All posts by He Who Blogs

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Fires of Vulcan

Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor and Bonnie Langford as Mel

Also featuring

Andy Coleman, Nicky Goldie, Lisa Hollander, Steven Wickham
Robert Curbishly, Karen Henson, Anthony Keetch, Toby Longworth
and Gemma Bissix

Written by Steve Lyons
Directed by Gary Russell

My relationship with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range has thus far proven to be a decidedly rocky one. So will this latest outing fare any better? Particularly given that this time around he is joined by a certain Melanie Bush, of whom I hold a legitimate fear of being deafened by, should she revert to form and go all scream-happy during her first trip into audio. Please join me and my eardrums on what may prove to be their final journey.


“What’s so special about an English police telephone box?”

Episode 1: The year is 1980, and in the ruins of the doomed city of Pompeii an earthquake has uncovered a startling discovery buried within the volcanic ash. The TARDIS.

First impressions count. Unfortunately, things did not start well for me with this particular entry in Big Finish Doctor Who audio land. And it is for a reason that has been one of the banes of the audio series thus far, the dodgy accent. In this particular case, quite possibly the worst fake Italian accent I have ever heard. And it is so distractingly bad that it completely undermines what is, actually, a fantastic story hook, with the TARDIS being found encased in ruins that are almost two thousand years old, and UNIT arriving on the scene to cover up that discovery. That is a great place to start a story from, but doing so with an Italian that comes across as less genuine than a Hong Kong handbag is probably not doing it all the justice that it deserved.

But even worse than the poor accent is the fact that there was no need for the accent to even be there in the first place. It wasn’t necessary for the character, who could have been an archaeologist professor from anywhere studying the ruins. Or, he could have been Italian without having to resort to a-speaking like a second-a rate-a Mario. The latter becomes even more evident when the story goes back in times to Pompeii and no one is putting on broadly silly Italian accents, so why do it once at the start with this single character? Especially when you can’t do it well enough not to have it be so distracting. It makes no sense to me whatsoever, and it does the story being launched a disservice.

Putting that rant aside, the story really does have a great set up, and the first episode, on the whole, does quite well in putting all of the various pieces in place, while maintaining listener interest along the way. There’s another terrible piece of voice casting that I’ll go in to later, but apart from that this is an engaging, interesting first episode, that culminates in a really nice cliffhanger ending, to boot. And Mel isn’t even annoying. Honestly. My ears were surprised, too.


“Time can not abide a paradox.”

Episode 2: The Doctor and Mel are in Pompeii the day before the fated eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the TARDIS has been buried under a collapsed building during the most recent earthquake. So why isn’t The Doctor trying harder to find a way for them both to escape? 

After a great set up, the second episode is a bit of a mixed bag, really, being undermined by some weak performances, as well as some distinctly odd performance choices.

Perhaps the most notable of which is an exchange between Lisa Hollander’s Eumachia and Andy Coleman’s Celsinus, which has been done in some kind of faux-Roman dialogue style, much as you might see on HBO’s Rome series, or Starz’ Spartacus, only here it is incredibly stilted in both writing and performance, and even more perplexingly, it is the only scene in the entire story done in this hyper-exaggerated way. It feels like an experiment that didn’t work, but they kept it in anyway, and it grinds everything to a halt, and just confuses both the narrative and the audio soundscape by it’s very presence. It doesn’t do the two actors in question many favours either. Strange stuff. And poorly done strange stuff, at that. Both actors are actually fine for most of the rest of the story, particularly Coleman, but the scene in question was decidedly, and distractingly, cringeworthy.

The other notable performance issue in this story is the casting of Steven Wickham as the unfortunately named gladiator Murranus (no relation to Rick, who I’d also happily see covered in lava). I’ve said this before, and it may seem like a rather obvious point, but in audio, sound is everything. And that very much includes the voices attached to each character. We have to be convinced by, and invested in these characters by the strength and quality of their vocal performance alone. There’s no body language, no physicality whatsoever, it’s all aural. That’s why really bad accents bug me so much, because if the voice is all a character has to ground it and sell it to an audience with, if it fails on that count it brings down the level and believability of the whole performance, as well as undermining all those that surround it. And that point has rarely been so pointedly made than by Steven Wickham’s performance here.

Wickham gives us what must surely be the most effete gladiator of all time. He sounds more like a decadent Roman senator or wannabe Emperor, rather than a tough, battle-hardened gladiator of the arena. And as a result he doesn’t convince in this role for a single moment. And making it even worse, he is in this story a lot, in a sub-plot that frankly is little more than filler to begin with. And rather dull filler, at that. The thing is, it’s not even that the performance itself is completely awful, it is just that when taken in context with the character he is supposedly playing, it just utterly does not fit in any way whatsoever. It strikes as being so monumentally out of place that he should never have been cast in this role to begin with. Not with that voice anyway. It is just too much of an aural anachronism. And as a result it tends to derail the main story whenever his character shows up.

However, it’s not all bad news as far as the guest cast go. Gemma Bissix as slave girl Aglae is really quite good, and the rest of the cast acquits themselves well enough, with notably solid turns from Robert Curbishly and especially Nicky Goldie. And as far as the stars go, Sylvester McCoy gives an interesting, if rather downplayed performance this time out, while Bonnie Langford mostly manages to avoid the more grating aspects of her character’s TV appearances, and does a fine job in her Big Finish Doctor Who audio debut. Two episodes in and she still hasn’t deafened me by screaming, and still isn’t annoying. My ears can barely believe it.


“Time working against me…”

Episode 3: As Mel finds herself trapped in a Roman prison, The Doctor is being sought by an angry gladiator, seeking to restore his lost honour by any means necessary.

As we go into episode three, it all turns into a bit of a run-about, and clearly they seem to be treading lava a bit to string the whole thing out to the proper length. It’s still enjoyable enough, but it does serve to underline some of the main issues with Steve Lyons script. Now I actually think there is a lot that Lyons does right. He sets up some great ideas, performance niggles aside. There’s a decent cross-section of characters, and character types, from across the various classes within the doomed city. He gives Mel plenty to do, keeps McCoy’s Doctor interesting, albeit dragging out the maudlin attitude to ‘the inevitable’ perhaps a touch too long, and both of them feel completely believable and true to character. And the fall of Pompeii is a great Doctor Who historical setting, as proven again during recent years in the TV series when The Doctor and Donna Noble found themselves in a very similar story during the fourth season episode The Fires of Pompeii.

But what that TV version had, and this audio sadly doesn’t, is dramatic punch. Lyons’ actual surrounding story here in The Fires of Vulcan is actually in many ways smarter and more interesting in my opinion than the one at the centre of the TV episode The Fires of Pompeii. However where the audio falls down significantly is in terms of gravitas as to the event in question, and pathos, in regards to the fate of the city itself, and the characters met along the way. The TV series managed to do both of those things very well, giving a somewhat weak core story some proper dramatic punch, whereas the audio is far less successful on those grounds. And as such I couldn’t help but wish that this audio had a bit more dramatic power to it, given the scale and tragedy of the event at it’s core. Alas, that just wasn’t to be.

Heading into the final episode, and the odds now seem to be that Mel isn’t going to either annoy or deafen. My ears have become cautiously optimistic about the future. And I’ve just received a message from my cat that she’s left home in order to move in with the neighbour’s dog.


“The Gods cleanse our city with fire!”

Episode 4: As Vesuvius finally erupts and Pompeii is plunged into chaos, The Doctor is horrified to learn that Mel is still somewhere within the city, searching for the TARDIS.

So, how does it all end? A bit disappointingly, truth be told. The final episode is largely yet another run-about, albeit this time in the shadow of the actual eruption, and Pompeii’s imminent doom. The biggest issue with this is that much of the running about seems to be a bit random, and yet everyone who needs to find anyone else somehow luckily manages to do so, despite the entire city being in chaos, and dust and smoke limiting both mobility and vision. Meanwhile fate seems to specifically be targeting only the bad and the stupid people, which is quite nice of it. But Doctor Who often tends to take such liberties of convenience, so you can pretty much go along with all of that, even if it does tend to stretch incredulity a bit thin, and just generally lacks the emotional and dramatic punch that it should have had along the way.

What wasn’t quite so easy for me to go along with was the ending, which was a complete cop-out of the highest order. And while the explanation that we are given as far as how The Doctor, Mel and the TARDIS have escaped fate without breaking the bounds of paradox is tied up neatly enough, it feels like it has suddenly come out of nowhere in the way that it is presented. And worse still, it just isn’t in any way dramatically satisfying, either in execution or explanation, despite the best efforts of McCoy and Langford to try and ‘sell’ it. At the end of the day it just feels like a bit of a cheat, really.

This is still a solid Big Finish Doctor Who audio release, and there’s some great ideas here, it just doesn’t all quite work in the telling. As to my feelings about the Sylvester McCoy audio era in general, this one hasn’t made much of an impact on that, and I still find him to be easily my least preferred audio Doctor. McCoy’s performance in this one is fine, but overall he just doesn’t seem to have shown the same dramatic oompf that the other two audio Doctors, Colin Baker and Peter Davison, has thus far managed to reliably deliver. And I do believe him capable of it, because every so often you do get a moment where that potential shines through, but it just never seems to be sustained, and McCoy never seems to truly soar in his performance the way the other two, for me, often have. Hopefully, just like his TV adventures, he’s just a bit of a late bloomer. Time will tell, I suppose.

Oh, and before I go, here’s a handy survival tip that I picked up from The Fires of Vulcan: If you ever find yourself running from an erupting volcano, apparently all of the women that you know and find yourself with will only serve to slow the fleeing men-folk down. Every single one of them. So, if you’re male and you find yourself living in the shadow of a volcano, your best option may be to go gay. You know, just for safety. And if you’re female…I don’t know. Buy a horse?


Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in Shadow of the Scourge

Just a real quick update, just on the off chance that somebody out there noticed that there hasn’t been anything new posted to the site in the past week and a half, and cared enough to wonder why.

Short story even shorter, I’m trapped in the land offline due to local telephone lines being dug up, with no clear indication when service will be restored. And for reasons too boring to go into here, accessing the internet and updating the blog via other means has proven to be rather problematic and unreliable. For whom does the Cloister Bell toll? It tolls for thee, apparently.

Not exactly sure when I’ll be back online and at full working order, could even be another couple of weeks, though I’m hoping it won’t be quite that long. Which probably means it’ll be even longer. Either way, when I am back I should be able to fill in the gaps with at least two new Big Finish reviews, and a new editorial, this one on the immortal Patrick Troughton. So, that’s either something to look forward to, or yet another reason to hope I never get back online.

And to anyone out there who is actually interested enough to be reading this update, I sincerely thank you for your patronage. Feel free to leave a comment or drop an email sometime, companions on the journey are always welcome.


UPDATE – 31st of March, 2013 

Crisis over, finally. After far longer than expected and hoped for, and I get to escape the harsh reality of the real world and slither back online, bringing with me with two reviews and three features, that should all pop up on the site over the course of the next couple of weeks. If anyone is still out there and interested, I thank you for both your patience and your patronage.

Just in time for the return of new Doctor Who episodes on TV as well. Funny how things work out sometimes.


Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Apocalypse Element

Colin Baker as The Doctor with Maggie Stables as Evelyn
and Lalla Ward as Romana

Also featuring

Michael Wade, Nicholas Briggs, Alistair Lock, Karen Henson
Andrea Newland, Andrew Fettes, Toby Longworth
James Campbell, Neil Corry
and Anthony Keetch

Written by Stephen Cole
Directed by Nicholas Briggs


All things considered, I found the first outing for the Daleks in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range to be a rather lukewarm affair. However, joining them for their second appearance on audio we also have the Time Lords of Gallifrey, Evelyn Smythe, Colin Baker as The Doctor, and a certain Romanadvoratrelundar, played once again by Lalla Ward. With those ingredients, what could possibly go wrong?


“There’s something wrong here, I can feel it.”

Episode 1: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn arrive on the planet Archetryx, as it plays host to twenty of the most powerful races in the cosmos, all attending a conference designed to discuss imposing limitations to temporal manipulation in light of the still unexplained Etra Prime incident, where the entire planetoid, and all upon it, vanished without trace. The Doctor is shocked to discover that amongst the missing was the newly elected President of the Time Lords, and his former travelling companion, Romana.

Ever since Doctor Who returned to screens in 2005 there has been the shadow of the Last Great Time War hanging over The Doctor. An event so momentous that it altered the very fabric of The Doctor himself. And yet also an event that we, as an audience, would seemingly never be destined to witness for ourselves, instead only being allowed small glimpses into the periphery, and indications into what the fallout of this event caused to The Doctor, to the Time Lords, Gallifrey and the Daleks, and to the universe at large. This, of course, only helped to increase the mystique that surrounds the Time War, and made the audience even keener to experience the events that transpired for themselves in some form. Alas, to date, that has not come to pass. So instead all we can do is to take the fragments that we have been given, and imagine the rest.

But if you are anything like me, just visualising what such a Time War could be like is a bit of a daunting task. Until now. Because The Apocalypse Element paints a very clear picture of what such a conflict could be like, and could, if you chose to do so, even be seen as an opening salvo in what would ultimately become the Last Great Time War. It also happens to be the second lead in to the eventual Dalek Empire spinoff series, after the previous Sylvester McCoy era tale The Genocide Machine. And a marked improvement it is on that one, too.

And don’t let the chosen quote above mislead you either, there is in fact very little wrong here at all. Indeed, what writer Stephen Cole and director Nicholas Briggs have delivered this time out is a very strong contender for my favourite Big Finish Doctor Who audio release so far. Or, at the very least, a story that is on par with what was, prior to this, my clear favourite, The Marian Conspiracy. And just like that story, it all comes down to the quality and complexity of the script, and the ensemble of truly first rate performances. Both areas in which this particular adventure absolutely shines.

Speaking of complexity, the job Stephen Cole does in balancing so many disparate elements, while always maintaining forward momentum, and never losing focus on either plot or character, is a masterful one. That he manages to do so, while also re-introducing old characters in a compelling manner, telling an epic, fast moving tale with a large cast of characters, and setting up plot elements that will clearly be used again in the future, all the while being forever mindful of the medium he is working in, and how best to use it, well, it is simply a master-class on how to successfully script for audio. Truly impressive stuff, and one that future writers for Big Finish have hopefully taken note of.

And while I’m handing out plaudits, I also need to point out just how well the Daleks themselves have been used this time around. Unlike the rather perfunctory The Genocide Machine, here we have the Daleks at their evil best, with the true menace and threat they represent superbly and convincingly realised. They are the scourge of the universe, equal parts deadly fanatical threat, and twisted conniving strategist, and few Doctor Who stories, and even fewer Doctor Who writers, manage to fully sell all of that character and motivation which lies festering behind the robotic voices, and their penchant for catch-phrase induced slaughter. But Cole and company have absolutely nailed the Daleks here, and it makes a world of difference to the overall effectiveness of the story.

Another thing that helps truly sell the Daleks in this story is just how good the Dalek voices are. Once again I felt that the first Dalek outing, The Genocide Machine, had been just a tiny bit off in some regards, as far as the Dalek voice work went. But here Nicholas Briggs and Alistair Lock are absolutely spot on, and the degree to which this authenticity adds to the menace of the Daleks here is truly palpable.

So what we have, with this first episode, is an absolute cracker of an opening, equal parts mystery and plot development, that pays off exactly when it needs to, and in often surprising and imaginative ways as well. And it only gets better from here, folks.


“Welcome back, Romana.”

Episode 2: On Etra Prime, Romana is forced by the Daleks to work on the construction of a temporal centrifuge, a vital component in their upcoming plans. But could this also present an opportunity for escape after so many years imprisonment?

As we roll into the second episode, we are greeted with the return of Lalla Ward as either Romanadvoratrelundar, Romana, Romana II, The Mistress, or Unit One-One-Seven, depending on your personal point of view. And quite a return it is too. Not only is it a supremely bold move to take the character of Romana as we previously knew her, give her this tortured history, and set her up to go in a surprising new direction into the future, but it also serves to strengthen her, adding additional layers to a character that we previously knew, and giving her an actual purpose within the greater Doctor Who universe, beyond that of simple companion. In short, rather than the usual effort to recapture a companion exactly as they were when we knew them, here they have given us the return of a character who has changed in the years since we, and the Doctor, last saw them. And it works remarkably well. It also affords Lalla Ward some legitimate performance opportunities. One of the best, and most effective, being that of her introductory monologue, where she details her current state of mind and body, after having been so long imprisoned by the Daleks. It is genuinely captivating work, perfectly delivered by Lalla Ward, and gives Romana one Hell of an entrance into the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. And, better yet, it is a performance quality that she maintains for the entirety of this story, approaching each opportunity with equal gusto. There’s no first audio anxieties on display here whatsoever.

This adventure also marks the return of Michael Wade’s Lord President and Anthony Keetch’s Celestial Intervention Agency Coordinator Vansell, whose last appearance, in debut Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure The Sirens of Time, had them allowing Gallifrey to be invaded by the Knights of Velyshaa. Here they allow the Daleks to invade Gallifrey, so at least they are setting their invasion standards a little higher this time around. Still, with that kind of managerial track record is it any wonder that everybody on Gallifrey was apparently perfectly willing to wait twenty years for Romana to return and reclaim the top job? Besides which, it’s not like they are anywhere near the worst that Gallifreyan politics has had to offer over the years, so the locals probably thank Rassilon for small mercies, I suppose. Either way, both performers do their jobs here admirably.

Speaking of performances, this is another triumph for Colin Baker, who is once again absolutely superb as The Doctor. He also gets some great lines along the way, both dramatic and pithy. The Mexican Standoff bit, which I won’t spoil here, actually made me laugh out loud. A perfect example of a performance elevating what was a good line, and turning it into something great. A talent for which Colin Baker seems to posses in abundance, based on his work for Big Finish thus far. His Doctor here also fully possesses that fiery quality that I always so enjoy, even if some of the rougher edges are, again, smoothed down just a little too much for my taste. Also notable of mention is just how well the chemistry between Colin Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana works here, and you truly do believe instantly in the shared history that exists between these two characters.

The main guest cast is strong right across the board this time out as well, with Anthony Keetch’s afore mentioned Vansell in particular making a great foil for The Doctor, while Andrea Newland and Andrew Fettes (as Raldeth, also previously featured in The Sires on Time) were both, for me, standouts amongst a very fine supporting cast. And then we come to one Evelyn Smythe…

Now I have actually quite enjoyed Maggie Stable’s Evelyn in the two previous outings that she shared with Colin Baker’s Doctor, but here I felt that the character just made for a bit of an ill fit with the story being told. Given the stakes involved and the way that the drama unfolds, she is entirely too flippant for the entirety of the story. Nothing seems to faze her, worry her, or frighten her, in fact she shows basically zero emotion whatsoever, nor any empathy to the gravity of the events unfolding around her, instead she just basically walks about like a bemused tourist, replete with a string of pithy one liners, which soon becomes rather tiresome. It just serves to make the character seem entirely detached from all that is going on around her, and as a result, the story itself, and one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have actually been better without her in it, and with someone a little more emotional in her place. Maggie Stables performance is fine for what it is, but, for me, it just doesn’t fit very well into the overall tone of the tale being told, and as such is one of the very few weaknesses in what is otherwise a pretty flawless audio adventure. That said, it does allow The Doctor a great dramatic outburst near the end of the story, when even he seems to have had enough of her apparent apathy towards the unfolding of events. Honestly, I couldn’t help but sympathise.

That lone, and relatively minor, complaint aside, this episode takes the story from mystery to outright thriller, and the pacing barely lets up for a moment, despite somehow still allowing the story and characters time enough to breathe, and the story to twist and turn in admirable fashion. And things aren’t slowing down any as we storm into episode three.


“Gallifrey must fall to the Daleks!”

Episode 3: After the disaster on Archetryx, The Doctor and his companions retreat to Gallifrey, home of the Time Lords. However, they may already be too late, as the Dalek invasion has begun…

The third episode shows us that this story is very much one of two halves, however luckily for us both are equally enjoyable and interesting. There is fan service aplenty here, particularly now that we are on Gallifrey, however it all fits neatly within the bounds of the story being told, and thankfully never feels like it is only present as a form of writer posturing, as can so often be the case when the continuity well is delved into. As a result, such instances actually tend to add to the story, rather than work against it, and manage to confidently avoid the risk of alienating the listener under a sea of continuity minutiae.

If I had any nitpicks at this point, it would be that very occasionally the sound mix is a little too cacophonous during the requisite battle scenes, and when that happens the lack of aural focus can detract from the overall effectiveness of the scene in question to a small degree, as it all tends to become a clash of noise. But this only happens a couple of times along the way, and never for very long, so it really is being tremendously nitpicky of me to even mention. And while on the subject, I must also take the opportunity to say that the soundscape itself is actually incredibly impressive and immersive here, and is itself worthy of the highest of commendations. You really can’t undersell the value and importance of achieving a sense of atmosphere for audio, and here they have managed to do exactly that, and then some.

I do, however, have one other audio complaint, and that is in the wisdom of using a high pitched tone as a mind-control plot device early on in the story, as it is just such an unpleasant sound to hear, particularly through earphones. Thankfully it’s usage is limited to only a couple of brief instances in the first episode, but even so, perhaps it was not the wisest of choices purely from a listener comfort point of view.

As we power towards the final episode now, I should also say that this is one of those rare stories where each episode grips so hard that it left me genuinely thirsty to jump right in to the next episode as soon as possible. And for an episodic story format, there are few compliments as great as that. It has also managed to provide some ripping good cliff-hangers along the way, as well. And as I have said before, I do love me a good cliff-hanger.


“The sacred heart of the Time Lords.”

Episode 4: As the true scale of the Dalek plan becomes horrifically clear, The Doctor and his companions are faced with an impossible choice. Surrender Gallifrey to the Daleks, or watch the entire universe burn. Could this finally be victory for the Daleks?

Often I find that the final episode is so focussed on trying to wrap everything up neatly that it forgets that it still has to be entertaining along the way. However, we have no such worries here, as they manage to not just stick the landing, and in highly entertaining and satisfying fashion, but also deliver a neat little twist in the tail to boot. Once again, a glowing example of how it should be done.

So, it seems that with The Apocalypse Element we have yet another high water mark for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. A multi-layered, tremendously engaging, and perfectly paced story that more than lives up to any raised expectations formed by the return of Romana, the Time Lords of Gallifrey, and the Daleks. Every element of this audio release comes together to help deliver what is, for me, undoubtedly one of my absolute favourite releases from this first timer’s journey through Big Finish thus far, and it is this degree of quality Doctor Who audio story that drives me to keep coming back for more, searching for the next Big Finish Doctor Who audio release of similar excellence.

There are a couple of small issues I had along the way, but by any measure, this is classic Doctor Who, and yet another feather in the cap of Colin Baker’s Doctor, who truly has proven now beyond a shadow of a doubt that despite the ups and downs of his television tenure, his Doctor was never the problem. Something that, hopefully, conventional fan wisdom will one day see fit to finally acknowledge.

Now, if only I could finally get an audio adventure somewhere near this good for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. A task which has thus far proven itself to be surprisingly elusive, despite best efforts to the contrary. Will his next outing finally break the drought?


Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Fires of Vulcan

Cover art for the BBC Doctor Who DVD release The Reign of Terror.

Many years since the animation enhanced DVD release of the Patrick Troughton adventure, The Invasion, the recent release of The Reign of Terror again seeks to bring more Doctor Who lost episodes back from the brink, enabling another once incomplete story to be watched again fully on DVD in a readily accessible visual format. But, perhaps predictably, fandom appears decidedly split on the results, with some fans becoming very vocal in their derision indeed…


A few days ago I had the very rare pleasure of watching a classic Doctor Who story that I had never seen before, namely the William Hartnell adventure The Reign of Terror. Sadly, this is one of the many incomplete stories from Doctor Who’s early years, owing the the BBC’s tape wiping policy of the 1970’s. Happily, it has now had it’s two missing episodes reconstructed via animation, only the second story to have been granted such treatment, the previous one being the 1968 Patrick Troughton story The Invasion, which also had its two missing episodes animated way back in 2006. Better still, this week it was also officially announced that William Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet, will also have it’s lone missing episode animated for release later in the year. And there are rumblings that select other titles may follow. Something that I, and many other fans, hope against hope turns out to be true.

“I don’t like your tone!”

So, if that is the case, what am I here to defend? Surely this is a good thing, right? You would think so, but it appears that fandom, being the temperamental beast that it so often is, isn’t quite so easily pleased. In fact, if you were to listen to certain elements within fandom, somehow this latest effort to animate missing episodes is “an insult to fans everywhere”, a “blatant rip off”, and that old fan-rant standby, the “worst animation ever”, or, to perhaps be more accurate, all-too-often written as “the worse ever”. Read into that what you will.

Now, is the Reign of Terror animation perfect? No, it isn’t. Is it okay to say this? Of course it is. Particularly when presenting your thoughts and opinions in a measured, rational way, free from insults and hyperbole. Like something, don’t like it, debate the various pros and cons, it’s all good. My problem comes from certain elements within fandom and their typical tendency to overreact and wildly exaggerate the slightest negative in anything, as if it is somehow a deliberate slight against them personally. Usually without ever giving due thought or consideration to the reasons behind why certain things are the way that they are. Things always seem to be placed into sweeping blanket statements, and even putting aside the rabid hyperbole, and the sheer arrogance of speaking for other fans as if your view is automatically the common and correct view that represents the majority of ‘right thinking’ fans, the unrealistic expectations these people often have, combined with a tendency to never be happy with anything anyway, much less grateful, fuels an attitude of entitlement which frankly reflects poorly on us all.

“The children of my civilisation would be insulted!”

Honestly, given just how commonplace such attitudes appear to be these days, there is good reason why so many people involved with all aspects of both the show itself, and the DVD releases, tend not to interact with fandom online, or when they do their efforts are usually rather short lived. It is because a lot of fandom are, quite simply, assholes. Keyboard warriors who, safe behind a cloak of internet anonymity, somehow think that acting like a reasonable person is no longer required, and that it is perfectly acceptable to now rant and whine and belittle and treat anyone who dares to have an opinion they don’t agree with as contemptuous scum to be textually bullied and assaulted until they either agree, or simply give up and go away. And they do so in such a loud and obnoxious and frequent a manner that they make it appear that the majority of fans act this way, when in reality it is just a very loud, very OCD minority who flood the net with their childish antics in post after obnoxious post. The result? All of fandom looks bad, and most ‘regular’ people understandably want little to do with any of us. And who could blame them? After all, personally I don’t like being in the presence of people with whom things like common courtesy and mutual respect are alien concepts either. So why should we have an expectation that others, such as those who are involved with the show and the DVD releases, should simply put up with such childish idiocy as if it is perfectly normal and reasonable, when it clearly isn’t? Particularly when they have gone out of their way to engage with fandom in the first place.

Fact is, being an asshole isn’t a badge of honour. It doesn’t make you ‘hardcore’. It doesn’t make you a bigger or better or smarter fan. It doesn’t prove your passion. It doesn’t make your points any more valid, or your opinions any more special. It’s just makes you an asshole. And sadly, there is nothing more common place, more tedious, and more predictable within all of fandom than that. The truth is, actually, that most fans aren’t like that at all. However the highly vocal minority often makes us all seem like we are, and that such behaviour is accepted, even encouraged, which in turn makes us all look bad, and overshadows the best of what fandom has to offer. And just like the malignant cancer that it is, I think it is beyond time that we cut it out. Or at least find a way to better manage the problem. Unfortunately though, if you take a wander around online fandom, it only seems to be spreading and getting progressively worse.

“That is the dematerialising control, and that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner. Those are the doors. That is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me!”

I suppose what I personally find most frustrating by this kind of attitude, beyond the needless bile, is the rampant level of ingratitude that so commonly goes hand in hand with it all. Honestly, there is not another television show on the planet that has been as well served on DVD over such an extended time as Doctor Who has. Let alone one that has sought to create or re-create content to the degree that the classic Doctor Who range has done within the tight budget allocated for each release. And while some may argue that this is all the BBC’s fault to begin with, given that they scrapped the tapes, and so we are ‘owed’ such things, the reality is the world, much less business, doesn’t work that way. Just the fact that they have tried to piece together lost episodes at all is rather remarkable, even putting aside the painstaking restoration work that has been done for the line, or the sheer amount of extra content that has been created.

No other shows get granted this level of care or attention. There’s no grand Doomwatch restoration project, no one is animating the missing episodes to Callan, or colourising the episodes of The Goodies that now only exist in black and white. Even beloved and still popular shows like Dad’s Army or The Avengers aren’t treated near as well as classic Who has been. Till Death Us Do Part, Not only But Also, the Peter Cushing Sherlock Holmes series, A for Andromeda, The Frost Report, Adam Adamant Lives!, and a great many other notable pieces of British television history were slaughtered by the idiotic tape wiping policies of the 70’s, and yet no one expects the broadcasters responsible to actively do anything about any of it now. Except us Doctor Who fans. And while it is hoped that episodes may be found, it is widely accepted by fans of those other shows that they are lost, and as sad as that is, and as nice as it would be if those episodes showed up again one day, that is pretty much that. So for Doctor Who to be treated so singularly well should make us fans feel very fortunate indeed, particularly by a current incarnation of the BBC that had nothing to do with the original scrappings and could so easily just wipe their hands of it all. And yet no matter what is done, for some in fandom it is never appreciated, and never enough. To me it is a constant wonder that those who do bend over backwards to try and serve the show and it’s fans as much as they possibly can, within the limitations that they have, haven’t just had enough by now, as it appears like nothing they do ever comes along without a huge dose of online backlash and misplaced derision spewed their way. The ferocity of which seems to only grow year by year.

“As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.”

Which brings us back around to the animation of Doctor Who’s lost episodes. In particular The Reign of Terror, and the animated episodes contained within. I am saddened, yet not shocked, to say that there has been a furore amongst certain parts of fandom about these latest attempts at animating missing Doctor Who episodes. Some have been well reasoned, opinion based, and presented in a calm and rational way, both for and against. But many more have been of the stereotypical fan backlash model, replete with forced indignation and rampant levels of over-exaggeration about how terrible everything is. As you might expect, I have a different view.

As I said above, I had never seen The Reign of Terror prior to the DVD release, despite the fact that four out of the six episodes remained, and as with all missing episodes, the audio still exists in full. In other words, the opportunity to experience the story has always been there, supplemented by a Loose Cannon reconstruction or a BBC audio release of the missing two episodes. But I never went down either path, because the thing is, I just don’t tend to watch ‘orphan’ episodes from incomplete stories. It’s just a personal choice, based on a number of factors. One being that pure audio releases, even ones buffered by narration, just don’t work for me. I miss the visual aspect too much. And even the best telesnap reconstructions fare little better, as they are still basically just audio with knobs on. I appreciate all the hard work that goes into making them by the fans that do them, I just personally don’t enjoy trying to watch the show that way very much, even in knowing that it is the only way to experience those missing episodes. I’ve tried doing so on a few occasions, and it just doesn’t work for me.

So, why not watch the still-existing orphan episodes, at least? Because, frankly, it just depresses me too much. Both on the grounds of not being able to actually watch the whole thing, and also in reflection of how much of early Doctor Who has been lost to time. So, for someone like me, animating lost Doctor Who episodes is a godsend, as it allows me to finally watch a complete story in an active visual format, something that no other option allows me to do. It will never be the missing episodes, and will never make up for their loss, but in my opinion, and certainly for me personally, it is the next best thing.

“My writing gets worse and worse. Dear, dear, dear, dear, dear…”

The problem is, animation is expensive and time consuming, and the budgets allocated to the niche Doctor Who classic DVD range are, by financial necessity, rather tight. As such, any animation we get is a bit of a triumph in itself, just for managing to squeeze through those particular constraints. Something that is all too often over-looked by the most vehement detractors. Just as they overlook that the Loose Cannon reconstructions and the audio releases are still out there, if they personally prefer those methods for enjoying missing episodes. Even if animation isn’t their thing, which is fine, or for whatever reason they don’t appreciate the end results, why anyone should be so up in arms about the very inclusion of animation to begin with completely eludes me. Especially when you still get the existing episodes lovingly remastered, and a batch of extra content to boot. Yet too many seem to take the reactionary stance that just because they don’t like something, it therefore shouldn’t exist at all.

Now I loved the animation done by the now sadly defunct Cosgrove Hall for The Invasion a few years back. For some it was too cartoony, others couldn’t seem to see past minor alterations and errors that had been made along the way (such as Zoe’s outfit), but for me I loved every minute of it. Imperfect as it may well be, it allowed me to watch two missing episodes. Not just hear them or imagine them, but actually watch them in an active visual format, and thus helped to complete another Patrick Troughton story, of which precious few exist in their entirety, for DVD release. And a pretty damn good one, at that. All of that readily trumped any minor quibbles or stylistic qualms I may have personally had along the way. And generally speaking, it seemed to be pretty well greeted by fandom at the time as well. Unfortunately, for various reasons, not the least of which being financial, it turned out to be a one off, and we would see no further incomplete stories with animation enhanced missing episodes for the next six years or so. Until The Reign of Terror came along. And that release would prove to be very different, both in terms of animation style, as well as overall fan reception.

The animation used for The Reign of Terror has it’s share of faults. Movement can sometimes be a little stiff, the likenesses of some of the actors in question are somewhat variable in accuracy, and it has a certain stylised look that certainly won’t appeal to all tastes. But the most glaring issue, and one that has undoubtedly caused the biggest online ruckus, is the editing. Now if you were to go by what some parties would have you believe, the fast-cut editing is an absolute disaster that utterly ruins everything. To me, the reality is it is nowhere near that bad. In fact, to me, the editing was only really an issue in the first of the two animated episodes, and even there, was only really noticeable, and admittedly a little distracting, during in a couple of short scenes. Now if a couple of scenes containing some overly rapid editing/shot changes is enough to completely spoil your enjoyment, then so be it. However, to me, it was merely a rather perplexing speed-bump along the way, and frankly not much more than that.

“I’m not a half-wit!”

That isn’t to say that it isn’t an issue worthy of debate, but it certainly isn’t worthy of bile spewing over-reaction, which is my main point here. Add to which, if you look at the animation effort as a whole, you can literally see the improvement as the two animated episodes progress, to a point where the second animated episode seems, to me, completely free of any distracting fast-cut editing issues whatsoever. I also think there are several other things to consider here, before raking the animators at Theta-Sigma over the coals.

First off, let us never forget that each Doctor Who DVD release is done to a very tight budget. So much so that usually the only way projects such as animation can be brought to fruition at all is with outside assistance, and assistance that is provided more out of love for Doctor Who than desire for strong financial profit, to boot. The budget allocated for each DVD release also has to be shared across other areas as well, including the standard restoration and production costs, and the creation and/or licensing of additional content for inclusion on each DVD release. On top of that, in the case of the animation for The Reign of Terror, they had to not only create the actual software to be used for the animation process, but also had to design the animation process itself from the ground up. This not only added considerable time and effort, and one would imagine budgetary strain, on the front end of the project, but they lost several months worth of work when their initial efforts didn’t pan out, and they basically had to scrap much of that work and start over.

Which leads me to my next point. To me the couple of scenes of overly fast editing very much appear to be a desperate effort to cover a couple of scenes as cheaply as possible, animation wise. It just strikes me as a compromise that they had to make during the latter stages of the project, when they were forced to re-do much of that first episode’s worth of work, rather than a result they deliberately set out to achieve and were 100% satisfied with. And that it only happened to the extent that it did in a couple of scenes perhaps bares this out. As such, I personally think it is highly likely to merely be an aberration, and not something to be overly concerned about into the future, should there prove to be one. Besides which, if I can overlook the occasional wobbly set, dodgy special effect, flubbed line, or poor make up appliance, I can certainly live with the odd imperfection in an animated reconstruction. Especially when it means completing another story for DVD.

And on the subject of future animations done in this same basic style, now that they have the software done, the difficult birthing pains out of the way, and the experience gained from this release under their belt, I truly do think that future animations will only go from strength to strength, as long as the budget continues to prove sufficient for the work required to make them. And I truly hope that it does, because even with the problems, there was still far more good than bad here. Far more. And for a first release, with all the challenges they faced, I think they have every right to be proud of the end result, even as they strive to better it in future efforts. If I had one piece of advice, it would only be that they shouldn’t be so afraid of holding a shot, or of things appearing still for any length of time, if a scene calls for it, as I think the fear of that static shot has perhaps led them to err a little too far in the other direction at times. But all in all, more please.

“My dear child, haven’t you realised what I’ve done? A few simple tools, a superior brain…”

Ultimately, The Reign of Terror still achieves what is, for me at least, the most important thing. And that is, it allows me to easily, visually, follow the story being told. And succeeding in that completely trumps any other minor issues I may have along the way. And that is also why I think it should be better appreciated and better received than it has been in some quarters of fandom. Not because it is perfect, and not because it should be free from criticism, but because regardless of any complaints it still manages to visually complete a story, and maintain the momentum of the story that is being told. And surely that is the most important thing of all. Even with the issues and nitpicks that I have with the Reign of Terror animation, I would happily accept more of the same if it meant completing more incomplete stories. And despite a very vocal subset of fandom screaming otherwise, I suspect that I am not in the minority on that particular count either. But perhaps we should all stand up to help make that clear to the powers-that-be, lest the opportunity for future Doctor Who animated missing episodes slips through the cracks and out of reach.

Also, in wrapping up, can I just say that despite not having the greatest of reputations, I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Reign of Terror. And yes, that very much includes the animated episodes. In fact, that enjoyment was also in large part because of said animated episodes. Their inclusion here resulted, for me, in a complete and satisfying viewing experience, and at the end of the day, that’s all I ever really want from a Doctor Who DVD release. As such, I now greatly look forward to the animation enhanced The Tenth Planet later this year, and cling to the sincere hope that it won’t turn out to be the last animated Doctor Who release we classic Who fans are fortunate enough to receive.

That’s right, The Ice Warriors, I’m looking at you.


UPDATE  – Several days after the posting of this article it was officially confirmed by BBC Worldwide that the incomplete Patrick Troughton story The Ice Warriors would, in fact, have it’s missing two episodes completed via animation for it’s upcoming DVD release. And there was much rejoicing. By me, at least.

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release Winter for the Adept

Peter Davison as The Doctor and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

Also featuring

Liz Sutherland, Hannah Dickinson, India Fisher, Chris Webber
Sally Faulkner, Nicky Goldie, Andy Coleman
and Peter Jurasik

Written by Andrew Cartmel
Directed by Gary Russell


According to conventional fan wisdom, when Andrew Cartmel came on board Doctor Who during the Sylvester McCoy era, that’s when Doctor Who started getting good again. Can he produce similar results in his first outing for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range?


“Command your souls to the Lord, Satan is at hand.”

Episode 1: Nyssa finds herself having been accidentally teleported out of the TARDIS by The Doctor, arriving in the Swiss Alps in 1963, during a rather fierce winter storm. While at a nearby all girls finishing school, ghostly happenings are afoot.

Okay, first up, Andrew Cartmel doing a Peter Davison story as his first Big Finish Doctor Who audio seems like a bit of an odd pairing, giving Cartmel’s rich history with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Stranger still, the first episode barely features The Doctor at all, but is instead primarily focussed on Nyssa. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, however the way it has been presented here means that it is ultimately far from a successful start to the story. This is in large part due to the fact that Nyssa seems decidedly out of character right from the get go, and unfortunately things don’t improve on those grounds as the story goes on. In fact, they only get worse.

And it isn’t due to Sarah Sutton’s performance, either. She does the absolute best with what she has to work with here. No, the real problem is that here we have a Nyssa who basically acts like Tegan for the extent of this story, constantly complaining and whining and not wanting to be there. And that really doesn’t ring true for Nyssa’s character at all. I mean Nyssa didn’t even complain this much when she had the plague, and The Doctor all but abandoned her to die.

Which brings up a point, who the Hell would want to travel with Peter Davison’s Doctor? If you don’t end up smashed into a billion pieces, or victim of space plague, then you wind up being traumatised for life, shot by him, or you get to watch him die, only to come back as Colin Baker and try to choke you to death! In fact it seems that the only way you can enjoy your travels with the Fifth Doctor, and end them on a happy note, is if you spend much of your initial time trying to kill him. Good chap, Turlough, for that you get the only happy ending! And people call Peter Davison’s Doctor ‘the nice one’

Anyway, back on topic. I can’t help but wonder if this part was, in fact, written for Tegan all along, and Nyssa became a last minute substitute, because it really does seem like a bunch of very Tegan type dialogue that Nyssa is sprouting throughout the story. And for Tegan it would have been fine, but for Nyssa it just seems decidedly uncharacteristic. Other than that, there only seems to be two other possible explanations.  Either Andrew Cartmel really is rather clueless in regards to Nyssa’s character, or else the Nyssa that we have seen, and heard, in previous adventures all took place during the other twenty-odd days of the month. Regardless, it really is a testament to Sarah Sutton herself that she still makes it work as well as is possible, given all that she has been unfairly lumbered with here.

Speaking of bad ideas, can I just say how much I truly hated the ‘dear diary’ segments that book-ended this tale. Not only were they utterly hackneyed in execution, but the opening one droned on for so long that if it had been an actual book, I would have set fire to it, and then beat the author around the head with the blackened remains. The closing one isn’t anywhere near as bad, partly because it is a lot shorter, and now has the benefit of context, and partly because it is the closing one and you know that very soon now it is all going to end.

Oh, and while I am in full on bitch mode, the cliff-hangers in this story are so inept that they almost defy description. What makes it even worse is that in most cases, either a minute or two earlier or later, there was a far more fitting moment that could have been used instead, to much better effect. Which perfectly illustrates this story’s biggest problem, most of it just hasn’t been assembled very well, or with enough care, and the end result is that everything in this story just feels rather slipshod. Combine that with a host of rather dull characters who all feel paper thin, a mystery that is neither mysterious nor very interesting, and some truly clunky, at times even downright awful, dialogue, much of it overly explanatory, and this is hardly Andrew Cartmel’s finest hour.


“Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

Episode 2: Having tracked down Nyssa, The Doctor is keen to investigate the seemingly supernatural occurrences within the school. But it appears that not everyone trusts their new visitor’s intentions…

The story does get marginally more interesting as we roll into the second episode, and it is greatly boosted by the efforts of Peter Davison, as he tries to desperately inject some life into the proceedings, and mostly succeeds at doing so. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the other characters are all rather dull and uninteresting, and the story itself is exceedingly padded. This isn’t aided any by the fact that these next two episodes also soon start to feel decidedly repetitious, as if the story is just treading water until it can finally unveil it’s twists and wrap everything up.

The single biggest problem though is that much of the dialogue forced on the participants here is so clunky that one can’t help but wonder how somebody who acted as a script editor could ever conceive of it in the first place, much less leave it in a finished script. Some of it truly is cringeworthy, especially when the dialogue starts describing, point by laboured point, exactly what is happening, as if the listener must have an I.Q. that is clearly below room temperature. Call me crazy, but I find that treating your audience as if they are idiots rarely tends to endear you to them.

Now to be perfectly fair, this probably wasn’t the original intent at all, and is more likely to have been born out of a general lack of experience when working within the confines of the pure audio medium. This is, after all, Andrew Cartmel’s first effort for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. However, the end result is ultimately the same, and you can’t judge a story based purely upon what was intended, only on what was actually delivered. And what was delivered here is a decidedly flawed piece of work.


“What an interesting hypothesis, please tell us more.”

Episode 3: With their escape having been violently cut off, tensions raise within the school to breaking point. Meanwhile, The Doctor starts putting the pieces of this paranormal puzzle together.

Into the third episode, and even I’m getting tired of my complaints by now. And yet, here is another one. The alien menace that The Doctor keeps talking about are called The Spillagers. Apparently they are just like pillagers, only they spill across dimensions. Yes, seriously. Whether or not they are locked in an eternal struggle with the Sponges of Baking-Sodera Three sadly isn’t revealed to us.

It doesn’t help their reputation any that when the Spillagers are revealed in the final episode, they turn out to be about as threatening as a retarded puppy. Meanwhile their grand plan may well be the most inept invasion strategy of all time, opening their battle fleet up for the most hilariously easy defeat possible. When The Doctor doesn’t even bother to show up personally in order to defeat you, then perhaps it is time to reconsider your chosen career path as a ‘terrifying alien peril’.

As for The Doctor running around an all girls school, apparently looking for signs of ‘spillage’, well, perhaps the less said about that, the better.


“Nothing is ever entirely safe.”

Episode 4: The identity of the ‘ghost’ haunting the school is revealed, but things are not quite what they appear. Could there be an even greater danger that is yet to reveal itself?

As we lurch into the final episode, I suppose I should point out that despite all of my complains, this isn’t a story completely without redeeming factors. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton really do both work very hard here to inject this with as much life as they possibly can. Davison, thanks to not being lumbered with the same issues that Sutton’s Nyssa has been, succeeds particularly well, and is never less than enjoyable to listen to. As for the other performances, they are, at best, a bit of a mixed bag really.

First up I want to say that Peter Jurasik, at his best, is a great actor. Anyone who was a fan of Babylon 5 can attest to that fact. Which makes his flat, monotone performance here all the more disappointing. Part of that can, perhaps, be blamed on the fact that he’s playing an incredibly dull and underwritten character. But even so, he doesn’t manage to do anything at all to inject that character with much life, and he doesn’t appear to be doing much other than just reading the lines out loud, and that’s all on him.

As headmistress Miss Tremayne, it appears that Sally Faulkner grabbed her Scottish accent out of the same Big Box of Blatant Stereotypes that Andrew Cartmel found her character in to begin with, which I suppose is rather fitting, really. How much you enjoy, or are in fact are irritated by, her performance here will probably depend on your personal tolerance level for the Pantomime Religious Zealot archetype when played to high camp. Personally I found myself largely indifferent.

Apparently India Fisher, who plays the ridiculously named Peril Bellamy, is another future companion-to-be. Though, thankfully, not as the occasionally irritating character she plays here. Her performance ranges between passable to somewhat grating, but once again much of that is down to how the character has been written, and some of the atrocious dialogue she is forced to sprout. To be honest, based on the evidence here I’m still not sure how I feel about this actress being a new companion. Especially when her co-star, Liz Sutherland, managed to clearly be so much better, despite the dodgy script. In fact Liz Sutherland gives easily the best performance of the guest cast, and represents one of the few truly bright spots in this audio release. But as Maggie Stables previously proved, never judge a future companion by their initial guest appearance, so I’ll endeavour to keep an open mind as far as Fisher’s future potential goes.

As to the rest of the cast, both Hannah Dickinson and Christopher Webber do perfectly fine with what little they have to work with, while Nicky Goldie and Andy Coleman as the tacked on aliens during the final act are rather poor. But then they are also a terrible idea, presented horribly as part of an illogical and hackneyed final twist, replete with some truly awful dialogue during their one and only scene. As such, one can hardly lay too much of the blame at their feet.

No, the problems with this story all come from the script. The best you could say about it is that there are some interesting ideas buried within it, but none of it ever seems to mesh properly. It’s unfocussed, illogical, forcibly contrived, frequently guilty of spewing out truly awful dialogue, and full of characters who just aren’t very interesting. Yet, somehow, despite all of that Winter for the Adept isn’t so much awful as it is just awfully disappointing. Particularly given the pedigree of talent gathered here, all of whom are capable, and deserving, of far better. But ultimately, this only serves to make a story that is basically little more than a disposable mediocrity feel far worse than it actually is. And despite all of it’s many problems, it is never less than listenable, and is thankfully nowhere near as mind-numbingly boring as Peter Davison’s previous Big Finish Doctor Who adventure, Red Dawn, was.

But that is very faint praise indeed. And one can’t help but wonder if even that may be more praise than it actually deserves. Hopefully, then, there are better things to come for Peter Davison’s Doctor in the not too distant future.


Next up: Colin Baker returns in The Apocalypse Element