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Archive for June, 2010

Sarah Jane Smith: Comeback (2002)
Series 1, Episode 1
Terrance Dicks
Starring: Elizabeth Sladen, Jeremy James

On CBBC, the children’s division of the BBC, there is a Doctor Who spin-off show called The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s good fun, with Elizabeth Sladen reprising her role as Sarah Jane Smith, the companion who travelled with The Third and Fourth Doctors between 1973 – 1976. In 1981 she appeared in another TV spin off, K9 and Company, which was pretty poor. Between K9 and Company and her current CBBC success, she reprised her role for Big Finish, in two seasons of Sarah Jane Smith.

Comeback, the first in the Big Finish range, does away with the guest cast of K9 and Company quickly – Sarah Jane is standing over the grave of Aunt Lavinia. Sarah Jane seems to be working for a bank, and is soon embroiled in a robbery, where she is saved by Josh Townsend, a reformed criminal, who is arrested for the crime. The resulting police questions unearth Sarah Jane’s true identity, which alerts the bank, who have been involved in some very dodgy dealings. Perhaps Sarah Jane’s job at the bank is more than mere coincidence. Very soon they are deep in the English countryside, investigating mysterious goings-on at Cloots Combe.

Apart from some racier language than we get in Big Finish’s Doctor Who range, this feels very much like business as usual. The story, written by Doctor Who legend Terrance Dicks, sets up the characters and situation with solid ability, but is nothing truly special. What it put me most in mind of was Elizabeth Sladen’s latest project with the character – The Sarah Jane Adventures. This is the prototype, without the kids, but with a ragtag team of fellow investigators, and it is difficult to listen to it without thinking of that better show.

This is not to say that Sarah Jane Smith is poor – there is potential here, mostly unrealised – and the acting is first rate from the main cast (some of the supporting cast do fall into silly voices). What it is missing is a home – Sarah Jane Smith on TV has Bannerman Road, The Doctor has his TARDIS, but Sarah Jane is itinerant in this incarnation, and it makes you wonder how she keeps becoming embroiled in nefarious plots when she can’t even seem to keep a house or even a car safe.

That this series only last two seasons four years apart, and nine episodes, should probably tell me something about its reception, but I enjoy Elizabeth Sladen’s performance and like the character, so I will listen to the rest, and report back as usual.

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Doctor Who: The Next Life (2004)
Gary Russell & Alan Barnes
Big Finish #64
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher & Conrad Westmaas

The end of the Divergent Universe saga is here. Through the last two-part season we have seen The Doctor and Charley Pollard, and their new friend C’rizz, being pushed through The Interzone by a malevolent creature known as The Kro’ka. At times The Kro’ka’s actions seemed to be borne out of malice, at others there seemed to be curiosity. In the last story The Doctor got as close to the Divergents, but they fled before he had chance to confront them. In this story, then, we expect that meeting, and the reunion with Rassilon, who we know is up to no good in this Divergent Universe too. But this is a season finale written by Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, and like Neverland and Zagreus, it is an epic one. And a strange one.

After the TARDIS crashes into a planet, Charley awakes, back at the R101 and standing with her mother. The boy she duped to steal his identity and gain access to her adventure aboard the airship sees her and stops her, and resumes his place onboard, only to die in France, in the disaster. Meanwhile, C’rizz awakes and it is wedding day, the day of the Kromon attack, and L’da is alive. It doesn’t take long for the listener, nor Charley, to realise they are being lied to, manipulated by a higher power. The Kro’ka takes responsibility, but we know it is Rassilon.

The Doctor, meanwhile, wakes on a planet. After being attacked by a giant crab and its children – leading to the wonderful for pun of ‘shellfish’ for selfish – he meets a strange woman known as Perfection. The island turns out to be the foundry for C’rizz’s faith, Foundation, and his father is there. Before long The Doctor and Perfection are being hunted for murder, Charley is stuck in quicksand, and Rassilon’s long game is coming to fruition.

The Next Life packs and awful lot in – its action is fast, shifting between places and memories, and connecting all the disparate dots that have been scattered throughout the Divergent Universe season. Even Scherzo, Robert Shearman’s wonderfully bizarre debut for Divergent Universe begins to make sense. Big Finish had been sowing the seeds for this finale, we just missed their planting. Of course, they’ve done this before, and done it better, for this time round the trick doesn’t quite work; it goes up in a puff of smoke, but there is no bang. We needed a bang. A big bang. (Yes, I’ve just seen the finale of Matt Smith’s first season as The Eleventh Doctor, and it shows you how to sow the seeds and create a memorable bang.)

Amongst the guest cast, we have Don Warrington as Rassilon, and Daphne Ashbrook as Perfection – her casting is more interesting, as it reunites the Paul McGann with his companion from the TV Movie, Grace Holloway. Good to hear her again and she plays the mystery of Perfection well.

The Next Life is a good ending to the Divergent Saga, a season-long arc that has not been played as well as might have been liked – too many of the stories could have taken place in our universe, when I think more strangeness was necessary – and its resolution leaves a few threads hanging. Not a neat ending, but at least we’re back in familiar territory – and how do we know? I figured out the cliff-hanger of an ending a few episodes before we got there: how do we know, well we’ll know by having a major villain reappear, and who else, but The Daleks….

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‘A Fragment’ (1819)
Lord Byron
Penguin Classics, 6pp
(Included in their edition of Frankenstein)

When he was joined by his friends Percy Bysshe Shelley and his lover Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), in Switzerland, they discussed galvanism, and the reconstitution of human flesh, and they read German ghost stories, and then Lord Bryon suggested they write their own tales of the macabre. Out of this one meeting Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein, and Byron produced this, a short fragment of a proposed story, one that would help give birth to the romantic vampire myth.

Like Shelley’s famous novel this fragment is in epistolary form, recounted the events that have happened on a grand tour to the east with Augustus Darvell. When Darvell falls ill, they arrive at a Turkish cemetery between Smyrna and Ephesus near the columns of Diana. A stork lands on a gravestone, a snake in its mouth. When Darvell dies, his body rapidly decomposes, and is buried. Between astonishment and grief, the writer is tearless.

Bryon’s brief fragment oozes menace. There is a hallucinatory quality to the journey east, and Darvell’s death and sudden decomposition hint at macabre terrors yet to come. Bryon, however, does not finish his story, and one can only guess at what was to come. However, one Dr John Polidori, who was Byron’s personal physician, and was on this holiday in Switzerland, was enamoured with Bryon’s style, and with his fragment of a story, and he reworked it into the first vampire tale in English.

The idea for the fragment had come to Bryon through the vampire myths he had heard on his travels in Balkans, and it is most likely that Bryon told Polidori that this is where is fragment would have gone, with the reanimation of Darvell’s corpse. When Polidori’s story was published, it was attributed by all to Bryon, not Polidori, and the confusion reigned for some time. Bryon stated clearly he was not the author, but none would listen. ‘A Fragment’, then, is fascinating as the progenitor of something much more influential.

The text of this story never meant to be published, but following the claims that he was the author of Polidori’s tale, Bryon published a fragment at the end of the first edition of his poem, Mazeppa, in 1819, to help reinstate his friends’ name as the author of The Vampyre: A Tale.

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Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831)
Mary Shelley
Penguin Classics, 225pp

Well I thought I knew this story. I have seen the 1931 film, with Boris Karloff, innumerable times – along with its better sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein – and seen numerous comical and serious takes on Mary Shelley’s classic tale. I’m not sure any of them were like this book, in anything other than name.

When Frankenstein was published in January 1818 the British press were critical. The novel, which has been published anonymously, but dedicated to Shelley’s father, William Godwin, the philosopher, had only a small print run – 500 copies – but the public, choosing to ignore the critical commentary, adored the book. The second edition of Frankenstein, published in 1823, finally revealed the author to be Mary Shelley – and not Percy Shelley, as some had assumed – leading Blackwoods to exclaim: “For a man it was excellent, but for a woman it was wonderful.” With the novel achieving a degree of fame, Mary Shelley chose to revise her novel, making some substantial changes, and the edition published in 1831 became a subtly different novel. The Penguin Classics edition of Frankenstein contains the 1831 text, but in appendix includes the original text, detailing the changes Shelley made.

Frankenstein was conceived by Shelley when she was eighteen years old, and holidaying with her lover (and later husband), Percy Bysshe Shelley. They were visiting Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The area was still under a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, and so the trio remained indoors. Conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse to life. They read
German ghost stories and Byron suggested writing their own. Shelley dreamt of this. Later, she would write:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Mary Shelley assumed that Frankenstein would be only a short story, but Percy suggested she expand it into a novel. Mary later described this as moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.” While she worked on Frankenstein, Lord Byron worked on ‘A Fragment’, which was based on the vampire legends he had heard in the Balkans, and this short text, through John Polidori’s reworking, would give rise to the romantic vampire myth – so from this one cold evening in Switzerland, two horror tropes were conceived. Not bad for a night’s work.

Frankenstein begins in epistolary format, with Captain Robert Walton corresponding with his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, from an icebreaker far in the arctic north. His ship becomes trapped in ice, and he sees a large, inhuman figure riding a sledge in the distance. There are not meant to be people this far north. A short while later they discover the unconscious body of Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein recovers from his trauma and tells Robert Walton of his tale, the tale of his creation. The novel then switches to a first person narration, and Frankenstein tells of the creation, of his family, and of the creature’s hunt and killing of his family. He has pursued the creation north to finally kill it. In the middle of this Frankenstein stops to listen to the creature tell his story, and so we have another first person narrative. This, for me, was the biggest shock of Frankenstein – in the films the monster is incapable of speech (or at least in the versions I have seen), but in Shelley’s novel he begins mute, but soon learns, and finally become quite erudite. This logical, intelligent brain turning to vengeance and murder is more chilling because he is logical and intelligent, and I feel Shelley was suggesting something about the nature of evil through this. Finally we return to Walton’s letters and the final attack by the monster.

Read in the twenty-first century, following a century in which science-fiction has become rather sophisticated, Frankenstein at times feels a little simple. There are flaws within it, and its plot feels a little undercooked at times. The manner through which the monster learns speech and reason is too incredible to be true, and indeed this was criticised at the time, by no less than Sir Walter Scott. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy here: Shelley’s voice is bold and striking, and I can see why some would believe Percy Shelley was the true author, and there is some wonderful poetry within, again giving the Percy Shelley as author more ammunition. I do not doubt Percy Shelley had input into the novel, but it is clearly the work of one mind – Mary Shelley. So if some of Frankenstein feels dated in the twenty-first century, the ideas at the heart of it do not – in fact, in a world where life can be created artificially, the warnings it offers should be remembered, and its advice taken.

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Doctor Who: Caerdroia (2004)
Lloyd Rose
Big Finish #63
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas

In the penultimate story in the Divergent Universe, we finally get some answers. The Doctor has collapsed in the Interzone, and the Kro’ka cannot push him into the next zone without him being awake. Charley and C’rizz work this out while speaking with him, and the Kro’ka becoming more angered by their logic, enters the mind of The Doctor, who promptly traps him and begins to learn some of the secrets of the Divergent Universe. At its heart is Caerdroia, a Welsh word meaning maze, a fortress of many turnings, and at the heart of the maze must be the Divergents. Only the Kro’ka, we learn, is not a major player, but an underling, attempting to make his name, and has been stealing technology, and influencing events when he should not have been. The Doctor wakes, and he and his companions flee through a portal into the next zone.

That this next zone is Caerdroia is no surprise, though it takes The Doctor until ten minutes before the end of the story to work it out – this might be explained as he is divided into three, and so is therefore less of a man despite being more than one man. Here Lloyd Rose’s story diverts into three small adventures, in which elements of human mythology, Divergent Universe mythology and Gallifreyan mythology mix. Before long they are locked in a maze and being hunted by a mysterious creature and meeting the same man, over and over, but not the same man.

The above synopsis makes Caerdroia sound overly complicated, but listening to it is rather simple. There is good forward motion, and we learn some of the secrets of this new universe. More importantly, we move towards its ending, with an uncredited appearance by Rassilon, who we all knew was going to appear sooner than later. That Caerdroia is named from the Welsh language tells us, too, that this universe is not as cut off from our own as might first appear.

Lloyd Rose, an American TV writer, who worked on Homicide: Life on the Street and Kingpin, seems an unlikely choice to work on Doctor Who. Clearly a fan of Doctor Who, she approached the Virgin New Adventures, and wrote three novels for that range, before being invited to write this story for Big Finish. She does a good job weaving together the disspirate elements of this story, and the humour in it is very British. A good, occasionally strong, penultimate episode for the Divergent Universe saga.

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Doctor Who: The Last (2004)
Gary Hopkins
Big Finish #62
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher, Conrad Westmaas

The Doctor and companions travel through the Interzone and become trapped on a dying world. On a planet decimated by atomic war, few survivors are left, and they live below ground, in a maze of underground bunkers: the Queen, and her entourage, look forward to the day they can return to the surface and be celebrated by their people. The Doctor becomes trapped, and C’Rizz meets a ghost, and Charley is crippled by falling debris, losing the use of her legs. Then things begin to get stranger…

The Last is one of those stories. You think, no I don’t really like this one, but I’ll keep listening, and then, slowly but surely, it reels you in. By the end of episode two I was completely entranced by the story. Finally India Fisher is given something to do, and she plays the tragedy her character endures brilliantly – though this is Doctor Who, and you know this will not last, for a little while you’re suckered in. Perhaps she is disabled now. Perhaps she is dead now. Like these kind of stories, though, stories that relay on a get-out-of-jail free card to resolve their issues, the ending almost destroys what has come before (though the final lines are deliciously perverse, and I loved them).

Again the story does little to advance the Divergent Universe story – there is less of the ongoing story that was there in previous Eighth Doctor seasons, which is a shame – and at times the stories told in this otherwise different universe seem so very this universe. This tale could have been told with Davison, or Baker or McCoy. Nothing in it indicated it had to be Eighth Doctor, whereas previous stories have. I think perhaps that is the biggest problem with this story, and the last – there is nothing truly special, or memorable, and though it’s fun while it lasts, once it is gone, it’s gone.

We are moving towards the end of the Divergent Universe saga, I believe, and I also expected more thrust towards that end. At the moment The Doctor is simply treading water.

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Faith Stealer (2004)
Graham Duff
Big Finish 61
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher & Conrad Westmaas

And so the third season of The Eighth Doctor adventures continues with Faith Stealer. Our Divergent Universe travellers arrive in a spiritual commune – only this is not home to one faith, but all faiths. The Doctor identifies them as Tourists, with C’Rizz as their god, and are allowed entry. It is, naturally, soon afterward that things start going horrible wrong: one particular cult seems out to take control, and the Multihaven seems on the verge of collapse.

Faith Stealer is a mixed bag of a story. Some of it works exceedingly well. The set-up and set-out of the Multihaven is exciting, with great potential, and C’Rizz’s grief at having killed his wife back in the first story he appeared in comes to play a major part. So if the reconciling of grief and duty is the thrust of this narrative, then the reappearance, if in sound only, of the TARDIS, heralds bad things to come. The TARDIS, it seems, has been destroyed, and like a ghost, she is stalking The Doctor.

Graham Duff’s script catches the turmoil of The Doctor and C’Rizz well, though Charley felt less well served, and more there to ask the stupid questions. His script is also quite light-hearted, which works well, with some of the humour seeming Python-esque in its silliness.

What this script fails to do is deliver anything more on the last lines of the last Divergent story. That last story, The Twilight Kingdom, ended with the information that Rassilon was in The Divergent Universe. Faith Stealer has no mention of this, and there is little menace from the otherwise menacing Kro’ka.

Ultimately Faith Stealer is a better story than its constituent parts make it seem, but it is also occasionally muddied in its execution – my feeling, as I listened, was that it would have made a better hour long story, than a two hour one. Not the greatest of reintroductions to my favourite Who Big Finish range, then, but a solid one nonetheless.

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