Jago and Litefoot - 5.3 The Bloodchild Codex

It seems strangely like Season Five is progressively weakening its case for the Sixties setting the more it goes on. It opened with a story that made definite use of the specific juxtaposition of series and setting, then it moved onto a vaguely sixties set story that had no particular need to be Jago and Litefoot. Now it’s given us, in the Bloodchild Codex, a story which is so archetypally Jago and Litefoot it’s actively crying out for the classic Victoriana aesthetic.

Classic Jago and Litefoot and classic Victoriana are one and the same, it was that perfect evocative marriage that made the series in the first place. What works for one works for the other, and the Bloodchild Codex is ticking all the boxes. Curses, bloodlines, family legacies, even a London city bathed in roiling fog. It has all the trappings of a traditional J&L romp. But it’s been dropped into a season whose whole MO is anything but traditional, and that simply stops Codex from being as richly evocative as it wants to be.

If Season Five is going to be a break from the normal, wild and out there, with a different status quo, it has to commit to being those things. Trying to go traditional in the middle of that doesn’t work. On the face of it, it might seem like it’s a good idea, to appease the people who don’t enjoy the shift in style, but that isn’t going to work. None of the Season Five stories can be successfully and satisfyingly traditional. By their very nature they’re never going to capture exactly the same vibe as Season One or Two. In trying you get something which can’t ever be 100% of what it wants to be, and at the same time weakens the overall aesthetic of this series by stepping back from it, rather than wholly committing to it and producing a full season of stories aimed at capitalising on whatever make the new style worth doing.

What’s further unfortunate is that the core theme of this story actually could get some good mileage out of the series/setting mash up. Potentially it could have been a second tale in the vein of the Age of Revolution. It doesn’t focus on this theme to that extent though, and that’s a shame. Whilst the question that Codex asks is far from new to this genre, the unique nature of Jago and Litefoot in the sixties actually does offer a range of interesting nuances to explore it anew. The tale does carry its theme a fair way, and takes the time to have each character in the story touch on it, but its only Ellie who gets the chance to really dwell on it and open it up, in one of the best scenes of the story. (Have I mentioned how much better Ellie is this season than ever before?)

Like the season opener, the strong characterisation it gains by drawing on the story’s theme is one of the main selling points of the tale. Whilst the plot is decent it’s not the driving force, utilising mostly established tropes and with a slightly airy conclusion. Instead, Codex is a fairly richly textured tale, with much the feel of classics from the first two seasons, with all of their bold character and fantastic atmosphere. It’s pleasing even in spite of the off-note in the setting, and in particular it gives George another chance to be canny and investigative without, this time, having to undermine Henry. One slight issue I had with the characters is not actually in characterisation at all, but rather in how similarly drawn the new character Summer is to the ongoing Guinevere Godiva. The two performances are also quite similar, leading to me confusing the two briefly on a couple of occasions.

I have further comments on the subplot which builds across this story, but as that seems more related to the arc of the series as a whole, I’ll save them for my review of the Final Act. What I will say is that the direction it takes isn’t one I’m wholly onboard with, and I think it has flaws in common with those I noted at the opening of this review.

A servant of two masters, Codex can’t ever be everything it should be, and that’s disappointing. Still its thematic and atmospheric threads are both enjoyable on their own merits, even whilst their incompatibility holds the story back from being either wholly traditional or experimental. Whilst I’m sad for the Victoriana version of Codex we never got, that sadness comes from how close this version manages to get. 7/10.

Jago and Litefoot - 5.2 The Case of the Gluttonous Guru

Unfortunately, the Case of the Gluttonous Guru didn’t make much of an impression on me. Rather forgettable, I’m struggling to find anything much to say about it. On the plus side, there are no gaping flaws to skewer, but there’s little of any substance to talk about either. Whilst the previous tale succeeded on the strength of its theme and character motivations, there’s little of that around Guru.

I suppose the story is meant to satirise hippie new-age sects, but it lacks any focus. A few jokes about frog-licking are all you get, and there’s not really even any character in the story representing the kind of follower the sect is meant to have picked up. Meanwhile the villain is basically a mindless servant of a higher power, so lacks any motivation or voice for the story’s conflict (and the power he serves does not have a presence in the script). You could see this as the satire itself, if it sought to portray those swayed by sects and cults as losing a mind of their own, but the story doesn’t make any conclusions of such coherence.

As a result, the best bits of Guru don’t drive the plot at all, but come of scenes that fill in the background circumstances of the character’s lives. Seeing how the regulars are each getting on in the new era is ultimately more intriguing than the mystery of the week.

Henry gets some lovely material early on, which is fortunate, because his scenes in the latter half of the plot are too thin for even Christopher Benjamin to do much with, hazily half-committing to a gag that runs too long.

Ellie, meanwhile, continues to grow in my affections, with season six doing wonders to enhance and bring out her strength of character. I’m also very fond of the Jamie Newall’s slightly effete Aubrey, who proves quite lovable. And, pleasingly, Litefoot gets to be a bit more proactive and investigatorial this episode in pursuit of the conclusion, which at least improves upon the macguffin resolution to the previous story.

I also find myself growing intrigued by the mysterious Guinevere Godiva, played in particularly enigmatic fashion by Raquel Cassidy. She gets a fair bit of screen time in this story, largely in scenes with Henry which hark back to bygone days - days which the listeners can share in the nostalgia for. These scenes, like the day-to-day scenes mentioned above, prove quite compelling. Guru never grabbed me with its story, but it did make me further invested in the lives of its characters and the arc of the season.

And that’s basically my conclusion, because I find myself with scarce else I want to comment on. I can’t say I disliked the story, because I didn’t - though it has a lengthy running time that it didn’t really fill. Guru’s not really bad, but it’s more a light salad than a sumptuous roast meal. The richness of the characters and matter of the series as a whole make for a more satisfying side dish. 6/10.

Jago and Litefoot - 5.1 The Age of Revolution

I’m afraid to say I was disappointed in the direction Big Finish chose to take with Season Five of Jago and Litefoot, relocating the pair to the 1960s. Since the end of Season Two, the show has been testing the boundaries of what it can do, and whilst I favour experimentation and innovation in a show, I also think it’s important to maintain the integrity of the show’s identity. Jago and Litefoot’s success comes from a very strong identity, and the series had started to drift from it. Still, after the quality of Season Four’s stories and the Doctor Who crossover special releases, I was fully onboard and excited for the pair to be coming home. It was an unpleasant surprise, therefore, to find the duo had instead gone somewhere else entirely. In Doctor Who we have a show that can go anywhere and do anything, where you never know what flavour of story is coming next. Jago and Litefoot, on the other hand, has a very definite core aesthetic, and it was built on the strength of that core to begin with. With these recent excursions it has spent more time echoing Doctor Who than it has being its own - brilliant - production. I don’t want my Jago and Litefoot to be Doctor Who, I have Doctor Who for that. I want Jago and Litefoot to be itself.

On a positive note, the show has clearly carried over the love and focus in its production values. This opening episode sounds amazing, throwing the audience into the new status quo with a fervent passion, and relishing every minute of its new playground. The music, production and direction is as on-target as it ever was, making the sixties every bit as colourful as it made the nineteenth century. It evokes the Avengers and Adam Adamant with every nuance, and that’s hugely enjoyable. It’s just that, for all the strength it gives the show’s new identity, I have to wonder why they changed a show with a solid identity to a totally different identity.

Now, with that disclaimer looming over the season, it’s probably a bit of a turnaround to say that the Age of Revolution actually pleased me a great deal, but in point of fact it succeeds entirely by telling a story that couldn’t be told simply by, say, Counter-Measures or some other sixties series. Johnny Morris has made this opener a strong mission statement for the series. He latches onto a well conceived theme that makes the specific juxtaposition of the characters and the era matter, and he holds to that theme throughout. It gives his narrative a strong spine, it justifies the questionable change in setting, and it adds some really rich thematic depth to the tale. The magical/science-fictional concept at the heart of the story is rather intriguing and has some great dramatic implications; it specifically utilises the hyper-saturated sixties production values in a slightly metafictional way, to say something that couldn’t be said merely by a show ‘of the era’. Moreover, Morris uses the strong theme as a lens to give each character clear motivations, which strengthens both the story and the characters themselves.

In fact, one thing the change in context does achieve is bringing out the characters more vividly than ever before - something which takes up the slack of the lost Victoriana in maintaining the key Jago and Litefoot feel. I enjoyed Ellie in Age far more than I have in any other story. She’s really gained a lot of agency and character. As for the return of Duncan Wisbey as Sacker, he gets richer material in the first five minutes of his appearance than poor neglected Sergeant Quick ever got back in the eighteen-hundreds. If Sacker’s sixties investigations were to continue after Jago and Litefoot departed I would buy them like a shot. And the leads, they feel oddly at home in this setting. I suppose that comes of them literally being so - The story picks up after Jago and Litefoot are already settled in. An odd choice, since skipping over their acclimatisation seems like ignoring the main reason to juxtapose them upon the setting to begin with, although if the few flashbacks in this story continue throughout the series, that might fulfil that purpose.

I wonder if playing to a period within their lifetimes has galvanised Benjamin and Baxter, or whether it’s another factor at work, but they are, if possible, livelier than ever, really laying into their characters. The counterposition of the pair’s feelings toward the decade are a nice touch, though I do feel that Henry gets slightly short shrift again in that ultimately he ends up being brought around to Litefoot’s ‘correct’ position.

In general, then, the writing is actually very well calculated. There were, for me, just a couple of unfortunate stumbles. The first of which is the dependence of the story upon a macguffin without any set up. The story reaches an interesting point, but to get to its next plot beat it merely invokes author fiat, jumping from one place to the next without any logical progression and failing to satisfy. It’s not even a twist, or really anything - Just a sudden failure of the plot to progress naturally at all. Luckily it doesn’t mar the quality elements going on around it, but it does feel like something is missing.

The other thing that became apparent whilst listening is that Johnny Morris likes his references. He throws in one liner nods to Monty Python, the Kinks and others. Lines that would have been out of place back in 1800s Jago and Litefoot, but which seek to capitalise on the wacky juxtaposition of this new series. They only have one layer, though, and once the novelty of Jago and Litefoot et al voicing references to things in contemporary history wears thin there’s not much to the joke. (The Python gag seems woefully miscalculated to me, since not only are Python gags painfully trite by this junction, it has no relevance to the new setting either. At least the Kinks joke made sense with the context.)

Having finished Age, my feelings are mixed. For now my feeling is that this is an interesting place to have gone to, and it does do something that couldn’t be done were this Counter-Measures or another such ‘sixties’ show. But it still feels a mistake to be doing it now, when the series was badly in need of cementing its core before another excursion. I’m also not sure if they’ll make every release in the series count, versus simply doing a lone sixties-set special release. Still, Age left me eager to find out, and was far truer to the series than one might have feared. 8/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.3 Old Soldiers
It’s clear from the tone and stoic emotion invested in Nicholas Courtney’s first lines that Old Soldiers is a story intended as poignant, even at release. The tragic chorus quality of the opening narration only confirming what Courtney’s tone already says. Time has endeavoured to add a further layer of impact to the Brigadier’s words, and it stands as a fitting memorial to Courtney’s fantastic work on the show as, even on its own merits, it is a strong, wistful, thoughtful performance by a great actor. Nick conveys a great deal with subtlety and restraint, and it’s really his excellent turn that makes this release stand out.
Whilst the UNIT years are not my favourite, they did bring some bold moves to the production of the show, and I particularly respect is the choice to end the Silurians on an ethically very grey action by the Brigadier. It’s one of the more poignant moments of its own time, and so it’s a very fitting choice by James Swallow to place the events of Soldiers within the shadow of that act. 
Firstly, it emphasises the intended tone of the piece. The Brigadier and the Doctor haven’t been speaking, and the Brig wonders how inclined the Doctor will be even to answer his call for help. Of course, the Doctor being who he is, he’d never refuse his aid, but it certainly projects an atmosphere over proceedings - of damages done, and the loss of a bond. A different, but equally potent sort of lost friendship to parallel the more literal ones of the Brig’s reminiscence.
Further to that, it fuels the story with a source of supporting material for plot and theme. Whilst the basic plot of Old Soldiers could easily stand alone, it’s enriched by entwining it with the Silurian fallout subplot. This material really informs a secondary theme of the play, bringing across the ethical questions raised at the end of the Silurians and allowing them space to run through a story from beginning to end.
What really pleases me, though, is that this enhancement works both ways. Old Soldiers doesn’t merely draw material from the Silurians, but it provides a new context for the consideration of that story itself. I am particularly fond of stories which use past material to further enrich and re-present tales we might think we already know, and that’s what Swallow does here.
Elsewhere, the central plot of the piece is solid if not scintillating. The plot feels Pertwee-era appropriate, with its macguffins calling to mind favoured tropes of that period - thankfully, though, condensed into two (slightly long) episodes, eschewing the extensive filler that categorised the era. Pertwee afficionados shouldn’t be put off, though, it still packs in the action-orientation of the time, and a parachuting sequence in particular was so very Pertwee I could envision the behind-the-scenes DVD extras about the shooting!
Major Schrader wins no prizes for innovation as a supporting character. Xenophobic, driven German military man with a screw loose is not the most shocking subversion of stereotypes. Nor is the casting overly inspired; Toby Longworth is something of BF’s stock character actor for strong accents, and whilst he’s perfectly competent, he does tend to play larger-than-life. Effective in some productions (Dr. Tulp, for example), it can come off caricature.
All of which brings me back around to Nick Courtney, without whom, Old Soldiers would be a workmanlike, slightly two-dimensional, but decently conceived tale. It’s the mark of Courtney’s great performance that with subtlety and warmth he draws out the themes and tone and places them front and center, elevating the whole production to a higher level, and making Old Soldiers a fine memorial to his talents. 7/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.3 Old Soldiers

It’s clear from the tone and stoic emotion invested in Nicholas Courtney’s first lines that Old Soldiers is a story intended as poignant, even at release. The tragic chorus quality of the opening narration only confirming what Courtney’s tone already says. Time has endeavoured to add a further layer of impact to the Brigadier’s words, and it stands as a fitting memorial to Courtney’s fantastic work on the show as, even on its own merits, it is a strong, wistful, thoughtful performance by a great actor. Nick conveys a great deal with subtlety and restraint, and it’s really his excellent turn that makes this release stand out.

Whilst the UNIT years are not my favourite, they did bring some bold moves to the production of the show, and I particularly respect is the choice to end the Silurians on an ethically very grey action by the Brigadier. It’s one of the more poignant moments of its own time, and so it’s a very fitting choice by James Swallow to place the events of Soldiers within the shadow of that act.

Firstly, it emphasises the intended tone of the piece. The Brigadier and the Doctor haven’t been speaking, and the Brig wonders how inclined the Doctor will be even to answer his call for help. Of course, the Doctor being who he is, he’d never refuse his aid, but it certainly projects an atmosphere over proceedings - of damages done, and the loss of a bond. A different, but equally potent sort of lost friendship to parallel the more literal ones of the Brig’s reminiscence.

Further to that, it fuels the story with a source of supporting material for plot and theme. Whilst the basic plot of Old Soldiers could easily stand alone, it’s enriched by entwining it with the Silurian fallout subplot. This material really informs a secondary theme of the play, bringing across the ethical questions raised at the end of the Silurians and allowing them space to run through a story from beginning to end.

What really pleases me, though, is that this enhancement works both ways. Old Soldiers doesn’t merely draw material from the Silurians, but it provides a new context for the consideration of that story itself. I am particularly fond of stories which use past material to further enrich and re-present tales we might think we already know, and that’s what Swallow does here.

Elsewhere, the central plot of the piece is solid if not scintillating. The plot feels Pertwee-era appropriate, with its macguffins calling to mind favoured tropes of that period - thankfully, though, condensed into two (slightly long) episodes, eschewing the extensive filler that categorised the era. Pertwee afficionados shouldn’t be put off, though, it still packs in the action-orientation of the time, and a parachuting sequence in particular was so very Pertwee I could envision the behind-the-scenes DVD extras about the shooting!

Major Schrader wins no prizes for innovation as a supporting character. Xenophobic, driven German military man with a screw loose is not the most shocking subversion of stereotypes. Nor is the casting overly inspired; Toby Longworth is something of BF’s stock character actor for strong accents, and whilst he’s perfectly competent, he does tend to play larger-than-life. Effective in some productions (Dr. Tulp, for example), it can come off caricature.

All of which brings me back around to Nick Courtney, without whom, Old Soldiers would be a workmanlike, slightly two-dimensional, but decently conceived tale. It’s the mark of Courtney’s great performance that with subtlety and warmth he draws out the themes and tone and places them front and center, elevating the whole production to a higher level, and making Old Soldiers a fine memorial to his talents. 7/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.2 Helicon Prime
Helicon Prime is a bit of an odd mix of a familiar Troughton era feel with plot mechanics which are somewhat peculiar to his time on TV. As such, it comes off feeling like a continuation of that era, as opposed to an insert into the existing canon; the kind of story that might have come about had the Troughton years continued longer. That’s a fitting feeling, because Helicon Prime is one of a rare few stories that play around in the space of the mythical ‘Season 6B’. This fan hypothesis supposes a time after The War Games in which the Doctor recieves a stay of his sentence and is sent to work for the CIA alongside Jamie. Whilst it’s never explicit, Prime intimates that it is in this space that its events take place, however those who dislike the theory will be glad to know the story can equally be construed another way - no more idiosyncratic than the Five or Two Doctors. Personally I enjoy this ambiguity more than confirmation in either direction.New to the continuing adventures of the Doctor and Jamie is the nature of the plot. Whilst the Troughton era is characterised by monster stories and adventure serials, Prime furnishes it with a murder mystery; somewhere between Poirot and film noir. It’s different ground for the era, though it turns out that Jamie and the Doctor make a rather good detective double act.The eponymous Helicon Prime isn’t the sort of locale we saw in the sixties either. A luxury hotel populated with a clientele of multifarious oddball characters, with upside down fountains and talking fish. It’s a setting more reminiscent of the Tom Baker years, and bringing it back to the sixties gives us more action of a kind we’re not used to seeing these characters involved with. It’s also a lovingly rendered environment, a wonderfully vibrant setting with a great sense of place which strengthens the play immensely.But for all it’s non-traditional elements, the lovely thing about Prime is that it still feels utterly true to its TARDIS team. That’s what really sells this tale as a genuine progression of the Troughton era, not a disconnected tale. It succeeds through going to new places, and having them play out in a way which feels utterly true to the Second Doctor and Jamie. The Doctor relaxing and kicking back, whilst all the time doing some undercover investigation is gorgeously Troughton. Even better is the way Jamie seems perturbed that they’re not ploughing old, familiar ground - as if he’s half-aware he’s not in Season 6 any more and not happy about it. It’s hilarious, just a little knowing, and entirely Jamie. Having the Doctor romantically starstruck might not seem the sort of element you expect from a Troughton tale - Yet the romantic/seductive/exasperated triangle of Doctor, Mindy, Jamie is bang on the nose, and deceptively clever.Having done good work creating a feel of Season 6b, where Prime unfortunately falls down is in giving a reason why. For all the care with which this new window for adventure has been integrated into the past era of the show, I’m not sure what was gained by it. Prime might take on a different genre to those we’d expect of the Troughton years, it might put the TARDIS team into new situations, but it never justifies those jumps by drawing any new facets from it. If its strength is in maintaining a feel entirely true to the on screen adventures, its weakness is in not saying anything they didn’t say.This criticism carries over to the framing device, which - like Mother Russia before it - evidences a format still gestating. The framing scenes give a new voice to Jamie but don’t quite manage to have him say anything through it. Also, whilst these sequences take the story in a direction which prefigures the kind of inspired storytelling to come later in the range, Jake Elliott hasn’t quite got command of the device, leading to an awkward stumble from in-universe to out-of-universe narration toward the end.At the end of the day Helicon Prime does two things well: It captures the joyful spirit of the Second Doctor and Jamie, and it paints in a very believable feel of an unseen continuation of the Troughton adventures. What lets it down is in its failure to be innovative, as well as merely new. Helicon Prime doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard before, but it gives us a nicely authentic outing for the Doctor and Jamie, with some interesting quirks of its own. 7/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.2 Helicon Prime

Helicon Prime is a bit of an odd mix of a familiar Troughton era feel with plot mechanics which are somewhat peculiar to his time on TV. As such, it comes off feeling like a continuation of that era, as opposed to an insert into the existing canon; the kind of story that might have come about had the Troughton years continued longer. That’s a fitting feeling, because Helicon Prime is one of a rare few stories that play around in the space of the mythical ‘Season 6B’. This fan hypothesis supposes a time after The War Games in which the Doctor recieves a stay of his sentence and is sent to work for the CIA alongside Jamie. Whilst it’s never explicit, Prime intimates that it is in this space that its events take place, however those who dislike the theory will be glad to know the story can equally be construed another way - no more idiosyncratic than the Five or Two Doctors. Personally I enjoy this ambiguity more than confirmation in either direction.

New to the continuing adventures of the Doctor and Jamie is the nature of the plot. Whilst the Troughton era is characterised by monster stories and adventure serials, Prime furnishes it with a murder mystery; somewhere between Poirot and film noir. It’s different ground for the era, though it turns out that Jamie and the Doctor make a rather good detective double act.

The eponymous Helicon Prime isn’t the sort of locale we saw in the sixties either. A luxury hotel populated with a clientele of multifarious oddball characters, with upside down fountains and talking fish. It’s a setting more reminiscent of the Tom Baker years, and bringing it back to the sixties gives us more action of a kind we’re not used to seeing these characters involved with. It’s also a lovingly rendered environment, a wonderfully vibrant setting with a great sense of place which strengthens the play immensely.

But for all it’s non-traditional elements, the lovely thing about Prime is that it still feels utterly true to its TARDIS team. That’s what really sells this tale as a genuine progression of the Troughton era, not a disconnected tale. It succeeds through going to new places, and having them play out in a way which feels utterly true to the Second Doctor and Jamie. The Doctor relaxing and kicking back, whilst all the time doing some undercover investigation is gorgeously Troughton. Even better is the way Jamie seems perturbed that they’re not ploughing old, familiar ground - as if he’s half-aware he’s not in Season 6 any more and not happy about it. It’s hilarious, just a little knowing, and entirely Jamie. Having the Doctor romantically starstruck might not seem the sort of element you expect from a Troughton tale - Yet the romantic/seductive/exasperated triangle of Doctor, Mindy, Jamie is bang on the nose, and deceptively clever.

Having done good work creating a feel of Season 6b, where Prime unfortunately falls down is in giving a reason why. For all the care with which this new window for adventure has been integrated into the past era of the show, I’m not sure what was gained by it. Prime might take on a different genre to those we’d expect of the Troughton years, it might put the TARDIS team into new situations, but it never justifies those jumps by drawing any new facets from it. If its strength is in maintaining a feel entirely true to the on screen adventures, its weakness is in not saying anything they didn’t say.

This criticism carries over to the framing device, which - like Mother Russia before it - evidences a format still gestating. The framing scenes give a new voice to Jamie but don’t quite manage to have him say anything through it. Also, whilst these sequences take the story in a direction which prefigures the kind of inspired storytelling to come later in the range, Jake Elliott hasn’t quite got command of the device, leading to an awkward stumble from in-universe to out-of-universe narration toward the end.

At the end of the day Helicon Prime does two things well: It captures the joyful spirit of the Second Doctor and Jamie, and it paints in a very believable feel of an unseen continuation of the Troughton adventures. What lets it down is in its failure to be innovative, as well as merely new. Helicon Prime doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard before, but it gives us a nicely authentic outing for the Doctor and Jamie, with some interesting quirks of its own. 7/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.1 Mother Russia
Though Frostfire may technically have been Steven’s first appearance in the Companion Chronicles, Mother Russia marks Peter Purves’ entry to the range, putting Steven in the spotlight for the first time. So doing, it plays up an interesting undertone of Steven’s character - an often critical view of the Doctor. Even from his introduction to the TARDIS, he displays skepticism, and later tales will often see Steven take an adult conscientiousness to the Doctor’s childishness or callousness. His space pilot background is an asset here, as he is less prone to awe than Ian and Barbara.
So Mother Russia gives us another look at the strength of character which sets Steven apart from earlier companions. To the largest extent since The Massacre we see that Steven won’t let the Doctor fox his own moral compass - and indeed Mother Russia is not wholly dissimilar to that story. Though it’s not directly called out, the decision to set this later, with the generally less popular Dodo team, gives this story some added context - Steven may still carry old wounds from that conflict.
It’s also nice the way this story lightly plays with the traditional pure historical themes. Whilst the same stakes are on the line, the same imperatives overhanging the TARDIS crew’s involvement in history, a few of the characters get a chance to take slightly different stances than usual, with events playing out a touch differently than one might expect. This also helps prevent Mother Russia from hewing too close to the territory of The Massacre - The characters clash similarly, but the specifics are fresh.
On a lighter note, the story offers us a look at another side of Steven - and to an extent the other regulars - not seen elsewhere. The majority of the first part is given over to letting the TARDIS crew relax and settle down. Like the villa scenes in The Romans it lets us see the regulars in a circumstance we don’t usually witness: day to day living. This section of the play takes a languorous tone, content to take its time building up a sense of ease and passing days. The strength of this section is in building up a believable friendship between Steven and Semeon. By taking the time to properly develop the bond, it not only paints a richer character portrait, but also sets up the second half of the play, which depends upon the strong sense of comradeship to fully sell its events.
Oddly, given this talk of exploring Steven’s character, for scenes featuring a character named the Interrogator, the framing sequences are not particularly exploratory. It’s evident we’re still in the early days of the CCs, and the use of the format is not so assured as it will become. The scenes with the Interrogator feel a little muddled and not fully integrated with the main story. It’s not entirely clear what Platt was going for thematically here, and stylistically there’s a slightly confused moment when the narration jumps from in-universe to out-of-universe. At the least, though, these sequences allow Steven to affirm his strength of character more directly, whilst Tony Milan’s nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic turn as the Interrogator makes for very enjoyable listening.
Mother Russia displays a degree of uncertainty with the format - an artefact of the early days of the Companion Chronicles range - but this doesn’t prevent Peter Purves’ return to the role of Steven from being an enjoyable and successful reprise of the elements that made the character compelling on TV. 7/10.

The Companion Chronicles - 2.1 Mother Russia

Though Frostfire may technically have been Steven’s first appearance in the Companion Chronicles, Mother Russia marks Peter Purves’ entry to the range, putting Steven in the spotlight for the first time. So doing, it plays up an interesting undertone of Steven’s character - an often critical view of the Doctor. Even from his introduction to the TARDIS, he displays skepticism, and later tales will often see Steven take an adult conscientiousness to the Doctor’s childishness or callousness. His space pilot background is an asset here, as he is less prone to awe than Ian and Barbara.

So Mother Russia gives us another look at the strength of character which sets Steven apart from earlier companions. To the largest extent since The Massacre we see that Steven won’t let the Doctor fox his own moral compass - and indeed Mother Russia is not wholly dissimilar to that story. Though it’s not directly called out, the decision to set this later, with the generally less popular Dodo team, gives this story some added context - Steven may still carry old wounds from that conflict.

It’s also nice the way this story lightly plays with the traditional pure historical themes. Whilst the same stakes are on the line, the same imperatives overhanging the TARDIS crew’s involvement in history, a few of the characters get a chance to take slightly different stances than usual, with events playing out a touch differently than one might expect. This also helps prevent Mother Russia from hewing too close to the territory of The Massacre - The characters clash similarly, but the specifics are fresh.

On a lighter note, the story offers us a look at another side of Steven - and to an extent the other regulars - not seen elsewhere. The majority of the first part is given over to letting the TARDIS crew relax and settle down. Like the villa scenes in The Romans it lets us see the regulars in a circumstance we don’t usually witness: day to day living. This section of the play takes a languorous tone, content to take its time building up a sense of ease and passing days. The strength of this section is in building up a believable friendship between Steven and Semeon. By taking the time to properly develop the bond, it not only paints a richer character portrait, but also sets up the second half of the play, which depends upon the strong sense of comradeship to fully sell its events.

Oddly, given this talk of exploring Steven’s character, for scenes featuring a character named the Interrogator, the framing sequences are not particularly exploratory. It’s evident we’re still in the early days of the CCs, and the use of the format is not so assured as it will become. The scenes with the Interrogator feel a little muddled and not fully integrated with the main story. It’s not entirely clear what Platt was going for thematically here, and stylistically there’s a slightly confused moment when the narration jumps from in-universe to out-of-universe. At the least, though, these sequences allow Steven to affirm his strength of character more directly, whilst Tony Milan’s nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic turn as the Interrogator makes for very enjoyable listening.

Mother Russia displays a degree of uncertainty with the format - an artefact of the early days of the Companion Chronicles range - but this doesn’t prevent Peter Purves’ return to the role of Steven from being an enjoyable and successful reprise of the elements that made the character compelling on TV. 7/10.

Doctor Who - 170. Spaceport Fear
There’s an odd paradox dominating Spaceport Fear, and it regards the titular Spaceport setting. It’s a conceit which is simultaneously omnipresent and yet strangely irrelevant. The notion of an entire culture founded on some small aspect of life is not a new one, or one invented by Doctor Who, though I confess I tend to think of such tales as ‘Face of Evil’ stories. In that outing, the origins of the culture served as a key twist in the tale which put events into perspective and progressed the plot.
In Fear, the spaceport (airport) culture is not a twist, but a conceit up front from the word go. It’s heavily laid on to every element of the characters’ society, and particularly shot through their dialogue. Fear’s lighthearted in tone and plays this for humour with a liberal seasoning of puns, rather than explore any implications of the conceit. In this way, the setting bears more resemblance to Paradise Towers than Face of Evil. If nothing else, the jovial tone is spot on for the amiable Mel era.
Even in Paradise Towers, though, the High-Rise culture conceit informed the plot and was central to its resolution. In Fear, it just never seems to connect. As the story begins, I’m wondering why there’s a culture founded entirely on spaceport life, pondering the meaning of closed up windows and moving walls (redolent of the setting in Red). Yet as the story progresses, it never seems to be a mystery that the play is interested in, nor the characters. It’s never really viewed as a question that needs answering at all, and so ultimately it never seems to matter to the plot. It’s just window dressing. It still manages to be quite amusing at times - a few of the puns are particularly choice - but more often than not it just sort of washes by along predictable lines.
Two members of the supporting cast stand out, though for different reasons. Ronald Pickup as Elder Bones takes the focus of the story, and commands it fairly well with a decent performance. Bones’ background isn’t as predictable as it might have been, and there’s the suggestion of some interesting nuances in his history. The story never really joins the dots though, so Bones doesn’t so much end up as an intriguing character as a character who seems like he would be intriguing if we just had a little more detail. Pickup manages to preserve what facets are present, rather than rendering the character two-dimensional as could easily have happened, which is to his credit.
The other cast member of note is Beth Chalmers. Notable because she’s become so omnipresent in Big Finish’s productions of late that I’m finding it distracting from the story. To be clear, I think she’s a solid performer and I’ve never disliked her in something. I really liked her in Dominion. However, she has a distinctive voice and something of a signature fingerprint (voiceprint?) that she puts on all her characters. When hearing her every month, it starts to pull one out of the story.
The remaining characters are passable though nondescript. In particular, I found Pretty and Beauty to be lacking in definition during the first half of the story, to the point where they just blurred into Galpan and Rogers. (And I never quite got what Gallagher was going for with the names.) I realised eventually that they were intended to be mirrored pairs, but I barely registered they existed as seperate characters. This isn’t helped by having Beth Chalmers double up on Beauty and Galpan, exacerbating two issues at once.
Beth Chalmers is also one of a number of elements which Fear has in common with last month’s Wrong Doctors. The villains of last month’s piece, with their satirical big-business culture styling, are heavily echoed by the humour and style of this story. Whilst it’s not a bad thing to maintain a consistent tone, I think the positioning of these releases back to back is a bit unfortunate. It causes Fear to come off as a bit of a repeat, tonally, of the Wrong Doctors, which it can’t compete with.
With Bonnie’s appearances being such a rare thing, it would have been nice for this series to really capitalise on her return with every release. Whilst Spaceport Fear’s not bad, it’s rather ephemeral. A 6/10.

Doctor Who - 170. Spaceport Fear

There’s an odd paradox dominating Spaceport Fear, and it regards the titular Spaceport setting. It’s a conceit which is simultaneously omnipresent and yet strangely irrelevant. The notion of an entire culture founded on some small aspect of life is not a new one, or one invented by Doctor Who, though I confess I tend to think of such tales as ‘Face of Evil’ stories. In that outing, the origins of the culture served as a key twist in the tale which put events into perspective and progressed the plot.

In Fear, the spaceport (airport) culture is not a twist, but a conceit up front from the word go. It’s heavily laid on to every element of the characters’ society, and particularly shot through their dialogue. Fears lighthearted in tone and plays this for humour with a liberal seasoning of puns, rather than explore any implications of the conceit. In this way, the setting bears more resemblance to Paradise Towers than Face of Evil. If nothing else, the jovial tone is spot on for the amiable Mel era.

Even in Paradise Towers, though, the High-Rise culture conceit informed the plot and was central to its resolution. In Fear, it just never seems to connect. As the story begins, I’m wondering why there’s a culture founded entirely on spaceport life, pondering the meaning of closed up windows and moving walls (redolent of the setting in Red). Yet as the story progresses, it never seems to be a mystery that the play is interested in, nor the characters. It’s never really viewed as a question that needs answering at all, and so ultimately it never seems to matter to the plot. It’s just window dressing. It still manages to be quite amusing at times - a few of the puns are particularly choice - but more often than not it just sort of washes by along predictable lines.

Two members of the supporting cast stand out, though for different reasons. Ronald Pickup as Elder Bones takes the focus of the story, and commands it fairly well with a decent performance. Bones’ background isn’t as predictable as it might have been, and there’s the suggestion of some interesting nuances in his history. The story never really joins the dots though, so Bones doesn’t so much end up as an intriguing character as a character who seems like he would be intriguing if we just had a little more detail. Pickup manages to preserve what facets are present, rather than rendering the character two-dimensional as could easily have happened, which is to his credit.

The other cast member of note is Beth Chalmers. Notable because she’s become so omnipresent in Big Finish’s productions of late that I’m finding it distracting from the story. To be clear, I think she’s a solid performer and I’ve never disliked her in something. I really liked her in Dominion. However, she has a distinctive voice and something of a signature fingerprint (voiceprint?) that she puts on all her characters. When hearing her every month, it starts to pull one out of the story.

The remaining characters are passable though nondescript. In particular, I found Pretty and Beauty to be lacking in definition during the first half of the story, to the point where they just blurred into Galpan and Rogers. (And I never quite got what Gallagher was going for with the names.) I realised eventually that they were intended to be mirrored pairs, but I barely registered they existed as seperate characters. This isn’t helped by having Beth Chalmers double up on Beauty and Galpan, exacerbating two issues at once.

Beth Chalmers is also one of a number of elements which Fear has in common with last month’s Wrong Doctors. The villains of last month’s piece, with their satirical big-business culture styling, are heavily echoed by the humour and style of this story. Whilst it’s not a bad thing to maintain a consistent tone, I think the positioning of these releases back to back is a bit unfortunate. It causes Fear to come off as a bit of a repeat, tonally, of the Wrong Doctors, which it can’t compete with.

With Bonnie’s appearances being such a rare thing, it would have been nice for this series to really capitalise on her return with every release. Whilst Spaceport Fear’s not bad, it’s rather ephemeral. A 6/10.

Doctor Who - 169. The Wrong Doctors
This release is utterly trivial. It’s practically the definition of trivia, in fact. For a story which built a lot of interest and anticipation by seeming to promise insight into Important Timeline Business, it’s exceptionally, almost wilfully ephemeral. A convoluted convolution wrought entirely for it’s own sake.It’s fantastic, by the way.The Wrong Doctors could certainly be taken as a very fannish exercise. It promises to poke a little into the murky mystery of Mel’s origins and mixed up chronology, something that’s puzzled the devoted fans ever since the Time Lords mucked it all up. Of course we’ve managed to enjoy Mel’s exploits for over 25 years without needing it untangled, and only the fairly hardcore fan would probably even see the need to go back and examine that gap. Examining it in the form of a multi-Doctor story featuring two copies of the same Doctor with two different Mels… Well, like I say. You could take it as ‘fannish’. Actually I was struck by how well suited this set up would actually have been for a December subscriber special for these reasons.Indeed, not just for those reasons, but also because you could probably tell the same story, more-or-less, in seventy minutes. And the reason for that is that most of the story is much of a muchness. It’s a bit of an exercise in excess - Matt Fitton ties the plot into an excess of tangles whose only purpose is ornamental. They’re tangled purely for the fun of of untangling them in your head. And no criticism from me! It’s a lot of fun to do so. The whole story is really very reminiscent of the equally bonkers Flip-Flop. Both stories’ modus operandi is the exploration of a particularly snaffled up narrative, in which the primary focus isn’t really thematic or characterful, but more cerebral. The structure is the the primary attraction. (I believe Flip-Flop might be the better play, having somewhat more theme and depth anchored to its knot of story, but The Wrong Doctors might be the more unashamedly fun.) The concepts are great fun to think over, and not just the continuity ideas, but the sci-fi and plot mechanics Fitton employs too.It’s all very light-hearted and carefree, throwing ridiculous situations together with a certain devilish glee in making things preposterously mixed up. If one were painfully po-faced, one might complain that this were no way to tell a story, that no restraint was being exercised, that ultimately none of it even matters. Thankfully I haven’t yet become quite so soulless, and thus I am perfectly capable of understanding that whilst it might lack for restraint, it might not carry penetrating insights or potent drama, it’s just very very entertaining. Its only foible might be the amount of time it expends on repeatedly clarifying which character is who. The other month, The Shadow Heart messed around with the Doctor’s chronological path through the story, and there the convolution felt bolted on. Here it’s no less complexity for its own sake, but the whole story is so unabashedly about doing that, so gleefully wrapped up in making a huge tangled mess, it completely sold me and involved me in the fun.Just the joy of hearing Colin Baker play a multi-Doctor story against himself is worth the price of admission alone. Honestly, Colin is such an exceptional audio actor. The amount he can evoke or convey through the slightest inflections of his voice is stupendous. This time last year his performance in The Curse of Davros was a mimetic tour-de-force almost too good for the story. This time around he’s playing two different iterations of the same Doctor, frequently conversing with each other without anyone else around, and really doing a great job of demonstrating how the two Doctors differ in tiny subtle ways. They do blur on a couple of occasions, but given the distinction being drawn is exceedingly fine to begin with, it’s nevertheless a consummate show. It’s also a delight, both in the scripting and the playing, for the way it allows Colin’s Big Finish characterisation to be contrasted against his TV persona more directly than has ever been done before.And Bonnie’s back! Testament to Big Finish’s rehabilitation of Mel’s character, a great many people - myself included - were very eager to hear her return after so long. Well not only is she back, but she gets a double serving too! Whilst the script differentiates the two Mels a bit more obviously, than its Doctors, Mel ‘B’ is a character who brings her own set of challenges to perform, and Bonnie realises them splendidly. It’s been a long long time since we got to hear Colin and Bonnie in action together, and they’re not just reunited here, they’re reunited four different ways and then some! No matter which Doctor is working with which Mel (not to mention all the other groupings that occur), each is subtly unique, and all of them go to prove that this TARDIS team is back, and every bit living up to expectations.There is a plot and a guest cast buried under all of that fan-filled delight, and whilst they could have felt drab and rudimentary having to work alongside the big attractions, Fitton’s light-hearted, enjoyable tone spreads throughout the story. Whilst not a comic story, it has a lot of great humour to it, and that also comes out in the characters. All the guest roles are fairly chunky and all have a pleasing, slightly panto fun to them - whilst being each distinct and properly characterised. Tony Gardner’s Petherbridge is a memorable and very entertaining creation; a few early doubts were quickly assuaged once I got the tone of the piece, and he fits right in and exemplifies it.As to the story, beyond saying the word ‘fun’ for the hundredth time, I just wanted to point out how pleasing it was to find that Fitton and the rest of the production crew are clearly very aware and sensitive to their own continuity and the show’s wider legacy. More than just aware of it, they’re revelling in it. I hope it will reassure fans of Business Unusual if I say this story opens more possibilities up than it closes off.Is The Wrong Doctors a bit silly? Yes. Does it offer a deep and revelatory insight into Mel’s personality? No. (But maybe it has a few for the Doctor.) Is it ultimately tied in a huge knot for the sake of it? Absolutely! …But then, if there were no enjoyment in tangling something up just to untangle it, we wouldn’t have Rubix cubes, or those annoying puzzles where you have to get the ring off the string, would we? The Wrong Doctors is one half a cerebrally stimulating puzzle set to wrap your head around, one half joyously absurd melange of characters and moments. Even Simon Robinson’s music has the idea, not taking itself too seriously with its rather wonderfully elicited 80s synth stylings. If you want high drama and emotional character deconstruction, you’re probably better off coming back another month, but if you want to indulge the guilty pleasures of a Doctor Who fan, I can’t help but think The Wrong Doctors will put a smile on your face. 8/10.

Doctor Who - 169. The Wrong Doctors

This release is utterly trivial. It’s practically the definition of trivia, in fact. For a story which built a lot of interest and anticipation by seeming to promise insight into Important Timeline Business, it’s exceptionally, almost wilfully ephemeral. A convoluted convolution wrought entirely for it’s own sake.

It’s fantastic, by the way.

The Wrong Doctors could certainly be taken as a very fannish exercise. It promises to poke a little into the murky mystery of Mel’s origins and mixed up chronology, something that’s puzzled the devoted fans ever since the Time Lords mucked it all up. Of course we’ve managed to enjoy Mel’s exploits for over 25 years without needing it untangled, and only the fairly hardcore fan would probably even see the need to go back and examine that gap. Examining it in the form of a multi-Doctor story featuring two copies of the same Doctor with two different Mels… Well, like I say. You could take it as ‘fannish’. Actually I was struck by how well suited this set up would actually have been for a December subscriber special for these reasons.

Indeed, not just for those reasons, but also because you could probably tell the same story, more-or-less, in seventy minutes. And the reason for that is that most of the story is much of a muchness. It’s a bit of an exercise in excess - Matt Fitton ties the plot into an excess of tangles whose only purpose is ornamental. They’re tangled purely for the fun of of untangling them in your head. And no criticism from me! It’s a lot of fun to do so. The whole story is really very reminiscent of the equally bonkers Flip-Flop. Both stories’ modus operandi is the exploration of a particularly snaffled up narrative, in which the primary focus isn’t really thematic or characterful, but more cerebral. The structure is the the primary attraction. (I believe Flip-Flop might be the better play, having somewhat more theme and depth anchored to its knot of story, but The Wrong Doctors might be the more unashamedly fun.) The concepts are great fun to think over, and not just the continuity ideas, but the sci-fi and plot mechanics Fitton employs too.

It’s all very light-hearted and carefree, throwing ridiculous situations together with a certain devilish glee in making things preposterously mixed up. If one were painfully po-faced, one might complain that this were no way to tell a story, that no restraint was being exercised, that ultimately none of it even matters. Thankfully I haven’t yet become quite so soulless, and thus I am perfectly capable of understanding that whilst it might lack for restraint, it might not carry penetrating insights or potent drama, it’s just very very entertaining. Its only foible might be the amount of time it expends on repeatedly clarifying which character is who. The other month, The Shadow Heart messed around with the Doctor’s chronological path through the story, and there the convolution felt bolted on. Here it’s no less complexity for its own sake, but the whole story is so unabashedly about doing that, so gleefully wrapped up in making a huge tangled mess, it completely sold me and involved me in the fun.

Just the joy of hearing Colin Baker play a multi-Doctor story against himself is worth the price of admission alone. Honestly, Colin is such an exceptional audio actor. The amount he can evoke or convey through the slightest inflections of his voice is stupendous. This time last year his performance in The Curse of Davros was a mimetic tour-de-force almost too good for the story. This time around he’s playing two different iterations of the same Doctor, frequently conversing with each other without anyone else around, and really doing a great job of demonstrating how the two Doctors differ in tiny subtle ways. They do blur on a couple of occasions, but given the distinction being drawn is exceedingly fine to begin with, it’s nevertheless a consummate show. It’s also a delight, both in the scripting and the playing, for the way it allows Colin’s Big Finish characterisation to be contrasted against his TV persona more directly than has ever been done before.

And Bonnie’s back! Testament to Big Finish’s rehabilitation of Mel’s character, a great many people - myself included - were very eager to hear her return after so long. Well not only is she back, but she gets a double serving too! Whilst the script differentiates the two Mels a bit more obviously, than its Doctors, Mel ‘B’ is a character who brings her own set of challenges to perform, and Bonnie realises them splendidly. It’s been a long long time since we got to hear Colin and Bonnie in action together, and they’re not just reunited here, they’re reunited four different ways and then some! No matter which Doctor is working with which Mel (not to mention all the other groupings that occur), each is subtly unique, and all of them go to prove that this TARDIS team is back, and every bit living up to expectations.

There is a plot and a guest cast buried under all of that fan-filled delight, and whilst they could have felt drab and rudimentary having to work alongside the big attractions, Fitton’s light-hearted, enjoyable tone spreads throughout the story. Whilst not a comic story, it has a lot of great humour to it, and that also comes out in the characters. All the guest roles are fairly chunky and all have a pleasing, slightly panto fun to them - whilst being each distinct and properly characterised. Tony Gardner’s Petherbridge is a memorable and very entertaining creation; a few early doubts were quickly assuaged once I got the tone of the piece, and he fits right in and exemplifies it.

As to the story, beyond saying the word ‘fun’ for the hundredth time, I just wanted to point out how pleasing it was to find that Fitton and the rest of the production crew are clearly very aware and sensitive to their own continuity and the show’s wider legacy. More than just aware of it, they’re revelling in it. I hope it will reassure fans of Business Unusual if I say this story opens more possibilities up than it closes off.

Is The Wrong Doctors a bit silly? Yes. Does it offer a deep and revelatory insight into Mel’s personality? No. (But maybe it has a few for the Doctor.) Is it ultimately tied in a huge knot for the sake of it? Absolutely! …But then, if there were no enjoyment in tangling something up just to untangle it, we wouldn’t have Rubix cubes, or those annoying puzzles where you have to get the ring off the string, would we? The Wrong Doctors is one half a cerebrally stimulating puzzle set to wrap your head around, one half joyously absurd melange of characters and moments. Even Simon Robinson’s music has the idea, not taking itself too seriously with its rather wonderfully elicited 80s synth stylings. If you want high drama and emotional character deconstruction, you’re probably better off coming back another month, but if you want to indulge the guilty pleasures of a Doctor Who fan, I can’t help but think The Wrong Doctors will put a smile on your face. 8/10.

Doctor Who - 168. 1001 Nights
The last anthology for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa was the superb Demons of Red Lodge, a collection which built from a solid baseline through gradually more creative and offbeat stories to the inspired culmination of Dorney’s Special Features. It was the art of a good mixtape applied to a compendium of short stories. 1001 Nights, however, feels more akin to last year’s slightly forgettable Sixth Doctor anthology, Recorded Time - A collection of middle-of-the-road tales which aren’t ever bad per se, merely rather transient. 1001 Nights would leave similarly little impression, were it not for the attempt to bring something new to the table by framing the short stories in a larger narrative. A few previous collections dabbled this way, but Nights goes further, situating each individual tale within bookend scenes and giving the whole final episode over to the meta-story.
I definitely appreciated the attempt to innovate the anthology style (which I am a fan of generally), but I feel it could have used greater commitment. The sub-stories have no real relation to the arc story, and the Arabian Nights thematics are somewhat incidental. In fact, the moment which perhaps trades best on the Arabian Nights theme is the very first sequence - ultimately treated as a fleeting gag in the context of the rest of the release, I feel Beeby didn’t realise what she’d got there - the potential existed for something cleverer and more cohesive, with shades of the superlative Urban Myths. Something that could have better utilised the scope offered by each individual story, and traded more on the fact that Nyssa is serving as narrator (she’s not even present for stretches of some stories). In a release where the stories are, specifically, /stories/, only the third installment really tackles that even slightly. A really compelling package would have seen each story reflect the larger theme, and the meta-story pay off elements set up in each individual tale. I hope Big Finish continue to develop their new takes on the anthology release in future years, and realise the seed of an idea that’s planted here.
Taking each installment on its own merits, the first story has a pleasing idea at its core, and manages a nicely paced build up and pay off. It’s a decent sort of baseline for a story, enjoyable but transient. There’s nothing remarkable to it, but no great weaknesses either. A little more character in the jailor and the prisoner could have elicited a more emotive response to the situation, but it remains interesting to consider.
The second story is terribly thin. For a start, it plays as a take-off from The Exorcist for no apparent reason beyond Barnes’ whim, the most evident example of the way the anthology fails to form a whole. It also feels like Barnes had trouble with the one part format and slashed their ideas down too heavily, leaving a story too sparse to fill half an hour, better suited to a ten minute short trip. It attempts to mask this by alluding to off screen events past and future, conjuring up a wider story beyond what’s presented. The allusions don’t cohere sufficiently for that, though, instead feeling like an arbitrary collection of odd plot points that are left trailing unsatisfyingly behind. The story also tries to trade on atmospherics rather than plot, but it just isn’t atmospheric. It shouts and screams and threatens to little sense of tension, not helped by the over mannered performances of the two guest characters, and a lack of restraint from Sarah Sutton. Strange, as Sutton has proved very good at such roles in the past.
The third story, like the first, brings another compelling concept to the table, but it never really runs with it. As with the opening of part one and some of the later moments in the framing story, part three hints at what might have been. The idea is great, and you can see where it could go, the fun that could be had with it, and the way it would reinforce and inspire the larger meta-story. Again, I’d nod towards Urban Myths as an example of what could be achieved (as well as Ringpullworld and Master). Harvey’s content with a fairly trivial treatment of the idea though. It is an entertaining tale, and she jokes with its potential at times, but as with Beeby and the opening sequence, I felt like Harvey didn’t realise that she had the material for something much more intriguing than a couple of jokes in a straightforward story.
The final story clearly wants to be a full four-part play. It’s half-cognisant of the fact with the way it frames each earlier story, and had those stories been more entwined with the framing, further reinforcing and referencing each other, I think the meta-story could have succesfully felt like a full four-parter whilst still being an anthology. (Like I say, I hope Big Finish continues to experiment with this sort of area; the potential is there.) There’s a lot of great stuff in the final part which, if expanded, could have sustained a decent depth and breadth of story. We see other worlds and whole other TARDIS dynamics, play in other atmospheres and ask intriguing ‘What if?’ questions. Several individual moments are promising in their own right, like the ending which reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin’s Diary of the Rose. Even in compressed format, it’s fairly good and enjoyable, and adds a lot of good stuff to the Who mythos. It’s the one thread that really feels genuinely colourful in the whole tale, and had the release been as tightly woven and multifaceted as it might have been, I think this story could have been potently exciting, amusing and tragic. In its compression and the failure of the release to be more than the sum of its parts, it’s robbed of the characterful zenith it might have reached.
Such is the one large weakness which holds back the collection as a whole and each individual episode, whose problems are largely manifestations of the wider issue - there is a severe lack of character. The quality of the stories varies from episode to episode, but even at best they lack any spark of drama, and it’s because the characters were just sketched in. Each episode feels more like reading a storyboard than watching a movie - the plot and ideas are there, but the personality is still being waited on. Peter Davison barely feels present and Sarah Sutton’s performance is limp even when handling material she usually excels at, not to mention in the all important framing scenes. She is no Scheherazade, though this is as much writing as performance. As mentioned earlier, the play never acknowledges the significance of Nyssa serving as narrator.
Big Finish have experimented with the trilogy format and the anthology format over the past few months, and in each case I feel they’ve not been entirely successful, but never because the idea lacked merit. Rather, in the case of the Drashani Empire and here, it seems a case of not properly supporting and committing to their vision. Whilst I may not give glowing reviews to either endeavour, I do actually hope Big Finish continue to work in these directions, because I’m sure there is something great they can achieve in each case. 1001 Nights is a release with great but unrealised promise, and what remains is a collection of passable but unremarkable tales. The individual stories I rate a 6, a 4, a 6, and a 7 respectively. As a whole, I give it a 6/10.

Doctor Who - 168. 1001 Nights

The last anthology for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa was the superb Demons of Red Lodge, a collection which built from a solid baseline through gradually more creative and offbeat stories to the inspired culmination of Dorney’s Special Features. It was the art of a good mixtape applied to a compendium of short stories. 1001 Nights, however, feels more akin to last year’s slightly forgettable Sixth Doctor anthology, Recorded Time - A collection of middle-of-the-road tales which aren’t ever bad per se, merely rather transient. 1001 Nights would leave similarly little impression, were it not for the attempt to bring something new to the table by framing the short stories in a larger narrative. A few previous collections dabbled this way, but Nights goes further, situating each individual tale within bookend scenes and giving the whole final episode over to the meta-story.

I definitely appreciated the attempt to innovate the anthology style (which I am a fan of generally), but I feel it could have used greater commitment. The sub-stories have no real relation to the arc story, and the Arabian Nights thematics are somewhat incidental. In fact, the moment which perhaps trades best on the Arabian Nights theme is the very first sequence - ultimately treated as a fleeting gag in the context of the rest of the release, I feel Beeby didn’t realise what she’d got there - the potential existed for something cleverer and more cohesive, with shades of the superlative Urban Myths. Something that could have better utilised the scope offered by each individual story, and traded more on the fact that Nyssa is serving as narrator (she’s not even present for stretches of some stories). In a release where the stories are, specifically, /stories/, only the third installment really tackles that even slightly. A really compelling package would have seen each story reflect the larger theme, and the meta-story pay off elements set up in each individual tale. I hope Big Finish continue to develop their new takes on the anthology release in future years, and realise the seed of an idea that’s planted here.

Taking each installment on its own merits, the first story has a pleasing idea at its core, and manages a nicely paced build up and pay off. It’s a decent sort of baseline for a story, enjoyable but transient. There’s nothing remarkable to it, but no great weaknesses either. A little more character in the jailor and the prisoner could have elicited a more emotive response to the situation, but it remains interesting to consider.

The second story is terribly thin. For a start, it plays as a take-off from The Exorcist for no apparent reason beyond Barnes’ whim, the most evident example of the way the anthology fails to form a whole. It also feels like Barnes had trouble with the one part format and slashed their ideas down too heavily, leaving a story too sparse to fill half an hour, better suited to a ten minute short trip. It attempts to mask this by alluding to off screen events past and future, conjuring up a wider story beyond what’s presented. The allusions don’t cohere sufficiently for that, though, instead feeling like an arbitrary collection of odd plot points that are left trailing unsatisfyingly behind. The story also tries to trade on atmospherics rather than plot, but it just isn’t atmospheric. It shouts and screams and threatens to little sense of tension, not helped by the over mannered performances of the two guest characters, and a lack of restraint from Sarah Sutton. Strange, as Sutton has proved very good at such roles in the past.

The third story, like the first, brings another compelling concept to the table, but it never really runs with it. As with the opening of part one and some of the later moments in the framing story, part three hints at what might have been. The idea is great, and you can see where it could go, the fun that could be had with it, and the way it would reinforce and inspire the larger meta-story. Again, I’d nod towards Urban Myths as an example of what could be achieved (as well as Ringpullworld and Master). Harvey’s content with a fairly trivial treatment of the idea though. It is an entertaining tale, and she jokes with its potential at times, but as with Beeby and the opening sequence, I felt like Harvey didn’t realise that she had the material for something much more intriguing than a couple of jokes in a straightforward story.

The final story clearly wants to be a full four-part play. It’s half-cognisant of the fact with the way it frames each earlier story, and had those stories been more entwined with the framing, further reinforcing and referencing each other, I think the meta-story could have succesfully felt like a full four-parter whilst still being an anthology. (Like I say, I hope Big Finish continues to experiment with this sort of area; the potential is there.) There’s a lot of great stuff in the final part which, if expanded, could have sustained a decent depth and breadth of story. We see other worlds and whole other TARDIS dynamics, play in other atmospheres and ask intriguing ‘What if?’ questions. Several individual moments are promising in their own right, like the ending which reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin’s Diary of the Rose. Even in compressed format, it’s fairly good and enjoyable, and adds a lot of good stuff to the Who mythos. It’s the one thread that really feels genuinely colourful in the whole tale, and had the release been as tightly woven and multifaceted as it might have been, I think this story could have been potently exciting, amusing and tragic. In its compression and the failure of the release to be more than the sum of its parts, it’s robbed of the characterful zenith it might have reached.

Such is the one large weakness which holds back the collection as a whole and each individual episode, whose problems are largely manifestations of the wider issue - there is a severe lack of character. The quality of the stories varies from episode to episode, but even at best they lack any spark of drama, and it’s because the characters were just sketched in. Each episode feels more like reading a storyboard than watching a movie - the plot and ideas are there, but the personality is still being waited on. Peter Davison barely feels present and Sarah Sutton’s performance is limp even when handling material she usually excels at, not to mention in the all important framing scenes. She is no Scheherazade, though this is as much writing as performance. As mentioned earlier, the play never acknowledges the significance of Nyssa serving as narrator.

Big Finish have experimented with the trilogy format and the anthology format over the past few months, and in each case I feel they’ve not been entirely successful, but never because the idea lacked merit. Rather, in the case of the Drashani Empire and here, it seems a case of not properly supporting and committing to their vision. Whilst I may not give glowing reviews to either endeavour, I do actually hope Big Finish continue to work in these directions, because I’m sure there is something great they can achieve in each case. 1001 Nights is a release with great but unrealised promise, and what remains is a collection of passable but unremarkable tales. The individual stories I rate a 6, a 4, a 6, and a 7 respectively. As a whole, I give it a 6/10.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray - X1. Ghosts of Christmas Past
When I reviewed This World Our Hell, I mentioned anticipating the possibility of a more lighthearted pulp take on the Confessions series, and part of that anticipation was set up by Big Finish’s Holmes series. The BF Holmes is a bit more in this vein; a bit freer with its source material, and with a bit more of a televisual feel than literary. That’s a valid choice, and it can lead to stories that might otherwise not be told. Ghosts of Christmas Past is one such story that Confessions might otherwise not have told, save for the tonal shift of marrying up with Holmes. Ghosts has exactly the feel you’d expect of a Christmas special crossover, and that feel isn’t exactly the feel of Confessions' standard. Still the differences can provide an alternately entertaining take in their own right.The hour long format allows more space for plot and as such the plot gets more focus than in a typical Confessions episode, the character and themes a little less. Thematics are not absent, though; there are titular ghosts in both Dorian and Holmes’ pasts, and Ghosts explores several of them, looking at the different literal and figurative meanings of that term.Dialogues with these phantoms - explorations of the past for Holmes and Dorian - form the brunt of the story. One such phantom is James (played by Rupert Young). Appearing to both characters, he feels like he should be central to the tale, yet oddly lacks significance; both to the plot, and in the weight of his dialogue. The scenes are good, but they lack a certain moment that I felt was meant to have been present.Though she only appears to Dorian, Rebecca Newman’s Sybil is more successful in this regard. Her conversations with Dorian are more heavily steeped in character insight and backstory. The difference in tone between the series and the special is evident here, in the way Sybil and Dorian’s dialogue unveils the characters. I say that character gets less focus than usual, but in a way it gets more; the insights and explorations are delivered far more directly than in the rest of Confessions, without the ambiguous subtlety with which the series delivered its fleeting hints. The character work in Ghosts is much more emphasised, but I believe the series’ elegance and restraint exhibits a greater degree of focus. For this story, though, the straightforward approach is correct - the softly whispered allusions of Confessions wouldn’t be suitable to support the more traditionally story-based plot of Ghosts.The plot itself is probably where the Holmesian side of the story is most evident. Holmes stories typically being more intricately plot-mechanical than Dorian’s. In this case the mechanisms of plotting beget a degree of retcon that I wasn’t completely onboard with, but as I say, the pulp style that Ghosts has allowed as being a ‘special’ affords a certain wider liberty with the source material. The Holmes formula, as Tony Lee has clearly identified, typically situates one diabolical character at the center of events, and from their particular connivance spins an intricate plot (in both senses of the word). By using said diabolical character(s) as the common point of the two worlds, Lee has married the plotting of Holmes to the thematics of Confessions in a way which works perfectly well - just not quite in the same way that Confessions works.It may not confound expectations, but neither does Ghosts fail to meet them. It was a pleasing seasonal listen, delivering a definite ‘Christmas Special’ crossover feel, and I enjoyed it as a story in and of itself, rather than as a continuation of the Confessions series. In ordinary context, I’d probably rate it a 7/10, but listening in the seasonal spirit, I’ll give it an 8.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray - X1. Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I reviewed This World Our Hell, I mentioned anticipating the possibility of a more lighthearted pulp take on the Confessions series, and part of that anticipation was set up by Big Finish’s Holmes series. The BF Holmes is a bit more in this vein; a bit freer with its source material, and with a bit more of a televisual feel than literary. That’s a valid choice, and it can lead to stories that might otherwise not be told. Ghosts of Christmas Past is one such story that Confessions might otherwise not have told, save for the tonal shift of marrying up with Holmes. Ghosts has exactly the feel you’d expect of a Christmas special crossover, and that feel isn’t exactly the feel of Confessions' standard. Still the differences can provide an alternately entertaining take in their own right.

The hour long format allows more space for plot and as such the plot gets more focus than in a typical Confessions episode, the character and themes a little less. Thematics are not absent, though; there are titular ghosts in both Dorian and Holmes’ pasts, and Ghosts explores several of them, looking at the different literal and figurative meanings of that term.

Dialogues with these phantoms - explorations of the past for Holmes and Dorian - form the brunt of the story. One such phantom is James (played by Rupert Young). Appearing to both characters, he feels like he should be central to the tale, yet oddly lacks significance; both to the plot, and in the weight of his dialogue. The scenes are good, but they lack a certain moment that I felt was meant to have been present.

Though she only appears to Dorian, Rebecca Newman’s Sybil is more successful in this regard. Her conversations with Dorian are more heavily steeped in character insight and backstory. The difference in tone between the series and the special is evident here, in the way Sybil and Dorian’s dialogue unveils the characters. I say that character gets less focus than usual, but in a way it gets more; the insights and explorations are delivered far more directly than in the rest of Confessions, without the ambiguous subtlety with which the series delivered its fleeting hints. The character work in Ghosts is much more emphasised, but I believe the series’ elegance and restraint exhibits a greater degree of focus. For this story, though, the straightforward approach is correct - the softly whispered allusions of Confessions wouldn’t be suitable to support the more traditionally story-based plot of Ghosts.

The plot itself is probably where the Holmesian side of the story is most evident. Holmes stories typically being more intricately plot-mechanical than Dorian’s. In this case the mechanisms of plotting beget a degree of retcon that I wasn’t completely onboard with, but as I say, the pulp style that Ghosts has allowed as being a ‘special’ affords a certain wider liberty with the source material. The Holmes formula, as Tony Lee has clearly identified, typically situates one diabolical character at the center of events, and from their particular connivance spins an intricate plot (in both senses of the word). By using said diabolical character(s) as the common point of the two worlds, Lee has married the plotting of Holmes to the thematics of Confessions in a way which works perfectly well - just not quite in the same way that Confessions works.

It may not confound expectations, but neither does Ghosts fail to meet them. It was a pleasing seasonal listen, delivering a definite ‘Christmas Special’ crossover feel, and I enjoyed it as a story in and of itself, rather than as a continuation of the Confessions series. In ordinary context, I’d probably rate it a 7/10, but listening in the seasonal spirit, I’ll give it an 8.