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The Doctor in Another 1600s Witch Scare

What:The Witch from the Well (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 2 November 2019
Rating:   7

The second of the Mary Shelley trilogy is typical of such things in that one of its main purposes is to justify the companion. Thus, much of the story is devoted to showing how smart and resourceful Mary is. The story is that an archaeological dig uncovers some kind of monster that rampages the local area. The Doctor and Mary and a couple of very suspicious teenagers end up tracing the problem back to the mid 1600s and a village deeply in the midst of a witch frenzy. The Doctor and Mary get split 400 years apart in time, and the two narrative strands, 1600s and 2000s, gradually converge. It's a decent enough adventure that moves along at a rapid, but not uncomfortable pace. Not much stands out in this one, but the story is serviceable and entertaining.



Science Fiction Historical

What:Mother Russia (The Companion Chronicles audiobooks)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 2 November 2019
Rating:   6

Mother Russia finds Steven Taylor recounting an adventure he had with the Doctor in Russia at the time of Napoleon's conquest. The circumstance of the interview producing this recounting never becomes quite clear. The story itself is typical Doctor 1. The Doctor, Steven, and Dodo land somewhere unknown, decide to stay for a while (as in The Romans) and after some uneventful months get embroiled both in history and in an alien encounter. And history ain't nice. I have long thought that Peter Purves is under-rated as an actor and that Steven was one of the best companions. His stalwart sense of right and wrong contrasts well against The Doctor's subtle consequentialism, a conflict that plays out well in this story. What brings this story down for me is that not enough thought has gone into why and where Steven is recounting this adventure and why he is having trouble remembering.



Fairly Typical Doctor 2 Story

What:Helicon Prime (The Companion Chronicles audiobooks)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 2 November 2019
Rating:   6

Frazer Hines reads this adventure of a dazed and confused Jamie (because of a lightning strike) suddenly recalling one of his adventures with The Doctor. He and The Doctor have left Victoria behind and have arrived on a leisure center world, where almost at once someone is murdered. There is a very obvious bad guy and a pretty obvious hidden villain. So, what might be a surprise ending really isn't one, mainly because the Companion Chronicles all use the same formula of one character recounting an adventure to someone else who does not really have that character's interests in mind.



Decent Adaptation

What:Damaged Goods (Big Finish novel adaptations)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 2 November 2019
Rating:   7

The original novel from which this adventure is adapted was written by the hugely popular Russel T. Davies, so it is likely to get high ratings just for that. As it is, the story is rather standard Doctor 7 material with the addition of a gay couple. We see The Doctor and companions actively seeking to right wrongs rather than accidentally coming upon a problem. The Doctor stumbles into a plan he has already made and spends his time trying to work out what he's already done. There's the obligatory bit where he knows what's going on, sends his friends into danger while not telling them what's going on, and then puts up weak justifications for this when confronted. It's the Doctor 7 formula that I never really liked much. The story itself is well acted, and the writers have managed to unobtrusively introduce exposition through having the characters describe what is happening to each other via communicator.



End of the Line for Nyssa (Apparently)

What:The Entropy Plague (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 22 October 2019
Rating:   7

The ending of the second e-Space trilogy had to involve entropy and collapsing universes. There really was no other option. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Turlough are tracking Tegan, kidnapped by space pirates, and wind up on the last world in the universe. Everything is collapsing, the stars are going out, food rots before one's eyes, and the remaining denizens of the universe are gathered to bargain for a passage out to another universe. At the control is a semi-mad scientist. The story is mainly a setup for The Doctor and Nyssa to argue at several points for who gets to sacrifice themself to save everyone remaining. Basically, then, the plot is a matter of continually closing off options, until one choice remains. The several good ideas in this story are marred by several bad ones. For instance, the opening of the dimensional portal can be powered only by tearing apart living beings? In terms of energy, living beings are no better source of energy than any other matter. Likewise, one gets touched by entropy and turns into a skulking monster that wants to suck the energy out of anything living? The space pirates are absurdly pirate-y. The good and the bad are moderately balanced. It is enjoyable, but I feel as if there were several missed opportunities to take a more daring path.



Definitely a Part 1

What:The Burning Prince (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 22 October 2019
Rating:   7

Here we have the first part of a trilogy. This trio reminds me quite a bit of the misguided Excelis trilogy, with different Doctors visiting the same place at different points in its history and encountering the same character or two and basically unable to save much of anyone or rescue the empire (in Excelis it was a planet) from destroying itself. Doctor 5, trying to reach Amsterdam, gets pulled off course and finds himself on a spaceship supposedly on a rescue mission and a mission of mercy. Their job, find the missing princess so she can marry the prince of a rival family and save the Drashani Empire from tearing itself apart in civil war. If only it were that easy. This story is the roller coaster without brakes variety. It gets up to running speed within 3 minutes and keeps racing at high velocity with nearly neck-breaking twists and turns every 10 minutes or so. Thus, writer John Dorney gives the listener little time to think of how unlikely all of this is. Be forewarned. This is another of the Doctor makes rash promises and ends up severely disappointed kind of story.



Muddled

What:The Acheron Pulse (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 22 October 2019
Rating:   6

The second installment of the sort-of-Excelis trilogy is The Acheron Pulse, a title that demands an explanation that never arrives. We get the pulse alright. Just why is it called the "Acheron" pulse, though? It is now 30 years after the events of "The Burning Prince" and Cheni, daughter of Tuvold and cousin of the evil Aliona is now its Empress. The empire is threatened, though, by mask-wearing, deep-breathing Tenebris and his Wrath warriors. If one has listened to "The Burning Prince" it is not hard to guess who Tenebris and the Wrath really are. One thing author Rick Briggs has done is to take the science-fictional origin of the Igriss and turn it into magic, so they are not genetically manufactured beings (which makes sense), but humans who have had their intellect sucked out to some dark dimension and their bodies regressed by a mysterious power called for no particular reason an Acheron Pulse (which does not make sense). There are throw-away references to Macbeth, Star Wars, and half a dozen other stories. Doctor 6 does get some good lines and comes across quite well.



Weak Novelization of Weak Script

What:Timelash (Target novelisations)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Sunday 20 October 2019
Rating:   2

Glen McCoy's only contribution to Doctor Who was this story. It was the weakest of Colin Baker's maiden voyage season in the TARDIS. Basically, this is story is a victim of too many ideas. We have a time corridor, a dictator-scientist, a planet that The Doctor has visited before, human / wild beast amalgamations, an impending interplanetary war, and so on. To top it off, McCoy has to get young H.G. Wells into the thing so that whatever happens becomes the "inspiration" for his most famous science-fiction works. The thing does not really hang together very well. The novelization doesn't help. Most writers of DW scripts who novelize them take the opportunity to clarify and embellish. McCoy's novelization is the laziest I have read of the Target series. He skips over large amounts of dialogue, replacing it with short, unilluminating, and boring exposition. The writing is dry and factual, with little regard for creating the scene in the reader's mind. It is really an opportunity missed to rescue the original TV serial.



Welcome Returns

What:The Third Doctor Adventures: Primord / The Scream of Ghosts (Third Doctor Adventures audios)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Wednesday 16 October 2019
Rating:   8

For the fifth of the revived Third Doctor series, Big Finish took a big risk in bringing back some more characters from that time. In two adventures, along with Jo Grant, we get The Brigadier, while in the first one we get Liz Shaw and in the second we get Sergeant Benton. Katy Manning and John Levene reprise their roles. To voice Liz Shaw, Big Finish used Caroline John's daughter, Daisy Ashford, and for The Brigadier they used John Culshaw. Both choices are excellent. Daisy Ashford sounds a bit like Caroline John, but rather than go for outright impersonation, she has gone with recreating the rhythm and tone of the character. John Culshaw, perhaps England's greatest living impressionist, does an outstanding job of recreating The Brigadier. At points the likeness to Nicholas Courtney is uncanny. Mostly, though, as with any impersonation, it is mainly about getting the tone and rhythm right. The stories themselves recreate the the early 70s manner very well. "Primord" is a sequel to "Inferno," but not one that simply repeats the elements of the original. The story moves on to the next phase, with some upper class characters motivated by potential power and fame hijacking research into the green goo from Stallman's drill. Somehow Liz Shaw is involved in this, but how and why are deftly deferred until the right moment in the script. "The Scream of Ghosts" is not as convincing as "Primord," but still enjoyable. A sound of many voices screaming is blasting its way across broadcast frequencies and stealing people from a village in the English countryside. There's a mystery here, related to secret research into mobile telephony that is not going according to plan. Big Finish have made the right choice to expand The Third Doctor series so that it is not just Jo and the Doc.



A Really Excellent Sampler

What:Re:Collections (Short Trips short story collections)
By:Graham Pilato, Washington D.C., United States
Date:Friday 11 October 2019
Rating:   9

I have to preface this short review with the information that I did not in fact read every other book before it. I don't know if I agree that these are indeed the best individual stories from every other collection before it. But I can say that these are daring, wonderfully written, and oh so good. This is a best of far more than it is a guide to leading one back through the other books. The whole point appears to be a celebration of the great Who short fiction represented by the series. But the thing is that each anthology was an intentionally themed set. Some were more successful than others. And some were just messes. But yes, I have only read about a third of the oh, so many Short Trips anthologies. When BBC Books and before them, Virgin, were putting out short Who fiction, the collections were just about annual. These Big Finish collections came out quarterly, I believe. And in the end, as far as I can tell, this collection is really the cream of the crop -- by definition -- but not by structure: the only theme is the reductionist approach of each editor picking their favorite story from their own collections. I appreciated each intro that they wrote for each story. But the thrill of A Universe of Terrors or the sentiment and anticipation of Farewells, just to name a couple, really make for a complete experience with those books. Even when one or two stories may disappoint, the anthologies as a whole tend to be lovely experiences. IS this the best ever Doctor Who short fiction anthology? Um... maybe. The BBC's Short Trips and Side Steps from 2000 was perhaps the best ever. Or the recent Twelve Angels Weeping -- also amazing. I have yet to know. But this collection is certainly drawing me back into Who short fiction after years away from it.



Time and Time Again

What:Seasons of Fear (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Thursday 3 October 2019
Rating:   7

"Seasons of Fear" is an interesting time-oriented story that gets us to travel to three different periods of England's history - Roman Britain, Saxon rule, and Age of Manners. The story concerns a man named Sebastian Grael, who tells the Doctor that Grael has killed him and is just creating a pocket timeline for the Doctor so Grael can gloat. This gets The Doctor onto Grael's trail through history, where Grael is trying to obtain immortality from his "masters." The story is interesting, and the chase through time premise works nicely. I think it would have been better if the writers were not forced to include elements for the season story-arc concocted for this collection of Doctor 8 adventures. These are rather awkward, and the one scene at the end is just gratuitous and silly.



Darkness and Light

What:Embrace the Darkness (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Thursday 3 October 2019
Rating:   7

Nick Briggs delivers another of his many base under siege stories. This one takes place mostly within a scientific base on a planet orbiting a sun that has mysteriously gone totally dark. The technicians are trying to start up artificial suns, when the whole base goes haywire and something takes away their eyes. The story belongs to the early phase of Big Finish in which the writers are foregrounding the sound medium in a highly self-conscious way. And what better way to do that than to have most of the characters most of the time either unable to see or groping around in darkness? The story also highlights the developing character of Doctor 8, a mix of Doctor 4's sense of wonder and tendency to be talking to himself even when talking to others, and Doctor 6 with his over-wrought sense of responsibility and a tendency toward grand-gesture self-sacrifice. The story has a few too many implausibilities for me, too many bits of magic dressed up in scientific garb.



Atmospheric

What:The Chimes of Midnight (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Thursday 3 October 2019
Rating:   7

Robert Shearman delivers another of his closed environment, warped reality tales. The Doctor and Charlie arrive at a mansion, Christmas Eve, 1906, in which the same scullery maid gets repeatedly murdered. Everyone acts weirdly, and we keep looping through the same two hours with variations. It's definitely spooky and odd. This one is not as quite as compelling and disturbing as "The Holy Terror." The explanation also does not make as much sense. It is still a compelling listen.



Not Quite What It's Supposed to Be

What:Blue Box (BBC Past Doctor novels)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 21 September 2019
Rating:   7

The title is right away misleading. Readers are likely to think that "blue box" refers to the TARDIS, but that device is nowhere to be seen in this book. Instead, "blue box" refers to a signal switching device used in telecommunications. That is the kind of bait and switch that Kate Orman is up to throughout this book. Orman has decided on a novel approach by making the book seem not to be a novel. Instead, the book we read is "written by" an Australian independent journalist reporting on events, publishing a non-fiction book about a great computer crime caper. We are supposedly reading that book. So, a blue box that is not the blue box we thought, and a novel that is not quite a novel. There are several other turns of this kind. The story places Doctor 6 and Peri in the Washington, D.C., area in 1982 or thereabouts. Doctor 6 is contacted to track down some alien technology (though our narrator believes throughout the book that it is secret Russian tech) that has gotten lost and is now in the hands of computer mastermind Sarah Swan. Our computer mastermind is not much of villain, being mostly just petty, lonely, and vindictive. The internet is only in its infancy, but Swan uses it and the telecommunications network to make hell out of the lives of people she doesn't like by doing things like planting rumors, changing their utility bills to astronomical figures, and so on. She's a towering figure of terror to the hacks and phreaks, but entirely unknown to the rest of the world. The plot has our heroes mainly hiding from Swan in motels, driving long distances in rented cars, breaking into computer systems, and generally reacting to Swan as if she is far more powerful than she really is. Through most of the novel, there is little sense of any actual danger, and I kept wondering as I read why The Doctor and crew were going to such extraordinary lengths to avoid this woman. Another problematic spot for me was in the novel pretending to be non-fiction premise. This is done regularly enough, and mostly done wrong. The problem is that the resulting book is still too much novel and not enough non-fiction. There are long passages of dialogue, which is novelistic, but not at all in the manner of independent reporting. Whole scenes are described in great detail when there is no way that the reporter-narrator had access to that information. I don't, however, want to give the impression that this novel is all that bad. The writing is crisp, and it is generally well paced. Orman does not stray beyond the bounds she has set for herself in the plot and format. She does a good job of making seemingly insignificant details have a surprising significance. Generally, the book is entertaining despite its flaws.



A Family Drama

What:An Earthly Child (Big Finish subscriber bonuses)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 16 September 2019
Rating:   7

It is now a couple of decades since the Dalek invasion of Earth was defeated, and Susan Campbell, a legend in a recovering Britain, is struggling to keep things together. Her husband is dead, her son Alex is leaning toward radical politics in university, there is a rising tide of populist anti-alien sentiment, and she can't admit to anyone, not even her son, that she is an alien herself. Desperate to see the Earth recover faster, Susan secretly contacts some aliens who promise aid. But are their motives altruistic? Doctor 8 drops in to have a snoop around her life, and ends up trying to clean up some of this mess. This is a reasonably entertaining drama.



Another Collection of Shorts

What:The Company of Friends (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 9 September 2019
Rating:   7

This collection has audio adventures of Doctor 8 with companions he hasn't had audio adventures with: Benny, Izzy, Fitz. Plus, we get introduced to a new travelling companion, Mary Shelley. As with the other anthology audios, the stories are quick and mostly amusing. There is no time for depth. This collection does not really have a linking idea, unlike the ones for the other Doctors.



Too Much Soapbox

What:The Two Doctors (Target novelisations)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Friday 16 August 2019
Rating:   4

Robert Holmes is one of the most beloved of classic series script writers. His scripts are best, though, when he does not take to trying to lecture the audience through the story. Sadly, "The Two Doctors" is one of the lecture episodes. His novelization of it only intensifies this aspect. The lesson here is "don't eat meat," a lesson that gets pounded into every scene, just about. Thus, the story is lost in ham-fisted allegory. The novelization clears up a couple of things. One is that Androgums are supposed to be great hulking monsters, much bigger and stronger than what we got in the TV episode. There is a bit more of Botcherby's background. The restaurant name is different, and there is no joke at the expense of "thick" Americans who cannot pronounce Spanish names. Still, the fundamental flaw of the story remains.



Decent Enough

What:Industrial Evolution (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 12 August 2019
Rating:   6

The final story for Brewster and Evelyn with Doctor 6. In the latter case, we don't get the kind of closure we would like, the actual story of Evelyn leaving The Doctor. Maggie Stables' death meant that it could not happen. This does feel like the end for Brewster, though. Doctor 6 is fed up with Brewster, but still has some heart, so takes him to industrial Lancashire in the 19th century, where he might fit in and make a new start for himself. Of course, it cannot be left at that. Some strange things are happening in this copper mine. Machines are making themselves and making grotesque machine/human hybrids. All in all, this is a fairly standard Doctor Who story.



Not Different Enough

What:Project: Nirvana (The Companion Chronicles audiobooks)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 12 August 2019
Rating:   6

Yet another Doctor 7 meets ancient menace from the dark times. The manner of its telling is a bit different, being a Companion Chronicles entry where the companions are just side characters from a pair of earlier stories. It is nice to have a Forge story that doesn't devolve into a family drama. Still, these Cthulhu type dark times critters are getting just a little bit tiring. There is really not much a writer can do with them that Lovecraft hadn't already done.



Big Finish Recycles

What:House of Blue Fire (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 12 August 2019
Rating:   6

House of Blue Fire is a bipolar story in a way. It starts as a spooky, haunted house story with heavy amounts of "nothing is real" thrown in. Parts 3 & 4, though, switch to a conventional Doctor vs. alien story. Both are old hat for Big Finish. There are just too many messing with the mind and plastic reality stories where the fact that nothing is real is the central core for this one to gain much novelty. It proceeds pretty much like all the others. Then, we get Doctor 7 vs. ancient menace from the dark times that feeds off fear, which, again, is old hat, tattered and used up.



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