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September 2017

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Doctor Who: Army of Death (Big Finish Audio Drama, #155)Doctor Who: Army of Death by Jason Arnopp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't have high expectations of this going in - the "army of the walking dead" concept didn't really excite me. I was pleasantly surprised by the first half, which is a tense, fast-paced political thriller. I loved it. (Though I might also have been riding on the high of having just seen "Night of the Doctor", which had me basically bouncing around going, "Eight! Eight!! Eight!!!" for approximately 72 hours after viewing.)

I thought the second half let things down a bit. Act 3 has a lot of plot by convenient bad timing, while Act 4 suffers from a big baddie who apparently studied at the Brian Blessed School of Dramatic Subtlety.

I also had mixed feelings about the Mary-falling-in-love-with-the-Doctor subplot. On the one hand, it was handled in a way that I thought was both very character appropriate and the way I've always pictured many potential Doctor/companion "romances" resolving: Mary realizes that she's falling for the Doctor, confesses her feelings in an awkward conversation with the Doctor, and then comes to her own realization that Ancient Space Aliens Who Routinely Decide the Destiny of Civilizations Do Not Make Suitable Boyfriends. On the other hand, I think it's a unfortunate that this story happened to be written during an era of Doctor Who in which we seem, on the whole, to be vigorously making up for all those years that we spent denying the possibility that any of the people who traveled with the Doctor might have had other than Platonic feelings for him. And so the whole subplot feels just a tad obligatory.

Anyway, I'm very happy that they've left the door open for more adventures with Mary Shelley, because she is a really fantastic companion.

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Doctor Who: The Witch from the Well (Big Finish Audio Drama, #154)Doctor Who: The Witch from the Well by Rick Briggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had decidedly mixed feelings about this one. Some of the pluses: Mary Shelley continues to be just about the perfect Doctor Who companion, demonstrating an ideal blend of curiosity, resourcefulness, and fearlessness in the face of the unknown. I wish she could be a companion on the TV series. I enjoyed the two time-zone nature of the story. I know that lots of listeners have complained that it deprives us of Doctor/Mary interaction, but on the flip side, it gives Mary a chance to shine. I also quite enjoyed the characters of Beatrice and Agnes, who could both have easily been stock characters straight out of central casting, but who, thanks to some combination of the acting and the writing, really come alive.

Some of the minuses: The plot is only sustained by our heroes being idiots at key moments. It starts with the Doctor's willfully ignoring the signs that anything odd is going on with the twins. Not only is this rather at odds with his usual attitude towards new people, but you'd think that the Doctor would at least pick up on the hint that he's crossed his own timeline. When you write an 8th Doctor audio, you really don't get to pretend that he's unfamiliar with how time travel works. And then there's the long stretch of time during which the Doctor and Mary are separated in two different time zones, during which the listener is wondering when it will finally occur to her to use the fast-return switch which was carefully explained in episode 1.

On the whole, the pluses just outweigh the minuses for me, making this a reasonably entertaining if imperfect story.

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Doctor Who: The Silver Turk (Big Finish Audio Drama, #153)Doctor Who: The Silver Turk by Marc Platt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I'm still loving the fact that a throwaway line in an early 8th Doctor audio play about the Doctor meeting Mary Shelley eventually led to a whole set of plays featuring Mary Shelley as a companion. And, of course, it's thoroughly appropriate that Mary Shelley's first proper adventure with the Doctor should involve her encountering a Cyberman.

This is an atypical Cyberman story, being set in 19th century Vienna, and featuring a pair of Cybermen from Mondas who have crashed on Earth and been badly damaged. Like the author's previous story, Spare Parts, this story highlights the individuality of the Cybermen much more than most stories that feature them, bringing out hints of the human personalities still lurking beneath their cybernetically enhanced exteriors. In lots of ways, this makes them more horrific than when they're portrayed as a mass of identical emotionless near-robots. The story also does a great job of integrating the Cybermen into a story that very much has the feel of 19th century literature of the uncanny. It feels period, while incorporating futuristic elements.

Mary Shelley makes a great Doctor Who companion - she's smart, courageous, and not afraid to take the initiative. Platt strikes a good balance in showing her adjusting to the concept of time travel and the strange things that she encounters without bogging down the story. The scene where she first speaks to a damaged Cyberman is pitch perfect - she sympathizes with and tries to help a creature that everyone else sees as a monster.

I have a few quibbles. I could do with a few less jokey references by the Doctor to Mary Shelley's future books - after a while, it not only feels in-jokey but rather careless on the Doctor's part. Admittedly, these stories are set before the 8th Doctor's most traumatic experiences with the Web of Time, but it still feels like he should be a bit more careful.

Still, if the remaining Mary Shelley stories live up to this one, I'll be very happy indeed.

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In Conversation With An Acid Bath Murderer (Drama Showcase #3)In Conversation With An Acid Bath Murderer by Nigel Fairs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nigel Fairs plays John George Haigh, one of the twentieth century's most infamous serial killers, who dissolved his victims' bodies in acid in the belief that a murder conviction was not possible in the absence of a body. The play is largely a monologue delivered by Haigh from his prison cell just before his execution, looking back on his life, although key scenes in his recollection are dramatized by a full cast.

It's certainly an acting tour-de-force by Fairs, who manages to portray Haigh as the outwardly charming and smooth-talking fellow that he had to be in order to win the trust of his victims and evade suspicion for as long as he did. Ultimately, I have to say that it wasn't quite my cup of tea - I read a lot of true crime stories, but what tends to interest me is the detective work and forensic science involved in catching the criminal, and there's not much of that here.

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Doctor Who: RobophobiaDoctor Who: Robophobia by Nicholas Briggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to force me to pick my single favorite televised Doctor Who story, I might well choose Robots of Death. First, because it actually seriously engages with a science-fictional idea (albeit one largely stolen from Isaac Asimov). Second, because of its visual design, especially of the robots, which perfectly illustrate the idea of the uncanny valley, being just not-human enough to be creepy. And third, because Leela's in it.

So, I wasn't entirely sure how I'd feel about a direct sequel done on audio featuring a companionless 7th Doctor. It does engage with a science-fictional idea, but it's basically the same one as Robots of Death. And it has no visual design and no Leela.

On the plus side, though, I do tend to love the solo 7th Doctor stories that Big Finish does. For one thing, they offer the opportunity to see the Doctor introduce himself to a new proto-companion. I enjoy the ritual of seeing the Doctor introduce himself to a new person and gain their trust, and it's particularly fun with McCoy's doctor because his Doctor somehow combines the bizarre mercurialness of Tom Baker with a certain gentleness.

This audio also has the 7th Doctor at his most enigmatic. I suspect that if I listened again with a more critical ear, I'd find moments where his stringing along of the other characters seems counterproductive in retrospect, but on a first listen, it helps build the tension nicely.

I was kind of expecting the storyline to be "Robots of Death 2: More Robots, More Death", but writer Nick Briggs has come up with a few twists that make it more than that. And the cast give excellent performances - I actually got a bit teary during one of Toby Hadoke's later scenes in the play. And here I thought the man was merely a funny comedian, gifted writer, nice bloke, and walking encyclopedia of Doctor Who trivia.

My only niggle is that rather than seeing this in the visual style of the original Robots of Death, my mind's eye insists on picturing something much more utilitarian and functional looking. The cast just don't sound like they're swanning around in garish eye-shadow and silly hats. The robots sound perfect, though.

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Doctor Who: Rat TrapDoctor Who: Rat Trap by Tony Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought this was good solid fun, though not mind-blowing. I think it suffers a bit from having the regular cast get split up and paired off with various guest cast members, leaving a lot of separate threads to keep track of. Although on the flip side, it had some very strong guest characters, and some quite emotionally touching moments near the end.

The science does annoy me a bit - as in a lot of Doctor Who it's very hand wavy ("I made a cocktail of amino acids and proteins and synthetic strings that, when injected made a radical advancement in rat genetics.") and major breakthroughs happen implausibly fast. I should just let this stuff go, really, but I can't quite. But the setting is well-realized and the action is vivid.

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Doctor Who: Kiss of DeathDoctor Who: Kiss of Death by Stephen Cole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I thought it was really nice to give Turlough some extra back story, I found the play as a whole didn't grab me. I thought it dragged a bit in the second half, and rather unusually, I found the alien Morass really unpleasant to listen to. (Am I implying that I find Daleks pleasant to listen to? I probably do, if only because I'm conditioned to it. The Morass were both difficult to understand and sort of made my skin crawl. I think one or the other would have been acceptable.)

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Here's my usual round-up of Big Finish news from this year's Gallifrey One convention. Not as news-heavy a year as some have been, but I do have a few exciting tidbits to pass along.

You will be unsurprised to hear that there are audios planned for 2012 )
Short Trips: Farewells (Doctor Who Short Trips Anthology Series)Short Trips: Farewells by Jacqueline Rayner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found the stories in this anthology to be a pretty mixed bag. I particularly enjoyed two of the 1st Doctor stories: one in which the Doctor, Iain, Barbara, and Susan take a road trip on route 66 to retrieve the TARDIS after the Doctor has lost it in a card game; and one set on Gallifrey that is utterly fanwanky in the best possible way. I also enjoyed a 3rd Doctorn story that took an unusual look at the emotional side of the character, and a typically wacky Paul Magrs 8th Doctor story. (Although I kind of wish that Magrs hadn't chosen to name his alien menace "The Goomba".)

Most of the other stories didn't leave much of an impression, except that the 5th Doctor stories served to remind me why I didn't much care for Tegan or Peri back when I first encountered them on television. Reading this book almost made me want to embark on a gigantic project of looking at the way companions are portrayed in spin-off fiction over the years - the contrast between the way Tegan is written in these stories and the way she is written in some of the recent Big Finish audios seems striking to me, and it would be interesting to see if there are trends. It's certainly clear that different writers handle different companions (and Doctors) with greater or lesser degrees of sympathy and aptitude, but it also feels to me like the overall reputation of various characters in the fannish consciousness rises and falls over time. Alas, I'm not obsessive enough and don't have a large enough collection of the relevant spinoff fiction to do the subject justice. (That I, as someone who owns scores of Doctor Who books and hundreds of audio plays, can suggest that I'm deficient in obsessiveness is probably making the non-Who fans reading this blanch.)

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So, I've been strongly tempted to propose a FOGcon panel based on my glee at the fact that our "ghost of honor", Mary Shelley, is actually a canonical Doctor Who companion. However, as a premise for a panel, it's a bit thin. I'm not sure there's much to say beyond, "Yeah, it's totally the Doctor's fault that Frankenstein got written," and "You haven't heard Big Finish? Dude, you've got to hear Big Finish?"*

However, one could make the panel idea a bit more broad-based by looking at fictional portrayals of Mary Shelley in general. Except I don't actually know of any beyond the aforementioned Doctor Who audios. So, help me, internets - have you read, watched, or listened to other fiction featuring Mary Shelley?

*I could propose a panel on "Audio drama as an under-appreciated art form in America." Do you think it would draw more audience members than panelists?
Doctor Who: The Feast of Axos (Big Finish Audio Drama, #144)Doctor Who: The Feast of Axos by Mike Maddox

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I think I've said in previous reviews, I have to give Big Finish credit for making the character of Thomas Brewster very much the "Artful Dodger in space" character that Adric was originally conceived as, but never really written as. It's a worthwhile concept for a companion, and it deserves to be done properly. And this audio does it properly.

Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a Doctor/companion dynamic that I care for much. Something about the "Oh, he's double-crossing the Doctor/No, wait, he's having second thoughts/No, wait, he really is going to betray the Doctor this time/No, actually, it was a double-bluff" plotting that it tends to produce just irritates me rather than creating much suspense. This was a big part of why I didn't much care for Turlough during his early days on the TARDIS, and it's not endearing Thomas to me either. Big Finish has done much to redeem Turlough in my eyes - maybe someday they'll sell me on Thomas Brewster.

Anyway, that may be why I felt kind of meh about this audio even though there's really nothing wrong with it. It is a joy to hear the lovely voice of Bernard Holley again (even if his Axon dialogue is rather repetitive), and the cliffhanger to part 3 is rather poignant. And I'll admit, I got a huge laugh out of one of the characters reacting to their first sight of Axos: "It's" Beyond that, there wasn't a lot that grabbed me, although it passed the time pleasantly enough.

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I was thrilled to see the announcement today that Big Finish now has the license from B7 Enterprises to produce Blake's 7 audios and books. Looks like there will be "Companion Chronicle" style audios featuring the original cast. Nice!

I'm not at all clear on where this leaves the relaunched audio Blake's 7 series that B7 media launched a few years back and left on a giant cliffhanger. While I suppose the terms of the license could allow Big Finish to produce "classic" Blake's 7 adventures with the original cast while B7media continues with the relaunched series and new cast, I'm not sure that there's enough of a market for two ongoing Blake's 7 audio series. So, this is probably yet another sign that we're never going to get a resolution to that cliffhanger. Pity.
Pulling Faces (Drama Showcase #2)Pulling Faces by Helen Goldwyn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, angry, and beautifully acted by a cast that includes Helen Goldwyn, Nigel Fairs, and Louise Jameson, Pulling Faces follows actress Joanne Taylor in the days leading up to her 55th birthday, as she deals with getting older and tries to decide whether she should get some plastic surgery done to make herself look younger. The play is deft in skewering our societal obsession with youth and beauty. My main complaint is that the ending is maybe a bit too pat: on her 55th birthday, Joanne gets a huge dose of perspective from dealing with bad news from a close family member, seizes an opportunity to tell an obnoxious ex all the things she should have told him 25 years ago, and scores a date with a seriously hot thirty-ish guy. If life regularly handed out that kind of catharsis, none of us would fear getting older.

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Doctor Who: The Crimes of Thomas Brewster (Big Finish Audio Drama, #143)Doctor Who: The Crimes of Thomas Brewster by Jonathan Morris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have kind of mixed feelings about Thomas Brewster - I liked the character when they initially introduced him, but I've never thought that Big Finish ever made it fully plausible that a Victorian orphan, even an admittedly bright one like Brewster, would have the nearly effortless ability to master future technologies and societies that Brewster does. And somehow I think that prevents me taking as much pleasure in Brewster's antics as I should. Or maybe it's the way Brewster is always trying to justify himself as having noble ends. I think I might actually like him better if he were a more straightforwardly self-interested liar and thief.

(At the same time, I think I remember complaining when I reviewed what was ostensibly Brewster's final story that I thought there was more potential in the character and that it was a shame that Big Finish hadn't kept him on for more stories. I don't think I'm being inconsistent here - I do think there's potential in the character. It's just not being developed in the way I might prefer.)
the rest of this review is very mildly spoilery, so I'll cut just in case )
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Doctor Who: The Demons of Red Lodge and Other Stories (Big Finish Audio Drama, #142)Doctor Who: The Demons of Red Lodge and Other Stories by Jason Arnopp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Big Finish's releases containing four 30 minute stories - the short format offers opportunities for little side-trips into the Whoniverse, often giving the opportunity for humorous stories or character pieces that wouldn't stretch to a full 2-disc story treatment. While I don't think this one is as good as 45 or Company of Friends, it's quite enjoyable.

"The Demons of Red Lodge" has a wonderfully creepy opening, with the Doctor and Nyssa waking up somewhere with no memory of how they got there. It heads into more conventional territory pretty soon after that, but has a nice twist at the end.

"The Entropy Composition" by Rick Briggs was the winner of a Big Finish script pitch contest. While it's certainly a worthy winner, I can't help but be slightly disappointed by a story which revolves around a lost prog rock symphony in which we don't hear any actual prog rock. (Some might find that a relief, but after Horror of Glam Rock set a bar which I think all future music-related BF audios have to clear: if a script involves music, we need to hear the music, in all its glory.) The scene where Nyssa is mistaken for a groupie is, however, priceless.

In "Doing Time" the Doctor has shown up on an alien planet with warnings about an impending disaster, and gotten thrown in prison for his pains. My favorite part was the running gag involving Nyssa repeatedly trying and failing to get arrested in order to join him.

"Special Features" takes place at a DVD commentary recording. It gets some fun out of spoofing cult movie/TV commentaries, and then strange stuff starts happening.

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Not a Well WomanNot a Well Woman by Katy Manning

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Big Finish are branching out slightly from their cult TV roots, and producing a "Drama Showcase" line of original dramas, with, as far as I know, no science fictional content. Although so far all of the ones they've commissioned are by actor/writers of impeccable cult TV credentials, with the first one up being Doctor Who's Katy Manning.

Katy Manning performs all the voices in this story about Pansy, a woman whose extreme nearsightedness leads her into all kinds of interesting trouble. The story is at least partly autobiographical, and is by turns funny and moving, and occasionally both at once.

I think two things stopped me from rating this audio higher than I did. First, the presentation of Pansy's story was very fragmented in time - while there are some good narrative reasons for this, it meant that I spent a lot of time just trying to put the timeline of the story together. Second, I think the play make a few odd choices about how much to show of certain events - it just seems a little bit odd that we get more direct dialogue from Pansy's dressmaker than from her lifelong best friend, for example. (Authentically portrayed female friendship still being a relative rarity in literature, I thought this was a particular missed bet.)

Still, this is probably a must if you're a Katy Manning fan, and well worth a look if you're interested in non-genre audio drama.

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Geek Tragedy (Mervyn Stone Mysteries 1)Geek Tragedy by Nev Fountain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had really high hopes for this book, because Nev Fountain has written one of the most brilliantly funny things I've ever heard (the Big Finish audio, The Kingmaker). When I saw it on a dealer's table at the recent Gallifrey One convention, I snapped it up and started reading it immediately, hoping that it would be brilliant enough that I'd feel compelled to go straight back and buy the two sequels.

With such high hopes, it might have been inevitable that I'd be a bit disappointed. Geek Tragedy isn't a bad book by any means, but it wasn't quite the comedy home run that I'd been hoping for.
Further geeking below the cut )
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Gallifrey One 2011: Big Finish News and Gossip
Here's my attempt to sum up all the Big Finish news from this year's Gallifrey convention. It seems like a lot of the hard news is under embargo for Doctor Who Magazine exclusives, but there are still some nice bits of news and lots of interesting things that aren't confirmed yet but may be in the works.

General Big Finish News )
Doctor Who Main Range News )
Doctor Who Spinoff Range News )
Non-Doctor Who Series News )