|Synopsis: The continuing adventures of the fifth Doctor and Nyssa.|
A Review by Stephen Maslin 11/10/11
There is an unwritten shorthand amongst Doctor Who fans regarding the word 'season'. The term not only refers to a group of stories aired one after another but also to a certain feel. Something within or without the canon can be referred to as, for example, "very Season 7" and any old-school Who fan will instantly know what that means, without necessarily being able to put it into words. The word 'season' refers to the style of a set of stories, just as much as it does to when they were made.
If one does not include the Eighth Doctor, Season 19a (the first group of Big Finish audios set between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity) is as close as Big Finish have come to a proper, classic-era 'season'. By that, I mean one that slots neatly into the 26 year line-up of what we are now forced to refer to as 'Classic Who'; whose stories run concurrently, which sit snugly in an-inter season gap and which exhibit a certain continuity of style. There are better sets of stories, no doubt. Yet if one takes almost any other audio story from the range, one either has to break an existing season in two and shoehorn it in (Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem stories or Seventh Doctor and Mel stories, for example) or shrug one's shoulders as to where the hell it goes (the vast majority of Sixth Doctor stories exist somewhere during The Trial of a Time Lord, or just after it... No, that can't be right... Sorry, no idea.) One also has to contend with the wildly differing styles of stories that, in theory at least, follow each other. (Where stories were in relation to the original TV run was something Big Finish were very keen to stress in their early days. Perhaps aware of the difficulties that posed, they gradually tended to shy away from assigning each story a definite place.)
Unlike its televisual 'predecessor' broadcast in 1982 (undoubtedly Davison's best season, almost certainly the best of the 1980s vintage and surely top ten or even top five in anyone's list), Season 19a struggles to remain long in the memory, even allowing for its being sound only and twenty years after the fact. We have a first story so lacking in confidence that the company saw fit to print a map on the inside cover, followed by the French accent from hell meeting the Scottish accent from hell. There's an Audio Visuals rehash and a sequel to The Keeper of Traken, the whole rounded off by one of Big Finish's first misguided forays into 'adult'. There is, however, one notable pinnacle.
Land of the Dead (123a). Big Finish story four, in fact. The previous couple of releases had set a pretty high standard, Phantasmagoria especially so, but this was surely the one to tickle most fans' fancy. The Fifth Doctor with Nyssa (rather than Turlough)? Ah, the memories (and perhaps even the pre-adolescent crushes) come flooding back. Should be pretty good. Well, there's a problem, summed up neatly by the phrase "the ways of our people". To hear such words at all, worse still with a North American twang, is to shudder at the prospect of bad accents, all-too-visible internet research and tedious familial angst. Please, spare us the feud between traditional and modern. Yet hearing Land of the Dead again for review purposes, it isn't at all bad. Full of what one might expect (the rape of the land, the nobility of native cultures... yeah, been there, ate the sandwich) though saved by a good villain, some pretty effective, er, effects and an alien menace that cannot explain itself in English. 6/10. Ignoring the different formats (and very unfair comparison), how would each tale from 19a fare against its TV counterparts, in this case Castrovalva? Well, TV wins this one, not because of having pictures, but because of what it does with them. To be honest, neither script is what one might call sparkling but Castrovalva stands out, even now, for its highly unusual ideas and intriguing design. One-Nil to TV.
Winter for the Adept (123b) aka 'Braveheart'. All right, not remotely like the film biog of one of Scotland's greatest heroes, save in one respect: that of casting and its relating to appropriate voices. The lesson to be learned is this: when the script says 'Scottish' get a Scottish actor. Simple. There are lots of them about (especially in the London area). Likewise French actors. Why alienate one's fan base north of the border (or the few that might be from south of the channel) and have their disbelief unsuspended every time said character opens his (or in this case, her) mouth? (Actually, 'Braveheart' in two respects: The Doctor does of course use the phrase: "Brave heart, Alison.") Accents apart, Winter for the Adept is pretty good. A little over-written at times ("You saved me" - we know!!) but with a pleasant air of Christmas ghost story about it and unlike Land of the Dead, feeling much more like a proper audio story. (We are helped no end by the first, and thankfully not the last, appearance of India Fisher.) The most charming of the first half dozen Fifth and Nyssa audios. 8/10. Four to Doomsday v Winter for the Adept? Here the audio story is by far the stronger: Four to Doomsday has always struck me as terminally disjointed, the overall concept grand enough but the direction flat with a lot needed to pad it out into four parts. W4tA is much more tightly written and has a lot of memorable set pieces. One-All.
The Mutant Phase (123c). Early on in their Doctor Who range, Big Finish seemed bedevilled by a lack of scripts. (Later, they were to be cursed by a surfeit of product, the end result being pretty much the same.) Obviously, Nicholas Briggs was there to step into the breach, keen to resurrect some of his favourite Audio Visuals stories to help out. That being the case, one might as well have started with this one as with any other (though Sword of Orion and Minuet in Hell were just around the corner). The Mutant Phase may have been great shakes in those cassette-bound days but, after only fourteen Big Finish releases, what we have here is yet another Dalek story, their third in a year (and nowhere near as good as either The Genocide Machine or The Apocalypse Element, to which it is superficially linked). There's a whole lot of stuff crammed in (and when I say a whole lot of stuff, I mean we are in kitchen sink territory here: killer wasps, satire, a cyborg sheriff, references to the The Dalek Invasion of Earth... and that's only the first few minutes). Credit where it's due, the script is quite clever; very busy to begin with though pretty soon it's rather fragmentary and episodic (and more than a little portentous: almost every short scene ending with yet another unanswered conundrum). The music and sound design is pretty good too and, in terms of authenticity, The Mutant Phase also scores highly bur only in that the Daleks are a bit rubbish; to such an extent that I am unsure as to whether we should be exulting at the vanquishing of an implacable foe or feeling sorry for the poor sods. (Thankfully, the Daleks were to be given a well-earned break, giving them time to recharge their batteries for 2002's splendid Time of the Daleks.) When all is said and done, however, TMP comes across as Who by numbers. 3/10. Kinda v The Mutant Phase? No contest. Kinda is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking stories Doctor Who has ever produced whereas The Mutant Phase is just another overly convoluted Dalek story. Two-One.
Primeval (123d). 1981's The Keeper of Traken was hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff, nor bursting at the gills with wit and joie de vivre (with Tom Baker at arguably his most gloomy). Yet it was stylish and well put together and is rightly remembered for its visual impact as much as for its bizarre reboot of the Master. Primeval is not only a follow-up to TKoT, but also mirrors it. Short on action but with a good villain; well put together but with a rather prosaic script; fine cast in both cases and respective Doctors on fine form. Primeval is also, like its forebear, rather a melancholy experience and at times a little slow. Not bad by any means but hardly a classic. 6/10. The Visitation &/or Black Orchid v Primeval? In spite of the unconvincing rubberiness of the Tereleptils and the recording of Black Orchid being by all accounts a thoroughly wretched experience, they are two stories that I would not want to be without. Even had Primeval come from that era, the result would be the same: Three-One to TV.
Spare Parts (123e). I defy anyone to try and explain to a non-Who fan why Spare Parts is as good as it undoubtedly is. Even without all the backstory and authentic detail, SP is still a fine piece of work. Atmospheric, moving and beautifully put together; part of Big Finish's 'Miracle Year' and head-and-shoulders above any other non-Eighth Doctor tale of that glorious time. With the knowledge of the show's history that Marc Platt weaves into his bleak little tale, one is left agog that he achieves something so compelling and we have the icing on the cake provided by Nicholas Briggs' uncanny recreation of the Cybermen's original voice patterns. No spoilers here because, if you're a Doctor Who fan and you haven't heard this, why on Earth not? 10/10. Earthshock v Spare Parts? Now, that is a tough one. This may seem like heresy but I'm sorely tempted to plump for Spare Parts. In what it sets out to do, it is flawless and it doesn't have Beryl Reid. Then again Earthshock is a classic and without it we would not have got rid of Adric. Honours even.
Creatures of Beauty (123f). A man walks into a shop with his 8 year old child. "Oh, look," he says. "A Peter Davison Doctor Who DVD! I used to watch him when I was your age..." The memories come flooding back. In a fit of uncharacteristic largesse, he buys it. "Let's go home and watch it right now." They do and the kid enjoys it. Perhaps not having the bangs and whistles of the current model but... Time passes and that same child sees a CD on sale. Creatures of Beauty it's called. Same Doc with one of his companions on the cover. Asks father if it's okay to buy it. "Why not?" says the father, feeling the rosy glow of the baton being passed. What could the harm be? Here's a pair of headphones. Off to your room now... Big Finish (and all who sail in her) have, I think it's fair to say, made their living out of nostalgia. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They came to fill a void at a time when Doctor Who was all but disappearing and we have much to thank them for. Obviously enough, it's a nostalgia born of childhood. (As BBC Radio 3's Who-themed play 'Regenerations' put it: "when we were young and everything was new".) Lest we forget, Doctor Who was, until The New Adventures came along, a family brand and it is that which the vast majority of older fans are nostalgic for. Something warm and cosy and ultimately unthreatening. So why is it that Big Finish have, on more than one occasion thrown out brutal, adult-orientated fare like Creatures of Beauty? One cannot put on scenes of vocalised self-mutilation over a saturday teatime, or its equivalent, even now. Such fare forces the adult listener to retreat into a rather solitary 'pleasure': no baton passed, no rosy glow. It is no good the producers saying that the brand has 'grown up' or should do so: what lies at the heart of Creatures of Beauty is that it aims for shock value at the expense of entertainment and as such is rotten to the core. Like the inexplicable jump into adulthood of the early New Adventures, or later Big Finish torture porn like Red, Return of the Daleks or the opening of Terror Firma, it comes without warning and with absolutely no justification. Creatures of Beauty not only presses the 'realism' button way too hard but also the 'breaking the format' button (which here is actually the 'covering up lazy plotting' button). We are no doubt meant to gasp at how wonderfully experimental it all is. Sorry, no. If this wasn't bad enough, this is one of the last things David Daker would do and it is a sorry epitaph. At least they could finally afford the proper theme music and the CD cover is really good but the only thing really noteworthy about this is how nasty it all is. 0/10. Time-Flight v Creatures of Beauty? Time-Flight is awful, everybody knows. It's obviously the Master, Concorde is only there for (very meagre) publicity value, the story makes very little sense, blah, blah, blah. Yet I'd rather sit through such dreary nonsense as that than put up with the "look how adult we all are!" that screams from every second of Creatures of Beauty.
Final score: four-one to TV. Perhaps not the walk-over one might have suspected. Okay, Season 19a doesn't sound like a season with a consistent tone but why should it? Only the yearning for order might make it so. Yet so many of Big Finish's other runs of stories actually do: Eighth Doctor stories in particular (because they are constructed as such) but also the tales featuring Erimem, Evelyn and, later, Hex, which, by virtue of our gradually getting to know a new supporting character, had a real sense of continuity.
For all my misgivings, season or not, '19a' is not a disaster. Sadly, the Post-Zagreus Fifth and Nyssa stories, Season 19b if you will, didn't exactly kick off with flying colours. The Game was hackneyed, at times embarrassing, Circular Time had only one good story out of a possible four and Renaissance of the Daleks was, in spite of an intriguing premise, torn to pieces by the combined unavailability of the characters for whom it was written, the inability to come up with a satisfactory compromise and some really bad acting. Return to the Web Planet was charming enough but by that time, I (and I fear a great many others) had ceased to care.