Friday, 23 January 2015

The Anniversary Of Destiny: 11 Doctors, 11 audio stories!

By Shannon Lush

Big Finish Productions, keepers of the flame of the original series, have consistently produced unique audio play content that expands and builds upon the Whoniverse as originally presented in the classic TV series. From ‘what if’ speculative adventures in their ‘Doctor Who Unbound’ range to seasons of adventures featuring Romana II on Gallifrey, Big Finish have produced material that cannot fail to delight and entertain dedicated Whovians. Breathing new life into old characters and providing adventures for classic Doctors undreamed of in their televised tenure has become a company hallmark.

The single limitation, if one could call it that, of Big Finish has been, until recently, their license to produce ‘Doctor Who’ content only as it pertained to the classic series. Due to the nature of television licensing, content featuring the New Series could not be produced…until now. Partnering with fellow audio licensee Audio Go, Big Finish have, in addition to their excellent multi-Doctor story ‘The Light At The End’, produced an eleven-part series of stories entitled ‘Destiny Of The Doctor’, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary.

The premise is simple: eleven self-contained stories, each featuring one incarnation of The Doctor, all culminating in the eleventh and final story that will reveal the ultimate ‘destiny’ of The Doctor and tie up the loose plot threads introduced sparingly within each individual story. Each story is written by a writer with established ‘Doctor Who’ credits, and most are performed by an actor (or actress) reprising their televised roles as well known companion characters. Each story is of easily-digestible hour durations approximately, and many stories feature the usual sound bed of classic series opening and closing themes, as well as sound effects that enhanced the productions.

It is worth pointing out that, though the following reviews of each story may take a few twists and turns that reveal a harsh spotlight on some of them, Big Finish and Audio Go are to be congratulated for their fine work and for their passion for ‘Doctor Who’. Truly, no production or merchandising company outside the BBC itself produced better material celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the TV series we all know and love. Big Finish in particular remains the benchmark for active ‘Doctor Who’ material produced, and have been at the forefront of providing quality entertainment in many other areas, including ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and other licensed TV material. They are to be praised in this vast undertaking, and for all they have done with ‘Doctor Who’ up to this point.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 1: Hunters Of Earth’
Written by: Nigel Robinson
Performed by:  Carole Ann Ford (as Susan Foreman)

Premise: Coal Hill School, Shoreditch, 1963. Four months after arriving surreptitiously in Totter’s Lane and attending Coal Hill School, Susan Foreman, an alien from a strange world traveling with her grandfather the mysterious ‘Doctor’, is still trying to fit in with the mods, proto-hippies, and Beatles-obsessed youth of London. But when the youths around her begin to turn on her, calling her ‘alien’ and form mobs against her…do they know her true nature, that of…an unearthly child?
Review: As the opening story in this epic series, ‘Hunters Of Earth’ is very grounded in time and almost an afterthought. It is unique in that it serves as a ‘prequel’ of sorts to the debut episode of ‘Doctor Who’ itself, re-introducing the listener to the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan long before they encountered Ian and Barbara and began their televised journeys. In this way, it is interesting to hear the interplay between Susan and The Doctor unfettered by the paternal concern of Ian and Barbara; The Doctor is quite protective of Susan and spends much of the story fretting over her and seeking to protect her from any harm.

The usage of early ‘Beatlemania’ is also accomplished in a unique way, as it becomes integral not only to the plot but also to the resolution of the story, and one of the devices that defeats the unseen ‘enemy’. Far from being just window dressing, the over-reliance on familiar 1960’s London tropes, the references to popular music of the day and to major events, actually form a basis of the plot and all serve a need, which, like The Beatles, is a delightful and new way to use old songs and celebrities. Carol Ann Ford sounds as if she hasn’t aged a day, effortlessly voicing a young and breathless Susan as if she has just stepped onto the soundstage for her first day on ‘Doctor Who’. Her recreation of the legendary first companion character is quite a highlight to this story.

On the negative side, though the words and actions are perfectly in keeping with the First Doctor, unfortunately Carol Ann Ford is not up to the task of evoking William Hartnell’s portrayal; her every attempt at delivering lines as if the First Doctor is speaking sounds as if one might imagine the actress doing a bad impression of him during tea time on the set back in the day. The secondary characters are quite forgettable and rather flat, and their motivation changes frequently; with one heroic speech from his nephew for example, the overly paranoid former military commander completely reverses his opinion of and hostile intentions towards The Doctor and Susan.

 Perhaps a story that is slightly over an hour long simply does not allow for much characterization, but this really felt contrived and the closure felt forced. The unseen ‘enemy’ is never revealed, and there are several dangling plot threads that are not resolved. Though obviously they are meant to carry forward to future stories in this series, it is frustrating to consider the poor fan who perhaps could only purchase one of these stories, and therefore will miss out on the revelations; slightly more clever writing could have satisfied both those who purchased only this introductory episode as well as those who went all-in on the entire series.

In summation, the recreation of Susan and of the by-gone era of the First Doctor is the selling point of this story.  3.5 out of 5 on the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 2: Shadow Of Death’
Written by:  Simon Guerrrier
Performed by: Frazer Hines (as Jamie MacCrimmon) , with Evie Dawny as Sophie

Premise: The TARDIS is dragged off course by the pull of a pulsar, and arrives on a strange planet littered with odd statues…of people doing mundane scientific work. Quickly captured and accused of murder, The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe must convince the scared scientific survey crew they are not responsible for killings that leave the victims aged to death and reduced to dust. But…who or what is? What shadow of death has befallen them all?

Review:  After an uncertain and tentative debut episode, this series settles in quite nicely with ‘Shadow Of Death’.  This tale of murder on an isolated and lonely alien planet, of a menace stalking the corridors of a scientific outpost and of a race against time (in every sense of the word, as it turns out), perfectly evokes the glorious era from which it is recreating, that of the Second Doctor.  Like the best ‘monster stories’ of the time, ‘Shadow Of Death’ pits the quirky and befuddled Doctor against a far more powerful enemy, with only his wits as his ally and his companions  questioning whether, this time, he’s in over his head. It is a slice of the Second Doctor’s era, and recreates it to perfection.

It is a tribute to Big Finish and Audio Go that with limited resources, namely two actors and a host of sound effects, they are able to bring to life a bygone era of the classic series so well. In fact, producing magic on a shoestring budget is of course one of the hallmarks of the classic series, and this story not only recreates an era, but the method that era used to achieve its success.  The single greatest attribute of this story is Frazer Hines. He brings the character of Jamie to life so well it is like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes.  Hines is a veteran of stage, screen, and radio, and his experience shines through in his audio play performances. Like Carol Ann Ford in the first instalment, Hines performs his popular companion character to pitch-perfect greatness, and the decades melt away. The listener truly believes this is young, brave and loyal Jamie once more standing shoulder to shoulder with the Second Doctor and being overly protective of whichever ‘lassie’ is along for the ride.

Hine’s contributions do not end with recreating Jamie, however. Somewhere along the way, and with great practice, the actor can now mimic the vocal patterns and speech delivery of the late, great Patrick Troughton, and therefore gives voice to the Second Doctor as well in this story. Though not positively dead-on, Hines is perhaps seventy-five percent there, and this greatly enhances the story, as the listener can delight to the interplay between Jamie and the Doctor as Hines performs both roles. Unlike Carol Ann Ford’s unfortunately failed attempt to mimic the well-known cadence and delivery of Hartnell, Hines by and large succeeds in the role, and there are lines and moments he delivers that leave the listener positively invested in the story. Through Frazer Hines, this story brings the Second Doctor’s era back to life in a satisfying way.

The story itself is tight and gets right to the point; there is little padding. Much is jammed into the one hour of story, and like the best stories of the televised era in which it is drawn, characters are always on the move, always questioning, and dialog flies fast and fierce. Though Hines does not attempt to mimic Wendy Padbury’s portrayal of the character of Zoe, the story gives her much to do and say, and her presence is felt throughout. The revelation of the ‘monster baddies’ won’t come as a shock to astute listeners who pay attention closely to the clues sprinkled throughout the story, but their use of and manipulation of time, which at one point facilitates a pivotal moment in this series that will be played out much later over the course of it, is well done and well written.  This is the first story in this series to obliquely reference the New Series, and the moment is played and performed well.

As a stand-alone story, ‘Shadow Of Death’ could have been slotted anywhere along the post-‘Wheel In Space’ timeframe of Season Five of the classic series, it’s really that good. While Frazer Hines pulling double duty as both the Second Doctor and Jamie is by far the selling point of this story, the recreation of the ‘when I say run, run’, ‘oh my giddy aunt’, absurdity and magic of the Second Doctor’s classic era itself is a close second.

There are not many quibbles involved in this story to pick apart; it is a treat for fans and it stands as a well-done and fitting celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the series.  On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, this easily gets a  5 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 3: Vengeance Of The Stones’
Written by:  Andrew Smith
Performed by:  Richard Franklin (as Captain Mike Yates), with Trevor Littledale as Carmen
Premise:  Mere hours into his first meeting with the Third Doctor, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT, Mike Yates finds himself captured by a desperate and exiled race of hostile aliens called Armidians, who wield awesome power through ancient rune stones…and are eager to utilize them to exact vengeance on all humanity for an ancient battle.

Review:  The sense of underwhelming in this story comes immediately, as the familiar theme music of the Third Doctor’s era is bizarrely absent, and in its place is a poorly produced knock-off version that sounds as if it is composed on an electronic keyboard relic from the 1980’s. While perhaps a minor quibble, the usage of the TV theme tunes to each Doctor’s era truly sets the tone straight away, and in this story, the replacement version is so poor it turns the experience sour and gets the whole thing off on the wrong foot.

Richard Franklin is a poor choice to handle this particular audio story. Possessing none of the mimic abilities of Frazer Hines in the previous story, Franklin gamely makes a few slight attempts at sounding like the Brigadier and only barely carries it off in very small and isolated doses. He makes no attempt whatsoever to mimic the Third Doctor’s highly memorable delivery, and perhaps it’s just as well, as Pertwee’s portrayal was and remains so well established only truly skilled mimics can approach such a monumental task. The result, unfortunately, is a one-man performance in which every character sounds exactly like every other character and it is easy to get confused in a whitewash of similarity. Franklin even fails to recapture his previous companion character of Yates, and overall his tone is stilted, monotone, and flat. It sounds very much as it is; one man reading lines in a sound booth. There is no sense of epic grandeur, no dramatic recreation of a bygone TV era, nothing that would mark out this story as anything special whatsoever. It is easily the poorest of the series thus far.

The story itself is quite pedestrian and by-the-numbers.  Yet another alien menace with a bone to pick with humanity, yet another alien menace who feels as if they can justify a claim to Earth, and yet another alien menace that The Doctor tries to negotiate a peace treaty with while The Brigadier cocks the guns behind his back, and begins blowing things up. The whole thing descends into mindless shooting, the main ‘baddie’ swears oaths of alien vengeance on behalf of his people, and in the end nothing much is resolved except, of course, our heroes are left standing to ponder the balance between military preventative action and alien diplomacy. As a story, it serves as a ‘greatest hits’ package of the era it is drawn from, and neither delivers nor offers anything new. Some plot points appear to borrow heavily from the classic story ‘The Deamons’, and suffer from comparison to that gem.

On the positive side, while the story itself is weak and derivative, there are a few nice character moments for Yates in particular. To begin with, this story establishes that Yates was seconded to UNIT, like all of its personnel, from the regular army, and depicts the very moment this is achieved. It establishes his earliest relationship with his future best friend Benton, as well as his initial encounter with both The Brigadier, who promptly promotes him to Captain, as well as The Doctor. It is fun to hear his reaction to Bessie the roadster and to the mobile UNIT headquarters inside a Hercules cargo plane.

In summary, this story would have worked far better as a memoir of sorts of an older Yates recalling events from decades ago retrospectively rather than attempting to create a contemporary story in which Richard Franklin fails to recreate an entire era with any degree of accuracy. Many of the Companion Chronicles series from Big Finish have chosen the former tactic and it works to great success, as the listener feels as if they are being told stories directly from an older companion reminiscing on the past. Doing so accounts for the aged sound of many classic series actor and actresses’ voices, and the framing narrative generally works better. Not every former companion actor can deliver performances to the level of Frazer Hines, after all.

This story was a chore to finish even though it was only an hour long. 1.5 out of 5 on the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 4: Babblesphere’
Written by: Jonathan Morris
Performed by: Lalla Ward (as Romana II), with Roger Parrot as Orilius

Premise: On a human colony of ornate furnishings, Renaissance-inspired clothing, and a deep appreciation for art and literature…why are the colonists wasting away in death-like states? What is the ‘Babblesphere’, and why are colonists literally dying to sign up for it?

Review:  The most immediately apparent element of this story is the return to form of the classic TV theme tune, this time the memorably moody Fourth Doctor’s theme. After being conspicuously absent from the previous story in the series, the theme music sets a great tone.  The now-classic late 1970’s sound effects and buzzy incidental music help to capture the flavour of the Tom Baker era.  Lalla Ward is more than up to the task of recreating her character of Romana, having been doing so to great effect in other Big Finish series, mostly notably ‘Gallifrey’ in which she is the leading actress.  Her familiarity and experience with both playing Romana and performing audio plays is a welcome change from Richard Franklin’s stilted monotone of the previous story. Ward truly acts in this story, and does her best to give a unique voice and personality to each individual character, though in truth her faux-husky delivery of her ex-husband Tom Baker’s lines as the Fourth Doctor leaves a little to be desired. It’s a serviceable performance that is adequate but for a larger-than-life character such as this Doctor (and an equally larger-than-life actor like Baker), nothing less than the real deal can possibly pass muster even in the best of circumstances.

It is, then, perhaps fortunate that Romana herself carries the bulk of the story, with the role-reversal  of The Doctor being the one that is spirited away by evil robots, for once, leaving Romana to rally the troops and mount a rescue. Though in lesser hands, this plot twist would feel like a cheat to an audience who, after all, can reasonably expect to hear The Doctor being the star of the story, Ward’s deft handling of Romana combined with strong storytelling ensures no missed opportunities. Romana as a character was in many ways intended as a female Doctor herself anyway, and when the spotlight is thrust upon her, she shines.

The story itself rises above its station. Like the best ‘Doctor Who’ offerings, it works on several levels. On one hand, it is a typical Fourth Doctor tale, involving an insane living computer system that enslaves a colony of people, and on that level, it is comparable to ‘The Face Of Evil’ and a host of other Fourth Doctor stories involving The Doctor defeating likeminded machine entities. That notion is even gently mocked within the dialog, with The Doctor joking that he has defeated such evil schemes from automated despots ‘once or twice’ in the past. On a much deeper level, however, it functions as a modern day morality play about the rise and dominance of social media such as Facebook and the intrusive breaking down of public privacy. ‘Babblesphere’, a mind-scape fantasy realm where inhabitants chatter away to each other about mundane and trivial matters such as what they had for breakfast and the sharing of meaningless gossip is a fictionalized version of the modern day internet.  On this level, the story can be appreciated for the message of warning about the miss use of technology that all great science fiction shares concern over.

In summary, ‘Babblesphere’ is nearly pitch-perfect in being everything that made the Fourth Doctor’s era so great; The Doctor stares down implacable evil with a grin and cheeky wisecracks, Romana is at points assertive yet playful in her interplay with The Doctor and the good guys win in the end, with a parting shot directed at The Doctor from Romana that elicits a chuckle from the listener. This story hits all the marks, with the now-expected cameo from the Eleventh Doctor even providing another chuckle with his line that ‘Ice Warriors are cool…literally! The Fourth Doctor throws a caustic remark about his future counterpart’s appearance that won’t be spoiled here but is also appreciated for its humour value.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, this story earns a 4 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 5: Smoke And Mirrors’
By: Steve Lyons
Peformed by: Janet Fielding (as Tegan Jovanka), with Tim Beckman as Houdini

Premise:  The Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa encounter an old friend of The Doctor’s, the legendary magician Harry Houdini. Houdini requests his help in investigating strange happenings at a carnival. But there is more to Houdini than he’s revealing. And the carnival houses a powerful, and alien, menace…

Review: Unfortunately, like several of the televised episodes of the Fifth Doctor’s era, this story is rather bland. The main disappointment is Janet Fielding’s monotone reading of the script. With no changes in tone and no trace of dramatic tension in her voice, it is less a performance than a recital of lines. Subsequently, it is difficult to make sense of who is speaking, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. As a work of prose, this story would be functional;  as an audio play, it simply doesn’t hold up. The production itself doesn’t help matters along; the audio bed seems to consist of nothing more impressive than walking, scuffling, and running noises punctuated with the odd gasp or two. It all fails to capture the appropriate flavour to stimulate any sort of mindscape required to enjoy this story on any level. On the plus side, the on-again, off-again choice of the actual TV theme music comes down in favour of utilizing the Peter Davison era’s theme this time around. It’s a slight positive, but with this story, one takes what one can from it.

The plot itself is meandering and nothing much happens for the bulk of the story. Harry Houdini as a character is indecisive and divides his loyalties between The Doctor and the baddy of the tale, revealed, exhaustingly, to be that usual suspect in the rubbish beard. Removed from the producer-ship of John Nathan-Turner and his insistence on re-using the same villains, especially during the Davison era, it is an odd choice for Steve Lyons as the writer of this story to re-use one of the most overused villains of the 1980’s TV era. Perhaps Lyons was merely paying homage to the TV era in which the story is drawn from, and the proliferation of the villain on screen there was all too apparent; Lyons therefore checks all the appropriate marks of this era. Tegan is surly and impatient with The Doctor and complains incessantly over his failure to return her to Heathrow; Nyssa has flashes of brilliance coupled with vulnerability; Adric is whiny and petulant; The Doctor muddles through without much of an idea of the bigger picture until coming up with a messy solution just in the nick of time. The problem is, much as the preceding ‘Vengeance Of The Stones’, this is less a new story capturing the flavour of the TV era as it is a ‘greatest hits’ package that presents nothing new. It serves to re-arrange some of the furniture and passes it off as a new room.

Uniquely in the series up to this point, the guest actor accompanying the main vocal performer is quite bad. Previous entries have featured unobtrusive actors and actresses that merely serve to go along for the ride, and their performances have been consistently good. But Tim Beckman is absolutely miscast as Harry Houdini. Perhaps taking his cue from Fielding, he recites lines rather than performing them, and it is unbelievable to consider a well-established historical figure on the level of Harry Houdini would speak in so flat a manner. Even as he agonizes over his flip-flopping in loyalties, it comes off as featureless and dull. Beckman could have saved this story from drudgery had he chosen to play Houdini as the over-the-top, theatrical, passionate man he no doubt was, but instead he sinks to the level of boredom that Fielding aspired to in this story.

In summation, this story has borrowed elements from ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, with a deadly carnival providing the setting for a group of trapped companions to struggle to escape from and a malevolent villain behind the scenes operating the devices and rides that seek to cause harm. Unfortunately, there is not a moment where The Doctor confronts the villain such as that in ‘Toymaker’; everything is wrapped up rather quickly once, implausibly, Houdini on a whim changes his loyalties back to The Doctor and the Doctor, predictably, figures it all out just in time. This story is not an addition to the Fifth Doctor’s era; it is a pale imitation of it.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, regrettably this has to fall alongside ‘Vengeance Of The Stones’ and earn merely a 1.5 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 6: Trouble In Paradise’
Written by: Nev Fantan
Performed by: Nicola Bryant (as Peri Brown), with Cameron Stewart as Columbus

Premise: October 12, 1492. As Christopher Columbus sails the ocean blue, he is shocked to find that the rumours that he scoffed at are true…the ocean opens up and he is about to sail off the edge of the world.  Only the arrival of the ‘primitive shaman’ known as The Doctor and his ‘barely clothed’ savage known as Peri in their ‘worship hut’ can possibly save known history…but  The Devil stalks the halls of the ‘Santa Maria’…

Review: Once more, the listener is subjected to a strange hodgepodge of ersatz theme music in place of the familiar TV theme. This time, it is a jarring and bastardized mash-up of the original TV theme from the Colin Baker era with that of the ‘Trial Of A Timelord’ season theme. Fortunately, the story itself rises above this unfortunate musical intro, but it is beginning to become quite distracting, especially given the myriad other Big Finish audio plays that boast the authentic theme music. One is left to wonder, given the obvious clearance of character likenesses and other copyrighted material inherent with the BBC in regards to ‘Doctor Who’, if perhaps at the last minute prior to releasing this series if the proper accreditation of certain TV themes was not obtained or they were revoked, as it is quite puzzling as to the reasoning behind the decision not to utilize the original music.

Whatever the reason, the story itself, once it begins, is quite good. Nicola Bryant not only provides the spoken audio portion of the script but also recreates her role as Peri Brown, complete with the faux American accent. This is very important to the story, and unlike Janet Fielding before her, this little performance is quite appreciated and helps the listener to differentiate the narration from the dialog quite well. It is also a testament to Bryant that she is able to capture the essence, if not the tone, of the Sixth Doctor. Previous episodes in this series featured female companion actresses struggling to adopt masculine tones with mixed to negative results. Bryant sidesteps this hurdle and settles instead for capturing the haughty, grandiose, boisterous nature of the Sixth Doctor through the dialog itself rather than attempting to mimic Colin Baker’s delivery. The effect is unobtrusive and natural-sounding, and the listener can easily picture the Sixth Doctor delivering the lines.

Of particular note in this story is the accompanying voice actor, Cameron Stewart, who plays Christopher Columbus. Unlike the previous story’s failure with a tonally flat and lifeless Harry Houdini, here an historical person of such note as Columbus is given a grand, sweeping performance that brings him to life wonderfully. Stewart’s overbearing, xenophobic, and irritatingly aristocratic version of Columbus is a joy to listen to, and he threatens to steal the show. Combined with strong writing, the performance stands out as the best of the guest actors in the series thus far.

The story itself is quite strong. Rooted to a specific time in history, it presents both the public perception and the truth of Christopher Columbus. For the first time, and in quite a refreshing manner, Peri’s American nationality is brought into sharp focus as she comes face to face with the man most responsible for the creation of her native land. To The Doctor’s chagrin, she is more than aware of what the history books have to say, as well as the hidden truth that historians are eager to sweep under the carpet regarding the man’s brutal nature. Far from venerating Columbus as a father of her nation, Peri condemns him as a butcher and monster. It is a spunky, spirited side of Peri that was revealed only in flashes on the TV series and which have come to light much more frequently in the audio plays, as the writers and performers take the opportunities afforded  them to explore more deeply into a given character. Nicola Bryant gives a strong performance as Peri, and carries this story quite well.

The promised fate of ‘sailing off the edge of world’ is turned from figurative warning to literal reality when the universe itself begins to unravel; far in the future, the Eleventh Doctor is dealing with another mega-catastrophe, and it is this story that begins fully to connect the threads of this series together, as it is the first story in which the plot is directly initiated by the Eleventh Doctor, requesting the Sixth Doctor to retrieve an item of grave importance to him for later usage.  A very enjoyable moment for the listener is Nicola Bryant’s mile-a-minute mimicking of Matt Smith’s delivery as the Eleventh Doctor. Unlike the previous episodes in this series, the cameo comes quickly and is very entertaining, with the Eleventh Doctor buttering up the Sixth by repeatedly referring to his ‘cool coat’.

In summary, this is a very well done story by all involved. It is tightly written and superbly performed, with every conceivable plot point, big or small, resolved by the end. It makes the most of its time and provides action, drama, and entertainment from start to finish. The only slight to be found is the very over the top performance given to the ‘Devil’, which is provided un-credited by Stewart. He can be forgiven for this, as his Columbus is so well done.  The bickering between The Doctor and Peri is nowhere near as pointless as it was in the early episodes of the TV series, and serves to not only advance the plot but also to allow both characters to explore issues of morality and historical perception. The Doctor is appropriately larger-than-life and very true to form to his Sixth incarnation, and it is quite refreshing to explore the darker nature of well-known historical figures rather than merely be subjected to the broad strokes, as often happens when they crop up in ‘Doctor Who’.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, this easily rates a 4.5 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 7: Shockwave’
Written by: James Swallow
Performed by: Sophie Aldred (as Dorothy ‘Ace’ McShane), with Ian Brooker as Irwin

Premise:  The Doctor may have picked the worst time in galactic history to reclaim an item that has become a religious artefact; during a supernova of a planet’s sun that is causing shockwaves that threaten to destroy all life in the system. What message does the artefact have for him? How fast can they outrun the shockwave that threatens to engulf everything that lives?

Review: Sophie Aldred narrates a strong and touching story that stands as among the best of the series so far. Her attempt at Sylvestor McCoy’s exaggerated Scots brogue is charming and puts the listener in the proper frame of mind, and her recreation of her signature character of Ace is appropriately gung-ho. Sticking to the immediacy of the script rather than overacting, she gives a very good performance that enhances a very good story. The familiar, poppy and upbeat McCoy theme is present and it must be said that the incidental music throughout is extremely well done and effective in conveying the various moods of the piece. Ian Booker provides a memorable supporting role, and his Captain Owen is given much to do and say and isn’t just a prop to further the plot.
The well-drawn supporting characters are performed by Aldred in different voices. This is very appreciated by the listener, as it helps to differentiate them. Nanjay, the member of a fatalistic religious cult that considers the strange artefact The Doctor seeks, called the Voice Of Stone, as a holy relic, is a strong supporting character that is given much to do, and the listener explores the different sides to her. She begins her association with the TARDIS crew, like Katarina in the TV series before her, as a naïve and shy girl who falls back on her religion to process the monumental events swirling around her. Like Katarina, her final fate is touching and leaves The Doctor and his companion moved to great emotion. It is the powerful writing combined with an excellent performance by Aldred that brings Nanjay to live.

In many ways, this story is too ambitious for a format with the limitations of an audio play. The main plot centers around a desperate flotilla of starships, full to bursting with thousands of beings, breaking away from a dying planet before a massive shockwave from a sun rips the planet to pieces. This is followed by a pedal-to-the-metal race of these ships to reach a point where the shockwave will dissipate and not destroy them in its wake. Conveying the enormity of the events stretches the audio bed to its limit, and unfortunately results in a few scenes that fail to live up to expectations. The plot itself would be a stretch for the New Series to bring to life, let alone an audio play. It’s a quibble, but the voice cast and their performance do their best to cover for this. There remains a sense of epic scale that unfortunately is somewhat of a wasted opportunity here.

In summary, ‘Shockwave’ provides an excellent slice of the McCoy era. It is a very entertaining and compelling story that hooks the listener in at the outset and gives both The Doctor and Ace great lines and much to do. There are no forgotten or unused plot threads. It is a treat to hear Sophie Aldred’s rendition of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, though Nicola Bryant’s version in the previous story is still the one to beat.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, this easily rates a 4.5 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 8: Enemy Aliens’
Written by: Alan Barnes
Performed by:  India Fisher (as Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Pollard), with Michael Maloney as Hillary Hammond

Premise:  London, 1935. The prospect of war swirls in the streets. Spies are everywhere. The Doctor and Charlie tangle with embedded German agents…but are they the only ‘enemy aliens’ hiding in plain sight? Or is something more sinister biding its time, waiting for the signal…to invade?
Review: Though the theme music reverts to yet another generic and haphazardly composed version, it is understandable given the circumstances of the Eighth Doctor’s era having its origin on American TV; the original theme music accompanying his era is beyond the scope of BBC ownership, and therefore beyond that of Big Finish, certainly.  Big Finish’s range of adventures featuring this Doctor, which comprise several seasons at this point, utilize a completely different theme tune arrangement than that of the TV movie.

It is apparent over the course of these stories that a given story will either rise or fall on the performance of the main narrator. Certainly, scripting and production expertise can bulk up a weaker performance, just as a strong performance can be hampered by technical limitations or poor writing. Factoring in these fluctuations, however, it must be said that this story falls completely flat due to the uninspired, breezy and disinterested performance that India Fisher gives. Granted, the written story is crammed full of useless jargon and peppered with trivia that serves as nothing more than padding which doesn’t help her out whatsoever.  The character of Hillary Hammond, voiced adequately by Michael Maloney, is akin to a ‘Scooby-Doo’ villain; as the only new character introduced to the story that accompanies the two leads, it is the epitome of underwhelming to discover he is one of the ‘bad guys’. He would have gotten away with it, too, if not for the over-written script that positively declaims his true nature at every turn. Make no mistake, though, a better performance from India Fisher could have potentially saved this story from the drudgery it descends into.

The story itself is very over-wrought and riddled with nonsensical moments.  It begins on the heels of another, unrelated adventure to which the listener is not exposed to, and copious references are made to this early story, which not only detracts from this story but serves to confuse and annoy the listener as they are not ‘in’ on the details. From there, the revelations are of a very small and inconsequential nature; The Doctor need not have been involved in the proceedings, as it almost feels as if they are beneath his attention. The revelation of Nazi involvement is boring and overdone; when has a story set in the mid to late 1930’s NOT involved Nazis in some form or other? The Doctor as written in this story is quite slow on the uptake, and nowhere near as clever or resourceful as he is depicted as being in multiple other Big Finish stories featuring him. It is a tremendous letdown given the otherwise outstanding work that India Fisher has done for the Eighth Doctor Adventure series, and what Big Finish has done for the Eighth Doctor.

In summary, the sole positive that can be said regarding this story is that, as an entry in the series following several top-notch tales, it serves as a good point for the listener to catch their breath and simply listen to an uncomplicated tale that is quite forgettable. As an individual episode and representative of the Eighth Doctor, however, this story unfortunately fails on every conceivable level. The audio bed is muffled and limited; the performers are clearly checking the clock on the wall of the recording studio and just rapid-firing the lines rather than delivering quality performances. So close to the conclusion now of this epic experiment in multilayered storytelling, it is quite a disappointment and stands in stark contrast to the otherwise fine work done on behalf of this Doctor.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, this poor bugger ranks a 1.5 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 9: Night Of The Whisper’
Written by: Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Performed by: Nicholas Briggs (as The Ninth Doctor, Captain Jack Harkness, and Rose Tyler), with John Schwab as McNeil

Premise: New Vegas, the far future. An artificially created pleasure dome modelled on the Earth city is controlled by the beast-like gangster Wolfsbane. Posing as Earth authorities, The Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose infiltrate his criminal empire in order to bring it down from the inside…until the appearance of a cybernetic vigilante called ‘The Whisper’ threatens to not only expose them, but begins dispensing swift justice to even minor infractions of the law. Who, or what, is The Whisper?

Review: This tale begins in strong fashion with the bombastic, proud, and sonically charged TV theme from the Ninth Doctor’s era, bringing the listener back to the early days of the New Series in style. As the first story to not be handled by a former companion, it could have gone either way. As much as Nicholas Brigg’s connection to the New Series through his able voicing of both the Daleks and Cybermen is assured, without the anchoring presence of an actor or actress from the given era, it is an iffy proposition if he is up to the task of voicing so many characters.

Firstly, unlike Fraser Hines’ confident handling of the Second Doctor, factoring in that he is after all giving voice to an actor that he worked alongside for several years and therefore can reasonably be expected to give a commanding mimicking performance of (which he does), Nick Brigg’s version of Christopher Eccleston’s delivery comes off as odd and distracting. It sounds very much like Eccleston suffering from a severe case of bronchitis. If The Ninth Doctor sounded like he came from the north, then Nick Brigg’s attempt at copying him sounds nothing like it. Briggs gets a pat on the back for at least giving it the old college go, but it really just sounds ridiculous. Briggs may perhaps have bitten off far more than he can chew, as he voices almost every character in this story. His attempt at Rose Tyler fares only slightly better than The Doctor. His version of Captain Jack is over the top and is akin to a salacious American game show host.

While the complete failure of Nicholas Briggs to capture authentic sounding versions of the main characters is an issue, the story rises above it. With ample references to ‘holo-comics’ and layered with incidental music that sounds ripped from the latest spandex-clad blockbuster feature film, this story shows its roots right off the bat, man. New Vegas is an appropriate, if futuristic, stand-in for the neon-splashed excess of Gotham, and the sound effects accompanying the movement of ‘The Whisper’ as it makes its way across rooftops include grappling-gun and repelling rope. The story is a study in vigilante justice, and seeks to separate The Doctor and his actions and justifications from those of his pulp-hero counterparts, and on that level it works well. Wolfsbane, the villain of the piece, is a werewolf-like gangster in the mould of The Kingpin; bloated by his own success, vain and hideous, yet capable of great violence and cunning. Unlike previous entries that sought to overindulge in lumbering aliens with deep barrel voices to the point that it became almost unlistenable, Wolfsbane is handled well and never loses his edge as a believable threat or descends into overacting from the voice artist.

In summary, despite a valiant but failed virtuoso performance by Briggs in an ill-fated triple role, ‘Night Of The Whisper’ is a treat to listen to. It is simple and uncomplicated in plot, fun where it needs to be, has plenty of good lines to portion out to each character, and keeps one foot grounded in its source material with both subtle references to Bad Wolf, as well as copious call-backs to earlier adventures of the initial New Series season. This is a story that definitely would have been better suited to a text story, if only to spare the listener the butchery that is Brigg’s Eccleston impersonation, but in the end there’s plenty to love about it regardless of that.

A biff, bam, pow on the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale reveals it garners a 4 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 10: Death’s Deal’
Written by: Dan Jones
Performed by: Catherine Tate (as Donna Noble), with Duncan Whisby as Crux and Erskine

Premise: Death’s Deal, the most dangerous planet in the cosmos. A graveyard of space vessels lured to their doom. Creatures slither under the ground. The Doctor and Donna are joined by a ragtag group of marooned travellers. But why have they all come here to a planet off limits to most? What are they searching for? And more importantly…who or what is watching and plotting underfoot?

Catherine Tate delivers a strong performance in ‘Death’s Deal’, and surprisingly so. The abrasive and argumentative Donna Noble character is, of course, in full effect in this story, but Tate embodies each individual character she voices with individual flavour and personality as well. Unlike Nick Briggs in ‘Night Of The Whisper’, Tate has clearly not bitten off more than she can chew; she ably handles several characters at once, effortlessly switching between them by altering the pitch of her voice and changing her delivery each time. Unlike other stories in this series, which are tailored to give the bulk of the spotlight to the companion characters to accommodate the actors portraying them, ‘Death’s Deal’ feels more akin to a Tenth Doctor story, as he is just as present in the story as Donna is, and Tate manages to capture David Tennant’s style quite well.

The story is a good one; from the point of arrival, the principal characters are always on the move, always discovering new and interesting things and being placed in peril often enough to keep the pace an up tempo one. The secondary characters also are given their own moments to shine, and are given just enough characterization to make the audience care what happens to them. This story is a bit of a run-around, but that’s a good thing, as it allows for an open-air feel. It’s a strong entry in this series and a satisfying slice of the Tennant Era. So close to the finish line of this series, this particular story had to serve a few masters, and does so admirably.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, the deal is a 4 out of 5.

‘Destiny Of The Doctor 11: The Time Machine’
Written by: Matt Fitton
Performed by: Jenna Coleman, with Micheal Cochrane as Chivers and Nicholas Briggs as The Creevex

Premise: November 23rd, 2013…the day humanity discovers time travel. The Doctor knows this isn’t supposed to happen, not at this time and not in this way, and he’s determined to stop the perversion of the timeline. But he can one man prevent the universe-shattering events to follow? Only with the help of ten other men..his previous selves…

‘The Time Machine’ is the final story in this sprawling, epic series and as such it has much to live up to. To begin with the decision was made to include Jenna Coleman as the narrator, but she doesn’t reprise her role as Clara, which is an odd choice on the part of the writer and producers. Most of the previous entries have of course featured companion actors and actresses reprising their established companion roles, and immediately it feels like a let-down to not have Clara as an integral part of this story, paired up with her Doctor. Instead of a representative slice of a chosen Doctor’s era, the feeling instead becomes akin to a Christmas Special or a late David Tennant special series, with a one-off companion that shares the Doctor’s adventures instead. Coleman voices the character of Alice Watson, a nebbish lab assistant. While adequate to the plot and with a surname that inspires multiple examples of The Doctor impersonating Sherlock Holmes, as the final story in this series and given the celebratory nature involved, it is unfortunate Clara is not on hand to join in.

As a narrator, Jenna Coleman is rather good. She gives life to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in a way that satisfies the audience, capturing the spirit of his manic performances without descending into ill-advised attempts at mimicking, as previous performances in this series are guilty of to the detriment of the stories themselves. The Doctor is jokey and irreverent and the dialog is timely to recent seasons and their story arcs, which helps make the story feel like a companion piece to the TV series, as it was intended to be. Coleman has more than one other performer to help her along in the telling of this tale, which seems appropriate as the final story in the series should be afforded as much effort as possible to give it a truly epic feel.

Michael Cochrane plays Chivers, the well-meaning but manipulated professor who ‘invents’ time travel. He’s a typical boffin type, but is given several touching scenes and Cochrane does a fine job of vocally conveying the wonderment and terror that comes along with inventing time travel. His scenes with Coleman as she plays Alice are humorous and really convey a ghost of a feeling of the rapport between the First Doctor and Susan; whether intentional or not, they are appreciated and help to ground the story, as there are wild flights of fancy and terror throughout the narrative and Alice and Chivers’ interactions are the required human elements that give the whole thing its soul.

Nicholas Briggs, the gatekeeper of Big Finish and the one man who steps between the worlds of the audio plays and the televised series on the regular, has in the past failed to convincingly play multiple characters, namely in ‘Night Of The Whisper’. Here, he is once again the ‘heavy’ and once again giving voice to an entire monster race, the Creevex. The uniformity of the Cybermen doesn’t allow Briggs to perform as much as read lines, while his work on the Daleks is to the other extreme, often coming across as over the top (given that the Daleks themselves are meant to be over the top). As the Creevex, Briggs finally brings a solid performance to this series, and fittingly he seemed to have saved his best for last. The Creevex are well-written and very memorable. Unlike the majority of the alien threats to The Doctor, the Creevex have already won and the story therefore has a sense of urgency and desperation that Briggs facilitates, as the Creevex gloat over The Doctor’s failure to save his universe. There is nothing more unsettling to hear than the monsters not only winning but winning convincingly, and Briggs plays those moments for all they are worth. The chill that runs down the listeners back as the Creevex finish every line of dialog of  The Doctor, anticipate his every move, outpace and outthink him at every turn, is satisfying and is played to perfection by Briggs.

The sound design of this story is also outstanding; the Creevex slither and skitter and, as giant insects, chitter and open and close their mandibles and it is a testament to Big Finish and Audio Go that the sound design is not only up to the task of creating sounds to fit their movements, but surpasses expectations.

Of course, the selling point of this entire story is that it is the end of an eleven hour (ish) journey with stops at all points along the timeline of ‘Doctor Who’. Fans up to this point have enjoyed Carole-Ann Ford reprising Susan, a rare treat in any medium. They have been exposed to former companion actors and actresses reprising their memorable roles and representing a by-gone era. As a celebration of ‘Doctor Who’ in its 50th Anniversary, does this story deliver a final, epic ending that ties up every loose thread of dangling plot points, tying them all together in a metaphorical birthday bow?

The answer is, mostly, affirmative, to quote K9. ‘The Time Machine’ delivers a pivotal scene that features the Eleventh Doctor proudly and defiantly yelling to the triumphant Creevex that they aren’t dealing with just one man, just one Timelord…they have been pitted against eleven of them, all working together for one common goal, to defeat their awesome plans once and for all. The scene is more effective than the similar one found in the televised ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, as it works on several levels; on its own, it is dramatic and reinforces the belief that, despite outward appearances, The Doctor is a veteran time traveler with a godly grasp of the mechanics of the concept and how to utilize his own past and his past selves as weapons.

It also serves the audience well, as in a series of call-backs to every previous adventure in this series it touches upon the crux of those stories and gives the listener the unique opportunity to re-live those past adventures from a different perspective. Though the self-congratulatory nature of the scene could have been overplayed and self-indulgent, it comes off instead as a proud moment that reinforces the ties between not only the Classic and New Series, but the ties between every incarnation of The Doctor; for a series that celebrates the differences between each version of The Doctor, to have them depicted as the same man with the same goal, united across time and space and fighting one common enemy, fills the listener with a sense of pride in their fandom of this quirky and heroic adventurer.

Rather than settle for a line or two of dialog and an all-too brief cameo comprised of screen captures of past adventures in order to get across the idea of a common goal uniting all Doctors, this series instead takes the listener on a journey that immerses them in the struggle against evil played out over eleven separate yet linked adventures. Free from the time constraints and limitations of the televised series, ‘Destiny Of The Doctors’ is instead a massive celebration of ‘Doctor Who’ first and foremost, an unbroken quest that takes in multiple points of time and space featuring multiple Doctors.

Second, and a grand experiment in storytelling

Third. Like ‘The Light At The End’, Big Finish’s output of material to coincide with the 50th Anniversary remains here among the best, and while individual stories rose and fell on their own merit, taken as a whole ‘Destiny Of The Doctors’ is a positive affirmation of the scope and scale of ‘Doctor Who’, of the love and passion it evinces, and represents the evolving nature of the series at the same time it celebrates previous eras.

Big Finish, as stated in the introduction, ought to be praised for their extremely dedicated handling of ‘Doctor Who’ and of the entertainment and joy they bring to fans, and that sentiment extends at this time to Audio Go as well. As an individual story, ‘The Time Machine’ is a taut and believable tale that deftly juggles its own existence as both an entry in the series and the finale to the series, and easily earns a 5 out of 5 on the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale. As a series taken as a whole, ‘Destiny Of The Doctors’ must earn a similar rank on the same scale, easily earning a 5 out of 5 for the ingenuity of its creation and for delivering what it set out to do and telling one long story broken into 11 parts. Well done to all involved.

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