Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Big Finish - Paper Cuts

I've got a lot of past Big Finish releases to catch up on. Here is Paper Cuts, written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs, all the way back from September 2009.

The Doctor and Charley answer a summons from his old friend the Draconian Emperor, but their timing may be a bit off as the Emperor is dead and the battle for succession is taking place on board a floating space tomb. The Sixth Doctor has to put aside the mystery of Charley's identity because an army of Origami paper warriors are hacking their way in.

I like the Draconians, a race of reptilian space warriors whose culture is based on Japanese samurai, and the idea of a folded paper army was quite fun. It works well as an audio drama but might be a bit hard to pull off on television. After the disappointment of the first instalment of the Key 2 Time series I was hoping for a more straight forward romp and this was not too bad. It mixed a political intrigue with a classic base in peril scenario to good effect, although the rapid jumps from one aspect of the story to the other was a little jarring at times.

The other thing that jarred a bit was Colin Baker's performance. This story asks a lot of his Doctor and some of his outbursts and exclamations seemed unusually forced. Normally he is very good indeed, maybe he was having an off day. Or maybe it is that the other actors are all a little flat as well. There was nothing terrible but it just didn't stand out for me.

A solid middle of the road 3 out of 5 Origami warriors for Paper Cuts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Big Finish - The Judgement of Isskar

Back catalogue time again as I start on the Key 2 Time series from Big Finish. First up from January 2009 is The Judgement of Isskar by Simon Guerrier, directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery.

Some background information for me as much as anything. The original Key to Time was a story arc that linked six serials featuring the Fourth Doctor on television in the late 1970s. The Key itself is an artefact that stabilises the Universe but can also destroy it. The hunt for the pieces of this powerful cube involved the Doctor going up against representatives of order and chaos known, respectively, as the White and Black Guardians.

Big Finish returns to that story in this Key 2 Time series, and that numeral 2 is deliberate. The Fifth Doctor is on Mars with a new companion, a young woman called Amy who also seems to be a form of tracking device for pieces of the Key. Their hunt across time and space brings them into contact, and conflict, with the creatures who will go on to become the Ice Warriors of Mars.

Now I love the Ice Warriors and their creepy, whispering voices. This was the first Big Finish story I have listened to that features them so I was quite excited by the prospect. And that's the problem, I should stop getting my hopes up too high for some of these adventures because this just seemed like a confused mess to me. I couldn't understand why the Doctor was so quick to abandon looking for Peri at the start of the story and happily head off with Amy on the hunt for the missing pieces which his earlier self had deliberately scattered across time and space. On top of this the goodies and baddies kept changing, I didn't warm to the character of Amy at all, and all the female actors sounded the same to me. The only plus points were Nicholas Briggs' marvellous Ice Warrior voices, and the cheerful enthusiasm of Peter Davison during the CD extras interviews.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about jumping on points for Big Finish, well this is not one of them. Hopefully the rest of the series will get me back on track and explain what is going on, but at the moment the Key 2 time leaves me puzzled and as cold as an Ice Warrior's breath.
2 out of 5 Cosmic cubes I'm afraid.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bond Under Covers

A quick word about the cover images I am using to illustrate my posts about the Bond novels. I've chosen my favourite paperback editions, the iconic Pan covers which were designed by Raymond Hawkey, who also did the famous covers for the Harry Palmer novels by Len Deighton.

There are a host of sites devoted to the various editions of Fleming's novels. For me it is these colourful but understated covers for the Pan editions that stand out. They were the face of the Bond books at the peak of his popularity in the 60s. At the moment I have collected seven of the fifteen and continue to scour second hand book stalls for the rest. Beautiful things.

James Bond - Goldfinger

Back to the complete Bond-thru with the seventh book, Goldfinger from 1959.

M assigns 007 to investigate the gold smuggling activities of one of Fleming's best villains, Auric Goldfinger. Before long Bond is catching him cheating at cards, beating him in a memorable golf match, and coming up against the definitive henchman, Oddjob.

This is Fleming at the height of his powers and of the Bond novel's popularity. The format is well established: we get not one but two sporting encounters, some racy Bond girls including Pussy Galore, and Bond is strapped to the table to be tortured with a circular saw (it was changed to the Laser for the movie version). There is quit a lot of dialogue to wad through with lengthy exchanges between Bond and Goldfinger, but these do include my favourite lines from any of the novels when Goldfinger declares: "Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action."

Having acquired his signature weapon in the last book Bond changes his Bentley for the famous Aston Martin in this one. Not that he gets to use either the gun or the car very much as once again he has to rely on his wits and his physical resilience to get him out of trouble. It's another cracking example of the 007 books, perhaps the best section is the golf match with Fleming demonstrating his knowledge of the intricacies, and the dirty tricks, of the game.

One memorable villain, no medical conditions (other than his lust for gold), one nasty henchman, several Bond girls, two sporting encounters and one torture scene. All this plus death by gold paint!

James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Big Finish - Wanted: Dredd or Alive

From all the way back in March 2002 comes the first of Big Finish's 2000AD audio dramas. Wanted: Dredd or Alive by David Bishop, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Judges of Mega-City One are trying to deal with a deadly crime syndicate but Judge Dredd seems to be suffering the effects of something called Sleep Machine Psychosis and is going off the rails in a big way. Meanwhile a new batch of cadets are coming out of the Academy of Law and must face their final assessment on those mean streets as they try to earn their full Eagle badge.

As Big Finish brought 2000AD into their range of licensed audio dramas they needed a story that could introduce listeners to the world of Dredd. David Bishop uses the reasonably familiar device of a new character, British rookie Judge Amy Steel, who can guide us through the bizarre world of Mega-City One. She doesn't appear in the comics so she follows in the Big Finish tradition of introducing new companions and supporting characters for their Doctor Who adventures. Claire Buckfield plays her with gusto and a nice rebellious streak.

Meanwhile Toby Longworth gives us his first performance as Dredd and straight away he just fills the green boots as if he had been playing the part for many years already. If you are a 2000AD reader and listen to the Everything Comes Back to 2000AD podcast then you will recognise their opening clip of Dredd's voice which is taken from this audio adventure.

It's not a perfect story possibly because it has so much back story to get over. If you are familiar with the comic then you may find some of this boring, and it is pretty obvious what Dredd is up to as he appears to go rogue. But it's not a bad introductory piece, and it does feature brief appearances from Chief Judge Hershey and Max Normal. All this and it is available for free on the BBC site. 3 out of 5 Lawgivers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Big Finish - The Shadow Heart

The latest main range monthly release is The Shadow Heart, written by Jonathan Morris, directed by Ken Bentley.

The conclusion to the Drashani trilogy arrives and it is time for the Seventh Doctor to return and face the consequences of the actions of his earlier selves. In the last episode the monsters from The Burning Prince, the Wrath, were transformed into an intergalactic police force, but their programming seems to have gone wrong and now they are at war with the Earth empire. Meanwhile there is a price on the Doctor's head and he has to face the music for what he has wrought.

This is a big story that leaps from one world to another. Along the way it involves some roguish scrap traders, a heroic starship crew and a giant space snail! And on top of this it introduces the impossibly glamorous mercenary Vienna Salvatori, played by Chase Masterston, who is set to get her own spin off story. Several of the actors return from the previous episodes and there isn't a dud performance to worry about. It does sound like they all had a lot of fun recording this story. The production hits the usual high standards of Big Finish  I think I preferred the music in The Acheron Pulse but otherwise this story has the slight edge. It never quite hits the frenetic heights of The Burning Prince but not many stories do.

4 out of 5 astronomical ammonites for The Shadow Heart.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Big Finish - Patient Zero

Digging through the Big Finish back catalogue brings me to Patient Zero from August 2009. Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs with yet more Daleks!

The Sixth Doctor and Charley Pollard arrive in the mysterious Amethyst Viral Containment station, and their timing is not great because the Daleks are on their way. On top of that the Tardis seems to have picked up a stowaway, and then there are the enigmatic Viyrans. It's quite a heady mix for the Doctor who is also trying to solve the riddle of Charley's true identity.

Listening to two Dalek stories in a row was tempting fate for a disappointment but this was actually very good. Trying to figure out what is going on with Charley suits the Sixth Doctor's somewhat abrasive demeanour. And while he is kept busy by the Daleks and Viyrans, and has to ensure that a host of deadly viruses are not released on an unsuspecting universe, his enquiring mind means that things are set up quite nicely by the end of this story. The mystery continues and I look forward to the next instalment.

I have temporarily run out of superlatives for Nick Briggs' performances as the Daleks. I presume he does the Viyran voices as well, and they are equally impressive. Colin Baker and India Fisher spark off each other nicely, and the cast is rounded out with enjoyable turns by Michael Maloney and Jess Robinson.

It seemed like a short story after the sprawling epics of Love and War and Dark Eyes but I enjoyed it. A shorter review and a score of 3.5 out of 5 viral nasties.

Big Finish - Dark Eyes

The Eighth Doctor returns in Big Finish's latest special release box set - Dark Eyes, written and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

The Doctor arrives in the middle of a World War One gas attack. As ever all is not as it seems and soon he and a young Irish volunteer nurse called Molly O'Sullivan are on the run across space and time, pursued by the implacable Daleks, and trying to unravel a strange plot involving another rogue Time Lord.

Phew! After the disappointment of Love and War I really needed a good Big Finish story to restore my faith. Thankfully Dark Eyes delivers. It helps that it mainly focuses on the Doctor and Molly and their headlong dash across the universe. There is some back story involving the Time Lords but the story doesn't try to cover too many different plot strands. And, of course, it has the Daleks in it, which is almost guaranteed to keep me entertained.

Paul McGann continues to impress me with his natural performance as the Doctor. Ruth Bradley is nicely feisty as Molly and I liked the way she refers to our hero as "THE Doctor", and the Tardis as his "Tardy-box". Peter Egan and Toby Jones are great actors with fantastic voices and I hope they do more Big Finish stories in the future. Having recently watched some classic Doctor Who I know that the original Dalek voices were not as good as I remember them, but Nicholas Briggs makes them sound like they do in my memories, mechanical and menacing.

I had one or two reservations about the scripting of Molly in the first episode where there were a few too many Irish colloquialisms used just to make sure we knew she was a working class Irish chambermaid. I was worried that she was going to say "to be sure" at the end of every sentence but fortunately this settles down as the pace of the story picks up. The background noises and special effects were top notch, and the CD extras were much more interesting than Love and War, although they did include another Big Finish lunch anecdote.

Despite my minor quibbles this is a fantastic adventure which justifies the special release tag. 4.5 out of 5 steampunk screwdrivers. Recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Big Finish - Love and War

Hot off the presses this month is the long awaited Big Finish adaptation of Paul Cornell's Love and War.

There is an awful lot happening on a planet called Heaven. The Seventh Doctor is looking for a mysterious book, Ace is off falling in love, there's the strange Church of the Vacuum, some adventures in cyberspace, an evil fungal menace, and finally an attack of the Zombies! All this and the first appearance of Professor Bernice Summerfield. When Paul Cornell wrote the original novel for the Virgin New Adventures line back in 1992 "Bennie" Summerfield was introduced as a new companion for the Doctor, and over the years she has gone on to be an extremely popular character. She is a template for the success that Big Finish has had with introducing other companions such as Evelyn Smythe, Charlie Pollard and Lucie Miller. Summerfield also predates Lara Croft as an adventurous female archaeologist, which leads to a little in-joke in this production when she refers to herself as a "Tomb Raider".

I am a big fan of Paul Cornell's writing, particularly his work on Captain Britain, and the episodes he has written for new Doctor Who. I haven't read the original novel so I was really looking forward to this production which has been adapted by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Gary Russell. It comes on three CDs with the third disc featuring a couple of prelude pieces and lots of interviews with all the people involved. The story itself is split into two acts on the first two CDs. I did miss the usual four act structure with the episode ending leading straight into the musical scream of the theme tune, but that is just a minor niggle.

Instead let me start with some positives. Lisa Bowerman just inhabits the role of Bennie Summerfield. She has played the part for so long that it is difficult to imagine anyone else doing it. She also directs for Big Finish and she may even have written for them although the search function on their website makes it difficult to tell. Anyway, she has a long association with both the character and Big Finish, and she is very good here. The other actor who stands out in this story is Sophie Aldred. I confess that I have had problems with a few of her previous performances. She occasionally does that thing of hitting her lines a bit too quickly without giving her character the time to react to what has just been said. It makes the script sound more like a reading than an audio drama and it is something I have complained about before. I suspect that it is just one of those things that my ears are sensitive to. However, here she does a marvellous job as the younger version of Ace, the one from the television stories of the 1980s. She manages that actor's trick of making her voice sound young again in much the same way that Louise Jameson has been doing as Leela in her Big Finish stories. I didn't quite believe Ace's love story with Jan but that is more to do with the script than with Aldred's performance, which is very good.

And I'm afraid that is about it for the positives. I did enjoy the monster voices but apart from that this was a disappointment. Part of the problem was the weight of expectation. On top of that there was just too much going on and too many plot lines. Just when I was getting into the story of the Doctor and Bennie it switched to Ace and Jan, or into Cyberspace with a strange character called Christopher, or sitting around a camp-fire with a group of new age, Dalek killing travellers. Meanwhile the bad guys are doing whatever the bad guys do. And at the end the Seventh Doctor, the master manipulator, the Trickster God does ... well, he does something. I am not sure what it was but he wins, and everybody who is still alive gets a sort of happy ending and quite frankly I was bored.

Even the extra features were a let down. This may come across as bit of a jaded review but I am getting a little tired of hearing the actors talking about how everyone they work with is "lovely". I wanted to hear more about the story and the novel, or more about Professor Summerfield. They do sort of get to that eventually but first they have to remind us of how "lovely" it was, and how much fun they all had together, and what a splendid lunch Big Finish lays on.

It is strange that some of the Big Finish special releases that I have looked forward to hearing turn out to be a bit of a disappointment like Zagreus. And then something unexpected like The Burning Prince or Voyage to Venus can come along and really surprise me. As I said earlier it is the high hopes that may be the problem for me. Love and War gets a miserable 1 out of 5 fungal spores. My lowest mark yet. I hear good things about the new Unit: Dominion stories, maybe I should have gone for them instead?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Big Finish - Voyage to Venus

A bit of a bonus from Big Finish in the shape of a special release featuring the Sixth Doctor, and Messrs Jago and Litefoot in Voyage to Venus. And it's available to download for only £1!

It's embarrassing confession time again. I still haven't seen The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I know! I am going directly to Amazon and placing it on my wish list as soon as I have finished this review. Anyway here are two characters from that story that have spun off into some successful adventures with Big Finish. Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago are a pair of remarkable Victorian gentlemen played with considerable relish by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin respectively. Having previously encountered the Fourth Doctor here they are with number six and stepping into the Tardis for the first time. Before they can make the usual exclamations he has whisked them off to the far future when Earth is a dead planet and humans have settled on Venus. As ever there are strange events and a mystery, which our heroes can only solve with a fine bit of showmanship which links back to the Third Doctor and his adventures on Peladon.

Jago and Litefoot are very popular characters with Big Finish listeners and this is really their adventure. The Doctor is almost playing their companion, albeit one who can control their means of transport and offer them vital clues at critical moments. Baxter and Benjamin both have marvellous theatrical voices and use them to good effect both in the story and in the interview special features. I also enjoyed the touches of Victorian Imperialism and the use of Venus as their destination which reminded me of the science fiction of  H.G.Wells.

It's a short story which I listened to on download. I presume it is a single CD release which makes it the equivalent of a two part story. However it is the most entertaining Big Finish I have listened to since The Burning Prince. A very cheerful palate cleanser which gets 4 out of 5 Perigosto sticks. Now I really must start the Key 2 Time.

Big Finish - Fire from Heaven

Another 2000AD adventure from Big Finish - Fire from Heaven by Jonathan Clements, directed by Nicholas Briggs.

Johnny Alpha, Wulf and Middenface McNulty are on the trail of fugitive conman Oswald Mega, who is passing himself off as a prophet on a backwater planet. The bounty hunters are on their way but Mega has persuaded the locals that they are demons who must be destroyed at all costs.

I recorded this story from the BBC site using freecorder (ahem) and was glad to hear it again. There is some clever stuff involving time travel as a form of teleportation. Plus there are various bits of Strontium Dog kit which work with varying degrees of success, and the Gronk is in it, which is always fun. Pegg and Longworth are good as Alpha and Wulf but it's Mark McDonnell as McNulty who is the stand out in this adventure. Middenface McNulty has always been one of the more entertaining characters in the comics and his feisty Scottish humour comes out very well here with McDonnell giving a great performance.

Probably the best of the 2000AD adventures so far and you get listen to it for free at the BBC!

4 out of 5 Electronux and on to some more Judge Dredd.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big Finish - The Acheron Pulse

Hot off the presses with Big Finish monthly release 166 - The Acheron Pulse by Rick Briggs, directed by Ken Bentley.

So I haven't really been paying attention. I raved about release 165 The Burning Prince partly because it worked so well as a stand alone story. In fact it would make a very good jumping on point if you want to get into some Big Finish. However, it turns out that was just the first part of a mini series involving three of the Doctors and the Drashani Empire, and here is SawbonesHex picking up events 30 years since his last encounter with them. The warring factions within the Empire have been brought together but are now threatened by the mysterious warlord, Tenebris, and his powerful alien army, the Wrath. The Doctor is destined for a battle of wills with the villainous Tenebris which may decide the fate of millions.

This was always going to be a tough sell after the heights of The Burning Prince. In fact most of my recent Big Finish listening has seemed a little disappointing in comparison. However, Colin Baker is always entertaining to listen to, and James Wilby makes a suitably menacing villain with a mechanically enhanced voice as Tenebris. There is a surprise reveal that happens fairly early on and is not too surprising. Perhaps more unusual was what Rick Briggs did with The Wrath at the end of the story, which nicely sets up what is to come with the third part of the trilogy.

The sound effects are the up to the usual high Big Finish standard and the incidental music has that nice Hitch-Hiker's Guide feel again. It's all pretty good and I didn't dislike it, I just wasn't as excited as I was during the previous adventure. 3.5 out of 5 new blue coats. Next up will be a Jago and Lightfoot adventure.

Living the Low Life

With Low Life currently running in 2000AD it was good timing to pick up the first two volumes of Mega-City Undercover in a Cardiff comic shop recently.

As the name suggests these stories are about plain-clothes Judges from the undercover Wally Squad. First up is Lenny Zero written by Andy Diggle with art by Jock. Zero is a fast talking, undercover cop mixed up in sting operation aimed at a powerful gangster. There is also an alien bounty hunter on the loose, and another Judge with a score to settle with Zero. It's all delivered at a frenetic pace with lots of cool one-liners and shoot outs. Imagine a 2000AD story filmed by Quentin Tarantino and you get the picture. Jock's artwork perfectly suits the tone of the story and his use of heavy black shadows is particularly atmospheric.

Next Rob Williams and Henry Flint bring us a group of undercover Judges in the roughest and most deprived area of Mega-City One, the Low Life of the title. From the fast Pulp Fiction feel of Lenny Zero the tone switches to Sci-Fi Noir. The lead character Judge Aimee Nixon is a punk rock heroine with a robotic arm, she reminds me of Halo Jones but with more more violence. Nixon has to find out who framed her for murder while trying to protect her fellow Wally squad Judges from a hired assassin.

Rob Williams gives us a dark and twisted story with a serious tone and it's beautifully illustrated by Henry Flint. Andy Diggle's introduction to the first volume discusses how the original idea for his story followed the suggestion that Frank Miller draw a cover for the Megazine. That cover never happened but it doesn't matter because here Flint seems to be channelling the very best aspects of Miller's artwork. Characters meet in darkened rooms, or on moon-lit rooftops, and wear long trench-coats that hark back to Ronin or the expressionist illustrations of Sin City. In fact I prefer Flint's work here to anything that Miller has done recently, these pages are just beautiful to look at. Later on Simon Coleby takes over as artist and does a very good job with a classic 2000AD look for his Low Life stories, but Henry Flint steals the show in Volume 1.

Volume 2 continues with Rob Williams' Low Life but the stories start to shift away from Aimee Nixon and bring one of the supporting characters to the forefront. Dirty Frank is a Wally squad Judge who has been undercover for so long that he has become somewhat eccentric. In fact Dirty Frank is barking mad, with very questionable hygiene, an interesting way of referring to himself in the third person, and a rather familiar appearance. Rob Williams states in his introduction to the Low Life stories that it was Henry Flint who decided to make Dirty Frank resemble comics' most infamous beardy-weirdy Alan Moore. The switch from Nixon to Frank allows Williams to write stories with more of the characteristic 2000AD dark humour that drives their best creations. In the first volume Williams has Aimee go undercover as a fattie in what is supposed to be a funny story but it doesn't seem to work the way Dirty Frank does. Aimee Nixon is best as a serious punk rock Noir heroine. It's Frank that allows Williams to inject some comedy into the Low Life.

The second volume begins with Nixon investigating corruption in a dock workers' union. It is illustrated by Rufus Dayglo and his work if perfectly good but I missed Henry Flint. Then one of my favourite 2000AD artists D'Israeli takes over for a Dirty Frank tale involving Yakuza gangsters, laser wielding Samurai, and giant robots! By this stage Rob Williams has nailed the character of Frank. He gives us that 2000AD humour while at the same time being an almost implacable force of nature who just drives on against the odds in much the same way that Dredd does. D'Israeli's illustrations are beautifully detailed and my only slight gripe with these two books is the fact that artwork has been shrunk down from the pages of the progs to the standard trade paperback size. This is most noticeable with the D'Israeli art where I am sure there are details I am missing on the smaller page.

I can't leave off without turning on my internal medic-droid and giving these stories a quick medical once over. Let's leave aside Dirty Frank's dubious personal habits, or the effects of the designer drug "Creation" which features in one of the stories, and instead look at Aimee's robotic arm. This makes her incredibly strong, particularly in the scene where she lifts a large dock-side container off a crushed worker. This raises the same problem that I always had with the Six Million Dollar Man, namely what is the arm attached to? Surely the arm can only be as strong as the body it is fiited to? When Aimee lifts that container all the pressure is being transmitted through her normal human body. Surely the robotic arm would rip off or she would collapse under the force, either way I am not sure a bionic arm would let her do what she is doing in this panel. Fortunately the rest of the stories don't rely on her arm to do anything too superhuman.

Medical nit-picks aside these are two terrific volumes of 2000AD goodness. They are currently dirt cheap on Amazon (other booksellers exist apparently) or in your local comic store (if you are lucky enough to have one). I can't quite decide whether I prefer the Dirty Frank stories or the earlier beautiful Noir artwork by Henry Flint, but either way these are must-read collections. And especially useful to help understand what is going on in current 2000AD story lines. A rousing 4 out of 5 stars for Mega-City Undercover. "Dirty Frank says check these volumes out or it's Bye-bye, Mr Teddy!"

Big Finish - Trapped on Titan

All the way back from September 2002 Trapped on Titan was written by Jonathan Clements and directed by John Ainsworth.

Dredd has to go undercover as a criminal on the penal colony on Jupiter's moon, Titan. He has had a face change procedure so none of the perps will recognise that distinctive chin, and so the writers can get round him not wearing his helmet. Titan, of course, has special significance for Dredd because it was where his clone brother Rico was sent after he became a corrupt Judge. And much of the plot centres around the prisoners searching for the mythical Rico's rock which is seen as their ticket back to Earth. Before that mystery can be solved we get plenty of prison drama as Dredd tries to fit in and survive in a tough jail.

Toby Longworth still provides the best voice of Dredd there is, and there is a nice turn by Nicola Bryant as Judge Mordin. I didn't see what was coming with this adventure but it is another shortish Big Finish drama and doesn't quite meet the high standards of the Johnny Alpha story so 3 out of 5 legal Eagles for Trapped on Titan. Now for the latest Doctor Who release.