Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Season 4

Right then, where are we?  Benny’s a single mother but with an ex-husband and an ex-loverofBennywhilstshewasn’tinherbody fighting over both her affections and also those of her son, the hairy scream ball Peter.  Brax looks as though he’s far more evil than anyone thought but only Jason knows it, except for the hypnotic block Brax has put in place to stop him remembering.  The universe is a pretty peaceful place though at the moment but there’s trouble ahead, to be detailed in those pesky paper based book things.  So, time to start season 4.  It’s begins with one giant green testicle and end with something approaching a load of bollocks…

“The Bellotron Incident” guest stars a rutan (so see the Doctor Who TV story “Horror of Fang Rock”) which you know means that there’s going to be all manner of shape changing larks going on through the story.  We get to reintroduce Bev Tarrant to the audio range (go listen to the Doctor Who audio story “The Genocide Machine” and then do “Dust Breeding” just for the hell of it) and Benny gets to re-enact Indiana Jones style escapades.  It’s a bit of a strange one, some people might say “where’s the fun in shape shifters in audio only” but it’s done exceptionally well here.  The opening goes on for far too long though (it could easily lose several minutes’ worth of monologue) and some of the set pieces are, I’m sorry to say, just a little bit too cliché on the daring archaeology front.  However, it’s a story with more than one or two twists to it and not all of them are immediately obvious.  There’s a rather sneaky moment towards the end where it really looks as though Benny’s been killed (but she’s the heroine) so you are left scratching your head for a moment or two before the big reveal (note:  this is how you should do it Mr Moffat!).  We’re once more in the realms of small casts (presumably saving up for the end of season spectacular) but everyone plays it at just the right level to keep it interesting. And there’s no sign of Brax being anything but charming in this one.

He’s also fairly charming at the start of “The Draconian Rage” (don’t remember the Draconians? Go re-watch the Doctor Who story “Frontier in Space”, and when you’ve woken up come back to this one).  Here he talks Benny into the archaeology opportunity of a lifetime, to inspect an artefact that the Draconians have recently unearthed.  The Draconians don’t go a bundle on humans, or females, so why they have specifically asked Brax to send them the human, female Benny is something of a mystery (one which you can get a little more of the background on in the Doctor Who audio story “The Dark Flame”).  Be warned though, the level of lisping in this story is kept to the correct side of the line but there are some very disturbing scenes of what essentially boils down to almost sadistic torture.  Think back to how the Nazis treated Benny in “Just War” and now make it worse.  Plus throw in the appropriate sound effects.  Don’t expect to be cheery by the end of it.  Also, don’t expect to be surprised when the weapon introduced near the start of the story does exactly what you expect to do near the end of the story.  The only challenge is in working out who’s going to use it and who’s going to be on the receiving end.  It’s a psychological tale of mind control vs free will and there’s a lot of talking towards the end rather than action.  Also, don’t expect there to be any real signs of it being referred back to any time in the near future (though more of this when it’s possibly referenced in a season or two’s time). Just take it as a story that’s going to make you grimace at the nasty bits, struggle through a lot of the talky bits and presumably have a lot of off air downtime for Benny after it.

So, some suitable time later, Benny has headed off to visit an old friend in “The Poison Seas”. Well, officially she’s just visiting, in reality she’s there to find out what’s going on after a tip off that things aren’t all as they seem.  Her old friend, it turns out, is a sea devil (so go see the TV story “The Sea Devils” for more information) and ummmm well this is one of those rare instances where Big Finish get it wrong.  Sea Devils were great on television, they looked superb and there was a lot of other stuff going on in the story and the devils weren’t doing too much of the talking.  On audio though, things really don’t work too well. The sea devil voices all merge into one another and, at times, I found it really difficult to actually work out what was being said by whom.  So, what I gathered about the plot, weird sentient protein driving the leader of the sea devils a bit nuts even though he was a traitor anyway, might have been a bit fuzzed by the heavy use of sea devil voices.  They just really don’t work on audio.  The plot itself isn’t actually that strong and so my willingness to really focus on the sea devil voices wandered on a regular basis.  It’s a shame, under different circumstances (and maybe with a slightly more generous treatment of the voices), this could have been a gripping mystery tale.  As it stands, what I could hear, all of it sounded pretty obvious.  Except the ending that is.  The baddies are defeated, the authorities called in and then Brax sends Benny a message.  A message so obviously a coded message that Benny has no choice but to abandon the sea devils to their off air fate and head back to the Braxiatel Collection pronto.  Well, that’s her intended destination… in reality she ends up very heavily involved in a short story collection in the book range.  And if you don’t read it then the opening of the season finale is going to be something of a jumbled mess.

“Death and the Daleks”, at long last, starts with a “Previously on Benny” as the story follows on from the end of the short story collection “Life During Wartime”.  However, it’s done in such a confusing manner and with little indication as to what’s actually going on then it’s almost worse than useless.  The audio release really feels like parts two and three of a story where most of the information you needed to really understand it was in part one.  Okay, there have been references to the books in the past but they kept things mostly explained in the audios.  Here there’s a whole tonne of stuff that’s happened on the printed page that just baffled me (I didn’t get the book till long after the audio was released and I’ll be damned if I can remember what actually happens in it).  Jason’s in a fat suit and still in contact with his mysterious friends, the Briaxiatel Collection has been invaded by the Fifth Axis and Brax strongly suspects there’s a lot more to the invasion than seems.  There’s a whole host of familiar faces in this one, they’ve certainly pulled out the stops on the cast front (eleven listed on the official Big Finish page for the story) but the plot really feels as though it should either have been shorter and some of the padding removed OR made a lot longer and put a lot more explanation in.  There are references back to the “Benny travelling with the Doctor” days (so time wasn’t 100% re-written in “Closure”) and finally the daleks show up in the range (don’t know who the daleks are, then what on earth are you doing listening to Benny dramas??).  Brax now openly has a TARDIS (Chronotis style, see “Shada”) and there’s a linking narration to help fill in some bits that I can’t quite work out when it takes place (it will crop up again in a couple of years though… and I still won’t be able to work it out).  It feels as though the linking material is set about ten years or more after the occupation by the axis but that doesn’t really tie in with other stories. I’m not saying it’s a bad story, it does feel very large scale and there’s a lot of things going on in it, but starting the story in the book range really felt like a mistake to me.  Yes, you could follow what was going on but there was just so much back referencing that I kept finding my mind pulled out of it to see if I knew what was happening!  The moralising about right and wrong all through the story came across as heavy handed and, at the end, I was left feeling exhausted but not in a brilliant way.  Large scale, daleks and continuity but it didn’t quite add up to the feast it thought it was.  Plus another set of clues that things are about to go wrong for the Collection that won’t be picked up for another season or two.

Beginning Benny - Season 3

So Benny’s given birth to Peter, the child she conceived whilst her body was being possessed by an ancient sorceress who promptly bone jumped Adrian, the dog-man-like handyman on the Braxiatel Collection.  The kid has a rather powerful scream (mentioned quite a lot through the season but never really explained on audio) and a few extra claws but is otherwise fairly normal.  This means that, from now on, as well as ancient weapons, insane computers, Nazis and all the other things she’s had to worry about whilst being on her adventures, Benny’s now rather pre-occupied with being a good mother as well.  As you can possibly imagine, this isn’t something that’s going to come too naturally to her. So, at the start of season three, we get to join Benny in doing something that really is her basic instinct… and it’s not archaeology.

Remember the original “tag line” of Benny stories, that science fiction had never been so much fun?  Well the first release “The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy” really lives up to the promise.  We’re back to the classic Benny set-up, ie archaeological dig gone wrong.  It’s Benny’s own fault though, she deliberately volunteered for this dig and the fact it takes place in the car park of Gigamarket, the largest shop in the galaxy, is a complete and utter coincidence.  The fact that she’s accidentally borrowed Adrian’s credit chip is mere fate and Benny would never dream of taking the opportunity to stock up on shoes. Accompanied by the robot porter Joseph (go read the books), Benny leaves the archaeology robots on auto and happens to pop into the store just as things start to go wrong with time.  This is possibly one of the best (though thoroughly inconsistent) time travel type stories I can think of in the Doctor Who universe (“Festival of Death”, to my mind, being the ultimate and practically perfect one) and, as a result, has some fantastically grotesque scenes involving cows.  The sequence never fails to make me break into a huge grin and I won’t spoil any more by going into detail.  Naturally Benny gets drawn into the whole “what’s going on” plot and it turns out there’s a rather nasty side to the store and a bloody large bomb about to go off.  Did I mention this story does time travel?  Well it also dares to include the Grandfather Paradox in a rather literal manner and fully acknowledge how ludicrous the situation is.  It’s a glorious triumph and should be added to the rather small but satisfyingly enjoyable pile of “stories that everyone should hear”.

Up next, and catching me totally by surprise, comes “The Green-Eyed Monster”. Adrian, the biological father of Peter, ends up in direct competition with Jason Kane, the ex-husband of Benny, for her affections in a plot that I remembered as being rather lacklustre when I first heard it but thoroughly enjoyed this time around.  Benny heads away from the Braxiatel collection to authenticate some artefacts to allow Lady Ashantra and her insane sons to take the reigns on a planet that, to be honest, no one really cares about. If the artefacts are genuine then the rather idiotic children will find their eyes flashing green and so be seen as the true holders of power.  However Benny doesn’t really see this as a job that she should be taking her still screaming son on and so she needs baby sitters.  The green-eyed monsters of the title refers to both the genetically altered children and the bitch fest that is the Jason/Adrian relationship that takes up half the story.  No sooner has Benny left Peter in their charge than the poor infant is captured.  The story is a brilliantly written tale which doesn’t even bother to hide the obviousness of what’s going on after about the first 25 minutes and, instead, concentrates on characters.  My only gripe about the story though is the ending.  There’s nothing wrong with it, it makes sense and you can follow what’s going on BUT there’s a huge amount of background information that I really don’t remember about Jason.  At some point in whichever time line we’re actually in these days, he’s clearly first gone missing and then turned up again.  This is definitely a “Previously on Benny” moment and I spent a long time afterwards trying to decide if I should go back to the books and get the details.  In the end I decided not to but as it’s going to crop up again in a slightly more important manner later on in the range… well I think I’ll just google it and hope for the best.  However, as I said, the story does make sense without it as they give just enough information to justify what’s going on.

No such background about Jason is needed for “Dance of the Dead”.  Instead, this time, you need background on Benny’s other adventures.  As a crossover release, Benny appeared in “The Plague Heards of Excelis”, not officially part of any Benny season but a fourth part to a trilogy of Doctor Who stories set on the planet Excelis. In it, she was joined by adventuress Iris Wildthyme, a character that I have very mixed feelings about.  At the end though, Benny and Iris head off together for a drink and it’s the aftermath that “Dance of the Dead” picks up with.  Benny has a hangover, a very bad hangover.  One so bad that she doesn’t really remember how she got to be on board a spaceship full of dignitaries heading back to their home worlds after a potentially galaxy saving peace conference.  Fortunately, Karter, a helpful steward takes pity and smuggles her into the VIP area in time to meet some ice warriors and for the ship to blow up…  Yes, it’s Benny does “The Poseidon Adventure”.  There’s a rather trippy love story in this one between Benny and an Ice Warrior to go with it, but the bulk of the actual plot is the desperate race to try and get off the ship before it blows completely (the initial explosion merely taking out part of it).  There are escapades in lift shafts, double and triple crossing, collapsing ceilings and everything else you’d expect from a disaster movie.  Where this story really wins me over (and if anyone from Big Finish is reading this, unlikely I know, but please take note) is that the Ice Warriors aren’t voiced by Nicholas Briggs.  In recent years it’s become something of a joke that any alien race that was originally in the TV version of Doctor Who is now automatically voiced by Nick Briggs in the audio dramas.  Sadly he does seem to have an exceptionally recognisable voice no matter how much distortion they put on it.  This, though, comes from the pre-Nickvoiceseverything days and, as such, we get a very distinctive sounding Grand Marshall for Benny to act against (as well as a female of the species for the Grand Marshall to play off as well).  It just makes it sound refreshingly different and the portrayal, combined with the love story being acted out, really pulled me into the tale.  The ending, however, though signalled in the middle of the story, still always strikes me as rather convenient.  Okay, it’s clear that Benny can’t die and so needs rescuing but… I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think it borders on being close to a Deus ex Machina.  Still, it’s a very good listen and a very different tone to the previous two. 

If only the season had ended there.  If only the final, letter writing scene could have been picked up on for the next release instead of “The Mirror Effect”, a story about mirrors, setting Brax up as a nasty piece of work and ummm lots of running around in corridors and mirrors.  I wouldn’t describe this story as a clunker but it’s definitely the weakest release they’d done to this point in the range. It’s a lot of tediousness involving a mirror entity who shows people their dark sides, wants to give birth and lives in a deserted mining base.  There’s a lot of snow and water involved (including Jason thinking he’s drowning in a sealed lift) and there’s a lot more of the Jason/Adrian fighting over Benny.  Sadly it’s so straight laced it’s tedious.  They really do go to great lengths to make Brax out as a baddie (but, with a throwforward for those who don’t mind slight spoilers, don’t really do much with it for a few years at least) and Jason and Adrian as insecure males who both have feelings for Benny.  I’d love to say that I really understood the nature of the mirror creature (but I don’t), I’d love to say that it’s all designed and written well enough to keep my interest (it isn’t) and I’d love to say that anything that happens in this one is completely irrelevant to the rest of the range.  Sadly, it’s the start of the BIG plot line.  I mean BIG, not just in block caps but with neon lights around it and flashing arrows saying “Remember this one because you’ll need it later”.  Listen to it, get it out of the way and then grit your teeth for a while longer as you’ve got a few more dreary releases to get through before science fiction gets fun again. 

Beginning Benny - Season 2

I’ve decided that, for the purposes of the next ten seasons of Benny’s adventures, time did get a slight rebooting at the end of the subscriber story “Closure”.  If you don’t know what I’m referring to then nip over to the Intermission article about Benny then come back here once you’re done… Ready?

So this is Bernice Surprise Summerfield’s “first” full blown series of original audio adventures.  No reworking of old stories, everything is new.  However, it’s also the first time that Big Finish decided that Benny should be a “cross product” range.  In their infinite wisdom they decided that you should have to get both the book series AND the audio series to get the full story and, in going back to the start of Benny it’s left me scrabbling for the internet to get a memory jog of things that don’t take place on CD.  Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to piece together what you’ve missed if you’re only interested in the audio format but a “Previously on Benny” might have been a little useful towards the end of the range.

“The Secret of Cassandra” stands out a little in this second season as being the only non “archaeology as a starting point” story.  Instead we find Benny having slight issues whilst on holiday.  Even though she’s no longer travelling with a certain Time Lord she hasn’t lost the knack of ending up in trouble and, in this particular case, she’s ended up holidaying in the middle of a war zone.  Not the safest thing to do and Benny’s essentially left adrift without a paddle.  Fortunately there’s a ship to pick her up, Captained by Big Finish stalwart Lennox Greaves.  He’ll eventually crop up in all kinds of Big Finish Doctor Who stories, most obviously in “The Chimes of Midnight”, but here he’s keeping one or two secrets from his new ship mate.  Also on the ship is General Brennan, a representative of one of the sides in the war, her prisoner, Sheen and a computer called Cassandra.  Not the largest cast in the world but they manage to keep the story going at a pretty reasonable rate, with enough plot developments to keep your mind working though the story.  The ending is a little bit gender bending (but nothing compared to what wouldn’t be happening soon in the CDs) and they manage to play out the emotional part of the story without it becoming too heavy handed.  Oh and there’s nothing in it that you need the books for, it’s a stand alone adventure and takes place before the novel “The Squire’s Crystal”.  And if you’ve never read that then the next set of stories are going to be a little bit weird.

“The Stone’s Lament” picks up where Squire left off.  Benny’s dog-man non-lover Adrian (look, I said things would get weird) is accompanying Benny on a chance to visit a rather unique archaeological dig at which several of his colleagues have already gone missing.  Sadly, Bratheen Traloor, the owner of the lump of rock she’s there to look at is one of those “lived away from the rest of society for numerous decades” people and, as such, doesn’t have the greatest social skills when dealing with people.  It doesn’t help that his only companion in his home is the house computer, a rather jealous and possessive device that fancies its owner.  Sadly, the owner fancies Benny, as does Adrian (even though Benny makes it very clear she’s not interested) and this just pushes the computer a little too far.  Aided by the fact that the house is made up of haunted stones, the computer sets out to deal with the love problems and get rid of Benny.  There’s poltergeist activity, voice mimicry and all kinds of other shenanigans  to deal with but by the end of the release I did start to feel that the story was dragging on just that little too long.  The computer had thrown its voice just once too often, there were a few too many things being thrown around and at the characters and slightly too much computer/human rivalry to keep things moving at a fast pace.  Having said that though, it’s by no means a bad story but, coming straight after Cassandra, it’s a little weird to have two “computer has issues” stories right next to each other.

And so onto “The Extinction Event”.  I need to go back and find my CD of this one (I’ve been doing these on my iPod at the gym) as it sounded as though it had rather weird sound design which meant that the character of Brax sounded as though he was speaking from another room.  Brax, by the way, is Benny’s boss and, in this story, he’s getting Benny to check out the authenticity of a Halsted harp that’s come up for auction at “The Extinction Event”.  The event’s so named as all of the pieces involved have come from civilisations that have been wiped out at some point and so are seen as highly prized.  Brax, who runs the Braxiatel Collection (his own private museum sort of thing), doesn’t want to spend money unless the harp’s genuine.  Things get complicated when the harp’s “owner” nearly dies at the hands of the last surviving member of the Halstead race and, as it just so happens to transpire, the harp’s real owner.  I hadn’t re-listened to this one too much since it came out on CD but I remembered the plot developments for pretty much every stage as I was going through it this time which has to be a good thing.  That’s not to say it’s a perfect release, on top of the potential sound issues there were some bits that I really didn’t think worked (the joke about expletive at the end wasn’t particularly funny the first time they used it and they then used it repeatedly for several minutes), the voice at the start is too obviously Lisa Bowerman (meaning it’s very easy to guess where several bits of the story are going to go) and it does seem a little obvious what the baddies are doing. Plus, listening so soon after Stones it means that there’s another love issue going on involving Bennybutnotbenny.

The season ends with “The Sky Mines of Karthos” which isn’t exactly an earth shattering story.  A now rather heavily pregnant Benny (you REALLY need to read The Squire’s Crystal) gets a message from Caitlin, an old acquaintance, saying that she’s discovered something rather unusual and would Benny come and help her investigate.  When Benny arrives though, she’s gone and, Michael, her less than wonderful partner is left to have to deal with a slightly less than tactful Benny.  Unlike the previous three releases, I didn’t remember too much of this one at all.  I remembered the idea of radioactive elements being harvested from the sky, I just about remembered the cave systems and I just about remembered the flying creatures.  What the significance of it all was though came as a “surprise” at the end though so I’m guessing it either made no impact on me when I listened to it first time around or I didn’t make it to the end conscious (I’ve been known to fall asleep to the less enthralling releases from time to time and don’t always remember to redo the endings).

There’s one other thing to mention about the season.  It’s rather a large thing as they redid the theme music.  Season one had a rather punchy brassy and bold theme which really suited the range well.  Sadly they decided to replace it with an actual theme song. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to make the change, I’m not entirely sure who decided that this would be the one they used but, whoever it was, really needs their heads examined.  The most complimentary thing I can say about it is that it’s awful, I mean really truly and utterly awful. As soon as you hear it start on any release, fast forward about 70 seconds and your ears will be forever grateful.

For the first of the “new” sounding Benny stories, this season is pretty successful.  There aren’t any really bad stories, everything is at least a vaguely enjoyable listen and once you get over the fact that there’s a lot going on between the stories most things are just about filled in.  So I suggest you now go and read up on “The Glass Prison” or season three is going to be just a little confusing…

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Intermission

Before there was the annual “Subscriber Bonus” story from Big Finish’s Doctor Who range…. Well actually before there was a Big Finish Doctor Who range at all…. There was a bonus CD.  If you demonstrated that you had faith in the fledgling company and were willing to pre-order the Time Ring Trilogy that formed half of the first season then you got an extra CD called “Buried Treasures”.  At this stage it offered people something that there hadn’t been before in the form of original audio material for Benny that wasn’t adapted from a book. Admittedly it was two short stories (and a collection of music and interviews) but still, brand new Benny material that showcased the extreme ends of the Benny range, fun science fiction comedy and heart wrenching drama.  Plus, and whether this was the intention or not I have no idea, it also offered a get out clause that essentially allowed them to reboot the range and move on…

Comedy first and a story called “Making Myths” which takes the form of a “live” broadcast where Benny and a Pakhar called Keri take us back through one of Benny’s most important archaeological finds.  Only Benny doesn’t really remember the full details.  Or know if they’re actually in the right spot.  Or on the right planet… This is very much “science fiction has never been so much fun” territory.  Lisa Bowerman playfully skips her way through the banter between Benny and a giant hamster (lifted from the Virgin novels but works oh so well in audio) and there’s bitching about Jason Kane (which feels very real, not that I’ve ever had ex’s to bitch about of course) and a lot of mud.  The mud actually plays a surprisingly large part in the story and the ending is so daft that it’s brilliant.  It has the same atmosphere as “Oh No It Isn’t” and it just rattled by leaving me with a massive smile on my face.

“Closure”, on the other hand, is the short story equivalent of “Just War”.  Emotional, difficult to listen to at times (at one point the description of torture sailed very close to the line) and giving Benny some very difficult decisions to make, the story sees Benny setting out to change time.  Yes, Benny has both the time rings again, and has gone back to the start of a huge war to try and put things right… It’s hard to say how I feel about this one as the central story and the performances are outstanding but the concept just feels very strange.  It’s written by Paul “Creator of Benny” Cornell, so therefore you can’t really say that it’s out of character for her but having listened to everything else since, it’s something of a weird one.  Is Benny really the sort of person who’d nip back to try and completely change a war?  She didn’t go back and stop WWII (surely that must have been tempting) or any number of other wars so why this one?  What really pushed Benny to do it?  It’s superbly acted, very well written but it’s an uncomfortable one to think about.  Though it does allow something rather cunning.

We don’t know if Benny succeeded at the end of “Closure”, the ending hangs ambiguously and you could interpret her success or failure in any number of ways.  However, taken in the bigger picture, “Closure” does serve a potentially useful role.  Two of the season one stories weren’t really Benny stories, they were Doctor Who ones that Big Finish made “slight” modifications to so that they could be released (removing the Doctor, Ace and other companions for starters) which means that Benny couldn’t, up to to this point, have one coherent timeline.  She’d remember being tortured by the Nazis and spot that ancient London had already been menaced by alien killers before.  So “Closure”, as an ending to season one, could be seen as an “Okay, let’s reboot things now before they get too difficult” statement.  Suppose Benny does succeed.  Suppose that time has now been changed and Benny’s time with the Doctor somehow bypassed that trip to Germany.  It means that the Benny universe is free to start things again with their own rules and their own take on things.  It’s been great hearing some of the early books again but it’s time to move on and season two is probably the start of what we now see as Benny.  She’s got her own audio life ahead of her, with a few books thrown in to bugger things up, and a chance to set sail into new waters…

The Cartoon Museum Doctor Who Exhibition

Pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry Sullivan has been writing reviews of the Doctor Who Experience at Earl’s Court.  What not quite so many people have been talking about, which is a great shame, is a much smaller (and less interactive) Doctor Who exhibit at London’s Cartoon Museum (www.cartoonmuseum.com).  Admittedly it’s probably mostly of interest to slightly more dedicated Doctor Who fans (though they have tried to put various things out for younger fans to draw on) but it’s certainly a half hour or so that you really should try and see before the end of the month (when it closes).

The comic strip has always been something that I’ve always been exceptionally fond of and it’s the first part of Doctor Who Magazine that I turn to.  So the chance to see a wide selection of original artwork is something that I really didn’t want to miss.  I collect the original artwork myself but I’ve only got a selection from rather a “narrow” era (mostly sixth and seventh Doctor strips) so, for me, this was a chance to expand my horizons and see far more.  And there’s a lot more to see than I was expecting.  Apart from the staggeringly good Lee Sullivan artwork that forms the first wall of the display (a Usual Style line up of twelve Doctors, including Peter Cushing) there’s something from every Doctor and a lot more than just comic strips.  The first Doctor has, for me, one of the highlights of the exhibition.  Coming from the first annual, there’s a black and white piece of artwork of William Hartnell standing on an alien world.  If you’ve got the annual then you should know the piece but you will only have seen the colour version that they printed.  The exhibition has the original black and white version and it’s so much more detailed than the rather vibrantly over coloured version you’ll be used to.  Admittedly the sixties isn’t represented hugely (which is hardly surprising, I’m surprised they have any originals at all) but there is also a panel from Road to Conflict, one of the dalek only strips of the era.

The seventies is really where the exhibition picks up the story, there’s a cover panel from the third Doctor story “Steel Fist”, artwork from the Doctor Who Omnibus (including the rather striking Genesis of the Daleks piece) and also examples of the Radio Times illustrations that accompanied the stories.  I really wasn’t expecting to see these as I’d been expecting pure comic strip material so the chance to see Radio Times material I’d not seen (such as The Daemons) was an unexpected bonus.  There are a few Tom Baker pieces from the pre-Marvel days along with some of the comic strip material from the annuals (oh the days of the “can you guess who it’s meant to be” artwork, how I miss them).  Reaching the end of the seventies and you get to the Dave Gibbons days of Doctor Who Weekly.  City of the Damned, The Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw… the glory days of four or five page instalments are there on the wall for all to see.  Moving along to the eighties and you get a selection from the Davison years with Tides of Time being the highlight (it would have been very difficult to do comic strips without something from this magnificent tale).  I have to admit that as the 80s and early 90s are where most of my own collection comes from I moved through that section quite quickly but it’s an era that lots of fans are very fond of.

It’s not just Marvel in the 90s.  Presented as part of the exhibition are frames from the Radio Times comic strip sitting alongside eighth Doctor material from The Flood, The Autonomy Bug and also some double page spreads from The Glorious Dead (amongst others).  Also appearing at this end of the exhibit are pieces of artwork that were used to publicise Big Finish audio releases along with the “Past Doctor” strips that Marvel ran once they stopped using the seventh Doctor.  What you also get to see are comparisons of the black and white artwork along with the colourised versions that got published.  This is even more interesting when you get to the “modern” Doctors (nine onwards) where the strips were published in colour and the black and white artwork will have been unseen by pretty much everyone.  There’s also artwork that accompanied stories from the annuals of the new millennium and a cover from the Vworp Vworp fanzine.

Okay, space wise, the exhibition doesn’t take up masses of floor space but there’s a hundred or so works on display from the very start of Who to the most up to date eleventh Doctor stories.  There are well written captions for all the works and then there’s also the reset of the museum, a room of political satire and an upper storey (with a kids’ room) of generalised comic strip artwork from Dan Dare to Dennis the Menace.  It’s a small museum but it deserves a visit, if enough people go then they might get to do another one in time to introduce Doctor number twelve, whenever that might be.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Season 1

A friend and I occasionally try and get together on MSN and watch DVDs together.  Hey, he's in Manchester and I'm in Norfolk so it's the only way we can do things together without taking out another mortgage to buy a train ticket.  So a while back, something in the order of months, he suggested that we start listening to the audio adventures of Bernice Surprise Summerfield from the start.  And finally, it's begun...

It’s really hard to believe that Benny is twenty years old.  Okay, say that to her face and she’d be exceptionally flattered as she’s usually portrayed as somewhere in mid thirties, but as a character she first appeared on the page in 1991. So this seems as good a time as any to go back to the start of the range and revisit her audio life.  Note the word “audio” in there, I’m not sure how I’ll deal with the bits that you need to read to understand the ongoing story, I’ll work that out when I get there an probably bitch about it when I do. However, as the very first release is not just my favourite Benny but also one of my favourite audio dramas, I’ll save most of the claws for later on. Meanwhile, it’s panto time!

“Oh No It Isn’t!” takes the idea of making fun science fiction and goes for it at full tilt.  Take Benny, a bunch of squid-faced aliens, a few of Benny’s students and put them in a world controlled by panto.  Yup, panto… dames and all.  Now, I’ll make it clear that whereas it’s my favourite Benny it’s by no means perfect.  If you want the full blown experience and, I’m afraid to say, the full blown plot then you’ll need to track down a copy of the book on which it’s based.  The audio leaves quite a few questions unanswered, such as why Benny is the only person who doesn’t end up panto-ised and what happens to a lot of other characters but I guess if they put absolutely everything in then you’d have a drama that lasted for four or five CDs rather than just two.  With that out of my system I’ll return to the glowing praise that this first release definitely deserves.  Lisa Bowerman gets Benny spot on first time (doubly impressive given that a lot of the time the character’s fighting to actually stay as Benny and not turn male… oh just go listen to it!) and whereas a few of the other characters sound a little amateurish this sees the performance of a lifetime from the late and much missed Nicholas Courtney as Wolsey, Benny’s pet cat.  He purrs his way through the dick jokes and innuendos (with many of the entendres not quite making it to double).  It’s a delivery that can’t be faulted and, though not the role he’s famous for, it’s one that I really wish he could have repeated.  Most importantly, having re-listened, I have the strong desire to get the book out again and get the full blown Perfecton experience.

“Beyond the Sun”, unfortunately, is a much lower key release.  It’s based on the third novel in the solo-Benny range and it’s not a novel I really remember too much about.  I know I’ve heard this release a few times in the past but it’s never stuck in my mind enough to remember the details.  So the vast majority of the release was fairly fresh and new.  Mind you, there’s a reason I don’t remember the previous listenings too well.  It’s not the most engaging story.  Jason (another superb piece of casting) turns up, gives Benny an ancient artefact (supposedly part of a world destroying weapon) and then gets himself kidnapped.  Benny spends about an hour wandering around, then the “weapon” gets used and it turns out it’s not a weapon after all.  Then it ends.  I suppose I should re-read the novel to see what they cut out to get it on two CDs but there’s a part of me that didn’t actually get drawn into the release enough to care.  On the guest star front there’s Anneke Wills AND Sophie Aldred and the start of Big Finish’s long standing tradition of playing “distortion chicken”, ie how much distortion can they put on the aliens’ voices before they can’t be understood.  Thankfully, in this one, they mostly get it right. Emile, one of Benny’s students, isn’t quite played as well as it could be but the other bit parts aren’t too bad.  It’s just… a bit nothingy.  It’s background listening but it doesn’t drag you in.

The audio range then takes a huge jump, skipping seven novels and taking us to ancient Babylon.  “Walking to Babylon” is the start of the “time ring trilogy”.  Jason turns up, pinches an ancient artefact from Benny (this time it’s her wedding ring and the audio tends to skip over how she came to have it is it would have meant talking about the Doctor) and then gets kidnapped.  Benny goes after him, spends an hour or so wandering around ancient Babylon and then talks the bad guys out of blowing ancient Earth up.  As you can tell, there’s a certain plot overlap with the previous release but this time it’s ancient Babylon she’s wandering around rather than an alien planet.  Benny gets to sleep around a little, she gets to increase her feelings for Jason and there’s the introduction of “The People”.  Here things get very “book based”.  One of the things cut from the audio of “Oh No It Isn’t!” is a subplot involving God and The People, first introduced in the Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures and they are a regular part of the books that just feature Benny.  However, the back-story isn’t really fully detailed in the audio and there’s a lot of skirting around mentioning the Time Lords.  Keeping up the guest star trend is Elizabeth Sladen and she does lift the scenes she’s in above the rather bland level of the rest.  The story ends on a cliff-hanger as their escape from Babylon doesn’t quite go to plan and we head towards a rather difficult story to fit into any kind of continuity…

It’s at this point I should point out that I can be a little picky on the continuity front.  I do like things to fit together, must be the scientist in me.  I can happily accept the previous three releases as simple cut down re-tellings of the novels but “Birthright” goes back a long way in the New Adventures range and into the time of the Doctor… only the Doctor doesn’t appear.  This, in itself isn’t a problem.  The original novel was paired with one called “Iceberg”.  In modern terms, “Iceberg” was a companion-lite story and “Birthright” was a Doctor-lite one.  So far no concerns.  However, “Birthright” (the original novel) had Benny and Ace as the companions and, of course, they couldn’t use Ace in the audios.  So “Birthright” sees Jason taking on the Ace role, Benny being Benny and Colin Baker having the Russian accent from varying parts of Russia.  Which means that Benny has now experienced this adventure twice but with different friends?  Jason is trapped on a future earth (no TARDIS shell either) and Benny’s in the 1900s.  Once she’s arrived she wanders around a little and then talks a lot to the aliens, persuades them not to take over and then tries to leave.  Listened to in quick succession, the first Benny season does get a little repetitive at this stage.  However, the acting’s of a better quality and things are a little more fun.  It’s very easy to visualise what’s going on and, as it’s a civilization much closer to our own, I found it much easier to get attached to the characters.  It also helps that there’s a lot of continuity linking the two stories together and there’s a lot of throwing forward to the next one.  It’s tempting to try and find time to re-read the original novel, but not as tempting as it is to get the paper version of the next one.

“Just War”.  Don’t listen if you’re feeling in any way depressed.  Do listen if you want a master class in nasty Nazis, serious emotional blows and characters on both sides of the war being forced to question everything that they believe in.  It’s sublime, Lisa Bowerman gives a stunning performance, Stephen Fewell is never better as Jason and there’s not a single dull moment, not a wasted line of dialogue and everything comes together in a way that puts even more recent releases to shame.  It’s the end of the trilogy and a major step in the Jason/Benny relationship.  No big name guests in this, but there’s a pre-big name appearance from Maggie Stables, later to play Evelyn in the Doctor Who range and she steals every scene she’s in. It’s my second favourite ever Benny and only fails to beat “Oh No It Isn’t!” because it doesn’t have the humour and, well, I want my science fiction to be fun.

This brings us to “Dragon’s Wrath”.  I like my science fiction to be fun, not a horrendous cut down mess of a story.  It’s the first single CD release and tries to compress an entire novel into little over 70 minutes.  This means that Lisa Bowerman is forced to do large amounts of narration to deal with large chunks of plot that aren’t recorded, there are some very bad edits between scenes (and, seemingly, between lines in some cases) and there are a few particularly awful sounding performances (I couldn’t possibly name names, though it’s not Benny and surprisingly it’s not Richard Franklin either).  As a final release in the season it’s something of a let down.  No, it’s a big let down because it’s also the first appearance of the new Benny theme “music”.  I don’t think there are suitable/repeatable words to describe how dire it is, and it’s going to be around for a while as yet.

As first seasons go it’s actually not bad.  One duff release, a handful of below par performances and a good way to experience some of the Virgin Novels which, these days, aren’t too easy to get hold of.  What would have been great if season two could then revisit a few more of these, maybe a relaxed Jason and Benny starring in “The Also People” or a trip to the Land of Fiction in “Conundrum”… instead Benny is about to go completely original.  No remakes but there’ll be quite a few familiar monsters.  After a subscriber freebie….

The Impossible Countdown - The Lodger

Look, I've been ill.  Very ill.  And busy, something about working... anyway, ummmm, season 6 ends in a few hours so it's about time I try to finish season five.  I've got three lousy episodes ahead but first "The Lodger"

The Lodger.  A great comic strip but, unexpectedly, an even better episode!  I really wasn’t looking forward to this one when it was broadcast.  Swapping Tennant for Smith???  (Well, it’s not like they hadn’t done that already in a load of the early season five episodes)?  Swapping Mickey for James Corden?  Give me a break.

I forgot that Gareth Roberts really should be trusted more.

It’s one of Smith’s best performances of the season and, more importantly, it’s a very solid Doctor Who story.  It would work with pretty much any Doctor, the 7th Doctor being mysterious but friendly, the 4th Doctor coming in and just dominating things. “The Lodger” is a return to the proper days of Doctor Who with modern elements thrown in without them seeming too obvious.  Well, maybe a couple of scenes.  The headbutting, as glorious as it is with the flashback clips, is too over the top.  Far, far too over the top.  Ah well, at least it wasn’t kissing J

The design of the ship is stunning, someone’s given a serious amount of thought to how a TARDISthatisn’taTARDIS might look. There are roundels and a console like thing in the middle with the supports from the McGann movie.  There’s a creepy old man/young girl in homage to a Sapphire and Steel type atmosphere, there’s a Doctorsneakingoff moment that doesn’t work for the Doctor and a surprisingly low key use of time travel that seems to suit the low key nature of the episode (shame that a certain person will end up blowing it in a few episode’s time).  And there’s an ending to the plot that doesn’t quite work.  Why would there seemingly be a random one storey house in the middle of a long line of terraced houses?  The whole look of those final shots doesn’t do it for me.  It looks too obviously photoshopped as a bungalow.  Oh well…

“The Lodger” is one of the redeeming features of season 5. I’m very happy to have seen it… Shame it’s about to not just fall back down to the level of the previous episodes but plummet to new depths of incompetent writing…

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Impossible Countdown - Vincent and the Doctor

Dear Blog, it's been a while.  Sorry!  I was cheating on you with this thing called real life that I discovered.  Don't worry, the affair is over now and I'm back in your virtual arms once more.  However, it seems fitting that on my return you've served me up with Vincent and the Doctor, a story that I find deeply offensive so consider my punishment over, please?  Oh bugger, you mean there's still The Big Bang to come???

Right, we'll start with one of the many elephants in the room about this one.  I have deep issues with it.  I hope you don't mind if I don't go into toooo much detail but through the course of my life I have been troubled with various things such as depression and self worth.  Whereas a lot of people championned this story as being a wonderful depiction of mental issues, I found the Doctor's actions deeply upsetting and highly distasteful.  Thankfully there are plenty of other things for me to comment on without troubling you with my history, but suffice it to say that if the Doctor told me that I wouldn't be appreciated until I was dead...  well it wouldn't take months between me stepping out of the police box and ending it all.  As soon as the TARDIS was gone, I would be too.

Anyway, on with the rest of the episode.  It's going to be difficult to comment without harping back to the mental thing so this might end up as a rather shorter than normal review!  Now, I'll freely admit that I knew very little about van Gogh before this episode.  Thanks to QI (if you've never seen QI then you have REALLY missed out) I know that everyone pronounces van Gogh incorrectly (ah the wonders of the Internet.  I am, of course, pronouncing it perfectly as I type) but I guess that's just the TARDIS translation unit stuck on "commoner".  The one thing I did know though is that he only had one ear, thanks to a moment of depression, a prostitute and a knife.  This episode is explicitly set in June 1890 which is a pity as the ear incident took place in December 1888. I'm guessing though, as they could barely afford CGI in this episode, they couldn't afford makeup to hide one ear.  Something else also rather conveniently skipped over (given the love interest between Vincent and Amy) is the fact he was quite possibly riddled with STIs by 1890.  Still, it's a family show so let's not bother with gory, sexual truths.  Let's concern ourselves, instead, with the "plot" of the episode.  Invisible monster goes on the rampage, Doctor acts goofy, Vincent saves the day, Doctor acts like a complete bastard.

Starting with the invisible monster.  A chicken crossed with a horse that only Vincent can see.  Now, I don't really remember any real explanation of why Vincent is the only person that can see it, why it shows up in mirrors, why no-one's seen it in a mirror before or what the hell was actually going on with the worst looking monster since the Myrka but combine all these things together and the alien aspect of this episode really irritates me. The implication is simply "Vincent is special so he can see it" but this really doesn't make any sense to my mind (perhaps I'm special in the other direction).  Why does it show up in the mirror?  It's another episode all about perception (the running theme of season five) but it's probably the worst one of the lot on that front.  We just have to accept that (magically?) whichever of Vincent's suspected STIs or mental disorders is convenient enough that it allows him to see it.

Next on my list of notes is the fact that the Doctor has a Godmother.  Don't know why but this really bothered me.  It suggests that Gallifrey and/or the Time Lords had religion (something not indicated up to this point) and that there was a clear mother/father type role (so bye bye looms then). I suppose I should see this as a very minor point but, in an episode that's already spectacularly irritating me, it's one of those minor points that my brain blows out of all proportion.  Unlike the Doctor's actions which I think my brain is justifiably irate at.

The Doctor, oh Lord of Time and complete smug git when it comes to saying what's fixed and what isn't (which my brain is mulling over as another set of ramblings), knows full well that Vincent will pull the trigger on the revolver.  Yet he still seems to delight in giving Amy false hope that Vincent's trip to the future will somehow prevent this from happening.  He takes Amy back and allows her to go to the exhibition again, knowing she's going to be more than just a bit unhappy at the lack of new Vincent paintings.  I've already made it clear how I feel about Vincent's treatment but I think it's worth noting that the Doctor has no qualms about upsetting Amy in the slightest at the end of the episode.

Various other things irritate me about the episode, such as how light it appears inside the church at the end given how dark it is outside but the last thing I'm going to say about this abomination of an episode is that it's the 11th Doctor changing time without any hesitation whatsoever.  I've not seen van Gogh's sunflowers in real life but it seems that the Doctor has no problems whatsoever in letting van Gogh changing the painting so it now has "For Amy" scrawled across it (in English???).  Time has changed.  The rules have changed.  They haven't changed for the better.  It's a paradox story (the Doctor goes to investigate an alien seen in a painting but his actions prevent the alien being painted so why did he go back in the first place?) which I detest and the actual plot of the episode is also seriously questionable.

A bloody awful episode that I've now watched twice and never ever want to see again.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Season 6 - The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon

Okay, so I haven't quite finished my season 5 re-watching but, as it happened, I don't think I've really forgotten much that was needed to "understand" the opening two parter.  It might have helped if I'd forgotten basic physics and left my brain at home but sadly I didn't and whilst episode one really was pretty decent, episode two bombed rather spectacularly.

Okay, racing through episode one as I've not got so much to say about it...  didn't like the opening silliness.  I'm guessing it was there to demonstrate the passing of two hundred years of the Doctor's life but it went just that little bit too far for my liking.  Plus whoever painted that portrait of Smith, they must have taken one hell of a bung to make his body look that good.  My money was actually on River getting killed so the Doctor trying to regenerate was something of a surprise (though I'm sorry to say I think I cheered for the wrong reasons when it started).  However, I guessed the "younger" Doctor turning up before he appeared on screen but, again, cheered when he got deservedly slapped.

Something to keep in mind is that, as we've seen it so far, River and the Doctor *aren't* meeting themselves in strict reversing order.  The 1100 year old Doctor meets River before the 900 year old one does so things are a little mixed up at least from time to time.

Another important snippet from episode one is that putting the TARDIS in invisible mode is a huge drain on its resources.  Just as well it only has to stay hidden for a few minutes eh?

The Silent in the loo knows all about Amy, so I'm guessing we can assume that telepathy goes along with their hide-and-seek skills and, whereas I think the mask on its face is superb, the hands look really dumb.  I can't quite work out what it is, I think it's the fingers look too wobbly being so long, maybe if they'd had more support in them to make it look like they actually had bones in there...  I'm not entirely sure what attacks Canton in the cellar either, the astronaut seems to be far too far away (though it also seems to have the ability to vanish into thin air at the start so we'll see what other powers it seems to have as we go through the season) and the Silents surely wouldn't have knocked him out?  So if someone could tell me for sure what whacks him?  So yes, a good episode one.

Then there's episode two.

I'm not entirely sure how Amy and Rory manage to stay on the run for three months.  Sorry but they just don't seem the sort who'd have had all that much practise at it.  River, yes... but Amy and Rory not a hope.  But anyway, episode two opens three months later and the Doctor has a beard (and not in the Time Crash sense either!).  Really don't know why this doesn't work for me, I'm guessing because it indicates that between adventures the Doctor is off shaving somewhere in the TARDIS.  Yes, I know we know there was seemingly a shaving mirror back in the days of the secondary console room, yes I know he grew one when aged in The Leisure Hive and yes I know the Master had one on his face as well but the beard (apart from looking a little fake) just doesn't seem "right" for just three months' worth of imprisonment.  What's worse is that the Doctor seems to think his prison is being built out of the densest material in the world.  A material so dense that quite large blocks of it can be shifted around by two people with ease!  And the blocks can seemingly be supported as a roof with no extra supports.  Er, no!  If this magic material is the densest thing in the world then two people shouldn't in any way, shape or form be able to move it like that and they certainly shouldn't have been able to build a box out of it (with a magic sliding door but that's just a minor niggle).

Once the prison is complete we find that the TARDIS is inside it in invisible mode which really does make you wonder how long it's been there given that episode one went out of its way to point out that invisibility mode was a huge drain on the power!  The Doctor then takes the ship back in time to save River who's thrown herself out of a window.  Ummmmm, so the Doctor will now quite happily nip back in time to save someone from certain death?  Probably just as well he didn't know how to do this for Adric or Katarina or the classic series might have turned out very differently.  This isn't just Moffat bashing by the way, ever since the Doctor nipped back into Martha's timeline in "Smith and Jones" to prove a point to her I've been growing very tired of the casual way the Doctor plays about with the time lines and the rescuing of River Song just happens to be the latest in a long line of sequences that really pissed me off.  Just you wait till I review A Christmas Carol, I'll REALLY let rip on that one!  So yes, the Doctor now sees nothing wrong with popping back a few days/weeks/months to save the falling River Song (who very fortunately guesses that the Doctor will drop her in the pool rather than onto, say, some mattresses).  Oh, and with the new look console room with the police box doors, I'm not sure what must have happened to the Doctor, Amy, Rory and Canton when they flipped the TARDIS onto its side to get River through the doors.

When Mulder and Scu...sorry, Canton and Pond investigate the orphanage we get introduced to the creepy janitor (I get the feeling we might see him again at the end of the year) and we're told that too much exposure to the mind wipe from the Silents drives you round the bend.  Now think back to how many markings Amy and co collected on their bodies whilst they were on the run and also think about how many times each random human probably (allegedly) sees a Silent.  Why isn't the whole population completely bonkers by now?  Still, the sequence with Amy in the locked room is a sign that Doctor Who can still do creepy when it wants to! And then we get the hatch in the door that disappears once Amy goes in the room and a mysterious woman's voice as she looks in.  That'll definitely be picked up, could the room have been a TARDIS in disguise?

We eventually find out that the Silents have been manipulating us pretty much since the dawn of time and that then raises some more questions.  Are we so dumb that we couldn't have evolved ourselves and secondly, why did it take the Silents thousands of years to get us to build a space suit?  Is the story seriously trying to say that the Silents couldn't push us any faster?  After all, the Doctor was terrified of Ace leaving her gheto blaster in the 60s in case it sped things up too much? I guess the Silents aren't as intelligent as they're trying to make out.  I also wonder if they change their look depending on human fashion, or if they've always worn a suit and tie.  Personally I can't wait to see one in a ruff....

Then we get to the big scene.  The bloody awful scene that pretty much shatters my faith in Doctor Who.  It's NOT the fact that the Doctor gets humanity to begin mass murdering the Silents (though it's pretty clear he didn't have any sort of backup plan and it looks like it was always going to be this or nothing), we've seen the Doctor desperate before (Vervoids, Warriors of the Deep, Genesis of the Daleks and so on).  What I really, deeply and thoroughly object to is the fact that Matt Smith's "Doctor" looks as though he's actually enjoying what he's doing.  He came across as completely lacking in remorse or any kind of guilt.  He was smiling, he was bounching up and down at the thought.  There was no sorrow, no "There should have been another way" moment, this was the Doctor ordering the deaths of thousands of living beings and not giving a damn about what he was doing.  To me, thats not Doctor Who, that's not the Doctor, that's some character I'm not sure I want to follow.  I certainly now no longer believe that whatever the Doctor does it's done with life as the most important thing.

Follow this up with something of a weird and major plot hole... the Doctor says that half a billion people will see the footage and will continue to see it for thousands of years but the other implication is that neither Amy nor Rory have ever seen it as they show no "pre-programmed" tendancy to kill Silents on sight.  Right from the very start of episode one Amy should and Rory should have been desperate to kill the Silent that we saw in the sunlight but no, not a single twitch in the trigger finger is evident.  Bit of a cock up there eh.

After the shoot out, River says something along the lines of "I hope my old man didn't see that".  Now, given the Doctor was in the room with her, does this (thankfully) mean that River ISN'T the Doctor's wife and that she's married to someone else?  I really hope so...

The Impossible Astronaut set things up superbly well.  Then along comes The Day of the Moon and really seems to do nothing other that spectacularly mess things up in a desperate attempt to try and look mysterious and set things up for the rest of the year.  I'm guessing that we'll be visiting the 60s again at some point and Amy will be responsible for the Silents being underground in their TARDIS-like room, I'm guessing the little girl that River thinks is human will turn out to be a human/TimeLord hybrid that the Silents have made with all their gadgetry and I'm guessing that it'll never be explained how humanity can go about massacring thousands of Silents and no one ever noticing what happens to the bodies.  Do they just pile up and no one notices them?  Do people trip over them constantly but not know why?  It's a badly thought out, completely non-Doctor Who solution that didn't have any place in the episode.

Bring back the Fifth Doctor.  He knew there should have been another way, this Eleventh one is just a git.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Impossible Countdown - The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

It's sad when a two part story can be summed up with the single word "yawn"

I'm not sure what it is that makes me so apathetic towards this story.  It's not actually "bad" as such, I think it's more that it's a half-arsed effort on pretty much every possible level.  The script, re-introducing the Silurians, is a rehash of... well... The Silurians (which is not good as it had already been rehashed as The Sea Devils) with a few bits of Inferno thrown in and a touch of The Daemons. The effects aren't the cheapest but the CGI explosion at the end looks rather lacklustre and whilst the large scale shots of the city try their best to look impressive, the running around the tunnels sections look as though the tunnels are made from polystyrene.  The regulars aren't particularly sparkling, Smith's not quite at his flattest here but he's completely lacking eloquence and the scenes where he's supposedly being all authoritative leave me thinking "well, I wouldn't be doing what you asked me".  Thankfully Amy's absent for a lot of the story leaving us left with a very underwhelming guest cast of two scientists, a kid and his tedious parents.  And given that they're allegedly heading for Rio at the start of the story, Amy and Rory look very VERY overdressed.

The first part also presents us with yet another impossibly short time scale.  They've got twelve minutes before the silurians arrive in the village and somehow, before the clock's even counted down to three minutes they've managed to wire up pretty much everywhere with cameras.  Nope, sorry, don't buy that for a second.  Nothing in that sequence feels remotely plausible and yet it could so easily have been more realistic (and weirdly probably even tenser) by making the time longer.  Alas, they went with twelve minutes and the scene seems more a spoof of Mission Impossible style set pieces than anything Doctor Who related. And when the silurians/homo reptilia do turn up they're missing their third eye and in possession of a very long (and cheap looking) CGI tongue.  They don't sound like silurians and yes, the Doctor "explains" this by saying they're a different branch of the family so to speak but, quite frankly, they completely bore me in a way that even the original seven parter would have been impressed by.  They've got their magic "we can hack into anything" technology though which seems to be able to turn a computer monitor into a two way camera.

The main problem with the story is the whole ending where Rory dies or, more importantly, the crack and the comments made about time.  The Doctor states that there are some points which are fixed and some points which are fluid. To me though, the presence of ANY fluid points completely eradicates the idea of a fixed point.  How could you have, say, a fixed point in the year 2040 when here, in 2020, the Doctor's saying that the future can be completely re-written anyway? So problem number one is that we've got internally inconsistent statements about the nature of time.  Problem number two concerns the fact that Amy forgets Rory.  She's a time traveller, so in the angels story we were told this meant she would remember things that other people didn't.  Yet here the Doctor says that as it's her own personal time that's being re-written she could forget?  So let me get this right, she's capable of remembering being taken into the middle of a forest (and I would still love to know how she got there unaided if she couldn't open her eyes) and the soldiers who assisted her (but who were then swallowed by the crack) but she almost instantly forgets the person she's madly in love with?  Which version of history does the Doctor remember?  The version of this story with or without Rory?  And with Rory gone, just how did the story actually unfold in the first place?  Does this mean that Vampires of Venice never happened (in which case why aren't we over run by fish people) and how have the other adventures changed as surely, without Rory, even The Eleventh Hour would be totally different? And we've now got a combination crack, one which the Doctor can reach into and pull TARDIS fragments from and one which also swallows people up. 

Finally, along with prisoner zero and River Song knowing the problems the Doctor will face, we've now even got the Silurians narrating it to us, just how does everyone in the universe except the Doctor know about all this???

So, in short (but not quite as short as a simple yawn), it's a cobbled together left over plot that smacks of lack of effort and starts to show just how badly thought out the crackpot crack plot is coming across.  And I demand a third eye!

The Impossible Countdown - Amy's Choice

Okay, so I didn't quite make it through season 5 before The Impossible Astronaut hit our screens but last week wasn't a good week for Who fans and things distracted me.  So only slightly later than planned... probably the best episode of the series.

Everything about this episode cries out "good old fashioned entertaining Who". There's a superb pre-credits teaser (yes, the Doctor's line into the theme is terribly cheesy and fourth wally but who cares, I love it) and I can't think we'd ever see the Doctor having to drop back in on a happily pregnant Amy with husband Rory after having dropped them back on earth.... I mean thank goodness it's all a dream :) We even get a "Space Museum" reference, how cool is that! Oh, okay, don't answer that one.

Just a shame that the superb cold opener is still followed by that theme music/title sequence.

Anyway, one of the greatest characters from season 5 (and, actually, quite a few of the recent seasons) is the Dream Lord.  Twisted, bitchy and played to absolute perfection, the Dream Lord really was one of the highlights of the year's episodes.  Part of me would like a re-match but I'm not sure how they'd go about doing it now that we know all about him.  Well, I say "him", we know nothing really about the Doctor and this is one of the few times that any attempt to look inside the Doctor's mind has thrilled me but this story mostly hangs on us not knowing his true identity till the very end and now we know his way of working as well... oh well, as a one off he was great.  Other things that are stunning about this episode include the ice covered console room (oh how I love the look of it, I wonder if when they do another console room we could have an ice themed one?), the CGI TARDIS freezing over and the fact the script doesn't feel like an old Tennant knock off, it actually starts to show the Smith Doctor as actually having his own traits.  Completely inappropriate ones admittedly but the self harm line still raises a smile whenever I hear it (the town I live in isn't quite as dull as the dream scenario but oh boy does it come close).  I love Rory's practical nature, I think the Doctor building a generator out of a whisk is inspired and death by dissolving into sand is also pretty grim.

As with pretty much everything in season 5 though, it's a story about perception and what's real/what's not. I am starting to get just a little tired of this and Amy is REALLY starting to irritate me now. When this was shown and Amy and Rory finally realised that they were made for each other I really and truly hoped that this would push Amy back to the background and let us concentrate more on the Doctor... we'll see how that panned out when I face the next two parter.

"Amy's Choice", absolutely superb.  I know quite a few people didn't like it but this, to me, is how a Doctor Who love story should be done.  Creepy, surreal and with possessed OAPs being hit with bits of wood.  I just wish it could all have been like this.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Impossible Countdown - The Vampires of Venice

And now for the return of Rory.  I'm not normally a fan of cringe worthy humour but the bachelor party opening is great.  Admittedly I thought that those sorts of events rarely took place the night before the actual wedding but I'm guessing as this is supposed to be small town community then they still do it the old fashioned way.  Anyway, Rory's in the TARDIS and the Doctor promises a wedding present trip in the TARDIS (either that or tokens, nice line).

There are two stars of this episode and Rory is definitely one.  He's grown up since the Prisoner Zero event and although it takes him a while he copes with TARDIS stuff much better than other people have in the past. Throughout the episode his dumbstruck charm really kept me amused (much needed as the plot's wafer thin) and it's possibly the only time I've ever found a "your mum" joke funny.  Mind you, I probably found it funny because I found all the others rather dumb and the dumbness of the... okay, analysing the joke too much.  Anyway, Rory's definitely the star character in this one.  Amy's being bossy (which does nothing for me) and I'd have probably kicked her out of the TARDIS rather than become one of her "boys".  The Doctor's also a bit too goofy in places in this one, the mirror scene in particular is probably supposed to be charming or something but I think Smith over plays it a lot and there's a surprising lack of venom in him given he thinks he's facing vampires, the ancient enemy of his people...

The other star of the show is the whole look of it, it looks fantastic.  Often I've really wondered if it's actually been necessary to travel abroad to film things when really the story would have worked anywhere but this tale just looks sooooo brilliant and so sumptuous that you can't help but be impressed by the way it looks.  A good thing really as the plot, as I mentioned, isn't up to much.  Fish people lost their world, want ours.  They make it rain, the Doctor stops the rain, fish people die (one dies at the hands of possibly the world's most powerful makeup mirror).  Once more it's a perception story (how many now??) with the fish people wearing perception filters.  However, it doesn't quite work consistently.  Up until the end bits, whenever the perception filters have flickered off, the human form has been fully clothed but the fish version has been "naked".  At the end though, queen fish ceremonially removes her garments before throwing herself in the canal which would suggest the clothes are real?  If they are, how on earth do they contain the fish body?

The most important thing about this episode really is that it's setting up aspects of "The Silence" for season 6 (including the world falling silent at the end of the episode).  It also deals with cracks so let's see what we're told.

The cracks were everywhere in the universe (so presumably not just where Amy and the Doctor have been recently).
You can travel through the cracks from one part of the universe to another
The cracks close up behind you once you've travelled through them (of their own accord?)
Through some of the cracks they could "see (the?) silence"

Now these, to me, seem to be very different cracks to the ones presented in the previous two parter which seemed to be ones that ate you out of existence if you even went close to them as opposed to ones you could travel through!

Oh and the fish people, like everyone else in the universe, seem to know about Gallifrey and its fate.

It's a weird story, light on plot and hammers home the crack bits rather heavily.  It looks great (and I do love the clockwork bits at the end) but it's just not really got enough meat of its own to make it a good story. And one last thing... the Doctor makes it very clear at the end that time can't be changed.  So just something of a major change in opinion since last week then.  Ho hum.

The Impossible Countdown - The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone

Right then, let's start with a massively positive opening to the comments... classiest cold opener ever.  Seriously, in the whole of Who this two parter starts with possibly the best opening action of any story, ever.  And I have to admit that it stays pretty good for most of the first episode and probably quite a bit of the second one as well. It also sets up a few "key statements" about the ongoing plot which will turn out to be very important over the next few episodes...  which is where things then start to go a little wrong.

So anyway, after the superb cold opener (and after the less than superb titles which still leave me cold) we get a feisty TARDIS scene with the Doctor, River and Amy.  First gripe about the episode, River suggests that the only reason the TARDIS makes the noise that it does is because the Doctor leaves the brakes on.  Which would then suggest that EVERY OTHER TIME LORD DOES IT.  Sorry, I know it's supposed to be a charming joke about River and the Doctor's abilities but it still really rubs me up the wrong way. On the beach we get a diary scene and when Octavian turns up we find out that River has secrets that the Doctor doesn't yet know about which aren't going to endear her to him. We then get the start of some major "changes" to the angels nature.  Now, if you look one in the eye you become one (after a while).  Does that mean that Sally Sparrow (from Blink) is slowly turning into an angel?  A simple picture of an angel becomes an angel as well and we also find out that they also kill in nasty ways because they enjoy it. It's all wrapped up in some very well directed sequences though with Amy and the monitor screen so it just about moves you on before you have too much time to think about it.  The trek through the statues is exceptionally well done with full use made of caves as location footage and it's another mention of perception filters which again means we've got a story about how things are perceived and seen and disguised.  The cliffhanger is then... just a little strange.  It's one of those ones where you know what's going to happen next but aren't quite sure how it will happen.  Then it happens with a bit of technobabble and the story moves on.

So episode one was running through caves, episode two is running through corridors and running through woodland.  It doesn't quite look as stylish as the first episode did as the corridors look, well I suppose they just look like rather standard corridors and the woodland bits have a weird look to them that I can't quite put my finger on.  It's also a very crack heavy episode...

Things we learn:-
The cracks can be closed by throwing complicated space time events into them
The crack can move and looks as though it's following Amy around
The crack was caused by a very big bang and the Doctor can work out the date of the explosion
Fall into the crack/get too close to it and you're erased from time and everyone forgets about you.  However the universe carries on exactly as it was which means that, as the Doctor puts it, "Time can be rewritten".  Once the soldiers are in the crack presumably 99.9999% of the universe remembers some weird way that Amy managed to get into the middle of the woodland area on her own (that's got to be some majorly weird re-writing going on!).
If you're a time traveller then you don't forget the people who fell into the crack.  And that's probably quite an important one as it might be cropping up again in a few episodes' time
Even though it looks like the crack is following Amy, the Doctor suggests that it might have been there when the cyber king stomped over London and rewrote that as well somehow.

It's quite neat the way the Doctor solves things in this one but there seem to be an awful lot of times in the second episode where it looks as though the angels are clearly looking at each other when they're moving (it's certainly the impression I got anyway).  More mysteriousness on the beach (River remembers being there when the Pandorica opened) and then the final scene which is the start of the bullying Amy appearing.  To be honest, I really wish it hadn't happened.  From this point on Amy becomes very dominant in pretty much every episode and it feels once more as though it's a show about her rather than the Doctor.

Overall, episode one is much better than episode two, the angels are very different this time around and it does look pretty.  It is also clearly setting up future episodes so...

Things we learn about River:-
She knows old high gallifreyan
She's travelled in time and views herself as a complicated space time event
She remembers the pandorica (even though the Doctor seems to now think it's just a fairy tale?)
She killed a good man.

It's ALMOST back to the levels of the Tennant years but it seems too ongoing plot fixated in the second part to really thrill me and the constant repetition of the "time can be rewritten" didn't half get on my nerves...  Still, an improvement on Victory of the Daleks :)  Mind you, pretty much anything would have been...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Liz Sladen - A Tear for Sarah Jane

When I started this blog a few months ago it was with the aim of posting slightly caustic, hopefully informative and often silly posts about Doctor Who (plus science when my brain worked).  I never thought I'd be writing a tribute to Elizabeth Sladen.

I missed Sarah Jane (first time around) by exactly one week.  She left in Hand of Fear part 4, I was born the day of Deadly Assassin part one. Yet as I grew up and became a Who fan there was always talk of how wonderful a companion Sarah Jane had been.  I can just about remember watching K9 and Company but I remember being more interested in K9 than any of the humans in the episode.  It wasn't until the videos started to come out that I could really appreciate why everyone loved Sarah so.  I enjoyed seeing her in The Five Doctors but Death to the Daleks was the first "true" Sarah story I saw.  It might not be the best Doctor Who story ever but oh how I love it, mostly for Sarah Jane.  I could genuinely believe in the character and had tremendous fun watching her struggle to come to terms with the world around her (I knew it was a relatively early story for her).  The videos kept coming and it was one of the few simple "quality" rules about the story.  If Sarah was in it then it was almost certainly going to be a fun story to watch.  I'm amazingly keen on Invasion of the Dinosaurs (one of my many guilty pleasures) and it's another where it could pretty much only be a Sarah Jane story.  Lots of other stories you could just about drop any companion in to and, with slight tweaking, it would still work.  But this is a true Sarah story, it's her journalism talents that move things on and drive her to find the truth.  No other companion could do what she did.

As every fan does, I reached a certain age and started going to events.  Living where I did I had limited access at first but soon started going to events in London and I dread to think how many hours of my life I've spent waiting in line to get autographs.  With very few exceptions, the lines for Liz Sladen were always the longest and often some of the slowest moving.  She was always brilliant with the fans no matter what their age. Young children, grown up children.... all were treated with kindness and respect and were never hurried.  She knew we were all fans, she knew we were there to see her and she didn't disappoint.

There's a reason that she got her own show (eventually).  Doctor Who was back and was appealing to all the generations again and, yes, it was pretty obvious that any spin off shows would work.  But only one companion from the whole run of Who could carry it off.  Only one character actually had enough character to be the lead, only one character could so easily carry the multi-generation appeal over (sorry but as much as I like Louise Jameson or Katy Manning, I don't think the Jo Grant Adventures or the Leela Files would have in any way shape or form worked) and only one companion had the true long lasting appeal.  After all, which other companion had already had a spin off TV drama, two sets of audio dramas and regular appearances in the books and comics?

Not a single person I was with this evening could believe the news.  Twitter and Facebook have been flooded.  And I'm sure that this is just one of thousands of similar pieces being written on blogs the world over by countless generations of fans because Sarah Jane was just "right".  Elizabeth Sladen, you weren't just my Sarah Jane, you were our Sarah Jane.  We will never forget.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Impossible Countdown - Victory of the Daleks

Apparently, in his DWM interview, the writer seems convinced that the only reason people don't like this episode is the new look daleks.  Personally I don't like it because the plot's a steaming pile of badly thought out crud which has clearly started with the words "spitfires in space" and not really gone much past the thinking about things in any detail stage.

Starts well, the very short cold opener is a corker with the daleks established straight away (thankfully no surprise reveals here as in Destiny, Planet, Genesis etc).  The Doctor's late for an appointment once more (more of which next episode) and Amy did at least take the time to get dressed (as did Churchill).  When the "ironsides" show up they're superb.  And then the plot kicks in and things start to fall apart.  Apparently it was only "a few months ago" that Bracewell came up with the idea of the daleks.  Presumably he worked on them 100% on his own otherwise why would no one else start to question the speed at which completely perfect, working devices were created with technology way beyond anything we ever had.  And presumably no one else had access to the plans or to any of the "technology" used to create them otherwise someone else might have conceivably tried to make them.  The fact there's a dalek gun laying around in Bracewell's lab and no one's even suggested giving the foot soldiers these to assist in the war?  Also, wouldn't Torchwood be just a little interested?

Winston Churchill, the "brilliant" Winnie, continues the long running UNIT style tradition of not paying a blind bit of notice to the Doctor who has, presumably, had a great track record with them in the past but presumably he's too hot on Bracewell (who the daleks have presumably somehow created an absolutely perfect cover/background story for in order for the government to take him on?) to care.  After all, Bracewell has "musings" on anti gravity devices and hyper sonic thingies.

So the daleks then reveal themselves as being bad (I'm guessing the Doctor's bored of saying "I told you so" by now?) and shoot Bracewell's hand off to show how evil they are.  And somehow, once the hand's been blow away, Bracewell's arm gets suspiciously longer. I'm guessing that no-one notices as they're all wondering just why a loon in a bow tie going "you're the daleks" suddenly made them go bad.  Apparently it's because the daleks' progenitor won't recognise the daleks as daleks but will recognise someone saying "you're the daleks". Which does raise the question of where are these daleks from?  Are they the ones that were grown from Davros' cells (which would make them pretty pure)?  Presumably they've got to be from the pre-Davros time in which case where did they come from as they were all sucked back into the void? But whatever, apparently the progenitor is going to make new "pure" daleks, though I'm guessing they're not too worried about being pure in the casing front as the new daleks are unlike any we've seen before.  I just want to go up to them and see if they make a buzzer sound when you press their head down.  Nothing I can really say about the new daleks that hasn't been said a thousand times before on other websites.  Then the new daleks decide to turn Bracewell into a giant bomb, just before they do a runner.  Thankfully though there's a very convenient "emotion over-ride" cut off that I'm sure the daleks put in just in case they somehow needed to deactivate the bomb that they wanted to be de-activate-able? A bomb, by the way, that must be of Slitheen design as once it's revealed suddenly makes his body look twice as big.

I've saved the "spitfires in space" bit till last.  Earlier in the episode Bracewell suggests that he has "musings" about anti gravity devices.  When the daleks somehow light up the whole of London, we're told that the Nazis are ten minutes away.  So somehow the brits take musings, get them fitted to spitfires, launched and up to the dalek ship in well under ten minutes.  The pilots are familiar enough with the devices to be able to fly the planes perfectly and do fancy manoeuvres. Right. Okay. And none of the other scientists question this, remember how to make things?  The Doctor manages to completely clear everything away that's dalek tech (other than the gun still clearly visible in the lab along with other things) and presumably wipes everyones' memory as well? 

I don't hate Victory of the Daleks because of the new look daleks.  Completely implausible, impractical and over the top daleks fit in with the massively unrealistic plot and the grossly overblown nature of the story (how long does the ending drag on for???).  Even the small things bug the hell out of me, when the TARDIS dematerialises infront of Amy and Winston, Amy's hair is blown around artistically but Winston's cigar smoke floats on unhindered.

Oh, the crack appears about three quarters of the way through as it's not there when the TARDIS takes off for the first time but it's there when it goes for the second.  And we find out that Amy doesn't remember the daleks at all.  Sadly, the rest of us will suffer the memories of "Victory of the Daleks" for a long time to come...

Spin Off City - Auton 3

I'm guessing they must have filmed this on a Sunday morning as it's one of the most successful "deserted cities" film I've seen in a long time. Mind you, the fact that I was spending time looking at the background is probably not a great thing when I should have been concentrating on the plot...

New psychic who shares a "special link" with Jo Castleton's returning character turns out to be a bit of a (hmmmm, not sure that word is allowed on blogger).  An entire town's worth of citizens has disappeared, Lockwood's back from Sentinel Island but has the nestene energy inside his mind and it's desperate for the weird alien chip thingy that's inside there as well.  And there's a lot more running round, not through corridors or woods but through the empty streets. Then Lockwood's completely stitched up and everyone's either dead or miserable.

As with the other two it could probably drop about 15 minutes and the autons are now dressed in black jeans, black sweaters and sensible shoes.  Somehow that just doesn't make them terrifying any more, more like pretentious poets wearing white gloves.  Yes there's decent looking CGI but I just couldn't get in to the plot enough to really care.  Lockwood spends most of the hour blissed out in a dream state and I was pretty jealous of him by the end.  I'm sure it was a very worthy three hours' worth of video but deep inside I couldn't help but think it should have been slightly less on CGI, slightly more on redrafting the scripts and a better look for the autons in what should have been their climatic hour.

Spin Off City - Auton: Sentinel

Two years down the line and the autons are back with location filming, a CGI budget and a slightly better production.  This time it's not a simple run around and shoot things story and there's no strawberry jam menacing people.

Somehow Winslet (from the previous release) has set himself up as the Vicar on Sentinel Island (I couldn't help but think of the Master in "The Daemons") and has a very devoted congregation.  Any that weren't devoted were simply killed.  Well, it keeps the numbers constant I suppose.  The nestene needs Lockwood and newcomer Natasha Alexander (a psychic from UNIT) in order to re-awaken the creature beneath the church (and also the audience). There's more gunplay in this one (the budget definitely stretched to cover scenes that could almost be described as action based) and there's a church to damage at the end.  It's still not particularly challenging on the plot front but there's more atmosphere to it this time.  There's undertones of homo-eroticism in there, some almost respectable CGI work at the end and a set of extras that actually makes it feel like it had a lot of people throwing their effort into it.  In spite of all this, it still falls slightly flat.  My mind struggled to focus on it fully, things didn't move fast enough to keep me occupied and the ending is clearly setting up the third one.  But it's still a massive improvement on the original (not overly challenging I know) and this time it felt as though it wasn't quite being made up as it went along.  And it's much prettier to look at.