peter davison

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

Starring
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

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 Land of the Dead.

Starring
Peter Davison as The Doctor and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

Also featuring

Christopher Scott, Neil Roberts, Andrew Fettes
and Lucy Campbell

Written by Stephen Cole
Directed by Gary Russell

 

Now this is a slightly odd thing. After getting our first Peter Davison and Colin Baker solo adventures from the Big Finish Doctor Who range, I would have rather naturally expected that a Sylvester McCoy adventure would follow next. However, it seems that the Seventh Doctor will just have to wait until next time, because Peter Davison’s Doctor is back again instead. And this time he has brought Nyssa along for the ride. But is it a ride worth taking? Read on to find out.

 

“There is no heart in this place, only shadows.”

Episode 1: Arriving in Alaska, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa detect a strange energy pattern, and view plumes of smoke rising just over the horizon. Before they can investigate, they are forced to dematerialise in order to avoid a collision. Thirty years later the TARDIS sets down in the same place, apparently having locked on to the re-emergence of the unknown energy pattern. The Doctor and Nyssa set off into the icy wastes, heading towards a strange building that has been constructed right into the surrounding Alaskan terrain. What is the purpose of this ominous structure? And why does Nyssa have an uneasy feeling that they are being watched?

There is something rather strange going on here. Of the initial batch of Big Finish Doctor Who audio releases, The Land of the Dead sits just behind Davison’s Phantasmagoria as my favourite outing so far. Okay, admittedly, we’re only four audio adventures in, but Peter Davison is my least favourite of the three Doctors initially granted an audio reprieve, and I also found his performance the least impressive in the initial outing The Sirens of Time. But while I still prefer Colin Baker’s performances overall, I find that Davison has not only found his voice remarkably well in his two stories since, but both the stories have been very enjoyable to listen to indeed.

Joining him this time around is the return of Sarah Sutton as a pre-plague Nyssa, who it must be said is probably my favourite of the Fifth Doctor’s companions. There are moments where Sutton’s performance wavers a bit, and she does sound noticeably older, which can’t really be helped, but on the whole she does a good job for her first time out. And much like Strickson’s Turlough in Phantasmagoria, it is nice that she has been given an active part to play in the adventure, rather than just being stuck in sidekicksville most of the time, as can so easily happen to the companions in Doctor Who stories.

Which brings us to the story’s supporting players. The good news is that there are no distractingly bad or crazily over-the-top performances here. In fact everyone is quite solid, if a touch unremarkable. If you want to get picky, our native characters do appear to have escaped from the good ship stereotype, Andrew Fettes’ Gaborik especially. And I can certainly see an argument being made that Lucy Campbell’s Monica tends to have taken up full time residence on the pricklier side of Annoying Lane.

However, to be perfectly honest, while I certainly recognised these factors along the way, they didn’t actually bother me or detract at all from my enjoyment of the story being told, nor were their efforts in any way grating. So while you could argue that the characters and performances on display here are all a bit cookie-cutter in nature, they still get the job done, and they do so without ever getting in the way of the narrative. To that end, they manage to accomplish all that is ever actually required of them. Which, as it turns out, was plenty good enough for me.

As the first episode unfolds, it is soon rather evident that this one is going to be a bit of a slower burn, and some may even find it a bit overly talky and exposition heavy. But for me, it is all in service of setting up a rather intriguing mystery, and it also doesn’t hurt matters any that Davison’s Doctor gets some great lines along the way, as well.

 

“Unsettling, isn’t it?”

Episode 2: After taking refuge inside the structure, The Doctor and Nyssa have acquainted themselves with the building’s few human residents, each of whom seems to be there for their own distinct purposes. One by one people seem to be falling prey to paranoias born out of their distant past, while within the stone walls something is stirring, aching to get free…

As things start to get into full swing, can I just take the time to remark once again how nice it is to have Nyssa back. A genuine smart companion for The Doctor, in every sense of the word.

And yes, I am struggling for much more to say. Such are the hazards of the entirely competent story that does everything entirely competently. Have I mentioned that I quite liked it yet? Ah, yes, I thought so. Moving on then.

 

“There can be no rest for us now.”

Episode 3: While The Doctor struggles to fight off the creatures that have been set loose within the building, Nyssa finds herself trapped at a nearby survey camp. And her companion is starting to act very strangely.

The story progresses along on it’s not-so-merry way, and suddenly something strikes me. I’m not sure exactly why, perhaps it is in part due to my love of horror fiction by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, but the realisation dawns that I am also quite taken by the idea of the Permian creatures as they lumber their way through this particular story. And while they are perhaps not the most startlingly original of monster ideas, they still manage to be one which has been brought to audio life here quite effectively. Besides which, Who’s best monsters were always riffs on existing myths and familiar tropes, only slightly twisted to fit into the specific needs and style of the show in a creative and entertaining way. And for my money, the Permians fit into that mould rather nicely.

Or maybe I just like the idea of big bone beasties in the dark. Yes Sigmund, sometimes a Permian is just a Permian.

 

“Your words mean nothing to me.”

Episode 4: As the truth of what really happened thirty years ago finally comes to light, The Doctor and Nyssa must find a way to destroy these ancient creatures once and for all.

And so it ends, with a bang, and not a whimper. Or maybe two bangs if the completely out of left field, and disturbingly skeevy, final line is any indication. Still, putting that to one side, I had a rather good time with this one. And while I suppose you could accuse the story of of being a touch routine, all in all I think scripter Stephen Cole has done a fine job here.

Something else that should be noted before I wind this up is that they have done a really nice job of setting the atmosphere in this story, with both the soundscape and the music really coming together nicely, and helping to give added depth to the story as it unfolds, injecting it with that much needed extra spark of life. A sense of atmosphere is something that sadly seems to be all too often overlooked these days, but when done right adds immeasurably to the impact and effectiveness of a story, and as such should never be undervalued. As such the work here, as it has been in most of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio that I have heard so far, really is to be commended.

There is, however, one caveat that must be made. The paint throwing sound effect during episode four is so bad that my ears have threatened to file an injunction against me for separation due to irreconcilable differences should I ever dare submit them to such torture again. Seriously, whoever listened to that effect and said “yeah, that sounds like paint being thrown“, please buy a new set of ears, before I have to.

Other than that, Peter Davison’s Doctor has delivered another winner. Will his, or my, luck continue?

 

Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Fearmonger

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

Starring
Peter Davison as The Doctor and Mark Strickson as Turlough

Also featuring

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

Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

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

 

“Use your brain, Turlough.”

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

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

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

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

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

Or do I?

 

“The air was full of phantoms.”

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

Yes. I do.

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

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

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

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

 

“The voices of the dead.”

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

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

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

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

 

“Slaughterer of the unworthy.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next up: Colin Baker returns in Whispers of Terror

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

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

Also featuring

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

Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Appearances can be deceptive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Beware the Sirens of Time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next up: Peter Davison returns in Phantasmagoria