THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Embrace the Darkness

Written by Nicholas Briggs Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2002
Continuity After The Telemovie.

Starring Paul McGann and India Fisher
Also featuring Nicola Boyce, Lee Moone, Mark McDonnell, Ian Brooker

Synopsis: The Doctor and Charley travel to the remote Cimmerian System to unravel the mystery of its sun. But darkness has already embraced the scientific base on Cimmeria IV in more ways than one. In a fight for survival, the Doctor must use all his wits against a deadly artificial life-form and an ancient race whose return to the Cimmerian System threatens suffering and death on an apocalyptic scale.


Reviews

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 25/5/02

For quite a while now the sight on the doormat, after a long day at work, of a Big Finish Envelope, has been one of the things I really look forward to every month. The sight is even more exciting with the 8th Doctor audios. This really is NEW Who, and the stories are moving chronologically from one to another, rewarding the ongoing listener. Embrace the Darkness is the 4th Story of McGann's 2nd Season as the Doctor. Big Finish built on the success of the previous 4-story Season, and extended the involvement of their trump card (Paul McGann) into a 6-story Season. When this story finished I was glad we were going to get 2 more 8th Doctor stories for the season.

When I looked over the schedule of releases for 2002, and the 6 McGann ones jumped out at me, this was the one that I was least sure of. The others all had a hook:- Mark Gatiss, Rob Shearman, Paul Cornell, Daleks, Romana 2 respectively - but there was no such hook with this. Since Big Finish have admitted that this is a little different from the rest of the season. This stands on its own more than any of the others. I also knew less about this than the others - which is quite a nice thing every now and again.

What I find interesting about these productions is how they are put together. McGann recorded his parts earlier than the rest, for the most part, I believe (I may be wrong in this, but the absence of McGann on the cast pictures in the CD booklet seems to indicate so). You can't tell this in the story itself, the 8th Doctor has the lions part in every one, and the other characters interact with him well. The skill with which Alistair Lock and his Big Finish Production staff put these things together is therefore even more outstanding.

Embrace the Darkness is another story from Audio expert - Nicholas Briggs. It's a story that is magnificently suited to the audio medium. As the author says in his introduction (aren't these fascinating!), and in the DWM Preview (these are even better!) Darkness means you can't see anything anyway - therefore hearing is even more amplified. He's got a good point, and the sheer logic of that idea, seems to have inspired him to produce his best work yet for Big Finish.

Setting the story in the Cimmerian System, this is a story that is welcome change from Earth-based stories. Earth stories happen to be my favourite, but I acknowledge that too many of them reduces the impact of them. A trip to the stars is therefore what we get here. When the TARDIS lands on a vast spaceship apparently inhabited only by huge Robots, ROSM, Big Finish get a chance to pull out all their unusual space and large constructs sound effects. When the action moves to the Very Dark Cimmerian IV base this is even more apparent.

Rarely have I heard such impressive futuristic sound effects. Lifepods docking at the Space Station, huge great doors inching there way shut, 20 feet high Robots parading round the corridors, blasting hazards out the way. Nick Briggs may be right about the Darkness and how everything is Audio, but the images gleaned from this production are magnificent - and that is totally down to the extra special Sound Effects.

The story is an isolated base one. Like much of Season 5 this allows for plenty of surreptitious glancing over the shoulder, as the monster threatens to suddenly appear. But much of this story is set in the pitch Black, the threat could be right there next to you, and you wouldn't even notice. If you put the CD on, with the lights off, you really can transport yourself to the Cimmerian IV base. This results in more atmosphere for sure, but it also brings its fair amount of shocks and shivers up the spine. There are a number of reasons why this ranks amongst the scariest s that anyone has produced in any medium.

One main reason is the whispering Cimmerians. They seem to float around the ship hissing their threats. Another reason is the sedate pace that the script employs. There are moments where the action literally stops, the darkness envelops you, and you tense up waiting for the oncoming shock. The quiet blackness is truly terrifying at times. Another is the gory images created by the script. I wear glasses, therefore anything to do with an attack on the eyes horrifies me. Nothing terrifies me more than losing my sight, yet that is precisely what happens to some of the people here.

The cast is small, but effective. Paul McGann is excellent once again as the Doctor. Charley is brilliant too, and it is so refreshing to not know what is round the corner for a major character. The base crew succeed in convincing us they have been together for many years. Orllensa's accent is a bit peculiar, but that is the only dubious point in a fine supporting cast. The Robot, ROSM, is great too. The amount of different voice modulations that Big Finish have now given must number in the hundreds, and this is another memorable voice amongst many.

I listened to it in 3 segments. The first 2 episodes together, then the 3rd and 4th on separate occasions. This allows the full impact of the production to weave its magic on you. The slow pace is not a problem at all - allowing the tension to build and the threat to grow. This is a fine season of 8th Doctor stories that Big Finish are giving us - I already am looking forward to the next. 9/10


Not so bright by Julian Shortman 29/5/02

If anyone were to receive the title of ‘In-house writer’ in BF, then surely Nicholas Briggs would be the prime candidate. Author of two PDA’s, one fifth of the 8DA’s recorded so far, and the expanding Dalek Empire series, Nick Briggs has been responsible for a weighty amount of the DW material to roll off the BF production line.

His contribution to the first McGann season, Sword of Orion, was judged by many (including me) to be the weakest story in that season. He’d made a fair attempt to upgrade his script from the 80’s, but we were still left with a story which felt like The Wheel in Space mark II, with a Cyberman plastered onto the front cover, and featuring (weakly) in less than half the story. Maybe we’d have felt more sympathetic if BF had decided to keep the return of the Cybermen a secret?

To be fair to the guy, The Mutant Phase, his Fifth Doctor Dalek adventure, was a cracking yarn, and in my humble opinion, it can carry the mantle of being the best out of the three PDA Dalek stories. But that still leaves the decidedly wobbly Sirens of Time, and now Embrace the Darkness, which I’m sorry to report just isn’t up to the bright standards we’ve heard so far in this year’s adventures

Let's try and deal with a couple of positives first. Hmmmm.... ah yes, that cliffhanger at the end of part one. Well, I gather it was meant to make my stomach turn, and yep, it succeeded. I even felt a little reticent to listen to episode two, with the thought that there might be more sickening moments to follow. But as it happened, we’d been dealt the worst blow to our queasiness at the end of episode 1, and from then on things slowly and blandly smoothed out towards the end. Whoops, I was meant to be on the positives, wasn’t I?

Well, McGann & India Fisher were great again – not a dud performance from this pair yet, and a real spirit of developing friendship shone through, even saving some rather dull patches of scriptwriting…

Anything else positive…? Orllensa with the warped, grating (Russian?) accent. Nope. Definitely not. Haliard as the manic, mad, misguided depressive? Well, I guess he did his best for the role he had. Ferras – well there’s not much to say is there? Okay in a game of draughts. And ROSM…? Less said the better really. Why an idiotic, overgrown calculator plumped such a starring role I don’t know – I could just about tolerate his presence in the story, but he completely failed to get an emotional reaction from me . For some weird reason, the War Machine robots kept popping into my imagination when the ROSM assault units trundled down the dark corridors. Or was it the cleaners from Paradise Towers?

This was a story which tried to deliver twists and turns, but when it did, they often felt false, forced and ridiculously rushed at the end. Perhaps they had to be rushed at the end so the listener wouldn’t have long enough to realise that they’d just made a nonsense of some earlier parts of the story. One specific example springs to mind. Why did the logical, considerate archaeologists refuse to communicate with the Doctor and shoot violently at the ship without asking questions? Oh yes, I should have realised - it wouldn’t have made a good enough ending to have the final revelation over an intercom. We had to have a final (pointless) chase through the ship, followed by a face-to-face confrontation. And that revelation instantly made me wonder whether Nick had been watching ‘Star Trek – Insurrection’ recently?

I don’t really have the heart to pick apart the many other aspects of the story which failed to meet my basic expectations for a strong DW story. Except perhaps to mention the overrated music score. It was occasionally eerie and certainly up to the minimalist standards set from Sword of Orion, but magnificent with a hint of genius? I thought not - I much prefered Jim’s pacey score for Project:Twilight than this one.

If the Dalek Empire Reviews I’ve read are anything to go by, combined with my own high opinions of The Mutant Phase, then Nick Briggs is certainly capable of churning out top quality DW based stories. I can’t help thinking that for the future, quality might only be sustained at the cost of reducing quantity?


Are You Afraid Of The Dark? by Robert Thomas 25/6/02

(Short review to avoid spoilers) Very much a mood piece this one. Very much an unusual story and one I can most compare to The 6th Sense and The Others (THERE ALL GHOSTS) in that it builds up to one hell of a twist. Very much one that will only get reaction it deserves on first listen and one which like the films mentioned I look forward to seeing/hearing a second time. (Well except for The Others which was a huge pile of cack)

Paul McGann gives his best performance of the season and is wonderfully paired with ROSM, a character which brings out the best in The Doctor and some very good dialogue. The story abounds with nice touches, good characters and twists that raise this story from what precedes it and is what I would say the best of the season so far. Don't risk spoilers, just get out there and enjoy it.


Another winner by Joe Ford 1/10/02

Although there are quite a few favourable reviews of this audio on this site it hasn't been generally well received which is a pity because it is quite good indeed. It takes on lots of staple Doctor Who ideas... imagination, scares, great cliffhangers, strong characters and rolls them all up into a rolicking good adventure.

What makes this story stand out from the others Big Finish have released is that it is scaaary! Nick Briggs (the writer) says in the cover sleeve that he had to hand over control of post production and music to Jim Mortimore and I think that the story is all the better for it. Briggs has contributed some wonderfully atmospheric stories in the past (in particular his exceptional Dalek Empire series) but Mortimore chooses to take the atmosphere to a whole new level. The sound effects are loud and regular... everything from the shocking explosion of sound when the Cimmerians attack to the electronic beeps of the approaching ROSM... its all designed to put you on edge. Even the music, flutey and metallic... it doesn't feel quite RIGHT and it really puts you on edge. I would go as far to say that this is the best accumilation of sound effects Big Finish have accomplished and it plants the listener right in the action. I listened to this one night alone in my apartment and it really gave me the willies! A sure sign of a successful production. The Chimes of Midnight was just as eerie but I had company when I was listening to that.

The story is an intriuging one. Why did the sun in the Cimmerian system snuff out? A great mystery and a good reason to get The Doctor and Charley involved. Briggs starts the story wisely by introducing the major characters quickly (and unlike Sword of Orion, his last Paul McGann adventure they are an instantly likable bunch) and effeciently and plants them into danger long before the Doctor turns up. This is a good tension builder, when Charley lands on the station in pitch blackness overun by aliens we are already convinced of the severity of the situation and the danger she is walking into.

Red herrings are often a staple of a good story and when they work the story works out the better for it. The red herrings in Embrace the Darkness WORK. There is mis-direction everywhere and unlike many recent audios I was gripped right to the very end of the story. I'm often entertained to the end, but not gripped.

The acting is quite superb throughout. Okay so this is audio and they can create vast landscapes and sound effects but this story goes to prove the old adage that less IS more. This is another great claustrophobic Who story with just a few actors and a couple of sets (so to speak). Paul McGann gives a quite unusual performance throughout, dropping much of his boyish charm and actually taken on a surprising amount of Hartnell-like gruffness. He is still likable (this is Paul McGann after all) but scenes like his snapping at Orllensa ("What if you weren't such a cynical, embittered person?") and his suicidal guilt later on in the story are quite shocking. India Fisher's marvellous Charley is given a good share of the action and her plucky entusiasm and her scientific ignorance are as endearing as ever. Her fear and agression make her one of the more rounded companions, it's her flaws that make her so much fun.

Ian Brooker, Lee Moone, Nicola Boyce and Mark McDonnel all aqcuit themselves well. As I said their initial rapport draws you close to them immediately making their tortures almost unbearable to listen to. It's true Boyce uses a really peculiar accent for Orllensa but her bitter, nasty bites at all the characters makes her the one to listen to.

This story deserves to be listened to, it's a very worthy piece and certainly superbly made. It's full of thrills and chills, good, juicy dialogue and strong performances. It's my personal favourite of the year so far after Chimes of Midnight (haven't listened to Neverland yet!) and I will certainly give it a re-listen or two.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 31/3/04

Embrace The Darkness continues the Eighth Doctor audios in impressive style, at least for the first episode anyway. What we are presented with is an atmospheric, tightly plotted claustrophic piece of drama that works surprisingly well. The opening scene and the cliffhanger being a case in point.

Unfortunately the promise of the first episode isn`t really built upon, through no fault of the cast, but due to the pacing; the story feels drawn out and as a result interest is lost quickly. It doesn`t help either that the alien Cimmerians fail to convince, when its required for them to be frightening. Paul McGann and India Fisher`s chemistry continues to sparkle and McGann is particularly enjoyable in the scenes where he tries to reason with ROSM. Characterisation is particularly strong too, Nicola Boyce`s Ollensa, a character who has lost her eyes is a joy, her jovial humour and sarcasm being surprisingly realistic.

So is Embrace The Darkness a success? Despite the pacing yes,although it doesn`t withstand repeated listening.


Darkness Rising by Phil Fenerty 10/4/04

Embrace The Darkness is probably the neglected gem of the second McGann season, overshadowed by the wonderful stories immediately before it (The Chimes of Midnight and Seasons of Fear).

The story only peripherally links into the Charley Pollard storyline running through the season, this probably improves the production rather than detracting from it. Also, at the start of Part One, the Doctor tries to avoid a large number of TARDISes which seem to be hunting around the Vortex. There are minor references to Charley's physiology in Parts One and Two, which (when reviewed in hindsight) relate to the Anti-Time already in her system.

At its bare bones, Embrace The Darkness is a typical "base under siege" scenario, much beloved of the audio range because it provides a small cast of characters and locations onto which the tapestry can be woven. Whilst Big Finish does not have the budgetary constraints inherent in TV productions, limiting the locales where events take place can make the story feel more intimate. It also gives a genuine feeling of menace: if there were lots of places to run away to, the threat wouldn't be so overwhelming.

The base in question is on Cimmeria IV, in a solar system where the sun simply vanished. A group of workers are trying to set up artificial suns to light the world, so that it can be mined for its mineral wealth. But the planet's inhabitants are scared of the light, and try to stop the workers. They steal the light from the base itself - and worse.

The ending to Episode One, where Charley first encounters the trapped workers, has a genuinely horrific revelation, which sets the scene for much of the action in Episodes Two and Three. The sense of darkness in the base is depicted well on audio, with panicked workers desperate to see light again.

The Company dispatches a ROSM unit to the base - and here enters the star of the play. ROSM (Rescue Operational Security Module) is an AI with lots of linked sub-units, all of which can operate under central control or with independent processing. Throughout the production, it is the Doctor's verbal interplay with the ROSM which entertains and thrusts the plot forward. Whilst ROSM does not trust "Lifeform Doctor" it does appreciate that he is a higher intelligence with much to offer.

ROSM's character is enhanced by the audio design of the vocal effect used on Ian Brooker. It gives a genuine sense that a conversation is being held with a large metallic entity, rather than just a man in a suit.

As with previous mechanical men the Doctor has encountered over the years, ROSM works off a rigidly defined set of rules. These can be modified via rational argument (as the Doctor has to do on a number of occasions), but the hide-bound (bureaucratic?) nature of the Company's programming almost proves the Doctor's undoing on more than one occasion. The verbal sparring between ROSM and the Doctor provides moments of light relief in an otherwise grim story.

The identity of the Cimmerians, their heritage and fears are gradually introduced through Parts Three and Four. The arrival of the Solarians (and the Cimmerians' fear of them) in Part Four raised the ante significantly: it also imposes (yet another) tension-inducing countdown on the Doctor and those he is trying to save.

Once the story moves from the darkened base, the tension lets up considerably. The ending, and final revelation, seem anti-climactic after the terrors which have gone before. Indeed, it almost seems to be a case of "How do we get out of that?" as the available space on the CD gets ever smaller. The resolution is probably unique in Doctor Who's long history, but somehow feels wrong. The final "departure" scene also feels rushed.

Whilst most of the supporting cast perform admirably, Nicola Boyce's Orllensa had me grimacing every time she appeared. I'm not sure which sector of Eastern Europe her accent is supposed to be from, but it is barely convincing. A couple of hours with a decent voice coach should have been the order of the day.

Once again, Paul McGann hits the right note as the Doctor. The sense of desperation conveyed in his voice as the situation worsens or ROSM finds a new way to thwart him reminds us that, more than ever, the Eighth Doctor flies by the seat of his pants in an effort to save the situation. Indeed, this trait creates the conditions allowing the Solarians to start their journey towards Cimmeria IV. Embrace The Darkness forces the Doctor to evaluate his actions and the impact they have had (in a similar manner to the ending of Storm Warning).

Overall: gripping, entertaining listening.


A Review by John Seavey 14/5/04

Bit of a mixed bag, this one. On the one hand, it's very atmospheric, and the alien voices are so unbelievably cool and creepy that it's one of the few times that audio monsters totally and utterly trump visual ones. On the other hand, it's got a lot of the same problems that Sword of Orion had -- a slow start, stock characters (for long stretches of the audio, I had deja vu so profound that I thought I might be listening to Sword of Orion all over again... or that these might be the same characters brought back for the sequel), and long stretches of stand-off between the Doctor and the monsters where the Doctor does a lot of "thinking out loud".

It does have the ROSM, a great character (right up until the end, when, like every good computer, it goes utterly bonkers in cliched fashion), but ultimately, the ending is such a damp squib of a letdown that I have to give the audio thumbs down. Finding out that the evil monsters everyone's afraid of... just aren't, and that we're all fine now... it probably sounded better at the draft stage.