Saturday, August 10, 2013

Benton ... Daleks ... Master

Just a normal day at the office for me ... listening to some of the excellent Big Finish CDs in the car on long journeys ... here's a round up of some recent offerings, and some thoughts on each.

First off Council of War is the first Companions Chronicles release to feature the vocal talents of John Levene as Sergeant Benton. It's an interesting story, but one which for me is slightly unbelievable as 'fitting in' where the authors claim it fits. Benton is off doing some covert surveillance for UNIT, investigating some disappearances in the town of Kettering. Benton is portrayed here as some sort of ertzaz James Bond figure, and in my world of the third Doctor, this was never the case. He's not a dashing hero, he's a trusty sidekick ... but that aside, Levene does a good job with the material. I did wince a little at some of the asides from Margery Phipps about his manliness and so on, but perhaps this is meant as local colour ... Sinead Keenan (the female werewolf off of Being Human and the female alien with a green conker head from Doctor Who) does an excellent job of bringing Phipps to life ... her reading is clear and effective and complements Levene's male tones well.  The story is unfortunately a little forgettable and silly, with aliens in the far future kidnapping Phipps because she wrote a book that they based their entire culture on (of peace) and then when they get invaded, they have no way of defending themselves. Thus they blame Phipps and put her on trial!  It's just daft.

Next up is The Final Phase, one of the Tom Baker/Mary Tamm series of audios. I've not listened to all of these, and on this one I felt I was missing something. It seems to be a return appearance from David Warner as Cuthbert, a character who has joined forces with the Daleks. Warner is brilliant here, managing to toe a line between serious threat and incompetence as he realises that the Daleks he hired as a security force (what was he thinking?) actually have their own agenda and are after a sort of wormhole thing he has found in space. I liked the stylings of this, and the music is very Dudley Simpson from 'Genesis of the Daleks'. I did have a small problem with Tamm's voice, as she doesn't sound terribly like she did in the show, and Tom Baker too is perhaps playing it all with too much flippancy than would perhaps have been the case ... but then some of this is down to the script and the dialogue the character is given. It was an entertaining listen, but I did start to get bored the 100th time someone asked Cuthbert to explain his plan, and he found another reason not to ...  The Dalek voices are, as usual, excellent, and generally the sound design and production is top notch - but then Big Finish have a lot of experience of doing these things now.

Finally, another Companion Chronicle, Mastermind which features Geoffrey Beevers as the Master, along with Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso as a couple of UNIT (I think) operatives who are keeping the Master's body in a mysterious vault.  I really enjoyed this tale, it works perfectly in the medium, and does not overstay it's welcome. It's also got some lovely twists and turns in it, some excellent audio effects, and a nice, satisfying ending, all of which works within the concepts that the author (Jonathan Morris, contributing what seems to be his 26th CD for Big Finish's main Who ranges) is playing with. Beevers is brilliant as the Master, his voice moving from pitiful wheedling to powerful control as the play progresses, and I liked the time travel elements which were introduced as well. Overall this is the best of the three, a great, cracking adventure, and one which would actually work really well as a film - just three cast, limited sets, and lots of great ideas and sparkling dialogue.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

Apologies for the long wait for this one ... it's just been such a hectic year and time to sit and pen thoughts has been limited. But here we are with some thoughts about the Doctor Who season finale for this year, 'The Name of the Doctor'.

There was so much hype around this episode, from the unexpected early release of the episode in America, to people discussing and wondering what the title meant ... and as usual these days I was pretty unexcited by it all. As I said in some blog post or Facebook status, the show for me has never been about the Doctor, and his name is monumentally unimportant in the wider scheme of the show ... so I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Of course, as it turned out, the title is misleading anyway and isn't about what the Doctor's name is in the first place (and I guessed this too - too many years of Steven Moffat's blindsiding to be honest).

So I came to the episode not really knowing what to expect. I had my own theory that Clara was the TARDIS as that sort of seemed to explain a lot of things ... but I was wrong on that too.

The opening sequence was excellent, very fannish, and very suitable for a fiftieth anniversary show ... Clara is integrated into old footage, and interacts with the first Doctor as he steals the TARDIS ... lots of clips of other Doctors too ... and we learn that she is the impossible girl, born to save the Doctor. This really is a magnificent sequence - so good that it's repeated - with some variations - later on in the episode.

This leads into the story proper, but as usual it's a bit of a mishmash of ideas and things which aren't explained and don't make much sense ... but you just have to go with them. There's a prisoner - Clarence DeMarco - killer of 14 women, locked in a prison on Earth in 1893. But somehow he knows of the Doctor, of his secret, and the space-time coordinates to the planet Trenzalore which is where the Doctor's grave is. There's much made of this ... the Doctor even breaks down and cries at one point - this is the place he must never, ever visit (why he should never visit is not explained, nothing really seems to happen when he does).

Madame Vastra and Jenny decide to set up a 'conference call' through time and space and bring themselves, Strax (who is in Glasgow on a fighting holiday or something), Clara (by means of a letter sent to her containing a sleeping potion) and River Song (yawn) together to discuss the problem. While they are all sleeping, the Great Intelligence in the form of Dr Simeon arrives at their Victorian house with some creepy suited monster things (Whispermen) and kill Jenny. He tells them that the Doctor must go to Trenzalore.

The Doctor finds Clara and realises that he has to go to Trenzalore to save his friends breaking into his own tomb. How he knows this I have no idea ... but it's all good drama. The TARDIS doesn't want to go though and so the Doctor forces it down to the planet, which is all a creepy graveyard place for some reason. The Doctor's tomb has the TARDIS over it ... very impressive ... Then there's a pile of stuff with River Song's ghost which the Doctor can't see but Clara can ... and a fake tombstone for River there (which can't exist). The Whispermen attack so the Doctor and Clara fall through the grave into some underground tunnels.

Meanwhile Vastra, Jenny and Strax arrive by the tomb and Strax brings Jenny back to life with an electro cardio restart ... and then the Great Intelligence and the Whispermen attack again ...

This is all a little bit like 'The Five Doctors' now ... with various parties approaching the Doctor's Tomb/Dark Tower from below and above ... and they have to break in to get something undetermined.

But to open the tomb, the Doctor's name must be spoken ... and despite that Clara and the Doctor ascended through the basement areas of the TARDIS, they arrive outside it ... not sure about that. But anyway, the ghost of River speaks the Doctor's name and the doors open.

Inside the TARDIS, instead of the console, there's a flicker light thing which is apparently the tracks of all the Doctor's travels ... again not sure why. If the Doctor is dead and this is his tomb, then why is this light thing there?  Is it there for all Time Lords in their tombs? In which case why aren't more evil monsters and villains tracking down the tombs of dead Time Lords and then infiltrating their timelines like the Great Intelligence wants to do with the Doctor's

The Doctor collapses as the paradox of his being there is too much, or that he doesn't understand the script.  The Great Intelligence intends to infiltrate the Doctor's timestream and rewrite history so that he loses all his battles - the Doctor dies in all his incarnations ... but Clara realises that she can stop the GI ... time changes and Jenny vanishes, Strax is no longer friendly ... so Clara steps into the Doctor's timeline and starts to correct it all back again - everyone is restored ... except Clara.

Now these are all very nice ideas, but really make no sense at all! If none of this happened until Clara entered the Doctor's timestream, then why was she in 'Asylym of the Daleks'?  That hadn't happened yet!  And if she was in the Doctor's timestream all along, then why didn't he remember her as the strange girl who told him which TARDIS to steal from Gallifrey in the first place?  That's the problem with timey wimey stuff ... it needs to make a little more sense to really work ... and leaving it all hanging like this tends not to be too satisfying.

As I said, though, you have to just go with it.

The Doctor then decides he has to save Clara ... but before that he explains that he has always been able to see River - he was afraid that admitting that she was there would hurt him too much ... and she was a ghost because he had never said goodbye properly. What rot. And to cap it all he snogs her ... Oh dear.  This all makes no sense at all ...and so, probably to escape all the confusion in the plot, the Doctor steps into his own timestream. Not sure to do what though? To help Clara put right all the GI's meddling? To stop the GI? Or just to rescue Clara? How would he even know where she was? She was splintered throughout his timeline ... so who is the 'real' one anyway?

He finds Clara on the set of an episode of 'Lost in Space', smoky and surrounded by fake rocks. Echoes of the Doctor run past her (no idea why but it's a nice image). The Doctor sends her a leaf - her memory leaf - and she lets him save her.

Up to this point, despite all the incongruities in the plot, the sappish snogging and silly angst, the non-plots of the Whispermen (Who or what are they? Why are they there?), Jenny's death only to be resurrected by a Sontaran with a portable electro shock machine, and the whole Doctor must never go to Trenzalore thing, not to mention how this prisoner at the start was the only one who knew all about it ... despite all this, it's been a good, exciting watch. It rattles along, the visuals are great, and it does all sort of make some sort of sense as long as you don't think about it too long.

But we're all scratching our heads and wondering what 'The Name of the Doctor' has to do with anything ... but wait ... there's another man on the set of 'Lost in Space' with Clara and the 11th Doctor, someone that she has not seen before ... but everyone there is the Doctor ... so who is this? And why isn't he one of the incarnations that she recognises (given that she was integrated into the Doctor's entire timeline - and thus presumably knows all the future incarnations of the Doctor as well as the 11th and the previous 10 - I guess this means she knows all about the Valeyard too)?

Ah ... this is the one who broke the promise. What promise? He is the Doctor's secret. How can you have a secret from someone who has just accessed your entire timeline? In the name of peace and sanctity - but not in the name of the Doctor ...  apparently, as some captions on the screen inform us ... John Hurt as The Doctor ...

And we scratch our heads and say 'What?'


The last minutes or so really let the whole thing down. It makes no sense.  Obviously I appreciate that it's a lead in to the 50th anniversary special (or whatever they are doing) but it's so ham fisted (bun vendor) and awkward. It's meant to be all oooh and aaah but ends up being just rubbish and puzzling.

And now we have to wait until November to learn what on earth it is all about.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Spearhead from Space on Blu-Ray

I have long thought that the 1970 Doctor Who story 'Spearhead from Space', which introduced us to Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor, would be an ideal candidate for the 'Hi Def' experience. Unlike any other Who, it was all shot on film (rather than videotape) and so had the potential for remastering to give a better picture.  So I was rather delighted when it was announced that it would be released in the Blu Ray format, and remastered along the way too.

I was less impressed when I heard that 2Entertain had allocated next to no funds to actually do the remastering though, and this may be the source of my main (if minor) complaint about the story itself.

Seeing it in sharp and clear colour on the telly was magnificent indeed. And there's a little comparison documentary on the disk showing the different versions of the story, from VHS to DVD, to remastered DVD to this new Hi Def version.  I liked how filmic it all seemed, and the country colours of episode one, to the grey, waxy skin of the auton humans seemed new and fresh.

My main concern with the presentation, and it is picky indeed, is that in two scenes, there is what seem to be fluff or something in the film gate at the top of the frame. These are shots between Hibbert and Ransom in Hibbert's office in part two, and in the final scenes between the Doctor and Channing in part 4. Given the level of technology we have available, I'm not sure why these marks weren't digitally removed - even doing it frame by frame should be possible these days given the amazing work done by Stuart Humpreyes on the recent 'The Mind of Evil' release.

As I say, it's a small thing, but when you are promoting your release as being in Hi Def on Blu Ray, and digitally restored and remastered, this just looks like shoddy work.

The release has few extras on it. There's the aforementioned piece on the restoration; a 'coming soon' on the Pertwee story 'The Green Death' which just tries way too hard to make it look punchy and exciting - and all those fade to blacks render it almost unwatchable!  Seeing trailers for Classic Who done in the style of modern blockbusters was amusing at first, but now it just grates. It also perhaps raises false expectations in the minds of those who have not seen the story as to what it might be like.

The main two documentaries included on the disk are a piece on Jon Pertwee; and one on Caroline John.

The Caroline John Documentary, Carry On, is really good. It covers John's life through interviews with her husband, daughter and best friends and you really get a sense of the person that Carrie was. I liked the lady immensely ... I think if we'd spent more time together then we would have really got on. She was kind and funny and always laughing, and this comes over well in the documentary. I have to admit that I cried a little at the section where her family were explaining how she came to do her first ever convention - and they even had the video footage of exactly what was being explained. And so we could see the cheers and applause as she made her entrance to a packed room of fans, and realised that they all loved her and that her performance in Doctor Who had been something special. It's a shame that John Molyneux, who got her to attend, and who conducted the on-stage interview we see clips from in the documentary, was not credited. But it's a great piece overall, and good insight into the lady.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Jon Pertwee Documentary, A Dandy and a Clown - which is strange as it's from the same Director. This covers Jon's life, but his family are conspicuous by their absence, and it's left to about half a dozen showbiz pals, and one long-time friend, to reminisce about Jon, interspersed with some interview clips of him on shows like Wogan. Generally this is a very superficial look at Jon's life and career. Something of a wasted opportunity really. I assume that this is the documentary that I was contacted about some months back, where the Director wanted all my help, photographs, audiotapes and whatever about Jon, without paying a research fee or involving me in any way in the documentary (I declined), and for which he admitted extensively using the book I penned with Jon, I Am The Doctor, for reference (no credit was given to the book as a reference source at the end). This may be why I feel a little ambivalent about this piece ... so apologies for that.  It's nicely presented though, and I liked the idea of a timeline unfolding and the steps along the way being represented by photographs and clips - and there's lots of pictures here which I hadn't seen before, so kudos to whoever did the picture research.

Overall this is a lovely package. A chance to see some classic Doctor Who in tip top condition, and with a couple of Documentaries thrown in.  I'd have loved to have seen an isolated music track included, and more effort made to source interesting additional features, but I understand that the budget allocated to this release was minimal, and therefore they had to go with what they could get. It's still a shame though, given how much money these releases make for 2Entertain and the BBC, that they can't spend a little more and get a much better end product as a result.