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Archive for October, 2009

Doctor Who: Spare Parts (2002)
Marc Platt
Big Finish #34
Starring: Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton

Before beginning to listen to Big Finish’s range of Who adventures, I had heard of Spare Parts. Marc Platt is credited in the TV two parter Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel – an origins story for the Cybermen – with a story thanks. The thanks relates to this adventure, in which Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor arrives on Mondas, the Cyber home world, in a period before the Cybermen have taken control: he knows where he is and he urges Nyssa to leave with him quickly – they stay for half an hour and in that time Nyssa rescues a man with a metal heart stuck under rubble, and the Doctor meets an underground figure who deals in spare body parts… it seems the Cyber revolution is but hours away…

Lots of people had told me of the brilliance of this story – and at its heart is a very emotional argument – how far will you go to sustain your life? What compromises are you willing to make? By focussing on one family’s difficulty and their dreams for the future, Platt is able to keep his story truly grounded. The Cybermen, being early incarnations of their future evil selves, even retain some of that humanity – the moment when Yvonne returns home, turned into a cyberman, and recognises her family is truly touching.

Where I think Spare Parts falls down is in its sheer brevity: this story feels much too short. Everything happens too quickly, especially in the last third, and if it had more time to breath, for us to consider the ramifications of not only these peoples actions but The Doctor’s, then Spare Parts could have been considerably better. Perhaps I have been unduly swayed by listening to Dalek Empire I the day before this story, but perhaps not. Nevertheless Spare Parts is full of some great moments, and the representation of the Cybermen is spot on: they are back to basics, how they were in The Tenth Planet, way back in 1966.

Again, like other recent Doctor Who adventures, Spare Parts ends on a bleak note: I think this shows Big Finish’s confidence with the Who range; they are now willing to take risks, to create danger in their stories – they can only benefit from such judgment.

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Dalek Empire I (2001)
Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish
Starring: Sarah Mowatt, Mark McDonnell, Gareth Thomas

Spread over four parts – Invasion of the Daleks, The Human Factor, Death to the Daleks!, Project Infinity – Dalek Empire is almost five hours long, a truly epic story of the Dalek invasion and conquering of the galaxy and the subsequent fight back. At its heart it is a love story between scientist Susan Mendes and spy Alby Brooks – after a tranquil opening the lovers are separated as the Dalek invasion begins. Susan is captured and in standing up to the Daleks is assigned the role of leader of the slaves – her humanity is of interest to the Daleks, she can inspire slaves to work more efficiently – she becomes the Angel of Mercy. Alby, knowing she is alive, sets out to rescue her…

Nicholas Briggs has achieved something monumental with this serial. By excising The Doctor from the story, we become embroiled in an adventure where nobody is safe, where the typical rules of Who do not apply. As a consequence Dalek Empire has a truly cinematic quality – and Big Finish rise to the job admirably. We can imagine the space battles, feel the heat of the mines, the exhaustion of the workforce and the fear of all towards their Dalek masters. At times it is a bleak story, admirably so, and at times we fear for our characters – particularly when they begin to show interest in the human factor, in emotions, and the way they can be manipulated. It is a side we have not seen to these monsters before, and it increases their menace considerably.

Clearly Big Finish knew they were onto a winner with this story as it does not conclude its story here – this is just the first part of a much larger story – at the end the war still rages, Susan and Alby have not been reconciled, and another wave of Daleks has arrived…

While listening I did wonder about The Doctor: where is he during all of this? Does he avoid this time, knowing that there is nothing he can do? Whatever the reason I am glad he was absent: seeing humans battle against this true evil is all the more satisfying. I say again: anyone can die.

Listeners had to wait a year before the second Dalek Empire arrived: I can bet the wait was torturous. I have the second volume but in my dedication to listening in chronological order some time will pass before I get there too: I cannot wait.

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Doctor Who: Excelis Decays (2002)
Craig Hinton
Big Finish
Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Anthony Stewart Head

Something has happened to Artaris. Once a peaceful planet it is now ruled by a totalitarian regime that wages war with its neighbouring countries, in a conflict that has run for decades. The soldiers are made of the underclasses, taken forcibly, and turned into meat puppets. Who is behind this atrocity and why do they perpetuate war? That it is Grayvorn is no surprise, but that this final part of the Excelis trilogy ends as bleakly as it does is. In Excelis Decays Big Finish have taken a risk and for the most part it pays off.

By having a different incarnation of the Doctor visit Artaris through the course of this trilogy, one is allowed to see the planet through a different prism: what this results in is an impression of the planet as one with history, troubles – in essence a real place; something that is sometimes lacking in other stories.

For the first hour everything seems pretty predictable, though the shadows gather at the edges of the narrative, but it is in the last fifteen minutes that the true surprises come: Grayvorn’s vision of the future becoming reality, the knowledge that he has been the architect of his own and his planets destruction. The Doctor’s decision in the final moments is the one that will have ramifications for future events – after Adric we knew not everyone was safe in Who-verse, now we know that sometimes The Doctor will let people die if it means saving others… sowing the seeds for later stories perhaps?

Excelis Decays rescued this trilogy; after a dull first part and a better second, it reaches its peak in the third.

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Doctor Who: Excelis Rising
David A. McIntee
Big Finish
Starring: Colin Baker, Anthony Stewart Head

With trepidation I began listening to this second Excelis story. The first had disappointed me that much. Gone was the narration that so disconnected me in Excelis Dawns – this was more familiar, more like a traditional Big Finish drama. Immediately I was drawn in.

A break in at a museum, one of the thieves is killed, the other trapped. The Doctor arrives and hears his calls for help, goes to help, when the police arrive and the Doctor hides. When he reveals himself he is held for the Reeve to question – when the Reeve arrives, he is none other than the Warlord Grayvorn – but centuries have passed, and Grayvorn was human…

Excelis Rising is a taut hour of drama, well acted with a strong audio palette. At the end I was glad that there was another hour to come; what more can you ask for?

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Doctor Who: Excelis Dawns (2002)
Paul Magrs
Big Finish
Starring: Peter Davison, Anthony Stewart Head, Katy Manning

The Fifth Doctor arrives on the planet Artaris, where the warlord Grayvorn and a new sister at a local convent are seeking a holy relic – the new sister is, however, Iris Wildthyme…

Excelis Dawns, and the subsequent Excelis stories, were recorded to fill the gap in the monthly release series of classic Who stories while Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor ran his season. This is a two part story, both of about forty-five minutes each, and for me did not work. There was too much narration by Grayvorn, Iris Wildthyme, voiced by Katy Manning who used to play Jo Grant in the TV series, is a truly hideous creation. Every time she spoke my teeth grated. The central mystery was weak, uninteresting and far too drawn out. I really could not get into it. I kept waiting for that moment of understanding, where I might realise what it was the writers were up to, but no moment came. The story simply ended with as little consequence as it had begun. For me, Excelis Dawns is the first truly weak story Big Finish have produced. With another two stories to go in this series, and another one off after that set on Excelis, I wondered if I would have the strength to get through them after this.

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Doctor Who: Neverland (2002)
Alan Barnes
Big Finish #33
Starring: Paul McGann & India Fisher

Time is unravelling, spinning out of control, as the consequences of the Doctor rescuing Charley from the R101 disaster become real. The Time Lords, sensing the seismic quakes in time, capture the Doctor and Charley and with president Romana, set about setting time straight. They travel to another realm, outside space and time, where they meet ‘never-people’, the wrecked ship of Rassilon and the legend of Zagreus. The ‘never-people’ hold a terrible secret and wish to leave their realm and travel home – home to Gallifrey; only to return their, the Time Lords must die…

Neverland is an epic finish to Paul McGann’s second season. Two parts of seventy odd minutes each, it packs a lot in. The first part is the weaker of the two as much has to be set up, but the second half real kicks into life as the drama and tension is heightened and as the consequences of not only The Doctor’s actions, but the actions of his people are called into doubt. Not all are as innocent as they seem. Not everybody will live. Alan Barnes pulls in a lot of Who mythology as well as characters from previous Big Finish adventures, and weaves a great story that has one hell of a final moment. The cliffhanger ending is the true kick in the teeth – McGann’s third season cannot come quickly enough…

Everything about this production needs praising. Barnes’s writing creates wonderful moods, and the places he takes us are new and tangible in the mind. The wrecked hulk of a TARDIS caught in the neverland, caught in storms of acid rain, populated by ghosts… wonderful. Having Romana back and giving her something to do, great. Where Neverland real works is in its darkening of the Time Lord race – its acknowledgement of mass genocide and the darker knowledge that it is still continuing unknown to all. This story raises such quite questions that, though unanswered at present, will have ramifications later on.

Neverland is a great end to the season and is one of the best stories yet produced in this range. I cannot wait to see where they take The Eighth Doctor next…

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Doctor Who: The Time of the Daleks: Dalek Empire Part Four
Justin Richards
Big Finish #32
Starring: Paul McGann and India Fisher

Charley Pollard has not heard of William Shakespeare – surely she jests. But then neither had Orson Welles. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong. Searching for answers, the Doctor discovers a rip in space time, a rip that travels from the future back to the sixteenth century. Travelling to the inception point, he meets a benevolent British dictator General Mariah Learman, who has some help creating a time machine – The Daleks. These Daleks, though, they quote Shakespeare, they venerate him, call him the greatest living playwright, and they want nothing more to see the first performance of Julius Caesar, and they are not exterminating anyone… something is wrong. Something is very wrong.

Justin Richards script manages to achieve something new and interesting with The Daleks, even if we know, in the end, they will be revealed to have an agenda and that the killing will resume. Their quoting of Shakespeare’s most famous lines is somehow terrifying. Where it goes wrong, and it does go wrong, is that it all becomes a little convoluted. It becomes a chase drama. There is too much going on. And there is far too much techno babble to explain Learman’s time machine.

Those negatives aside, The Time of the Daleks manages to do something I thought impossible – it connects the dots of the three previous Dalek Empire stories into something plausible. For that Big Finish need applauding.

The Time of the Daleks has been the weak story of this season, and perhaps if it had come outside of a season that has been truly excellent some of its flaws might be easier to forgive, but after Embrace the Darkness and The Chimes of Midnight (and the forthcoming Neverland), The Daleks just don’t quite cut it. Their banishment and imprisonment at the end, though, is quite fitting.

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