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Not Quite What You Remembered

What:The Pirate Planet (New Target novelisations)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Friday 24 April 2020
Rating:   8

"The Pirate Planet," Douglas Adams' first contribution to Doctor Who, has long been sought after for novelization. Finally, in 2017 it was done. James Goss became the writer for the job. He is a good choice in that he genuinely likes the Graham Williams period of Doctor Who and he has a sense of humor very similar to Douglas Adams'. It is a sense that nothing is sacred or above ridicule and that wherever someone is being serious, that is when they are being most ridiculous. It is tough, therefore, for writers like Adams and Goss to get the right tone for Doctor Who, where the threats need to feel credible, but the Doctor's "live and let live" attitude still needs to prevail. For this novelization, Goss had access to multiple early versions, not just the shooting scripts and the adventure as shown on TV. Goss has, therefore, incorporated the elements of the early versions while mostly retaining the plot of the televised version, and keeping all of the characters. The result is a remarkably different experience from watching the TV version. For instance, all the characters are boosted, given both more to do and more overall character. The reader finds out much more why characters are as they are. The character boost becomes most apparent in secondary characters whose function in the TV version was mostly to be cogs in the plot machine, delivering information in amusing ways. Thus, Balaton, the old man who is the voice of conformity in the society of Zanak, gets a motivation for this, a desire not just for an easy life, but also to keep his family together. Mr. Fibuli is another such character, a man whose goal is to be an ordinary civil servant type, but more or less resigned to his fate as inevitably another victim of the Captain's wrath. Goss has also made efforts to enhance the Captain as a character, making it clearer that the robotic elements of his body are the patchwork job of a novice, and that he is more understandably mentally unstable - part genius, part maniac, part naughty boy. Additionally, Goss changes much of the dialogue, adds whole scenes, deletes some scenes that never quite made sense in the TV version, and adds a layer that was scrapped from the TV version, but actually makes sense of what is happening. This has to do with the question of how Queen Xanxia, who could not be expected to be a technical wizard, is able both to perform robotic surgery on the Captain and build the time dams. Answers are in the book and I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say that they are pure Douglas Adams. Ultimately, a reader's pleasure from this book is going to depend greatly on how well the reader feels that the writers get the mix of serious and silly. My own feeling is that the whole veers just a little too far on the side of silly, especially with regard to how many pirate clichés are thrown in. Nevertheless, the novel in this case is actually more satisfying than the televised version.



Fills Some Gaps

What:Planet of the Rani (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Sunday 19 April 2020
Rating:   7

Planet of the Rani pretty much explains what The Rani was doing on Miasimia Goria, and how it all went wrong even though The Rani will never admit it. Marc Platt has taken what we already know about The Rani and run with it. She is the amoral Time Lord. Unlike The Master, who actually enjoys destroying things and generally being evil, The Rani simply does not care about the fate of others. She is a bit vain, but mostly to her other beings are tools available for her to use or discard as she sees fit. Siobhan Redmond makes a very good Rani, always trying to maintain her cool no matter how much things are not going her way. The story itself is rather adequate Doctor Who, with few real surprises. It is somewhat similar to Time and the Rani, with the Rani temporarily pretending to be someone else, trying to maintain her authoritarian rule, surrounding herself with sycophants, and trying to do this while seeing through to its finish an experiment in creating a universal supermind.



A Bit Different

What:Shell Shock (Telos novellas)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 7 April 2020
Rating:   7

The brief for the Telos novellas was that they be different from the BBC range of Doctor Who novels, exploring different narrative styles and being generally more "adult" than the main range. "Shell Shock" certainly fills the brief. The story ranges back and forth through time, though the time is a mere few days, and uses multiple points of view in third-person limited fashion. Each perspective is given its own narrative voice so that a reader can distinguish between perspectives. The novel is "adult" both in its content about the psychological trauma of war, and in its language, which has many more **** expletives than standard Doctor Who novels. The story itself has Doctor 6 and Peri landing on a derelict ship on a primarily ocean world. While Peri is exploring in scuba gear, the ship goes under, taking the TARDIS with it. The Doctor ends up washed ashore on an island, while Peri swims around on her own before "dying" and being eaten by something which itself is being eaten by sea creatures, while her consciousness gets absorbed by the something that is eating her. The island on which The Doctor lands is inhabited by a bunch of cyborg crabs created during a war that has since been abandoned, and a psychologically damaged veteran of that war who abandoned the war before it abandoned the planet. Thus, the title "Shell Shock" has the double meaning of Ranger's (the human's) PTSD and the shells of the crabs. These crabs are now starting to be killed and eaten by a giant, crazed, cyborg crab called Meathook, and there is little that The Doctor can do to stop it.

Running on its own internal logic, the novel works reasonably well. There is quite a bit of "what the hell is going on here" for the reader, especially with Peri's narrative, but Forward makes most of the necessary revelations eventually. A couple of things did not fully work for me. One is the strange helplessness of The Doctor in relation to the crabs. He is unable to help them in even the most meager defense against Meathook, and it is not clear why. There are some gaps in the backstory that never get fully worked out, such as just what Ranger's sister (another soldier in the war) had done to warrant her punishment, which is the precipitating event for Ranger's defection from the war. The way The Doctor puts Peri back together, literally, is another aspect not satisfactorily worked out. It is written in such a way that it is as if Forward believes that the only memories that "make" a person are the painful and shameful ones, which cannot possibly be right.

Overall, "Shell Shock" is a surprisingly good read, but with a few execution flaws.



Worth a Read

What:Palace of the Red Sun (BBC Past Doctor novels)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Wednesday 25 March 2020
Rating:   7

"Palace of the Red Sun" delivers what one normally gets from a Christopher Bulis novel. It is entertaining, has an intriguing puzzle at the heart of it, but lacks depth. So, what the reader gets is a rather stock Doctor Who situation. A fascistic bad guy, Glavis Judd, is going around with a heavily armed fleet of spaceships "liberating" worlds from their governments and replacing them with his "efficient" methods. Judd's latest conquest is Esselven, a quasi-medieval kingdom in space. Judd, however, gets a nasty surprise when the royal family escapes, taking with them the "key" to unlocking a strongbox that contains all the means for running Esselven. The "key" in this case is the DNA code of the royal family. Fast forward a year and the TARDIS arrives on a mysterious garden world run by single-minded robots and operating in a split society - scruffy scavengers barely surviving off stolen food and the Lords, who live a life of a rather cardboard and artificial medieval existence. This place, it turns out, is called Esselven, yet is not the Esselven Judd invaded and no one seems to have heard of Judd or even know that there is a universe beyond their sky. Bulis is very careful to keep the mystery just out of reach until about the last 30 pages. The story runs in typical Bulis fashion. He splits the Doctor and companion fairly early in the story and keeps the apart for most of the story. Bulis is also one of the better writers for Peri, making her perky, smart, and ready to take on a challenge. Also, the reader gets the return of low-brow reporter Dexel Dynes from Bulis' earlier novel "The Ultimate Treasure." The plot moves along briskly, and as long as the reader does not ask too much of the story, the novel makes pleasant reading.



Funny

What:Doctor Who Unbound: Exile (Doctor Who Unbound audios)
By:Justin Barnes, st.louis , United States
Date:Tuesday 24 March 2020
Rating:   10

This Unbound is much different then any of the others. I won't spoil the story but it is a very big change from the rest and is a funny edition. I really enjoyed this especially after so many years!



The Villain's the Problem

What:The Worlds of Doctor Who (Miscellaneous audio dramas)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 24 March 2020
Rating:   7

This is an anniversary omnibus containing 4 stories loosely linked. This time, the story goes through different side series created by Big Finish - Jago & Litefoot, Counter Measures, the Vault, and Gallifrey. Doctor 6 shows up in the last one. The linking thread is a villainous mind that lives inside a music box and takes over other people's minds, starting with a Victorian boy. Each of the stories can stand on its own in a way. Thus, once we have the pattern established in the first story, it pretty much runs the same throughout. The villain is not really fleshed out more than that, and in fact gets pretty much unfleshed after the first story, being a skeleton then a skull. We never really do get a good idea of what this evil intelligence is. Plus, its motivation is mostly that it likes controlling people and killing. The villain really needed to be better thought through.



Too Long

What:Scherzo (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Friday 20 March 2020
Rating:   7

This story introduces listeners to the Divergent Universe and sets the themes in place for the remaining series. It's a two-hander, just The Doctor and Charley. Here, they exist in a world of light so bright that they are constantly blinded (i.e. the beginning of the universe right after the Big Bang), and discover that matter is malleable as they merge into each other, and discover that they are inside some kind of grand scientific experiment with whoever is running it, distant and unreachable. Much of the focus is on the interaction between the two characters. The Doctor is bitter and angry that Charley followed him into the Divergent Universe. He just wants to be left alone to die and not have any responsibility for anyone. Charley keeps pleading, "But, Doctor, I love you." Gradually, the two come to a reconciliation, but only with the help of a sound creature that takes what they say and imitates it, growing in power and ability, moving from child to adult, and thus introducing the listener to the evolution theme that will carry through the rest of the series. This theme is echoed in the "food" that the Doctor and Charley are supplied with, bodies that are vaguely humanoid in shape, but get increasingly closer to human, as if they are experimental cast-offs, attempts to create the life being studied inside the glass tube crucible that The Doctor and Charley find themselves in. The story would work very well as a two-parter. Stretched to four parts, the story has much needless repetition in the dialogue, sort of like Doctor Who does Samuel Beckett. In general, it is a good introduction to the Crucible World of the remaining series.



Decent with missteps

What:The Creed of the Kromon (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Friday 20 March 2020
Rating:   7

Doctor 8 and Charley have their first true adventure inside the crucible world. Apparently, it is sectioned off in "zones," each of which is a world in itself. In this story they meet the Kro'ka, a rather flippant overseer who manages each "experiment" that The Doctor and Charley are in. The story also sets several themes that are going to play out through the rest of this series, all of which were announced in a way in the previous story, "Scherzo." One of these is evolution from formation of an early universe to decay and entropy at the end. Thus, the star villains of this episode are the insects, the Kromon, giant intelligent termites that have absorbed the "creed" of The Company, a mysterious and long gone master race. The Kromon have taken on the business model as a total plan for social organization, which is a kind of joke against business. With their world destroyed by The Company, the Kromon move on to other worlds in search of water, which they desperately need plenty of to survive. Their plan is to suck each world dry before moving on. It is infestation on a grand scale. All of this is quite interesting conceptually. It could have worked superbly. However, Philip Martin has taken many narrative shortcuts, with a plot that mostly follows the in-trouble-out-of-trouble-repeat pattern. There are some inconsistencies between elements of the plot and elements of the setting. In summary, interesting in concept, flawed in execution.



WARNING

What:The Faceless Ones (BBC classic series DVDs/Blu-rays)
By:Aaron Evans, Canberra, Australia
Date:Wednesday 18 March 2020
Rating:   10

As of when this was written, the site continues to state that episodes 1 and 3 will not be in animated versions. Even if the back cover blurb was released and the UK release has passed, this is completely offensive and incorrect. Still a good release however.



Entertaining

What:State of Change (Missing Adventures novels)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Friday 13 March 2020
Rating:   7

One of the earlier novels by Christopher Bulis, "State of Change" demonstrates what he does well and what he often fails to do. This is an alternate history sort of story, though the explanation for it is different from the standard explanation. It allows Bulis to create a kind of steampunk ancient Rome in which the children of Cleopatra rule as a triumvirate. The Roman setting allows for much political intrigue and back-stabbing (literally). Fortunately, Bulis does not play up the decadence theme too hard. Bulis' approach from the Doctor's perspective is really to limit this to a simple problem for the Doctor - getting the TARDIS functioning again. All the complications from the Doctor's perspective principally devolve from that primary problem. As with many of the early Virgin novels, there are a few too many elements thrown in for the fans. For instance, Peri spends most of the novel as a bird superwoman, having regressed to the point in her history when she was almost turned into a bird-woman on Varos. This allows Bulis to retrofit a stronger and more confident Peri of the kind that fans were calling for. Kudos to Bulis for sticking to this plotline no matter how absurd it is. Another is the choice of cause for all this, which involves the return of an oldish villain. There was really no need to make this person the cause, which is fully apparent in that the person has very little actual presence in the story. It really could have been anyone. Bulis keeps the plot running apace, making this a swift read. One real problem is that it has an "all chaos breaks loose" ending with multiple factions battling each other - guns, swords, soldiers, gladiators (and gladiatrixes), biplanes, dirigibles, animals, and common folk all going at each other. In summary: "State of Change" is a brisk and entertaining read with a few too many fan-winks and a somewhat chaotic climax.



Not As Expected

What:The War Master: The Master of Callous (The War Master audios)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 9 March 2020
Rating:   8

I have a feeling that The War Master second set is going to divide listeners. It is tough to assess. Instead of four independent but loosely connected stories, this set is one story divided into four chapters, almost an audio novel. The Time War is a distant background, and all the story takes place around the colony world of Callous. The colony is centered around a mine, operated by the colony founder, Elliot King. They are supposed to be mining a substance called sueño (that's Spanish for "dream" if you don't get it). This substance is in high demand, although it is not really explained why, but almost impossible to mine because it has telepathic properties that drive people mad. Elliot King struggles to get anything out of the mine, suffering setback after setback, while trying to fend off greedy governor Teremon, who runs a worldwide protection racket and demands ever-increasing fees. Plus, Elliot is constantly pestered by a strange ood with an old-fashioned phone who keeps telling him that there is a call for him. After Elliot's death, his estranged daughter Sarah, and her wife, space pilot Martine, take over and try to make the mine a going entity. They suffer many of the same problems that Elliot had, but are eventually seemingly rescued by a kindly if peculiar old man named Orman (get it, ore man?). But, once Sarah has her lucky strike, things go downhill in a hurry.

One can see that almost none of the focus is on The Master. Whatever his plan is, it is slow to develop, taking over ten years to happen. He is very much in the background for this, hardly appearing at all in parts 1 and 3, and only really significant in about half of part 4. The focus is really on the colony and the Kings. There is very little adventure or danger and most the conflict is person against person. The soundtrack music emphasizes this aspect by being mostly low-key piano rather than big orchestration.

All this leaves a listener with a puzzle. On the one hand, the story is very well executed and sticks to a consistent tone right down to the bitter end (and it is very bitter indeed). On the other hand, it does not really need The Master in the plot, which is shown by the fact that he is in less than half of the whole thing. So, someone expecting a Master story may be right to feel a bit disappointed when The Master of Callous isn't really much of a Master story. I am giving the benefit of charity on the side of the production, which is very well written and well acted.



Entertaining

What:Infamy of the Zaross (Tenth Doctor Adventures audios)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 24 February 2020
Rating:   8

Doctor 10, Rose, and Jackie are back fighting another alien invasion of Earth, except this one just does not seem quite right. The story is quite funny in the first half, then turns to more serious when the real threat emerges. It manages to be critical of television without being too critical of Doctor Who.



Big Finish Celebrates Itself

What:The Legacy of Time (Miscellaneous audio dramas)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 24 February 2020
Rating:   8

This big production is for celebrating 20 years of Big Finish. It brings together all the Big Finish Doctors, those currently living and three voiced by actors other than the original. It has six individual stories, each with a different Doctor, plus guest performances from various Big Finish creations, such as Counter Measures. There is a story arc through them all, but all can be heard without reference to each other, and the story arc really does not become important until disc 5. It begins with Doctor 8 plus River Song and Benny Summerfield in Lies in Ruins. This Doctor 8 is the war-weary Doctor, sad, introverted, nearly ready for his transformation into the War Doctor. The story itself has the two archaeologists have a sort of who has the bigger trowel face off. It also goes for the contemporary Doctor Who trope of the female adventurer (two in this case) who is just so much better and smarter than that bumbling idiot The Doctor. It does have something of a surprise payoff late in the story. Next is The Split Infinitive. Here, Doctor 7 and Ace join up with Counter Measures again in a rollicking adventure involving split timelines and getting them to converge. It's quite fun. The third story is The Sacrifice of Jo Grant. This is my favorite of the six. Here, we have Jo Jones, back consulting for UNIT and working with Kate Lethbridge and Osgood. Jo gets a message from the past - she died in the 1970s saving the world. The resolution of the seeming contradiction involves time distortions, of course, and Doctor 3 confronting sensibilities of the 2000s. Next is the weakest of the six, Relative Time, featuring the Doctor's daughter, Jennie (played by Doctor's daughter Georgia Tenant) meeting Doctor 5 (played by Doctor's daughter's father Peter Davison). The story seems made mostly to get these two together. We get the return of clever woman/stupid Doctor, this time boosted to 11, plus a meeting with the split personality Time Lord, introduced as The Eleven with Doctor 8, but here reduced to The Nine. It has the kind of "none of it really happened" and "you won't remember it" ending that is too convenient. Doctor 6 goes next in The Avenues of Possibility. Here, Doctor 6 travels with Charlie Pollard and they meet once again the intrepid D.I. Menzies. This one was originally intended to involve Jago and Litefoot, but Trevor Baxter's death required a quick rewrite involving novelist and early creator of the idea of a police force Henry Fielding and his brother John. The story is standard "we have to shut off one time line to preserve the real one" writing. Last is Collision Course, another clever converging Time Lines story with Romana and Leela both remembering travelling to the same planet with Doctor 4 at different times, although maybe they weren't, or maybe it didn't happen. The ending is a truly Big Finish, getting Doctors 1-8, plus 10, to put everything right. The through line in all this is a plot by The Sirens of Time, thus taking this set of stories back to the Big Finish story that started it all. The whole thing is a real treat for fans of Big Finish.



Better Than the Radio Version

What:Slipback (Miscellaneous TV novelisations)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Saturday 22 February 2020
Rating:   6

Eric Saward's novelization of his radio script for Doctor 6 and Peri corrects many of the problems in the radio version, but adds a few new ones. The original is almost universally regarded as awful, mainly because it seemed to be written entirely as a sendup without any regard for story sense. Here, Saward uses the opportunity of exposition inherent in the novel format to fill in many gaps. Saward's exposition style, as shown in his other novelizations, can best be described as imitation Douglas Adams. Sometimes it works. There are some genuinely funny passages. Sometimes it doesn't. On the whole, it makes the novel a more enjoyable read than the radio version is a listen. Still, there is not much here that makes sense in terms of unified plot. It has various characters, but their motivations and presence in the story do not match up with each other. For instance, the character of Shellingborne Grant, who would seemingly connect all the various pieces, being the only character to interact with all the other major characters, does not bring together the various plot elements. That he is an art thief serves only to justify the presence of the two policemen, who themselves do not interact with either the captain or the computer, and thus have no relationship to the central problem of the plot. Similarly, large plot holes are left unfilled. How does the computer know a) what a Time Lord is, b) where one can be found, and c) how to project its thoughts into the mind of Time Lord inside a TARDIS mid-flight? Not one of these questions is answered in either version. A problem unique to Saward's novel version is that the brief on the Target novelizations was to be brief. Therefore, Saward gets about 3/4 of the way through the plot of the radio version and realized that he has just about reached the word limit Target specified, and so in the last 15 pages he condenses large amounts of dialog and plot into clumsy 2-3 sentence exposition. In sum, the novel is more entertaining than the original, funny in places, but ultimately unsatisfying.



Ends One Series, Starts Another

What:The Resurrection of Mars (Eighth Doctor Audio Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 11 February 2020
Rating:   7

The various strands of this season of the 8th Doctor adventures come together in this story, which is also pretty much a "part two" of "Deimos." Much of this story is designed as a challenge to the Doctor's morality. In particular, the questions comes up about the value of life in raw terms - are all lives of equal worth? How many would one sacrifice if it meant saving many more? There are a few rabbits out of hats moments late in the story that subvert this line of thinking to some extent. Much of the technology has too many magical properties. Still, it is a solid adventure.



Time Meddling

What:The Secret History (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 10 February 2020
Rating:   7

This ends a trilogy that has been going backwards from the Doctor's perspective - Doc 7, then Doc 6, now Doc 5. In each case, he finds himself taken out of his normal time line and placed in an earlier time line with companions from his earlier self. Someone has been messing with The Doctor's History, but who, and why? (Part of the answer is in the Doctor 8 episode "Lucie Miller." Holy tie-ins, Batman). Here, we get Doctor 5 inserted into Doctor 1 time, in Italy and the late Roman Empire. The adventure takes us to Constantinople, where something strange is happening with Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. It is nice to hear Vickie and Steven together again. Generally, it is a good but not overly ambitious ending to the trilogy.



Interesting

What:Protect and Survive (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Monday 10 February 2020
Rating:   7

This story begins a trilogy, but that does not become fully apparent until part four. For the first three parts, it is an intriguing exercise with Ace and Hex separated from the Doctor and the TARDIS, and apparently trapped in a virtual reality prison. Thus, we get a very small cast for most of it, and plenty of discussion among characters. It appears that the Big Finish people have decided to amp up the whiny side of Hex, which I find a bit annoying. Another thing bringing the rating down for me is that this all has something to do with the "elder gods." The problem here is that there is no way to make such beings meaningful as characters. In this one, it amounts to some deep-voice shouting in the way that small children imagine really powerful bad guys to sound. It seems silly rather than powerful and scary. The first three episodes, though, are very good and the story is well worth listening to for those.



Going Meta

What:The Fourth Wall (Big Finish: The Monthly Adventures)
By:David Layton, Los Angeles, United States
Date:Tuesday 4 February 2020
Rating:   7

The Fourth Wall is interesting, with many funny lines, and a heck of a lot of violence. Basically, a new hightech form of TV creates a "reality bubble" in which the story takes place. Within that bubble, events are "real," no matter how preposterously they have been scripted. New companion Flip gets unwittingly trapped in the bubble and Doctor 6 tries to get her out. There are some big surprise turns early in the story. I don't think that overall this one quite balances the humor with the killing, so that once the slaughter really begins, the humor often feels out of place or belittling. The Doctor also gets a little too preachy at the end. But, there are some cracking ideas and actors get great chances to go far over the top and at the same time make fun of that fact.



Season 18, a great season

What:The Collection: Season 18 (The Collection Blu-ray box sets)
By:Trixie "Fox", El Paso, United States
Date:Sunday 2 February 2020
Rating:   10

The Leisure Hive, an underrated story that's a great opener to the JNT era.
Meglos, a extraordinary story featuring the final appearance of Jacqueline Hill in Doctor Who. RIP
Full Circle, the opener to the E-Space trilogy is amazing
State of Decay, a great vampire story written by the amazing Terrance Dicks. RIP
Warriors' Gate, a great finale to the E-Space trilogy and the final appearance of Romana & K-9
The Keeper of Traken, a great story re-introducing the Master
Logopolis, a great send-off for Tom Baker

As always the extras on the Blu-ray seasons are superb!



Season 19, a really great season

What:The Collection: Season 19 (The Collection Blu-ray box sets)
By:Trixie "Fox", El Paso, United States
Date:Sunday 2 February 2020
Rating:   10

Castrovalva, a great opener for the Fifth Doctor
Four to Doomsday, a great story that is really underrated
Kinda, a great introduction to the Mara
The Visitation, a great story featuring the Terileptils
Black Orchid, a great murder mystery story
Earthshock, an amazing Cyberman story
Time-Flight, an underrated, flawed gem

The extras on this Blu-ray release are as great as the 1982 season.



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