THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
The Axis of Insanity

Written by Simon Furman Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2004
Continuity Between Planet of Fire
and The Caves of Androzani

Starring Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and Caroline Morris

Synopsis: For the Doctor and his travelling companions, Peri and Erimem, the Axis is a twisted playground, where reality, morality and sanity no longer apply. Stranded within a dimensional nexus, beset by the molten fury of the Firedbreed, they must unwrap a terrifying mystery of damaged timelines and dark science... before the corruption of the Axis spreads and reality itself crumbles.


Reviews

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 22/5/04

It seems ages since we have had a stand alone, un-celebratory, story from Big Finish. With the 8th Doctor Season, 40th Anniversary special, villain trilogy - everything kind of ran together. The audios of 2003 were largely experimental, not traditional. And I think the range has suffered as a result. There doesn't seem to be the same excitement around anymore for DW audios. I suppose it is inevitable that the focus now shifts to the new TV series (which affected the 8th Dr audio stories recently negatively). I also suppose it is inevitable that after so many releases interest would wane slightly.

For my part I still think they are the best Who ever, with a brilliant story constantly emerging much more regularly than any other medium. The range thrived on standalone stories - that is what launched and sustained it in 1999-2000. I am glad that (for a few months at least) that is where we are at again. It kind of feels like a re-launch, but that is probably only within my own mind. Whichever way you look at it, it was time to press forward to great stories, with great actors (who are still wonderfully the Doctor).

Axis of Insanity is by Simon Furman. I knew I recognized the name, and it didn't take me long to remember where. I am a big fan of the DWM comic strips - and he wrote a handful of these back in 1986-1988. He was the writer who launched the 7th Doctor in the comic medium in Cold Day in Hell. Maybe because his comic strip writing credentials were on my mind, I couldn't help but imagine this in comic format throughout.

There is also the overwhelming shadow cast by Tides of Time, a 5th Doctor strip set memorably in a fairground. It all therefore got merged in my mind, and with comic strip writer, 5th Doctor, and Tides of Time locale - I felt I knew this kind of Doctor Who Story. This is a fantasy Doctor Who story, in the style and atmosphere of comic strip classics, such as Tides of Time, Voyager - and a few other Steve Parkhouse strips around that time. It is thanks to John Ridgway and Dave Gibbons that I could visualize this sound-only story so well.

I just love this audio TARDIS team of 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem. Big Finish have yet to create a bad companion (they are fairly racking them up too), and Erimem is slowly emerging as an incredible and brilliant long lasting traveller with the Doctor. Caroline Morris is brilliant again, especially in the last half, when she is alone with the Jester/Jarra To. Peri remains a fascinating character, if a little different from her TV character. She benefits tremendously, for having a mate - someone to interact with, and be all older-sisterly with. Many times here though I felt I was listening to Cordelia Chase out of Angel - and I liked that. Peter Davison is uniformally good in most things. His character is strong enough to stand on his own - but I would wager that Peri and Erimem are his ideal partners now - I can't recall any set of companions working better with the 5th Doctor.

Axis of Insanity features a monumentally manic performance from Garrick Hagon. What could have been a silly, over the top character, was a joy to listen to. The Jester, so much a feature of Carnival, holds the whole production together. Big Finish sound wizards also delve into their toybox of trickery, to produce a mass of sound - I was there, I was amongst the stalls, smelling the candy floss.

There are actually not too many characters in Axis of Insanity, but enough for the story presented. Apart from the Jester, only Jarra To and Tog are worthy of mention. Jarra To is a female Jester character - and Liza Ross tries to capture the Jester's madness - but I wished that Garrick Hagon was speaking those lines instead. Tog is one of many DW supporting heroes, someone harmed by the events taking place, someone willing to go the extra mile - to save the TARDIS characters.

It's the highest accolade I can give to Axis of Insanity, to compare it to the Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgway, Dave Gibbons Comic Strips in DWM. I had been waiting for this genre to appear in other types of Doctor Who. I didn't expect it on audio, but am totally entranced with how they pulled it off. It wipes the floor with the so-called superior stories of the 40th anniversary period, and stands as the best Big Finish audio, probably since Chimes of Midnight. Excellent in every department. 10/10


Bizarre brilliance... by Joe Ford 25/5/04

Big Finish and I have been having a rather precarious relationship recently owing to the fact that I have been unimpressed with much of their output for well over a year. With the climax of the latest McGann season sealing off any positive comment, I was prepared to stop buying the things all together. It would take something pretty bloody spectacular to win back this fan's devotion...

Balls and bugger it! The Axis of Insanity is just that, a near perfect Big Finish tale that echoes the glories of the past. It is certainly the best Davison tale to escape the audio company, edging past Spare Parts and Creatures of Beauty and being a damn sight more entertaining than much of his television tenure too. I mention words like flawless and perfect too often, I know, but stories of this quality encourage you to do so.

Simon Furman writes a rather nervous message in the CD cover but he should fear not, this is one of the best scripts ever written for Big Finish. It has all the elements that make Doctor Who work, an imaginative setting, a genuinely scary malevolent force, perfectly captured regulars, lots of wit and humour that mixes imperceptivity with the spooky stuff... the story flows easily thanks to the instantly quotable dialogue, just listen to any minute snatch of the story and I promise you will want to hear more.

I LOVE the idea of the Axis, as soon as the Doctor revealed the purpose of the place, a space where the Time Lords discard all their fucked up timelines (or as Peri beautifully puts it, their mistakes); I knew I would like the story. Just what horrors could exist in this axis of crapped on timelines? How much of accepted history have the Time Lords created, nudging all the bad stuff into their dustbin of mistakes? Of course all these negated realities have to regulated and maintained, the people made to believe that they are still living in the 'real' reality. For this important task we have the Overseer but his early death in the story leads to a new member of management to take his place, the hideously insane Jester who took his life... The real reason this is such a classic (Damn you all! I shall use the word classic! It provides a useful reference for those stories that are a cut above the rest!) is the Jester. What a brilliant, macabre creation. The performances from Garrick Hagon and Liza Ross are sublime, easily two of the best 'guest' performances yet and together they create a disturbing and hilarious villain for the Doctor and co to battle against. The story revolves around the Jester (or Jarra To if we're being accurate), his/her unpredictable moves drive the story unexpectedly, twists flying at you left, right and centre. It is one of those villains that is just on the verge of total madness that frightens you because they are so out of control and unpredictable; he/she spits out insults as though that were its language, takes delight in others' misery and yet remains in total control of events, directing them to a grand finish. He/she appeals because it appears to know the regulars better than themselves, dragging some electrifying reactions from them after a little prodding. You have never heard the fifth Doctor this wound up and Erimem loses her rag in spectacular fashion in the last episode. The Jester rises from the story as the most memorable character, a twisted, verbose and utterly chilling monster with a laugh that rivals Sil's in the 'try and copy it and fail miserably' stakes.

Well I feel a little sheepish about criticizing the fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem after listening to this. Mind you their last story together was that dreadful space opera Nekromentia which pushed them all into cliched roles. Under Furman's control this trio shines, I can really see the sisterly relationship Gary Russell was trying to build work and how brilliant they are at ganging up on the Doctor and getting their own way. They push a little too hard at times and he snaps uncontrollably, the real fifth Doctor asserting himself as the man in charge. The real coup is how well they all seem to get on; despite their giant cultural differences this is a TARDIS crew who actually enjoy each other's company and it helps no end to plant you in the story. They are genuinely fun to be around, in this story Erimem and Peri bicker amiably like real friends do and they learn much from each other, the Doctor the big know-all who shows off his knowledge of everything, Peri teaching Erimem to write and the Egyptian Priestess ready with her sword arm to protect her friends.

It is good to see such an engaging set of regulars because the story relies on their importance, unlike the companions during Davison's turn on TV who were often neglected, these three are at the head of the plotlines. As they explore the twisted world of the Jester we see each of them pushed to the edge and their true colours emerge.

Peri is not used nearly enough by Big Finish, Nicola Bryant is a vibrant performer and brings the plucky American to life with addictable vigour. There are some priceless Peri moments throughout Axis of Insanity, she is constantly on the run and her typically negative reactions as the dangers stack up are hysterical (at one crucial point she screams out "I hate my life!"). I like how she has taken it upon herself to be in charge when the Doctor is not about, Erimem is still very green when it comes to time travel and the young American slips from childish tantrums into a much more mature role. Peri shines with an assertiveness she never really possessed on TV.

It's another ace turn from Peter Davison who is blossoming into a fine audio Doctor given the right material. Just as Mike Morris has recently been given cause to rethink his opinion of Colin Baker's Doctor thanks to the audios, I too have had second thoughts about what I thought was a certainty, that Peter Davison is not suited to playing the Doctor. Give him some juicy dialogue, a real bad ass to fight against and let him lose his composure every now and again and blimey; there is a damn entertaining hero there! When the Jester needlessly kills the Overseer you really pay attention as the Doctor screams, "Damn you!" and his outrage at being lead a merry dance around the Jester's domain springs out of nowhere. Best of all is his speech about the Time Lords at the story's close, it is about time the Doctor (and a writer) addressed the issue of their fallibility, yeah they make mistakes but so does everybody and the universe would be a damn sight worse without them. His passion during this defence of his people, a race he too has condemned in the past, is the highlight of the story.

I wasn't sure about Caroline Morris at the beginning; despite her wonderful performances I wasn't sure where she could take this tricky character. Fortunately Furman diverts her from the Leela-clone she was becoming and gives her a powerful voice of her own. Whereas Leela was an unwilling pupil, eager for action you sense a stronger feeling of intelligence from Erimem, attempting to read (despite the lack of pictures!), cleverly duping the Jester and solely responsible for the happy outcome, brilliantly taking what scraps of information she was given early on and hunting out the second TARDIS. The whole issue of the Doctor treating her like a pet was very funny.

The story manages to hold a feeling of twisted reality throughout, a lot of stories try to delve into the surreal but are stunted thanks to a lack of imagination but Furman has been in the comic business too long for this to be a problem. He thinks up one fucked up situation after another (Peri should never have mentioned frying pans and fires!) and sustains the atmosphere of a deadly fairground to the climax. I very much enjoyed the fire breed monsters hounding the regulars' steps and how the setting fell apart chaotically, making things that bit more dramatic.

Tying up the story beautifully is the final twist of what the Jester is really after and all the answers surrounding that. There are hints of another story with other Time Lords that I would very much like to have heard. If the story feels a little anti-climatic it is only because so much of what has come before was so gripping.

It's the best release since Scherzo but given how different they were in tone I am willing to go as far back as The Wormery. Gary Russell's direction returns to form, lacking the tired nonchalance that has infected so many other of his recent productions and paired with Andy Hardwick's urgent music the production reminds me of the heights that Big Finish can stretch to when they pull out all the stops.

A twisted masterpiece.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 18/6/04

The main basis for The Axis Of Insanity seems to come from the realms of fantasy, a concept that when Doctor Who has indulged in the past it has been lagely successful. The basic storyline is that of damaged timelines, controlled in the Axis; however an escapee from one of these timelines breaks through bringing chaos with it. And it is here that the fantasy elements creep in, from the Jester to to nightmarish funfairs.

Simon Furman`s script may be cliched in this respect, but it does deliver on the characterisation, particularly of Erimem and the story also delivers on the acting front. There are nice touches such as Erimem learning to read here, however what makes the play truly memorable is Garrick Hagon`s portrayal of the Jester; a character so malign without being over the top that his presence makes the story enjoyable in its own right - a tale of order versus chaos. A new slant on a traditional story and one that succeeds on all counts.


Even if you don't prefer fantasy... by Mekel Rogers 23/7/04

...you'll still enjoy this one. I must admit to purchasing this one with apprehension as I've never really enjoyed the fantasy-based stories (Mind Robber, Celestial Toymaker, Greatest Show in the Galaxy), and although Axis of Insanity is a very different story, it is most assuredly told in that same style.

But it is rather good.

Firstly, its nice to finally have a standalone adventure that we all can enjoy without having to link the plot to three other prior releases. Secondly, the guest cast is fantastic, particularly Garrick Hagon as the evil Jester. Thirdly, the concept of the Axis is brilliant, adding a unique element to the cliche' carnival setting, and finally, the regulars are all on top form, blending together nicely to make an effective TARDIS team.

Several dialogue triumphs are peppered throughout the story, including the Jester explaining to Erimem that the Doctor's companions are all pets, Peri's stressed out "I hate my life!" line, and the WONDERFUL, MAGICAL, BEAUTIFUL speech by Peter Davison in episode four about what it means to be a Time Lord. It reminded me fondly of Harnell's speech in episode four of The Massacre. Great stuff.

Oh, and the explicative "Damn you!" at the end of episode one?!?!? Yes, it was well acted by Davison, but someone remind me where in the entire 26 year run of Doctor Who did ANY Time Lord, much less the Doctor, use profanity. Okay, okay, if we want to make Who more adult, fine, but it just seems out of character.

The speech in episode four more than makes up for it.

Bottom Line: Even if you don't like fantasy, give this one a chance.


A Review by John Seavey 7/3/06

Entertaining, but insubstantial. Large chunks of the story are given over to the "Insanity" part of the title, as the villain and his remaking of the Axis achieve a sort of generic "woob woob woob look we're KA-RAZY!" sensibility that you only see every three weeks or so in comics. (For the most part, the Jester himself comes across as a sort of Joker-wannabe done in the voice of Futurama's Robot Devil.) In between all that, there's a decent enough plot, although there's still no real explanation of how Jarra To broke out of her dimensional prison, and why she decided to unleash her inner Joker clone. Both actors who play the male/female aspects ham it up pretty equally, which is at times fun and at times irritating.

The regulars vary from "excellent" (Peter Davison, who recognizes a great speech towards the end when he gets it and nails the material spot-on) to "average" (Caroline Morris, who does her usual Erimem schtick) to "woeful" (Nicola Bryant, who over-emotes every line, perhaps in the hopes that we won't notice that her American accent is slipping pretty badly the entire time.)

On the whole, it's a sort of workmanlike piece of Doctor Who entertainment.