sixth doctor

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Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Apocalypse Element

Starring
Colin Baker as The Doctor with Maggie Stables as Evelyn
and Lalla Ward as Romana

Also featuring

Michael Wade, Nicholas Briggs, Alistair Lock, Karen Henson
Andrea Newland, Andrew Fettes, Toby Longworth
James Campbell, Neil Corry
and Anthony Keetch

Written by Stephen Cole
Directed by Nicholas Briggs

 

All things considered, I found the first outing for the Daleks in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range to be a rather lukewarm affair. However, joining them for their second appearance on audio we also have the Time Lords of Gallifrey, Evelyn Smythe, Colin Baker as The Doctor, and a certain Romanadvoratrelundar, played once again by Lalla Ward. With those ingredients, what could possibly go wrong?

 

“There’s something wrong here, I can feel it.”

Episode 1: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn arrive on the planet Archetryx, as it plays host to twenty of the most powerful races in the cosmos, all attending a conference designed to discuss imposing limitations to temporal manipulation in light of the still unexplained Etra Prime incident, where the entire planetoid, and all upon it, vanished without trace. The Doctor is shocked to discover that amongst the missing was the newly elected President of the Time Lords, and his former travelling companion, Romana.

Ever since Doctor Who returned to screens in 2005 there has been the shadow of the Last Great Time War hanging over The Doctor. An event so momentous that it altered the very fabric of The Doctor himself. And yet also an event that we, as an audience, would seemingly never be destined to witness for ourselves, instead only being allowed small glimpses into the periphery, and indications into what the fallout of this event caused to The Doctor, to the Time Lords, Gallifrey and the Daleks, and to the universe at large. This, of course, only helped to increase the mystique that surrounds the Time War, and made the audience even keener to experience the events that transpired for themselves in some form. Alas, to date, that has not come to pass. So instead all we can do is to take the fragments that we have been given, and imagine the rest.

But if you are anything like me, just visualising what such a Time War could be like is a bit of a daunting task. Until now. Because The Apocalypse Element paints a very clear picture of what such a conflict could be like, and could, if you chose to do so, even be seen as an opening salvo in what would ultimately become the Last Great Time War. It also happens to be the second lead in to the eventual Dalek Empire spinoff series, after the previous Sylvester McCoy era tale The Genocide Machine. And a marked improvement it is on that one, too.

And don’t let the chosen quote above mislead you either, there is in fact very little wrong here at all. Indeed, what writer Stephen Cole and director Nicholas Briggs have delivered this time out is a very strong contender for my favourite Big Finish Doctor Who audio release so far. Or, at the very least, a story that is on par with what was, prior to this, my clear favourite, The Marian Conspiracy. And just like that story, it all comes down to the quality and complexity of the script, and the ensemble of truly first rate performances. Both areas in which this particular adventure absolutely shines.

Speaking of complexity, the job Stephen Cole does in balancing so many disparate elements, while always maintaining forward momentum, and never losing focus on either plot or character, is a masterful one. That he manages to do so, while also re-introducing old characters in a compelling manner, telling an epic, fast moving tale with a large cast of characters, and setting up plot elements that will clearly be used again in the future, all the while being forever mindful of the medium he is working in, and how best to use it, well, it is simply a master-class on how to successfully script for audio. Truly impressive stuff, and one that future writers for Big Finish have hopefully taken note of.

And while I’m handing out plaudits, I also need to point out just how well the Daleks themselves have been used this time around. Unlike the rather perfunctory The Genocide Machine, here we have the Daleks at their evil best, with the true menace and threat they represent superbly and convincingly realised. They are the scourge of the universe, equal parts deadly fanatical threat, and twisted conniving strategist, and few Doctor Who stories, and even fewer Doctor Who writers, manage to fully sell all of that character and motivation which lies festering behind the robotic voices, and their penchant for catch-phrase induced slaughter. But Cole and company have absolutely nailed the Daleks here, and it makes a world of difference to the overall effectiveness of the story.

Another thing that helps truly sell the Daleks in this story is just how good the Dalek voices are. Once again I felt that the first Dalek outing, The Genocide Machine, had been just a tiny bit off in some regards, as far as the Dalek voice work went. But here Nicholas Briggs and Alistair Lock are absolutely spot on, and the degree to which this authenticity adds to the menace of the Daleks here is truly palpable.

So what we have, with this first episode, is an absolute cracker of an opening, equal parts mystery and plot development, that pays off exactly when it needs to, and in often surprising and imaginative ways as well. And it only gets better from here, folks.

 

“Welcome back, Romana.”

Episode 2: On Etra Prime, Romana is forced by the Daleks to work on the construction of a temporal centrifuge, a vital component in their upcoming plans. But could this also present an opportunity for escape after so many years imprisonment?

As we roll into the second episode, we are greeted with the return of Lalla Ward as either Romanadvoratrelundar, Romana, Romana II, The Mistress, or Unit One-One-Seven, depending on your personal point of view. And quite a return it is too. Not only is it a supremely bold move to take the character of Romana as we previously knew her, give her this tortured history, and set her up to go in a surprising new direction into the future, but it also serves to strengthen her, adding additional layers to a character that we previously knew, and giving her an actual purpose within the greater Doctor Who universe, beyond that of simple companion. In short, rather than the usual effort to recapture a companion exactly as they were when we knew them, here they have given us the return of a character who has changed in the years since we, and the Doctor, last saw them. And it works remarkably well. It also affords Lalla Ward some legitimate performance opportunities. One of the best, and most effective, being that of her introductory monologue, where she details her current state of mind and body, after having been so long imprisoned by the Daleks. It is genuinely captivating work, perfectly delivered by Lalla Ward, and gives Romana one Hell of an entrance into the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. And, better yet, it is a performance quality that she maintains for the entirety of this story, approaching each opportunity with equal gusto. There’s no first audio anxieties on display here whatsoever.

This adventure also marks the return of Michael Wade’s Lord President and Anthony Keetch’s Celestial Intervention Agency Coordinator Vansell, whose last appearance, in debut Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure The Sirens of Time, had them allowing Gallifrey to be invaded by the Knights of Velyshaa. Here they allow the Daleks to invade Gallifrey, so at least they are setting their invasion standards a little higher this time around. Still, with that kind of managerial track record is it any wonder that everybody on Gallifrey was apparently perfectly willing to wait twenty years for Romana to return and reclaim the top job? Besides which, it’s not like they are anywhere near the worst that Gallifreyan politics has had to offer over the years, so the locals probably thank Rassilon for small mercies, I suppose. Either way, both performers do their jobs here admirably.

Speaking of performances, this is another triumph for Colin Baker, who is once again absolutely superb as The Doctor. He also gets some great lines along the way, both dramatic and pithy. The Mexican Standoff bit, which I won’t spoil here, actually made me laugh out loud. A perfect example of a performance elevating what was a good line, and turning it into something great. A talent for which Colin Baker seems to posses in abundance, based on his work for Big Finish thus far. His Doctor here also fully possesses that fiery quality that I always so enjoy, even if some of the rougher edges are, again, smoothed down just a little too much for my taste. Also notable of mention is just how well the chemistry between Colin Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana works here, and you truly do believe instantly in the shared history that exists between these two characters.

The main guest cast is strong right across the board this time out as well, with Anthony Keetch’s afore mentioned Vansell in particular making a great foil for The Doctor, while Andrea Newland and Andrew Fettes (as Raldeth, also previously featured in The Sires on Time) were both, for me, standouts amongst a very fine supporting cast. And then we come to one Evelyn Smythe…

Now I have actually quite enjoyed Maggie Stable’s Evelyn in the two previous outings that she shared with Colin Baker’s Doctor, but here I felt that the character just made for a bit of an ill fit with the story being told. Given the stakes involved and the way that the drama unfolds, she is entirely too flippant for the entirety of the story. Nothing seems to faze her, worry her, or frighten her, in fact she shows basically zero emotion whatsoever, nor any empathy to the gravity of the events unfolding around her, instead she just basically walks about like a bemused tourist, replete with a string of pithy one liners, which soon becomes rather tiresome. It just serves to make the character seem entirely detached from all that is going on around her, and as a result, the story itself, and one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have actually been better without her in it, and with someone a little more emotional in her place. Maggie Stables performance is fine for what it is, but, for me, it just doesn’t fit very well into the overall tone of the tale being told, and as such is one of the very few weaknesses in what is otherwise a pretty flawless audio adventure. That said, it does allow The Doctor a great dramatic outburst near the end of the story, when even he seems to have had enough of her apparent apathy towards the unfolding of events. Honestly, I couldn’t help but sympathise.

That lone, and relatively minor, complaint aside, this episode takes the story from mystery to outright thriller, and the pacing barely lets up for a moment, despite somehow still allowing the story and characters time enough to breathe, and the story to twist and turn in admirable fashion. And things aren’t slowing down any as we storm into episode three.

 

“Gallifrey must fall to the Daleks!”

Episode 3: After the disaster on Archetryx, The Doctor and his companions retreat to Gallifrey, home of the Time Lords. However, they may already be too late, as the Dalek invasion has begun…

The third episode shows us that this story is very much one of two halves, however luckily for us both are equally enjoyable and interesting. There is fan service aplenty here, particularly now that we are on Gallifrey, however it all fits neatly within the bounds of the story being told, and thankfully never feels like it is only present as a form of writer posturing, as can so often be the case when the continuity well is delved into. As a result, such instances actually tend to add to the story, rather than work against it, and manage to confidently avoid the risk of alienating the listener under a sea of continuity minutiae.

If I had any nitpicks at this point, it would be that very occasionally the sound mix is a little too cacophonous during the requisite battle scenes, and when that happens the lack of aural focus can detract from the overall effectiveness of the scene in question to a small degree, as it all tends to become a clash of noise. But this only happens a couple of times along the way, and never for very long, so it really is being tremendously nitpicky of me to even mention. And while on the subject, I must also take the opportunity to say that the soundscape itself is actually incredibly impressive and immersive here, and is itself worthy of the highest of commendations. You really can’t undersell the value and importance of achieving a sense of atmosphere for audio, and here they have managed to do exactly that, and then some.

I do, however, have one other audio complaint, and that is in the wisdom of using a high pitched tone as a mind-control plot device early on in the story, as it is just such an unpleasant sound to hear, particularly through earphones. Thankfully it’s usage is limited to only a couple of brief instances in the first episode, but even so, perhaps it was not the wisest of choices purely from a listener comfort point of view.

As we power towards the final episode now, I should also say that this is one of those rare stories where each episode grips so hard that it left me genuinely thirsty to jump right in to the next episode as soon as possible. And for an episodic story format, there are few compliments as great as that. It has also managed to provide some ripping good cliff-hangers along the way, as well. And as I have said before, I do love me a good cliff-hanger.

 

“The sacred heart of the Time Lords.”

Episode 4: As the true scale of the Dalek plan becomes horrifically clear, The Doctor and his companions are faced with an impossible choice. Surrender Gallifrey to the Daleks, or watch the entire universe burn. Could this finally be victory for the Daleks?

Often I find that the final episode is so focussed on trying to wrap everything up neatly that it forgets that it still has to be entertaining along the way. However, we have no such worries here, as they manage to not just stick the landing, and in highly entertaining and satisfying fashion, but also deliver a neat little twist in the tail to boot. Once again, a glowing example of how it should be done.

So, it seems that with The Apocalypse Element we have yet another high water mark for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. A multi-layered, tremendously engaging, and perfectly paced story that more than lives up to any raised expectations formed by the return of Romana, the Time Lords of Gallifrey, and the Daleks. Every element of this audio release comes together to help deliver what is, for me, undoubtedly one of my absolute favourite releases from this first timer’s journey through Big Finish thus far, and it is this degree of quality Doctor Who audio story that drives me to keep coming back for more, searching for the next Big Finish Doctor Who audio release of similar excellence.

There are a couple of small issues I had along the way, but by any measure, this is classic Doctor Who, and yet another feather in the cap of Colin Baker’s Doctor, who truly has proven now beyond a shadow of a doubt that despite the ups and downs of his television tenure, his Doctor was never the problem. Something that, hopefully, conventional fan wisdom will one day see fit to finally acknowledge.

Now, if only I could finally get an audio adventure somewhere near this good for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. A task which has thus far proven itself to be surprisingly elusive, despite best efforts to the contrary. Will his next outing finally break the drought?

 

Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Fires of Vulcan

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

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


Also featuring

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

Written and Directed by Nicholas Pegg

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next up: Peter Davison returns in Winter for the Adept

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release The Marian Conspiracy

Starring
Colin Baker as The Doctor and Maggie Stables as Evelyn

Also featuring

Jo Castleton, Nicholas Pegg, Barnaby Edwards
Jez Fielder, Sean Jackson, Gary Russell
and Anah Ruddin

Written by Jacqueline Rayner
Directed by Gary Russell

 

Well, this ought to be interesting. The introduction of our first companion created exclusively for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. And she’s going to be an old lady. And played by the person who, for me, gave the absolute stand out worst performance in any of the audio releases prior to this one, to boot. That’s right, my Whovian friends, it appears that they really are determined on making the woman who was the cringe-inducing Ruthley in The Sirens of Time a regular companion to the Sixth Doctor. So, are they crazy? Read on to find out.

 

“A stitch in time.”

Episode 1: While searching out the source of a temporal nexus, the Sixth Doctor encounters one Evelyn Smythe, a historian whose own history seems to be rapidly disappearing. The only solution, travel into the past and ensure that history unfolds as it should, before Evelyn, too, is erased from time.

So, turns out they’re not crazy. Not even close. And while the idea of a pension aged companion travelling with The Doctor didn’t exactly hit me in my happy place when I first heard about it, turns out not only does it work, but it works damn well. And mostly it works damn well because of just how enjoyable Maggie Stables is in the role, and just how good the rapport is between her and Colin Baker. In truth, I’m less surprised that it works, and more surprised at just how well it works, and how quickly I was drawn into the whole thing.

Almost right from the get-go, this story just feels of a higher standard, and far more assured than any that have come before. It’s hard to put into words, but there is just a feeling of quality that oozes out of every corner of this release. The script, the performances, the pacing, everything just seems spot on here. To hear Colin Baker getting a chance at a story this good, well, the end result literally had me grinning from ear to ear. Yes, literally. And please, no jokes about my abnormally large mouth. I’m very sensitive.

If I had a complaint, as I listened to the first episode, it would be that I often found the music to be somewhat intrusive and overbearing, not to mention overly repetitive. It just had that ‘listen to me‘ quality about it, as if it was deliberately trying to draw attention to itself, rather than melding into the overall soundscape and becoming an organic feeling part of the whole. Something that I find the best supplemental music does. It was more distraction than benefit. Though in fairness it seemed to become less of an issue as the story progressed. Now, whether that was due to me just getting used to it, and blocking it out to a certain extent, or because it actually had been toned back somewhat, I’m not entirely sure, though for the most part it felt like the latter.

One final observation before we move into the next episode, Maggie Stables’ Evelyn must be the most clueless historian ever, given just how little thought she gives to what a walking anachronism that she is, without even the slightest effort made to lessen having such an impact. It is another clear indication of how good the writing and performances are then that not only does this behaviour not grate, even when it is conveniently used as plot device, but it is even a tiny bit endearing.

So, episode one was a bit of a cracker then. Can it sustain this level of quality, though?

 

“If they can not step from the path of sin, then they will be purified in the flames.”

Episode 2: The Doctor has ingratiated himself into Queen Mary’s court, as elsewhere, Evelyn has uncovered a conspiracy that would seek to remove The Queen from power.

Yes, it can. Very much so. In fact, if anything, this is where things start to get really good, and it soon becomes very clear indeed that this story is setting the new benchmark for quality as far as Doctor Who audio adventures go.

With that said, there is one manner in which the story is ever-so-slightly let down. Barnaby Edwards’ French accent. Which, it must be said, is less believable French accent, and more refugee from a Monty Python sketch that has somehow invaded the Doctor Who set. So much so that I half expected him, when confronted by The Doctor, to proclaim him to be the son of a silly person, and tell him to go and boil his bottom. To be fair, his actual performance is perfectly fine, but that accent is still just a little bit silly. Plus, it turned me into a newt! (I got better)

So, perfection it may not be, but perfection is boring, and some would say, unattainable. What we have here instead is a story blistering with life and energy, style and intelligence. A story not afraid to take risks in terms of content and subject matter, especially in regard to differing religious views, and the dubious morals and fanaticisms that can so easily taint such beliefs. And that it does not present such matters in a clear ‘black and white’ good versus evil fashion is, again, a great credit to all concerned. As are the performances that bring it all so vividly to life.

I must say, it is all going rather well then. But things have suddenly fallen over in episode three before…

 

“The TARDIS is an exceptionally fine craft.”

Episode 3: As the plot against Queen Mary turns deadly, The Doctor finds himself being granted a particularly unwanted gift.

But this time, in this story, there is no such drop in quality. If anything, again, it actually raises the bar. In fact there is a scene in this episode between The Doctor, and Queen Mary’s Lady in Waiting, Sarah, that is nothing short of amazing. A scene that I will not spoil, but which manages to debate religion and intent, while simultaneously delving into The Doctor’s own character in an unexpectedly powerful and poignant way, and the performances of Jo Castleton, and especially Colin Baker, could not be better. It is truly a moment of absolutely riveting drama, and in fact I’d go so far as to call it amongst Colin Baker’s best ever work as The Doctor. Yes, I was that blown away.

Not only that, but the scene in question also worked as a perfect validation of why The Doctor presented here has softened a bit, and isn’t quite so prickly around the edges. And while I am actually someone who loves the prickly and more belligerent side of The Sixth Doctor’s personality, it is a character progression that not only works and makes sense, but which was always intended to take place as time wore on, in much the same way that William Hartnell’s Doctor also changed and softened somewhat over time. This is an older version of The Sixth Doctor, he carries with him the burden of his past, and it has changed him. But believably so. And probably for the better.

Speaking of the performances, they really are great, right across the board (dodgy French accent not withstanding). As already mentioned, Colin Baker is truly superb, and Maggie Stables helps give Evelyn a very enjoyable audio debut. Of the guest cast, the afore mentioned Jo Castleton is a standout, particularly in her scenes opposite Baker. But one cast member that I have thus far failed to mention, but who is absolutely stellar, and every bit Baker’s equal here, is Anah Ruddin as Queen Mary, who delivers a performance of true grace and complexity. It is a character that would be so easy to turn into a stock standard villain, however Ruddin’s performance, combined with Jacqueline Rayner’s superb script, truly turns Queen Mary into a believable and compelling character. And it is a character and performance that looms large over the story being told here, and does so very much to it’s benefit.

As the third episode winds up, I know already that this is easily my favourite Big Finish Doctor Who audio thus far. And all I really want now is for it to stick the landing, and have a satisfying conclusion…

 

“Violence is never the answer.”

Episode 4: The Doctor and Evelyn must race against time to uncover the conspirators, and ensure that history unfolds as it should. But at what cost?

And it does, mostly.

To be perfectly honest, the final episode is all a bit routine. Everything story-wise is tied up, there’s a decent twist in the tale, the performances are still great, and the ending is suitable. There’s the odd clunky attempt at humour that doesn’t really play, but nothing too bothersome. And despite lacking the depth or power of previous episodes, it is still a largely satisfying experience. But, much as a final episode has to be, it is all in service to the basic function of ending the story and tying everything together neatly, so there is little room for anything grander. As such it just tends to lack a certain impact. I also found part of the ending to be ever so slightly a cop out, and I think it would have been more powerful and better suited to an even more downbeat finale than the one we are ultimately given. Though at the same time, I understand why that wasn’t done, especially for the first adventure of a brand new companion.

But honestly, this is all nitpicking. The final episode is solidly enjoyable, everything else prior is pretty damn great, and much of it even better than that, thanks in no small part to Jacqueline Rayner’s truly superb scripting, which is easily the best that the Big Finish Doctor Who line has yet seen. Which makes it a great shame that she has done so few Doctor Who audio plays, and sadly it would be another three years or so until her next release in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. After her stellar work here with The Marian Conspiracy I definitely look forward to eventually getting to that next one, however, and the fact that it is yet another Sixth Doctor adventure is just the icing on the cake.

So, on reflection, if this had been part of the TV show I believe that I would likely rank it as a classic, and as a personal favourite. And as an audio adventure, I still rank it as a classic. And definitely as my new favourite. I want more like this, please. In fact, when fans rave about Big Finish, I now imagine that it is this level of quality that they are talking about. And as much as I have enjoyed previous audio releases, to varying degrees, this one, right here, is the first one I’d rate as uniformly excellent. Both as a piece of storytelling drama, and as a slice of Doctor Who. So kudos to all concerned.

It also makes me keener than ever for my next Big Finish Doctor Who fix.

 

Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Genocide Machine

Cover art for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio release Whispers of Terror.

Starring
Colin Baker as The Doctor and Nicola Bryant as Peri

Also featuring

Lisa Bowerman, Matthew Brenher, Rebecca Jenkins, Nick Scovell
Steffan Boje, Mark Trotman, Hylton Collins
and Peter Miles

Written by Justin Richards
Directed by Gary Russell

 

Back into Colin Baker land we go, who, as I’ve mentioned previously, I am quite the fan of. And who has already excelled himself in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. Plus, this time there is the added bonus of the return of Nicola Bryant as one Perpugilliam Brown. What could possibly go wrong? Please join me to find out.

 

“You don’t know where we are.”

Episode 1: The Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive at the Museum of Aural Antiquities, only to find themselves confronted with a fleeing woman and a dead body. And just what are those mysterious otherworldly voices that echo throughout the halls?

And I was so looking forward to this one, too. Alas, it turned out that Whispers of Terror would soon prove itself to be my least favourite journey into Big Finish Doctor Who audio so far, and by a pretty significant margin, to boot.

Now that isn’t to say that this release is a total write off, and there is nothing in it that is anywhere near as grating as parts of the first episode of The Sirens of Time, for example. But disappointing, very much so. At least to this listener’s ears.

The main problem, and one that soon becomes very evident indeed, is just how drawn out the entire thing is. There just isn’t enough story here to convincingly or entertainingly sustain a four episode audio adventure, and as a result there is a lot of padding. This comes not only in terms of lengthening scenes far beyond need, and just generally drawing out the story to near breaking point, but also in the addition of an excess of audio cues. Many of these have a tendency to overstay their welcome, and some even seem to be there for little reason beyond the simple filling of time, particularly during the initial pair of episodes.

The basic premise, while rather simple, is actually quite a good one. It is unfortunate then that it just feels like it has all been stretched way too thin, with the end result being that much of it comes across as a bit of a chore, despite the best efforts of the majority of the cast involved.

Speaking of the cast, Colin Baker is as good as ever, given what he has to work with, while Nicola Bryant very successfully slips back into character as Peri, and manages to do so without the teething problems we have heard other returning cast members going through. It’s just a shame that she hasn’t been given some stronger material to work with. Her character here has been granted little more than a series of verbal sparrings with The Doctor for much of the story’s runtime. These are enjoyable up to a point, but I can’t help but wish there was a bit more there, both in terms of wit and substance.

As for the guest cast, it’s a mostly dependable mixed bag of performances. Peter Miles is very good indeed, as the museum’s blind curator, while there is also notably strong support from Lisa Bowerman and Matthew Brenher. Unfortunately, as so far often seems to be the case, there is again here a performance that stands out as distractingly poorer than all the others, and this time that dubious credit must go to Steffan Boje, who is more wooden than a plank covered by another plank, locked in a pine box, and surrounded by trees. Tut tut tut.

The first episode does the usual job of setting the scene, starting the story rolling, and getting the main players in place. However, despite that, one can’t help but feel like not all that much actually happens. A feeling that is set to continue.

 

“You have to protect me from the voices.”

Episode 2: It appears that somebody has been changing select audio records of the late actor, and aspiring politician, Visteen Krane, from within the museum archives. Krane’s former agent, Beth Pernell, has arrived in advance of a special broadcast dedicated to her client and friend, but is she also hiding ambitions of her own? And what exactly is the true purpose of this creature that appears to be composed entirely of sound?

Okay, first up, can I just say that the audio in this release can be truly grating at times. Particularly during the first two episodes, where, as previously mentioned, it too often serves the purpose of simply padding out the run time.

Now I do get what they are trying to do here, and I think the core idea of a creature made of sound is, while a touch obvious, still quite a good concept for an audio based adventure. However, the execution of it within the audio mix often leaves a little to be desired.

To my ears, they have tried to make the sound design too complex, too multi-layered, with the idea that more automatically equals better. But the end result is that it actually detracts from both the idea itself, and it’s overall impact, and it all becomes aurally overcrowded and repetitive. Even, as already stated, somewhat grating at times. For me it just served to unbalance the story even further.

Though to be fair, as the mystery of the creature became clearer in the last two episodes, and such mixing methods weren’t as heavily relied upon, or applied in quite such heavy-handed a manner, it also became far less of a problem as the story progressed. Admittedly, it is also one of those things that will likely bother some people more than it will others.

Speaking of the sound mix, I felt that the music was often a little too bombastic and overbearing for my personal tastes as well. Once again, that may actually be more to do with its frequent overuse in being so often brought to the forefront as yet another time filler, rather than any lack of quality in the actual score. In other words, it’s more to do with how the music was used, rather than the music itself. Though honestly, given the way in which it was often used, I found it a bit hard to differentiate the two.

The story continues to lumber along, while most of the cast do their level best to inject some life and energy into the proceedings. That they manage to do so to any significant degree is probably as fine a testament to their abilities as anything, frankly. And thankfully, the final two episodes do at least pick up a little, at least in pacing and general entertainment terms, if not exactly depth or unexpectedness of story.

 

“I’ll keep it close to my hearts.”

Episode 3: The Doctor has uncovered the truth behind the origin of the sound creature, but it’s motives are decidedly less clear. Meanwhile Peri makes a startling discovery of her own.

With the third episode, at least the plot seems to be moving along at a slightly better pace, and though there is little here to surprise, what we do get does seem a touch less obtrusive in it’s padding and sound design. And more entertaining it is for it too.

One thing I have thus far failed to mention is that all the cliff-hangers in this story are actually rather naff, as well, with the third episode not only continuing the tradition, but even managing to up the stakes. To which I momentarily put on my Mighty Hat of Dramatic Clichés (tm.) and scream “Noooooooooooooooooooo!

 

“It’s what you say that’s important, not how loudly you say it.”

Episode 4: As a result of his efforts to stop the rampaging sound creature, The Doctor gains an unexpected ally. And the true extent of the conspiracy is finally revealed.

And so it ends. And in a decidedly paint-by-numbers manner, at that.

One of the biggest problems with this story for me, other than those I have already outlined, is the sheer fact that Justin Richards’ script lacks even the smallest of surprises. Even the one twist that it actively tries to pull, which would be largely impossible to try to do in a more visual format, is so entirely predictable (and oddly inconsequential) that you are literally waiting for it to finally happen. Being so far ahead of the story and characters is just another curse that this audio must endure, and is yet another thing that makes the excessive padding of the earlier episodes a bit of a chore to get through.

It also doesn’t help matters that the ending, featuring the final fate of one of the lead characters, seems so violently shoehorned in at the last moment that you can almost smell its giant, misshapen foot pushing extra hard in an effort to make it all work. And it even seemed to have a bit of a tin ear to boot.

However, despite all I have said above, this isn’t a bad story, per se, and I didn’t outright dislike it either, much less hate it. It is simply a decidedly mediocre tale that has been stretched way too thin, and not at all to it’s benefit. And in many ways, that in itself is disappointment enough. The odd thing is, at the same time it feels very much like an early Colin Baker TV story, though more for it’s lesser attributes, rather than it’s fewer positive ones.

Still, it is not as if every Big Finish Doctor Who audio release was going to be a winner, and hopefully better things are soon to come.

 

Next up: Peter Davison returns in The Land of the Dead

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