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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

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Fearmonger.

Starring
Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace

Also featuring

Mark McDonnell, Jack Galagher, Mark Wright
Jonathan Clarkson, Vince Henderson
with Hugh Walters and Jacqueline Pearce

Written by Jonathan Blum
Directed by Gary Russell

 

Well, here we are then. Sylvester McCoy is back for his first solo Big Finish Doctor Who audio outing, and this time he has brought Sophie Aldred’s Ace along for the ride. How will they fare against the soundscape adventure of The Fearmonger? Read on to find out.

 

“You see all that hate out there and it burns you up…”

Episode 1: The ultra right-wing New Britannia party has been stirring up more than it’s fair share of fear in the community. But is there something even more frightening lurking silently and unseen behind the face and voice of the party’s leader, Sherilyn Harper? Something that only a would-be assassin can hear?

First thing’s first, this is Ace and The Doctor very much where we last left them, after the final classic era Doctor Who episode Survival, and that comes through strongly in both their characters and performances. Is this a good thing? A bad things? Well, to me it’s just a thing. I accept it, and I’m fine with it, but I am neither thrilled nor disappointed. It simply is what it is. Other’s mileage may vary.

The production team have actually taken a rather bold direction with this particular adventure. By breaking up the traditional, and perhaps expected, narrative structure, and having us, the listeners, join them at a story point where events are already well in motion, it risks confusing, or even alienating the audience. Luckily for them, any initial disorientation one might feel upon starting the first episode quickly dissipates, only to be replaced by a genuine interest and curiosity in just what is happening. And that initial show of patience was soon rewarded, as the pieces began to fall into place. Or, at least, such was the case for me.

Another thing that this approach did was to allow McCoy’s Doctor to make one hell of an entrance, very much capturing the essence of his Doctor on audio to almost immediate effect. The only downside of this being that he would have very few scenes anywhere near as good in the rest of this particular adventure, or at least until the ending eventually rolled around anyhow.

 

“Yes Doctor, we’ve been expecting you.”

Episode 2: As The Doctor and Ace delve further into the mystery of the fear-inducing voice behind the voice, and work on finding a way to neutralise it, they find themselves in the path of the United Front. A group of anti-New Britannia terrorists, who have plans of their own. 

As we start to get into the real meat of the story now, it is worth pointing out just how well this audio has captured the feel of McCoy era Doctor Who. This is evident not only in so far as the returning main characters, and their characterisations, go, but also in the type of story being told, and in the way that scripter Jonathan Blum has it all unfold. Once again Big Finish has managed to capture the feel of a particular era on audio, for both better and worse, and it truly does help add a sense of legitimacy to these early audio adventures, and makes one want to be more lenient towards some of their initial shortcomings.

Knowing fandom as I do, I’m sure that much has likely been made about Ace trying to do The Doctor’s “look me in the eye” bit from The Happiness Patrol, probably to much derision. But to me, it works, and for a number of reasons. Not the least of which being that it helps to add a nice layer of complexity on top of where the character of Ace was previously, and shows just how much she has been influenced, some would say manipulated, by The Doctor, and how that has affected her perception of her own abilities, as well as her continuing growth as a character. Plus they put a nice twist on it, to boot. Which is always nice. And twisty. And to boot-worthy.

Now, my love of a good, old fashioned Doctor Who cliff-hanger has been well noted previously. And as we reach the end of the episode, I feel it is my duty to give The Fearmonger it’s due in this regard. Granted, the cliff-hanger to the first episode was quite good, but the second episode cliff-hanger I’d actually count as being pretty damn great. Makes me really rather pumped to get right into that next episode, just as any good cliff-hanger should do.

 

“Pay no attention, it’s just your worst nightmare.”

Episode 3With Ace out of action, The Doctor must bide his time, waiting for an opportunity to proceed with his plan to separate the Fearmonger from it’s human host. But everything is not as it first appears.   

And then the wheels fell off.

If you are wondering why I have thus far failed to mention the performances in this audio, it is because I have been deliberately waiting to reach this episode before doing so. Something very strange happened with episode three, everything just suddenly went flat. McCoy is truly awful in parts of this episode. Flat, emotionless, and with an sudden monotone dullness that seemed decidedly out of place. Even stranger, this happens right at a point that should be a prime opportunity for his character to emote a little more than usual. Or, you know, at all. And the words are there for it, too, or at least some of them. But sadly, strangely, inexplicably, the performance isn’t. Not even remotely. It is very odd, and decidedly off-putting, and put me in a very weird head-space as a listener.

At first I thought that maybe there was a story based reason behind it, but after hearing the whole audio, I can’t place any reason on why this happened at all. And though he is the most obvious, it’s not just McCoy either, Sophie Aldred’s performance level also drops in episode three, and everything about this episode just seemed suddenly flatter and more amateurish than the episodes before or after, or indeed in any other Big Finish production I have heard thus far. It was the weirdest thing, and I don’t know if it’s just me, or if there was some production reason that I’m not privy to, but after the story finished I actually went back and checked parts of the first two episodes, against parts of the third, and I could still hear a definite decline in overall quality.

It really did throw me for a loop, and the story lost me to a certain degree at that point. And even as things got markedly better again in episode four, I was never as invested in the story again as I had been right up until the end of episode two. Which is a bit of a shame really. Now admittedly, it may not be quite as jarring should I listen to this story again in the future, being prepared for it in advance as I then would be, but as a first time listener the sudden drop in quality this episode really did derail the story significantly for me. And a truly ham-fisted non cliff-hanger ending, where things basically just seemed to suddenly stop, didn’t exactly help matters any, either.

 

“Better turn on the fan, I think something’s about to hit.”

Episode 4: As the city erupts into a full scale riot, Ace makes a startling discovery of her own.

So here I was, rolling into episode four, wondering what the hell had just happened, when things started to get better again almost as quickly as they had deteriorated. Not as good as they had been to start with, mind you, but we were clearly over that weird hump of episode three. If something so terribly flat can even truly be classified as a hump. A flat hump? Pretty sure I’ve experienced a few over the years. Hmmm, a debate for another day perhaps…

Things pick up again, the story kicks back in, the performances largely return to their previous normal level of competence, and then something almost as strange as the episode three non-hump hump happens. We get an ending that blows the doors off. I mean, sure, it may not be a particularly surprising twist in the tale, but it is great audio drama, and it is delivered superbly by McCoy and Aldred, who both very much bring their A-game to bear. At this point, my brain is so confused by the shifting qualities and tonal and performance variations that I’m kind of glad it’s all over, really, lest I risk a Scanners moment.

Speaking of the performances, perhaps unsurprisingly, it truly is a mixed bag. When McCoy and Aldred are on the mark, they are great, and they still work really well together. Which only makes it even more evident when they slide off that mark, most notably during episode three, but there is also the odd other slip here and there as well. Sophie Aldred seems to have occasional moments where her performance misses the mark throughout, as if she couldn’t quite find a stable point onto which to anchor her performance, and without that baseline to work out from, the dramatic extremes of her performance suffer from a slight sense of imbalance.

Sylvester McCoy, meanwhile, falls far more noticeably during parts of the now infamous episode three, but that episode is really the only one where his performance stutters to a truly significant extent, and some of his other work, particularly his entrance in episode one, and his final scene in episode four, truly shine. I don’t know if it’s first solo audio jitters, or a lack of performance focus in the direction, but the inconsistency of the two lead performers is hard to miss, and can tend to become a little distancing at times. But at the same time, when they get it right they get it so right that you become even more confused as to why some bits feel so wrong.

As to the guest cast, the addition of Jacqueline Pearce and Hugh Walters adds a real sense of class and style to the proceedings. They do their best to inject some life into what are ultimately rather one dimensional characters, with Walters, especially, managing to bring a real spark to the audio whenever he pops up for a bit. The rest of the guest cast all fill out their roles solidly enough, though I imagine that Herderson’s DJ character may grate on some listeners. However, to be fair, I’d say that is more due to the nature of the character itself, rather than any particular shortfall in the performance given.

So, that’s The Fearmonger then. And for the first time with the range I’m at a bit of a loss, really. This really does seem to be a release of two halves. The first half is quite good indeed. The second half is one part terrible, one part solid, with a small slice of superb as a chaser. So, not exactly the most satisfying journey into Who audio then, and certainly not the most consistent, not by a damn long way. There is enough good here to make it worth a listen, particularly for Seventh Doctor and/or Ace fans, but that lack of consistency really hurt it a lot for me, even with the benefit of a top notch ending in it’s favour.

And so, this particulat Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure now falls to last on my list. Though with some small regret given the things that it did get right along the way.

 

Next up: Colin Baker returns in The Marian Conspiracy