|Starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy|
|Synopsis: An overview of the first half of 2007's releases.|
Nadir (Though Thankfully Not Permanent) by Stephen Maslin 12/10/14
Before "going off on one" about the beginning of Big Finish's five years in the Slough of Despond, let me say that, starting in 2012, they have staged an admirable recovery. For a few more details about that rising from the ashes, see the postscript to this review. But first. . .
Take a look at the pages of this noble website, specifically those listing audio adventures; more specifically still the number of reviews for each story in the first few years of Big Finish producing Doctor Who audio dramas. At time of writing (and assuming my maths is correct), they average out, year by year, as follows:
1999: average number of reviews per story = 8.00
2000: average number of reviews per story = 8.33
2001: average number of reviews per story = 7.42
2002: average number of reviews per story = 6.92
2003: average number of reviews per story = 7.15
2004: average number of reviews per story = 4.83
2005: average number of reviews per story = 3.31
2006: average number of reviews per story = 1.46
2007: average number of reviews per story = 0.23
Notice anything? Well, decline, obviously, but why?
The novelty of Who on audio wearing off?
Overshadowing by the new TV series?
The 'Old Guard' becoming disillusioned with the franchise?
Fandom changing from 'actively critical' to 'passively smug'?
It is quite possibly all of the above but it is also due to a lack of interest reflected in a lack of fulfilled expectations. Big Finish's alluring cover designs and gosh-and-golly teasers had failed to deliver more often than they had satisfied. To put it simply, the product was no longer as good as it had been.
There exists no better proof of this than the half dozen or so releases of the first half of 2007 which (again, at time of writing) get no reviews at all. (A clue to just how intimidated the producers were with the success of new-Who on TV is that part of the 2007 CD booklet re-design involves a panoramic fold-out , just in case our powers of imagination fail us while listening. It is of a piece with the never-ending music on 21st TV Who telling us how to feel. In both formats, we were no longer deemed capable of thinking for ourselves.) With the honourable exception of Valhalla and three excellent one part mini-stories, Big Finish releases 92 through 97 are very poor fare indeed, poor enough to bring the need to review such things to a dead stop.
Written by Dan Abnett
Released February 2007
Starring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier
Synopsis: On the human colony planet Nocturne, there is suffering and blight, tragic symptoms of an ages-old war. Never the less, Nocturne is also one of the Doctor's favourite places in all of time and space, because it is here that a late, great flowering of human art - the High Renaissance - is taking place. He has been back here many times. It is a place of music and art that he finds inspirational and uplifting. It is a place he wants to share with Ace and Hex. It's always been a safe haven for him, a world of friends and laughter. But with strict martial law imposed on the front-line city, and the brutal scourge of interstellar warfare vicing the system, how safe can anyone really be? There is a note of death in the wild, midnight wind...
Nocturne manages not only to be both idiotic and dull but also supremely hubristic. We're supposed to be on a planet devoted to the arts (a place the Doctor finds "inspiring and uplifting"), which is being ruined by BAD PEOPLE. Yet if the little of those arts that we hear (or see - the CD cover is utterly grotesque) are so awful, then one has to question not only the Seventh Doctor's taste, but finally agree that a brutal dictatorship really is what's needed. Or maybe the whole sorry place being blown out of the sky. High Renaissance, my arse! Seriously, if you're referencing the Renaissance (capital R, 15th century) and, by implication, all the glories that it produced, you are setting the bar way too high unless you can get Josquin des Prez to do the music and Raphael Sanzio da Urbino to design the cover. (They're both dead by the way.) The words of the great Philip Hinchcliffe should be ringing in your ears: "Can we do this?" The answer is obvious: no. Choose a planet devoted to stamp-collecting next time; you'll have far more chance of making that plausible.
Recommendation: stick your fingers in your ears and run away!
Renaissance of the Daleks
from a story by Christopher H Bidmead
Released March 2007
Starring Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton
Synopsis: a random landing in London and a trip to the Savoy Hotel yield unexpected results for the Doctor. Tea, scones, an American general who knows far too much, and the threat of a Dalek invasion of Earth. Meanwhile, the Doctor's companion Nyssa is in Rhodes during the time of the Crusades, where her position proves to be distinctly precarious. It seems the Doctor's deadliest foes have woven a tangled web indeed. And in order to defeat them, he must cross the forbidden barriers of time and walk into the very centre of their latest, most outlandish scheme of conquest.
On the 17th of August, 1982, the first compact discs were released to the public in Germany. Having been with us for three decades or so, CDs are already passing into history. Christopher H Bidmead may be gratified to note that his contributions to Doctor Who on TV (Season 18 as script editor; Logopolis, Castrovalva and Frontios as writer) have yet to do likewise. One doubts whether Renaissance of the Daleks will experience the same longevity. To be fair, it has a truly unusual premise and starts really well, with both settings and set up promising much. Alas, somewhere between Mr Bidmead's commencing writing it and the finished script making its way onto CD, the story has been taken to bits, so much so that the man who did not script-edit Meglos out of existence could not bring himself to put his name to it. There is the seed of a really good yarn but there is so much to cram in, not least a great deal of work done bringing in a blizzard of temporary companions (including a character that seems to have been written for Tegan), who then all romp off in different directions to fight for our attention, none succeeding. The end result is a shambles and that's a real shame: it could have been really good.
Recommendation: switch off the CD player and go and watch Castovalva.
I.D. & Urgent Calls
Written by Eddie Robson
Released April 2007
Starring Colin Baker
Synopsis: I.D. (A Three-Part Story)
In the 32nd Century, the Doctor finds himself on a planet piled high with discarded computer technology. Picking over these remains are an army of Scandroids, a collection of unsavoury, illegal Data Pirates and a team of researchers from the mysterious Lonway Clinic. This is a world of organic-digital transfer and 'personality surgery' which the Doctor finds disturbing enough, until something far more deadly starts to emerge.
Synopsis: Urgent Calls (A One-Part Story)
Earth, 1974. An innocent phone call. Okay, it was a wrong number, but there can't be any harm in that. Can there?
Eddie Robson is a really good writer but I.D. is dull. Yet the companion piece, Urgent Calls, is a clever, even charming little vignette, perfectly suited to Colin Baker's Doctor.
Recommendation: meditate on Hexagram 9 of the I Ching.
4/10 (I.D.), 9/10 (Urgent Calls)
Exotron & Urban Myths
Written by Paul Sutton
Released May 2007
Starring Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant
Synopsis: Exotron (A Three-Part Story)
On a distant colonial outpost of Earth, a group of terraformers is under threat from the planet's most fearsome predator: the giant carnivorous Farakosh. All that stands between the colonists and a grisly death are the Exotrons - huge robots equipped with devastating firepower, designed by the outpost's leader, Major Taylor. But all is not as it seems. How are the Exotrons controlled, and where did the colonists find the resources to build them? The Doctor wants answers and Taylor is reluctant to provide them. Meanwhile, outside the compound, the Farakosh are massing...
Synopsis: Urban Myths (A One-Part Story)
In an expensive restaurant somewhere on Earth, three gourmets plan their evening. First item on the menu: the death of the Doctor.
Paul Sutton is a really good writer but Exotron is dull. Yet the companion piece, Urban Myths, is a clever, even charming little vignette, perfectly suited to Peter Davison's Doctor.
Recommendation: meditate on Hexagram 9 of the I Ching for a little longer.
4/10 (Exotron), 9/10 (Urban Myths)
Written by Marc Platt
Released June 2007
Starring Sylvester McCoy
Synopsis: Welcome to Valhalla, Capital of Callisto, Jupiter's premier moon, where anything and everything is up for sale. But Valhalla isn't quite what it says in the brochures - not since Earth granted independence and cut off the supplies. The former Doctor (FOR SALE. EXCELLENT CONDITION) visits the Job Centre and finds power cuts, bar-coded citizens and monthly riots (ALL BOOKABLE.) And then there's the problem with the termites. . .
At last! Six long months since the last wholly convincing Big Finish release (The Year of the Pig), Valhalla manages to do what none of the other stories here could do: make me give a shit about the characters on show. Sadly, it's the last half-decent story for quite some time. A good cast (notably Michelle Gomez and Fraser James) and good sound design really help, as does Sylvester McCoy sans-companions: we get less of the "Time's Champion" nonsense and more of the likable eccentric with hidden depths (a Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith speciality, when he's given the chance). There's a minus mark for the termites' civilization seeming a little bit silly but the sense of tension is sustained right to the end. Very satisfying.
Recommendation: write Marc Platt a thank you note (but ask him what the hell went wrong with The Skull of Sobek and Relative Dimensions).
The Wishing Beast & The Vanity Box
Written by Paul Magrs
Released July 2007
Starring Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford
Synopsis: The Wishing Beast (A Three-Part Story)
What can it mean when the Doctor and Mel are drawn to an asteroid by a message from the strange, elderly Applewhite sisters? The travelers are promised that they will receive their dearest wishes when they enter the frozen forests of this benighted shard of a world. But the ghosts that haunt this place are desperate to warn the Doctor about the sisters' promises. Only the ghosts know the true nature of the legendary Wishing Beast.
Synopsis: The Vanity Box (A One-Part Story)
A strange beauty parlour has opened its doors for business in a dowdy Salford terrace circa 1965. Monsieur Coiffure is the talk of the street with his fabulous make-overs. When the Doctor arrives, however, he knows at once that there's been some unnatural titivation going on.
Once more we have a one-part companion piece, The Vanity Box, as the support band blowing out the main act; genuinely funny, with Toby Longworth as Monsieur Coiffure on top form. (His accent, Northerner-Pretending-To-Be-French, is exquisite.) Sadly, you have to listen to the whole of The Wishing Beast to fully understand it and The Wishing Beast is atrocious: not scary, not atmospheric, not funny, not even mildly interesting, and show-casing, once again, the writer's ubiquitous Grande-Dame fixation. Bonnie Langford is brilliant with what little she has to work with, but Jean Marsh and Geraldine Newman's performances as the Applewhite sisters are frankly embarrassing.
Recommendation: find another hobby.
2/10 (The Wishing Beast), 8/10 (The Vanity Box)
* * *
What the worst of these stories do - and what is most unforgivable - is that they are merely "bad". They are not "classically bad": the total absence of any joie de vivre means you cannot even exult in their awfulness. Compare that with, say, Time and the Rani, a story so preposterous, so energetically daft, as to be truly worth reveling in. Everyone in Big Finish 2007 was trying much too hard for gravitas (with the only stand-by alternative up their sleeve being 'camp and nasty'). And, as if this pitiful array of po-faced drivel wasn't bad enough, just around the corner was the even more awful Frozen Time (1/10), followed by the utterly unbearable Absolution (0/10). You would have thought that a story that got rid of C'rizz would be a surefire winner - the Earthshock of its generation. You'd be flat wrong.
Happily, after five years in the doldrums, Big Finish somewhat regained their mojo in 2012 by the simple expedients of a) reigning in their own self-indulgence and b) giving the punters what they wanted. Some might call the latter "playing to the gallery", though one might more properly call it "fully understanding the customer base". Take just a few examples. The initial installment of Dark Eyes (starring Paul McGann) was a huge improvement on the mistakenly yoof-centric Eighth Doctor Adventures (and the casting of Alex McQueen in a significant adversarial role will, I think, prove to be a master-stroke). Having Tom Baker on board (at last) has helped the company profile no end (and though The Fourth Doctor Adventures have been patchy at times, they are an immense step up from the utterly abyssmal Nest/Quest/Crest box sets from BBC Audiobooks). The decision to dramatize certain key novels from the past (notably The English Way of Death and Love and War) is a brilliant conceit and, after a shaky start, The Lost Stories have blossomed and flourished. Oh, but there's more: Bernice Summerfield has now been brought firmly back into the Doctor Who fold, Gallifrey has not only refused to die but maintained its uncanny appeal and Charlotte Pollard, the companion who left us far too early, is back, back, back. Hell, even the monthly range has picked up enormously, so much so that one can once again recommend this revitalized institution to other people without looking like a dick. Pick of the bunch for many are the lovely Jago and Litefoot stories, but all of the above are exactly what Big Finish should be doing: rather than trying to be all hip and trendy and TV-without-pictures, they are once again playing to their strengths and trading on nostalgia (and all the better for it).