Actually, no, that sounds a little pompous and overbearing. Hmmm... wait, I've got a better intro..
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Gary Russell is a talentless hack.
No wait, that sounded hostile as well. Sod it - listening to PMG's season in order, here are my thoughts:
It's at this point I should admit that I'm lying: I'm listening to the ones that I haven't listened to yet in order. Or at least I was: I've now committed myself to doing the run properly, so I shall be re-listening to Zagreus, Scherzo, The Creed of the Kromon and... okay, all except Next Life. That can piss right off.
So, anyway... Shada. Lisened to this one about half a year ago and only a few moments ago realised that it belonged in this list: at the front of it, in fact. The main problem, of course, instantly clear, is that it isn't really a story for Paul McGann. It is the ultimate S17 story, that does nothing at all save for celebrate Douglas Adam's take on Doctor Who - this is what has made it such a controversial story, as some people think that it's the purest period of the show's history in terms of embracing its ethos of fun in a cruel universe, and others thing its just a load of drug-fuelled balls. These two groups are, I theorise, respectively those who vandalise and those who moderate Wikipedia.
Dropping Paul McGann into the mess seems an odd move. Okay, he's described by some as the most Tom Baker-like Doctor, and this could be true... but then no other Doctors are really anything like Tom Baker so it's like judging which of your friends best resembles an ant. But, essentially McGann has an equivalent laid-back view of things and has patches of tremendous frivolity, so he ends up working quite well as a substitute (I'll choose here not to assume cynicism on BF's past by casting a Doctor nobody knew at this stage to ensure no-one complained it was out of character)
The next decision that's a little odd is to maintain Romana and K9 as the Doctor's erstwhile companions. Actually, it isn't odd at all because it means the story will require the bare minimum of re-writing BUT it does lead to a set-up that seems more than a little convoluted, of the Doctor showing up on Gallifrey and going "HEY! Romana! How've you been? Remember that time about, ooh, three hundred years ago when we were in Cambridge? I think we were meant to, you know, save the world but I get this feeling I forgot all about it..." Being Lord President, it seems, either doesn't have much workload or Romana is sick of her own planet because she takes very little convincing.
And this week's award for my least favourite humans on Earth: people who complain that John Leeson is used instead of David Brierly. I would be happy if they simply used anyone BUT David Brierly. For some reason an impersonation of John Inman after being hit in the balls by a meat tenderizer really doesn't say 'Robot' in my head.
But enough of this insipid prattling! What do I think of the story? Well, ever since reading the script I really liked Shada as a story. But realisation is the thing with it. Douglas Adams has tonnes of ideas, and is very inventive, so the odds are that if it was completed the results would have been terribly constricted by production and not the brilliance fans were (for some reason) expecting. BF, of course, are known for their production... but they are constricted by their medium. Shada was meant to be the event finale of S17, and as such it is tragically one of the most visual stories since Feast of Steven, with a bicycle chase, punting, flame-monsters, and a climax entirely reliant on a large group of extras grinning madly in exactly the same fashion that Tom Baker does. Suffice it to say, little of this makes it into the BF adaptation, and all that does ends up being described quite loudly but observing characters in a manner that you think would be fairly extraneous from their point of view.
The biggest problem is a scene where Skagra throws a man out of a car in order to steal his suit... okay, you should realise that the plan doesn't make much logical sense. Very good. It was clearly scripted to a. Ensure that a nons-peaking performer (aka. a cheaper one) could play the be-suited victim, and b. The confrontation could be filmed on location in a short space of time. Despite the complete lack of logic, the scene is maintained, with dialogue added to explain what is happening. Lots of stuff like "No, what are you doin-AAAARGH!", "Throwing you out of the car, mwuahhahah"
Come to think of it, why couldn't Skagra just arrive wearing a suit? Or not get a suit because he is a bad-arse alien warlord mofo who takes no shit from nobody? It's in small aspects like that that the adaptation is lazy - an effect that is frequent given the intimidating effect of Douglas Adam's writing that provokes most of mankind into becoming its bitch in spite of its occassional shortcomings. (SEE: Every review of the H2G2 film.)
Anyway, apart from the ball-less adaptation, what is wrong with Shada? Hmm - well, the Krargs kind of suck, and the cast is... imperfect. The young characters are fine as far as I'm concerned - Sean Biggerstaff does a good job - but the older ones... I dunno, it could be the mantle of needing to re-cast characters played by Christopher Neame and Denis Carey, but Andrew Sachs and James Fox don't do it for me.
Andrew Sachs... well, there's nothing wrong with the performance aside from its context. Adams often spoke of the trap for performers of putting on a silly voice and hamming it up because it's comedy and that's precisely what Sachs does... he doesn't play Skagra, he instead plays the stereotypical ultra-camp Doctor Who baddie. (I suspect his groundwork for the part consisted entirely of watching Paul Darrow's work)
And James Fox... he gets the doddery old man bit perfect. A little too perfect, maybe. After all Chronotis is meant to dazzle everyone with his presence and powers revealed at the last minute as he unveils his true self as the most dangerous genius in Gallifrey's history (which IS saying something) and he doesn't quite carry it off. And again, I suspect that he's hamming it up a bit on purpose.
All the regulars, though, carry things beautifully, and as a result the odd mix and dodgy bits all hold together in the finished product - a long way from classic material but quite enjoyable in the right mood and a must for Adams fans. Especially the areshole Adams fans who weep blood whenever a line he wrote is cut from a script. So all of them.
Paul McGann's big step into the world of undisputable canon does not seem to have a promising start, exposing the limitations of the audio medium terribly with several minutes of him mumbling to himself, in extreme detail, about all the things that he can see on the scanner. Hmm. Not a good sign. But lo - this is a pseudo-historical, and as we all know these tend to be good more often than not. Within moments (well, about fifteen minutes but anyway...) the Doctor is aboard the dirigible R101, meets the blatantly female stow-away Charley Pollard and a very colourful cast...
Again, BF seem to be selling themselves regrettably short on this debut by displaying a fairly narrow spectrum of what audio can do (it feels PRIMITIVE next to later efforts) with lots of unrealistic exposition and overly-silly voices to make the different characters apparent. (Chief Steward Weekes sounds like me attempting to give voice to a Geordie Kermit the Frog and the Saaaarth Effrikeeneh Rathbone is probably best not mentioned) But the plot all too soon becomes convicting, and the twists and turns keep us following it closely - Rathbone torturing a young lady in his room - No! An alien!
In no time at all we're knee-deep in 1930s X-Files shit, with Brigadier Gareth Thomas (impersonating Bill Oddie for some reason but still giving a brilliant performance) setting up a rendezvous with a race of aliens - who turn out to be mostly impotent because of the desperate measures taken to stop their war-like caste from commiting galactic genocide. But lo - the whole thing has been a scheme by Undestroyer Prime to create a war with the human race. Why? BECAUSE HE CAN!!!
And then - screw it. Storm Warning is too frustratingly good for me to review in full. Aircrash blows up, Charley joins the crew, end of story.
(NOTE: In keeping to tradition, I have not mentioned Ramsay at all in my review)
SWORD OF ORION
In a word: LAAAAAAME!
My mind boggles trying to work out what was going on behind the scenes in this story. First, there's the decision to make a Cyberman story in which the Cyberman barely make an appearance. Then the decision to make the entire human cast cockneys who sound remarkably similar and have names like "Voc", "Grash", "Chet", etc. And the apparent selection of cliffhangers via throwing darts at a storyboard. Not to mention the fundamental choice to make Charley's, you know, the 1930s adventuress, second story a sci-fi melodrama and barely have her do anything.
To start with the treatment of Charley... she doesn't even get to go "Oh, what's that?" a lot. Which would be understandable in a far future story. No. Bar the first episode, in which a lot of clearly script-edited scenes appear of her and the Doctor going around an alien marketplace and talking timelines take place that are interesting, but even so Charley really doesn't seem taken aback or really amazed any of the developments that mankind have been through. She isn't especially impressed with spaceships, not very curious about Cybermen, not really anything overmuch. And, in the end, she contributes nothing to the climax... she spends almost the whole thing just staring at Cybermats while the Doctor goes off with a substitute companion. Hel-LO, Briggsy? This is meant to be the new companion that we're all meant to love - she's supposed to do the 'state of wonderment' performance on her first adventure, she's meant to be affected by her adventure in a marked and profound way... she isn't just meant to be baggage that gets thrown in a corner!
But then maybe I'm being harsh unnecessarily. After all, the Doctor himself doesn't do much. He spends the first episode just getting to the ship. He spends the next two walking around in the ship, talking to Captain Deeva who for some reason is the substitute companion, and distinctly avoiding meeting any Cybermen, and also avoiding making any jokes or otherwise doing anything interesting in the off-chance that people listening will get themselves too excited.
The Cybermen also don't do too much. Generally they spend their time sending out Cybermats for some reason, talking about what the Doctor is doing right now ("Hey, is the Doctor doing anything?", "Not really", "Fuck") and stating that they will do things about ten minutes before they actually do it. I'm thinking specifically of the mind-blowing episode 2 cliffhanger, where the Cybermen talk about releasing their Leader from hibernation. And, incredibly, just half-way through the next episode he's there! HOLY SHIT!!!
Because of the glorious eighty-minutes of 'build-up' (or 'padding' as it's known when it isn't a BF story) it isn't until Episode 4 when there's any semblance of plot. Ahh, plot, how I have missed you... okay, the humans create androids. Androids that are so good they become just like humans - and they decide "WAR!". Relax, this was before the new BSG so it wasn’t a rip off back then. And because of this THE HUMANS WANT TO ENLIST THE CYBERMEN TO FIGHT FOR THEM!!! OMFG! This plot conceit is so awesome your brain may Sparacus-style ejaculate on the spot at it’s very mention… but there’s a problem. This is the last episode and there’s absolutely nowhere for this idea to go. Literally nowhere. Interestingly, it does introduce some themes for the story but more than a little too late.
The observant person may notice that the idea, introduced as it is at the last minute, allows for an incredibly transparent and arsey way to bring a twist into the story, by revealing the substitute companion to be an android herself. Well, whaddaya know?! Pity that the Doctor is too thick to spot it until the final minutes, even though he reads a message addressed to Deeva which names her by a frigging bar code. SIGH.
Okay, what could make the blend that I have outlined even worse? Let’s see… how about a scene where a bloke is being converted by the Cybermen, and decides to react to this by shrieking that he is the most hard motherfucker in the galaxy and will kill them all afterwards. For three minutes. At an amount of decibels so great that if you’re, say, in a position where you’re unable to reach the volume controls and so take off your earphones it will STILL be too loud! Yeah, that's in there.
Not quite enough for you? How about this - the Doctor doesn’t defeat the Cybermen. In fact, I’ll go further than that - NOBODY defeats the Cybermen. The Cybermen just fly into an Ion Storm or some such shit and their ship is as good as destroyed. And then the Ion Storm comes back at the end of the story and does destroy them. Yes I am fucking serious.
What I really, really, REALLY don’t get about this story - apart from the one genuinely terrifying thing about it, which is that it is an adaptation from the most popular of the AVs (???!) - is that every sad, fanboy who loves the Cybermen to such a degree that anything at all that features them is seen as brilliant - to the point that they would have given this shit 12/10 if it was just Nick Briggs and a voice synthesizer playing three Cybermen playing poker for 2 hours and the Doctor wasn’t even in it - justify the horrendous boredom of it all with the following words:
"It’s as close as Doctor Who will ever get to Alien!"
Setting aside the fact that if I want Alien I will rent the fucking DVD, I can only feel that this statement is a grave insult to either, if not both, of these fine franchises. Firstly, watch Arc in Space. Secondly, you are retarded. Alien is notable for a few reasons. The first being that it is terrifying. The second being the high amount of gore juxtaposed with a limited amount of onscreen violence (until the end). The third is a kick-arse modern heroine. Sword of Orion has fuck all of this. The fourth thing is… it’s set on a spaceship.
So… yeah. Sword of Orion is exactly like Alien if you think that the main point of importance that a lot of people walk around a spaceship talking. In that sense, however, Red Dwarf and Star Trek: Voyager are far more like Alien.
My hatred of this story fuelled the latest of my erratic OG-sabbaticals when I was told by someone to go and listen to this story again to pick up the subtleties. What?!? For a start, I listened to big chunks of this twice as it was, because I kept having the niggling feeling that something interesting was happening somewhere… no dice. What are these subtleties I’m not picking up? In the background is Nick Briggs rubbing felt on linen in Morse-Code to give us the real script?
Of course, I will be molested by Alicia Molik before I listen to this audio again, a position that was re-affirmed by said slag that the following story was rubbish…
STONES OF VENICE
As I'm realising, though, I find it difficult to do a positive review of a Big Finish audio, because I do these reviews entirely from memory and crap bits both stick in my mind longer and are easier to riff on with long chains of insults directed at Briggs, Russell or people I believe to have been involved with the writing of the audio but who turn out to have been in a whole other country at the time.
Stones of Venice is good, though. This is what has made me like Paul Magrs, in spite of the fact that he went and created Iris for no real reason. When I discovered that he can write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order, and still entertain. No robot sheep, no dream sequences, no parallel universe versions of characters we all know and love..
The great thing is that the story is deliberately theatric to a degree you'll never see anywhere else. It mightn't be Shakespearean in vocabulary, but certainly is in scope, range, and passion - the Duke and Churchwells' conversations have absolutely no semblance of reality, but are brilliant to listen to, and the plot itself has the many twists of a Shakespearean tale...
The real thing I was listening for when I re-listened to part one the other day was Charley. Because, as said above, there are guests to Neverland Ranch that are abused less than her character in the preceding Nicholas Briggs dreckstorm. And also because Paul Magrs has something of a reputation as treating companions as nothing but human-shaped meat puppets that he can use to disperse post-modern japery to the ungrateful fanbase.
But Charley feels right here. Okay, she still makes the postmodern jokes, but they play on the character's naivety and lack of understanding about the Doctor's adventures.. the scenes where she is confused about the aliens lack of gratitude for saving them from a totalitarian regime is splendid, and she really does embrace the adventure with the full enthusiasm and innocence we glimpsed in her opening story.
This continues through the adventure, with her cluelessly siding with the badguys when she agrees to impersonate the Duchess rising from the dead, seeing it as just a fun little game to play rather than anything serious - the moments where she is momentarily possessed by the Duchess and has no idea why are particularly good.
The whole story is good, in fact. So I'll just quietly move on to...
MINUET IN HELL
I'll assume that this is like Sword of Orion, in that something elusive was lost in translation when it was adapted from the AV of the same name, as this story turns out feeling a little garbled. It is being pulled in a few different directions:
1. A story looking at the idea of Hell as it might exist juxtaposed to how humans see it
2. A cheesy-as-all-fuck Buffy the Vampire Slayer parody/homage (no idea what angle they were trying to take as I hate the show anyway)
3. A Brig/8th Doc story
4. A chance for Nick Briggs to pretend to be the Doctor for far longer than is really necessary
To address these points from back to front:
4. By far the most objectionable part, that feels absolutely crowbarred in. I understand it was in the original, but maybe it drove the story or felt in context there. In this... it feels strangely irrelevant. The entire subplot of the Doctor being insane is definitely gripping in Episode One (which is, incidentally, 43 minutes long - that's a hell of an over-run!) but it soon seems to be nothing but an excuse to keep him away from the main plot because the villain is so piss-poor that the Doctor is able to foil him in the space of 5-minutes when he stops thinking he's The Walrus nee Eggman.
The whole idea of another character showing up and saying "You're not the Doctor - I am!" is stupid for the simple reason that the audience knows that he isn't and is a completely un-dramatic event - if this was some sort of post-modern satire then it would fit.. in fact, maybe it is meant to be post-modern but it definitely doesn't come across. Then using this fundamentally drama-free moment as a cliffhanger ending is ludicrous, unless the audience is given a reason to be afraid of the nutter thinking he's the Doctor... but we aren't. He's a middle-aged English journo locked in a cell - no matter who he thinks he is he isn't in much of a position to achieve anything.
The casting is the biggest problem, though. Really, what the hell were they thinking? Maybe it was meant to be cute, I dunno. But when a group that has recorded their own stories for years with their own Doctor goes on to produce stories for the proper canonical Doctor, you don't expect them to have a story where their Doctor plays a bloke saying that he is the only real Doctor, and then proceed to bag out the actual Doctor ad nauseum for three episodes. (Hope that sentence came out right because I got confused as hell writing it) By the time Briggsy is gloating over beating PMG in a game of DW trivia, you might just feel like punching him in the face...
3. Since the Brig retired it has been harder and harder to fit him into stories. This isn't helped at all by Battlefield which, in addition to being a piece of television banned by the Geneva Convention and a harbinger of the sheer horror to be expected when some lunatics let Aaronovitch near B7, was quite clearly the Brig's swan-song. So... we cut writers a little slack when they have, say, the Brig being asked by a military contact to pretend to be a visiting businessman to a software company that might just have connections to weird stuff and is then locked in an attic for almost the whole thing anyway.
Even so... The Brig does not belong in this story. Unsurprisingly he doesn't feel quite as crowbarred in as Nick Briggs screeching Gollum-esquely that HE is the one true Doctor but the whole premise of his appearance in this story is dodgy - that he proved instrumental in Scotland seceding from Great Britain at some completely unspecified point in the future. ? The Brig is a military officer, not a politician, and one who in the eyes of Scotland might as well have never existed due to the fact that every scintilla of work he did was top-secret. And then he retired and became a maths teacher. Doesn't leave much room for radical constitutional reform on the horizon.
There is a subplot that could explain this, but really makes it all the more confusing - the Brig is working undercover, most likely for either UNIT or C19, a fact that is hammered in over the course of about a dozen scenes of the Brig typing in stuff we've seen happen into a laptop very slowly, waiting a moment, and then reading back the unhelpful correspondence he's recieved and moaning. Great drama. This could suggest that the Brigadier's entire excuse for being there is bullshit... but that would mean that the American badguy is even stupider than he appears (More on that later) and also causes problems when it is revealed that he's been sold out by whoever he's working for anyway.
Then the simple fact that there is very little for the Brigadier to do in the story. The story has themes of Hell, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer - two things that are instantly connected in my mind. (Baddum tish - last of those comments I promise) The Brigadier isn't religious (Though he suddenly starts quoting the bible in this which is a bit worrying) and also isn't active enough to keep up with a young, fiery female lead. He becomes the third wheel fairly early on, especially when things are compounded with that old caveat that, kick arse as he is, the Brig is never allowed to actually save the day for the simple reason that that is the Doctor's job. His role is mostly confined thusly to talking to Senator Foghorn Leghorn (actually named Waldo Pickering but the voice is pure Warner Brothers) and exchanging a few affable, jokey, words with Paul McGann in Episode 4 to keep the fans happy and cement the fact that the Eighth Doctor has met his old friend.
There's something I find maudlin about shoving poor old Lethbridge-Stewart into a story which clearly has nothing at all to do with his character... there's only one reasoning I can see behind it, and that is 'come on, he's going to die soon we need to get him in a story NOW!'.
For the record, eight years down the track and Nick Courtney is still alive and well and under quiet pressure from fandom to appear with David Tennant. (But not Eccleston. Fuck him. He doesn't DESERVE the Brig!)
2. I am completely unqualified to judge this aside from the rather obvious fact that Nicholas Briggs is patently doing an Anthony Stewart Head impression on top of all his yelling about being the canonical Doctor. Even so, Becky-Lee Stamos (or whatever her name is) is a fun character, especially in the lack of any believability that plays off Charley quite nicely and manages to overcome having Senator Leghorn for a legal guardian.
BUT... even from my rudimentary knowledge I realise that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is very American... and not in a self-conscious way. It's nothing but a matter of fact. Minuet in Hell on the other hand, is so self-consciously shouting "THIS IS AMERICA!" it is awkward. And then there's the fact that it is quite plainly written by somebody who hates America.
And I mean really hate. I thought I hated Americans until I listened to this, but no. It turns out I don't mind the guys. Or at least I would never ever ever, ever, EVER write a story in which their entire population is depicted as a bunch of poorly-educated, morally bankrupt bible-bashing scumbags.
The central antagonist is Brigham Elijah Dashwood, the prospective Governor of the USA's new 53rd state Maryborough (Have I mentioned how ridiculous that idea is?). Dashwood is a televangelist who doesn't read the bible and secretly harvests prostitutes and worships Satan. There. You should get my point. And it is amusing that all the 8th Doctor has to do to defeat him is talk to him for 15 seconds while the cameras are running.
1. Barely touched upon at all. There's a 'demon' in the story, but he does very little except enter into a hamming it up battle with Senator Leghorn and killing Dashwood's token-scientist and pitifully-optimistic-sextoy Dail Pagiter. The last episode contains a long explanation of who the Demons are... but it feels a bit lame. Something about creatues that feed on thought patterns and appear as you wish to see them... feels a lot like a cop-out after characters talking about 'hell' for a great deal of episodes.
It does lead to the brilliant scene where Charley gets sucked into 'Hell' and the demons there reject her because she 'is already dead'. Brilliant.
Speaking of Charley, she gets something of a raw deal in this audio. Yeah, her character is amnesiac but I thought she'd have been slightly more affronted by people in the future being taken to a brothel for training from a dominatrix when arrested for vagrancy. I know I was!
Hmm.. anything else to say... anything at all?
Damn it, I can't hold it in... WHAT THE FUCK IS THE DEAL WITH RAMSAY?! Is THAT meant to be some sort of plot arc?! It has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING! It's just giving a link to past stories, but it doesn't make them RELEVANT because he's not RELEVANT! SELF INDULGENT TRIPE!!! AAAARGH!
Phew, sorry, lost my cool there. What better to calm me down than a nice, relaxing slab of Mark Gatiss?
INVADERS FROM MARS
... anything else it would seem. At all. In the whole world. Including sodomy.
More on that later, however...