Commenters unite: you have nothing to lose but your anonymity! Okay, some of you have read a few pieces by me before, but I thought two voices were better than one, so lured another McGann Fan into joining me to review the latest Big Finish starring the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker), and Helen Sinclair (Hattie Morahan).
Join Colin Burden and myself as we escape from Kaldor, watch out for the Krampus, and confront the Eleven…
Escape from Kaldor
Bar Nash-Williams: Everyone loves Robots of Death: the gorgeous opulence of an art-decodent society, threatened by calcified class structure and needing help with a worker’s revolt, as inspired by someone with serious parenting issues. Any encounter between the Doctor and denizens of Kaldor has to be good, right? Well, not necessarily, because what we really love about Robots of Death is the interplay between the Savage, the Metal Man (“please do not throw hands at me”), and Tom (“you’re not as dumb as you look, are you, D84?”)
So is Escape any good? The soundscape is: the restaurant music going distinctly off as Liv hears the Voc; the moving-while-talking dialogue keeping a momentum up during infodumps; the loud demise of one of diners trumpeting the incoming chaos…
They paint the background with pretty broad brushstrokes – fierce class division, the ethic-free Big Corporation (listen to when Posca disowns, then reclaims the robots), the powerless protesters, the arrogant oligarchy, the bored rich kid. But there are nuances in how the Doctor responds to all the main players, human or robot. The crisis caused by two ill-thought-out software updates is all-too believable, but that’s not what the story’s about. It’s about family. The strength of friendship between Liv and Helen makes sense here, not just because of what they’ve been through together, but because of stuff well before then. Helen’s recent experiences make her kind but authoritative (especially when dealing with frightened people), which flows naturally here.
Regular readers know I love Liv – I am the first to champion Chenka. But I’m not keen on exploring her past, her family. It’s too close to the soap stuff I abhor in NuWho. Okay, as background to her personality I can take it, but kept to a minimum. The way they leave it at the end of this story, we may have much more to come.
The regulars play it well, the Doctor’s having fun in a less-than-universe-threatening situation, and the guests are okay, but not massively memorable. The most fun guest character was the Maitre’de at the restaurant, clearly on secondment from Milliways. Shame we saw so little of him.
Colin Burden: I’ve got Doctor Who fatigue. I was disappointed with Series 11, and Big Finish are releasing so many Who spin-offs and are putting River Song in practically everything. In a strange way, I find myself longing for the days where any kind of Doctor Who was on drip-feed because it was all that more anticipated and special. Less is more and all that.
However, Eighth Doctor releases are always special; well, the Fourth Doctor ones too, but the Eighth Doctor releases are the only sets of which I buy physical copies, despite him taking that wrong turn in Holby City hospital.
I won’t hear a word against Eighth Doctor releases; they are all wonderful. All of them. Except Other Lives. Therefore, I can only put my response to Escape from Kaldor down to the fatigue I mentioned earlier.
I have never been a fan of multiple companions in Big Finish’s Doctor Who. Some of the best relationships between Doctor and companion have been a one to one: Charley Pollard, Lucie Miller, Evelyn Smythe… you get my drift. Therefore, I was a bit perturbed when Liv Chenka was joined by Helen during Doom Coalition. Admittedly, some of the resulting stories worked – gloriously, Absent Friends – but it doesn’t in Escape from Kaldor.
The problem is, Helen has taken the Doctor’s place in this story. It would usually be the Doctor accompanying Liv to the Complex and be in the thick of the action; not join-in towards the end. This is underlined when the character of Tula turns up; Helen seems to become surplus to requirements.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is mostly relegated to the office of the Kaldor Company, and making topical comments about the social impact of robots taking people’s jobs.
But then I had a second listen and I was forced to re-evaluate: the story had to be structured like it was because this was a one-disc story. For the Doctor/single-companion to tell the same tale, it would have needed to be longer to get all the elements in place. Fair enough, but I still stand by my original preference of the one-companion set up.
But despite all that – and fatigue notwithstanding – I still enjoyed it. At its heart, it’s a base-under-siege and I’m a complete sucker for those. Plus, I rather liked the ending.
Bar Nash-Williams: If I have a gripe with this one, it’s the fact that there are very few of the memorable, funny lines that usually litter the stories from this particular team. The easy, almost sibling sarcasm and bickering between Liv and the Doctor always works; Liv’s a more world-weary, angry but funny Donna. That relationship takes a back seat here so the ‘sort of sisters’ thing can develop with the female leads.
An undemanding story to begin part two of four box sets, but I’m glad the pace picks up next…
Better Watch Out/ Fairytale of Saltzburg
Colin Burden: Firstly, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way. In nearly every Big Finish Doctor Who, whenever one of the main characters is grabbed by a guard, baddie, or monster, they always shout something like “get your hands off me!” It appears three times during these two episodes. Stop it.
Now that’s out of the way, I can now heap praise upon this festive piece! Better Watch Out/Fairytale of Saltzburg was glorious. I didn’t get to listen to this before Christmas; I really wish I had as the Christmas market scenes would certainly ignite that warm holiday feeling. I’ll put that right next December; on the 5th to be exact.
I did grumble, previously, about the multiple companion set-up, but here it works. Everyone has something worthwhile going on, no-one is stealing anyone else’s place, and nothing seemed like padding. Could that be because this a two-disc piece? Maybe, but it didn’t waste time getting into the action and this, like Escape from Kaldor, was a fast mover.
Bar Nash-Williams: ‘Brace yourselves; prepare for the Wurst’ – honestly, it’s funny in context, trust me on this. Most of the humour consists of gloriously terrible puns. Personally, I think this is the best of the four parts. It’s a Christmas overindulgence in its richness of story, film, and tradition. A Glühwein-fuelled sleigh-ride through Scrooge, Buffy Series 2’s Halloween (“be careful what you wish for”, cultural re-enactment gone wrong), and two other famous Christmas stories I won’t mention as it would spoil the whole plot ending for you.
As a Christian priest, I won’t fault the theology, especially the Bishop and his appalled reaction to the human creation of fire and brimstone preaching, though the sugary happy ending depends on one person changing because of it… Bah, humbug. Watch out for the other reference to carrot and sticks; lovely little bit of writing there.
Colin Burden: During Better Watch Out, the Doctor is largely missing. Liv and Helen must save the day while the Doctor and most of Saltzburg are in Hell. Thankfully, we are spared any scenes of Damnation. From a religious point of view, that’s pretty much the worst thing one could possibly imagine.
I have to say, it was rather refreshing for the narrative to be respectful of Christianity in these cynical times. But then, it does follow a trend: the Eighth Doctor has previously defended religion as something that can provide comfort. And it is Christmas.
Inevitably, there are lots of Christmas references to spot throughout, but a special mention for the nod to Morecombe and Wise.
Bar Nash-Williams: The sound changes from jingling bells to jangling discords as the evil leaps joyfully on the scene, though the imps’ chipmunk voices are a bit silly, and it needs a bit more menace as Doctor and Bruno watch his city burn. The Eighth Doctor’s uncompromising ‘this is your fault’ is one of those uncomfortable moments: you realise you don’t know the Doctor half as well as you think you do.
It’s a bit ‘enthusiasm soup’ in that John Dorney, my favourite Big Finish writer, put everything he’d got into it, but I love it. I laughed, pondered, and was totally drawn in. Lovely interesting timey-wimey structure. Oh, and much as I adore Mr McGann’s velvet vocals, don’t let him read you a bedtime story…
Colin Burden: Something did occur during the latter demon/Krampus scenes in Better Watch Out: I discovered that my high-end Sennheiser headphones are not up to the job. There was a magnitude to the sound that my headphones couldn’t quite provide justice to. Could this be because I was listening via a download copy on my computer and not a CD? That’ll be me off to the nearest hi-fi specialist.
Bar Nash-Williams: Then we come to Fairytale of Schmalzb-, sorry; Salzburg. This is where it gets a bit overblown. ‘Help me, Obi Wan Bishop; you’re our only hope’. That’s unfair of me; it’s a fairytale; the clue’s in the title. Except the way they blame Bruno is dark, and probably not helpful to anyone whose life is shadowed by suicide. The hungry poor family come across as a bit caricature, but mostly the guest actors do their best here, as you try to choose who’s really to blame. Siân Phillips, as the Pilgrim, is my favourite star turn here though, carrying her side of the story alone and powerfully.
There’s a good contrast in the soundscape between this and the previous cheerier half. Silent Night in the background of the tempting of Maria is apt, as it was written in Austria. The music becomes relentless as carnival turns to chaos; the underlying noise increasing like the drill volume in Inferno is effective, as is the ringing of the bell as the Bishop gives his final (slightly clunky) speech.
Colin Burden: Of course, the ending was wrapped up nicely – minor spoiler alert – although it wasn’t so much deus ex machina, as sanctus de arca.
Come on! It’s a bit spoilery, but I’m not going to manage such a humorous high-brow comment as that ever again!
Bar Nash-Williams: The earthquake opens the fires of Hell – except that you know the genie is going to be put back in his bottle. Even as you’re beginning to believe there’s some threat, the dialogue makes a point of removing tension. The mix of fairytale and chaos spawns elements of farce as they all wait for a miracle, and I can’t say their ‘hell’ totally convinces. But Nicola Walker never gives an unconvincing performance, and her passionate demand at the end just about saves the day for me, though it’s Helen’s quest and dedication that the plot relies on. I like the continuity that the Doctor fails to pick up on the reason for her altered appearance.
Maybe other fans have ideas about who the trickster really was, though I prefer that it’s left open to interpretation. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first half, the resolution’s a bit predictable and strung out. As a Christmas set, they’ll never replace Chimes of Midnight, but this one finally got me to like Helen; there are two fun descriptions of the TARDIS you won’t have heard before; and two of the team claim to be angels.
Bar Nash-Williams: “Fake it ’till you make it; it’s either that or screaming.”
The Christmas fairytale is followed by ghost story which makes you want to look up the classic one the Doctor recommends. Though it’s audio, it all ‘looks’ so much darker than the other three. The menace here is not the defeatable fairytale-monster of parts 2 and 3; the laughs are gone and at one point the Doctor replies to his friend with the dark authority so missing from the Thirteenth Doctor. How good it is to hear that alive and kicking!
Colin Burden: The last story, Seizure, from this largely wonderful boxset oozes an atmosphere of doom throughout. Answering a distress call from the Eleven was never going to end well, but here he isn’t the main baddie. That shouldn’t be a spoiler, by the way – just remember what the boxset is called.
Now, I made the mistake of listening to this while washing my car. To properly appreciate the atmosphere, I should have been indoors, in the dark with a cup of tea.
Bar Nash-Williams: I’m not sure the reunion with the recurring foe is handled as well as it might be; after the ending of the last boxset, he gets off a bit lightly. And while we’re on recurring characters, I don’t think writer, Guy Adams gets the regulars’ voices as well as Dorney. The Doctor’s telepathic troubles with the TARDIS aren’t enough of an excuse.
The new foe, though, has potential – sold through the TARDIS and both her owners’ paralysis through fear, and through the complex variety of screams. And if you’ve missed cliffhangers, then the very last word of the set will put a grin on your face.
We’re at midpoint of the Ravenous season, and it’s only just appeared: the complex long plot of Doom Coalition is absent here; more of the stories stand alone. I look forward to seeing how that plays out in the concluding two sets.
Colin Burden: Seizure reminded me of three previous stories. Firstly, the Eighth Doctor/Charley story, Scherzo, especially the sequence where Liv is bombarded with the pounding noise. That nearly made me drop my sponge.
Scherzo was also one of the few times where the Doctor admits he is scared as he does in Seizure. For me, the Doctor getting scared, or at least struggling, adds to the doom. Post-Ninth Doctor, we’re so used to an invulnerable Doctor; never showing fear. If the Doctor is scared and prone to panicking, then we must be in trouble. Here, it’s that bad. Even Liv gets scared.
Secondly, and inevitably, I was reminded of Matt Smith’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, but that doesn’t matter; there haven’t been that many lost-in-a-TARDIS-based stories.
Lastly, the Ravenous eating Time Lords reminded me of another Eighth Doctor story: Zagreus…
Nevertheless, Seizure is the best of the set. Even with its shorter running time it’s got a break-neck speed, is properly scary, has a minimal cast keeping the story tight, and that belter of an ending.
For a while, it shook me out of that fatigue I mentioned earlier.
I gave Seizure a second listen, in the scenario that I described above. It was even better the second time around. I’m very much looking forward to Ravenous 3.
Oh… River Song? Again?
Ravenous 2 is out now from Big Finish, priced £40 on CD or £35 as a download.