Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Spectre of Lanyon Moor.

Starring
Colin Baker as The Doctor and Maggie Stables as Evelyn
with
Nicholas Courtney as
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart


Also featuring

Toby Longworth, Susan Jameson, Barnaby Edwards
Helen Goldwyn, Nicholas Pegg
and James Bolam

Written and Directed by Nicholas Pegg

 

Immortal fan favourite Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart finally joins the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. And opposite Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, no less. And it’s not even on a Coronation Street backlot this time. So, is it everything this fan could have hoped for? Please join me as I find out…

 

“You know what they say about old soldiers, Doctor.”

Episode 1: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn arrive in Cornwall, where an archaeological dig into the mysterious fogou is underway. A place steeped in local myth and legend. And much to the Doctors very pleasant surprise, he soon encounters a very familiar face…

Before we begin this latest review, I have a brief confession. I am a huge, huge fan of Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier. How huge a fan? I once tried to grow a moustache just like the Brig’s. I was eight at the time, which probably accounts for why it took about ten years to properly grow in, and still looked like rubbish even when it finally did. And things haven’t actually gotten any better for me in the years since, either. In fact it has become evident that the only moustache that I am capable of growing is one that looks like a refugee from 70’s era porn. And not necessarily a face refugee either, if you catch my drift. No, short of buying one on Ebay, I have slowly come to accept that I will never have a proper Brig-stache. And it makes me sad. In more ways than one. However, luckily, the Brig is here and he’s…wait a minute. I just saw the cover. The Brig is ‘stache-less! I’m…I’m going to need a moment.

This does not bode well. After all, The Brig has only gone ‘stache-less on two prior occasions. Once in Mawdryn Undead, where he was luckily counter-balanced by a second, moustachioed Brigadier, giving us a proper yin-yang Brigadier balance on the whole. And the other time, more disturbingly, as evil alternate universe Brig, complete with eye-patch and facial scar, in Inferno. There, again, we at least got a bookended moustachioed Brigadier as well, to ensure that balance was maintained, and all was right with the world. But here it’s a no-moustache Brig all the way. And only no-moustache Brig. Is this a bad omen?

At first my crazy moustache-based conspiracy theory looked like it may actually hold some hairy shade of truth. The prologue with a pair of aliens was a serviceable enough set up, plot wise, but the alien voices themselves are rather over the top, especially the lead alien who sounds like Sylvester McCoy on helium. The alien voice work here isn’t merely a bit cheesy, it practically the vocal equivalent of an entire cheese platter, with extra cheese nibbles for afters. So not the best start. And then the ever-dependable Colin Baker shows up and…he sounds a bit odd, and at times rather un-Colin Baker like. This is quickly explained away as The Doctor having a cold, which coincidentally also neatly explains the seeming actor vocal lapses, but it does take a little getting used to. Especially in an audio format where, as I have said before, the voices are really our only anchor to the actors playing these characters. Thankfully, despite being a little under the weather, Colin Baker’s performance is still as good as ever, so it’s more a noticeable oddity rather than being in any way a real hindrance to the story or its overall enjoyment.

And enjoyable it very much is, despite the pantomime aliens, as it soon becomes clear that this is another Big Finish Doctor Who audio production that is just layered in quality. Nicholas Pegg has done a pretty sterling job at setting up an intriguing storyline here. And while some of the characters may be of the stock standard variety, they have all been cast quite nicely indeed, with performances that help to raise them above any such trappings. And the meeting between the Sixth Doctor and the Brig is really quite wonderful, though continuity fanatics will find a little something there to feed their fanboy outrage meter with. Namely the Brig mentions his wife to the Sixth Doctor, which the Seventh Doctor seemed to not know about when they met in the TV story Battlefield. Personally, I don’t much care about such minor and largely inconsequential inconsistencies. And if I did care I could easily draw a justification for the point in question. But I don’t. So I won’t. Because it really doesn’t matter.

The episode ends rather horrifically, but in a good way. However the cackling goblin is, again, a touch too far into the cheesy side of things for my taste.

 

“To do my will shall be the whole of the law.”

Episode 2: After the horrific events of the previous night, Evelyn shares her discoveries about the sordid history of Lanyon Moor with The Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Leaving her to rest, The Doctor makes another shocking discovery. The TARDIS is missing.

As everything nips along at an enjoyable pace, I’ll take a moment to talk about the Sixth Doctor’s latest companion, Evelyn. First up, she once again proves to be both a good foil for The Doctor, and an enjoyable character in her own right. However, there is one factor that I am less keen on, and that is that here she continues to work at softening the Sixth Doctor, personality wise. Something that I’m not overly keen on.

Now I get why all involved may want to smooth some of the rougher edges on the Sixth Doctor’s character, but personally, I love a bit of Sixth Doctor bombast and arrogance on occasion, and I would hate to see those character traits completely eliminated from Colin Baker’s Doctor, which here it feels like they are actively working toward doing. Yes, The Doctor’s companions temper his character and even actively make him better, but at the same time they shouldn’t completely change him, and I must admit to being a little uneasy that the latter may be starting to very much happen here. Whether those fears are in any way justified, well, I guess I’ll just have to see how future Sixth Doctor adventures unfold.

The story remains reliably on course, as we power into the third episode.

 

“It’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever heard…”

Episode 3: While The Doctor and the Brigadier race against time to prevent impending disaster, Evelyn finds herself  face-to-face with dangers of her own.

As we move through the third episode stretch, we finally hit a minor barrier. A very minor one, to be honest, but a barrier nonetheless. And once again it is the old accent beast rearing it’s aurally confused head. In this episode, you see, we have a character visiting Greece, which calls for a Greek tour guide to be featured. Problem is, the Greek tour guide sounds Italian. And not even particularly good Italian, more “Itsa me, Mario!” faux-Italian, if indeed Mario was the disembodied voice of a female museum tour guide rather than being a two dimensional male video game character. It’s not altogether convincing as being in any way Greek is my point here. And it really doesn’t matter in the slightest, but I’m running out of things to write about.

Which I guess brings us to the performances, and putting aside aliens and the rare dodgy accent, they are very strong, right across the board. As mentioned already both Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are in typically fine form, and hearing Nicholas Courtney on Big Finish Doctor Who audio is a true joy to behold. And he hasn’t lost a beat, delivering superbly on every ounce that he has been given to work with here.

As to the rest of the guest cast, for me James Bolam was a real standout, as was Toby Longworth’s ever suffering Professor Morgan. However Toby Longworth also shares the dubious dual honour of being the worst performer as well, with his alien, Sancreda, being just a couple of steps too far over the top for my taste. It isn’t story ruining or anything, but it very much is a performance that just feels rather at odds with the style, tone and overall mood of the story being told, and as such is my one real mark against it. But then, I’ve never been much of an “I’m an alien therefore I must have a funny voice” type fan.

Moving into the final episode we get a couple of twists along the way that aren’t exactly surprising, but which, story wise, still feel justified and make sense, and it has all been rather good fun so far. But can it bring it all together for the final episode?

 

“I’m retired, I refuse to take any of the blame.”

Episode 4: The Spectre of Lanyon Moor has arisen. Can The Doctor, Evelyn, and the Brigadier put an end to his thirst for revenge? Or will the entire world suffer the vengeance so long denied him?

Turns out yes, it can. And basically we get a final episode that is every bit on par to the three that preceded it. We even get a small twist that I didn’t see coming, though perhaps I should have.

Our alien friend, Sancreda, has even slightly grown on me by this point. And it is hard not to get some measure of enjoyment out of what is very clearly a case of ‘little alien syndrome’. One can’t help but feel that perhaps if he wasn’t only three feet tall, and stuck with a frankly rather silly voice, that he might not be so angry all the time. About everything. Someone is clearly overcompensating. Poor little angry alien fucker.

It’s also great fun to hear the Brig going all action man and getting his own ‘hero moment’ during the final episode. And he delivers upon it with gusto, just as one might expect. Benton, car salesman extraordinaire, would be proud. Mike Yates, maybe not quite so much. But who cares what that pinko hippy traitor thinks anyway?

Now, I imagine that some may well seek to damn this particular outing by backhandedly labelling it as very much a traditional Doctor Who story. The inference often being that a story that is a little old fashioned in format and style automatically means that it is somehow bad. But, if anything, this release proves that traditionally styled Doctor Who stories can still work, and when done right, actually work quite well indeed, and that there is still room for such tales, particularly on audio. And to my mind this one has very much been done right, resulting in a very satisfying debut for the Brigadier in Big Finish Doctor Who audio. One that I personally found to be thoroughly entertaining.

Sure, when it all comes down to it, I have a couple of nitpicks. And I do think it is slightly let down by a cheesily voiced panto-sounding villain. But none of that ultimately undermines what is, for me, a really cracking romp. A strong script, with some fun characters and great lines, a suitable pace, and (mostly) strong performances have delivered another clear winner from the Big Finish Doctor Who range. And after the severely disappointing Red Dawn, this is exactly the kind of boost that I needed to remind me of just how enjoyable the range can be.

 

Next up: Peter Davison returns in Winter for the Adept

Cover art for the BBC Doctor Who DVD release Shada.

Would Shada be held in quite so high a regard if it were stripped of the trappings of being the famously incomplete Douglas Adams Doctor Who story, and was instead just another story from that era?

 

The DVD release of Shada was always going to be a difficult one.

We are, after all, talking about a story that was never originally completed due to industrial action that struck the BBC during the production of the story. And despite attempts to later remount the story, ultimately it was abandoned after having only been partially filmed. Everyone moved on, and Shada was left on the shelf, incomplete. The televisual embodiment of what might have been.

And unlike the traditional lost stories from the Hartnell and Troughton years, this isn’t a case of whole episodes being lost, but instead it is a case of assorted scenes from throughout the story, across multiple episodes, simply never having been shot. So the process of animating that lost footage would face hurdles that animating complete missing episodes would not. Namely it would mean that individual episodes of the story, in order to be complete, would have to continually switch between the live action footage that was shot, and newly made animated insert footage, and back again, and do so frequently, at the risk of such changes in visual content jarring the viewer. And unlike other lost stories, there would be no audio to work from to act as a backbone in order to create new content around either, instead there would be a need to create brand new audio for all of the missing, never originally filmed, scenes, requiring the participation of members of the original cast, or sound-alikes where that wasn’t possible. Additionally, anything that had not yet been visualised in the existing footage would have to be designed and created from the ground up, prior to animation, presumably based on script notes and whatever else could be scraped up in relation to the ill-fated production. And it would need to do all of this within a relatively minuscule BBC Doctor Who DVD release budget, while still allowing space enough in the budget for all of the other necessities that are a natural part of every Doctor Who DVD release.

Assessing all that would be required then, from an objective point of view, it is frankly little surprise that it didn’t happen. As even putting aside the aesthetic and creative challenges, on a purely budgetary and resource management side of things, it appears nigh on impossible to achieve all of that with such limitations in place. And with an end result that would likely be extremely divisive amongst fans and customers, given the way in which animation and live action would have to be forcibly blended and continually alternate throughout the story, as well as taking into account the limitations on the type and quality of animation that can even be achieved on such low budgets to begin with, it was perhaps wise to play it safe and try to make the best Shada release package as they could, short of actually creating the new animated linking scenes within each of the six episodes that would be required. Add to which, it is also important to note that, at best, only about half of the six episode serial of Shada exists, so that would mean the equivalent of three episodes worth of animation would be required in order to cover the missing footage throughout the story. And given that it has recently been said that producing two episodes of animated material for a release is stretching the budget of a DVD release to it’s limits, expecting three episodes worth, plus all new audio and design work, all edited as seamlessly as possible into existing live action footage, was always going to be a hill too far for the Doctor Who DVD range, given current budgetary limitations. They even appear to have intentionally left Shada’s release as late as they could in the hope that some miracle might come along. But when it didn’t, one can hardly blame them for releasing what they had in as best a manner as they could reasonably do.

“Was it to do with the voices?”

Which brings us to Ian Levine.

Levine has long been a divisive personality amongst Doctor Who fandom. So perhaps expectedly, when it was reported that he was undertaking his own Shada animation project before the DVD release had even been announced, it was bound to make a few waves. Not to mention raise a few expectations, perhaps even outright assumptions, in relation to just why it was being made, and where it would end up. And to his credit, he did complete his part animated Shada project, even managing to hire many of the key cast to record brand new audio for the animated scenes, Lalla Ward and John Leeson (replacing the late David Brierley) amongst them. Though arguably the most important voice, that belonging to Tom Baker, chose not to take part, and would be replaced in the animated sequences by someone doing a Tom Baker impersonation.

How good is Ian Levine’s Shada? Well, unless you are on the short-list of those that have seen it personally, that is rather impossible to judge at this point. The only review that we have is from an ardent and long-time Ian Levine supporter, so while interesting, said ‘review’ can hardly be called a credible or objective source by which to make any kind of informed or rational judgement by. Those in the pro camp tend to say it is great, those in the con camp tend to say it is a bit of a mess, and most of the rest of us will likely never know. But why won’t we know, I hear you ask. Didn’t Ian Levine offer the Shada animation for free to the producers of the Doctor Who DVD range? So he tells us, yes. And that is where the Shada DVD outrage and controversy amongst fandom truly kicked in.

As best as us mere mortals on the outside looking in can tell, it basically went down like this. Ian Levine met with the key stakeholders in charge of the classic Doctor Who DVD range in regards to them possibly using the animated Shada scenes that he had created, with the intention of adding them into the eventual Shada DVD release. They ultimately declined, for reasons we haven’t been made privy to. Ian Levine came out and publicly said he offered it for free, and inferred that they basically passed on his Shada animation out of nothing but sheer spite. Fandom went into standard meltdown mode, with a great many acting as if they had been robbed of something, without even having any idea of the actual worth of what it was that they had been apparently denied. And the Shada release, no matter what form it now took, was never going to be able to please a large proportion of now outraged classic Doctor Who fans, due to missing something it was unlikely to have ever had to begin with.

“If you will not give me the information voluntarily, I will deduct it from you. I am sure there is much else in your mind that will interest me.”

But why didn’t they use Levine’s Shada? After all, he apparently offered it for free!

Well, I doubt we’ll ever have an absolute and definitive, unbiased answer on that one. However I will say that Ian Levine’s claims that he offered it for free, and so it wouldn’t have cost them anything to include, and thus intimating that they only chose not to do so out of some kind of petty personal spite, is all a bit of a fan-baiting smoke and mirrors act, really. I mean let’s run down just a few points to consider, shall we?

Tom Baker would only record his voice for Ian Levine’s Shada project for an eight grand up front fee, and that was at the time when this was still being advertised to all involved parties as a strictly personal non commercial project. Levine passed, and got a sound-alike, who even most in the pro-Levine camp admit isn’t altogether convincing. One would imagine that Tom Baker’s fee to BBC Worldwide in order to record dialogue for a worldwide commercial DVD release of Shada would be considerably higher than the fee requested of Levine for what had been billed to him as a personal pet project. Plus, even if they didn’t get Baker to loop the missing dialogue – which could potentially raise its own share of legal and rights issues – they would still, at the very least, have to get Baker’s permission and pay Baker an agreed upon fee for using his likeness in the animation, and possibly also for the rights to even use a sound-alike, due to the complicated ins and outs of how BBC licensing works in regards to Doctor Who. In the case of the latter they could potentially also open themselves up to possible legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation as well, unless the Shada DVD clearly and explicitly stated that the animated sections were being voiced by another party that was not Tom Baker. And that’s just Baker’s voice. There are all sorts of little legal mines all over doing partial audio reconstruction that would need to be addressed and taken care of legally and contractually, and usually before such a project was even attempted, rather than after the fact.

Ian Levine didn’t pay for all of this out of his own pocket, as it is often made to sound like, but instead he took money and other contributions from other Doctor Who fans in order to create and complete his Shada animation project. Even more critically, he sought absolutely no rights for doing any of this ahead of time, from either the BBC or from Douglas Adams estate, but instead produced it by himself on the grounds of it being a purely non-profit, non commercial and private fan project.

Levine did not have the contracted clearances from all those involved in order to sell and distribute the work as part of a commercial entity and on a worldwide, or even domestic UK, basis. Therefore
every single person involved who were initially hired on a work-for-hire, or even voluntary basis, and again, for what they likely believed to have been a private, non commercial fan project, would now need to sign brand new clearances and be officially re-contracted. A rather expensive process, even in the unlikely event that no one actually wanted additional money for the use of the fruits of their individual participation. And if a single person couldn’t be contracted for any reason whatsoever then all of their work would be rendered legally unable to be used in said project. The after the fact fees associated with tracking down everyone involved, attaining all of the required rights, clearance issues, contracts, and so forth would hardly be anywhere approaching cheap, again, even if all the people involved didn’t want any (extra) money. And if you think that the likes of
John Leeson and Lalla Ward wouldn’t want to be properly paid for their part in a (now suddenly) commercial for-profit official release, well, you’re a far more optimistic person than I am.

Ian Levine reportedly made the creative decision to match certain things to the original script, rather than what was actually shot, as confirmed by certain people who have seen the Shada animation. Therefore there are parts of the animation that would likely be needed to be (slightly?) reworked to limit such discrepancies, as well as in order to make the apparently already somewhat jarring transitions between live action and animation more fluid, and attempt to have them better sit into the live action material in general. From all accounts, Levine allegedly refused to allow any such changes when the viability of using the animated Shada footage was under discussion, taking his usual my-way-or-the-highway bull in a china-shop approach. Plus, unlike traditional animated reconstructions, where each episode presented has an overall sense of consistency, here, as mentioned previously, you have individual episodes that would switch frequently between live action and animation and back again, which even in the absolute best case scenario, has to be at least somewhat jarring to the viewing experience.

And then we come to the real crux of the matter, the overall quality of the animation that has been produced. I’m not just talking about does it look good enough, though there is always that question, I’m talking more along the lines of has it been created in such a way as to allow for it to be transferred in optimum quality at appropriate size and ratio to the DVD format. Because fixing animation content after the fact to release quality standards and requirements can be a very tricky and expensive thing to do, sometimes even nigh on impossible. As a quick aside, I was once tangentially involved in a low budget animation project that screwed that up, and it was going to cost so much to fix it that the entire project was ultimately shelved instead, as that was the only truly viable option. Now in regards to Ian Levine’s Shada, I don’t know the answer to this one, having not seen the footage myself, and I don’t mean to cast aspersions here, but it is yet another consideration that could, once again, add considerable cost to the project.

Let us also consider the fact that each DVD release has a set, and rather tight, budget, and that any money that was spent on the animation in order to address any of the above mentioned, or any other such issues, would have to come from somewhere, and that is before even taking into account just how difficult a person Ian Levine is to work with, and how many bridges he has burnt in regards to the BBC, BBC Worldwide, Big Finish, Theta Sigma, and the Restoration Team, to name but a few current or potential stakeholders. And I also mention that because things tend to get more costly, and budgets tend to blow out even wider, when working stakeholder relationships are so difficult, and potentially even adversarial in nature.

So my main point is that implying that Ian Levine’s Shada animation would cost the producers of the classic Doctor Who DVD range nothing, or even very little, and so they have no real or legitimate excuse for not including it on the DVD release, other than the personal, is, frankly, at best extremely misleading, and at worst, a blatant miss-truth on Ian Levine’s part. Fact is, even with what Levine created provided for free, because of the way that he did things, the cost to try and use any of that on a commercial worldwide release now would likely be a pretty huge chunk of the budget, or conceivably, still potentially price it outside of the budgetary range altogether, and that is even before giving due consideration and budget allocations to other extant and/or newly created material for the release in question.

Also, let us not forget that part of the reason why BBC Worldwide can now potentially stretch to include animation for a couple of missing episodes is because not only do they already have all of the audio owned and available to them to use, but everyone involved and anything newly created is paid for and contracted appropriately before the project kicks off. So they know the exact cost breakdowns and can analyse what can be done and what can’t ahead of time. Ian Levine on the other hand tried to do everything backwards and very much his way, and in turn ended up doing it in, unfortunately, about the least commercially friendly and viable way humanly possible. And if you have the intention of ever trying to turn that kind of fan produced material into a commercial project, then sadly that just wasn’t a very smart way to go about such things. So, regardless of the quality or lack thereof that the Shada animation may itself represent, the fact that it all kind of blew up and wasn’t viable to use as part of the official Shada DVD release is really no one’s fault but Levine’s own due to just how he went about things. And that will remain true regardless of what spin he tries to put on it all, or how much fan outrage he tries to spark.

“I told you you’d got the time wrong, Doctor.”

Now with all that said, sure, I still would have liked to see it, despite the fact that the constant switch between animation and live action during episodes I still believe would be pretty jarring to watch. And even though I think he goes about things the wrong way far too often, I do give props to Ian Levine for actually being passionate enough to try stuff like this. I just think it is a great shame that his own nature, and certain extreme personality traits, as well as a refusal to work co-operatively with other people, so often gets in the way and messes such things up. It often seems to me that he’d be a great ally to Who fandom if only he could take his ego out of the equation a little bit, and stop blaming everyone else for his own mistakes.

Thing is, I suppose I just have enough faith to believe that if it was in any way viable to include the animation on the Shada DVD, then it would have been included. And I simply don’t buy into Ian Levine’s conspiracy theories as to why it wasn’t, especially as there are a great many legitimate reasons as to why it may not have been practical, or even possible, to do so. And as far as the actual Shada DVD release we did get, I sincerely believe that the producers of the classic Doctor Who DVD range have done themselves pretty proud all in all. It is not a perfect release, but it’s Shada, so no matter what they did it was never going to be a perfect release.

However for the price of a standard Doctor Who DVD we got the entire Legacy boxed set, which is three discs worth of material, with two of those discs dedicated to Shada itself. We received the 90’s VHS version of Shada with linking Tom Baker narration cleaned up to the usual Restoration Team standards, and which, pre-Levine animation, is all that most fans would have reasonably expected for us to get. We also got some pretty comprehensive extras detailing the tortured history of Shada. Plus the More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS documentary on it’s own disc, and a fair smattering of other assorted extras to boot. And while this release will certainly appeal more to hardcore fans, rather than casual viewers, just by it’s very nature, it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

Because Shada itself is always going to be an incomplete story, it may not feel like the most satisfying release, but I still contend that it has been done about as well as we could reasonably expect, and actually represents quite good value for money on a pure content basis, even if some of that content may seem a touch random. If I had one bugbear it’s that I would have liked the flash animated McGann Shada to be DVD playable, rather than merely being a DVD-Rom extra on the disc, but given the limited nature of the animation itself that may not have been possible to achieve to DVD quality standards. After all, as we have discussed, animations not specifically designed for TV/DVD standards can be tricky beasts at times. Oh, and a commentary track would have been nice, too.

Still, call me crazy, but rather than bemoaning a version of Shada of indeterminate quality that, for whatever reasons, we seemed destined never to have anyway, I instead choose to enjoy the version of Shada that we did actually receive on DVD, in all it’s imperfections. And while Levine’s animation enhanced Shada might have been a nice curiosity, it is this version of Shada that reflects most accurately the history of Douglas Adams ill-fated script and it’s abortive journey towards our screens. Which, to me, is surely the whole point in having the original production of Shada on DVD to begin with.

No, it isn’t perfect. But then, that’s Shada for you.

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release Red Dawn

Starring
Peter Davison as The Doctor and Nicola Bryant as Peri

Also featuring

Robert Jezek, Stephen Fewell, Maureen Oakley, Hylton Collins
Alistair Lock, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Gary Russell
with Georgia Moffett and Matthew Brenher

Written by Justin Richards
Directed by Gary Russell

 

This time out the Big Finish Doctor Who range tackles the long belated defrosting of the Ice Warriors, who haven’t been seen, or heard, since way back in the Jon Pertwee era of the original TV series. Would the second dip into Doctor Who’s rogues gallery prove more successful than the first? Please join me to find out.

 

“It’s surprising what you can cope with if you have to.”

Episode 1: The Fifth Doctor and Peri step out of the TARDIS and into an unknown structure, where the air is breathable, and the odd green walls look strangely organic. As they progress deeper inside, they see huge blocks of ice placed by each of the doorways, each with a faint outline of something frozen inside…

You know, I always had a bit of a soft spot for the Ice Warriors. Whether it be the hissing menaces of the Troughton era, or the more manipulative diplomats of the Pertwee one, there was just something about them that I always enjoyed. Maybe it was the lisp. After all, who doesn’t love a Martian with a speech impediment? With or without Earth-shattering kabooms.

As such, I have been quite looking forward to this one. After all, on paper it seems to have all the right ingredients. Nicola Bryant seemed one of the most successful companions at stepping seamlessly back into her old role, and was one of the parts that I liked most in previous outing Whispers of Terror. Peter Davison has gone from strength to strength, and has, for me, had a pretty much flawless run of stories so far, and I have genuinely enjoyed each and every one. And I’m a fan of the Ice Warriors, as I said. However as even Sir Mix-a-Lot could probably guess, there’s a huge but coming. And that is, but none of it matters. Why doesn’t it matter? Oh, let me count the ways.

First up, somewhere between Whispers of Terror and here Nicola Bryant has forgotten how to do Peri’s voice, which is both immediately evident, and hugely distracting. And it is not only that her accent is worse than ever (and it never particularly bothered me before), it is that she is barely even recognisable as Peri, particularly early on. Now of course the obvious problem with this is that this is audio, so the only recognition factor we have as far as these characters go is their voices, so when something that familiar sounds so far away from what we are used to hearing it quickly becomes very disconcerting as a listener, not to mention distracting. And too often I found myself wondering why she sounded like she did, rather than focussed on what she was actually saying. Which is just about the last thing you want in an audio drama.

Not that it mattered particularly anyway, because this story isn’t just a whole lot of nothing happening, it is a whole lot of nothing happening very slowly. Honestly, Red Dawn may well be the shortest Big Finish Doctor Who audio release by a rather significant margin, but it also somehow manages to feel like the longest. By a lot. It really was a struggle to get through this one for me, right from the start. And worse still, that first episode was probably the strongest of the bunch. And that is damning it with the faintest of possible praise.

 

“Nobility and honour.”

Episode 2: Having encountered an Earth expedition crew, The Doctor finds himself separated from his companion, and face to face with the newly defrosted guardians of this mysterious place. Meanwhile Peri discovers that not all of the human crew are quite what they seem.

Which brings me to the story presented here, and really this could have been called Tomb of the Ice Warriors. But while it cribs a great deal from that classic Troughton era Cybermen story’s set up and execution, it does so in particularly laboured fashion, turning the Ice Warriors into bargain basement Klingon knock-offs, and spreading a virtually non-existent story and a bunch of wafer thin characters out way beyond any sustainable point, to exceedingly dull and predictable results.

After the disappointing Whispers of Terror, and now the flat out tedious Red Dawn, it’s safe to say I’m just not a fan of Justin Richards Big Finish Doctor Who audio work. Apparently he is quite a well respected Doctor Who novelist, or so I have been led to believe, but even in saying that I doubt I’ll be on his Christmas card list this year. Although if he could send me a gift certificate with a couple of hours of my life back, that would certainly be appreciated.

As the story limps on, we move into episode three…

 

“Take care that you do not exhaust what remains of my patience.”

Episode 3: As Peri attempts to help prevent the destruction of the Earth Lander Argosy, The Doctor desperately negotiates with Lord Zzarl of the Ice Warriors for the lives of the Earth crew.

Where things suddenly don’t get any better. However I have, by this point, managed to find one solitary bright spot, and that is in Lord Zzarl, who must surely be the most passive aggressive Ice Warrior of all time. The kind of Ice Warrior that would buy you a mechanical dog, then kick it to death in front of you, then buy you another one. And then set it on fire. For which he would sincerely apologise. For there is honour in setting things on fire. And in apologising. And in everything else, apparently. Honestly, it’s enough to make a Klingon puke.

It also doesn’t hurt matters that to my ears he sounds eerily similar to Paul Darrow, if indeed Paul Darrow was an Ice Warrior (and in my world Paul Darrow can be whatever the fuck he wants).

The image of the Paul Darrow Ice Warrior, in his requisite cape, no less, sustains me for a short while. But it simply isn’t enough, and soon the crushing banality returns full force. And we still have another episode to go.

 

“A pragmatic solution. An honourable bargain.”

Episode 4: After yet another betrayal, and with The Doctor’s negotiations failing, Lord Zzarl sets out to show what it truly means to be an Ice Warrior.

Has Peri’s voice gradually been getting better? I quickly decide that I don’t really care. Which I guess brings me to the performances.

Peter Davison deserves a medal for trying so hard, but even he can’t do much with the material he is given here. He still makes a damn good go at it, though. Nicola Bryant’s performance seems patchy, even putting aside the accent/voice issue. But at least part of that I think is down to poor characterisation, and some truly dreadful dialogue that is forced upon her.

The guest cast, meanwhile, are mostly adequate. Peter Davison’s little girl, and destined to be Mrs David Tennant, and, rather creepily, also the Tenth Doctor’s daughter, Georgina Moffett is fine, if completely unremarkable. Thus I have remarked upon it. Her part here also shares some rather odd similarities with her future guest starring role in the TV series episode The Doctor’s Daughter. At this point I firmly believe she’s stuck in some weird kind of temporal loop built entirely out of coincidences and cheesecake. Although the cheesecake may be a lie.

Soon-to-be-Frobisher Robert Jezek gives a perfectly solid performance, though his character has precious little to do, and basically stands around on the sidelines for much of the story. The various Ice Warrior voices all do the job as well as could ever be hoped for, and there’s no doubting who, and what, they are. While Matthew Brenher does all he possibly can to inject some small semblance of life and interest into Lord Zzarl, and it worked for me, though perhaps not for the reasons that were intended. On the other hand, Stephen Fewell doesn’t do much to add anything at all to what is clearly one of the dumbest, whiniest, and least effective villains I have ever encountered, while the rest of the supporting cast do what is required of them, if little more. Except the ‘merkin voices at Mission Control, whose accents are so bad they have the potential to cause a diplomatic incident.

Oh, and you know how I like a good cliff-hanger? Well this didn’t have any. In fact it had one of the lamest cliff-hanger resolutions I have ever heard. Ever. In my whole history of owning ears.

To me this was the absolute nadir of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range so far, and I sincerely hope it remains that way, because this one truly was difficult to get through, and it is not an experience I would care to repeat. I generally get some level of enjoyment out of even the least successful audio releases, despite any inconsistencies there is always something there worthwhile to enjoy and help pull me through, but this one just flat out bored me from beginning to end. So much so that had it been my first Big Finish Doctor Who experience, I honestly don’t know if there would have been a second.

I love Doctor Who and I do sincerely try to find the positive in things as much as possible. So let me just positively say, in the words our Ice Warrior friends, for me thissssss one absssssolutely sssssssssuckssssss. It may not be witty, but it is, unfortunately, true.

 

Next up: Colin Baker returns in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor 

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Genocide Machine

Starring
Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace

Also featuring

Louise Faulkner, Bruce Montague, Daniel Gabriel
Alistair Lock and Nicholas Briggs

Written by Mike Tucker
Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

Daleks. Whether you love them, hate them, or are just plain indifferent about them, few would fail to acknowledge the huge impact and sheer importance they have played in the legacy of Doctor Who. As one of the key ingredients of it’s initial, as well as it’s enduring, popularity. As one of the primary visual cornerstones of it’s iconography. And as a vital chapter in the lore of the show, and the journey of it’s lead character. They are an enemy that have helped shape the very nature and personality of The Doctor himself. And here they are, the first of The Doctor’s famous rogues gallery to be given the Big Finish Doctor Who audio treatment. So, how do they fare? Please join me to find out.

 

“Why can’t we ever land on nice planets?”

Episode 1: The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive at the library of Kar-Charrat, a hidden repository that claims to house all of the knowledge of the universe. Meanwhile, in the dense forrest outside, a salvage team has arrived with plans to steal the ancient alien  ziggurat, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery.

Right off the bat, this story has quite a lot to live up to. Not the least of which being that the Seventh Doctor’s previous encounter with Terry Nation’s erstwhile bank balance boosters was in a certain Remembrance of the Daleks, a story widely considered to be the first real and legitimate triumph of the McCoy era. After a decidedly rough start, to put it very kindly, the Daleks marked the beginning of a sea-change in terms of both quality and content for McCoy’s incarnation of The Doctor. It wouldn’t be a perfect journey by any means, but they now had a direction and a handle on who the Seventh Doctor was, and how he would, and should, behave, and the show was all the better for it in the two seasons that followed. So, after a somewhat shaky start for McCoy’s Doctor on audio, can the Daleks do the same for him again here?

In a word. No. In a lot more words, it was probably too much to hope for, and for a great many reasons. The most notable, and succinct, one being that the previous McCoy audio stories were nowhere near as bad as the vast majority of his first TV season, and this story is nowhere near as good as Remembrance of the Daleks. That’s not to damn this story too harshly, nor to dismiss it out of hand. The fact is that this is just a rather paint by numbers, traditional Dalek tale, with little new to add to the old familiar flavour. Now that may in fact be a smart move in the long run, giving the folks at Big Finish the opportunity to get to grips with the Daleks in the safety of a rather standard Dalek story, but in practice, from this listeners point of view, it can’t help but be a little disappointing as well.

As to the first episode itself, it does a fair enough job of putting all of the main pieces in place, moves at a decent pace, and it is an enjoyable enough listen, even if The Doctor’s reason for visiting the library on Kar-Charrat feels a bit forced and obvious. There are the kernels of some interesting ideas here though, some of which will prove to be more successful than others.

 

“Humans are impatient. Daleks have no such weakness.”

Episode 2: The Doctor is greatly concerned upon discovering that the Daleks have not only become aware of the library’s existence, but also know of it’s location. Elsewhere, Ace has a decidedly more immediate problem of her own.

Which brings us into the second episode, where the Daleks really start to take hold of the story, after, again, a rather familiar ‘big entrance’ moment towards the end of the first episode. And the first thing that strikes me is that the Daleks don’t sound quite right. They still sound like Daleks, but the delivery seems just a little too fast, the vocal effects just a little too soft. And at times it makes me wonder if this is what a Dalek on speed would sound like.

Of course it is important to point out two things here. One, this is Dalek-meister Nicholas Briggs’ first official Dalek work, and so it is actually impressive that they sound as good as they do for a first effort. And we all know how good he’d get at being Mr Dalek in the years to come. And two, as I’m still quite new to Big Finish Doctor Who audio, I’m actually far more used to hearing a much later, more finessed version of Briggs’ Daleks, as done for the modern era of the TV show, so that may be throwing me a little bit too. Here he is trying to replicate the McCoy era Daleks, and while it does seem, to me, to be just a little bit off the mark, at the end of the day that’s just being ultra picky, and there’s still no doubting that these are Daleks we are listening to. Daleks with a substance abuse problem, maybe, but Daleks nonetheless.

One thing I will take Briggs to task for, just a little bit, is the voice of his Emperor Dalek, which just kind of grated on me more and more with each appearance. The Emperor Dalek here just seems more petulant than imposing, which is not exactly what one might expect from the supposed all-powerful leader of the Daleks. Mind you, I should also mention that I have never actually listened to the audio for the mostly lost Troughton story The Evil of the Daleks, where the Emperor Dalek made his debut, so it might be absolutely spot on for all I know. The only thing that I do know is that here, for me, it wasn’t particularly effective, and I would have preferred something that sounded a little more powerful and imposing, even outright scary.

Which brings us to the other performances. And they’re all pretty good, really. McCoy and Aldred once again ably prove just how well they work together, and though there are precious few real standout moments for either of their characters to latch on to in the script, they both give consistently fine performances throughout, particularly McCoy. And happily, there are none of the performance variations here that occurred in their previous outing, The Fearmonger, either. Guest stars Louise Faulkner and Daniel Gabriel both provide nice support, even if they aren’t given a terribly lot to do in the greater scheme of things. While I was slightly less enthused by Bruce Montague’s chief librarian Elgin, however that may be more down to the actual character rather than the actor in question. Much like Mike Tucker’s story itself, the cast all do a solid enough job, without ever truly managing to surprise.

 

“This planet is now under Dalek control.”

Episode 3: The Daleks have taken the library, but what do they truly seek to gain? And what is the truth behind the so-called Phantoms of Kar-Charrat?

In the third episode things actually start to pick up quite a bit, and parts of the story genuinely do become decidedly more interesting. Problem is, as mentioned previously, many of those potentially interesting ideas don’t always work so well in practice, particularly in an audio based story format, or at least in the way they have been presented here. And so for every interesting idea or plot point, there seems to be another one that just seems either overly convoluted, or that, in practice, comes across as a little bit silly.

And honestly, I know that this is just the opening salvo in what would ultimately lead into the Dalek Empire saga, but by the end of the story I’m still not entirely sure why the Daleks even bothered with this particular master plan, much less laid in wait so long to implement it. You’d think that in a thousand plus years of waiting they might have come up with a better plan than “let’s try to build an ultra smart Dalek again“, because let’s face facts, that one never really works out for them.

Also, with exactly how things unfold here, you would think that the Daleks would have seen the end results of the whole Dalek Sec and Dalek Caan saga coming a mile off. But like I said, it seems that Daleks never learn. Though some writers certainly seem to pay a bit more attention, eh Mr Russell T. Davies?

The script, though mostly solid, also throws out a few dodgy Ace-isms, the likes of which felt dated even back in the eighties. Honestly, I kind of hoped that this would be one area the Big Finish Doctor Who audio stories would move away from a bit. At least she doesn’t frequently scream “Ace!” here, which was always a facepalm moment for me whenever it happened in the show. I mean, we get it. Your (nick)name is Ace. You have a jacket that says Ace on it, on both the front and the back. And the name Dorothy isn’t exactly catchy. But you don’t need to make your nickname your constant catchphrase too. Really. You don’t. You really, really don’t. Ever. And that goes for you too, writers of Ace.

On the flip-side, I actually really liked the concept of the Phantoms of Kar-Charrat, and the entire storyline that weaved about them. Sentient creatures that live in a seemingly normal, non-threatening, and everyday common place, and who use the bodies of the dead to communicate, it is one of the things that really does work exceptionally well here. And the key setting of a library that ostensibly contains all the collected knowledge of the universe is a rather good one to have The Doctor visit as well. Both things I think a certain Mr Steven Moffat might well agree with.

And as we move into the final episode, I must take a moment to compliment the sound design. I may have the odd nitpick with exactly how the Daleks sound, but even so,  the sound work achieved in this story is second to none, and impressively sets a mood and tone that does a lot to dress up any shortfalls the story itself may have. The whole thing genuinely feels like a Dalek story, and the exceptional sound work is a major part of the reason for that.

 

“We live in the rain.”

Episode 4: As the Daleks attempt to instigate their plan, the true horror behind the library of Kar-Charrat is unveiled. And The Doctor is not pleased.

I don’t think it’s a major spoiler to say that the Dalek plan doesn’t exactly work out. The Doctor gets a nice moment of moral outrage. Which is nice. And momentary. So momentary in fact that he seems to largely forget about it almost immediately. The drawn out gag of Elgin’s silent assistant Prink reaches it’s long overdue, and blatantly unsurprising, conclusion. The imprisoned are freed, and everyone is free to go off on their merry way, as the spectre of the Dalek threat remains. And that’s about it really.

Once again, it may seem like I am being rather harsh or overly dismissive here, but the truth is this is just a pretty bog standard Dalek story. It doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but nor does it do much that is particularly special or memorable either. We’ve seen, and heard, it all before. And really, that, more than anything else, is it’s biggest sin. And without the distracting polish of any breakout characters or standout performances to spur it on, just how routine a story it truly is becomes even more abundantly clear. It’s not by any means bad, it was still nice to hear the Daleks on audio, and I still had a reasonably good time listening, I just don’t know if I’ll remember any of it in the morning. In my defence though, I am a goldfish.

It seems that my Big Finish Doctor Who audio journey with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor remains a decidedly rocky one. And I’ll have to get through quite a few more audio stories before his Seventh Doctor returns for another chance. But when he does arrive next time it seems that he’s bringing Mel along with him. God help me.

 

Next upPeter Davison returns in Red Dawn

I was asked today just how often updates to this blog could be expected.

This was amazing for two reasons. One, I didn’t think anyone was actually reading it yet, or, potentially, ever. And two, it turned out that somebody was, and not only that, actually seemed to want more. Thank god for crazy people.

Anyway, that started me thinking. Which is a process that tends to be both rare, and potentially dangerous. The end result of which was that I have now have a headache, a three legged cat, and an absolute belief that trilbies are cool. Oh, and I have also come up with the following schedule. One that I feel I should be able to meet. Probably. All things being mathematically comparative.

The plan, as it stands, is to do one new audio review per week, every week, from now through to the end of November.

Now I know that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but worth it or not, these things take me longer than I care to admit, and this one per week schedule is something that I should be able to reliably maintain.

In truth, I actually hope to do more than that, however real life can get in the way, so rather than promise something that I later can’t deliver, I’ll simply say that you can fully expect a new Big Finish review every week, and hopefully, most weeks, some additional content in addition to that. But one review a week is the baseline here, anything else is just the watered down gravy on top. Or proof of my growing OCD. Or both.

Not much more to say, other than I hope to see you all (can one person be an all?) next week, when I try to explain that the dog really did eat my blog-work…