Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Big Finish Doctor Who Bonanza!

So, we've been on holiday, and much of that holiday has involved being on the road, driving from place to place with adult and child geeks alike to entertain. So it was recommended to me that we give some of Big Finish's Doctor Who range a try, which seemed like great advice right until I actually looked at the number of options available. I mean, there's hundreds of the damn things, featuring every Doctor who isn't dead, plus some "elseworlds" style stories, plus companion stories for TV-era companions and ones spun off the audio line. It's clearly a "thing". So, after some advice from folks on twitter, I bought some, and had a listen.

The first thing to say is that I've stuck to early stories from the "main" range - partly because I've heard that the Very Beginning is a Very Good Place to Start, but also because two of the featured Doctors, Six and Eight, acquire new companions and it's handy to get their introduction. Despite my natural fear of the Sixth Doctor, I was strongly recommended to get some of his, and Eight, of course, never got a fair crack of the whip. Finally, every main range under episode 50 is currently on £2.99 for download, which is a bargain for two hours entertainment. So, here we go:

The Marian Conspiracy & The Spectre of Lanyon Moor
Within the opening 10 minutes of The Marian Conspiracy, I got the Sixth Doctor like two series of the TV show never managed. He's arrogant, condescending and waspish, but in a sort of fussy, put-upon on what that is easily punctured by people snapping back. He's also almost instantly likeable, which you could never say about his TV incarnation, and best of all, he picks up a companion that really compliments him. Evelyn Smyth is the sort of companion that I can never, ever see the TV show doing - she's a respectable older lady with a cardigan, a hand-bag and a heart for adventure, and she's awesome.

The Marian Conspiracy is at heart one of those "pop into the past, mingle with the historical types" stories that is the bread and butter of Doctor Who, but it has an interesting central character - "Bloody" Mary Tudor. And rather than make her a villain, she gets a (largely) sympathetic portrayal as an intelligent and erudite religious fanatic, and the whole story plays more as historical tragedy then as monsters and running down corridors. I kept waiting for some alien in disguise to turn up but it never happens, and Evelyn's Back To The Future-esque plot never gets to be more than a loose excuse to nose around the period a bit. And thats fine, because as an engaging human story it was a great introduction to the Audio series as a whole.

The other great staple of Doctor Who, especially in the 70s, was the aliens-masquerading-as-magic story, usually involving UNIT. And so it's very fitting that The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, which would be right at home with the Third Doctor, stars Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart alongside Six and Evelyn. A very traditional Who story at heart, its great fun, if a little predictable, but it at least taught me what a "Foogle" is.

If the Sixth Doctor stories have to work overtime to banish memories of horror like "The Twin Dilemma", then the Seventh Doctor stories have the opposite problem. To whit, I have such a childhood affection for Seven and Ace (well, I lingering affection for Ace may more a teenage affection...), that hearing them in new stories is such a singular pleasure it's hard to be totally dispassionate. Colditz dumps them in the eponymous castle as it was being used a POW camp in World War 2, and throws a mixture of escape story (Ace) and cross-time mystery (The Doctor) together into something that mostly works. Without giving too much away, Colditz feels a little bit too much like half-a-story, with too many deliberately left loose ends at the end, that they clearly intend to go back to.

Storm Warning & The Sword of Orion
And so onto the Eigth Doctor, left lost and forlorn after a TV which no-one much liked. Much like The Marian ConspiracyStorm Warning is very much a clean start with a new companion (well, two, if Ramsey sticks around), but whereas Evelyn is very much off the beaten track, Charlie is much more in the traditional mould for a Who companion - young, female and perkily adventurous. This isn't to say I don't like her - she's pretty cool - but she's a thoroughly modern choice in many ways, and very in line with the sort of Companions the relaunched TV show went with.

Story-wise, I liked Storm Warning a lot, mostly because of it's strong characterisation, that twists and turns in unexpected ways through the story. The whole idea of the R101 being on a secret mission, and that the nature of the mission isn't quite what you expect, throws up one of the plus points of all the stories; that there is an interest in telling good, new stories that try to push the Who formula around a bit. Its recognisable, sure, but it also wants to keep you guessing and play with expectations, not just lazily milk a dedicated fan base for it's nostalgia money.

The Sword of Orion is the only story we got to feature a "big" villain, this time the Cybermen in a fairly classically-inspired "base under siege" story. Now I found this the weakest of the five stories we got, simply because it's main beats were very familiar, and it suffers from a rush of revelation and plotting towards the end, after some of the main internal mysteries were dragged out a little long. But then, I'm also not a big fan of the Cybermen, so it may be a little lost on me generally!

But overall, these were a huge hit - totally worth it, and thanks for everyone who recommended me stories!