clements
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Johann Schmidt
Running Time: 118:49
Directed by: John Ainsworth
Released: February 2010
The second in this year's McCoy miniseason marks a return to the 3/1 story structure which BF went through a brief phase of using a couple of years ago, in which one three-part story is complemented by a one-parter tacked on at the end. These short adventures were often more successful than the longer stories they were appended to - for whatever reason, one-episode Doctor Who generally works extremely well on audio, as releases such as Circular Time and The Company of Friends have shown (just don't mention 100). "Klein's Story" in some ways works as a follow-up to TCoF, all of which featured a titular character's encounter with the Eighth Doctor. Here he isn't named as such, Paul McGann guesting as "Johann Schmidt," in a story set in an alternative timeline which fills in how Klein ended up in Colditz where we first met her. I'm not sure that this absolutely needed to be told - Colditz worked perfectly well without the flashback, and this episode doesn't add anything to that backstory which is a surprise - but it's very enjoyable to hear McGann and Tracey Childs sparring and makes for a pleasant interlude in the current "Klein trilogy."
It's also, following the fashion, better than the three-parter which follows. After last month's superb A Thousand Tiny Wings I had high hopes for this story, but Jonathan Clements' story is a little too busy and frenzied to be completely successful. At times little more than a chitinous cacophony, the Doctor and Klein's run-in with the Vrill, an insectoid race suffering from the aftermath of an apocalypse and searching for a new direction, unfortunately sounds like a collision between a multitude of other stories. It's hardly Clement's fault that the environmental angle smacks of Avatar, given that this was in all likelihood written months ago, but there are plenty of other influences readily apparent, including oddly at times The Web Planet, so that it can never quite find its own identity. In addition, the speedy pace director Ainsworth infuses the piece with means it all ends up a bit of a noisy blur, not terrible but very much a step down from last month's instalment.
That said, the one area it does succeed is in the portrayal of Klein herself. I had a bit of a moan in January's write-up that she wasn't an especially memorable character, and to a certain extent that continues here, but at the same time not only does she get to be villainous but her Nazi past is used to great effect, exploring the clash, as to be fair did Wings, between her totalitarian outlook and the Doctor's more liberal philosophy. By the end of the play I had a far clearer idea of the character and the reason behind this trilogy, making it a more rich story than its noisy exterior might initially sound like. Coupled with a cliffhanger that is not dissimiliar to another from not so very long ago, but one far more effective considering who it concerns, this middle chapter benefits from being part of a trilogy and is stronger than it would have been on its own. Klein's Story gets a 7, Survival a 5, giving us overall a very creditable 6/10.
The Hollows of Time by Christopher H Bidmead
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Peri
Running Time: 120:39
Directed by: John Ainsworth
Released: February 2010
If there wasn't already enough reason to love this Lost Stories range, there's an extremely amusing bit of cheek in evidence in this month's release, Bidmead's quasi-sequel to his own Frontios. Originally the villain was to have been the Master, but as his sad absence from BF Productions over the last few years continues to testify, that character really isn't available to the company at the moment, what with them telly folks using him and all. This could have presented a problem: rewrite THoT to feature a different baddy and there would have been accusations, somewhat justified, that they were not being true to the aim of the series, which was to finally envisage, as far as is possible given the change in medium, lost Doctor Who stories as close to how they would have been had they been produced as originally planned. However, the alternative, one would presume, was not to use the script at all.
Naughty BF. Instead, they've made the true identity of Professor Stream (cough) a mystery, never going so far as to positively identify him but neither doing anything to persuade us that he's anyone else. This does have the unfortunate side effect that the Doctor ends up looking a bit of a twit in not twigging, but that's a minor complaint compared to what would have been the moans had the Master - sorry, Stream - been revealed to be the Monk or the Valeyard or the Rani or whatever. For the record, while it's a shame Geoffrey Beevers couldn't play Stream, David Garfield makes a very acceptable, indeed almost triumphant, alternative, his portrayal one of the undoubted highlights of the play.
No, strike that, it's the only highlight. Christopher Hamilton Bidmead's (like Sir Ben Kingsley, he prefers one uses the full title) one previous contribution to the main range was Renaissance of the Daleks, over which there appears to have been some antipathy, given that he withdrew his name from the "by" credit shortly before it was released. Quite what happened is nobody's business, but frankly no one sensible would wish to be acknowledged responsible for that turkey. Sadly, I'm not sure The Hollows of Time is going to do much to restore his good name on audio. It is, indeed, a bit of a mess. The story has a confused plot, some very clunky dialogue and is very, very, very, very, very, very, very very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very long. As long, you might say, as Tom's scarf caught in a recursive loop. Frankly, its running time tried even my patience, and I've been loving every minute of these audios up to this point, while it comes nowhere near to the quality of Frontios and has a couple of characters one struggles to find any point towards. Even if you came to it knowing nothing about the story you could tell it's by Bidmead, being full of quasi-scientific ideas, some of which sound as though they'd be quite good if they weren't bumping up against half a dozen others, and others... that don't. It's a dense tale, in more ways than one, and isn't helped by the fact that Noddy appears to have wandered in from Toytown (Susan Sheridan, here somewhat unsuccessfully playing an eleven year old boy, sounding exactly as she does in Cosgrove Hall's Blyton adaptations.)
And yet, despite that, it makes me want to go back and listen to it again. Not for a while, admittedly, and certainly not all in one chunk, but I suspect it could be a more rewarding listen the second time around. Garfield and Baker are very good, and the story might - might - be worth digging into further to try and work out what the hell it's all about. It's not helped that once again the story is very visual (a perennial problem with all these Lost Stories) and that, yes, some of the solutions to this problem consist of overly explicit "Look Doctor, I'm telling you exactly what's going on in front of you!" dialogue. And yes, it's at times as annoying as all of Bidmead's work. But somehow, despite it all, I couldn't hate it quite as much as I feel I should have, or want to totally write it off. Challenging, just as its writer probably intended, I suspect its reputation may be improved several years down the line.
Just don't tell anyone in Cardiff the Master's in it. 4/10.
The Suffering by Jacqueline Rayner
Starring: Peter Purves (Steven Taylor), Maureen O'Brien (Vicki)
Running Time: 136:09
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released: February 2010
The Suffering marks the next stage is the CC's increasingly ambitious productions, and is quite simply superb, in a whole different league to the other two Who audios this month. It's the first CC to star two, rather than one, former Companion (unless you count the Jago and Litefoot romp The Mahogany Murderers) and is the first, but not last, two-disc, four part story in the range, but neither of these is the reason why the play is so good.
Jac Rayner is an almost unique voice in the Doctor Who firmament, bringing a uniquely feminine voice to the usually far too masculine world of the TARDIS. Her novels with Benny and in particular Anji, a BBC Novels companion who was too often far too generic but under Rayner actually sounded like a real person, had a realism which gave those characters an extra dimension sometimes sorely needed. She also has a playful, literary wit, as heard most spectacularly in Doctor Who and the Pirates, which make even her lesser works, like the recent The Doomwood Curse which was a lovely idea that didn't quite come off, well worth checking out.
This audio is far more Pirates than Doomwood and is a perfect illustration of her strengths. While Vicki gets involved in the Suffragette movement the Doctor and Steven have a madcap adventure (the sequence in the car being a particular highlight) and it'd be a shame to spoil what is, despite its running time, a fabulously entertaining and thoughtful piece. The CC's on a real high at the moment, and this is another jewel in their crown. Wonderful. 9/10.
Final Judgement by D Lynn Smith
Starring: Lara Parker (Angelique), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Josette), Nigel Fairs (The Dark Lord)
Directed by: Darren Gross
Released: January 2010
As you can see from the above, this actually came out in January, but I forgot all about it. This won't do at all; as this news item makes clear BF are greatly expanding their Dark Shadows releases this year, so it's best to keep up. Recently I was on a movie forum following a thread discussing a proposed new DS movie, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton, and discovered that despite the fact the show still has a large following not many, at least not on this, primarily US board, knew about this range. That's a shame, as it seems heavily geared towards the hardcore fan who knows the series in detail. This audio is a case in point, in which Josette has Angelique brought before the "Dark Lord" to try her in a court (a real devil's advocate if you will), with much of the first half of the running time seemingly devoted to referring back to events in the TV series. I've never seen a single episode, so the nuances and character insights were all rather lost on me, but the three actors (Parker and Scott both reprising their roles) gives earnest performances and, while it's not particularly spooky, unlike previous audios, it's well put together. I did wonder, though, whether going over quite so much backstory was necessary, but that quibble aside, recommended for those waiting for a film that it seems might now never transpire...7/10
Rebecca's World by Terry Nation
Read by: Paul Darrow
Running Time: 141:34
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released: February 2010
I'm like Nick Briggs, who in February's podcast admits that, despite being an afficionado of all things Dalek, he had never heard of Rebecca's World until after Big Finish had decided to record it as an audio book. As with so many authors have down the years, Nation wrote the book for his own daughter Rebecca and published it in the mid-Seventies and, judging by the sad lack of any subsequent editions on Amazon, it seems to have been all but forgotten since. This is a pity as it's a lovely story, very much in the Alice in Wonderland mode, but with enough about it to ensure that it isn't just a carbon copy of a thousand other similar stories from down the years. It follows the adventures of its eponymous heroine after she finds herself transported to a magical land where, Dorothy-like, she teams up with an unlikely band of vagabonds, including the splendid Captain K, the most inept superhero the world has possibly ever known, to track down the one thing that can possibly send her back home. Pursued by the evil Mr Glister, she has to travel through many strange lands before arriving at her goal.
Big Finish have done a wonderful job in bringing this forgotten story to life, with Darrow making an exceptionally good narrator - he's far better, I would venture, than some of the more distinguised voices who record talking books for the BBC. He brings the world to life with gusto, his narration enhanced as all of BF's audios are by a range of sounds effects (including a mock fanfare whenever Captain K's name is mentioned), making for an absorbing experience that, despite its length, flies past. Heartily recommended for the young 'uns in your life.8/10.
Many thanks to Big Finish for their help with this review. Coming up tomorrow, a look at March's releases.