Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Big Finish - Blake's 7 - Warship

This is a spoiler for what is to come later this year on the British Invaders podcast but Big Finish has just released their first full cast audio adventure for Blake's 7.
Warship by Peter Anghelides, directed by Ken Bentley.

I remember watching Blake's 7 when it first came out and enjoying it. I don't think I ever saw the last series as that was broadcast while I was at university with no TV, and I haven't gone back and looked at it since. I was vaguely aware that there was a mysterious gap between the second and third series when the crew of the Liberator led the defence against an invading alien fleet. When the third series started the Liberator was severely damaged and some of the crew had disappeared including Blake himself. This story fills that gap and explains what happened to Blake and the rest of the crew.

It's a single CD story and zips along fairly quickly. In fact it resembles a single 50 minute episode of the original television show which is entirely appropriate. Most of the original cast are there and most of them do a very good job of reproducing their younger voices. In particular Paul Darrow still sounds like Avon and Michael Keating doesn't seem to have aged at all. Jacqueline Pearce's Servalan does sound older and I know that Pearce has been unwell recently. I hope she recovers completely and is able to make more of these full cast audios. Servalan remains one of my favourite all time villains and I would love to hear more of her clashes with Blake and Avon in the future.

Alastair Lock has done a fantastic job with the sound design and got to use loads of the original sound effects from the BBC archive. He also does the voices of Zen and Orac and reproduces Peter Tuddenham's performances perfectly.

I really enjoyed Warship and if you were a fan of the original show you really should pop over to BigFinish.com and check it out. It gets a standard by 4 star rating from me.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Big Finish - The Wrong Doctors

Bang up to date with the latest Big Finish monthly release - The Wrong Doctors by Matt Fitton, directed by Nicholas Briggs (does he ever sleep?)

This adventure fits in somewhere after the Sixth Doctor has said his farewells to Evelyn Smythe and is moving on to his meeting with Mel Bush (Bonny Langford) in her village home Pease Pottage. Except there's something wrong with time, Dinosaurs roam the golf course and the Women's Institute are dealing with an invasion of alien business consultants. And into this mix comes another version of the Sixth Doctor and an older, wiser incarnation of Mel. Time is unravelling and it will need two Doctors and two companions to put it right again.

I know nothing of Bonny Langford's run on Doctor Who on television and I think I've only heard her in one previous Big Finish production, The Juggernauts. Somewhat like Tracey Childs in Unit: Dominion Langford comes with a slightly dodgy 80s reputation but actually she's fine on radio. I could have done without her singing but that's what she is best known for and it seems unlikely that Big Finish would pass up on the chance for her to stretch her vocal cords. Mel doesn't seem at all annoying and while I haven't warmed to her yet she certainly didn't bother me.

Colin Baker is hit and miss with me at the moment. Sometimes he is on imperious form and others times his Doctor just seems a bit of an obnoxious bumbler. He tries to give us both versions here but I confess I couldn't tell them apart and as often happens with a timey-wimey type story I got a bit lost in the twists and turns. I'm still waiting for a main range release that will match the frenetic heights of The Burning Prince.

The supporting cast are fine, I particularly enjoyed Patricia Leventon as the commanding leader of the WI. Matt Fitton's script tries for lots of verbal word-play and Spice Girls jokes about Mel A, Mel B & Mel C, but it all fell a bit flat for me. The sound design includes several strange background beeps and electronica which stood out to me for the wrong reasons. I wasn't sure what they represented and they distracted me from the story.

All in all a bit of a disappointment really. 2 out of 5 flowing cravats. Hopefully the rather marvellous titled Spaceport Fear will do better.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Big Finish - Unit: Dominion

This was the third of Big Finish's special release box sets from the end of 2012:
Unit: Dominion by Nicholas Briggs and Jason Arnopp, and directed by Nicholas Briggs (he's a busy chap).

I'm going to use the synopsis directly from the Big Finish website here. The universe stands on the brink of a dimensional crisis – and the Doctor and Raine are pulled into the very epicentre of it. Meanwhile on Earth, UNIT scientific advisor Dr Elizabeth Klein and an incarnation of the Doctor she's never encountered before are tested to the limit by a series of bizarre, alien invasions. At the heart of it all is a terrible secret, almost as old as the Time Lords themselves. Reality is beginning to unravel and two Doctors, Klein, Raine and all of UNIT must use all their strength and guile to prevent the whole of creation being torn apart.For a lot of the time we have two stories going on here. 

We all know that Sylvester McCoy has been in New Zealand for a long time making The Hobbit, and has only been available for brief periods of recording with Big Finish. So he is off stuck in another dimension with Beth Chalmer's Raine Creevy for the first half of this drama. This leaves us focusing on Dr Klein and another future version of the Doctor played with flamboyant relish by Alex Macqueen. There's also a Unit sergeant called Pete Wilson who gives us the ordinary person's point of view and also provides a human interest angle as his wife is about to give birth and his duties keep him away for her.

There's all sorts of strange creatures and trans-dimensional incursions as Unit struggle to save the Earth and there's also a big reveal which was a great surprise (for me anyway). But you know what was the best thing about this? Elizabeth Klein. What is it about Klein's character that makes her so interesting and enjoyable to listen to? She has so far appeared in five Big Finish stories including this one. She's combative and forthright in her views and rather abrasive. She started out as a Nazi scientist, although this version of her is unaware of her past due to the Seventh Doctor's meddling. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) all this she is absolutely fascinating. The actress Tracey Childs is best known for being in a rather dire 1980s soap opera but her vocal performances here are just marvellous. Big Finish has had to create some memorable recurring characters of their own but I believe my favourite so far is Klein.

Having said that she is given a close run for her money by Alex Macqueen's new version of the Doctor with his "Hello, you" catchphrase. His petulant and snobbish dealings with Unit reminded me of Jon Pertwee's rather arrogant third Doctor. It's all done with great panache and although the trans-dimensional story can get a little confusing at times the great characters and performances more than compensate.

I enjoyed the music by Martin Johnson and would also pick out Alex Mallinson for his cover art, and for doing a pretty convincing American accent in one of the smaller parts. My only criticism of the sound design was that there was too much radio sound effect when characters are speaking on walkie-talkies. I think we got the point that they were speaking over the radio and the effects could have been toned down a little so we could hear the dialogue easier. However minor quibbles aside this was a terrific box set from Big Finish and I am glad I finally gave in and bought it before the price went up.

This matched the heights of Dark Eyes and gets 4.5 out of 5 giant floating heads Excellent stuff.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Big Finish - I Love Judge Dredd

Let me fit in a quickie review before getting to Unit: Dominion.
I Love Judge Dredd by Jonathan Morris, directed by Jonathan Clements.

The synopsis is that Dredd has reluctantly agreed to be followed around for 24 hours by a TV journalist and then interviewed on his chat show. Dredd deals with a number of cases and it is not too much of a surprise when we learn that they may be connected in some strange way.

Toby Longworth is again excellent as Dredd and Nicholas Briggs has great fun as the sleazy TV host Tark Pastry. The production cracks along quickly, and the music and sound design are great.

The big problem is that one of the cases involves a former disc jockey and television celebrity who lives with his mother, the "Duchess", and has a particular way of speaking. That was probably quite funny when this was released in 2002, but now in the light of the revelations about Jimmy Saville it is all a bit unfortunate, and it rather casts a shadow over this story.

It is a shame that an otherwise good Big Finish audio play has been soured by recent events but that's the news cycle for you. Probably best to give this one a miss for a while. Normally this would get about a 3.5 but only 2 out of 5 boot knives currently. You can still listen to this one for free at the BBC website, until they realise and take it down as part of their current climate of guilt and retribution.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Big Finish - Relative Dimensions

Another Eighth Doctor adventure from the Christmas sales: Relative Dimensions by Marc Platt, directed by Barnaby Edwards.

Let me get another quick Eighth Doctor review out of the way. It's Christmas again but this time the Doctor and Lucie Miller are planning a celebration meal in the Tardis and there are some very special guests coming, the Doctor's grand-daughter, Susan Campbell, and her son Alex. Once again best laid plans go awry as the Tardis seems to have picked up a very fishy stowaway and they keep catching glimpses of the Doctor's future self battling for survival.

This is a bottle episode with its small cast trapped within the Tardis. It's fairly amusing listening to Lucie struggling with the Turkey and all the trimmings in the galley, while Susan and the Doctor catch up on old times and discuss Alex's future. But is all a bit small canvas again. And the mystery of the brief appearances of the Doctor wearing a survival suit and wrestling with the trans-dimensional fishy foe is no great puzzle. We know that he will eventually have to don the strange outfit and deal with the intruder.

So we are left with the performances of the four cast members. Sheridan Smith is effortlessly funny and enjoyable. I really sympathised with her efforts to get the Doctor to pay attention to her warnings, an often pointless task for a companion as is the case here. There is the neat twist of having Paul McGann's own son Jake play Alex and he acquits himself very well. His dad, on the other hand, sounded somewhat bored in this drama. Most of that is down to the script but do I catch hints that McGann was losing interest in the character at this time? Thank heavens for the re-vitalisation that Dark Eyes has given him.

That just leaves Carole Ann Ford returning to the role of Susan which she played nearly 50 years ago in the very first season of Doctor Who. I know she has done some previous Big Finish stories but this was my first encounter with her and I had the same problem that I had with her slightly stilted performance on television. It is somehow very 1960s with her perfectly clipped dialogue and speech patterns. Acting has moved on and become much faster and looser. I suppose it suits the character of Susan but it bothered me when heard next to the more natural sounding Smith and McGann.

One more negative point was, again, the lack of a break in the story. There was a perfect point half-way through for a break, cliff-hanger and the theme music but there was obviously some deliberate production decision not to do that for this series. Possibly because they were also being packaged for broadcast on Radio 4 Extra?

My least favourite of my Christmas presents so far. 2 out of 5 Dimension hopping fish monsters. However something much darker is coming up for the Eighth Doctor. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Big Finish - Death in Blackpool

Another Christmas sale present to myself: Death in Blackpool by Alan Barnes, directed by Barnaby Edwards.

The Eighth Doctor returned for the start of his fourth Big Finish series with this seasonal story featuring Sheridan Smith as companion Lucie Miller, and all she wants to do is get home for a traditional family Christmas in her home town. But events conspire to leave her fighting for her life while the Doctor has to deal with some loose ends from a previous adventure and the Zygon who fell to earth.

This is one of those trapped inside stories where the Doctor and his companion adventure in a psychic landscape. It is also a single CD like the rest of the Eighth Doctor adventures. Strangely It doesn't even split the story into two parts but just trots straight on to the end. Surely all Doctor Who fans love a cliffhanger leading into that famous electronic scream of the theme music? It is one of the features that I enjoy in the four parter monthly releases and I missed it here.

On the plus side Paul McGann continues to impress me as the most naturalistic of the actors currently playing the Doctor for Big Finish. I'm not sure if I can choose between him and Peter Davison as my favourite incarnation at the moment. Their recent outings in Dark Eyes and The Burning Prince are my pick of the best releases from 2012.

Meanwhile what more can I say about Sheridan Smith that hasn't already been covered in all the Sunday colour supplements. She is flavour of the month on stage and screen and still manages to come across as a likeable and plucky girl next door in the Tardis

On the down side it is rather short and self-contained and lacks the broad canvas of something like Dark Eyes. It is possible that listening to the Eighth Doctor adventures would require a slight adjustment in my expectations. Not bad for my £2.99 in the sale but not one of my favourites. McGann and Smith lift it from a middle of the road score to a just above average 3 out of 5 Blackpool illuminations.

Big Finish - The Hound of the Baskervilles

This was one of the cheap titles I picked up in the Big Finish Christmas Sale:
The Hound Of Baskervilles adapted by Richard Dinnick, directed by Nicholas Briggs and Ken Bentley.

So Big Finish do lots of other stuff besides Doctor Who. Time and money prevents me from dipping into their other ranges but £2.99 for a Christmas download was too good to pass up. So here is Mr Big Finish himself, Nicholas Briggs, as a suitably intellectual and supercilious Sherlock Holmes, ably assisted by Richard Earl as a likeable and intelligent John Watson.

The story is so familiar that I won't trouble you with my usual synopsis. Suffice it to say that this is the adventure where Holmes disappears completely from the middle of the story and the weight of the investigation, and the telling the tale itself, falls on Dr Watson. Richard Earl is well up to the task, I don't know if I have heard him in any other Big Finish plays but he impressed me here as he makes Watson a thoroughly dependable and likeable companion. Samuel Clemens as Henry Baskerville, John Banks as Dr Mortimer and Barnaby Edwards as Stapleton are also all very good.

This is a great production of a rollicking good yarn. In fact the performances  direction and sound design are so good and the story so familiar that it left me contemplating some of the mysteries of Conan Doyle's original novel. What is Holmes up to on the Moor? And why does he take so long to intervene when he has clearly worked out what fate awaits the last of the Baskervilles? Sherlock Holmes is rather like the Doctor in this respect, he always understands far more than he is willing to let on until it is almost too late. Interestingly Watson even describes it as one of his friend's few "failings" in this tale.

I had forgotten what happened to the villain at the end of the adventure, which intriguingly sets up the slimmest possibility of a Big Finish sequel. Anyway a terrific tale well told by my favourite audio adventures company. 5 out of 5 Spectral Hounds. Perfection

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Big Finish - Voyage to the New World

Another Big Finish special release featuring the Sixth Doctor, Jago and Litefoot. Voyage to the New World by Matthew Sweet, directed by Ken Bentley.

The Doctor and his Victorian companions travel to America in 1590 and tackle the mystery of the lost colony at Roanoke. They all get separated in traditional fashion and have to talk their way through angry settlers, native Americans and a strange wasting disease that reduces its victims to wraith like spectres.

I didn't really enjoy Matthew Sweet's story The Magic Mousetrap so I was not sure if this would keep me as entertained as Voyage to Venus. However he has tackled a fascinating true life mystery and managed to give it that distinctive Doctor Who flavour. I liked how he brought in the various facts about the disapperance including the strange word "Croatoan" which was found carved into a tree at the sight of the former colony. He also seems to have a complete grasp of the Jago and Litefoot characters, which is probably not surprising as I gather he has written for their own Big Finish series.

And it is Jago and Litefoot who again steal the show with the remarkable theatrical voices of Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. They even outshine Colin Baker and I missed them whenever they were "off stage". After these two short adventures I am tempted to dip into the Jago and Litefoot series but I still have a large backlog of Big Finish to get through. Maybe something to buy at Big Finish day 3 when both actors are due to be in attendance.

I am always impressed whenever I hear Matthew Sweet talking about popular culture on the radio and I am glad to say this was a much more enjoyable story from him. It gets the same 4 out of 5 Victorian Frock coats as the other Voyage story. Recommended