Doctor Who quote of the day…

“Oh yes. Breathe in deep, Lieutenant Commander. You too, Charley. You feel that pounding in your heart, that tightness in the pit of your stomach, the blood rushing to your head? Do you know what that is? That’s adventure. The thrill and the fear and the joy of stepping into the unknown. That’s why we’re all here, and that’s why we’re alive!”

–Eighth Doctor, Storm Warning

Recasting the early Doctors

Tim Treloar is to employ his uncanny impression of Jon Pertwee in playing the Third Doctor in Big Finish’s upcoming Third Doctor Adventures range. Hear him above.

Some are hesitant about recasting the early Doctors, anxious that it would be unconvincing or would be an insult to the legacies of the original actors. I have no such qualms. I’m all for recasting the First, Second and Third Doctors on audio, and, when the time comes, all the current Big Finish Doctors when they are no longer available. I think Tim Treloar has shown (or will show) that recasting the Doctors can be an almost seamless fit, if the right person can be found. Jon Culshaw’s Tom Baker impression also springs to mind as an almost perfect voice double, as well as Frazer Hines’ Patrick Troughton impression. Impressionists will never be able to replicate precisely the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the original actors, who understand their characters better than an impressionist ever could, but we can’t really ask for much more, given we no longer have the original actors with us.

As for the concern that recasting the established Doctors would be an insult to the original actors’ legacies, I think it is a fair concern, but not one I share. As I see it, the various incarnations of the Doctor were characters in themselves who were played by their respective actors. The confusion comes from conflating the actors with the characters. Patrick Troughton played the Second Doctor, but he, personally, was not the Second Doctor: he was Patrick Troughton. The Second Doctor is a fictional character who looks and sounds like Patrick Troughton, but they are not one and the same. To be sure, it is fair to intimately identify the original Doctors with their respective actors, as those actors shaped and defined their Doctors — thus the desire, in recasting established Doctors, to find impressionists who can imitate as closely as possible the original actors, and not people who sound completely different to how the Doctors sounded on television. But I see no more issues in recasting the early Doctors than I do in periodically recasting James Bond (who does not regenerate, as the Doctor does, but is supposedly always the same person). If it lets us hear the First, Second and Third Doctors again, why not go for it?

Picturing Charley

How do you picture Charley Pollard, or any non-televised Big Finish companion, for that matter? The above picture is pertinent, because, with apologies to the lovely India Fisher, when I listen to Eighth Doctor and Charley stories, I generally don’t picture Charley in my mind as her voice actor. For one thing, Fisher is older than the character she plays. Charley is supposed to be about eighteen when she sets out with the Doctor, so I imagine a young slip of a girl. Charley’s voice also sounds quite girlish, so I naturally imagine a young girl. I also imagine Charley as, in appearance, conforming to her home time period (1930), if not the Edwardian Period (given she wants to be an “Edwardian adventuress”), so I picture her in knickerbockers and perhaps a bob cut. That I so readily picture Charley as a young girl from 1930 is testament to Fisher’s superlative voice acting, of course. I always imagine Charley to be blonde, though, so that’s one thing in which I defer to India Fisher (I didn’t draw the above picture).

Other Big Finish only companions I’ve heard are Evelyn Smythe, Erimem and Frobisher. It’s hard not to imagine Evelyn Smythe as Maggie Stables (are they not one and the same?), nor Frobisher as your standard tuxedo-wearing penguin. Obviously I can’t imagine Erimem as Caroline Morris since Erimem is an ancient Egyptian princess and Morris is a modern white Briton, although it’s easy to forget Erimem is not a modern white Briton because of that accent!

Latest Big Finish listens #3 [SPOILERS]

big finish listens 3

Question Marks — A fast-paced little story with gripping atmosphere and a small cast of great, well-written characters. Colin Baker is in great form here, as is Nicola Bryant. The story features an ingenious plot twist with a somewhat poignant ending. Unfortunately, I found Question Marks didn’t make as effective use of the 30-minute form as other such stories, like Urgent Calls; the exposition felt very rushed, and it was easy to lose track of the action and the plot. Rating: 7/10.

The Wrong Doctors — It was great fun hearing “Softer Six” encounter his younger, boisterous self in this story. There is a lot to like in this story, in particular the work of both Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford. Nevertheless, I found the plot to be confusing and hard to follow, which, unfortunately, detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the story. There were no problems, however, with telling the Sixes and Mels apart: I lost track a couple of times, but was quickly able to re-establish who was who without any problems. I think this story missed a trick in not making enough of the dynamic between the two Sixth Doctors: it would have been brilliant to hear the two Sixes arguing with each other and generally not being able to stand each other, but if I recall correctly, this only happened once and very briefly. Instead, they actually spend a lot of time complimenting each other (which, when you think about it, actually makes sense). Rating: 7/10.

Masters of Earth — This is just a great adventure story. Revisiting the infamous Dalek occupation of Earth is always going to prove great fun, and this story didn’t disappoint. As always, Colin Baker is giving his all to the part, even now that his voice has become audibly aged. While nevertheless an excellent story, Masters of Earth doesn’t contain much in the way of plot relating to the Doctor’s imperative to refrain from interfering during his visit and his consort with human resistance groups. Given the apparent premise of the story, one would have expected the Doctor to encounter the dilemma of having to stop the resistance from succeeding, and preventing the defeat of the Daleks, but this particular plot point scarcely featured, if at all; the story was basically a standard escape-from-the-Daleks story (albeit a brilliant one). Rating: 9/10.

Jubilee — Now this is a good Dalek story. Jubilee was the (loose) inspiration for the Series 1 episode, Dalek, and, while the former only bears a vague resemblance, story-wise, to the latter, Jubilee broadly deals with the same themes as Dalek. The theme of Jubilee is that humans have the same capacity for evil as do the Daleks, and, in fact, human evil is much, much worse as we have the free will to choose good and reject evil, while Daleks don’t have a choice as they are genetically engineered to be evil and hateful. There are some truly blood-curdling scenes demonstrating how evil humans can be if we want to be, and humans are mercilessly compared to Daleks throughout the story in ways that make the listener feel more disturbed by the humans’ atrocities than anything we’ve seen the Daleks do. By the end, the listener actually feels more sympathy for the Daleks in this story than the humans. This is certainly among the most disturbing and mature of Big Finish’s output, and an undoubted masterpiece in that regard. Rating: 10/10.

The Holy Terror — This story begins in very whimsical fashion, but soon becomes quite disturbing, and becomes darker and more terrifying as the story progresses. The story addresses adherence to cultural and religious custom, the nature of authoritarian societies, the parent-child relationship, and crime and punishment. This is probably the darkest Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen or heard. The morally-warped society in this story is a vision of hell on earth, if there ever was one, and there are some truly gruesome sequences: for example, in one particularly disturbing scene, a five-year old child repeatedly screams “Kill! Kill! Kill! I want to kill!”. That child proceeds to kill the entire population of the society as it searches for its father. Truly horrifying stuff; this story would never make it into the television show. The most perturbing listening of all comes at the end of the story in a particularly sinister twist that explains what exactly has been going on in this absurd, terrible place. To my mind, The Holy Terror is a masterpiece of drama, a perfectly written, acted and executed audio play. Rating: 10/10.

Storm Warning — Doctor Who Discovers Historical Mysteries, this time the truth behind the fate of the R101. I believe this is McGann’s first outing as the Eighth Doctor on audio, and he immediately takes to the role with a languid flair that shows why he is the most underrated of all the Doctors. This is also Charley Pollard’s first story with the Eighth Doctor, an adventurous, bubbly, feisty young woman who quickly endears herself to us, and, I think, forms a perfect match for the Eighth Doctor. The story itself holds up well enough, and there is a cast of great, well-realised characters, although the alien creatures in this story, I think, are slightly absurd and probably not the best the writer(s) could come up with. Nevertheless, despite this, the story was enjoyable and absorbing enough, and a great introduction to the Eighth Doctor and Charley on audio. Rating: 8/10.

The Sword of Orion — To me, The Sword of Orion seems like a hidden gem that merits a place among the best of Big Finish. It’s a spooky, atmospheric Cyberman story with a cast of great, well-played characters. The plot oozes urgency and conspiracy, while the Cybermen (the 1968 models I believe, considering the Cyberman head on the cover), lying dormant but slowly waking up on a giant spaceship, are a great deal scarier and creepier than they have been in most of their television appearances. The plot is engrossing, and its exposition is masterfully executed. The story, to an extent, addresses prejudice and racial supremacy, although the significance of the conflict with the androids could have been worked into the plot better. Nevertheless, The Sword of Orion is just a great, gripping story with the Cybermen at their best. Rating: 9/10.

The Stones of Venice — This is an interesting story set in the future in the last days of Venice before it, supposedly, collapses and sinks beneath the mire. It’s a story of magic, myth and legend, political intrigue, love and betrayal. The plot is interesting enough, although it is rather quaint and silly, and somewhat predictable. There is a cast of fairly nondescript and unremarkable characters. There are also certain elements of the story that seem to demand a lot of suspension of disbelief (the Venetian gondoliers have evolved into an amphibious sub-race? Seriously?). Nevertheless, such bizarre antics don’t overtly detract from the quality of what is, admittedly, an interesting and enjoyable, but unexceptional, story. Rating: 7/10.

Minuet in Hell — This one started off quite well, and was clearly supposed to be an “epic” (of sorts) finale to the Eighth Doctor audio “Season 27”, but I’m not sure it quite succeeded. In the first stages of the story, when we don’t know what had happened to the Doctor and Charley, and, in particular, as the Doctor seemed disoriented and amnesiac, finding himself a “patient” of some secretive lunatic asylum, the atmosphere was quite interesting and reeked of intrigue and and plot, especially given the presence of such unsavoury characters as Dashwood, Dale Pargeter and (at first) Gideon Crane. But then the wheels came off and the rest of the story was quite silly and ridiculous, not to mention overlong. To be sure, the story was entertaining enough in itself, and effectively held my attention until the end, but a story about a politician who summons demons is always going to be a bit ridiculous. The demons themselves were rubbish (those voices… ugh). The most interesting part of this story was the Doctor’s disorientation and his dialogue with Gideon Crane, as the Doctor was forced to question whether he really was the Doctor or whether he’d dreamt up everything about himself in his insanity. I shall also put in a special mention for Maureen Oakley, whose character Dale Pargeter was one of the few bright lights in a particularly bad cast of supporting characters. It was also great to hear the Brigadier return, always a welcome and reassuring presence in any Doctor Who. Rating: 6/10.

Invaders from Mars — This story has a great idea — positively inspired, I might go as far as to say: while that infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds is causing mass hysteria in New York, an actual alien invasion is taking place. Therein lay the potential for a great audio drama. Alas, this audio is not well produced. There is an overlarge cast and too many things happening at once. For a seemingly simple story premise, the writers (Mark Gatiss) have managed to make the plot unnecessarily convoluted and drawn out. Reading other reviews of this story, I noted with some relief that I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty following the plot. There were, for example, several indistinguishable male characters, not all of whose purpose I could divine. The story only really seemed to pick up in Part 3, when the aliens showed their faces and the nature of the “invasion” became clear. Still yet, their “threat” was slightly silly and something of a letdown as they appeared to be a supremely unconvincing two-man (or two-alien) protection racket planning to collude with a mobster (or something… like I said, I never worked out what half the characters were for) to take over the world. One positive aspect of this story, though (for me, at least), was that Paul McGann seems to be finally coming into his own as the Doctor; for me, in this story, Paul McGann has been most convincingly the Doctor than in any prior story in the Eighth Doctor saga. Rating: 5/10.

The Chimes of Midnight — What’s there to say? A masterpiece. Perfection. Absolutely spellbinding stuff. I had heard of Chimes’ reputation beforehand, and I was not disappointed by any means. I was totally captivated all the way through by this luminous script brought vividly to life by superlative acting and production by all involved. It’s claustrophobic, creepy and unbearably suspenseful. A whodunnit is always great fun, but this is the best of Agatha Christie done Doctor Who style. “Anomalous” is really the key word of this plot, an otherworldly mystery spotted with the fingerprints of some sinister, supernatural force. My only criticism would be that the “answer” to this mystery, and the nature of this inexplicable, anomalous place, is a bit too clever-clever wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey for my tastes. I think it would have been more effective if a more simple explanation were preferred (less is more, after all), without changing the nature of the force at work (a time paradox). Edward Grove, a sentient paradox, or so it seemed, was also a bit of an unconvincing part of the plot. Nevertheless, these criticisms are minor and don’t detract consequentially from the fact that this is an outstanding, superlative audio drama, and a genuine classic to boot. It’s not just classic Doctor Who, but classic drama full stop. What more could you want? Rating: 10/10.

Seasons of Fear — An engaging, well-choreographed story spanning several time periods, featuring a menacing, tragic villain as well as the return of an old enemy of the Doctor’s. This is a “runaround” style story similar to The Chase (the Hartnell story), and it is prosecuted admirably as the Doctor and Charley chase their immortal adversary through different periods in British history: now British Singapore, now Roman Britain, now the court of Edward the Confessor, now the Georgian Home Counties. I wouldn’t say each of these periods are “brought to life”, as such, in that we really get a sense that the Doctor is in Roman Britain, etc, but it’s a fun chase nonetheless. The villain, Sebastian Grayle, is an interesting character, if only for the way we observe his gradual moral and personal deterioration as immortality takes its toll on him. The Grayle we meet in Georgian times is a different creature altogether from the Grayle we meet in Roman Britain, a point made disturbingly and emphatically when the 1,400 years old Grayle meets his young Roman self. In this way, the story makes a compelling philosophical point about the nature of mortality and immortality. It was great to hear the return of the Nimon, up to their old tricks again, although they were a much more sinister presence in the story when they were Grayle’s unnamed, shadowy “masters” — I think their physical appearance in the story was somewhat wasted. McGann and Fisher were both in top form, as always, and the humour in this story was appreciated and fun (“Cheer up, there’s a mouse!” said the Doctor as he and Charley languished in a medieval dungeon). Rating: 8/10.

Latest Big Finish listens #2 [SPOILERS]

I’ve had a bit of an audio binge over the last week after a long period of not having listened to any new Big Finish. I’m still just going through the “highlights” at the present time, although I’ve moved onto the Sixth Doctor stories. I’ve got a vague plan in mind to listen to a particular Doctor’s audio stories after I’ve finished with his television stories and while I’m watching his successor on television. So I listened to Peter Davison after I’d finished with him on television, and now I’m listening to Colin Baker while I’m watching Sylvester McCoy. When I finish my Classic Who marathon (which probably won’t be long, given the rate I’m getting through the stories now), I want to do a marathon of the Eighth Doctor on audio before I move onto the New Who segment of my 50-year marathon. I probably won’t do all of the Eighth Doctor stories, but I think at least the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and perhaps the Dark Eyes saga as well.

In any case, without further ado, here are my thoughts and commentary on the latest Big Finish audios I’ve listened to. Just a spoiler warning, though: I’m not going to keep my “reviews” of Big Finish spoiler-free anymore as I did in the last installment, as I felt overly constrained by having to limit my commentary in the way I did.

The Kingmaker

The Fifth Doctor, and Peri and Erimem, get stuck two years apart in London during the reign of Richard III, meanwhile both become involved in the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. This is an intriguing story that purports to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and indeed does so in typical surreal Doctor Who fashion. I listened to this story knowing of its reputation as a Fifth Doctor audio “classic”, albeit somewhat sceptically as Doctor Who historicals never seem to entertain me as much as the general sci-fi stories (despite being a huge history buff). Indeed, there are some excellent moments in there, and Peter Davison is in top form. Separating the characters and seeing them follow separate streams of the same plot in different points in time, only to see both the characters and the plotlines converge at the end, was a well-executed device that makes what could have been a somewhat tiresome and unremarkable story grip and intrigue the listener. There is some wonderful dialogue between the Doctor and Richard III dealing with the reality of time travel, precognition, fate and predestination. Richard III is not portrayed as the pantomime villain of Shakespearean myth, but embattled, manipulative, flawed and fatalistic, cynical about, yet resigned to, his place in history, and a reputation The Kingmaker posits he doesn’t deserve.

If this story suffers from anything, it’s the confused to-and-fro between comedy and tragedy — to be sure, this does work effectively at times; I enjoyed the scenes involving the publisher’s robot and the scenes with Peri and Erimem in the tavern, but I feel that, in general, the comedy detracts from the drama, e.g. the scene in which Richard’s adviser conducts a “press conference” with the top gossips of the kingdom. This audio could have worked a great deal better as a straight drama with a few comedic elements thrown in here and there, but, in attempting to be both tragedy and comedy, does neither wholly successfully. The twist of the pub landlord and his “nieces” being the Duke of Clarence and the (crossdressing) Princes in the Tower actually worked very well as a plot twist and as Doctor Who’s “answer” to the historical mystery, but the revelation was marred somewhat by the Duke and the Princesses being, in general, indistinguishable from your common garden cockney slum-dwellers (and very comical ones at that). Another detriment to this story is the fourth part, which after the initial revelations about Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence and the Princes in the Tower, seems to drag on somewhat pointlessly for the rest of the episode, as though filling in time. To be sure, the switcheroo with Richard III and Shakespeare was very clever, but the last fifteen minutes or so of the episode were quite unnecessary. For these reasons, I’m thus giving The Kingmaker a rating of 8/10 for what could have been a 10/10. Rating: 8/10.

Urgent Calls

Urgent Calls is a single-episode (half-hour) story involving the Sixth Doctor alone with one other major character. It’s a fantastic little story, an account, seemingly, of an alien invasion entirely through a series of phone calls between the Doctor and a woman called Lauren. The concept is ever so clever, and the story thrives precisely due to the limitations imposed upon it. There’s not much to say about such a clever little story like this, other than that I feel it would be a great introduction to Big Finish for newcomers to Doctor Who audios, a powerful and memorable exemplar of what Big Finish can do with Doctor Who on the audio format, albeit that it’s not a typical sample of a Big Finish audio.

Colin Baker plays the part of the Sixth Doctor with all the gusto and conviction with which, I am told, he is renowned on audio. This was my first experience with the Sixth Doctor on audio, and, although I had heard that the Sixth Doctor was somewhat “re-characterised” on audio into a more generic Doctor from his bombastic, brash, flamboyant, pompous persona on television (which I absolutely adored), and, from what I’ve since heard of Sixie on Big Finish, that is indeed something of the case, I was relieved to hear in Urgent Calls that the rough edges were still reassuringly there on what has become my second favourite Doctor. Nevertheless, the Doctor is also beginning to mellow in this story, a well-executed instance of character development. Kate Brown endears herself to us as Lauren, the sweet everywoman working in a call centre, and her chemistry with Colin is quite engaging. It’s interesting to hear Lauren’s and the Doctor’s relationship developing into something almost romantic (at least for Lauren), as they become familiar with each other, and as Lauren contributes to some initial character development for the Doctor. The story ends on a slightly sad note as (it is implied) the Doctor destroys the virus strand and the wrong number calls stop, meaning the Doctor’s and Lauren’s budding relationship has come to an end. I don’t know if Lauren makes a return in subsequent audios, but it would be great to see Lauren and the Doctor reunite in person. Rating: 9/10. [N.B. I think that picture is actually fanart; I’m not entirely sure, as I found it through a Google Image search. But whatever.]

Trial of the Valeyard

The Valeyard is on trial for charges unnamed in the familiar setting of the Time Lords’ orbiting courtroom, and the Doctor is his defence counsel. Big Finish effectively revisits the plotline from Trial of a Time Lord in this hour-long story, investigating the nature and origins of the mysterious figure of the Valeyard, allegedly the Doctor’s dark future incarnation. This audio also delves into the mysteries of Time Lord regeneration, and Rassilon’s legacy as “creator” of the Time Lord race. Trial of the Valeyard takes place predominantly as a courtroom trial, the three main actors of the original Trial — Colin Baker, Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham — reprising their roles as the Sixth Doctor, the Valeyard and Madame Inquisitor respectively. The story is slow to get moving, but when it does, there is immediately an air of intrigue as it becomes apparent the Valeyard’s charges are not allowed to be mentioned, suggesting, once again, High Council impropriety. The Valeyard’s recounting of his origins and life are absorbing exposition of one of the show’s more mysterious characters; likewise his explanation of his studies into regeneration are a fascinating contribution to the backstory of the Whoniverse, one of the most mystical aspects of the Time Lord species. It was thus slightly disappointing when the trial, the Valeyard’s revelations, everything, was revealed to have been an elaborate plot of the Valeyard’s to take revenge on the Doctor and the Inquisitor. A somewhat poor and lazy ending to what could have been a much better story.

Nevertheless, if this story does one thing right, it’s to bring home how very alien and otherworldly the Time Lords are as a species: watching and listening to the Doctor, it’s easy to forget that he, and his species, are not like us; Trial of the Valeyard reminds us, through compelling exposition, that the Time Lords are an impossibly ancient civilisation, a race of potentially immortal beings as exemplified in the mystery of regeneration. Colin Baker is fabulous here; it’s obvious he’s having delicious fun reprising the brash and petulant persona of the Sixth Doctor of the original Trial. The Doctor, at first having no qualms about seeing the Valeyard punished for whatever it is he’s done, soon becomes intrigued and curious and agrees to defend the Valeyard. It’s heartening to see that the Doctor’s sense of justice is not lost, as he becomes indignant at the lack of procedural fairness, even when it’s the Valeyard who’s on trial, prompting him to rally to the Valeyard’s defence. In the end this is an engrossing story that unfortunately suffered from a few detriments. Rating: 8/10.

…ish

The Sixth Doctor and Peri visit an intergalactic lexicographers’ conference, a gathering of the universe’s top word-nerds for the compilation of the greatest dictionary ever made. The leader of the grand enterprise is found seemingly dead by her own hand in curious circumstances. This was one of the stories I couldn’t wait to listen to, especially given that I adored Iterations of I, a story with a similar concept (in that a sentient number, in this a sentient word). Indeed, the concept is positively captivating: a sentient fragment of the longest word in existence, the “Omniverbum” a transcendental word around which meaning and reality itself becomes warped. This is all very clever and spacey-wacey, and has the potential to misfire if not executed well. For the most part, it is done well, enthralling and fascinating the listener, but there are times when the listener can lose track of what’s going on and have trouble following the very complicated explanations. I experienced this at times, and, for a while, was left listening not quite sure that I was following what was going on involving the “Ish” and Book. I was relieved, when reading other reviews, to find that I wasn’t the only one who encountered this problem. In any case, it detracts to a degree from the story in a way I never found when listening to Iterations of I, for example.

The Sixth Doctor and Peri work well together in this story, at least in the moments when they are actually together. It’s enjoyable hearing the playful banter between them, and their cute British-American double-act in defeating the “Ish” brought a grin to my face. It’s good to hear Peri characterised more intelligently than she was on television, where she appeared to be at times little more than a helpless bimbo. She’s a college botany student, after all, not just a pair of breasts, so it’s great to hear her using her intellect, resource and initiative in this story. I think the Six-Peri combination can work really well; there were moments of this on television, but …ish gives us a fairly good exemplar of what a joy to listen to the Six-Peri team can be. Overall this is an engaging and stimulating story unfortunately let down by its problems with exposition, which is a shame as in its imaginative concept was the potential for a classic. Rating: 8/10.

Latest Big Finish listens #1

I’ve started my journey through Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas with the Fifth Doctor stories, which is where I am up to presently in my TV marathon, beginning with the “highlights” first as I dip my toes into Big Finish (I’ve already shared my thoughts on Spare Parts).

Iterations of I

Iterations of I features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric. The story follows the TARDIS crew as they investigate disappearances on a lonely island in Ireland involving a strange cult dedicated to finding God in a number. It is a haunted house story with an imaginative sci-fi twist: sentient numbers, or creatures that exist in the realm of mathematics. The concept is positively inspired, one of those luminous ideas writers occasionally hit upon analogous to striking gold. The concept, and the story surrounding it, is masterfully executed, as claustrophobic tension and mystery is injected in generous doses into the story, keeping the listener positively gripped by the unfolding drama throughout. The concept, of creatures that reside in another realm of existence, and in particular the Doctor’s suggestion that, in killing people, they were only attempting to communicate, reminded me of the recent episode Flatline in Series 8, which was another excellent story with an inspired concept. Iterations of I is exactly the kind of intelligent, mature drama that I was expecting when I began to listen to Big Finish — drama that exercises the imagination as well as merely entertains — and I was not disappointed by any means. Rating: 10/10.

Psychodrome

Psychodrome is the other story from the Fifth Doctor box-set (the first being Iterations of I), set shortly after the events of Castrovalva, featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric. The TARDIS team happen upon a very strange place: a seemingly enormous cave, in one corner a spaceship of human colonists, in another a castle and a royal court, in another a monastery populated by monks dedicated to scientific inquiry. Psychodrome is a very original story with an ingenious twist (which I shan’t spoil, except to say that it bears some resemblance conceptually to one of my favourite stories in Series 6). It is a much more personal and intimate story than it first seems, and not only because it is set at a time when the TARDIS crew were unfamiliar with each other and their new Doctor. There are a number of quiet little moments between the characters that allows us to empathise with them in a way that we often don’t get to on screen. The characters’ fledgling insecurities, fears and resentments about each other are explored in this story, and in fact form a major point in the story. While Psychodrome is generally a great story all-round, one thing it suffers from is too many characters and too many things happening at once: the listener (or at least this listener) tends to struggle keeping up with what’s going on and who’s talking, something that exacerbates the original problem in the overcrowded TARDIS of Davison’s era. Rating: 8/10.

Creatures of Beauty

Creatures of Beauty sees the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa become involved in a bitter political situation on the planet Veln, where, a couple of generations ago, a Koteem waste transport ship broke up in the atmosphere, releasing dyestrial toxins which would go on to destroy the environment and doom its people to a slow death. The story follows the Doctor and Nyssa as they are mistaken for agents of the hated Koteem and become embroiled in the politics of this dying planet. Creatures of Beauty is a brilliant self-contained story, one of those Doctor Who stories where the focus is not so much on the Doctor and his companions, but the place they come to and the people they become involved with. This is one of those Who stories where the Doctor plays a passive role and, seemingly, doesn’t change anything or intervene, although there is a great twist in relation to this at the end. This story does not unfold in the right order: it begins in the middle of the plot and jumps forwards and backwards throughout. This is a clever storytelling device, but it is slightly confusing here, especially when the story appears to end at the conclusion of Part 3 (prompting me to confusedly check if I’d been listening to the story in the wrong order). Nevertheless, a very gripping and memorable story. Rating: 9/10.

Circular Time

Circular Time is a compendium of five 25-minute stories involving the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. The first, Spring, sees the Doctor and Nyssa pay a visit to a rogue Time Lord who has set himself up as the leader of a civilisation of flightless birds. The second, Summer, sees them imprisoned by the Warden of the Royal Mint, Sir Isaac Newton, for possession of “counterfeit” coins (from Earth’s future). The third, Autumn, sees the pair settle down in an English village as the Doctor takes up with a village cricket team and Nyssa tries to write a novel, and becomes involved with a romantic interest in the process. The final story, Winter, follows an aged Nyssa, who, disturbed by dreams of the Doctor, uses a device to examine her dreams, only to find she has entered the strange dreams of the Doctor. Circular Time is a nice little collection of stories (I am tempted to say “cute”) that stray from the traditional Doctor Who formula: Spring and Summer are the only stories that bear any resemblance to conventional Doctor Who, while Autumn is a contemplative little tale, and Winter an intriguing insight into the Doctor’s mind. Each of the stories is strong in its own right, Autumn being the strongest, a story with no obvious plot or conflict, but which ends on a poignant, even philosophical note. It’s hard to rate Circular Time as a whole, so I’m going to give each of the stories a separate rating. Spring: 7/10. Summer: 8/10. Autumn: 9/10. Winter: 9/10.

“Spare Parts” and the Cybermen

“We are human.”

“We will survive.”

Two lines from the Doctor Who audio Spare Parts that together encapsulate so perfectly and chillingly what the Cybermen are supposed to be. Spare Parts, an origins story of the Cybermen featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, is a tragic tale of a small, dying human population on Earth’s twin planet, Mondas, who will go to almost any terrible measures in their desperation to survive. Spare Parts interprets the Cybermen’s origins on Mondas to be the story of the Mondasians, driven underground as their planet’s drift far away from the orbit of any sun made the surface of their planet uninhabitable, who, seemingly doomed to extinction, resort to “augmenting” their bodies with artificial, cybernetic parts to survive.

A masterpiece, Spare Parts is perhaps more compelling and genuinely frightening a Cybermen story than any shown on the television series, and certainly the most faithful to Kit Pedler’s vision for the Cybermen. It is worth saying that, in my estimation, the Cybermen have not been done exactly right on television since their first story, The Tenth Planet. After the 1960s, Cybermen stories rather lost the plot altogether, and New Who has never even come close. That’s because it’s so easy to forget what the Cybermen are supposed to be — something Spare Parts attempts to return to, and does so spectacularly.

The Cybermen are usually presented as evil killer robots, robot Daleks with legs. Certainly, it’s difficult to get any other impression from today’s stomping automatons in their Iron Man suits. There’s two things wrong with the I, Robot interpretation of the Cybermen: Cybermen are not robots, and they’re not evil. Cybermen are us, as Spare Parts sought to emphasise. “We are human,” as the Cyber Planner in Spare Parts chillingly put it. The Cybermen are supposed to be tragic. We are supposed to look at them and see ourselves in them, and see what we could become. The Cybermen are not the product of some mad scientist  who tried to create a race of perfect killers, as the Daleks are; they are what became of a human population who, in their desperation to survive, sacrificed so much of their humanity that they now blur the line between man and machine. The Cybermen are as much a warning and a “dark mirror” as they are a villain. The Cybermen are terrifying because they are essentially human, because they are still recognisable as us, and the emphasis on the humanity of the Cybermen in Spare Parts achieves this impression very successfully, such as in a particularly affecting scene in which a young girl who has endeared herself to us goes back to her horrified family after being partially processed into a Cyberman.

Furthermore, the Cybermen are not evil. They are not the Daleks. Their objective isn’t to take over the universe or eliminate inferior races. They have removed their human emotions and impulses, and are slaves to absolute logic. Their primary motivation is to survive. Although, since they make no distinction between themselves once they are cyber-processed, the Cybermen seek to perpetuate their kind by converting other human populations into Cybermen (and at the same time “freeing” those poor souls).

For these reasons, I think the Cybermen have the potential to be the scariest Who villain of all, certainly much scarier than the comparatively one-dimensional Daleks (who are nevertheless always good fun). But, portray the Cybermen as the pantomime villains they usually are, and, ironically, you disregard what makes them uniquely scary and, in fact, make them seem more corny than anything.

Apart from returning to the roots and original conception of the Cybermen very successfully, Spare Parts is an exceptionally well-composed audio story in its own right. There are a number of well-realised characters (which makes it all the more tragic when they are converted into Cybermen), and Nyssa is written very well. The mood is ominous from the very beginning, and the rising sense of crisis keeps the listener hooked all the way through, quickening into a dramatic crescendo at the end. From my personal perspective, the one thing I would have changed about the story would have been to have the population of Mondas voluntarily, and resignedly, convert themselves into fully-processed Cybermen in submission to the inescapable reality that doing so is a necessity for their survival — rather than be deceived, and then coerced, into doing so by the whim of the Central Committee/Cyber Planner. I think the former would have impressed more effectively the sense of utter desperation that birthed the Cybermen, bringing home the tragedy of the story. Nevertheless, Spare Parts is certainly a masterpiece of drama and science fiction, and undoubtedly deserves a place among the Doctor Who classics.