Big Finish Review – Doctor Who 193 – “Masters of Earth”


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Synopsis

The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on.

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy.

When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators.

By history.

Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless…

The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help

Written By: Mark Wright and Cavan Scott
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs

Cast

Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Tracy Wiles (Moira Brody), Brian McCardie (Alan Weir), Sean Biggerstaff (Ross Nicolson), Hugh Ross (Kyle Inskip), Damian Lynch (Curbishly), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks/Roboman)

So this is a very interesting idea! Sending the Doctor to Earth a year before the end of the Dalek occupation. This means that the Sixth Doctor has to be very careful how he acts, lest he create a problem for when the First Doctor arrives.

So there’s that ethical problem, and it’s a bit bigger than it might otherwise be, because Peri is still very nervous and uncertain about the Doctor, having reunited with him after several years of being away. To her, it looks like he might just be being a coward.

Add to that the challenge, for the writers, of making this a story that could well have taken place during the First Doctor’s run, and therefore having to include Robomen, who were a silly concept, but are used to great effect here.

Yeah, this was happening at the same time as this story.

Yeah, this was happening at the same time as this story.

Really, this whole story had a lot working against it, and I’m pleased to report that Big Finish pulled it off and then some. This is one of their better Dalek stories, and probably the best story in the main range for this year.

Everything about this story works and works well. The Doctor dealing with a Dalek threat, but not being able to deal with the real Dalek threat is handled nicely. There’s also some great scenes with Peri getting really familiar with dangerous botany.

I also have to give my usual kudos to everyone involved in the acting department. Briggs does his usual excellent job with the Daleks, and Baker and Bryant are both their wonderful selves. I also want to praise Tracey Wiles, who takes a new character and really infuses her with some greatness.

I’d say if I have to recommend one good, solid, 2014 main range story for a newcomer, this would be it. It’s not part of any great arcs, but it is still a great story.

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Big Finish Review – Doctor Who – “Dark Eyes 3”


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“Molly O’Sullivan? Hello you.”

In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor’s friend, Molly, is key to that plan’s execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success.

Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks’ bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master.

As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed…

Written By: Matt Fitton
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Paul McGann (The Doctor), Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka), Ruth Bradley (Molly O’Sullivan), Alex Macqueen (The Master), Natalie Burt (Dr Sally Armstrong), David Sibley (The Eminence), Sean Carlsen (Narvin)

1: The Death of Hope
Georgie Fuller (Hope Gardner), Geoffrey Breton (Leo Gardner)

2: The Reviled
Sacha Dhawan (Jaldam), Sarah Mowat (Gajeeda), Laura Riseborough (Sharma)

3: Masterplan
David Sibley (Professor Markus Schriver), John Banks (Captain/Lieutenant)

4: Rule of the Eminence
Jonathan Forbes (Walter Vincent), Beth Chalmers (Casey Carraway), Georgia Moffett (Engineer Tallow)

The Dark Eyes series has suffered from one major problem: it isn’t what a lot of fans feel it should be.

For those who remember, “To the Death”, the climax of the Eighth Doctor Adventures series, ended with a rather amazing set of tragedies, and the Doctor swearing to do something to change that. From there we went into the first Dark Eyes set, where the Doctor…changes his clothes and gets a haircut. There’s no real follow-up to what he said, and what he said felt very much like a lead-up to the events of the Time War, so we had all had quite a bit of anticipation. We knew we wouldn’t get the war itself, obviously, but just the lead-up to it would have been nice!

But no. Instead we got the haircut, the new clothes, and a new companion. Dark Eyes 2 was more of the same, bringing us the new Master, as well as the return of Liv Chenka, a med-tech who had appeared in a Seventh Doctor audio. That story climaxed with the Master somehow kidnapping the Doctor’s companion and, with an additional companion of his own, setting out to do what he does.

Now we’re on the third set, and the Dark Eyes concept, while solid, is getting a bit stale. This was by no means a bad set of stories, but it was certainly the weakest of the series so far.

Of the four stories presented here, the first is easily the most entertaining while the third is probably the best. The first, “The Death of Hope”, features many elements of a western and is very much a “Doctor-lite” story. In it, the Master, his companion Sally, and their kidnap victim Molly, show up at a human colony that is trying to survive against the Eminence and their Infinite Warriors. The Master has a dark and sinister plan, of course, but implementing it requires that he saves the colony; that he becomes, in his special way, the hero.

I quite liked that touch, and the framing narrative of the Doctor and Narvin watching all this unfold worked out quite well. It also did a good job of laying out the stakes for us so we’d have some understanding of the Eminence and what they’re up to, as well as laying the groundwork for the rest of the Master’s efforts.

Sadly, the second story, “The Reviled”, didn’t quite churn along as interestingly. It wasn’t bad, and it was a bit dull. It also didn’t help that the alien species on the planet where the story took place had voices that were similar enough to that of the Eminence that I had occasional trouble telling who was who. Also, a note to Big Finish and everyone who works with actors, if you’re going to hire a “name” actor like Sacha Dhawan (previously seen playing Warris Hussien in “An Adventure in Space and Time”), don’t hide them under so much make up (or in this case, modulate their voice so much), that we can’t tell who they are. It reminds me of the Transformers franchise, where Hugo Weaving played Megatron, though not so you’d notice.

But then we hit “Masterplan”, which was quite a bit better. In this one we have the Doctor and the Master trapped together in a locked room for quite a good part of the story, and that’s an excellent thing. Macqueen and McGann really work quite well together as a pairing, and I was very pleased with the result of their efforts; so much so that I was annoyed when we kept revisiting what was happening with Sally and Liv.

The set rounds out with “Rule of the Eminence”, and this story was…ok. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit of a “shrug” story, and it leads to the real problem with this box set and with the Eminence in general: they just aren’t that interesting of an adversary.

Oh, sure, it’s nice to have a break from the Daleks (very nice), but there are so many other, far more interesting villains out there. The Eminence is a gaseous lifeform that basically causes people to turn into zombies that it can control. Eh. How is this fundamentally different from the Cybermen turning people into cyborgs under their control? Or the Daleks turning people into Daleks?

There is nothing especially threatening about the Eminence. There also isn’t much terribly threatening or interesting about the Daleks and Cybermen, but at least with them we have something of a legacy, and we’ve seen them on the TV. The same cannot be said for the Eminence. We’ve seen (heard) them with the Fourth Doctor, the Sixth Doctor and now the Eighth, and they just aren’t working. Big Finish needs to either retire them or rework them, because as it is, my reaction to them tends to be, “Oh. Those guys.” Thank goodness it sounds like Dark Eyes 4 will feature the Sontarans.

Now. Can I recommend this set? Well, first, you don’t have to listen to the previous two, but it does help quite a bit. It’s also good background to listen to the Fourth and Sixth audios that featured the Eminence. I will say that the first and third stories really do make for some great listening, and since you have to buy the set to have those two, I suppose that I can recommend it. But not with any real enthusiasm.

I do understand that the plans are to retire the Dark Eyes line after the next set. I’m quite ok with that. And I very much hope that whatever comes after it is either a real follow-up to the events of “To the Death” or a return of the Eighth Doctor to the main range. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to find out what happened with Mary, for example (I didn’t really care for her stories, but I hate loose ends), and it would be nice to have more than just one or two appearances by Eight each year.

In the meantime, I think it’s time to queue up some of the old Lucie Miller stories, and remember what once was.

Big Finish Review – Doctor Who – “The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield”


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A new five-disc box set featuring the adventures of archaeologist Bernice Summerfield and her friends the Doctor and Ace!

The Revolution by Nev Fountain

On the planet of Arviem 2, Bernice Summerfield has a lot of problems. Pursued by robots, maniacs and miracles, she has another issue to contend with. The Doctor’s come looking for her – and he’s not feeling himself.

Good Night, Sweet Ladies by Una McCormack

Bernice has come to the Moon of Adolin on a desperate mission. Instead, she finds an abandoned labyrinth, two confused survivors, and something ancient that needs her help.

Random Ghosts by Guy Adams

Welcome to the Forbidden World. This world has a secret. The problem is that no-one can remember what it is. Time is broken here. Those trapped here must live the same day over and over – forming alliances, lying to each other, trying to escape. Welcome to the Forbidden World.

The Lights of Skaro by James Goss

Bernice Summerfield is on Skaro, and she’s very much on her own. The Doctor can’t get to her, not this time. All Benny can do is stay alive for as long as possible. And, in a city full of Daleks, that’s not going to be very long.

Cast

Lisa Bowerman (Bernice Summerfield), Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks), Terry Molloy (Davros), John Finnemore(Steven), Miles Jupp (Inquisitor Xavier), Matthew Gravelle (Klinus), Colin MacFarlane (Foster), Sheila Reid (Claire), Nicola Bryant (Professor Geller), Alex Jordan (Renk Van Magnastein), Amber Revah (Varna), Matthew Woodcock(Robots)

(special thanks to Big Finish for providing me with a review copy!)

Well, here we have the latest boxed set for Bernice Summerfield. If you don’t already know Bernice, you’re really missing out. She’s an intelligent, funny, enjoyable character. She’s an archaeologist, created in 1992 by Paul Cornell for his book Love and War. Since then, she proved popular enough to get her own series of books, and her own series of audios. And now here she is, back where she started, having adventures with the Seventh Doctor and Ace.

Of the four stories in this set, I feel that the first was the best. Nev Fountain turned in one of the funniest audios I’ve  heard in a long time, with McCoy taking every opportunity to ham it up, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s quite obvious that he hand a grand old time playing what is basically a stoned version of the Doctor. But he isn’t exactly the focus here. No, what we basically have is a Bernice Summerfield story, with her special companion, the Doctor! And I’m fine with that. It’s right that she should be at the forefront, as after all, the set is called The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield.

The story also gives us a look at what militant atheists might be like, if such creatures existed. As an atheist myself, I found this vastly amusing. We also got an entertaining bartender, and those are always fun. We didn’t get much of Ace, but that’s ok, because she turns up again later.

The second story in the set is also good, largely because of John Finnemore (best known from Cabin Pressure), who turns in another amusing performance here. The story itself isn’t all that great, but there is one scene that must get special attention, and that’s a beautiful scene with Bernice and…another entity that I can’t identify because spoilers. But it’s a wonderful moment not only for the character of Bernice, but also for Lisa Bowerman, who proves that she really should be getting more work as an actress. She makes the scene entirely compelling and fascinating, and handles the emotional content of it extremely well.

The third story in the set was…well, it was what it was. Call it Groundhog Day in Space. I really didn’t get into this story. The whole “repeating timelines and non-linear story flow” doesn’t always work as well in audio as it does in more visual mediums. I’m not saying it was bad here, but it didn’t work as well as it could have. Also, while I liked the character of Klinus well enough, I didn’t quite get how it was that Bernice developed such strong feelings for him instantly. It seemed like a bit of a stretch that kind of reminded me of Love and War, where Ace fell in love with someone in pretty much the same unconvincing fashion.

This story was very much the weak point of the set, and I’d almost suggest skipping it, except that it sets us up for the fourth story. And that fourth story is…well, a bit confusing at times. Again, it features some non-linear flow, and jumping of time, but not nearly as much as the previous story. It also has a slow build, and while the payoff in the third act is totally worth it, that payoff feels like its a long time coming.

Now that said, the story does do some impressive work. It ties together the history of the Daleks from several different stories, including The Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks and other sources. It gives us a real hard look at the Emperor Dalek, shows us how the Doctor might have been the cause of the Daleks spreading out among the universe, and does something I’d have never thought possible: it actually humanizes the Daleks a bit. Oh, they’re still a horrible race of horrible creatures, but we get the impression it didn’t have to be that way.

The story also follows up on one of the more interesting elements of the Cartmel Masterplan, and shows us a bit of Ace’s life after the Doctor left her on Gallifrey to become a Time Lord. I liked that, but the way it was handled here almost didn’t work. It did in the end, but it came very close to not.

Overall this was a very good set. A solid B, a great four out of five stars. The performances by everyone, especially Lisa Bowerman, were very good. I really did love that first story, and I hope Fountain (who also wrote the excellent Mervyn Stone audio story, The Axeman Cometh), gets more work from Big Finish. It is those performances and that writing that really pushes this set up a notch, because to be honest, the third story was incredibly weak, the second was kind of “meh”, and all be the third act of the last story kind of dragged. But because of those performances and that writing, I don’t hesitate to recommend this set. It is well-worth your time and money.

Big Finish Review – Pathfinder Legends 1.01 – “Rise of the Runelords: Burnt Offerings”


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Synopsis

Sandpoint. An ordinary town on the Lost Coast of Varisia. When Ezren, Merisiel, Valeros and Harsk arrive, seeking rest from their adventures, it seems the town’s annual Swallowtail Festival will give them what they need – until goblins attack during a ceremony to consecrate the town’s rebuilt church.

After defending Sandpoint, the adventurers discover a sinister plot to return an ancient evil to Varisia. Can they discover the sinister connection between the goblin attack and the removal of mortal remains from a crypt in the town’s graveyard?

This is just the beginning of a new quest for the iconic Pathfinder characters Ezren, Merisiel, Valeros and Harsk. The Rise of the Runelords begins with burnt offerings – and only four heroes stand against it.

Written By: Mark Wright
Directed By: John Ainsworth

Cast

Trevor Littledale (Ezren), Ian Brooker (Harsk), Stewart Alexander (Valeros), Kerry Skinner (Merisiel), Yuriri Naka (Ameiko), Toby Longworth (Hemlock), Kevin Shen (Tsuto), Katarina Olsson (Nualia), Duncan Wisbey (Foxglove), Helen Goldwyn (Deverin), Sunny Ormonde (Townswoman)

I’ve been technically playing in a Pathfinder game for a couple of years now. I say “technically” because we don’t play as often as I’d like, ie: daily. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s a papers and pencils RPG that is very similar to, but legally distinct from, Dungeons and Dragons, and it’s quite a lot of fun.

This audio takes place in the basic Pathfinder universe, and features four characters (an elf rogue, a dwarf ranger, a human mage and a human fighter), who are traveling around doing their thing. They come across a small town that gets attacked by goblins and then take the lead in hunting down and destroying the goblin menace. It seems like a decent party, aside from the fact that they have three DPS, one tank and no healer.

As a fan of the game and of Big Finish, I’d been very much looking forward to hearing this audio. To my annoyance it was delayed by two months, but when it finally came out, I was pleased. Big Finish did their usual great job of creating an audio landscape, and while the story seemed rushed (something I blame on the one hour run time), it also was quite coherent and entertaining. I also have to cite the way they were able to tell us everyone’s race and class without getting overly bogged-down in exposition, something not many people could pull off.

The voice acting is excellent, as one would expect from Big Finish. They did manage to avoid having the dwarf speak with a thick Scots accent, which was appreciated, but the fighter sounds almost American, which is kind odd. There’s also some anachronistic dialogue, but, eh, no worse than you’d hear in an average gaming session.

I do feel that the audio is a bit overpriced. Now I don’t often criticize Big Finish’s pricing structure, and I assume it’s more expensive than usual due to licensing fees from Paizo, but $12.99 for a one hour audio is…not great. I can buy the latest Doctor Who monthly story for that price, and that’s two hours long.

That minor complaint aside, I was very pleased, and look forward to the next chapter in this story. Hopefully it will be somewhat less than two months late.

Big Finish Review – Doctor Who – Main Range 184 – “Scavenger”


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Synopsis

Thursday 28 May 2071: the day the Anglo-Indian Salvage 2 rocket launches. Its mission: to clean up space; to remove from Earth’s orbit over a century’s worth of man-made junk…

From the viewing window of a nearby space station, the Doctor and Flip have a unique view of Salvage 2 as it sets about its essential task – and of the disaster that unfolds when Salvage 2 encounters something it’s not been programmed to deal with. Something not of human manufacture…

Back on Earth, the Doctor fights to save Flip from becoming part of a 500-year tragedy being played out in orbit, hundreds of miles above. And millions will die if he fails.

Written By: William Gallagher
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs

Cast

Colin Baker (The Doctor), Lisa Greenwood (Flip Jackson), Anjli Mohindra (Jyoti Cutler), Tariq Bhatti (Salim), Kate McEwen (Jessica Allaway), Tania Rodrigues (Anarkali/Melissa/Isra Tech #2), John Banks (Commander Gabbard/Scavenger/Isra Tech #1/Security Guy)

Scavenger” is a very interesting story. It’s got a nice bit of hard sci-fi feel to it, addressing a real-world problem (space junk), that’s only going to get worse as time goes on. It also adds in an alien probe, a Captain Jack-style immortal, and a great deal of Indian accents, which is kind of lovely. There’s a very large population of Indians and Pakistanis in the UK, and it’s good when Big Finish features them.

There was much that I enjoyed here. The overall plot is very good. We have the Brits vs the Indians in space, both vying to clean up low-orbit, and then an alien probe shows up that starts harshing everyone’s buzz, trying to absorb people and parts into itself. The supporting characters, especially Jyotti (played by Anjli Mohindra, best known as Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures), and Salim. Jessica, the British former tennis star (oddly), who acts in an adversarial role. And she really is just an adversary, not an evil bad guy character. She’s not nice, by any means, but she’s not totally evil, which is a good change of pace. Much as I enjoy Doctor Who, the show’s villains especially do tend to be rather two-dimensional in nature, even with Big Finish.

If I had to complain about this at all, it would be in the nature of the ending. It ended with a fairly annoying cliffhanger that didn’t really make any sense. From what I can tell, one of the characters basically decides to commit suicide because reasons. The outcome of that is the cliffhanger. I don’t mind cliffhangers in general, but this one seemed forced, and as I said, made no sense. Add to that the fact that it will probably be a year or two before we have a resolution.

But those are minor complaints. This was a good, solid story, and I very much enjoyed it and recommend it.

Big Finish Review – Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures – “The Crooked Man”


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Winter at the seaside. The wind blows. The waves crash. People are dying and a strange spindly figure stalks the cold, deserted streets. A typical holiday for the Doctor and Leela in other words.

When they stumble across a grotesque series of murders at the coast, the TARDIS travellers realise the local constabulary is out of its depth. Something supernatural has come to town, something evil. And it all seems to be tied in to a particular young family.

Monsters lurk behind strange doors. Tragic secrets wait to be uncovered. And somewhere, deep within, the Crooked Man sits. He is waiting for you.

Written By: John Dorney
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs

Cast

Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Neil Stuke (The Crooked Man), Sarah Smart (Laura Corbett), Robin Pearce (Simon Corbett/Reporter), Richard Earl (Ellis Andrews/Rance), Lizzie Roper (Celia Turner/Lesley King)

So I had planned to post this, and all my forthcoming reviews, on a website devoted to Doctor Who. Alas, that site is down, and has been for several days now. So for now we’re back to this until I can find a new home, or until that one gets restored.

Anyhow, this story. Yes, quite good. It touches on a concept the Second Doctor encountered back in the day, namely “The Land of Fiction”. This is a pocket universe where all the various characters from fiction exist. It was only used once in the TV series and is regarded as something a bit iffy by many fans of the show, but I rather liked the concept. I understand it was overused in the books and comics, but Big Finish has, so far, used it twice that I know of, so that’s good.

The story itself was excellent, though it’s always a bit odd to hear the Fourth Doctor referencing things like eBay. I very much enjoyed the various supporting characters, and the eventual fate of one of them was nicely heart-breaking. I also really enjoyed Baker and Jameson’s performances, as always, and Neil Stuke really did an excellent job as the Crooked Man, something I’d normally expect Nicholas Briggs to do.

Overall this was a decent, enjoyable, and minor little story. I don’t think it will live long in the minds of fans, but for what it was, it was good.

Big Finish Review – “The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes”


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Four decades. Four cases. One solution.

From the plains of Afghanistan to the alleyways of Victorian London, from the dark heart of the English countryside to the ruin of Europe after the Great War, join Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in a quartet of astonishing new investigations which span their lifelong friendship – and beyond…

Written By: Jonathan Barnes
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Nicholas Briggs (Sherlock Holmes), Richard Earl (Dr Watson), John Banks (Inspector Lestrade), Derek Carlyle (Wherry), Blake Ritson (Christopher Thrale), Michael Cochrane (Winchester Bartley-Gower), Eve Karpf (The Gracious Adelina/Mrs Chaunt Maclise/Mrs Hope), Amy Ewbank (Eliza Hinderclay/Judy), Ken Bones (Jim Hinderclay), Caroline Keiff (Tess Dorno), Tracey Childs (Mrs Edgar Curbishley), Marek Oravec (Griesser), Andrew Fettes (Tlitzlmann Blench)

The redoubtable Mr. Sherlock Holmes has returned, along with his able companion, John Watson. Back not only on TV in series three of Sherlock, but also back in audio form from Big Finish. This is their third major series of Holmes adventures. How does it fare compared with the others?

Well, it’s decent. It’s not great, and sags a bit in the middle, but it’s decent.

The set contains four stories, each one hour long. The first tells a story of Holmes and Watson before they met, with Watson wandering around doing things in Afghanistan while Holmes introduces himself to Inspector Lestrade. The middle stories focus on Holmes and Watson working together to investigate sinister goings on that appear to involve a blue flower, and the fourth concludes the arc with the two of them visiting post-World War One Europe.

Of the stories, the first was easily the most interesting. I liked the idea of showing Holmes and Watson each on their own separate adventures; adventures which are of course linked. It was nice to see them having the chance to be characters apart from each other, as it shows a bit of their development. I also really enjoyed the fourth, even if certain plot twists were fairly predictable.

But the story falls apart a bit in the middle. Not badly so; it is still pretty entertaining. But something about them both felt a bit lacking. With the third, I think it’s mostly that we didn’t have the chance to see any real detecting from Holmes, but I can’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the second story. The pacing seemed a bit off, and the supporting characters a bit dull.

That said, the set as a whole was very good, and one that I highly recommend to anyone who likes Holmes. If nothing else, you get to spend four hours listening to Nicholas Briggs, and that’s always a pleasure.