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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 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