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Archive for February, 2010

In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (2000)
Rachel Trezise
Parthian, 121pp

Rachel Trezise was born in the Rhondda Valley in 1978. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl was written, then, while she was in her late teens into the beginning of her twenties, a desperately young age to be producing a novel of such raw power. Autobiographical in content and tone – Trezise has admitted this in interviews – In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl was an Orange Futures Winner, and in October 2006, Trezise won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize for her book of short stories, Fresh Apples, describing life in the mining valleys in South Wales. The Rhondda again providing backdrop, and of this bleak post-industrial landscape Trezise is not kind.

Veiled as Rebecca Trigianni, Rachel Trezise takes us to the council estate of her youth where she is unloved by her mother and where her father leaves never to be seen from again. Her mother takes up with a new boyfriend, who sexually abuses her, and so she runs away, only to be returned by the police. In her early teenage years she becomes involved with Daf, the man she thinks her soul mate, and the two enter a destructive and damaging spiral involving drugs and alcohol. Rebecca Trigianni, it seems, is about to destroy her life.

Trezise has a mature voice, and her prose excavates the darkest recess of her memory. At times this work resembles and reads like Trezise working something out: “I drank and took drugs in order to forget things,” and apologia for bad deeds, and in other moments you sense her trying to find beauty in the brutality. Her language is almost always economic, it is pared to the bone, and this only magnifies the violence of her world; you feel the desire to pull this suffering girl from the world and protect her. Yet it is not manipulative prose, nor infantile blackmail. This is a story simple of it is was, and is, for some children in this world.

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Doctor Who: Living Legend
Scott Gray
Big Finish CD05
Directed by: Gary Russell
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher

Given away free with the Doctor Who Magazine, Living Legend is an Eighth Doctor mini-adventure set at some point during McGann’s second season as The Doctor. It sees Charley and The Doctor landing in Italy, in July 1982, when the Italians have just won the World Cup. The Doctor picks up alien signals and nearby discovers a pair of Threllips planning a Threllip invasion of Earth. Played entirely for laughs, Living Legend proves that McGann and Fisher have real chemistry, and that Charley Pollard is quite capable of taking charge: she impersonates a Time Lord and gets to belittle The Doctor. Living Legend is made up of some great one-liners and some wonderful slapstick, and after the mammoth length of Zagreus, a quick twenty minute jaunt was just what the doctor ordered… (sorry).

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Doctor Who: Zagreus (2003)
Gary Russell & Alan Barnes
Big Finish #50
Directed by: Gary Russell
Starring: Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, India Fisher, Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Nicholas Courtney, Anneke Wells, Elizabeth Sladen, Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris, Maggie Stables, Bonnie Langford, Robert Jezek, Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman and John Leeson (amongst others)

You can guess from that cast list that this is something special. Not only is Zagreus the fiftieth story from Big Finish, it was released in November 2003, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who. Ostensibly the first in the third season of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor stories, and a conclusion to the Zagreus plot-line begun in Neverland (which ended with McGann’s Doctor consumed by and having become Zagreus), it soon encompasses five Doctors, including Jon Pertwee (who by this point had been dead for seven years!) and a whole host of former Doctor Who companions, including for the first time in the Big Finish range, Elizabeth Sladen, John Leeson and Louise Jameson. There is a caveat to all those names: none of them, apart from India Fisher and Paul McGann (and right at the end McCoy, Baker and Davison) play their ordinary character. Even McGann plays two roles. Zagreus, then, is an attempt to be big, bold and dramatic. But does it work?

The previous story, Neverland, made reference to Peter Pan. Zagreus makes reference to Alice in Wonderland. Charley Pollard, stuck and terrified aboard the TARDIS with Zagreus, is shown a moment from her past, a book, a copy of Alice in Wonderland, but not everything is as it appears. Zagreus, looking for a way out of the TARDIS, is drawn to the library, where the disembodied voice of Jon Pertwee guides him to a book that cannot be moved but by human (or Time Lord) hands. That book, yup, it’s Alice in Wonderland. So begins what is at times a truly ridiculous story, and at others a mind-boggling one. Charley is our Alice, and we follow her down the rabbit hole.

Charley is taken firstly to 1950s England, where on a military base a scientist is attempting to open a portal to another universe. Then she is taken to secret lab belonging to Rassilon, who was also attempting to open a portal to another universe, and where vampiric Time Lords await, and final to the end of time, where in an amusement park, robotic animals fight against nursery rhyme characters over the remains of their creator, a Walt Disney-esque figure called Walton “Uncle Winky” Winkle, before the heavens are torn apart by a portal from another universe. From even this concise a summing up, one can tell that Zagreus is pretty out there. Bonnie Langford playing Goldilocks, or Sophie Aldred as a duck – we got them all here.

Big Finish must certainly be applauded for attempting something so completely original for the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who – as I heard Alan Barnes and Gary Russell explaining in a making of, two or more Doctors teaming up to solve a problem has been done, and done to death, so something new was needed. Therefore having McCoy, Baker and Davison play new roles is entirely liberating: and I particularly loved Davison’s man of God, the Reverend Matthew Townsend, and he would make a great character in another story. Baker gets to overact wonderfully playing Provost Tepesh (in the making of he delights at the casting) and McCoy, well McCoy as Uncle Winky hints at such depths of weirdness I thought I’d wandered into a David Lynch audio-play.

So then, as a fortieth anniversary tribute – yes, it works. It gets the spirit of Doctor Who: Who has always been about myth and legend, science and faith, logic and instinct, and Zagreus plays on all of these, especially the first two. By ending in a world where fairytale battles constructed reality, having Charley Pollard become Alice, and having a monster, Zagreus, a monster that is entirely made out of myth, it allows Doctor Who to become symbolic, to become dramatic, and to become renewed.

As an opening for the beginning of a new season of stories of the Eighth Doctor – McGann must have been delighted to be getting such an opening, and such great lines (I particularly enjoyed they way in which the writers twisted an Alice in Wonderland trope into a discussion of quantum mechanics. The sort of thing you can only get away with in science-fiction. McGann seizes his dual role as The Doctor and Zagreus with relish, and proves again why he is and was chosen to play Doctor Who – and makes me yearn all the more for a chance to see him play the role on television again (he really would have been good). But it is in the final scenes, after Zagreus is gone, and The Doctor has changed because of the experience – that he accepted and yearned for death – that Zagreus truly comes to life. I had goosepimples listening to these final few minutes. At the time I was walking along a quiet beach, listening to this story, and I stopped, and watched the waves, and heard him say goodbye to Charley Pollard and it made me cry. I am sure that Russell T. Davies has heard this story, for its ending reminded me so much of The Tenth Doctors parting with Rose. Before Davies got there, Barnes and Russell have found a true emotional depth to Doctor Who.

With The Eighth Doctor off to explore the alternate universe, and forbidden to return by the Time Lords, a new beginning opens up for The Doctor. A new world of stories, a new world of legends…

But wait, who is that hiding onboard the TARDIS..? Charley Pollard, proving to be one of the great companions, just won’t take no as answer and isn’t quite done with The Doctor…

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Doctor Who: Master (2003)
Joseph Lidster
Big Finish #49
Directed by: Gary Russell
Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Geoffrey Beevers

The final part of the returning monsters series, sees the return to Big Finish of The Master (last seen in Dust Rising). Like Nev Fountain and Lance Parkin before him, Joseph Lidster has taken a novel approach to dealing with this villain. The Doctor stops an assassin from completing his task by asking him to listen to a story, and thus begins the tale of John Smith, an amnesiac doctor in the small town of Perfugum, a town where a killer of young women is stalking, and where the guests are gathering in a country house for a grand meal, that is, before they are brutally interrupted.

A large chunk of this story is taken up with a discussion of the morality of evil, and Lidster clearly wishes his story to take the nature of an allegory: in this it is only part way successful. Where it falls down is not in the central argument, nor in the scenes in Perfugum, but in the framing device that fails totally to become connected or reflect anything that is seen or learnt in Perfugum. This is not to say that Master is a poor story, far from it – I actually think for the majority of its length, Master is very good indeed – it is just that it does not fulfil its potential, and I think that a shame.

A few posts back I said I thought Sylvester McCoy had given one of his best performances – well here he blows that one out of the water. Here is The Doctor haunted by past mistakes, and aware that he is about to make another one and unable to do a thing about it – death is irrevocable and death is here. Davros revealed another aspect of that monsters personality, and here Lidster pulls the same trick: we are shown what The Master could have been, given the right atmosphere, education and understanding.

Master, then, represents something very interesting, and though it is not always completely successful, it shows again Big Finish willing to take risks, and that can only be applauded.

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Doctor Who: Davros (2003)
Lance Parkin
Big Finish #48
Directed by: Gary Russell
Starring: Colin Baker, Terry Malloy, Wendy Padbury

The returning monster series continues with Davros, creator of the Daleks, and long dead fiend. Thieves have blown their way into a sealed crate aboard a cargo ship, there to steal the contents of a bank’s security box. The booty: Davros’s corpse. Meanwhile, The Doctor has responded to a call from a journalist named Willis; the mines on the planet they stand on are being closed down, despite the fact they could turn a profit, and Willis wants help to find out why. When they see a shuttle descending into a hidden base, The Doctor follows, and soon Davros is awake, and working with enigmatic businessman Arnold Baynes and his wife, Lorraine, played by former companion Wendy Padbury (Zoe from the Second Doctor days).

Played over two part of over an hour each (instead of the usual four parts), Davros is a demanding and thoroughly engaging listen. To see Davros without the Daleks is an inspired choice from Lance Parkin: the Daleks always desire destruction, and therefore so does Davros, but the question this poses is what would his motivation be if total destruction were not an option? Soon The Doctor and Davros are working together for Arnold Baynes, working to create a new synthetic brain for his robot workers, and then working towards solving the problem of famine in some of the outer colonies of the empire. Of course – and we would have it no other way – Davros has his own agenda, and very soon nuclear bombs are being detonated and millions are dead or on the verge of dying…

Davros, as a story, does something else though, something infinitely more interesting – it begins to fill in the story of why this monster became a monster. As a writer it is these questions that fascinate me, the psychology of why one does what one does, and Parkin crafts a back story that he slowly reveals that is not simple, that hints at sides of his personality that Davros does his best to bury, and of a love that might have been, had it not been for war.

I enjoyed Davros enormously, and there are some great dramatic moments here, including a great bomb reveal and the previously mentioned back-story, and it is played with verve and energy by an obviously exited Colin Baker and Terry Malloy. It is also a delight to hear the beautiful Wendy Padbury’s voice again in this universe, playing the Dalek apologist Lorraine Baynes. A very strong release, and proof that Big Finish can do challenging and exciting, and that despite a few recent mediocre releases, can still knock them out of the park now and again. Bravo Lance Parkin and Big Finish!

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Doctor Who: Omega (2003)
Nev Fountain
Big Finish #47
Starring: Peter Davison, Ian Collier
Directed by: Gary Russell

Omega forms the first part of an informal monster trilogy with Davros and Master and sees the return of Omega, played again by Ian Collier. Omega appeared in the anniversary story The Three Doctors in 1972 and again in the Peter Davison story Arc of Infinity, to which this is a sort of sequel. It is clear from the fact that I listen to and review these stories that I am a Doctor Who fan, but Omega is one of those villains I do not remember – though I think I’ve seen both stories at some point in the past. It is to Nev Fountain’s credit as a writer, then, that not everything in this story is lost on the general listener (though there are, I am sure, in-jokes to which I am not privy).

The Doctor is onboard a cruise ship being run by Jolly Chronolidays – they bring visitors to the past, or to recreations of the past as The Doctor discovers: of course, this being Doctor Who, there is a killer onboard and a mysterious energy that affects the behaviour of any actor playing the role of Tarpov. Fountain’s script builds the tension nicely in the first part, and well into the second part but then somewhere, for about thirty minutes, it gets stuck – it is just The Doctor and Omega talking, no tension, no suspense. Thankfully Fountain has an ace up his sleeve – the ending of the third part has one of the best cliff-hangers produced by Big Finish (it’s just a shame it doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but then I think it would have been tough to do so).

Peter Davison gives a very subtle performance in this that allows the big reveal to resonate back through everything he has already given us, and distinguishes him from the Doctor of the first three episodes and the Doctor of the last part. There are also some wonderful guests, including an Irish Time Lord, endearingly played by Patrick Duggan, and of course, Ian Collier’s grand and overblown performance as the maniacal Omega. At the end of the day, though, Omega (for me) remains one of those villains that doesn’t quite work: he is just another raving madman of a Time Lord, and haven’t we had enough of them?

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Doctor Who: Flip-Flop (2003)
Jonathan Morris
Big Finish #46
Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford
Directed by: Gary Russell

I wondered, as I listened to this Möbius strip of a story, whether it was intended as a Christmas release that somehow found itself coming out at the height of summer. I wondered this because of all the references to It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s seasonal whimsy, and the season setting. Presented by Big Finish over two discs, one white, one black, which can be listened to in any order, its story is simple and to the point, but its presentation and construction requires a few jumps in logic and comprehension. The plot summary I will steal from Wikipedia:

Black disc

It is Christmas Eve, 3090, and the Seventh Doctor and Mel arrive on the planet Puxatornee searching for leptonite crystals to fight the Quarks. They discover a world where the human citizens are slowly becoming in thrall to the alien Slithergees.

White disc

It is Christmas Eve, 3090, and the Seventh Doctor and Mel arrive on the planet Puxatornee searching for leptonite crystals. They find the world a ruined radioactive wasteland.

Yes, Puxatornee is a reference to Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie in which is character relived the same day: The Doctor and Mel seem stuck, destined to live this cycle over and over, though at the same time they will also carry on their journeys through space and time.

I admire Big Finish for taking risks with the franchise: I have commented upon this in previous reviews, and I admire them here – this story could never have been presented on television. McCoy and Langford certainly rise to the challenge, with McCoy giving one of his best performances in the range so far, with significantly less material to work with than usual. My thinking behind this being one of his best performances is that it requires great skill to make this kind of thing work, and work well, and McCoy does this. Until now I wasn’t sure that the Seventh Doctor was being giving the right material for his Doctor – too much comedy and light-heartedness – but Flip Flop allows him to do something new, a challenge.

While it is true that not everything in Flip Flop works – such a story is always in chains to its plot rather than its character – and it is a story that once you have spotted all the mirroring between the black and white disc story strands there is not much here, it is a fun ride attempting to work them all out. Oh, and Bonnie Langford is improving with age – I’m actually looking forward to the next appearance of Mel.

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