Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Masters of Luxor

The Masters of Luxor is arguably, the ultimate lost story, as it was intended to be the second Doctor Who serial, until it was dropped in favour of Terry Nation's Dalek story. The rest is history. It would be interesting to imagine how the show might have developed differently had Verity Lambert stuck with this story instead of The Daleks, though one might doubt that it would have experienced the same runaway success. This serial has been adapted by Nigel Robinson, author of a number of Target novelisations, as a narrated audio story by Big Finish. The Doctor and Ian Chestertong are voiced by William Russell, while Carol Ann Ford voices both Susan and Barbara. The other characters are voiced by guest actor, Joseph Kloska. I was very keen to listen to this, as the original script was penned by Antony Coburn, the author of the first Doctor Who serial, known to us as An Unearthly Child.

The show was in an embryonic stage when this was originally written and this serial has some religious elements to it, with a lot of discussion about God, souls and the afterlife. Nigel Robinson felt it was necessary to trim them down a bit, but they are still present. The Doctor's final line mentions God, which feels quite striking.

There is action in this story, but it tends to spend more time in conversation and dialogue. This suits the audio medium well. It is quite a cerebral, intellectual story that asks interesting questions. Yet it also has some beautiful descriptions, along with that slightly dreamlike fairytale quality that many Hartnell stories have.

This is a very long story which feels awkward when it has so few characters. It does feel rather padded. I suppose Big Finish felt it was necessary to keep the length for the sake of authenticity, but one is likely to get weary listening to it all in one go. One difficulty I had at times was telling apart the characters. Russell and Ford work hard at distinguishing the voices of the Doctor and Ian and Barbara and Susan, but I still got a little confused occasionally. I also felt uncomfortable with the way the characters came across at times. Ian is really angry and aggressive for much of this. It also felt a little painful, the way Barbara seems to bully the Perfect One. Nevertheless, this is still an audio that is very much worth listening to.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Counter-Measures Series 4

** Spoiler Alert **

I complained in a previous review about the lack of extraterrestrials in Counter-Measures. This is sort of remedied with the return of the Light from The Assassination Games, though I would have liked to have seen the sort of slimy seaweed-like aliens that you might expect in a series influenced by Quatermass. British Rockets Group make an appearance, however.

Unlike the previous series of Counter-Measures, the individual episodes are not proper stories, but blend into one big series arc. I felt this made for a somewhat less interesting ride. It also meant problems of pacing, as some of the episodes could not carry the arc forward as well as other parts.

There are a few nice moments in this series. I like the use of a monorail in the first episode. Monorails are very Sixties and evoke the spirit of all those Gerry Anderson shows and their spin-off comics. There is also a nice line from Gilmour about destroying the world from Hertfordshire. There is also a clever use of the audio medium, with Gilmour and Sir Toby being played with the wrong voices, without this being commented on until later in the story. Nevertheless, my feelings about this are the same as the previous series. Too much darkness and too little humour (as well as too few monsters). All the intrigue and betrayal becomes just a bit too much. What the Counter-Measures series has so badly needed is a few more light-hearted stories that simply enjoy the nostalgia of this era. A slightly lighter tone at times would really give the listeners a break.

Shockingly, it appears that Counter-Measures ends here. The series ends with Gilmour, Rachel and Alison all getting killed in a series of explosions while Sir Toby denies that the group ever existed. Does it really end like this? Quite possibly it is, given that there is no announcement of a new series. If this is the end of Counter-Measures, this is an horrible and lazy way to end the series. It would also contradict a number of Doctor Who novels, such as Millennial Rites, in which we learn Rachel Jensen became scientific adviser to the Cabinet.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

"Heroin Screws You Up": Nightmare of Eden

When I was at University, I showed two Doctor Who videos to my housemate and best mate, who had never watched Doctor Who in his life (he was a Trekkie). They were The War Machines and The Nightmare of Eden. These probably seem a weird choice of first stories to show a non-fan. They just happened to be the two VHS tapes I had bought from the Virgin Megastore (remember those?)that day. He laughed out loud when Nightmare of Eden opened with the model shot of the spacecraft. He suggested it looked like a washing up liquid bottle. Actually, that is one of the best model shots in Seventies Doctor Who. After watching the two serials, he concluded that Nightmare of Eden was the more interesting story, but he preferred the 'kindly grandfather' of William Hartnell's Doctor to Tom Baker (a shame he didn't watch An Unearthly Child). I think watching that VHS of Nightmare of Eden was a profoundly negative experience for me. I had loved the novelisation of Nightmare of Eden as a child and watching the actual serial just seemed so disappointing. Everything looked so depressingly cheap. After, that I never bought a Doctor Who VHS again.

The Eden jungle set looks good and it might have been a better story, had we spent more time there, but unfortunately, most of the time we are on a spaceship set that is very flat and dull looking, as well as far too brightly lit. The Mandrell costumes are no worse than most other Doctor Who monster costumes, but the way they filmed lets them down. We see so much of them and under such bright lights, they inevitably look hilarious. Equally hilarious are the uniforms of Officers Fisk and Costa. They look very... Village People.

It is not just the sets and the costumes that are bad, we also get some uninspiring acting. The worst offender is Lewis Fiander, playing Tryst. He completely sends up the character he is playing, refusing to take the story seriously. Even the regulars don't help much. The scene with Tom Baker getting roughed up by Mandrells is embarassing. Romana comes across as just a little too smug. If there is any story to give ammunition to JNT's argument that the TARDIS crew had become too clever, this is it.

A lot of fans praise Nightmare of Eden for offering an 'intelligent' story about drugs. As a professional drugs worker, I find it really annoying. It offers a very cliched Daily Mail idea of drug addiction. It follows the common assumption that you only need to try drugs once and you will be addicted forever. This really is not true. Heroin can be very addictive, but I have known users who only use heroin occasionally without becoming opiate dependent. It also offers the rather extreme scenario of a drug that is certain to kill you. Did the writers really imagine that people would actually use a drug that causes certain death? This is a horribly patronizing and insulting view of drug users. Drug users may make choices that are unwise, but they are not stupid. Maintaining an habit with inherent risks is a bit different from using a substance that kills you.

There are a few good lines in this story, but otherwise, there is not much to love here.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Doctor Who beyond the BBC

Our government is presently pushing for much needed reforms to the BBC. It is clear that the BBC is bloated and over-extended and needs to be cut down to the essence of what public broadcasting should be.

At some point, the question is likely to be raised as to whether the BBC should continue to produce a program as commercially viable as Doctor Who.

I think it would be in the interests of the public, as well as for fans for the rights to Doctor Who to be sold to a commercial production company.

Some of the best Doctor Who has been produced outside the BBC. Under Marvel and others, the comic strips have included some fantastic material. Virgin provided a genuine and natural continuation of the Seventh Doctor era in its novels. Big Finish are continuing to give us great Doctor Who.

One of the problems with BBC Wales Doctor Who is its obsession with the status of Doctor Who as a national treasure. The BBC considers itself to be a iconic national treasure and it treats Doctor Who as its fictional avatar. A lot of BBC Wales Doctor Who seems to take an horrible triumphalist nationalist tone. This goes hand in hand with the fetishization of the Doctor as its central character. I think if Doctor Who were to move into commercial hands, it would no longer be able to propagandize itself as a national treasure and would have to sell itself on the strength of its stories. This would mean a much fresher Doctor Who than we have seen.

I suspect also that a commercially run Doctor Who would be more targeted at us fans. As a public property, the producers of Doctor Who seem to feel that they have to make Doctor Who for everybody, trying to please everyone, throwing in lots of laughs, a monster for the kids, soap opera emotions and the odd throwaway continuity reference for the fans. While this is in many ways in the spirit of the classic series, it tends to make the tone of the episodes a little too wobbly. The episodes feel more like spectacles and events rather than stories. A Doctor Who that was targeted at fans (who will spend money buying merchandise) and the young adult Sci-Fi watching audience (who will also potentially spend money buying merchandise) would work harder to write better and more interesting stories.

I think the time has come for the BBC to finally take its hands off Doctor Who.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Revenge of the Swarm

I doubt many fans were campaigning Big Finish to bring back the Swarm from Invisible Enemy. It's not the most memorable monster, but it was not an uninteresting one. As laughable as the Nucleus shrimp-like appearance was, there was something appropriate about it. Some crustaceans may be good to eat, but there are a lot of crustaceans which are nasty parasitic creatures, which fits quite well with the Swarm. Could it be that the Swarm is not actually a virus, but a microscopic crustacean, a mini-Macra? I think there was a real potential for Big Finish to make the Swarm a terrifying adversary. Unfortunately, Jonathan Morris chose to send it up, continually mocking its Napoleon complex. It does appear that the origin of the Swarm has been changed. The Invisible Enemy told us that the Swarm had been floating in space for millennia. According to this audio, the Swarm was created in a laboratory. I find this new origin banal. The idea of a virus mutating in a test tube is not nearly as interesting as the very Quatermassy notion that space is filled with terrible things just waiting to infect us.

Revenge of the Swarm does not just send up the Nucleus. It does not seem like anybody involved is taking this story very seriously. We get an awful lot of silly voices here, like this is being made for young children. It does seem like the worst aspects of the Graham Williams era are being invoked in this.

I haven't followed the Hex arc, as I don't like the way that these stories fail to fit wwith the Virgin New Adventures development of Ace. I therefore have no idea how Hex came to have his personality replaced by Hector. It seems a bit odd to have a new character become replaced for much of his first story proper, though the New Adventures did exactly the same thing with Bernice n Transit. Which leads me to another interesting point about this audio. Although the plot of Revenge of the Swarm is disappointingly close to being a remake of The Invisible Enemy (as well as a prequel and sequel combined), it is also a plot that was done quite a few times in the Virgin New Adventures. An alien entity attempts to take control of cyberspace. This is basically a Virgin New Adventure story with the tone of a Graham Williams story.

Revenge of the Swarm manages to be fun, but it rather fails to do anything interesting with its source material.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Romana III and K9

I asked Inspector97 to draw this picture of Romana III with K9.

There is disagreement among fans about whether the Romana III voiced by Juliet Landau in the Big Fish audios is the same character as the ruthless Romana III in the BBC books. I would argue that they are the same incarnation. Hence, I asked the artist to give her an outfit inspired by the BBC books.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

"I will be needing your frilly shirt and yellow motor car"- Day of the Daleks

What I love most about this story is just how similar it is to the Terminator films. Rebels going back in time to prevent nightmare future and evil robots trying to stop them. I'd definitely rather watch Day of the Daleks and I think this serial is actually more believable than the Terminator movies. The idea of machines taking over the world is nonsense. Computers don't have minds. A robot, no matter how advanced is no more likely to take over the world than an electric kettle.

On the other hand, while the superficial Terminator similarity is fun, one is painfully aware that not everything is great about this story. For everything that is good about it, there is something that is not so great. It is very much in the middle rank of Doctor Who stories.

Most obviously, the use of the Daleks is not so great. The story was not originally intended to be a Dalek story, but a decision was made at a late stage to write them in. It has been a few years since the Daleks had been used in Doctor Who and the story does not quite seem able to get them right. Their voices are off and they lack menace. We are also denied a scene in which Dr. Who confronts the Daleks. Admittedly, this might be for the better. Pertwee was not the strongest actor to play the Doctor and he felt awkward interacting with the Daleks. It is hard to imagine Pertwee doing an job of confronting the Daleks. The final battle between UNIT and the Daleks is simply awful to watch. Few fights in Doctor Who have been as disappointing.

There are also a few problems with the plot. The whole time travel plot makes little sense. It also seems bizarre that the rebels would blame Reginald Styles for the explosion and not a terrorist group. Was terrorism not the problem that it was for us in the Doctor Who universe?

The Ogrons are an interesting addition as allies of the Daleks, but it is hard not to be uncomfortable with the Doctor dropping his usual pacifist stance and shooting down Ogrons. It's presumed okay to kill them because they are a big, stupid and dark-skinned.

What is great about the story is the moral complexity. The Controller is a villain with genuine reasons for being a villain and is quite understandable. The rebels on the other hand, come across as pretty thuggish. I imagine being right-wing and pro-establishment, I would easily be taken in by the Controller's lies just like Jo.

This is also a serial in which Pertwee is at his best. While he does not get to confront the Daleks, he does have so many brilliant scenes, such as his argument with the Controller and his weary, exhausted interrogation. I'm not much of a Pertwee fan, but in this story, we really see him at his best.

Day of the Daleks is a story with some bold ideas and a radically different approach, even if its execution seems a little poor at times.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Rani Elite

It is perhaps a little surprising that it took Big Finish this long to bring back the Rani, especially given her popularity among a significant segment of Doctor Who fandom. This story was originally written for Kate O'Mara. The great actress sadly passed away before she could make her glorious return and so the story was hastily re-written to allow a regenerated Rani. Big Finish wisely decided to be upfront with the Rani's return and to make it a selling point rather than a surprise.

The new Rani is a post-Kate O'Mara Rani meeting the Sixth Doctor out of sequence. While the script makes mention of the Rani's knowledge of the Sixth Doctor's regeneration, it does not deal with the oddity of an out of sequence Time Lord encounter. The history of the classic series seems quite consistent in always having Time Lord's meet in chronological sequence. It has been suggested that the very nature of TARDISes ensures this. I really wanted to know if there is a special reason why this should happen here. There are of course two ways that they could have avoided an out of sequence Rani story. They could have had Peter Davison meet a pre-Kate O'Mara Rani. I always imagine the pre-Kate Rani/ Ushas looking Indian, but I suppose it would be racially problematic to have an Indian actress playing the Rani. Or is it actually a form of blacking up to have a European actress calling herself the Rani? Which is worse? Alternatively, they could have had the Seventh Doctor encounter the newly regenerated Rani. Evidently, they felt that the Sixth Doctor would work best with the Rani. I think the results show they are right, as the Sixth Doctor and the new Rani spar quite nicely together. She is cool and cold, he is loud and bombastic.

Siobhan Redmond seems a little too in awe of Kate O'Mara to be quite comfortable in the role, but hopefully this will change should she return for future audios. What she brings to the role, other than her Scottish accent, is a cool detachment which probably fits better with the core of what the Rani represents than Kate O'Mara's campiness. Not that I don't love watching Kate being camp and dressing up as Mel, but I think Redmond brings a nice seriousness to the role. Of course, she loses her cool once she is defeated and starts ranting about getting revenge.

I think perhaps Redmond suffers a little from this story being very much meant for Kate O'Mara. The plot is not that far away from Time and the Rani. To introduce a new Rani, it would have made more sense to have her involved in a more radically different plot than what we have seen from her before. However, you can understand Big Finish working with what they had. Like so much of what Big Finish does, the big fault of this story is its unwillingness to do anything adventurous. This is yet another story where Peri gets threatened with somebody trying to possess her body, with lots of running around and getting captured. However, in spite of this, I still found it genuinely enjoyable.

To my delight this turned out to be a continuity feast that would have impressed even the late Craig Hinton. Along with Speelsnapes, we even get the Deca stuff from Divided Loyalties (so that stuff is canon now!). I punched the air when Dr. Who addressed the Rani as Ushas!

It looks like the Rani gets hauled off to prison at the end. I hope she enjoys having her mugshot taken and getting strip-searched. Hopefully, when she gets tired of being alpha bitch in Stormcage, she can escape and come back for some more misadventures with the Doctor. I genuinely hope we do see more of the Redmond Rani.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Despite its title, this serial concerns the Dalek occupation of Earth, rather than the Dalek invasion. In this, it strikes an original note, as there are plenty of films about flying saucer invasions, but very few films about what the flying saucer people do after they've turned up and knocked down the Statue of Liberty and burned down the White House.

There is a very effective sense of bleakness about Dalek Invasion. The characters find themselves in an utterly hostile, yet not unfamiliar environment, harassed at every turn by Robomen, Daleks, flying saucers, hungry dogs, collaborators, crocodiles and spivs. The scenes of a silent London remind me of the 80s Day of the Triffids series. Indeed, the scene where Barbara drives her truck into a group of Daleks is remarkably similar to a scene in Day of the Triffids, where a truck runs over a bunch of triffids. I actually found myself looking at the credits to see if David Maloney had any involvement.

There are two things that are not so effective. The long, lumbering plot with it's grab bag of Terry Nation action sequences and the rather weak direction of Richard Martin. In the rather unworldly atmosphere of the first Dalek serial, Richard Martin worked alright. However, he was much less adept at the more realistic action drama of this story. The fight scenes are simply terrible. This is a story that simply cries out for Douglas Camfield.

The final scene of the departure of Susan is moving, especially for me, as I am one of the few fans of Susan. However, it is hard not to feel Dr. Who's actions were a bit drastic and heavy handed.

The Daleks are perhaps less interesting than they were in the first Dalek sequel. They have become a generic space conquering race, the likes of which we would see rather a lot of in Doctor Who. The obvious difference from later Daleks, however, is their reliance on satellite dishes to move about in the open (in contrast to the city-bound Daleks of the first serial). Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood offer a good explanation for this, arguing that the more familiar space Daleks adapted a number of Skaro city Daleks to boost their forces.

What do we make of the Daleks bizarre plan to turn the Earth into a spaceship? When we considered Inferno, we connected that to that story to the theory that the planet Earth is constructed on a hole in the universe and that beneath lies an entrace into the hellish Yssgaroth universe. I pointed out that in Inferno, the Primord mutants appeared to be under some kind of psychic direction. The Yssgaroth vampires were trying to break out into this universe. I would suggest that something similar is happening in this story. The Daleks are being telepathically manipulated by the Yssgaroth into drilling into the Earth's core. Their Dalek minds are being fooled into thinking that they can turn the Earth into a spaceship, when actually they are breaking out a far more terrible enemy.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Seeds of Doom

I am one of the few Doctor Who fans who is not keen on the Philip Hinchcliffe era. To be honest, given that horror is not everybody's cup of tea, I am surprised there are not more of us. I really struggle with the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes delight in gruesome painful deaths. They really pushed the show too far in a violent direction. Philip Sandifer, who often says things I agree with, ends up being a very uncritical defender of this period of the show. Yet when it comes to Seeds of Doom, he admits that the critics of Hinchcliffe have a point here. He points out that in this story, the producer cannot plead that the horror is fantasy and not realistic violence, with Dr. Who brandishing a gun, beating somebody up so badly he ends up in hospital and instructing a mercenary to make a Molotov cocktail. This is Doctor Who doing a big dumb action thriller. It does feel quite right, with Dr. Who at the beck and call of government agencies, investigating clues like a detective and the final resolution coming from an air strike.

Yet for all that I detest the excessive of violence of this story, I still can't bring myself to dislike it. I certainly enjoy a lot more than anything in the season that follows it. On the most basic level, it's got a big tentacled vegetable monster in it. I like man-eating plants and I like big tentacled monsters. The concept of an alien monster being dug up out of the Antarctic ice and menacing an isolated base (yeah, The Thing) always works. The direction and effects are superb, as you would expect with Douglas Camfield at the helm. We also get memorable characters like Harrison Chase, Scorby and Amelia Ducat. Although it is a six-part story, it does not feel too long or padded. It maintains a much better sense of pace than Genesis of the Daleks or Talons of Weng-Chiang. So I just can't dislike this. Seeds of Doom is a guilty pleasure of a Doctor Who story.