I have an ambiguous response to the audio plays of Big Finish, it’s safe to say. I have listened to most of the audios in the main Doctor Who range over the last 15 years and lately I’ve found them more enjoyable than the screen adventures of grumpy doctor Capaldi.
However, I feel the company’s desire to capture the broad appeal of the tv series is slightly disconnected from its drive to recreate the flavour of thirty -or -forty year old family sci-fi.
Exhbit A is the Fifth Doctor Box Set. This comprises two plays that reunite the Season 19 team of Tegan, Nyssa and Adric for the first time since 1982. This assemblage is seemingly the reason for the, er, boxing of the set since Matthew Waterhouse is the last 80s companion to sign up to Big Finish performances.
Adric was a petulant and unlikeable lad and, I’m sure Waterhouse would agree, played with meagre skill. His claim to fame is ofcourse being blown up in Earthshock. Perhaps here the nostalgists want to give the maths geek more to do than eat, whinge and sigh.
The first play in the set is Psychodrome by Jonathan Morris. Waterhouse delivers a breathy, fluting performance which sounds almost like the Adric of 30-odd years ago but is just unlike enough to jar, somewhat. However, the soundtrack is incredibly faithful to the sound of 1982- a Radiophonic suite of burbling, bleeping synth pieces.
The Davison Doctor Tardis team wind up on a spaceship where their fears and insecurities are made manifest- the other characters in the story are exaggerated symbolic representations of their personalities. It’s a character study with a rather predictable, ah, masterly, cliffhanger mid-way through but one that’s still quite satisfying.
John Dorney’s story Iterations of I, the second play in the set, is set a little later in Season 19, on a remote Irish island where a scientific project has unleashed a predatory sentient number.
I really enjoyed this atmospheric and imaginative ghost story. The 1980s setting – evoking bulky PCs with green, glowing graphics -was easy to visualise. In fact, I could imagine Iterations as an adult sci-fi serial on BBC1 in the vein of The Nightmare Man or even Day of the Triffids. This spooky adventure redeemed the navel-gazing fantasy of the first serial.
Big Finish revisited another era with less success, I feel, with its Philip Hinchcliffe Presents box set. This is the second such set for Tom Baker’s Doctor. The brief to solicit story ideas from the producer of the Fourth Doctor’s legendary “Gothic Era” seems to have arisen from the reception to that fiest box.
I didn’t find much to enjoy in The Foe From The Future– the story that transmogrified into The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Essentially, they are both about megalomaniacs from, er, the future who rant in grandiose fashion and commit grisly acts.
The Ghosts of Gralstead retells that same story all over again, this time with a female antagonist- Mordrega, a brain-munching alien ,who is something of an Elephant Woman-style attraction in Victorian London.
However, although it’s the third blinkin’ outing for this scenario, I actually enjoyed it more. It was very atmospheric as I listened. walking to work past the benevolent pile of Anderson’s Care Home on black December mornings. There are lashings of gallows humour and an evocative shift of locale to the plains of Africa. Leela has a romance with a native chieftain and Tom gets to snarl at the cannibal villainess. The apocalyptic climax of the story is described in dialogue but nonetheless, it was more entertaining than the second play.
The Devil’s Armada is set in the time of Walter Raleigh and features an exciting sea battle and an explosive cliffhanger on a “hell burner” . However, it’s also largely about the persecution of witches and Catholic priests and has a ludicrous satanic villain called the Vituperon.
We’ve already seen the Tenth Doctor bawling at the Beast on tv and Paul McGann’s murmured at demons on audio. Similarly, witch hunts and giggling imps have appeared in other Who stories in print. It all felt tired and overfamiliar and, where Gralstead gets away with it with its bravura characters, Armada is more earnest and dull.
It frustrated and disorientated me to hear the very recognisable Beth Chalmers playing two roles in the play since I associate her with the Raine Creevy character in the Sylvester McCoy plays. The Hell-dimension of the Vituperon was far less interesting than the seafaring setting and the witch-haunted village was tedious.
Tom and Louise are charming and aimiable companions on audio; happily, they sound more like their tv “selves” than Davison and Waterhouse. But I’m looking forward more to the upcoming Tom/ Lalla Ward collaborations and seeing if they can capture the vim and insouciance of the Douglas Adams era.
After the festive season, I’ll be looking at the third box set in the Dark Eyes series and the spin-off collection, The Worlds of Doctor Who ( which I won in the DWM competition, excitingly!) Also coming up in 2015: Multiversity, Don Heck and the Captain America movie serial.
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