seventh doctor

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

Starring
Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor and Bonnie Langford as Mel

Also featuring

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

Written by Steve Lyons
Directed by Gary Russell

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Time can not abide a paradox.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Time working against me…”

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

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

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

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

 

“The Gods cleanse our city with fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in Shadow of the Scourge

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

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