Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.4: The Beautiful People by Jonathan Morris (February 2007)

"If you have to manufacture beauty, it ceases to be beauty, because beauty is not about artifice. It's about the idiosyncrasies of nature." 

Lalla Ward had already spent 2004-6 playing President Romana in Gallifrey, which has naturally seen the character evolve quite considerably as she is weighed down by the responsibilities of office. But, just as there is a difference between the broody Jack Harkness of Torchwood and the cheeky fun-loving Jack Harkness as he returns to Doctor Who, for this story Ward is Romana as she was in her light, frothy, care-free Season 17 days (immediately after Nightmare of Eden, apparently), with Jonathan Morris on hand to provide a fun (and at times rather clever) script that has been positively marinaded in Douglas Adams' trademark wit and ingenuity (Romana II, K9 and a bottle of bubbly on the cover - of course it's a Douglas Adams tribute act, and more on that anon). Like Adams and Russell T Davies both often do, Morris gives us a space-faring satire of a very current concern: more specifically, The Beautiful People is a satire about dissatisfaction with one's body image, set as it is in the 32nd-century Vita Novus* Health Spa, which is offering a weight loss therapy programme to help you become a completely new person. As this story's Chapter One title suggests, this seems 'too good to be true'.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.3: The Blue Tooth by Nigel Fairs (February 2007)

The Blue Tooth works as a bit of a curio in several ways, which is one of the reasons both it and Frostfire are successful and Fear of the Daleks is not. For one thing, it has the inevitable draw of being a UNIT v Cyberman story, with Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor going up against a foe he never properly encountered on screen (a few minutes hiding behind a rock for the 1983 reunion party doesn't count). For another, it is set in surely the most unusual and distinctive run of Pertwee stories: Season 7. But finally, it is told by Dr Elizabeth "Liz" Shaw, a companion with one of the shortest runs on TV but nonetheless one of the most popular and fondly remembered. We never saw her actually leave the Doctor (or indeed UNIT), with something of a time jump between Inferno and Terror of the Autons, one which different writers have filled in at different points. The Blue Tooth explicitly sets out its stall from the opening as being set after her enigmatic departure, or at least its framing device is, with an older Liz looking back at one of the pair's adventures. These three aspects combine to make it something of a rarity, then, rather than "very like other Doctor Who stories you've heard before" as was unfortunately the case with this audio drama's immediate predecessor.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.2: Fear of the Daleks by Patrick Chapman (February 2007)

Does anyone know how Patrick Chapman got involved with Doctor Who? He's an Irish poet and co-founder of a literary festival. Seems a bit of an unlikely 'get', even though he has written some kids' television (for Irish channel RTÉ). Cool person to have on board. It's such a shame that, on the basis of Fear of the Daleks at least, he writes pretty poor Doctor Who. It's not outright wretched, it's just very familiar and doesn't really bring anything new to the table. There's some quite nice world-building here, in parts (cinnamon-fish! Aliens with two mouths!), but for the most part Lavonia, a neutral asteroid city with a protective dome and air-cars, is a pretty bland setting. The technobabble nearly sent me to sleep. The plot is quite thin: mad scientist wants to sabotage a peace-treaty, turns to the Daleks, gets double-crossed by them. The rote feeling to proceedings means that it's very hard not to see listening to the story as something of a wearisome chore: you know exactly what's going to happen, and thus there's almost zero tension. As for Wendy Padbury's reading ... it's fine. It's not brilliant, it's not terrible, though quite a long way behind Maureen O'Brien's work on Frostfire; her impressions of the Doctor and Jamie are almost non-existent. The production is much more generic and bland than that of Frostfire, as well, which feels like quite a step back, and the music fails to make a dull story more exciting, as it's clearly trying to do: it just ends up irritating. Bah, humbug.

The Companion Chronicles 1.1: Frostfire by Marc Platt (February 2007)

In 2007, after eight years of Doctors 5-8, new Doctor Who stories with the first four Doctors became available for the first time. As we all know, Messrs Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee are sadly no longer with us, and Baker the First was as yet unpersuaded. Big Finish got around this via the unique format of character-centric Companion Chronicles, each a narrated audio-book told by a key character from the Doctor's past. Not just 'straight' readings, though, as they each feature a guest star voice, music, and sound effects to make the story immersive. But the narrated aspect obviously makes them much more intimate affairs than your usual full-cast audio dramas. More like diary entries. We see the story, in a manner of speaking, through a single pair of eyes (itself already an interesting conceit) as much as we hear it through one pair of ears. It's like a conversation between the narrator and us ("I'm so glad I've got someone to talk to," as the narrator says here). We get the companion's point of view, their narrative, in that it is entirely focussed on them: the perfect opportunity to develop and flesh out under-served companions, or those who maybe deserved more (something Big Finish has, in its time, been terribly good at). The first in the entire range - and thus key for setting the 'tone' of what these Companion Chronicles could achieve - was Marc Platt's Frostfire, performed by Maureen O'Brien as Vicki Pallister, and it is a joy.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

"The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden" (2013) by Jonas Jonasson: A Review

The Swedish journalist and writer Jonas Jonasson has become something of a smash hit in recent years, mostly due to the popularity of his bestselling novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared (2009, though it didn't appear in English until 2012). He followed this up with The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden in 2013. I haven't yet gotten round to Jonasson's debut, but I certainly will be doing so if it is anything like the follow-up. 

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a tremendously tightly-plotted, outrageously funny novel. It's not quite an outright farce, but Jonasson clearly knows how to use farce to great effect. There is no other writing skill quite like the careful crafting of farce - it's incredibly hard to write, and even harder to write well without it seeming forced. Farce, as a literary form, essentially revolves around comic misunderstandings - that is to say, failures in communication between people (which is why so many farces involve letters, phone calls, texts, emails and the like going wrong: because it's just an irresistible plot device). As I say, that isn't quite what Jonasson goes for, though there is a particularly funny part where a cockup in the post means that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres receives twenty pounds of antelope meat instead of a top secret 3-megaton atomic bomb. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.8: Human Resources Part 2 by Eddie Robson (August 2007)

The manner in which Eddie Robson handles the Cybermen here (pun intended) makes Human Resources their best Big Finish outing after Spare Parts. It becomes clear that, after Mondas was destroyed and the Cybermen were forced to leave, one delegation ended up on Telos and the others on a new world: Lonsis. The emphasis on them as almost homeless refugees just looking for somewhere to live (they even chose Lonsis for its "unimportance and the lack of other life", which seems remarkably considerate) is again in keeping with the idea of humans as the expansionist power who have come along and stirred up trouble for nothing. And, for instance, the Cyberleader gets to ask the Doctor a pointed question here which is phrased almost childishly, in such a way that it makes you think they might have a point: "why do you offer your help to other creatures unconditionally but oppose the Cybermen?" The Cybermen being at their lowest ebb in many ways brings out their most interesting qualities (e.g. in Spare Parts). It can make them more determined, more dangerous, more terrifying. Because they have much less to lose. 

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.7: Human Resources Part 1 by Eddie Robson (July 2007)

Human Resources has an impressive and elegant start in the form of this first half; it's grand in scale in a way that in some respects echoes NuWho finales. It opens with the stakes already high and plans having already been set in motion - Lucie has been kidnapped and the Doctor, TARDIS-less, must go and get her back. But it's also the story which this whole season of Eighth Doctor Adventures has been crying out for all along, and is now so much better for including: showing Lucie Miller in her day job. The normality of her, in her work clothes, sitting down at a desk on day one of a new job at a firm in Telford is exactly what the character needed. Okay, sure, it's a fictitious firm in Telford that's actually under the purple skies of the planet Lonsis (a mere detail!), but the point is that for a while we see in her a very 'normal', domestic milieu. Mornings that drag; the need for cigarette breaks; crab paste sandwiches from a vending machine. With a sympathetic co-worker, endless meetings, and a hopelessly on-trend manager who's just a bit too flirty. And this milieu grounds her marvellously.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.6: No More Lies by Paul S. Sutton (June 2007)

"If there's no way of getting round something, you've just got to plough straight through it."

Nick Zimmerman's favourite phrase, spoken on two memorable occasions over the course of this story, might almost be a guideline for the Doctor Who novice: "if the plot doesn't make sense to you at first and there seems no way to get your head round, keep trying". But it actually reflects the fact that No More Lies doesn't "plough straight" at all, but rather in an erratic and fragmented manner which luxuriates in going round, above, up, down, forwards and backwards. It takes place in two chronotopes: the domestic sphere (as domestic as we can call a posh garden party mansion) and the space opera (the Tar-Modowk ship up there in the heavens). It's an archetypal instance of smashing two genres and worlds together and seeing what happens. On screen, we'd focus on quite how different the two look - you can imagine the difference in lighting hues - but here of course the important thing is that they sound distinct. Composer Tim Sutton helps matters enormously, again, by providing some really strong music cues: there's a few great moments where we segue from the Tar-Modowk ship to the garden party but the same piece of classical-sounding music is overlaid over both. This blend of time-jumping, depressurising spaceship with genteel and elegant country house grounds combines two worlds so thoroughly alien to one another that they couldn't possibly sound much more different than they do (compare the grunting Orc-like voices of the Tar-Modowk and the refined, crisp, upper-class English gent tones of Nigel Havers, who is - incidentally - exactly the sort of actor you get in to play this sort of thing).

Friday, 1 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.5: Phobos by Eddie Robson (May 2007)

Phobos has lots of good things going for it: a strong core concept in doing a story about fear rather than just knowing how to use its effects on your audience, a cool setting with some interesting world-building, and the premise of marrying extreme adventure sports and the resulting adrenaline rush with Lovecraftian horror you should actually be afraid of (particularly nicely paralleled, without relying on dialogue, in the scream at the start which transitions into an exhilarated whoop of joy). It's also by Eddie Robson, who has proven himself adept at writing intriguing, surreal stories like Memory Lane as well as tightly crafted and affecting little one-offs like Urgent Calls. It's got some good actors giving some good performances and the direction is decent. So, yes, there's lots of promise. Unfortunately, this is more like Robson's other, weaker contribution - I.D. - than it is his better work: great ideas, and some good individual moments, but it doesn't quite live up to its potential, in part due to a disappointing conclusion and spending more time on exploring the setting than on its best idea, namely 'the Entity of Fear'.

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.4: Immortal Beloved by Jonathan Clements (April 2007)

Immortal Beloved, the fourth release in this season of McGann audios, sees scriptwriter Jonathan Clements swapping Modern China for Ancient Greece as his key influence. Because this release is absolutely soaked in Greek mythology: Ares, Zeus, Hera, Ganymede, you name it (and the next story, pleasingly, is called Phobos). But we are not in Ancient Greece or Mount Olympus as it might first appear, but rather a 34th century colony world, Caleva, reliant on all sorts of cod-classical language to describe its technology: "chariots" (helicopters), "magic wands" (guns), "the Casket of Healing" (medical supplies), "the Chamber of Incarnation" (a hospital), "the Portal of Cleansing" (a decontamination chamber), and "ether trumpets" (walkie-talkies). All very Erich von Däniken - literally in the case of the idea of Chariots of the Gods. Other planets and civilisations with connections to Earth mythology are relatively commonplace in the Doctor Who universe - and why not? Mythology is one of the richest, most imaginative, and most copyright-free wells you can draw from. Simply put, you'd be mad not to draw from it at some point. Which is why it's not a surprise that plenty of science-fiction does: also unsurprising, given the leanings of science-fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, is the fact that stories of a mythological bent are frequently about tearing down those who set up their own illegitimate authority in the name of gods or, as with Zeus in this story, keep others under their thumb by pulling the wool over their eyes (a logistically-difficult-sounding mixed metaphor). "He speaks of concepts and ideas we've not permitted outside the palace for centuries": good!