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.