Big Finish - July Round-up
Here's the first of what we hope will be our regular round-up of all BF's audio releases for the last month, including full-cast Doctor Who plays and dramatic readings of brand new stories for the likes of Robin Hood and Stargate.
The Company of Friends by Lance Parkin, Stephen Cole, Alan Barnes and Jonathan Morris
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
TARDIS Team: The Eighth Doctor
Running Time: 129:32
Released: July 2009
Taking a break from the three-story arcs of the first half of the year, The Company of Friends was a stand-alone midsummer romp through the Eighth Doctor's multifarious history. Each of the four individual episodes teams the Doctor up with one of his non-BF companions, namely Izzy from DWM's comic strip, Fitz from the BBC's novels, Bernice Summerfield from Virgin's novels (and, of course, her own BF audios) and, in the final story, Mary Shelley, whom the Doctor mentions as having met in his very first audio Storm Warning. Freed from the constraints of canon, the four stories all have their tongues firmly in cheek, with the highlight being Alan Barnes's story of the Doctor and Izzy running into the world of a comic book strangely similar to 2000AD. Good fun. Comes with the usual interviews with cast and authors, and episode four of The Three Companions, the 12-part Companion Chronicle running over this year in the main range. For full review click here. 8/10
The Drowned World by Simon Guerrier
Starring: Jean Marsh, Niall MacGregor
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Running Time: 68:19
Released: July 2009
Simon Guerrier's follow-up to Home Truths, the standout story in the last season of Companion Chronicles, isn't quite as stellar but still makes for a worthy sequel. Once again Robert returns to the old guest house infused with the spirit of the Doctor's long-dead friend Sara Kingdom, and once again she tells him a tale of one of her adventures in the TARDIS. Unfortunately in this case the framing story, in which Robert temporarily banishes her spirit before bringing it back in the hopes she can cure his dying daughter, is far more absorbing than the story Sara tells, in which she, the Doctor and Steven battle for survival on an alien asteroid with a group of trapped miners. However, to compensate for a slight feeling of padding at some points the audio is once again soaked in an ethereal atmosphere, helped along by the intriguingly uneasy, equivocal relationship Robert has with Sara and another wonderful performance from Marsh. 8/10
Glory Days Nick Wallace
Starring: Lisa Bowerman, Thomas Grant, Miles Richardson, Louise Faulkner, Harry Myers
Directed By: John Ainsworth
Running Time: 61:09
Released: June 2009
After Season Nine's standalone adventures we're thrown right back into the thick of things with this opener to the tenth, with Benny teaming up with semi-regulars Bev and Adrian to rob one of the most secure banks in the universe. The twist? The bank belongs to Brax and is run by an army of his clones. Cue plenty of Mission: Impossible hijinks as Benny scampers up and down ventilation ducts trying to disarm alarm systems while pursued by mechanical guards as Bev and Adrian distract the Brax-like guards. As a story in its own right it's okay, but the most intriguing thing about Wallace's audio is that it is blatantly laying the groundwork for an upcoming reunion between Benny and Brax, a reunion which, if the determination all three characters show at the end of this story is anything to go, will have plenty of fireworks. For full review click here. 7/10.
Echoes of Insanity by D Lynn Smith
Starring: John Karlen (Willie Loomis), Lara Parker (Angelique)
Directed By: Darren Gross
Running Time: 75:46
Released: July 2009
Willie Loomis awakes in a hospital bed, with no memory as to how he got there. His doctor tells him he was shot after trying to kill Maggie Evans in Collinwood but he grows concerned when she seems to be trying to implant ideas into his head, and begins to suspect there is more going on than meets the eye. Then in his dreams an angel appears to him and helps him remember his past, first in his earlier days as a sailor travelling the world pulling scams in every port, and then the more recent events leading up to his shooting. But as he begins to recall what happened, he comes to realise that both the doctor and his angel are following their own agenda, trying to manipulate them into helping them control his erstwhile master, the true perpetrator of all that is evil that happens in Collinwood. A man he knows as Barnabas Collins...
This is my first exposure to the world of Dark Shadows, BF's audio range based on the ghostly US soap of the late '60s. As such I came to it knowing nothing about either the characters or the events to which they were referring, and as a result the story was regretfully largely meaningless to me. Filling in the back story of Loomis, it relies almost completely on the listener's knowledge of both his character and the others involved in the tale, with multiple references to what sound to be terribly involved and melodramatic storylines that, bar the ghostly trappings, remind me of my Neighbours-watching days. My interest therefore strayed from time to time, although Willie's progression from a naive Artful Dodger type who wouldn't hurt a fly at the beginning to his determination at the end to look out for himself "whether it involves killing someone or not" is not without interest and well played by Karlen. Overall, though, this felt like the middle chapter of a story which I knew nothing about and therefore don't feel able to judge its success or otherwise to any great degree. The one thing I will say is that, despite the various bells and trappings of a ghost story it wasn't particularly creepy. One for fans only, methinks. 6/10
The Deer Hunters by Jonathan Clements
Starring: Sam Troughton
Directed By: John Ainsworth
Running Time: 62:38
Released: July 2009
Tired of the never-ending stream of bad news coming from Sherwood, Prince John is thrilled to learn of the sighting of a ultra-rare white deer in the forest and decides to try and use it to kill two birds with one stag, so to speak. Hoping to present its fur in the form of a coat to the Lady Isabella, he lets it be known that any man who kills the stag will be granted a pardon for whatever misdemeanours he has hanging over his head, hoping that the decree will also give him some positive press for a change. Robin, on hearing this, immediately determines to throw a spanner in the works, and devises a cunning plan: while he and Much, who first spotted the deer, go in search of the elusive animal the rest of his gang will mount a diversion for the would-be deer hunters, a diversion involving Alan, Little John and a disguise which sounds awfully like a precursor to a pantomime horse...
Clements's amusing story is as much Maid Marian as the more recent series, coming complete with a fuming Prince, a daft scheme and much slapstick with Alan and Little John's disguise. Rattling along at a decent pace, there are some decent gags thrown in along the way, albeit ones more liable to appeal to the older listener, including riffs on iconic lines in Jaws and The Sound of Music (bet you can't work out which one.) The story does rather trail off at the end, however, without much of a punchline, and Robin's final suggestion that his chosen course of action will continue to frustrate the Prince for a long time to come would have more validity if we hadn't heard in the previous scene that it effectively wouldn't as John takes the exact opposite course of action. Nevertheless, this is a fun tale well told, helped along by Troughton's enthusiastic reading - inevitably he lends Much the most character but also does a pretty good version of Jonas Armstrong's Robin - with only his take on Kate's bizarre yokel accent not quite living up to the billing the narrative gives it. As ever he is ably supported by Richard Fox and Lauren Yason's fine sound design which, complete with babbling brooks, schwing-ing arrows and rustling foliage help to bring Sherwood alive. The release includes a four or five minute interview with Troughton by Ainsworth in which the actor talks about the help and hindrances that come with being part of a well-known acting family. 7/10.
The Siege by Simon Guerrier
Starring: Richard Armitage
Directed By: Mark Wright
Running Time: 70:11
Released: July 2009
Investigating reports of a group of German mercenaries roaming the countryside, Robin and Guy find the tables turned when the gang spot them and take unkindly to being spied on, forcing the pair to take refuge in an abandoned castle overnight. Unfortunately when they wake up the next morning, somewhat the worse for wear after spending the previous evening sampling the castle's wine collection, they discover that their pursuers have not, as thought, abandoned the search but are instead camped right outside the main entrance, demanding their surrender. Hopelessly outnumbered, can the two of them alone find a way to repel the attack or has their luck finally run out?
Guerrier's story makes for a suitably exciting climax to this season of audio books. He draws the uneasy relationship between Robin and Guy well, especially in the scene in which they get roaringly drunk, and ensures that, despite the long running time, there are no slack periods in his tale. With flaming arrows, trebuchets, battering rams and a surprise appearance late in the day he upholds the traditions of the genre, albeit without finding any new twist or spin on the subject, along the way injecting a good sense of humour to ensure that the tone is kept firmly light-hearted throughout. Armitage makes for a professional, easy-to-listen-to narrator, although he doesn't have nearly the spark in his voice that Troughton does meaning that he never quite manages to build up the excitement in the same way a more vigorous reader might have done; a minor quibble, however, for what makes for an enjoyable end to this series. The CD also comes with a brief interview with Armitage in which he talks about doing his own stunts and the location shoot at Budapest. 7/10
Pathogen by Sharon Gosling
Starring: Teryl Rothery (Dr Janet Fraiser), Christopher Judge (Teal'c)
Directed By: Sharon Gosling
Running Time: 52:13
Released: July 2009
BF's Stargate range alternates between SG-1 and Atlantis during its run, and this month it's another adventure for Jack and his team in a story set just after the episode Fragile Balance in Season Seven. The spotlight falls once again on SGC's Chief Medical Officer Fraiser, who starts the story coming round in an underground cave system, with no memory as to how she got there and only a rapidly deteriorating Teal'c for company. Gradually with his help she begins to remember the circumstances leading up to their current predicament. Exploring a complex of ruins, the SG-1 team had accidentally activated a booby trap, left by the Goa'uld to ward off any grave robbers, which infected the group with an anthrax-like disease. Gating over to them, Fraiser had been trying to produce an antidote when the cave-in hit them, both destroying much of her equipment and separating her from the rest of the team. As she struggles to find an antidote, the seriousness of their situation begins to dawn on her: the pathogen works in an accelerated manner, the contagion spreading in their bodies far more quickly than anthrax would, and it's possible that even if a rescue party has been despatched to find them, Fraiser won't be able to keep herself and the others alive long enough for them to be found...
Very much a showcase for Rothery, Judge hardly features in this two-hander at all, limited to reporting that he's feeling sicker and anxiety over the doctor's own state of health. The actress does a good job, bringing across the battle Fraiser is fighting to contain her rising panic as their situation worsens as well as her concerns for Cassie, her adopted daughter back on Earth for whom she is recording the story we are listening to in case she doesn't survive. However, Gosling's story is rather slight, a typical disease-of-the-week show not helped along by any particular spark in the dialogue between Fraiser and Teal'c. Together with the fact that, of course, we know that all will be well, this is a likeable but tension-free audio which is ultimately unremarkable. 5/10
Also released last month, but unavailable for review, was the fourth release in BF's new Highlander series, Kurgan Rising. As ever, all the above can be purchased on either CD or direct download from Big Finish's website. Thanks to them for their help with this review.