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Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release Phantasmagoria.

Starring
Peter Davison as The Doctor and Mark Strickson as Turlough

Also featuring

David Ryall, Julia Dalkin, Steven Wickham
Jez Fielder, Nicholas Briggs, Jonathan Rigby
with David Walliams and Mark Gatiss

Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

Well, here we are with the second audio adventure in the Big Finish Doctor Who range, and it is a much more traditional affair compared to the blow-out three Doctors crossover that was The Sirens of Time. So, is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Read on further to find out.

 

“Use your brain, Turlough.”

Episode 1: The Fifth Doctor and Tulough find themselves in early 17th century London, in the home of one Doctor Samuel Holywell. Elsewhere, men of good standing continue to mysteriously vanish without trace. Is notorious Highwayman Major Billy Lovemore somehow involved? And just what is the game that the enigmatic Sir Nikolas Valentine is playing at his regular table in the Diabola Club?

Peter Davison returns as The Doctor, and thankfully, he seems to have found his old self, or rather, his old Doctor, a little more successfully this time out. To be perfectly blunt, I find that he often still comes across as a little low key for the lead in an audio production, but arguably that is more down to the personality of his version of The Doctor than any deficiency or laziness on Davison’s part, and really, he is just being true to that aspect of the character in his performance here. As such, it seems almost too nitpicky a point to raise any kind of serious complaint over. So consider this more an observation than a complaint then.

Joining him this time around is Mark Strickson as the pessimistic interplanetary ginger, Vislor Turlough. It’s an interesting choice for Davison’s first audio companion, but it works well enough, and the story gives him a reasonable amount to do, which for once doesn’t include being trapped or tied up some place out of the way of the main plot. In what seems to be a trend, Strickson’s attempts to recapture his Turlough character for audio do seem a bit wobbly in places. However, while this is certainly noticeable, it honestly doesn’t detract too much, and he’s still decent enough overall. I must say that I would have liked him to be a bit more prickly and acerbic in general though. After all, Turlough was often the most fun when he was being a bit of a dick, and he doesn’t seem anywhere near as reluctant to get involved here as he often tended to be in the classic series.

The rest of the cast round out this audio in admirable style, with a few performances being of particular note. Mark Gatiss is very good indeed in his role of Jasper Jeake, and adds a real spark into the audio whenever his character is on the scene. On the other end of the scale, David Ryall gives a rather schizophrenic performance as Sir Nikolas Valentine, at one moment suitably creepy to really great effect, the next completely over the top, complete with evil bwa-ha-ha‘s. You can practically hear him twirling his moustache in some of the latter scenes. It’s never awful, but it is unbalanced, and not in a particularly good way, which is a bit of a shame really. Dialled back in a notch in the offending scenes and it would have been a far more effective performance overall. David Walliams’ Quincy Flowers is also something to behold. A character that sounds a bit too Little Britain, so much so that at any point I expected the character to proudly proclaim “But I’m a lady!“, however in context of both the character and setting, it works just fine.

Getting into the story proper, this first episode is all about setting the scene, and putting the main players in place, as can be expected. And it manages to do so quite well, all things considered. The production in general also seems a lot more confident and self assured this time out, with a lot less problems in so far as inconsistent tone and performances of wildly varying standards. Plus, with this story returning us to the more traditional original series format, we get our first proper cliff-hanger. What? I like cliff-hangers.

Or do I?

 

“The air was full of phantoms.”

Episode 2: After the events of the previous night, Turlough has become separated from The Doctor. Finding himself in the company of Jasper Jeake and Quincy Flowers, he finds that they, too, are looking for answers.

Yes. I do.

Anyhow, during the second episode the story starts to pick up and generally get more interesting. Turlough being off on his own actually works pretty well, though it is a bit telling that The Doctor doesn’t seem in all that much of a rush to find him again. Mind you, this is the Doctor that left one of his companions behind to crash into a planet for arguing with him, buggered off leaving yet another on an interplanetary plague ship, and sent a third one running away with severe emotional trauma, so perhaps Turlough should consider himself lucky, all things considered.

Speaking of young master Turlough, when listening to his compatriots, Jasper and Quincy, I couldn’t help but be reminded a little of Jago and Litefoot from the Tom Baker classic, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. They just have that same kind of rapport and casual likeability to their banter and personalities. And that is no bad thing at all. Take a bow, Mr Gatiss and Mr Walliams.

And now, a warning. Be very wary of space emos. For they seem to have no point, other than to resentfully dole out exposition that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, and do so in as uninvolved and dull a manner as possible. Seriously, I now have conclusive proof that space emos = bad. Always. You have been warned. That is all.

Thankfully they don’t show up all that much, either here or in the rest of the story to come. But then, you wouldn’t really expect them to, would you? It’d be far too much effort. I mean Hell, they make Marvin the Paranoid Android seem positively enthusiastic by comparison. So we’re probably (the opposite of) lucky that they turned up the couple of times that they did. Unsurprisingly, they also seem to be alarmingly crap at their jobs, so much so that I strongly suspect they only have one ‘client’ and are in fact deliberately dragging the whole thing out as much as possible, just because they have nothing better to do. Oh how I wish they had something better to do.

 

“The voices of the dead.”

Episode 3: While searching for clues in regard to the whereabouts of a missing friend, Turlough is reunited with The Doctor, who is busily conducting his own investigation into these so-called ‘vanishments’.

As we power through the third episode we discover why Sir Nikolas Valentine will never be on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens (this week’s special feature: Walls of Meat. A how-to guide on making sure it’s pink in the middle.), and The Doctor finds Turlough, to much rejoicing. Or hardy any, really. But then, it is Turlough.

Things are finally starting to come together rather nicely, despite David Ryall going so far over the top in one scene that he may no longer even possess a bottom. The evil bwa-ha-ha‘s flow thick and freely, oh yes indeed they do. It’s all a bit much, really, but it’s still no Ruthley from The Sirens of Time, so one has to be thankful for small mercies. Things get back on track soon enough, and toward the end we get a rather nice confrontation scene between The Doctor and Valentine. Which is rather nice. And confrontational.

And no, I didn’t see that twist coming.

 

“Slaughterer of the unworthy.”

Episode 4: As the full horror behind the disappearances is unveiled, the Doctor discovers that not everybody is who they appear to be.

So, does it all come together in the end, then? Well, yes it does, and rather entertainingly so, to boot.

Putting Davison’s Doctor into a historical like this is just one of those things that always seemed to work, back in the day, and it proved a smart choice for his first solo Doctor outing in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. Mark Gatiss has delivered a pretty good romp here, which, in retrospect, also seems to share a few general similarities with what would later be his Doctor Who TV writing debut, The Unquiet Dead.

There are patchy moments, and a bit of padding, as can be expected I suppose, plus the perpetually bored sounding observers really are rather naff, but there’s also some nice lines, some fun characters, at least one genuine surprise, a rather nicely realised soundscape, a quality score, and a great sense of atmosphere. I mean, what more can you ask for? Well, less space emo’s I guess, but you can’t have everything.

I have to say that despite a few minor nitpicks, overall I found Phantasmagoria to be really a rather fun outing for the Fifth Doctor. More consistent than The Sirens of Time, and just an enjoyably old school type romp, one that I could easily buy into as being a proper part of Peter Davison’s run of Doctor Who stories. And surely that, in itself, is recommendation enough.

 

Next up: Colin Baker returns in Whispers of Terror

He Who Blogs is a freelance writer and full-time pop culture tragic, with what he declares as being a completely healthy obsession in regards to all things Doctor Who. His shelves happen to disagree.

He is currently hiding in a basement somewhere in Tasmania, a place that he swears actually does exist, despite the distinct lack of rotating two dimensional carnivores.

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Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Sirens of Time

Starring
Peter Davison as The Fifth Doctor with Colin Baker as The Sixth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy as The Seventh Doctor

Also featuring

Anthony Keech, Nicholas Briggs, Andrew Fettes, Michael Wade
Colin McIntyre, John Wadmore, Maggie Stables, Nicholas Pegg
with Mark Gatiss and Sarah Mowat

Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

Well, here we go. My first journey into Big Finish land. The first of a great many, if all goes according to plan, as I sequentially battle my way through the mass of the main Big Finish Doctor Who audio range over this 50th Anniversary year. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Of course, as everyone knows, in life things rarely go to plan. And my own life is certainly no exception. So, if it turned out that I hated this first audio release then this could be a very short blog series indeed. Luckily, that didn’t quite happen. Read on further to discover what did.

First thing’s first: As much as is practical, I intend to give my thoughts on the audio adventures in as spoiler free a manner as is possible, that way any twists and turns these stories may take can hopefully still be enjoyed in full, without me having given the game away. Just enough to hopefully put my mad ramblings into some kind of context, but without damaging the listening experience should you ever wish to listen for yourself, and have so far yet to do so.

So if you were hoping for a detailed, point-by-point breakdown of every adventure I’m afraid that you won’t get that here. To that end, I am happy to drop a suitable recommendation or two upon request, however.

What you will get is my random and scatter-shot thoughts about all that I have just listened to, and my personal and honest opinion on it’s worth, or lack thereof. So with that out of the way, let’s get into the first episode of The Sirens of Time…

 

“Appearances can be deceptive.”

Episode 1: The Seventh Doctor finds himself stranded on a mysterious world, in the company of an equally mysterious and stranded young woman named Elenya. Meanwhile the only apparent occupants of the planet, an elderly and infirm man, and his decidedly unpleasant nursemaid, both have secrets of their own.

Well, to be perfectly honest, this wasn’t quite the start I had hoped for. Though to be fair, neither was it the train-wreck that I had feared it could end up being. Instead it fell somewhere uncomfortably in between, listenable, but hardly assured. Demonstrating the potential of the audio range, without actually living up to it.

Everybody seems to be putting in an effort here, but few seem to have yet found their feet, nor manage to put their finger quite on the pulse of what works and what doesn’t in this particular medium. And as nice as it is to have Sylvester McCoy back playing The Doctor again, his performance here seems a bit off, almost as if he is doing an impression of his Doctor, rather than actually playing The Doctor. This is especially noticeable when he doesn’t have anyone else to bounce off of, such as when left to his own devices during the beginning of the episode.

That said, he also happens to be lumbered with some rather heavy-handed expository and descriptive dialogue that he has been left on his own to spout and make work, which is never the easiest of tasks, so I tend to want to cut him a bit of slack on that account. After all, let us not forget that at the time of recording it had been quite a while since he last played The Doctor, so a slight adjustment period is only to be expected as he, and other returning cast members, transition back into these roles.

It also doesn’t exactly help matters that the rest of the guest cast are little more than serviceable here, with two key exceptions. Sarah Mowat is actually very good as The Doctor’s new acquaintance, while Maggie Stables is nothing short of cringeworthy as the crone-like Ruthley. In the case of the latter, it’s a completely over-the-top pantomime performance of what is, frankly, a rather terribly written and utterly clichéd character to begin with, and it does this opening episode no favours whatsoever. The others all do what they can with what they have, and the core story itself is fine, albeit rather simple in both nature and execution. However, the characterisations and dialogue are rather patchy, to put it kindly, and the attempts at humour here almost always fall completely flat.

On the upside, the soundscape and music are well done, and do help greatly in bringing a genuine classic era Doctor Who feel to the whole proceedings. And it really isn’t that bad, it just isn’t that good, either. It does, however, show some potential, and happily, things only get better from here.

 

“Doctor? That’s a profession, not a name.”

Episode 2: The Fifth Doctor is trapped aboard a hostile German U-Boat during the early days of World War One. His only ally, a young woman named Helen.

Which brings us to the second episode, which while hardly the most exciting piece of audio in the world, was to me a significant improvement over episode one, and managed to hold my attention easily throughout.

Peter Davison sounds a bit flat here, to be perfectly honest, but again, I’m willing to let that go as part of the expected teething pains of returning to a role after being away from it for so long. And once again I found Sarah Mowat to be a standout.

The rest of the cast fulfil their roles solidly enough, including Mark Gatiss as the pragmatic Das Boot-like U-Boat Captain, Schwieger, and the script feels generally tighter this time around, if a little perfunctory in spots. It seems that ze U-Boat crew have all been outfitted with ze standard stereotypical German accents, but surprisingly it never particularly detracts or starts to grate. In fact, everything all comes together and works rather well.

Even the fact that the cliff-hanger from last episode isn’t actually followed up on in any way, and won’t be until episode four rolls around, isn’t a problem. This is actually a significant change to the traditional cliff-hanger format for classic era Doctor Who, but for this story, it’s also a necessary one, and it works, for me at least, without any real issue or complaint.

That is not meaning to damn it with faint praise, either. I genuinely enjoyed this episode, and especially the scene where The Doctor allows an ally to basically be his weapon, which always tends to ring truer than the character himself might like to admit. Particularly this incarnation of the character.

Oh, and the Time Lords of Gallifrey are still utter bastards, which is nice.

 

“It’s just that I have the strangest feeling that we’ve met before.”

Episode 3: The Sixth Doctor is violently ejected from the TARDIS after colliding with some form of temporal anomaly. Waking up aboard the starliner Edifice, he soon encounters an oddly familiar looking young waitress who says her name is Ellie.

We now interrupt this review for a brief confession. I am a huge Colin Baker fan. In fact, to me, he is the most under-rated and under-appreciated of all the official Doctors. That doesn’t mean he is my favourite, but it does mean that I am genuinely a big fan, and that I honestly believe that he got a bit of raw deal, not only back in the day, but also from parts of fandom, and the general public, ever since. In fact, one of the two biggest reasons why I wanted to get into the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range to begin with is in the hopes of hearing Colin Baker finally getting his due.

With that out of the way, I think I am about to get my wish. Colin Baker is great here, right from the off. It’s almost as if he never left the role. And unburdened by some of the sillier aspects of his TV stories (Carrot juice!) he really has a chance to shine, and has grabbed onto it and run with the opportunity full force. Listening to the Sixth Doctor, you get the feeling that Colin Baker has been waiting for this day for a long time, and now that it has arrived, he is damn sure not going to blow it. And he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. In fact he is easily the highlight of this release, while being more than ably assisted, once again, by a certain Sarah Mowat.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I like this episode, story wise, better than the Davison chapter, but it is at least on a par, and Colin Baker’s performance elevates it further still. A fun, fast-paced romp this one, that finally starts to bite into the over-arching mystery of the whole story, as a lead in to the final chapter.

 

“Beware the Sirens of Time.”

Episode 4: The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors all find themselves together on a Gallifrey that has been laid siege. The Panopticon lay in ruins, but does the answer as to why lie with Knight Commander Lyena, and the mysterious Knights of Venyshaa?

I have just realised that one thing I have failed to mention, or give proper credit for up to this point, is the characterisations of the three incarnations of The Doctor. They all feel pretty much spot on, and regardless of what other issues one may have with the script along the way, that is one area that Briggs and company have managed to get absolutely right, much to their credit. Despite any little variances in performance that may be here, these aren’t merely ‘The Doctors in name only‘, they feel like the real deal, the characters that we know and love from the classic series, transported into all new (audio based) adventures. And for whatever teething problems this first release may have, that is something that all concerned should be very proud of. Not to mention being something that this listener is eminently grateful for.

And so here we are, the final episode, where the machinations are all laid bare, and the three Doctors deliver what fans were most eagerly awaiting, as they finally get the chance to unite, and play off one another, all while doing their best to save the universe. And good fun it is, too. Colin Baker once again shines, while Sylvester McCoy enjoyably bounces off of his fellow Doctors, particularly Baker, being much more lively than he was in his initial chapter. Even Peter Davison seems to have woken up. A bit. And yes, Sarah Mowat is quite good again, also. But you probably could have guessed that by this point.

Sure, there is a little bit of padding here in this final episode, and while the Three Doctors-esque ‘contact’ scene was a nice throwback, I’m not sure we, as listeners, needed quite the lengthy recap that followed, but these are small niggles is what is ultimately a fun romp, and one that also manages to draw all three disparate episodes together surprisingly well. In fact it almost makes that first episode seem a bit better in retrospect. Almost.

While The Sirens of Time is unlikely to ever be thought of by me as an all time Who audio great, at the end of the day where it has succeeded is in showing a glimpse into the sheer potential of the Big Finish Doctor Who range as a legitimate and worthwhile continuation of the original series. A task that, going in, I honestly wasn’t sure it would be able to achieve, despite many a fan claim to the contrary. But achieve it, it has, and I give writer/director Nicholas Briggs full credit for managing to do so, despite a few bumps along the way.

So while this story may not be a classic, make no mistake, it very much feels like a refugee from classic series Doctor Who, both for better and for worse. Just minus the visual component. And much like classic Who, it is sometimes rough around the edges, it sometimes has a grasp that seems beyond it’s actual reach, and you are likely to encounter the odd dodgy performance or naff effect. But even through all of that, it’s overall charm, creativity, and enthusiasm still manages to envelop you and pull you along, or at least it did me. It was an extremely rocky start, admittedly, but after that first episode it soon started to find it’s footing, and then got progressively better as it went along.

And while I’ll never know what listening to this release, with the prospect of more to follow, must have felt like for Who starved fans during the so-called wilderness years of Doctor Who, I can say that I now very much look forward to continuing my Doctor Who audio journey, with the hope of even better things to come.

 

Next up: Peter Davison returns in Phantasmagoria 

Cover art for the BBC Doctor Who DVD release Timelash.

Yes, I own this on DVD. Yes, I have watched it more than once. Yes, I actually admit to liking it. And yes, I am now going to stand before you all and shamelessly defend it…

 

What can I say? I like it. Yep, I like Timelash.

I get why a lot of folks don’t like this story, or find it mediocre. I don’t quite get the rampant level of bile that it so often gets showered with however, nor it always being placed so high on fans “worst ever” lists. For example, in the 2009 Doctor Who Monthly fan poll of all episodes made up until that point, Timelash placed 199th out of 200, with only The Twin Dilemma being judged as worse. But hey, I guess that will just have to remain a mystery to me, fan who actually likes Timelash that I am.

Contrary to rumours that may suggest otherwise, I’m not blind. Or crazy. Well, I’m not blind. There is admittedly a lot here that you could take aim at, and so if you want nits to pick then you’ll admittedly have a few to choose from. But at the end of the day, for me, it all boils down to the very simple fact that I just find it all rather fun. I love Paul Darrow’s much maligned performance. Yes it’s hammy, but it’s delightfully hammy, not obtrusively so. And while his acting choices may seem bat-shit crazy, he fully commits to it, and for me it just works. Plus he’s wearing a cape. For no conceivable reason at all, and against all other perceivable fashion on the planet. But he doesn’t care, because fuck them all, he has a cape, and it is awesome. And it makes me smile.

I also think that while Nicola Bryant is woefully underused in this story, and just plain poorly treated even when she does have some screen time, Colin Baker is actually quite superb here, and I just really enjoy his blustering Doctor, who for my money was often far better than the scripts he was often lumbered with. And in this regard, Timelash is no different. Once again Colin Baker gives it his all. And while the script could be called, if you were in a particularly generous mood, ‘patchy’, when Baker is on screen he manages to make it work, or at least help make you not care too much about any of the rougher edges. Also, despite Timelash’s shoddy reputation, there’s actually some decent support here as well. Robert Ashby as The Borad was more than solid, as was the late, great Denis Carey as his human image, and Eric Deacon as Mycros. And again, though not a particularly popular opinion, I rather enjoyed David Chandler’s enthusiastic performance as ‘Herbert’ as well. The rest of the cast however range from merely serviceable, to, well, let’s face it, not even that, so probably best to just move swiftly along at this point.

Which brings us to the oft-ridiculed production design. But once again, I honestly don’t find it notably awful compared against where Doctor Who was at the time. Especially when you consider that these were the lowest budgeted episodes of an already ridiculously low budgeted show from an era where they had now endured years of ever slimming budgets versus ever increasing basic expenses. Yes, the Timelash chamber is very naff, and the use of tinsel never did anything any favours whenever it showed it’s shiny face in an episode of Doctor Who. And yes, while the cavern beastie isn’t very convincing at all, I’d argue that the head was actually decently sculpted at least, so if they had smoked up the caves a bit and lit darker it might have had a bit more impact…or not. But hey, at least it’s not The Myrka. And sure, I admit that the blue faced android rates quite high on the cheese factor as well. In fact it may well spend most of it’s off hours living on top of a cracker. But again, the actor in question was at least fully committed…or maybe he should have been. But regardless, for some crazy reason these things just don’t bother me all that much in Timelash for whatever reason. They’re all just part of the crazy. And I guess it rings true as my kind of crazy. Besides, I’d argue that the Borad make-up was actually quite good, by any classic Who standards. The snake-head ambassador puppets, yeah, okay, I’ll concede the point on that one, and once again just swiftly move along.

Let us face facts, the real problem here is the script. It’s unfocussed, very padded, and pretty flatly directed for the most part to boot. It also has more holes than a sieve with extra holes in it, if you’re mad enough to examine it too closely. But again, even knowing that, it doesn’t really bother me too much, outside of the under use and, frankly, plain poorly written treatment given to Nicola Bryant’s Peri, who as I already stated above definitely deserved better than she was granted here. That, more than anything, is my one major and lasting bugbear with this show. Most of the rest I can go with. And some of it, as I’ve explained, I can actually and truly do crazily enjoy, but the tied and screaming Peri factor is a legitimate and lasting complaint against the whole proceedings, and one deserving of no defence from me whatsoever.

As to the ending, which so many fans seem to hate, and even positively take offence at, I always found it kind of funny to be honest. To dismiss the importance of exactly what happened, by way of a throwaway joke line, well, that just always seemed like a very Sixth Doctor thing to say and do. And so for me, it works. Which is ultimately all that matters, really. And any behind-the-scenes machinations that led to such a, shall we say non-traditional, ending is, to me, largely irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.

Look, I’m not arguing that Timelash is some lost and abused classic here, but the worst of Classic era Who? No, I’m sorry, but that I simply can not let stand unchallenged. Even with it’s flaws, it’s not even close to being the nadir of the classic Who catalogue.

In fact, I quite like Timelash. And a lot of it just makes me smile.

And sometimes, that’s enough.

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