Saturday, October 16, 2010

Arrangements for War

An audio adventure featuring the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn

Written by Paul Sutton and directed by Gary Russell

Polarity Rating: 1 out of 5

The problem with randomly picking stories to review is that you obviously do not listen to them in order. Big Finish often releases three or four stories in an arc, and although they may be enjoyed independently, there are elements that overlap in consecutive stories (see my review of The Key 2 Time: The Destroyer of Delights as an example). Another issue is that you can pluck a story from Big Finish's library and learn something about a companion you're not very familiar with, which I think may have been part of my problem with this one.

The last story I listened to (and enjoyed) featuring Dr. Evelyn Smythe was her first appearance in The Marian Conspiracy. There she was presented as a hard-as-nails history lecturer capable of standing up to the Sixth Doctor's usual bravado. I liked her, and found it was refreshing to have an elderly companion, not to mention someone a little reminiscent of Tegan, albeit a bit less annoying. In the opening of Arrangements for War, Evelyn is recovering from a loss she suffered in the previous story, and she later falls in love with a gentleman who proposes to her. It was a sudden change from what I had perceived the character to be, and I suspect there has been a lot of character development since The Marian Conspiracy.

Hoping to give Evelyn's emotions a rest, the Doctor brings her to the planet Vilag, where two rival countries are about to celebrate the marriage of Princess Krisztina and Prince Victor. The marriage is an arranged one, as well as a political move to make peace between the two nations. Obviously there are some dissenters, the most prominent being Plenipotentiary Suskind, but the Doctor assures us all will be well again in a couple weeks time when the planet will be invaded by an alien race which will be defeated by all the nations on Vilag joining together. Their victory will solidify their alliance and peace will reign eternal.

I despise when I ask people how a film or television show was and their one-word review is something like "boring" or "stupid." But you cannot imagine how tempting it is to simply slap this CD with a "boring" sticker and call it a day. The first episode consists of the Doctor's consoling Evelyn and giving her the usual "I can't change the bad things that have happened" lecture, followed by talking about preparations for the upcoming wedding on Vilag. Then the Doctor puts his foot in it when he accidentally talks Krisztina out of marrying Victor and sticking with her true boyfriend, Corporal Reid. This means, of course, that the marriage that would mark the first step toward peace may be called off, so that means the Doctor has inadvertently changed their history. And that, my friends, is the stunning cliffhanger at the end of the first episode.

It didn't get better with the second episode. The aforementioned romance between Evelyn and Governor Rossiter continues, and the Doctor tries to dance around the fact that he's changed history by trying to get the wedding back on track. Which brings me to a interesting point: not long ago I was watching "Pyramids of Mars," in which the Doctor and Sarah are as nonchalant as ever to bring up the fact that they're time travelers to save the planet from Sutekh, yet in this story everything could have been averted if the Doctor had just come out and told the damn truth! I found this relentlessly irritating, which was doubled by the Doctor's postulations on love. Frankly I couldn't believe this was a Doctor Who story, not to mention a Sixth Doctor story. They even have the Doctor secretly passing love letters between Krisztina and Reid, as if he sits between them in study hall.

There are a number of other implausible happenings, including the imprisonment of the Doctor and Evelyn for reasons unknown (or perhaps I just wasn't paying attention, which was a task in and of itself). We are treated to voice overs of newscasters to explain the passing of time. Eventually the alien invaders arrive and the least impressive invasion in Doctor Who history ensues. The story concludes with the Doctor suddenly realizing that his actions do have consequences, and it's sort of the mirror image of that scene at the conclusion of "Waters of Mars."

Perhaps I'm not the right person to review this story. Perhaps I was just expecting something a little more exciting like the stuff Big Finish has been churning out lately. There was very little in this story that compelled me...heck, I don't think there was anything in it that compelled me. Mind you, the acting was fair. I have a feeling that there are people out there who are passionate about this story, and I'll bet anything they're the same folks who loathe "Love and Monsters," a story that's particularly close to my heart.

This is the first story I've heard by Paul Sutton. One of his other works, No More Lies, is currently sitting on my bookshelf, still in its plastic wrap. After listening to Arrangements for War, I suspect No More Lies will maintain its plastic status. I'm sorry, Paul Sutton, but I've read some of the other reviews out there and some fans seem to like this type of story. Obviously, I don't.

I like my Doctor Who to have a little more action, cliffhangers in which the characters are in danger, or some plot that doesn't seem to have been pulled from a soap opera set in a magical land of fairy tales. Even when the story did head in that direction (the alien invasion), it was so slapdash and quickly over that I hardly even noticed it. The conclusion of the story seems as long as The Return of the King, with the Doctor philosophizing on how his travels have changed so many lives, often for the worse, as Evelyn pats him on the hand with hollow reassurances. This is not something I can see the Doctor allowing himself to bring to the surface, particularly the Sixth Doctor. My Sixth Doctor is arrogant, funny, and sometimes a little too quick to open his mouth. This was not the same Doctor or the same Evelyn that I really enjoyed in The Marian Conspiracy.

I probably will not be listening to Arrangements for War ever again, although I will keep it for the sake of being a completest. I do have a friend I will recommend it to, though, and I truly hope that he gets more out of it than I did. It is not, I dare say, a complete waste.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prime Time

A novel featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace

Written by Mike Tucker

Polarity Rating: 4.5 out of 5

As Doctor Who fans, we all have a kind of checklist that every good story should adhere to. Of course, one person's treasure is also another person's trash, so the fan who is totally into Rose and the Doctor slash fiction may have a completely different checklist than, say, your atypical fan who would like to have a common law marriage with "Pyramids of Mars" whilst categorizing "Time and the Rani" as something equal to or less than pond scum.

That being said, Prime Time managed to tick of every item on my own proverbial checklist. It has everything. It's a story so unbelievably perfect for Doctor Who that I think Mike Tucker should immediately be commissioned to pen the script for the current series. I simply cannot understand how I've read so much of the BBC's literary canon that this one slipped by me unnoticed all these years.

To wax eloquent about a story is one thing, and it would probably make for a boring review simply to do so for several paragraphs, so back to that checklist I was talking about earlier. Let me share with you the items on my fanboy checklist, and explain how this story delivered each item in spades. (For the record, the list below is not exhaustive by any means.)

1. The Totalitarian Society

The Doctor and Ace find themselves on the futuristic planet Blinni Gaar, where all does not quite seem as it should. The inhabitants (a melting pot of races) are a little too engrossed in watching television. TV's are everywhere: installed at the foot of bed frames, into dinner tables, and even into the dashboards of automobiles. For this society, television is the opiate of the people.

The term "totalitarian" commonly conjures up visions of a ruthless government, usually with some greedy dictator pulling the strings. No mention is ever really made of Blinni Gaar's government, and it's not even clear that they even have a government. But who needs a government when the people are clearly hypnotized by lousy reality television? This is a totalitarian society of a different color, and it's obvious to the Doctor moments after stepping out of the TARDIS that things on this planet are just not normal.

2. The Ruthless Despot

Tobias Vaughn. Harrison Chase. The Marshal of Solos. Where would we be without them? Some of them command a small regiment of heavies, others entire armies. The best of them serve as figureheads for the stories they appear in. (Am I the only one who thinks of Tobias Vaughn as the main villain in "The Invasion" instead of the Cybermen?) On Blinni Gaar, they have Lukos Vogol, Director of Channel 400, which is responsible for transmitting many of the programs which are transforming the viewing audience into couch potato zombies.

Vogol is a maniacal megalomaniac, intent on getting the highest ratings by hook or by crook, including murdering every member of the geriatric board of directors. He occupies an office at the top of the Channel 400 studios, drinking scotch and watching television programs while manipulating everyone around him. This sounds like a typical villain, until about halfway through the story we learn this guy is hatching plans with as many layers as an Outback Steakhouse Blooming Onion.

3. The Brutal Heavy

Vogol is working with the Zzinbriizi, a barbarian race of wolf men who have been surgically augmented with superior intelligence. These guys can usually think for themselves thanks to their new abilities, but their hunger for blood and instinct to hunt is often overpowering. They find themselves stuck between obeying orders (from more than one master) and their need to eat flesh.

Had this been a mediocre story, the list of baddies would stop at the Zzinbriizi, but it's clear from the beginning that they're only pawns in a complicated power struggle between Vogol and...

4. The Terrifying New Alien Race

If I were to bring up the highlight of this book, it would have to be the Fleshsmiths. They are the stuff of nightmares, and if this story ever was televised, the Weeping Angels would probably take the back seat to these guys. Once a happy, normal race, the Fleshsmiths' planet suffered a natural disaster which forced them to kidnap members of other races and cannibalize their body parts to create new bodies of their own.

If one were to make a science fiction remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the sets would be not unlike the Fleshsmiths' home planet. Author Mike Tucker goes into some detail into their flesh bank, where bodies are left mutilated, hanging, and still alive from hooks and chains. The Fleshsmiths themselves stay connected to their external resources via thick tubes that are grafted into their bodies. The tubes are filled with murky black liquid, and one could almost smell the stuff as it's described how it oozes from the pipes as they're connected and reconnected to their hosts' bodies.

The Fleshsmiths' prime directive is simply to survive, even if it means other races have to die - and suffer horribly - in the process. Their directive is a simple one that we've seen over and over, but their realization is unbelievably gruesome. Perhaps their cruelest scheme is to kidnap an innocent soul, surgically implant a camera into his skull (among other things), and force him to do any of a number of things against his human conscience. Tucker leaves the appearance of this creature to our imagination, and the most we get are the first impressions from anyone encountering this crime against nature.

5. A Great Realization of the Doctor

The Seventh Doctor is perhaps best known for being cunning and manipulative, even with his own companions. But how does he react when the shoe is on the other foot? Here the Doctor becomes a mouse inside a giant maze, forced to deal with one deadly reality after another. There even comes a point when his enemy gloats over the Doctor's inability to plan his way out of the situation.

Of course, without revealing any major spoilers, the Doctor turns the tables at the end. In Prime Time, though, we see him at both his most vulnerable and eventually his most manipulative.

6. A Vulnerable Companion

And speaking of vulnerability, Ace is not the bat-wielding force to be reckoned with that we've seen in the final episodes of the classic series. She comes off as expected as first (she befriends another young citizen of Blinni Garr who teaches her how to rock climb), but eventually she finds herself in the clutches of the enemy and is forced to endure torment about her past and her future.

I will not say more about what Ace does in this story, but Tucker bookends the story with an epilogue and prologue regarding Ace that are cryptic yet compelling. I'll be damned if I saw that coming.

7. A Recurring Villain

Recurring villains are not my favorite. Why read another Dalek story when we can get something fresh and interesting like the Fleshsmiths? It would probably ruin the first third of the story if I told you the identity of the villain here, but suffice it to say that it's the most shocking revelation of a returning enemy since Lawrence Miles' Alien Bodies.

And there you have it. Prime Time is a thing of beauty, a wonderful feast with all the perfect courses and ingredients. Perhaps its only problem (and the reason I didn't rate it a perfect 5) is that Mike Tucker's prose is a bit off when it comes to describing places and things; I found myself having to reread some passages, then forged on in slight confusion nevertheless because I couldn't get what he was trying to get across visually (the description of the Fleshsmiths notwithstanding).

If you're a Who fan with an internet connection and $15 in your bank account, there are far worse things you can spend it on. Undoubtedly one of the best Missing Adventures in recent memory.

Fun Facts:
  • If the name Mike Tucker sounds familiar, you're not mistaken. Aside from writing a number of Doctor Who novels (most of them featuring the Seventh Doctor), Tucker is known for his effects work for some of the Ninth Doctor's televised stories.
  • Prime Time is riddled with in-jokes regarding the history of Doctor Who. For instance, while promoting the idea of broadcasting a show featuring the Doctor, Vogol labels him a "cosmic hobo," a term often used to describe the Second Doctor.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Aliens of London/World War Three

A televised story featuring the Ninth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey

Written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Keith Boak

Polarity Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This year I had the pleasure of attending Gallifrey in Los Angeles and meeting some of my fellow Doctor Who fans, most notably those from the podcasting community. At dinner with my new friends, someone broached the subject of what our first impressions were when the series returned in 2005. Everyone more or less had something good to say with one exception: they all hated, hated, hated "Aliens of London" and "World War Three."

This sentiment is apparently shared by the majority of Doctor Who fans, and out of all of the Ninth Doctor's adventures it seems to be singled out as the worst. (Everyone seems to have forgotten "Rose," with the abominable plastic Mickey.) It had been quite a while since I had seen it, so after Gallifrey I decided to pop it into the DVD player and revisit it to find out if it deserves all these rotten tomatoes. And now I have to ask my fellow fans: Why?!

The first thing the critics like to point to is the farting. It's completely uncalled for and silly, they seem to say. Had this been an hour and a half of nothing but fart jokes, this would be a valid point, but the farting is just one rather amusing characteristic of the villains in the piece and it's only remotely touched upon in the story. Another object of ridicule seems to be the Slitheen themselves. This criticism, of course, comes from many people who think the Daleks (definitely the most overused villains in all of Doctor Who) are the ultimate foe. While I admit that the juxtaposition of the Slitheen as lumbering hulks with images of them dashing through the corridors of 10 Downing Street seems just a little mismatched, the concept of the Slitheen is pretty original. These are not creatures who are bent on ruling the universe; they simply want to blow the earth into tiny pieces and sell the remains for profit. Their plan for doing this is clever, albeit a little overcomplicated: murder various high officials in the British government and impersonate them by donning their skins. It's a classic ploy used often in horror movies like The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Indeed, as the story progresses, the Doctor and his friends quickly learn that no one is to be trusted because anyone could either be under the influence of the Slitheen or a Slitheen themselves.

With the exception of a few head-scratching moments (and I'll get to those in a moment) the plot itself is a nice little treat. There are some wonderful moments, including a three-pronged cliffhanger at the conclusion of the first episode that remains one of the series' best (and I include the oft-lauded "The Time of Angels" in that mix). A tense encounter with a Slitheen in Mickey's kitchen concludes with the amusing realization amongst the protagonists that the creatures' weakness is vinegar, the result being bits and pieces of an exploding alien all over Mickey and Jackie. Russell T. Davies' writing, always the subject of criticism, is sharp as ever, particularly the dialogue between the Doctor, Rose, and Harriet Jones. There's even a little nod to the dodgy risks of time travel; the Doctor assures Rose he's brought her back to London just after she left, but it's almost a year later and Rose has gone missing all that time. For the most part, it's just great fun.

But this particular patch of petunias is not without its proverbial cat turd. Perhaps RTD should have watched Independence Day again before writing in that ridiculous conclusion involving Mickey hacking into the military's network and launching a missile from his computer. Granted, the Doctor provided him with the required security codes, but it still doesn't seem plausible. The possibility of three people surviving an explosion by crouching in a closet is rather contrived, especially since all of 10 Downing Street was incinerated save for that single closet door and its adjoining wall.

This story begins RTD's obsession with an alien menace popping up none-too-subtly in the middle of London, which was repeated in "The Christmas Invasion" and again in "Army of Ghosts" and again in "Runaway Bride" and again in "The End of Time." In RTD's world, the English must be a paranoid lot, always looking to the skies for fear of when the next alien menace will strike. I'm probably not the only one who would recommend that he review some of the Third Doctor's UNIT adventures, in which the alien invaders were dealt with discretely without sacrificing the adventurous elements of the story.

At the end of the day, I suppose that "Aliens of London" gets slightly higher marks than "World War Three" in light of the problems mentioned above, but the two episodes combined still make for some slightly above-average Doctor Who. Fans are, of course, entitled to their opinions, but I still say it's just a jolly fun romp.

Fun Facts:
  • "Aliens of London/World War Three" was ranked 132 out of 200 in Doctor Who Magazine's 2010 poll. It beat out two other Ninth Doctor stories: its sequel "Boom Town" and "The Long Game."
  • Just a couple episodes later, the Slitheen returned in "Boom Town." They have yet to make a reappearance on the show (to the relief of fans everywhere), but their relatives the Blathereen popped up in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Many people feel that this particular race is more suitable for that show, perhaps because younger viewers enjoy fart jokes more.
  • Harriet Jones made an appearance in "The Christmas Invasion" before she was sadly exterminated by the Daleks in "Journey's End."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Memory Lane

An audio adventure featuring the Eighth Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz

Written by Eddie Robson and directed by Gary Russell

Polarity Rating: 4 out of 5

After listening to my somewhat scathing podcast review of "The Keeper of Traken," a friend suggested that I watch something that was more of a "romp," perhaps something with Daleks. I was inclined to be offended, but then I reviewed my recent writ-up of Infinite Requiem (see below), and now I can't help but think the time is ripe for such a "romp." Memory Lane turned out to be a happy respite.

The Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz (pronounced "care-rizz") dematerialize in a typical English urban neighborhood, but of course everything is not as it seems. Each one of the homes along the seemingly deserted street is occupied by the same elderly woman and her grandson Tom. Why does Tom look much older than he acts? Why does his nan not seem to blink an eye when the TARDIS materializes in her parlor? Why do the same programs play over and over again on the telly? And why does the ice cream man seem so sinister?

By the time the first episode of Memory Lane draws to a conclusion, there's an aftertaste of the confusing M.C. Escher staircases in "Castrovalva," except I'm happy to say that the confusion is eventually explained in this case and in a way that seems quite plausible within the parameters of a science fiction tale. (In case you couldn't tell, I'm not exactly a fan of the "magic" worked into some of the stories during John Nathan-Turner's time on the show.) Of course, this being a Doctor Who story, we know that there have to be sinister minds at work here (more on that later), but the silver lining of this play is the feeling that there's something wrong just beneath the surface, that the seemingly innocuous characters within this universe may not be hiding anything, but perhaps there's a greater force pulling the strings.

If you've read this far and haven't listened to the play, I recommend you stop here, as spoilers abound from here on in. Otherwise (or if you just don't care), please read on. Halfway through the story, we learn that the environment is like a terrarium constructed by alien forces for the purpose of imprisoning Tom, who is not really a six-year-old boy but an astronaut whose vessel crash-landed on the planet decades before. The environment has constructed itself around Tom's memories, using nano-technology to place him in a time and place which he has fond memories of (thus the title Memory Lane). As a result, Tom is inexplicably unaware that he's imprisoned, and has been living out decades playing with Legos in his nan's home.

Once all of this is more or less explained, the environment begins to affect both the Doctor and Charley, with amusing results: Charley believes she's at home with her mother in 1906 (conveniently adorned with 1920's amenities) and at the conclusion of the third episode the Doctor is stuck in a loop in which he believes to have solved the dilemma and explains it all to his companions.

Part of the charm of Memory Lane is that the Doctor and his friends aren't really up against some malevolent force hellbent on conquering the universe or having revenge against the Doctor; this time, it's just a pair of individuals with seemingly innocent intentions, albeit a little misplaced. The "villains" in this case are a pair of bumbling scientists named Argot and Mawvik who are in charge of entertainment on their planet. The problem here is that although their technology is so advanced that it can convince astronaut Tom he's six years old and in his nan's flat, they still have no inkling how to record video images. The Doctor saves the day by introducing them to recording technology, allowing them to record Tom's arrival for prosperity and, as a result, they free him into the Doctor's capable hands.

Eddie Robson is perhaps most popular for his work on Big Finish's Benny Summerfield adventures, although Memory Lane is one of a handful of Doctor Who stories he's written. In his notes on the story, he explains that he enjoys putting his characters in situations where there are odd juxtapositions, such as the phonograph in "The Time Meddler" or the spaceships disguised as Edwardian racing yachts in "Enlightenment." He delivers this eerie juxtaposition in spades with Memory Lane. Going back to my earlier comment about this play being a bit of a "romp" (oh, how I hate using that word in a review!), Robson admits that this is a story without any kind of literary metaphor: it just is what it is!

As with many Big Finish entries, the story seems to prattle on a bit; I found myself looking at my watch through the fourth episode. However, the first two episodes are solid gold, as this is where most of the story's mysterious flavor comes from. The score is also very well done, although I couldn't help but think it sounded almost a little too similar to American Beauty.

It may just be a romp in the form of an audio Rubik's cube, but this romp is just about worth the price of admission.

Fun Facts:
  • In Charley's flashback sequence, her mother mentions Edith the kitchen maid. If she sounds familiar, that's because she was the catalyst for all the action in The Chimes of Midnight.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Infinite Requiem

A novel featuring the Seventh Doctor and Benny

Written by Daniel Blythe

Polarity Rating: 2 out of 5

The humans are at war with the Phractons on the planet Gadrell Major, where the conflict has razed the planet's cities to the ground. In the meantime, three strange and powerful people are exploring three different places in the universe, and all three are actually one omnipotent, powerful creature. All of this results in the Seventh Doctor and Benny finding themselves on Gadrell Major, amidst the conflict taking place and up against Shanstra, whose powers are culminating even as the war around her is coming to a bloody end.

Infinite Requiem is very well-written by Daniel Blythe, who was unfamiliar to me up until reading this book. The problem is that it brings nothing new or interesting to the table. Admittedly, I have been slacking off a little on posting these reviews, and I put this story down about a month ago, read another book and finished it, and picked up a third book before I sat down to write this review. I find myself in a fog, because there's little, if anything, memorable about this story.

The televised stories are rife with conflict between one alien race and another, or one colonized civilization and its unruly rebels. Sometimes it works, sometimes the story just fades into the woodwork. (Tell me what you can remember about "Colony in Space," for instance.) Infinite Requiem is a lot like that. We have a war between the human beings and the Phractons, a cyborg race who are all connected via a virtual electronic grid and house themselves in small flying pods; I was reminded of the Toclafanes in the contemporary Who stories "The Sounds of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords." I liked the Phractons, and desperately wanted to learn more about them, but the story doesn't exactly pull us in that direction.

The antagonist is an ethereal being which has split into three separate entities, calling themselves Kelzen, Jirenal, and Shanstra. We see a lot of Shanstra, and learn that she can bend minds to make people do things against their will and pretty much do the standard stuff that any god-like omnipotent creature can do: you know, fly about, shoot energy bolts from her hands, that type of thing. Jirenal, definitely the most interesting of the group, makes his way to the Pridka Dream Centre, which is run by a race of psychic reptilians called, of course, the Pridka. The Dream Centre is another place I wanted to learn more about, but we are only treated to snippets of storyline from there in the first half of the book, and although the action culminates there in the end, the novelty has worn off and the Doctor's attempt to defeat Shanstra and prevent her from accomplishing the titular "infinite requiem" takes center stage.

I said earlier that this book had little, if anything, to remember it by, and I just remembered something. There's a glorious scene where Jirenal makes a young Pridka's head peel back and burst open before a white dove comes flying out of the corpse. Not that's the kind of cool powers I wanted to see more of. Also, the Seventh Doctor is up to his usual manipulative tricks, which gets him punched in the face in the end.

This sounds like a hated the book, but I didn't. I suppose the word "meh" would best summarize my feelings for it. Doctor Who seems to be saturated with stories about wars and villains who think they're gods. Naturally, it's all squared away by the Doctor in the end, and of course it's done in typical deus ex machina style. I find myself reading, listening, or watching stories that involve characters or concepts that are simply too complex for me to wrap my little mind around, like the Eternals in "Enlightenment" or the infamous "Ghost Light." Infinite Requiem was no exception. Perhaps it's just me, and if other fans enjoy this stuff, then more power to them!

Daniel Blythe began his writing career with Doctor Who and later moved on to better things. I wish him the best. He's obviously talented and can weave a good tale. I just hope he never comes near Doctor Who again.

Fun Facts:
  • Although the TARDIS' zero room was allegedly jettisoned in "Castrovalva," it reappears here.
  • Captain Cheynor appeared first in The Dimension Riders, also penned by Daniel Blythe. Blythe must not have liked him very much, as he pathetically kills Cheynor in the final pages.
  • There's a brief mention of the time-space visualizer seen in "The Chase." Apparently it's been recording all of the Doctor's adventures since its installment.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Power of the Daleks

A televised story featuring the Second Doctor, Ben, and Polly

Written by David Whitaker and directed by Christopher Barry

Polarity Rating: 4 out of 5

Hot on the heels of the Tenth Doctor's regeneration in "The End of Time," we come to probably the least-seen regeneration episode of all time, a foregone conclusion if there ever was one because the BBC elected to toss out all six episodes of the story long ago.

"The Power of the Daleks" was a huge crap shoot for the BBC. After three years in the role, William Hartnell's ailing health forced him to leave the show, and the producers found themselves with a conundrum: how could they possibly replace the lead actor after he had established himself and been received so well? From the outset, the producers and the BBC elected rather than casting someone else to step into Hartnell's shoes, they would completely revamp the character in looks and personality.

Perhaps to offset the audience's trepidation about the change in casting, the producers elected to bring back the Daleks, who hadn't made an appearance since "The Daleks' Master Plan." And so David Whitaker penned a Dalek story that left out any elements of the Doctor's personality and called it "The Destiny of Doctor Who." Dennis Spooner was later asked to make some changes after Patrick Troughton was cast in the role and the crew had some idea of what the new Doctor would be like. It was show creator Sydney Newman's idea to make the Second Doctor a kind of "cosmic hobo," who is better at listening than speaking, a stark change to the verbose Sherlock Holmes that David Whitaker originally had in mind.

Nowadays we've seen the Second Doctor in stories like "The Mind Robber," "Tomb of the Cybermen," and "The War Games," but his characterization there is far from Sydney Newman's original idea. However, in this story, Newman's decsription of the character is spot-on: the Doctor spends little or no time stammering in protest or talking excitedly, and seems to ignore the questions of his companions (or does he?). Although it's difficult to gauge without seeing the visuals, he seems to be thinking more than doing, and he spends much of his time thinking while playing a recorder. There are little bits of playfulness that shine out in Troughton's performance, such as when he's listening to a piece of fruit or confusing china plates with the country of China (listen for a reference to a classic Hartnell story there).

Fans must have loved the Daleks after their initially appearance in 1963, but nowadays fans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Doctor's most famous enemy. One has to admit that they're a big stagnant visually, the sound of their voices tends to get a bit too repetitive half an hour into the story, and the writers have evolved them over the years into miniature war machines that can fly through the vacuum of space. On the other hand, the Daleks are an institution in England, and even casual viewers can recognize them. If the current producers failed to include a Dalek story in every season, I think they would have a minor coup on their hands.

With that in mind, I have to admit I approached this story as "just another Dalek story," and was looking forward to the opening regeneration scene rather than the remaining five and a half episodes. However, Whitaker really delivers a smashing good Dalek story, and we get to see them in a light we've never seen before; they're no longer the ravaging killers we saw in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," but suspicious characters that lurk in the background for much of the story, causing both the listener and the Doctor much vexation.

The setting of the story is pretty standard fare. The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arrive on the planet Vulcan amidst yet another colony of earthlings. Among them is Dr. Lesterson, the archetypal scientist who is focused on nothing but his work, that being opening some kind of capsule discovered in the planet's mercury swamp. There are also rebels in the midst of the colonists who wide like to use Lesterson's work for their own purposes, particular when the capsule is opened and a Dalek emerges.

For once, however, the Dalek is not bent on blasting everyone in its wake. It seems willing to serve the colonists and eerily keeps repeating "I am your servant," in monotone Dalek fashion. The Doctor, of course, knows there's more to it than meets the eye, as do we. Even Ben and Polly seem to be taken in, no doubt because this is their first encounter with the Daleks. Of course, by the story's conclusion, the Daleks' true intention of using the colonists' power supply to build new Daleks becomes all too apparent and many, many people die.

There are moments in "The Power of the Daleks" that stand out in one's mind (spoilers ahead!). For instance, at the first episode's cliffhanger, the Doctor is assaulted by a Dalek creature which has crawled out of its casing. Viewers got to see only a glimpse of a Dalek claw in their premiere story, but seeing this for the first time must have been thrilling. Imagine it: not only is the Doctor being played by a new actor, but we get to finally see what a Dalek looks like under all that metal! In another scene, Lesterson accidentally uncovers the Daleks' plan when he's exploring the interior of the capsule. He sees a literal Dalek assembly line, with machines placing the tentacled creatures into their robot casings.

As a fan, listening to these scenes is enjoyable on two levels: it's a visual leap for the history of the show, but also the shock and joy of hearing the Daleks' plan unfold is far better than any of the Dalek revelations served up to us in the current story. Pure gold. We all know that something is going on in that capsule we just don't know what, and we're as anxious as the Doctor to discover it.

If one would have to say anything bad about this story, it would perhaps be the length. At six episodes, there is a little bit of padding in the middle, much of it involving the rebels plan to usurp the colony's governor. There are also maybe one too many classic scenes involving running up and down corridors. Ben and Polly also seem to take a backseat to the action, and they've conveniently captured and held hostage by the rebels, perhaps so the actors could take a break (Polly is absent from the fourth episode and Ben is absent from the fifth).

As with "The Enemy of the World," perhaps the story is better without the visuals; I can only imagine how boring the colony hallways must have looked. Nevertheless, any Doctor Who fan would admit that it would still be a real treat to actually see "The Power of the Daleks."

Fun Facts:
  • The BBC's account books, which still exist, say that this story cost a total of 17,065 pounds. What I find baffling is that the beeb actually threw out the films but elected to keep the books. There's bureaucracy for you.
  • Although the story is now available on CD and presented by Anneke Wills, it was originally released on cassette in 1993 and presented by Tom Baker.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Chimes of Midnight

An audio adventure featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley

Written by Rob Shearman and directed by Barnaby Edwards

Polarity Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Imagine my festive frivolity when, randomly choosing my next Big Finish production to review in mid-December, a story presented itself that was set on Christmas Eve. Not only that, but the blurb on the back of the CD suggested it was some kind of Edwardian murder mystery. Sign me up, I said, and quickly went about listening to it so that I could post my review on this very day, Christmas Eve itself.

A quick word about Christmas stories and Doctor Who. When a story is set on Christmas, it never is about Christmas per se, but rather it involves some kind of an alien invasion set on Christmas Day (one obvious exception is the single episode aired on Christmas Day for "The Daleks' Master Plan," which I have not yet had the pleasure to listen to). There may be robot Santas wielding laser guns and a festive holiday party about to be torn to shreds by a tragedy a la The Poseidon Adventure, but I would love to see or hear a story that involves the concept of Christmas itself as a basis for the plot. (I would refer anyone seeking such a story to the recent Iris Wildthyme adventure, The Claws of Santa, which really hits the nail on the head in this department.) Such is the case with The Chimes of Midnight. There is a great deal of talk about Christmas pudding, one or two carols are sung in passing, but other than that the thing could have been set on Saint Swithen's Day and we would have had the same story.

Not that I have any huge gripes with most of the story. When the TARDIS materializes in the pantry of a country estate in 1906, the Doctor and Charley are involved with the comings and goings of five members of the household staff. Strangely, nothing is heard from the gentry having a Christmas party upstairs, and indeed when the Doctor tries to ascend to the upper levels of the house, he is deterred with unexplainable and uncharacteristic threats of violence from the staff. It's not long before a murder occurs and, in true Ten Little Indians fashion, the staff begin to be bumped off one by one, each at the grandfather clock's striking of the hour: the scullery maid, for instance, is found drowned in the washing basin, and the cook is found sprawled across the kitchen table, force-fed her infamous Christmas pudding to death. These events may seem like spoilers, except that the same characters inexplicably show up minutes later alive and well, oblivious to the fact that they were found murdered moments before. The Doctor and Charley and the listener, of course, are baffled.

This was the perfect setup for a wonderful cosmic mystery. Why are the characters admittedly unsure whether or not they could be the murderer? Why do the household duties of each of the characters change every time they return from the dead? Why do they recognize the Doctor as some kind of famous amateur sleuth? Through the first three episodes, I thought I had it all figured out: of course, I figured, the Doctor and Charley were stuck in some sort of land of fiction as in "The Mind Robber," where an author of whodunnits was constantly rewriting a draft of his latest murder mystery, never quite sure who the proper murderer should be in the end or even the right victim.

My solution, needless to say, was not the correct one. Unfortunately, the true solution to the mystery would have led me to give this story a 4.5 rather than a 3.5 if it didn't leave me scratching my head. I suppose there are fanboys and fangirls out there who love stories involving paradoxes and time folding in on itself, but these type of stories rarely work for me unless they're spelled out for me like I'm a nine-year-old (the old favorite "Blink" comes to mind). In all fairness, I could go back and listen to the last episode, but I just don't think that would be proper. Why go back and listen to a story and purposely look for the good things when the writer and/or director failed to get the point across the first time?

I rarely think this when listening to Big Finish stories, but this one would have been a wonderful televised story for Christmas Day. There were certain passages here that would have translated better on the screen, and the holiday element could have been used a bit more than it was. If Paul Cornell could translate his novel Human Nature so well on to the screen, I say let Rob Shearman have his pick of a few audio adventures, definitely including The Chimes of Midnight, and see what magic he can make of those. He is, after all, the writer who brought us Dalek, for some the epitome of the perfect Dalek episode in the new series.

If you're new to Big Finish (or to the Eighth Doctor adventures), I'm told by folks on the forums that The Chimes of Midnight is one of the best out there. I beg to differ. Pick up a copy of Sword of Orion or Storm Warning instead. Unless, of course, you're one of those fans who love to put the 10% of the missing pieces of a puzzle together yourself. In that case, perhaps you have a better imagination than I and more power to you.

Fun Facts:
  • The character names for Shaughnessy, the butler, and Mrs. Baddely, the cook, were derived from the names of the script editor and the actress who played the cook in the classic British show Upstairs, Downstairs.
  • These are not the only characters to glean inspiration from Upstairs, Downstairs; Edith, the scullery maid from The Chimes of Midnight, bears a striking resemblance to the feather-brained scullery maid Ruby in Upstairs, Downstairs.