Doctor Who reviews: Wirrn Dawn

I definitely have a fondness for Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.  The 1996 Doctor Who television movie may have been a flawed production, but I felt McGann himself was amazing in it.  I also was a fan of McGann from the brilliant cult classic dark comedy Withnail and I.  So I’ve always thought it was a shame that he had only that one outing as the Doctor on TV.

Of course, McGann has reprised the role of the Doctor in numerous Big Finish audio plays over the past 13 years.  And then, to everyone’s great surprise, especially my own, he appeared in the mini episode “The Night of the Doctor,” which revealed how his incarnation came to an end, and he became the War Doctor.  Watching “The Night of the Doctor,” I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed McGann as the Doctor, and I set out to listen to some more of his Big Finish adventures.

“Wirrn Dawn,” written by Nicholas Briggs, was released in 2009.  It’s interesting to listen to it now, because in many ways it has similarities with “The Night of the Doctor.”  In his script, Briggs plops the Doctor and his companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith) right in the middle of a horrific war zone.  The Doctor, especially at this point in his long life, does not want to be a warrior.  He looks upon the carnage taking place, as the human race and the Wirrn come into conflict, shakes his head sadly, but does not want to become involved.  He will not fight, and he believes the chances of bringing about a peaceful resolution are slim to none.  Yes, he tries to help out a little bit where he can, but his primary goal is to get Lucie and himself safely back to the TARDIS.

Wirrn Dawn

Briggs’ story is extremely morally ambiguous. He takes the brief explanatory dialogue from the serials “The Ark in Space” and “The Sontaran Experiment” and effectively extrapolates from it a detailed account of humanity’s expansion across the galaxy, and their war with the insectoid Wirrn.  From the Wirrin’s point of view, the Galsec settlers are not colonists but invaders of their ancestral worlds.  To the xenophobic humans who are attempting to find a new home, the Wirrn are savage, hideous bugs whose practice of laying their eggs in living beings is horrific.

The Doctor takes on a role here much as he has in stories featuring another species involved in a morally complicated conflict with humanity, namely the Silurians.  As a centuries-old alien, the Doctor has the wisdom and experience to recognize that both the Galsec settlers and the Wirrn have legitimate points of view.  Human beings are very capable of monstrous acts.  At the same time, he acknowledges that the idea of being used as living incubators for alien eggs that consume their hosts, both mind and body, is a repulsive concept.

“It isn’t a matter of right and wrong,” the Doctor tries to explain. “It’s to do with survival, nature’s way.”  Reflecting on whether he is correct in his assessment of the situation, he goes on to add “The older I get, the less sure I am about anything.”  McGann does an excellent job with the material.

This is the first story I’ve listened to featuring Sheridan Smith as Lucie.  She reminds me somewhat of a cross between Tegan Jovanka and Rose Tyler.  She definitely has an assertive attitude and won’t accept nonsense from the Doctor or anyone else.  But she also possesses a genuine fondness for the Time Lord.  Her empathy and caring plays a major part in the resolution of the story.

I quite enjoyed “Wirrn Dawn.”  It was an interesting, thought-provoking story with strong performances from both McGann and Smith.  It certainly caused me to have even more interest in picking up some more of the Eighth Doctor’s recent Big Finish adventures, time and budget willing.  Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity soon.

New York Comic Con 2013: a convention report

I really had not planned to go to the New York Comic Con this year.  But at literally the last minute, i.e. Wednesday afternoon, Michele surprised me with a ticket for Thursday.  I knew that once again I was going to be on a really limited budget.  So I decided to just pick up a handful of comics and maybe a couple of sketches.  Mostly I brought along comic books I already owned to get autographed.  And I took a few photos.  My digital camera went bust a while ago, so I had to rely on my crappy cell phone camera.

The first person I went to see in Artist Alley was Joe Staton.  I actually did the exact same thing last year.  What can I say?  I’m a huge fan of his work.  This time around, I really wanted to pick up a copy of the E-Man trade paperback that reprinted the Charlton Comics stories from the 1970s.  This collected edition actually came out in 2011, but the last couple of years when Staton had it for sale at the show, I just didn’t have the money to get it.  So I decided that this year it would be the very first thing I’d purchase.  I ended up breezing through the book, it was such a fun, entertaining read.  I’ll probably do a post about E-Man sometime in the near future.

Joe Staton
Joe Staton

Scott Hanna was also at the show.  I think he does really great work.  He is one of those embellishers who usually attempt to stay faithful to the style of whatever penciller he is working with.  As such, I think that his contributions to the finished art are not as readily identifiably to the casual eye.  Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned in my Thinking About Inking post, there have been instances where his impact is demonstrable, and always in a positive way.  At NYCC I purchased a page that he did for the miniseries Avengers: Celestial Quest, inking Jorge Santamaria’s pencils, which features one of my favorite characters, Mantis.

Two other people who had a table in Artist Alley were Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the creative team behind Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, as well as their self-published Aw Yeah Comics.  I think their work is so cute and funny and adorable.  Yeah, I know, I also like very dark and serious stuff, as well.  But the thing is, I’m into a wide range of material.  If everything in the comic book biz was grim & gritty, it would be extremely boring.  Diversity is the spice of life.  I got several comic books signed by Art & Franco, as well as sketches from both of them.  Art drew a cartoony version of the Teen Titans’ demonic foe Trigon.  Franco sketched a funny Darkseid vs Streaky the Supercat piece.

Franco
Franco

The one other piece of art I got at NYCC this year was a really nice sketch in my Beautiful Dreamer theme book.  It was drawn by Derek Fridolfs, whose work has appeared in Justice League Beyond and Batman: Li’l Gotham.  You can view it, and the rest of the art I picked up, in my galley at Comic Art Fans.

While I was at the show, I also had the chance to see several other creators, among them Bob Layton, Steve Ellis, Alex Saviuk, Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Tim Vigil, ChrisCross, Jim Salicrup, Vito Delsante, and John “Roc” Upchurch.

Before I knew that I was going to be at NYCC, I had decided to get a ticket for a related event on Friday night which was being organized by Barnaby Edwards of the Doctor Who New York fan club.  Colin Baker, who portrayed the Sixth Doctor on Doctor Who, was doing a question & answer session and signing at the Stone Creek Bar on East 27th Street.  Also present was writer & actor Nicholas Briggs.  In addition to being heavily involved in the Big Finish audio plays, directing many of them, Briggs has famously voiced the Daleks, Cybermen, and various other aliens, both for Big Finish and on the television series itself.  I was really looking forward to meeting both gentlemen.  There was a third, surprise guest, as well: director & producer Jason Haigh-Ellery of Big Finish.  For someone such as me, a huge fan of the Doctor Who audio adventures, this event was a real treat.  I think that Baker has done extraordinary work reprising his Doctor at Big Finish, and both Briggs & Haigh-Ellery have really brought extraordinary levels of professionalism to these productions.   It was also a great opportunity to meet in person several of the people I know online from Facebook and WordPress.

Nicholas Briggs and Colin Baker
Nicholas Briggs and Colin Baker

Of course there were some amazing examples of cosplay at NYCC.  This is where I wish I had a proper camera, so I could have taken more pictures.  I even saw someone dressed as Walter White from Breaking Bad.  I was wondering if anyone was going to do that!  Anyway, here are a few photos of fans in costume that really stood out for me.

It’s always interesting when you see somebody cosplaying as a somewhat more obscure character.  This guy was dressed up as the supervillain Clock King.  In addition to a super-authentic costume, he actually had a working clock on his mask.  Now that is what I call attention to detail!

NYCC 2013 Clock King
Clock King

Here is a lovely lady who was turning heads on the main convention floor, dressed up as a steampunk version of G.I. Joe villainess the Baroness.

NYCC 2013 Steampunk Baroness
Steampunk Baroness

And for this one I really wish I had been able to take a much better picture.  Here were three gals cosplaying as the most famous female agents of SHIELD, namely the Black Widow, Sharon Carter, and Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine.  Jim Steranko was at NYCC, and I wonder if he had a chance to see his creation, sexy spy Val Fontaine, brought to life.  Sorry for the blurry quality.  Trust me, this trio looked fantastic in person.

NYCC 2013 Agents of SHIELD
Black Widow, Sharon Carter, and Val Fontaine

I had a good time at this year’s New York Comic Con.  After she got out from work, Michele joined me at the show and we hung out there for a few hours.  But, at the end of the day, I was exhausted and kind of broke, so I’m glad that I was only there for one day.  Anyway, thanks again, Michele, for the surprise ticket.  I really appreciate it.

Doctor Who reviews: The Reaping

Continuing to discuss performances by Colin Baker in the Big Finish audio plays, today I’m taking a look at “The Reaping,” written by Joseph Lidster. I originally listened to it three years ago. The main reason why I decided to re-visit it now is the book Chicks Unravel Time, published by Mad Norwegian Press (you can see my December 4th blog entry for more info on that).

One of the excellent essays in Chicks Unravel Time is “The Problem With Peri,” written by Jennifer Pelland. In it, Pelland takes a look at the unfortunately subpar use of the character of Peri Brown, the Doctor’s companion in the mid-1980s who was portrayed by actress Nicola Bryant. Pelland, in examining Peri’s portrayal during Season 22 of Doctor Who, noted that she unfortunately served as a poor role model, especially in comparison to the other strong female characters seen on the screen that year.

As I have said before, the Big Finish audios have given Colin Baker a chance to shine, providing him with a higher quality of scripts to work with. This has allowed him to really demonstrate just what he could have done if he had been given material this good to work with on the actual show. Well, the same, fortunately, applies to Nicola Bryant as Peri.

I very much agree with the sentiments addressed by Pelland in her essay. Peri was often ill-used throughout much of her time on the show. She was constantly whining & complaining. Often her relationship with the Doctor was written to consist of little more than squabbling. All that, and the producer seemed more interested in sticking Bryant in costumes that showed off her cleavage than in giving her well-written dialogue. The writers of the Big Finish audios have done a great deal to rectify these problems with the character of Peri.

It is implied in Peri’s debut story “Planet of Fire” that she has issues with her family. She certainly does not get along with her stepfather in that serial. This is fertile ground for Joseph Lidster to explore in “The Reaping.” His script delves deeply into Peri’s background. We finally meet her family and friends, and find out about her relationships with them, relationships that have been severely strained due to her long absence while she was off traveling with the Doctor.

Having just sat through “The Reaping” again, I was certainly impressed with the depth and nuance of the material. The script certainly gives Nicola Bryant a great deal to work with. I would go so far as to say that Peri received more character development in “The Reaping” than she did during her two years on the television show.

Doctor Who: The Reaping
Doctor Who: The Reaping

Thousands of years in the future, the Doctor and Peri visit the Gogglebox, an archive of humanity’s history archived in the hollowed-out Moon. A curious Peri decides to check the records concerning her home town of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1980s. Coming across a news report from that time, Peri learns that the father of her good friend Kathy has been brutally murdered. Shocked and upset, Peri has the Doctor take her back to Baltimore in September 1984 for the funeral. At the graveyard, Peri is reunited with her mother Janine. And all is not well.

Peri, as the audience knows, has been traveling all about in time & space with the Doctor for the last two years of her life. But from the point of view of Janine back in 1984, her daughter just up and vanished one day, with a word to no one, and could not be bothered to telephone or even send a letter to let her mother know that she was safe.

Janine is played by Claudia Christian, who appeared on Babylon 5 as Commander Susan Ivanova for four seasons. I really enjoyed Christian’s performance on that series, where she made Ivanova one of my favorite characters. Christian does an equally good job in “The Reaping,” playing an angry & disappointed mother whose dissatisfaction with her daughter turns to amazement as she learns what Peri has really been up to all this time.

Bryant, likewise, does excellent work in her portrayal of Peri, who is grief-stricken at her friend’s loss, and deeply hurt by her mother’s disapproval. The character experiences an emotional gauntlet in “The Reaping,” and Bryant really brings her to life.

The relationship between the Doctor and Peri is also explored. We see that, underneath all of the bickering, the two care deeply for one another. At one point, fearing the Doctor might be dead, Peri admits to Janine and Kathy that the Doctor is her best friend. I wish we had seen the friendship between the two characters explored to this degree on the television show. My compliments to Lidster for delving so deeply and movingly into their relationship.

As a quick glance of the cover to “The Reaping” will show, the Cybermen are the villains of the story. Even though they are actually used rather sparingly, they are nevertheless very effective. Inserting them into the mundane domesticity of 1984 Baltimore makes them appear even more alien and menacing than usual.

Lidster taps into the simultaneously horrific and tragic nature of the Cybermen. The Doctor sadly retells the Cybermen’s origins, how in order to survive on the dying planet Mondas, they slowly but surely began replacing organic flesh with metal, plastic, and computer circuits. Their cybernetics was a means to an end, a desperate gamble for survival. But they ended up replacing too much of themselves, and lost their ability to feel emotion. Survival became an end unto itself, as they marched out across the galaxy, determined to convert all organic life.

That is exactly what the Cybermen are doing in “The Reaping.” Their numbers severely dwindled after multiple defeats, they want the Cyber race to survive. And so they travel back in time to convert all of humanity. They see this as an improvement, believing that the elimination of messy feelings & emotions will end chaos and bring about order. That is the true horror of the Cybermen. They don’t want to conquer the world or destroy it; instead, they wish to transform everyone into logical, emotionless Cybermen. In so many ways, that is a fate worse than death.
In the classic serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” the Cyber Controller coldly informs a group of captive humans “You belong to us. You shall be like us.” Lidster has the Cybermen in “The Reaping” reiterate that chilling pronouncement.

On the whole, “The Reaping” is a very strong story. But there are a few weaknesses. The Cybermen’s plan seems to rely on a couple of big coincidences. The ending of the story is unnecessarily downbeat, and cuts off potential future storylines. And there is at least one unresolved subplot left dangling.

On that last point, I realize Lidster was setting things up for a semi-sequel, “The Gathering,” which is the next entry in the Big Finish audio series. I still haven’t listened to that one yet. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to pick it up at some point in the future.

In any case, despite a few criticisms, I found “The Reaping” a well written production, with quality acting by Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and Claudia Christian.

Doctor Who reviews: Davros

I mentioned in my last post that I really feel Colin Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor was underrated, and how he was much better served by the Big Finish audio plays, most of which contain extremely high qualities of writing and acting.  I remember listening to one of Baker’s earliest Big Finish stories, “The Marian Conspiracy,” written by Jacqueline Rayner, and actually thinking to myself “Wow, if only he had gotten material half as good as this to work with when he was on television, he would have been remembered as one of the best actors to play the Doctor.”

Another excellent Doctor Who Big Finish story starring Colin Baker is “Davros.”  It was released back in 2003, but I unfortunately kept putting off getting it.  It took meeting the story’s author, Lance Parkin, last month to finally motivate me to order a copy.  I listened to the story yesterday, and was absolutely riveted.  Parkin does an amazing job writing not only the Sixth Doctor, but also Davros, the infamous creator of the villainous Daleks.

Davros made his debut in the 1975 television serial “Genesis of the Daleks.”  Many viewers, including myself, consider “Genesis” to be the very best appearance of the character.  Writer Terry Nation, with likely a great deal of input from script editor Robert Holmes, crafted a truly Machiavellian figure, a brilliant but twisted scientist, a fascist with a god complex who sought to remake the universe in his image via the Daleks.  Actor Michael Wisher brought to life this brilliantly-scripted individual in a fantastic performance.

At the end of “Genesis,” the Daleks turned on Davros, seemingly exterminating their creator.  He was, of course, later brought back to life.  But many fans of the series have long felt his subsequent appearances were quite lacking, that he had been reduced to a one-dimensional ranting megalomaniac.  In the original series, I think the only time the writing for the character ever came to approaching the quality of “Genesis” was in “Revelation of the Daleks,” by which time the character was being played by Terry Molloy.  “Revelation” saw a return to some of the guile and subtle machinations that had characterized him in his debut.

Doctor Who: Davros
Doctor Who: Davros

In his audio play “Davros,” Lance Parkin appears to have drawn much from both “Genesis” and “Revelation.”  He gives us a Davros who is a magnetic, chilling figure.  Returning to play Davros in the audio format, Terry Molloy does a superb job, making his character extremely compelling.

Set between the events of the television stories “Resurrection of the Daleks” and “Revelation,” the audio play sees the seemingly-dead Davros retrieved by Arnold Baynes, amoral CEO of the galactic mega-corporation Trans Allied Inc, and his wife Lorraine.  Arnold Baynes, who is played by Bernard Horsfall, is a futuristic titan of finance, a space-age robber baron who regards himself as a man who is simply providing the people of the galaxy with the products they need.  Like most corporate figures, he honestly believes he is a good man, doing a necessary job, regarding capitalism as the ideal economic form to regulate human life.  Baynes makes sure the employees of TAI have their lunch breaks, and finds the idea of spying on them to be morally repulsive.  Yet if he occasionally has to arrange an “accidental” death, his conscience is unbothered, just so long as it is for the good of the company.  Baynes is unperturbed by Davros’ status as the creator of the Daleks and a war criminal, regarding that as past unpleasantness.  If Davros can apply his scientific genius to helping TAI develop new technologies, to increasing the company’s vast fortunes & holdings, then that is all that matters.

Lorraine Baynes, voiced by Wendy Padbury, also has her reasons for wanting to give Davros shelter.  A revisionist historian, Lorraine regards Davros as a pioneer and a visionary, a titanic intellect who has been unfairly maligned by posterity, labeled as “evil” and made the scapegoat of the Daleks’ atrocities.  There is a great deal of hero worship at work on her part.  She hopes to write the definitive history of Davros and the Daleks, and is soon probing her new guest for information about his past on the planet Skaro.

Into the picture comes the Doctor, who was investigating an unrelated matter involving TAI.  The Doctor is naturally horrified at the idea of the Baynes reviving Davros and giving him a position of corporate power.  He was present on Skaro, and saw first-hand the treachery and violence that Davros engaged in to ensure the creation of the Daleks.  Unlike the Baynes, who are blinded by profit and idolatry respectively, the Doctor knows full well how dangerous Davros can be.

Unfortunately, the Doctor is unable to impress upon Arnold Baynes the urgency of the matter.  So he hits upon a different stratagem: he offers himself as an alternative to Davros.  If TAI needs a genius, well, the Doctor is willing to lend his services.  However, to the Doctor’s dismay, Baynes has another proposal: he will hire both of them.  And so the Doctor, in order to keep an eye on Davros, agrees to become TAI’s newest employee, with one of his greatest enemies as his co-worker.  This leads to some very interesting verbal fencing between the two, this time not across the battlefield, but the work table of the laboratory.  Parkin writes absolutely riveting dialogue for the Doctor and Davros.  Both Baker and Molloy fully rise to the occasion, turning in superb performances.

Davros Martin Geraghty Doctor Who Magazine 335

One of the things that have often been examined over the years is what, exactly, is the appeal of the character of Davros?  Yes, his visual design is fantastic.  He is literally a half-human, half-Dalek figure.  But there is certainly more to him than that.  I think a great deal of what makes him compelling is his seeming limitations, and how he overcomes them.  Here is a crippled, blind, one-armed figure trapped in a wheelchair which serves as his life-support system, aided only by artificial senses.  Yet this apparently pathetic, insignificant being is unstoppable.  Throughout his original appearance in “Genesis,” despite his severe diminished physical condition, he continually triumphs.  Through force of will & strength of personality, utilizing guile & cunning, he bends others to his will.  When necessary, by adopting an unassuming, humble personality, he causes others to severely underestimate him.  Through his intellect, Davros repeatedly outwits the Doctor and all his other rivals in “Genesis.”

Parkin brings all of these characteristics back to the fore in his script.  Davros comes across as an incredibly dangerous individual, constantly scheming & coercing.  Throughout much of the story, he claims that he sees the Baynes’ offer as a chance at redemption, to make up for his myriad horrific crimes.  And the strength of Molloy’s performance is such that you never really know if Davros is being sincere.  He sounds genuine… but at the same time, the Doctor knows full well that Davros is incredibly charismatic, a master of manipulation.   And so the listener is constantly kept guessing.

I was left wondering if Parkin’s writing had influenced Russell T Davies when he penned the 2008 television episode “Journey’s End.”  In it, Davros refers to the Doctor as “The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.”  This seems to mirror a scene early in Parkin’s story.  The Doctor, discovering the Baynes are attempting to revive Davros, pleads with them to kill him.  Davros snaps into consciousness and tauntingly says to the Doctor “You are weak. There’s the switch. End my life. You, not them! Do your own dirty work. End my life if you have the stomach for it!”  And when the Doctor cannot bring himself to kill Davros in cold blood, Davros mockingly laughs in his face.

Reflecting on this dark, chilling story, something occurred to me.  It has been long been said that Davros created the Daleks in him image.  Physically that is apparent.  But Parkin, through a series of flashbacks to Davros’ early days on Skaro, reveals that there is more to it than just appearance.  Just as Davros removed from the Daleks the ability to feel such emotions as empathy and pity, so too has he done so with himself.  In the audio play, Davros continually claims to be unable to feel love or affection.  When he does experience any sort of regret or guilt at the monumental atrocities he has engineered, he dismisses this as an insignificant biological or chemical process of his body, one he instantly regulates via the drugs dispensed by his life support system.  And so Parkin establishes both the similarity and difference between the Daleks and their creator.  The Daleks are evil due to circumstance, a result of the removal of their ability to possess certain emotions, depriving them of what we would label a conscience.  Davros, on the other hand, is evil by choice, because he has willingly discarded or suppressed those emotions in himself.

“Genesis of the Daleks” still remains the iconic Davros story, probably the best use of the character.  That said, I would certainly have to put the “Davros” audio play at a very close second.  The writing by Lance Parkin, and the performances by Terry Molloy & Colin Baker, made this an unmissable production, one I recommend to any long-time fans of Doctor Who interested in the character of Davros.

Doctor Who reviews: Trail of the White Worm / The Oseidon Adventure

Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series.  For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish.  The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her.  The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”

The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation.  He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.  In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.”  Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.

(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm

“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years.  Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village.  The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane.  A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements.  She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.

The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers.  At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT.  However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations.  Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right.  I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft.  But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard.  The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.

Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure

Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb.  It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off.  I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe.  That said, it is great to have him back.  If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.

Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela.  I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases.  So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television.  I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela.  Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.

And then there is Geoffrey Beevers.  The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence.  Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories.  Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor.  The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.

All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories.  These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions.  They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format.  I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.

“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales.  If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.

Doctor Who reviews: The Children of Seth

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.  I actually reviewed a few of them on Associated Content a couple of years ago, but until now I’ve yet to discuss them in any detail on this blog.

As I wrote in my review of the serial “Kinda,” some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, when I was eight or nine years old, were the Peter Davison ones.  So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one of the Big Finish audios starring him.  Each time, it feels a little bit like it did on those weekday evenings at 6 PM, tuning in to WLIW Channel 21, to catch the next episode of the show.

In the last few years, Big Finish has been adopting for the audio format a number of “lost stories,” i.e. Doctor Who scripts that made it to various stages of completion but, for one reason or another, were never actually filmed.  The obvious choice to start off that range was Colin Baker’s lost season, which would have featured such serials as “The Nightmare Fair.”  Now, having completed a number of these with Baker & Nicola Bryant, Big Finish has turned its attention to Lost Stories from other eras of the show.

“The Children of Seth” was an unproduced script by Christopher Bailey, who also wrote “Kinda” and “Snakedance.”  As readers of this blog may recall, “Kinda” is a favorite of mine, so when I first heard about “The Children of Seth,” I was understandably curious.  I finally had an opportunity to purchase a copy of the story at the New York Comic Con, from the Doctor Who Store.  Peter Davison was a guest at the convention, so of course I had him autograph it.

In addition to its authorship and it featuring the Fifth Doctor, another reason why I decided to get “The Children of Seth” was that it stars Honor Blackman and David Warner, two very good, distinguished actors.  As well as that, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton reprise their roles as Tegan and Nyssa.  I always felt that the three person team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa was a very strong one, and regrettably that particular line-up only appeared in a handful of stories (sorry, any Adric fans out there, but I think the TARDIS was too crowded with four people, and Matthew Waterhouse was given some really bad material to work with in Season 19).

Doctor Who: The Children of Seth

In “The Children of Seth,” the Doctor receives a cryptic message from the Archipelago of Sirius, a city located inside an immense hollowed-out asteroid.  Arriving in the TARDIS, the Doctor encounters an old acquaintance of his he first met in a previous regeneration, Anahita, the consort to Sirius, Autarch of the Empire.  Anahita has learned that the ambitious Lord Byzan, who has gradually been usurping power from the now-elderly Sirius, is about to propel the Empire into war, a crusade against the mysterious Seth, Prince of the Dark.  Foreseeing the immense loss of innocent life and the potential ruin of the Empire, Anahita, who has been exiled from the court, is desperate to reach Sirius and convince him to intercede.  And she hopes that the Doctor will aid her in thwarting Byzan’s ever-growing web of influence.

“The Children of Seth” is very much a political thriller, with plots and counterplots, schemes and betrayals, machinations and manipulations.  If this story had actually been produced in the 1980s, I’m uncertain if my young self would have actually enjoyed it.  Back then, one of my main reasons for watching Doctor Who was the monsters, and aside from the mantis-like security drones, “The Children of Seth” is extremely notable for the absence of any aliens or strange creatures.

Of course, as an adult, I absolutely loved it!  The characters are all very well developed, and there is a great deal of moral ambiguity to everyone.  Honor Blackman does a superb job portraying Anahita, a well-intentioned but occasionally ruthless figure.  Her reputation as “Mistress of the Poisons” will undoubtedly tell you that she doesn’t always walk the straight & narrow path.  Blackman is just majestic as this at-times inscrutable figure.

Adrian Lukis also is excellent as Byzan, imbuing him with a mix of runaway ambition, megalomania, and paranoia.  It’s interesting that Byzan will crush dissent by gleefully dispatching political prisoners to be mind-wiped & exiled to the mysterious Level 14, and he’s ready to plunge the Empire into a pointless war, but he actually draws the line at cold blooded mass murder.  Having a villain with the slightest of scruples can be much more interesting, and realistic, than having a one-dimensional black-hearted fiend.

Finally, David Warner portrays Sirius, the now doddering figurehead ruler of the Empire.  This was a relatively small part for someone of Warner’s stature, but he gives it his all, bringing to life a once-great man now crippled by nostalgia, the onset of dementia, and an unwillingness to perceive the political corruption taking place around him.  However, once his people are actually threatened, this aged ruler is ready to stand on the front lines again.  And despite his acrimonious relationship with Anahita, when faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Sirius is despondent.

Janet Fielding is given a substancial portion of the action in “The Children of Seth.”  In many ways I think Tegan was almost a prototype for Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble.  The difference is that too often Tegan was scripted as overly aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive.  One of the few writers on Doctor Who to do the character justice and give Fielding good material to work with was, of course, Christopher Bailey.  So it’s no surprise that Tegan in “The Children of Seth” is an interesting, engaging character, rather than a mouth on legs.  Fielding does an excellent job, especially in the scenes where she is paired with Honor Blackman.

Unfortunately, the character of Nyssa is sidelined for much of the story.  So I felt that Sarah Sutton wasn’t given much to do.  That said, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been featured traveling without Tegan in quite a few of the earlier Big Finish stories, so Sutton has already gotten the spotlight in several of those stories.  Given those circumstances, I enjoyed Tegan featuring in a large portion of “The Children of Seth” instead.

And what about Peter Davison himself?  Well, to a degree the Doctor is also pushed to the sides for a bit, in favor of Tegan and Anahita.  But then Davison is really given an opportunity to give it his all in the final episode of “The Children of Seth,” and he makes the most of it.

From the behind-the-scenes interviews on the CDs, as well as info from Doctor Who Magazine, I gather that Bailey’s scripts for “The Children of Seth” were in the early draft stage when the decision was made to drop the story.  Marc Platt, himself a good writer who has done extensive work for Big Finish, was recruited to transform these into something that could be recorded as an audio play.  Happily, instead of merely dusting off Bailey’s old scripts and finishing them on his own, Platt met in person with him, and they discussed the best way to resolve the various plot problems, as well as come up with an ending to the story.  I don’t know where Bailey’s work ends and Platt’s begins.  Whatever the case, “The Children of Seth” is an excellent story.

One last thing… I would have to say that “The Children of Seth” is not a casual listen.  I was not expecting it to be, though, given that “Kinda” has to be one of the most complicated Doctor Who stories ever made.  I knew what I was in for, that I’d really have to pay careful attention to the audio play to keep track of the characters and plotlines.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort.

That said, in one respect the audio format is undoubtedly a strength.  It enabled me to envision the Archipelago of Sirius as a vast city with crowds of people, instead of merely a bunch of corridors occupied by a handful of extras, which is probably how in would have appeared if the story had actually been filmed in the early 1980s on a shoestring budget.

In any case, given its complexity, at some point I intend to sit down again to re-listen to “The Children of Seth.”  It’ll be interesting to see what I get out of it a second time.

Mary Tamm: 1950 – 2012

It is a strange feeling, learning that someone you grew up watching on television has passed away.  Such is the case with Doctor Who, which I have avidly followed since I was eight years old.  Recently, several past regular actors from the show have died, namely Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, and Caroline John.  Unfortunately, a fourth name has now joined that list: Mary Tamm, the actress who portrayed Romana during the Sixteenth Season of Doctor Who, passed away on July 26th after a year and a half long battle with cancer.  Tamm was 62 years old, too young an age by my estimation.

Prior to her involvement with Doctor Who, Tamm appeared in the 1973 film adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File.  In 1977, she was approached by Doctor Who producer Graham Williams to play Romana, a female Time Lord who would embark with the Doctor, then portrayed by Tom Baker, on a season-long quest to locate the six segments of a cosmic artifact known as the Key to Time.  Tamm was drawn to the part by the promise that Romana would be the Doctor’s equal, independent and intelligent.

Romana was certainly a distinctive figure.  Brimming with knowledge and confidence, she was a posh, sophisticated woman with an incredible sense of fashion.  During her season on the show, she sported a series of stylish ensembles, carrying herself with elegant dignity.

Mary Tamm as Romana in the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara
Mary Tamm as Romana in the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara

In addition to her undeniable air of cultivation, Romana was also actually more intelligent than the Doctor himself.  However, being much younger than him, and having just come from a sheltered existence on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, it could be argued she was naïve as to the actual dangers of the real world.  One of the aspects of her relationship with the Doctor would be her university education versus his “street smart” knowledge of the universe gained from centuries of travels.  I found this to be interesting source of both drama and humor.  However, this dimension of their characters’ interchange would actually contribute towards Tamm’s decision to depart from the show.

By the end of the Sixteenth Season, Tamm felt she had taken the character of Romana as far as she could.  In a 1991 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, she explained “I realized that I was never going to be on a level with the Doctor intellectually and the fact that Romana was a Time Lord graduate didn’t help her. She had all the text book knowledge but none of the Doctor’s experience and application.”  She added “I felt the role wasn’t stretching me enough as an actress and therefore I was not prepared to tag along with Tom Baker for another nine months just feeding him lines.”

Tamm was “instrumental” in convincing the powers-that-be to hire actress Lala Ward as her replacement on Doctor Who.  At the start of the next season Romana regenerated into her new form, although Tamm was unfortunately not on hand to film the transition.

After her time on Doctor Who, Tamm went on to a long & successful career in British television.  In recent years she returned to the world of Doctor Who, performing in several of the Companion Chronicles releases from Big Finish.  Earlier this year, she was reunited with Tom Baker for a series of full cast audio plays set between her final television story, “The Armageddon Factor,” and her regeneration, in effect a Season 16.5, so to speak.  These are scheduled to be released by Big Finish in early 2013.

One of my favorite Tom Baker serials is from the Key to Time season, namely “The Pirate Planet” which was written by Douglas Adams shortly before he found fame as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  “The Pirate Planet” may not have been the strongest story in terms of its treatment of Romana that season, or in spotlighting Tamm’s acting abilities (that would undoubtedly be the also-excellent “The Androids of Tara” by David Fisher) but it’s a marvelous adventure.  Among its strengths is the interplay between Tamm and Baker.  I’m looking forward to re-watching that story again soon.

Despite her short time on Doctor Who, Mary Tamm made an indelible impression on the show.  Even though she was not able to stretch the boundaries of the role of the Doctor’s assistant as far as she had hoped or wanted, I think she was certainly one of the actresses who helped to lay the groundwork for more assertive, independent companions to appear on the show in the future.