THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
The Dark Flame

Written by Trevor Baxendale Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
Continuity Between All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest.

Starring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman
Also featuring Steven Wickham, Andrew Westfield, Michael Praed, Hannah Smith

Synopsis: Four acolytes of Evil. Three mad scientists. Two companions. One Doctor.


Reviews

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 25/4/03

I'm rather fond of numbers. I'm a DW fan who also likes Sport, and I was seen, on many a Saturday, under the scoreboard at the Local Cricket Pitch. You'll notice all my reviews are rated, I like reviews to be so, so I do it myself. It is with this statistical excellence then, that I declare The Dark Flame to be the 50th Doctor Who Big Finish Audio!

This is Number 42. There's the 3 DW Excelis stories, there's been 4 freebies, and there's Real Time. That makes 50 - a quite considerable volume of work that shows no sign of slowing down (thank goodness!). In this 40th Anniversary year there's another celebration - and that's before the old enemies hit our CD players. I haven't read anywhere that anyone has noticed this though - but I kind of like the idea!

Dark Flame is no celebratory story, it's just yet another solid drama from Big Finish. Great new supporting characters combine with existing stars well. The TARDIS team is that of 7th Doctor, Ace and Benny - given that Big Finish started with Benny, it's a little surprising this is only her 2nd pairing with the Doctor. It's the New Adventure team.

Trouble is I'm not that big a fan of the New Adventures. I was one of those fans who read the first 20, and then bought them sporadically thereafter. I just wasn't enjoying the bulk of them. Benny is a character I like, but she has always been identified with this run of books - which is perhaps an unfair assessment on her character. It's the Benny of the audios I like more, having heard about half of the Big Finish Benny series. I've never read a Benny book, but Lisa Bowerman's performance has defined the character extremely well.

I like contrast and variety too - so it's good to see the NA's showing their influence. I wonder if they will ever give voice to Chris and Roz, or maybe even Fitz and Anji. The Dark Flame then starts with 3 strong main characters. With so many, and the supporting cast to cater for, the only problem is how to use them fairly and equally.

Trevor Baxendale is the writer. Once an author has written a brilliant contribution to Who, it's always easy to compare the rest of his input unfavourably with that Classic piece. Eater of Wasps is Baxendale's best work. The Dark Flame, well - it's not up there - nowhere near - but it's rather unfair to compare. Dark Flame is definitely better than most of the New Adventures, and I think with these characters, that's a success. It's solid drama, with some interesting ideas, and some memorable characters to boot.

The story is set on the Space Station Orbos, and the underground caves of Marran Alpha, the planet below. The planet really comes out of this story well - the extreme conditions mean danger is never far away for the travellers, particularly when transporters are around. The space station and caves feel quite bland though. I think The Sandman shows how space stations can sound interesting. Caves have never been done better than the previous Nekromanteia. Corridors to caves is not a bad contrast - just one that wasn't quite as distinctively portrayed here.

What is surprising is the repetition of key settings and ideas over recent plays. DW has always prided itself in its great variety, yet this play is familiar in tone to a few others - notably very recent ones. There's underground caverns, a strange cult, and a Relic. Nekromanteia and Excelis again I think. I don't blame Baxendale for this, but a different order to the plays would be have been a better idea to space out similar ground.

The Dark Flame is most memorable for the characters of Slyde and Remnex. Most of the best baddies have English accents, and Michael Praed and Andrew Westfield eloquently present 2 portraits of nastiness here. Both constitute the high points of this drama, with their verbal sparring with the Doctor and Benny a real highlight.

I expect in years to come Dark Flame and Nekromanteia will get mixed up in fans' memories. That's a bit of shame, because they are both well written, solid dramas. They both are not the finest example of what Big Finish can do, but if this is their average - then it's a good one. 7/10

Here's to the next 50 audio dramas, if they are anywhere near as good as the first 50, we are in for a treat. 50 seems like a good place to list my Top Ten DW Big Finish plays, so here we go:-

  1. Chimes of Midnight
  2. Spectre of Lanyon Moor
  3. Phantasmagoria
  4. Fires of Vulcan
  5. Loups-Garoux
  6. Neverland
  7. Stones of Venice
  8. The Holy Terror
  9. The One Doctor
  10. Spare Parts
Just missed out:- Genocide Machine, Church and the Crown, Embrace the Darkness, Eye of the Scorpion


Skull's Out by Andrew Wixon 9/7/03

This is going to be a fairly simple review, mainly because this is a fairly simplistic story. It's a worrying trend that while the Davison audios have become more thoughtful and atmospheric, and the Bakers more confident and experimental, the McCoys have - with the odd exception - become more artless and painful on the ear.

This is partly down to the regular characters - McCoy was a pretty good TV Doctor, but his best performances were all about his eyes, the Doctor watching and reacting, being enigmatic. It was the bits with him shouting that let him down and, on audio, that's pretty much all his performance consists of. Ace has been painful for a while now and on this occasion (yup, another dabble with Virgin continuity) it's Action Ace - not that this is immediately apparent from Aldred's performance, which is as exuberantly juvenile as ever. (Gosh, that sounds harsher than I meant it to. Sorry Sophie.) On this occasion they are joined by Benny, whose approach to archaeology is less Lara Croft than Croft's original sherry. Lisa Bowerman isn't bad, but her character's endless wisecracking is neither credible nor - after a while - entertaining.

The story is, erm, appropriate to this level of characterisation. The villains don't have any motivation behind their evil, they're just bad, all right? The story moves back and forth between a set of corridors on a space station and a set of corridors on a planet. The cliffhangers are variously predictable and unimpressive. The plot has very few surprises once episode one is concluded, and there's a nasty fudge of an ending in all sorts of ways. A good cast struggles to impress - Toby Longworth as nasty butler Broke has all the best lines - 'Get inside, scum - if you wouldn't mind' being about my favourite.

I'm trying to think of a single original or surprising or witty or engaging thing about The Dark Flame. And I can't. Sorry. One of the weakest BF CDs yet.


The Dark Flambe by Jamas Enright 2/11/03

Now, I am an admitted fan of Trevor Baxendale, and of Bernice Summerfield, so I am already predisposed towards liking this adventure. However... actually, I don't really need to say much more, that 'however' should signal what my opinion is, but if I stop here it won't be much of a review! So... However, the combination we are treated to here makes one ask why anyone bothered to combine them at all.

The intention behind this story was to have a New Adventure story featuring the Doctor, Ace and Benny (as in The Shadow of the Scourge), but written by someone who never wrote an actual book in the range. And, as it happens, who has obviously never written an audio adventure either. Not that being a first time writer is really a sin, but you have to question what controls are put into place on the script when we are told five different times that there is acid rain on Marran Alpha, and I lost count of the number of times we were told that the Cult of the Dark Flame worshipped an energy being. There is a difference between reiterating a fact to cement the idea and reusing the exact same sentence over and over!

The words are all very well, but the story itself is more important! Isn't it? What we get here is a very nice Benny adventure that would have been perfect for that series, if somewhat questionable as to its originality. In other words, we get a cliched Benny adventure with the Doctor and Ace shoe-horned into the plot. I'm not trying to be disparaging here (it's all just coming naturally), but I do really feel as if I've heard it all before. In the end, it's just another cult trying to wipe out the universe, and who hasn't had that happen to them?

So, is there any point in listening to this? Fortunately, we have some top-notch performances here. The main cast are in full swing with an extremely Scottish Doctor from Sylvester McCoy, a happily violent Ace from Sophie Aldred and a brilliantly sarcastic Benny from Lisa Bowerman (okay, so winning no points for new and dramatic character analyses here, but it's a bit late at this point to start worrying about that). To help them out, there are the talents of Andrew Westfield as Remnex, whom I preferred after he died, Hannan Smith as Professor Lomax, Toby Longworth (fast becoming a Big Finish regular) as Broke and Steven Wickham as Victor (you might recognise that last actor as someone I mention a lot in my Benny reviews, and there is a perfectly good reason for that that I'll let you listen to the audio to find out about).

There's also a special guest star to mention, namely Robin Hood! Or rather, Michael Praed, who had picked up the bow and arrows in TV's 'Robin of Sherwood' before it went to Son of Bond. In The Dark Flame, Michael Praed gives a very hoarse voice to Professor Slyde, 'a very nasty piece of work'. But hey, he does it well.

So, The Dark Flame, worth it? Ultimately... not really. Not that there aren't one or two good points about it, but there's nothing here that you couldn't get elsewhere, and get it done better. Certainly, if you're collecting them all, or want to check out Michael Praed, you'll get this anyway, but otherwise you could skip this without missing out on much. And this is the Trevor Baxendale and Benny Summerfield fan speaking here...


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 5/10/04

Despite the presence of the New Adventures team of Ace, Bernice and the Doctor, The Dark Flame very much feels like a traditional story. As a result, the story isn`t as good as it could be, the tale of skull with great power, was told better in Image Of The Fendahl, and the villains themselves are too cliched. Performances are variable here too, as Lisa Bowerman (usually 100% reliable) as Benny outstays her welcome all too quickly thanks to the endless sarcasm the script calls of her. Sylvester McCoy is less convincing here too, largely because of his continal rolling of "r`"s. Thankfully Sophie Aldred gives a better account of herself, bringing an edginess to Ace, reminiscent of a hardened marine.

The main villain in Slyde, is cliched by all accounts however, yet Michael Praed`s performance seems to reflect this, as he deliberately enters Paul "Tekker" Darrow territory, to give a portrayal that is actually memorable, thanks to his voice which is suited to audio. So whilst hardly original in terms of storytelling (indeed it is disappointing that Trevor Baxendale`s script wasn`t more adventurous), The Dark Flame is very much an average tale, which should have been so much better than the end result suggests.


A Review by John Seavey 26/9/05

It feels almost like Trevor Baxendale deliberately set out to see just how lazy of an effort he could get in at script-writing before Big Finish showed him the door. Unfortunately, he seems to have discovered that the bar was set lower than he could attain, because they went ahead and recorded The Dark Flame. Large sections of the villain's dialogue seem to have been lifted wholesale from other stories (he practically launches into Sutekh's speech from Pyramids of Mars wholesale, and talks about "embracing the dark side" as though Lucasfilm didn't have a platoon of lawyers on speed-dial.) The plot is an ultra-generic "capture/escape/capture" run-around, with everyone struggling over a RELIC that is important to the ANCIENT EVIL GOD so that he can take over THE UNIVERSE. (I'm assuming those were the terms Baxendale filled in on the Mad Libs he used to make this story.) The cast tries, and it's one of my favorite casts, but nobody should have to read that crap.


A Review by Brian May 2/8/11

The Dark Flame is yet another cure for insomnia: a tedious, pointless two hours of bunkum strongly recommended for listening during those sleepless nights, guaranteed to knock you out instantly. It's riddled with cliches, but that's not the real problem. The research station, the uninhabitable planet, the cult, the resurrection of an ancient evil... these are Doctor Who staples and any of these elements can make for an enjoyable caper. But not this time. That's because of the overblown, badly written and overall blase nature of the tale.

The dialogue is truly dreadful. I mean it: really, really cringe-inducing diabolical. I'm not going to bother to include any examples this time; just listen to any section for a couple of minutes and you'll understand. The acting isn't bad per se, but the cast are lumbered with having to play cardboard cut-outs, spouting risible lines that even the finest actor would have trouble with. However, Michael Praed's unsubtle intonations during the first episode, ensuring everyone knows he's the villain well before the cliffhanger, don't help his performance. Only Big Finish stalwart Toby Longworth seems to make any real effort, throwing himself into the role of the sadistic Broke. None of the regulars distinguish themselves, but you can't blame them. You can tell through their voices that Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred don't have much time for the script, while I found Lisa Bowerman disappointing as Bernice, her attempted sarcasm and sassiness no patch on the book version. (Disclaimer: I've only heard one other of Bowerman's outings as Benny, and that was quite a while ago, so I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt by assuming her less than par turn is also due to the overall crappiness of the story.)

Another bone of contention is the emphasis on The Dark Flame as a tribute to the New Adventures, based solely on the TARDIS crew line-up. However, the presence of Benny and the mentions of Ace's combat-suit and battle experiences doth not a New Adventure make. The story is utterly generic, able to suit any combination of Doctor and companion(s). In no way is the spirit of the Virgin series evoked here.

It's my usual Big Finish rant, but the story is too long. Part four is well over half an hour, and it's interminable, as the final confrontation is stretched to what feels like infinity, making a bad ending to an already poor story. 1/10