Gallifrey Series IV

I come to Big Finish’s new Gallifrey series from a slightly different angle from most of its listeners. I listened to the first three series several years ago, and was unimpressed – I remember the first series as being moderately entertaining fluff, while the second and third series got so far up their own arsehole they actually succeeded at navel-gazing from the inside, (This may be an unfair judgement. I remember them as being the very definition of fanwank, but it may well be that the attempt to do a fifteen-part epic story was just too ambitious for my own attention span).

But series three of Gallifrey had ended on a cliffhanger – the start of The Time War, with ‘some metal gentlemen’ having infected all of Gallifrey with a virus. And if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s the Time War. Especially since reading Richard & Alex’s wonderful Fractal History Of The Time War, I’ve been treating the Time War in my head like a gigantic multidimensional puzzle.

The interesting thing about the Time War is that the further one gets from ‘canon’, the more interesting the stories become. The Faction Paradox books are among the best books I’ve ever read, as is Dead Romance (which is slightly more ‘canon’ than the books). The Faction Paradox audios (with officially licensed Doctor Who baddies) and the Eighth Doctor books are good – sometimes very good – but rarely great. And the actual 2005-2009 TV series that established a version of the war as ‘canon’ is, to my mind, pretty much uniformly awful. The Time War/The War/The War In Heaven is as much as anything a war between alternative versions of history, and a history written by the winners and imposed from above is usually far less interesting than the multiple perspectives of the oppressed – would you rather read Homage To Catalonia or a piece of Falangist propaganda?

That’s not to compare Russel Davies to Generalissimo Franco – though I can imagine certain of the more rabid message board denizens emulating the example of the Tilbury dockers – Davies has actually been remarkably good on the issue of ‘canon’, loudly and publicly refusing to use his position of authority (in the minds of the kind of fans who like authorities) to adjudicate on what does and doesn’t ‘count’. For all the faults I find with him, Davies’ view is an inclusive one.

Rather, it’s to argue that those who are looking for certainty and ‘canon’ are limiting themselves unnecessarily (an argument I have made before, of course, in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!). The Daleks as one possible Enemy in the Time War is a decent, though rather obvious, seed for other stories. The Daleks as *the* Enemy, on the other hand, closes off the other possibilities (an incursion of Time Lords from another ‘bottle universe’, the Time Lords themselves in the future/past, a new idea that radically disrupts ossified ways of thinking, the writers of the books themselves, a non-existent threat created purely to give the illusion of conflict, humanity, the vampires/Mal’akh wanting their universe back, the new TV series itself… ).

It might be fun, in fact, to do a few posts here looking at different options as to who or what The Enemy is. I particularly like the war between the Time Lords and The Enemy as the war between the ‘classic’ (small-c conservative, big-L Liberal) and Welsh (New Labour – modern, glossy, “we can brook no criticism, because however bad it is, it’s better than the horrible wilderness years we had before, do you want Thatcher back/the show off the air again?”) series…

But anyway, if we pop out of this digression from a digression from a digression, the Gallifrey audios – like the Big Finish audios generally – are in an odd place when it comes to ‘canon’ for those who care about such things. They’re officially licensed, but have to be approved by the makers of the current show. But at the same time, they can’t make reference to anything in that show. So even though Gary Russell, who is in charge of the Gallifrey series, is also a script editor on the Welsh series, and he has clearly stated (including on the special features for these stories) that he intends the War that happened off-stage between series three and four to be the Time War featured in the TV show, this can’t be stated directly in the stories themselves. This leads to an interesting kind of forced ambiguity being imposed *against* authorial intent.

And whether intentionally or not, this has produced a story where the in-universe and out-of-universe epistemic statuses are mirrored. We have a multiple-universe story (always a very good thing), but one where all the alternate universes travelled to are just that – alternate universes. They exist not as the parallel worlds in, say, Lance Parkin’s Faction Paradox novel Warlords Of Utopia, do – as worlds whose divergences produce results both good (in Parkin’s case, a peace that has lasted millennia, and a flowering of culture and technology) and bad (dictatorship, paedophilia as social norm, slavery). Rather, they exist as wrong turns that could have been taken, lessons that this (or in this case, the main Doctor Who universe) is the best of all possible worlds, with each of these universes being defined as wrong, inferior timelines, and each one diverging in precisely one way, which leads to disaster.

So along with the ‘real’ Romana, Leela and K9, plus the characters Narvin and Braxiatel from earlier stories, we get alternative versions of Romana (both her first and second regenerations), Leela (an articulate, educated fascist torturer, whose distinctly different tones show once and for all that Leela’s rather stilted way of talking is a deliberate acting decision by Louise Jameson, rather than a poor performance), two Sixth Doctors, and more, all in some ways ‘worse’ than the ones we know.

(Sadly there is no alternate K9. John Leeson was the star of the earlier Gallifrey series, with his bitching between the two K9s. Here, there is only one, and he doesn’t get to shine the same way except during his brief promotion to Castellan).

Of the four stories here – which can only be bought as a bundle, though for a very reasonable £30 (£35 if you want the CDs rather than just downloads), by far the best is CD3 – Gallifrey: Annihilation. Oddly, given that Russell was a co-writer, and he’s known for being more obsessed with continuity and fan-wank than most, there are no alternative Doctors or Romanas or whoever (though Lord Prydon *may* be intended to be an alternate Master, given that he’s played by Geoffrey Beevers), and surprisingly/thankfully Katy Manning isn’t playing Jo Grant or Iris Wildthyme, but a female Borussa.

For those of us who like playing games with that sort of thing, in fact, this story could fit quite neatly in with Faction Paradox, as it’s set on a Gallifrey where Rassilon was turned into a vampire by the Great Vampire, and there’s a civil war between the Vampire Gallifreyans and the ‘True Lords’, who never developed time travel but *could* regenerate. This could easily be the timeline from which the Faction’s masks come, and it will be in my ‘personal canon’ from now on. (Also in my ‘personal canon’, these are four of the Nine Homeworlds. No-one said the Nine Homeworlds had to be in *this* timeline – or if they did I don’t remember, which is the same thing).

It’s quite a nice piece of space-opera-Gothic, Beevers makes an appropriately sepulchral vampire, and it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour, though hardly ground-breaking stuff.

The worst, unfortunately, is Justin Richards’ Gallifrey: Disassembled. I say unfortunately, partly because this has the best performances of the bunch (from Louise Jameson as two Leelas, and a great turn by Colin Baker as Lord Burner), and the first half-hour or so is genuinely good, but it soon degenerates into a load of nonsense, with illogical, made-up-on-the-fly rules about what does and doesn’t count as a paradox, hints at Braxiatel being the Doctor’s brother, explanations as to why the Doctor originally left Gallifrey…
When I say that the big turning point in this universe is that Zagreus took the place of The Other in its history, I think that will tell everyone all they need to know (if you don’t know what those words mean, be thankful…)

The other two stories, Gallifrey: Reborn and Gallifrey: Forever, bookend the series quite nicely, providing us with, respectively, the set-up for this four-story series, and a new status quo at the end with Romana and Leela trapped on a Gallifrey which hadn’t yet invented time travel but where Romana’s now president.

Overall, quality-wise this sits somewhere in the middle of Big Finish’s range. Nowhere near a genuine masterpiece like Peri And The Piscon Paradox or some of their other recent triumphs, this still feels like it was created because of someone’s desire to tell the story, and so it’s still above some of the landfill “let’s have the Doctor team up with two companions from different eras, and have them fight the Celestial Toymaker, who’s teamed up with the Zarbi” stuff they do when inspiration fails completely.

You already know if this is the kind of thing you like or not (in fact you probably either ordered it in advance or are never going to hear it), but for the kind of thing it is, it’s well done. And thankfully, either through diktat from above or through taste on the part of Gary Russell, it leaves as many questions about the Time War unanswered at the end as at the beginning.

Big Finish: Peri And The Piscon Paradox

Big Finish’s output has been very, very variable recently. In the last couple of years, since they started doing ‘trilogies’ rather than stand-alone stories, they’ve become increasingly likely to do complicated continuity-twisting stories – the Sixth Doctor travelling with the Second Doctor’s companion, the Sixth Doctor travelling with the *Eighth* Doctor’s companion, three Celestial Toymaker stories in a year… this month’s story involves the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn teaming up with DI Menzies (a character from the Sixth Doctor’s future who has to pretend she doesn’t know him) against Thomas Brewster (a character from a Fifth Doctor trilogy from a couple of years ago).

But then you get stuff like A Death In The Family, the recent story by Steven Hall (the writer of The Raw Shark Texts), which manages to play with continuity lightly and tell a story about the nature of reality, the nature of fiction, the power of words, and the sacrifices people will make for each other. The gimmick – the Seventh Doctor and Evelyn – and the continuity references (it ties up threads from at least eight different stories going back nearly a decade) don’t matter. A Death In The Family is as good as anything Big Finish have done in the last five years, and was far and away the best thing they put out last year.

It’s only the 23rd of January, but I already know what the best thing they’ll put out this year is.

Peri and the Piscon Paradox is part of the Companion Chronicles range – a range of stories closer to audiobooks than the full-cast dramas Big Finish usually do, where an actor playing one of the Doctor’s companions tells a story over the course of a single CD, with one other actor usually taking part to play a character they’re narrating to or something.

This one, by Nev Fountain, is a little different in that it’s two CDs long, and the second actor is actually Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. It’s also the single best multi-Doctor story ever. This post, like all my reviews, may contain spoilers from here on in, but be assured I’m not actually spoiling anything.

The first disc tells a story of Peri and the Fifth Doctor fighting a fish-monster-thing in LA in 2009, with the assistance of Peri’s ‘forty-several’ year old self, an agent for a secret government agency who Peri quickly grows to despise. It ends with Peri vowing never to become like her older self.

The second disc tells the story of Doctor Perpugilliam Brown, presenter of a ‘celebrity relationship counselling’ TV show, and how she gets dragged into a complicated plot by a man claiming to be someone she once met in Lanzarotte, more than twenty years ago, even though he looks nothing like him, and how that plot involves tricking a past self she can’t remember.

Those who remember Nev Fountain’s earlier Big Finish work, especially The Kingmaker, will recognise a number of his regular motifs as the story goes on. Not only are there multiple Doctors interacting without being fully aware of each other’s actions, and time paradoxes, there are many, many jokes set up in the first half that only pay off in the second. The first three-quarters of this story, in fact, is pretty much laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I know it’s hard to believe, given that Fountain also wrote for Dead Ringers, but it is a good piece of comedy.

And Nicola Bryant is excellent. Despite the fact that she’s hampered by having to do the accent and characterisation she lumbered herself with as a much younger actor, she manages to play the two Peris remarkably well, and it’s an astonishingly subtle, nuanced performance. Colin Baker is, of course, as excellent as ever, and is in it more than you might think.

But it’s only at the end, when the full story is revealed, that what Fountain is doing really falls into place and you realise just how good this actually is. In a couple of lines of dialogue, Fountain clears up a continuity problem that avid fans reading this have already spotted. At the same time, he also manages to make the story about things – about growing up, about betraying our youthful ideals, about our youthful ideals betraying us, and about how we harden with age and with compromise. It’s a very sad, very political story, in the end. He gives the story a bittersweet ending that fits in with my own preferred ‘all stories are true’ Doctor Who ‘canon’, and he manages to make the same scene seen from two different angles mean two totally different things. It turns what was already one of the best stories Big Finish have done in a long time into one of the best they’ve ever done.

A Death In The Family is better, but that requires you to have listened to more stories and to have an attachment to the characters. This is a wonderful comedy that suddenly punches you in the gut, and will do so no matter who you are.

All the praise that people have been giving Moffat’s A Christmas Carol should really be going to this story – it does the same things (and indeed some of the same things that this month’s main-range Big Finish story does) so much better that the TV story looks like a sad parody of this one. It’s a story that anyone at all could listen to and get a *lot* out of, and it’s something that could only have been done as Doctor Who. I’ve only listened to it once, but it may be in my all-time favourite Doctor Who stories. It’s certainly in my favourite Big Finishes (along with Davros, The Kingmaker, Jubilee, A Death In The Family, Doctor Who And The Pirates, The Holy Terror and Spare Parts) and is one I would urge anyone to listen to.

Even many Big Finish fans don’t buy the Companion Chronicles, because they’re seen as cheap filler things This one really, really isn’t. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. Buy it, if you like funny, intelligent, thought provoking science fiction, whether or not it’s labelled Doctor Who. It’s only a tenner as a download, and it’s worth every penny.

I do have one proviso though, that I feel obliged to mention even though it may be slightly more of a spoiler than the other things I’ve said

and that is that the ending may be triggering for those who have experienced spousal abuse. It’s dealt with sensitively, and in a way that’s necessary to the plot, but be aware that it’s there.

Doctor Who And Batman Week Day 3: Seven Quick CD Reviews

A few weeks back, the Daily Torygraph had a week of giveaways of Doctor Who CDs. I didn’t get them because I refuse to buy that wretched snotrag of a paper, but they have recently announced an offer to get rid of their back stock, and are selling all seven CDs for ‘P&P only’ – although thirteen quid seems a lot for P&P.

However, less than two quid per CD is a great deal, and so I picked these up.

Mission To The Unknown (by Terry Nation, narrated by Peter Purves ) is a Dalek story from the first Doctor’s era. I won’t go into great detail about it here, as I plan to review the story in full when I get to it in a few months, but this was a single-episode story which was the only Doctor Who story not to feature the Doctor – though it set up a later story, The Daleks’ Master Plan.

As the story was burned, the only way to experience it is to listen to off-air audio-tape recordings made at the time, with linking narration by Peter Purves, who does a decent job. The story itself, intended by Nation as a backdoor pilot for a Dalek spin-off series, is genial hokum about Agent Marc Cory of the Special Space Service fighting deadly Varga plants. Taken for what it is – 45-year-old children’s adventure TV – it’s fun, though hardly at the same level as the first couple of Dalek stories. But before listening, forget everything you know about astronomy, as neither Nation nor David Whittaker (the script editor) knew the difference between a galaxy, a solar system and a constellation, so at one point you get several galaxies teaming up to try to take over the Earth.

Genesis Of The Daleks (by Terry Nation, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Michael Wisher, Peter Miles et al)
This was the first Doctor Who story to get any kind of repeatable home release. In the days before videos, this, an album containing a one-hour abridgement of the two-and-a-half-hour TV story’s soundtrack, with linking narration by Tom Baker, was the first time people could buy a Doctor Who story that had been on TV.
It’s obviously less necessary now that you can buy the whole thing on a double-DVD set with documentaries, commentaries, outtakes and so on, but it still has a nostalgic appeal to many Who fans, which is why it’s still available on CD.
Listening to the abridgement, a few things become clear.
Firstly, the TV show depended hugely on David Maloney’s visual sense. Without his Bergman rip-offs and the sense of oppression his visuals give, the story is much more the Typical Terry Nation script than it appears when watching it. And the abridgement does the plot few favours. It cuts out all the nonsense ‘perils’ that Nation stuck in more or less at random – the landmines, the giant clams and so on – but without those distractions, you can see that the plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
But everything changes whenever Michael Wisher and Tom Baker get to do their thing (either together or separately). There’s a rumour that Baker and Wisher substantially rewrote their dialogue together in rehearsals, recasting some of it into iambic pentameter to make it more Shakespearean . Certainly, at crucial moments, this is *NOT* Terry Nation dialogue – this is a script that has been worked on by diverse hands, including Terrance Dicks and, most crucially, Robert Holmes.
Even in this cut-down form, then, the set pieces (“to hold in my hand…” , “Have I the right?”) still have an immense power, and this is still a fantastic story. In what should have been a fairly conventional Dalek story, someone (presumably Holmes) managed to sneak in a morality play straight out of Dostoevsky, but written for eight year-olds. And even without the Bergmanisms and gas masks, that’s pretty special.

Exploration Earth (by Bernard Venables, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and John Westbrook)
This is a trifle, a little over twenty minutes long, that doesn’t really deserve its own CD. Originally broadcast for schools’ radio, it’s an educational programme trying to tell the story of the Earth’s creation, using the Doctor Who characters to provide a dramatic framework. Sarah Jane is completely out of chaacter as Generic Companion (“Doctor, I’m scared”) though Lis Sladen still does wonders with some awful dialogue. A historical curio, not really made for repeat listening.

Slipback (by Eric Saward, starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant)
Or the Blitch-Blikers Buide to the Balaxy. During the show’s ‘gap year’ in 1985, BBC Radio4 commissioned a serial in six fifteen-minute parts for their children’s strand, Pirate Radio 4, starring the then-current Doctor/companion team and written by the show’s then-script editor Eric Saward.
While in his scripts for TV Saward seems obsessed with trying to be like Robert Holmes but with more violence, when writing for the radio he seems instinctively to have turned to another former Who writer/script-editor, Douglas Adams, and as a result you could play any of the scenes in this that don’t feature the Doctor to anyone and they’d think it was a bit they’d forgotten from the second Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series.
Saward’s attempts at humour aren’t great – he’s someone who’s clearly more at home writing action-movie wisecracking than actual wit – but the cast is fantastic, featuring voices that anyone who has ever listened to Radio 4 will recognise instantly, like Valentine Dyall and Nick Revell. And while the plot makes no sense, the fifteen-minute-episode format means it keeps moving quickly.
Incidentally, the computer voice in this, which is supposed to sound like an ‘airheaded bimbo’, sounds suspiciously like an impersonation of Sandra Dickinson, who played Trillian in the TV (but not the radio) version of Hitch-Hiker’s. Dickinson was then married to Peter Davison, and had apparently not been hugely popular among the production staff of Doctor Who. I wonder if this was a slight dig at her…

Pest Control (by Peter Anghelides, read by David Tennant)
This is a two-disc audiobook (as opposed to radio play), and is *much* better than I expected. I loathe Tennant’s Doctor, but here, reading in his own accent, he gives a masterful performance. I still find his Doctor irritating (and from the voice and characterisation of Donna Noble I was very correct to not watch the fourth RTD series, or I would have smashed whatever I was watching it on), but he does more and better acting in the two-and-a-half hours of this audiobook than in the entirety of his TV career as the Doctor, providing a range of distinctively-voiced, subtly-characterised characters.
The story itself is a fairly standard Doctor Who plot – in fact as a plot it’s far more the kind of thing one would expect from Saward than Saward’s own story is – about a war between the Earth and a bunch of aliens, but then the Earth soldiers are being turned into giant insects, and then a killer robot turns up… you know the kind of thing.
It’s a routine, formula story, but it’s an *extremely well executed* routine, formula story, and as such would fit far better with the Moffat series than the Davies series to which it is a coda. And I’ll give it a lot more leeway for being formulaic than the TV series, because as an audiobook the production costs of this consist of little more than the cost of a microphone and a cup of tea, while the TV series cost several million quid. The expectations are correspondingly lower.
This was actually the big surprise for me, and easily the most enjoyable of these as a pure listening experience, and that’s coming from someone who loathes Tennant as the Doctor.
And I will love Anghelides forever, because unlike the people at Big Finish, he uses the word DISORIENT! NOT DISORIENTATE! DISORIENT! THE PROPER ACTUAL WORD! NOT THE ILLITERATE NEOLOGISM. I know disorientate is now in dictionaries, and I hate linguistic prescriptivism as much as anyone, but that’s always been one of my bugbears. Mr Anghelides repeatedly using the proper word made me very happy.

The Runaway Train by Oli Smith, read by Matt Smith
I only listened to this today, and I remember nearly nothing about it, except that Matt Smith can’t do American or Scottish accents, and Smith’s voice is a lot less tolerable than Tennant’s when doing a dramatic reading. There’s some stuff about the future-Doctor setting things up in the past to happen to him in the present, but other than that I couldn’t tell you anything about it. It all just turned into “bleh bleh bleh bleh” between the headphones and my eardrums.

Overall, this is a very mixed bag, but for thirteen quid it’s worth it for Genesis and Pest Control alone. Then you’ve got a couple of fun-but-silly children’s programmes (Slipback and Mission) and a couple of duds, but everything is at least worth a listen. Possibly even The Runaway Train…

A Big Finish A ‘Week’ – Thicker Than Water

Apologies for the continued lack of posts – unfortunately I’ve had to work a lot of long days this week, as we’re preparing for a release. I’m going to try to get a few posts up this weekend, and while I’m away next week (on holiday with my family, with no net access) I’ll try to write a *lot* of stuff, so when I get back I’ll have a backlog to post.

The biggest problem with Paul Sutton’s Thicker Than Water is also its greatest strength, which is that it is explicitly part of a larger continuity, and the end of a ‘story arc’. As (in story terms) the last story to feature Dr Evelyn Smythe, it ties up details of her relationship with the Doctor. It’s a sequel to the earlier story Arrangements For War, where Evelyn’s reactions were based on the events of Project: Lazarus, which was in turn a sequel to Project: Twilight. Meanwhile, the emotional turning point of the last episode (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t yet heard it) is a revelation about the events in a completely different set of stories – the Cyberman trilogy The Reaping, The Gathering and The Harvest, which were in themselves a series of stories involving three different Doctors in reverse-chronological order and…

You see what I mean?

Rather miraculously, the story still works as a decent adventure story without having heard these stories, and for the most part you can pick up what you need to know, but there are a few scenes in the last episode that pack a real punch when you’ve heard them but would just be confusing without it.

Overall, however, the story is extremely effective. Doing the ‘new companion meets an old one’ story a good few months before it happened in the nuWho episode School Reunion, and in a significantly more adult manner, one of the two main plots of this story involves the Doctor taking Melanie Knownasmel off to meet Evelyn, who he credits with having mellowed him and made him a more decent person, but who (it is revealed) he left in a somewhat petulant manner when she decided to marry.

The scenes between the Doctor and Evelyn are some of the best acting you’ll hear – especially at the end when Evelyn tells the Doctor (for the only time) “I love you”. It’s clear in context that she means it in a fatherly way – it’s also clear that he may have loved her in a somewhat different way. But the performances here are a world away from the mopey teenage angsting of the new show – these are very *grown-up* performances, Colin Baker’s Doctor clearly embarrassed by any kind of display of real emotion, his bumptiousness and bluster all shown as cover for a very restrained, repressed person who cares more than he ever dare let show. At their best (and they are at their best here) Colin Baker and Maggie Stables have a rapport completely unlike anything in TV Who – a genuinely adult, *real* relationship between characters who are real people. It’s very unfortunate that it was decided after this to reduce the number of stories featuring Evelyn (and the scripts for those with her in have been noticeably worse since this than the ones before it), as they’re really the only ones in which the Doctor has a truly adult relationship with his companion, and they’re all the better for it.

The main ‘adventure’ plot, on the other hand, is fairly easy to follow for even someone who knows little or nothing of Doctor Who. Doctor Who (the original show and spin-offs, but not the new series) was always about … well, ‘always’ is a big word… one of the most enduring themes of Doctor Who, from the very second story up until the last series, was the fight between small-l liberalism and fascism, specifically Nazism. Almost all the memorable stories in Doctor Who have been about this in some way , from the what-if-the-Nazis-won of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, through the whole of Tom Baker’s first series, through Curse Of Fenric, with villains like the Sontarans being caricature German officers, only missing a monocle.

The audios have returned to this theme a few times – sometimes rather clumsily just having the Doctor fight some Nazis, as in Colditz, but often looking more at the moral issues involved. Davros, for example, is ‘about’ Holocaust denial. This story, in so far as it is ‘about’ anything (and for the most part it’s actually about the human relationships involved, rather than about the subject of the plot) is about the morality of using data from Nazi ‘experiments’ to save lives (see this link if you’re unaware of the debate about this, but be warned – some of the stuff described there would turn anyone’s stomach). Actually, the debate is twisted a couple of times in this for plot purposes – it’s not a straightforward morality tale – but it at least nods to the issues, which is more than many supposedly more thoughtful stories do.

So while by no means the best of the Baker Big Finish stories, this is a good, solid story, raised above what it should have been by the performances of the two leads (and despite Bonnie Langford’s equal billing here, it really is a Sixth Doctor and Evelyn story). The only real annoyance (at least if you’re familiar with the rest of the stories referenced) is that the science at the end is so poor – I for one would like to see a ban on the use of the term ‘DNA’ from all SF/fantasy/superhero stories. DNA DOES NOT DO WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES, SF WRITERS! Today alone, I have ingested chicken DNA, potato DNA, corn DNA, wheat DNA, cow DNA and probably the DNA of a few other species as well. I have not yet turned into a horrible chickpocowheacow , and nor would I have had I injected same directly into my veins. See also black holes (I’m looking at *you*, new Star Trek film).

In general, it’s far better to just use made-up nonsense terms if you’re doing made-up nonsense science – using the real terms won’t make any difference to anyone who doesn’t understand them, and will only remove any suspension of disbelief from those who do.

But that apart, this is definitely worth a listen for Baker and Stables’ performances, and I only hope Big Finish will soon start giving this pairing some more solid stories together.

A Big Finish A ‘Week’ 21 – The StagePlays

Well, I know it’s been a little more than a week… in fact some pedants might say it’s been closer to a month… since I did one of these (just as some might say that I still owe a proper Final Crisis summing up) but to make up for that I am going to review (albeit in less detail than usual) three newish Big Finish adventures.

Last year, Big Finish decided to produce audio adaptations of the three official Dalek stage plays that had been produced over the years, sticking as closely to the original scripts as possible and, where possible, using original cast members. As two of these were by Terrance DIcks, and the third by Terry Nation and David Whittaker, you would be forgiven for not going in with the highest expectations. But as you can currently download all three for twenty pounds, I thought I’d give them a go.

The first to be released, and by far the worst, is Dicks’ The Ultimate Adventure from 1989. This was originally staged with Jon Pertwee in the lead, with Colin Baker taking over in the later versions, and here Baker reprises the part, along with a companion with a rrreedeeculuz Frrrainch eczent. Unfortunately, the part doesn’t seem to sit right with him here – possibly because the show was originally written for Pertwee’s very different Doctor, or possibly because Dicks had never written for Baker (the sixth Doctor was the first one never to have a TV story written by Dicks (he never wrote for Hartnell, either, but did write the First Doctor in The Five Doctors)).

The story itself is a pantomime rather than a serious story, with several terrible songs (“Business Is Business” being the least-worst, but it should have been cut to roughly a fifth of its present length), a plot involving Daleks and Cybermen teaming up with mercenaries to take over the earth for what I’m sure must be good and adequate reasons, and the Doctor working for Mrs Thatcher. I imagine it must have been great fun for any young children in the audience at the time, but it’s inessential at best. Baker does his best, but this is quite weak stuff.

Doctor Who And The Daleks In Seven Keys To Doomsday, another DIcks story, this time from 1974, is much better. Written at a time when Dicks was the script editor for the show, it very much has the feel of late Pertwee about it (the original stage show was on during the gap between Pertwee’s last episode and Tom Baker’s first, and starts with a regeneration sequence), though both stage show and audio release starred Trevor Martin as the Doctor. If you listen to this and The Ultimate Adventure back-to-back you may get a sense of deja vu, as a couple of plot points (notably a companion getting into a Dalek travel-machine and using a handy ‘make your voice sound Dalekky’ machine that the Doctor just happens to have on him) are reused. But the difference is that here there *is* a plot. Not a hugely interesting or original one – the Doctor and his companions turn up on an alien world where they have to recover the Seven MacGuffins Of Doom before the Daleks can, aided by some locals (one of whom is a traitor!) and hindered by some spiderlike creatures called Clawrentulars.

It’s a thin plot, and its not helped by one of the companions (Jimmy, the other being called Jenny) being absolutely insufferable. Some of this is intentional – the Doctor gets exasperated at him on a regular basis – but some of it is down to actor Joe Thompson’s utterly horrible Mockney (it may be his real accent, in which case I feel sorry for the poor man, but I doubt it…). However, the plot suffices, and the play is made enjoyable by Trevor Martin’s frankly wonderful performance. At times he sounds scarily like Patrick Troughton, and while his Doctor is written like Pertwee’s, Martin plays it much more like the first two Doctors. He inhabits the role in a way that few others have (I’d put him behind Hartnell, Troughton and the Bakers, but ahead of Pertwee, Davison, McCoy and McGann). I’d be very interested in hearing more of Martin as the Doctor – maybe in Big Finish’s Unbound series?

The final one, though the first to be staged, is 1965’s Curse Of The Daleks by Terry Nation and David Whittaker. As you would expect from those writers at that date, the science is wrong, it’s laughably sexist, it makes no sense if you examine it for a moment – and it’s absolutely great. Even though this story doesn’t feature the Doctor at all, being the first of Nation’s increasingly desperate attempts to cash in on Dalekmania separately from the show, it has much of the feeling of the early series.

This is possibly explainable by the fact that while Terrance Dicks said he had to learn to write for the stage after having written for the TV, early-60s Doctor Who was essentially done as live, at a time when the medium was essentially broadcast theatre rather than the miniature cinema it later attempted to be (and Dicks’ vision of the Doctor was always more cinematic than his predecessors and successors on the original series). Nation in particular had started out as a writer of stage shows, and the character of Rocket Smith (a name which now makes me think of Computer Jones or Synthesiser Patel) has a lot of the speech rhythms of Tony Hancock, for whose stage show Nation was a writer before writing The Daleks.

Curse of the Daleks is also helped by the fact that, due to its writers’ deaths, it has not been updated for the audio release, so Nicholas Briggs reads the stage directions for purely visual events. This gives it the feel of a partly-dramatised audiobook of a Target novelisation, which again makes it feel more like ‘proper Doctor Who’ to me than the other stories which actually have the Doctor in them. As a return trip to Skaro, it’s well worth a listen, even though it’s just good pulpy adventure in an early-60’s Eagle manner.

None of these are up to even Big Finish’s slightly diminished recent standards, let alone their best work, but given that you can download all three for not much more than the cost of a single download of one of their other audios, they’re definitely worth a shot – even the worst has fun moments in it.

A Big Finish A Week 16 – The Holy Terror

Apologies for the lack of updates (I’ve been saying that a lot lately). I *am* working on the Batman posts, but they’re taking longer to write than I thought, and I keep having to do Real Life things. In the meantime, this week’s Big Finish A Week is one I chose because it has a lot of the themes both of Morrison’s Batman run and of his larger work, and so should fit nicely with those posts when they come.

“Are you my father?”
Rob Shearman’s The Holy Terror appears to me to have at the very least ‘inspired’ Stephen Moffat’s gasmask-wearing children in The Empty Child (along with Shearman’s Dalek the most critically-acclaimed episode of the first series of nuWho). I can’t blame Moffat – The Holy Terror contains a myriad ideas worth nicking.

The first dozen or so Big Finish audios had been pretty good (in fact those first few were among the most consistent runs Big Finish have had) but it wasn’t until this story, the fourteenth, that they started to move from accomplished pastiche of the TV show into their own style. Where most of the early stories had some kind of high-concept monster or other problem for the Doctor to solve, and otherwise followed a fairly predictable plotline, The Holy Terror is absolutely bursting with ideas.

The original seed for Shearman’s story was the old idea (arrived at independently by several medieval lunatics, though never, one hopes, carried out) that if you could raise a child completely without any outside influences, the language it would invent for itself, being innocent, would be the language of God. According to an interview I read with him somewhere but now can’t dredge up, he tried writing a play for the theatre based on this simple idea, but was told it was ‘a bit Doctor Who’.

It’s an interesting enough idea in itself, but Shearman layers on many, many extra levels of extrapolation from this. Almost all the ideas in the story come down to the question of responsibility – what responsibility does a parent have for a child, a monarch for a country, a god for a species, a writer for the characters s/he creates ?

The basic plot is quite simple – the Doctor and Frobisher (a companion from the comic strips rather than the TV show, a shape-shifting alien who usually takes the form of a penguin and works as a private eye) materialise in a castle which is, for its inhabitants, a whole universe which no-one has ever left. One of them has raised his son to become a god as described above, but the ‘god’ starts killing everyone, and it turns out that everything in the castle is an artificial creation of one man, who killed his son long ago and has been living through this fantasy over and over, every time having to kill the ‘god’ who has the face of his son.

The world Shearman creates is a fascinating one in itself, very reminiscent of some of Terry Pratchett’s more serious work (I’ve compared Shearman and Pratchett before – they’re very similar in their preoccupations and techniques, although the finished work is usually quite different). It’s a world populated by cliches who know, at least to an extent, that they are cliches – everyone knows that the younger bastard brother of the heir to the throne will conspire with the high priest to take his brother’s place on the throne, and both will be tortured to death, but that’s just the way of things, and it’s all thrown off when the new God-Emperor just announces that he’s not actually a god at all (a plotline that in its very general shape seems similar to Pratchett’s Pyramids – the name of the God-Emperor, Pepin, also sounds a little like Pratchett’s Pteppic). This allows Shearman to write some deliciously melodramatic characters – Childeric, the bastard son, quotes both Edmund from King Lear and Richard III at one point – but also allows for some tremendously effective writing, as Clovis, the high priest, tries desperately to rise above the evil cliche and become the good man he wants to be, but in the end can’t be anything other than what he is.

Despite the comedy elements which predominate, The Holy Terror is ultimately a very fatalistic piece of writing – the message isn’t just ‘as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/they kill us for their sport’, but that malicious gods may be better than utter indifference. Everything is predetermined, free will is an illusion, the only way you can break your ‘programming’ is by choosing death, and God, if he exists at all, is either an insane child who kills for fun, a senile old man who doesn’t even remember that he created the world, or a comic relief character who’s ineffectual when anything important happens. But having said that, the story does offer some hope, in that if there is meaning in our lives we must make it ourselves, and in a world where nothing ‘really matters’, what does matter is the kindness you show to others.

The Holy Terror is a really remarkable piece of writing, far more layered and nuanced than the typical Big Finish story, and is something that could only have been done as a Doctor Who story. It definitely repays repeated listenings in a way that many of the others don’t. There’s not much to say about the performances – they’re as variable as any early Big Finish – and the music is actually *awful*, but the lead performances are strong ones (Colin Baker excellent as always, and Robert Jezek turning in a wonderful Frobisher even given the dodgy accent) and the script is good enough to put this among the very best Doctor Who stories in any medium.


Apologies if this one is less coherent than some of the other posts – I’ve got a terrible migraine and can barely focus on the screen. I’ve been half-considering leaving this one til tomorrow, but I’ve got quite a busy weekend ahead of me…

I always feel terribly sorry for Colin Baker. There is a certain section of Who fandom that considers him the worst Doctor, by a long way, and considers it acceptable to insult him at every turn (calling him “Fat Colin” and similar but much less complimentary names because, shockingly, he’s not the same weight at 65 that he was at 41). It’s a shame, because Baker was actually one of the best actors to play the part, and certainly the most enthusiastic – he’s described it as the role he was born to play.

However, Baker ended up having the shortest time in the role of any of the actors in the original series, only getting to do two full series (one of which was shorter than any before it), mostly because of events that had nothing to do with him. Many of his scripts were sub-par, the show was actually cancelled for 18 months while he was the Doctor, and the producer and script editor were barely talking to each other by that point.

Part of the reason for Baker’s unpopularity is actually because he thought through his performance more than many of the other actors to play the part. His Doctor was intended to start out colder and crueller than earlier Doctors, after his regeneration, and only slowly become more empathetic. He was also intended to be a more alien figure than his immediate predecessor. However, the scriptwriters seemed to be unable to cope with this – some carried on writing him just the same way they would have written any other Doctor, while others wrote him as practically a sociopath, delighting in unnecessary cruelty to Peri. It’s a tribute to the strength of Baker’s performance that he manages to rise above the widely variable scripts and actually deliver a mostly-consistent character who is recognisably the Doctor (Baker really studied the other Doctors’ performances, and incorporated tiny elements of them into his own but in subtly changed ways – even though I’ve often noted Willam Hartnell’s hand gestures and lapel-fiddling, and everyone who’s watched a Colin Baker episode has seen him puff himself up in self-importance while holding his lapels, it hadn’t occurred to me that the latter was a direct, conscious reference to the former til I heard Baker talk about it on the commentary to Timelash – the gesture is used in a very different way, but it implies a continuity of character).One of the things I love most about the Big Finish audios is that Colin Baker is *finally* given the opportunity to play the Doctor in the way he always wanted to, and I would argue that the best Sixth Doctor audio adventures (Jubilee, Davros, Doctor Who & The Pirates and a few others) are possibly the best things ever to come out of the show.

What makes it worse for me is that Baker was ‘my Doctor’. While I watched Peter Davison as a child, the memories I have of the show are almost all of Baker’s era – seeing two Doctors working together in The Two Doctors, the return of the Sontarans, the reveal that the Valeyard is in fact a future regeneration of the Doctor, Terry Molloy as Davros, the half-converted human Daleks, Sil, the return to Totter’s Lane and the chameleon circuit working again, trying to kill Peri, the giant marble statue of the Doctor collapsing onto him (I was *furious* as a six-year-old kid when my mum taped over my Betamax recorded-off-the-TV copy of Revelation of the Daleks). That’s the Doctor Who I grew up on. And there’s some very, very good stuff in there – and a lot more trying to get out from the production problems.

But there were two Colin Baker stories I didn’t remember from my childhood – Mark Of The Rani, which I knew would be rubbish because of its central villain and writing team, so I’ve still not rewatched it, and Timelash. I picked up Timelash on DVD relatively recently with no idea if it was any good – I don’t pay attention to fan ratings, because I’ve noticed that what I like about the show and what the most vocal members of the ‘fan community’ like are two very different things.

However, I wasn’t expecting even the DVD itself to proclaim so loudly that Timelash is, as the fan anagram apparently ‘wittily’ has it, Lame Shit.The blurb on the little insert in the DVD – the *promotional material* – contains phrases like “Timelash, by necessity, fell into the cheaper category. Unfortunately, this tends to show in the finished production with dull, uninspiring sets and costumes.” and “Timelash has been much criticised for its production standards, unimaginative direction, padded scenes and over-the-top acting”. This is the stuff that’s meant to make you want to buy it!

The documentary in the special features is much the same thing. Everyone from the writer to the actors to the script editor seems to be operating from the assumption that the show has no redeeming qualities and that its faults need to be explained. Producer John Nathan-Turner seems to have been chosen by everyone as the whipping boy for this – and one must admit that their reasons do have a ring of truth about them – but it must also be admitted that given that Nathan-Turner is dead it is easy to blame him without him being able to answer back. By the end of the documentary, one is reminded of Jake Blues – “No I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

So it’s quite surprising to watch the actual episode and find it’s not all that bad. It’s far from good – there’s a reason I didn’t remember anything of it from childhood viewing – but it’s by no means the worst piece of TV ever or anything along those lines. The script is bad, of course – the pacing is hopeless and the plot makes little sense – but it’s not *uniquely* bad. In fact its faults are those of the late Tom Baker era (essentially writing science-fantasy panto) and nuWho ( ‘celebrity historical’ guest star writers who get all their ideas from their adventures with the Doctor are something of a staple in the new series, to the point where one could convincingly make a case that Timelash was the template for at least three stories from nuWho). Despite what everyone seems to think, having H.G. Wells adventure with the Doctor and see things that would be turned into pretty much every famous novel Wells wrote – which most people seem to think the saving grace of the story – is not a great idea, it’s a bad fanfic idea, and would be so even had they not portrayed the atheistic socialist humanist Wells as a Catholic spiritualist who used Ouija boards.

But like I say, those flaws aren’t unique, and there are actually some fine performances in the story (Robert Ashby is absolutely superb as the Borad). In fact the pedestrian nature of the original script was in some ways an advantage – Ashby and Baker rewrote a lot of their own lines (Ashby changed “That’s a lie!” into “Another expedition into the realms of duplicity”) giving some of their parts a baroque charm. The real problem is that Paul Darrow, as the central villainous character Tekker, has an absolute contempt for the material. His performance shows signs of having been worked on, but at some point during rehearsals he obviously decided to give up any pretence of taking things seriously, and just do a bad impression of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (I kept expecting him to say “It has been a HARD day’s night… and I… have been workinglikeadog!”).

If he’d been able to hide his distaste for the story, as Ashby and Baker do, rather than walking around with a giant neon sign over his head saying “I’m better than this, I used to be a real star, you know”, then the other flaws in the story (of which there are still many) would be forgivable – everything else is just the result of lack of time, lack of money, or plain incompetence, all of which sometimes happen to the best-intentioned people. Darrow’s performance, though, is plain sabotage.

Despite this, Timelash really *isn’t* as bad as its reputation – on an objective level it’s not that much worse than Destiny Of The Daleks or The Five Doctors. It’s just a shame that Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor was cut so short that this is one of a tiny number of televisual records of his performance. Baker *was* given good scripts on occasion – Vengeance On Varos, Revelation Of The Daleks and The Two Doctors are all strong scripts (though The Two Doctors has its own problems) – but what I wouldn’t give for a TV version of …Ish or Jubilee or even a fun bit of fluff like The One Doctor…