Toronto #29 – Niagara Falls

(I should’ve just called this ongoing blog “Canada” instead of “Toronto”, shouldn’t I?)

There’s a lot I need to cover in this week’s blog. Starting with something that I should have mentioned in the previous one – I went to my first baseball game a couple of weeks back.

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It was a Blue Jays game (of course). I can’t remember who the other team was. The game itself was interesting, though. Much more relaxed than hockey. Certainly, much less violent. Me and my mate had a good chat over it, which you can’t really do with hockey. The last half hour or so was really cool, as the game wrapped up and the Blue Jays won. Another thing ticked off the Canada list.

Last weekend was really cool, as I finally got to see my first opera! Well, actually, not quite. Back when I was in primary school, we went on a class trip to see Carmen at the Cliffs Pavilion. I have no fucking idea why, though. We were all about 7 or 8 at the time. Hardly the right age to appreciate something as tragic as an opera, especially if it’s in a foreign language!

And that’s one of the reasons why the opera that I saw last weekend was really special. Because for one thing, while it was entirely based on Puccini’s La bohème, complete with the original music, the lyrics had been translated into English. More than that, they had been modernized and there were a few references specific to Toronto. (My favourite in particular was someone getting a job at BMV Books. Gotta admit, that really is one of my favourite places in Toronto.)

The place we went to was also a pretty cool bar, with the performers acting on a slightly raised stage that was right next to the audience. So the whole effect was much more intimate than watching it at a theatre. It almost reminded me of when I performed improv back home, the performers were literally that close to the audience. So in some ways, it’s very different to your standard opera experience.

At the exact same time, though, it was incredibly authentic. For one, those singers? They can sing. Really, really sing. Like, real opera level sing. (I even heard that at least one of the actors had performed in an opera on stage, which didn’t surprise me.) And it really was beautifully made.

Another thing I didn’t appreciate until afterwards was the fact that, despite being modernized and translated into English, it did stick to the exact plot of the original opera, as I later discovered when I read more about La bohème afterwards.

Overall, it was just such a great experience, and great to get my first taste of an opera when I’m finally old enough to appreciate it.

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Last, but definitely not least: I went to Niagara Falls Comic Con today. It was, I must admit, a very last minute thing. I didn’t bother getting tickets in advance, except for transportation, as I couldn’t really afford it until this weekend. Not to mention, there’s your standard last-minute anxiety that makes you think and think again about whether to go or not.

But I had to go. Literally had to. For one guest, and one guest only: Paul Fuckin’ McGann!

(Note: his real middle name is John, but to emphasize his level of awesomeness, “Fuckin'” just seems more suitable in this case.)

He was at the convention all weekend, but it was only today that he was doing a Q&A session with the fans. So being in the same room as one of my heroes and hearing a ton of great stories from him (especially with his voice – there’s a reason he’s my favourite Doctor, even mostly on audio) was too good to miss.

I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a journey up there, and I was afraid that I’d end up missing it. But I got there with just a little bit of time to spare, and in no time at all, I was sitting just metres away from someone who was literally one of my childhood (and adulthood) heroes.

I know what you’re thinking right now. “Never meet your heroes.” Because when you’ve built them up enough in your heads, meeting the real thing can potentially be disappointing. Certainly, it was what was going through my mind before he came on stage.

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But he was just brilliant. While I never asked a question to him myself, it was just so cool seeing how he spoke with fans. It wasn’t just that he was confidant and cheery, but he was really good at seeing if fans were a little nervous and helping with their confidence.

And he had so many good stories and great answers. He was friendly and really engaging with the fans. Even better was that he didn’t just answer questions about Who, but also about Withnail & I and 90s BBC drama The Hanging Gale. It was a really great, informative and entertaining Q&A all round.

My personal favourite moment, though? Getting an autograph from him afterwards and having just a very quick one minute chat with him. Yes, of course, I said he was my favourite Doctor (“I like you a lot!” was his response), but I also mentioned how great Withnail & I was. He was just a really friendly chap, and it really was just the coolest day. They say never meet your heroes. They never met Paul McGann.

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Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 4 Review

So, here we are. Over 2 years since the first series was released, we’ve reached the end of another era for the Eighth Doctor. It’s been a great and epic journey, full of adventure, darkness and emotion. The final series had a lot to live up to, and now that I’ve finally listened to it, did it live up to my incredibly high expectations (especially since I found it would be written by John Dorney and Matt Fitton, two of my favourite writers at Big Finish right now)? Hell yes. Here’s my episode-by-episode review.

(NOTE: while this review avoids spoilers, it certainly helps to have listened to the first 3 seasons first, and is definitely recommended for enjoying the full story, particularly for the final episode that wraps the whole story up. For buying the complete series, click on the following link: http://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/released/doctor-who—dark-eyes )

A Life in the Day

After the grim and epic darkness we had with Dark Eyes 3, A Life in the Day’s little story seems not only slightly more familiar but also wonderfully refreshing. With so many plot threads and arcs to resolve from the previous 3 seasons, it almost seems an odd way to begin the story, even with the way it ties into the arc of the season at least with the Doctor and Liv being hunted, but it fits in quite nicely. It’s a nice glimpse of Eight, after the sheer grimness he’s dealt with in recent years – since before Dark Eyes began, in fact – to be back to being his happy, stupid self once more: the kind of Doctor who gets excited about a brand new pair of shoes, lies terribly and gets terribly distracted. There have been times, especially early on, when McGann’s incarnation reminded me greatly of Tom Baker’s incarnation, particularly during the Douglas Adams era, and along with his heroism and how much he gets pushed to the edge at times, his childlike innocence and happiness at the little things is something I’ve always enjoyed.

What I really enjoyed about this story is that it’s a great fresh take on an old science fiction trope (which I won’t spoil here) that’s both clever and provides a great emotional core to the story, particularly to the Eighth Doctor’s current companion Liv. From her first appearance in 7th Doctor story Robophobia, Nicola Walker has been fantastic as Liv Chenka, and here she gets a really fantastic story for her character, seeing the contrast of her in the setting of early 20th century Earth and how it takes a lot for her to adjust to, as well as a really great emotional story for her character that leads to some brilliant drama.

This episode is a fantastic opening to the season, and is a great example of what I love about Big Finish’s stories: it combines some of the great science fiction ideas that we often saw in the best classic series stories, with the fantastic emotion of the new series. 5/5

The Monster of Montmatre

This is a story of two halves. The first half begins like your standard pseudo-historical Doctor Who episode: a beautiful historical setting, filled with colourful characters and criminals while not only providing a distinctly Whovian take on an old story (in this case, Moulin Rouge), but also including an alien horror that stalks the streets. Like A Life In The Day, this episode not only feels like very familiar territory but works very well because of it. The imagery of Eight and Liv mingling with some criminals like a couple of private investigators is fantastic, and really starts off the story well.

The second half, however, is where the arc really starts to kick in. I won’t go into too much detail how, but again, it leads into some great imagery, particularly towards the end, and the return of certain characters and plot threads are nicely handled.

It’s a pretty good episode, but it’s a testament to the quality of the episodes surrounding it that it’s my least favourite of the set – while it’s a great story, it’s not quite as emotional or as epic as the episodes surrounding it. However, it’s definitely an enjoyable listen, and really kicks off the season into high gear. 4/5

Master of the Daleks

Oh, I’ve mentioned before how much I love that title, haven’t I? God bless you guys at Big Finish for giving us such great titles. You know, it’s only recently occurred to me that there’s not a single story title in the TV series – both classic and new, shockingly – that have the word “Master” in them. Not a single one. There’s countless Dalek stories that actually end in “of the Daleks”, a couple of stories with “of the Cybermen”, and even the Autons, with only 4 TV appearances, have “Terror of the Autons” (ironically the Master’s first story). But nothing for the Master, not even a pun. (Admittedly, it probably doesn’t help that at least half the time, maybe even MOST of the time, his/her part in the story is mostly kept as a surprise until the shock/dumb cliffhanger. (The difference between ‘shock’ and ‘dumb’ of course is how well it’s done – for a genuine shock, see Utopia; for pure dumb, see Time-Flight.)) So god bless Big Finish for giving us a number of stories with his name in the title: Master, Mastermind, Eyes of the Master and Masterplan.

But this title? Master of the Daleks? A title like that has a lot to live up to. Oh, we’ve had a team-up between the two arch-nemesis before, of sorts, in Frontier in Space, but that wasn’t until the final 10 minutes, which was mostly designed to lead into Master-free story, Planet of the Daleks. A story with a title like this promises something much more full-on, and hopefully much more epic. We get exactly that, and a whole lot more.

Now, it’s difficult to go into this one without giving too much away, especially since it links so heavily into the overall arc, but I’m certainly going to try. First thing’s first: Alex MacQueen. Ever since first playing the role for Big Finish in 2012, he’s been absolutely brilliant as the Master. A really fun incarnation that, yes, definitely has echos of the more recent ones on TV such as John Simm and Michelle Gomez, but is also entirely his own. He’s a sadistic and deliciously evil incarnation that really, really takes pride in his work, and after his involvement in Dark Eyes 2 and 3, it’s a joy to hear him once again.

There’s also plenty of great dialogue that’s absolutely hysterical to listen to, particularly when it comes to his alliance with the Daleks. The best part of this whole relationship is that, when you’ve got two of the most devious and dangerous foes of the Doctor working together, everyone knows what will happen. The Master, the Daleks and especially anyone who’s watched or listened to even one of their stories knows the obvious: that they’re going to betray each other. (One of my favourite lines of dialogue from the story has the Dalek Strategists calculate the probability that the Master will betray them as being ‘one hundred per cent’. Not gonna lie, I genuinely laughed at that.) It’s just a matter of when and how. And that’s part of the real fun of this story, as you wonder who’s going to betray who first. When it does happen, of course, it leads to some epic awesomeness that really shows off how fantastic Big Finish are at telling the kind of stories that fandom want to hear while still being stories that are actually great in their own right.

But it’s not just the Master and the Daleks in this story – oh no! We also get the Sontarans thrown in, as well, played by the brilliant Dan Starkey, who’s pretty much a veteran at playing the species by now, both from his various appearances in the new series (and I’m not gonna lie, while I’d love for another villainous Sontaran story to show up on TV, I really love his performance as Strax) as well as several other Big Finish audios. Naturally, he’s also great here, and adds even more awesome greatness, particularly during the epic climax of the story.

There’s a lot more to it than that, though. While I’m not going to say why, there’s a major emotional element that’s incredibly important, not just to this story but also to the whole season, particularly the finale. Introducing and fleshing out this part of the plot is beautifully done, and it really lets you know that, as much as this episode explores a really, really, really bloomin’ awesome idea as the Master and the Daleks and the Sontarans in one full-on episode, it’s also a reminder that the story of Dark Eyes really is approaching its end.

John Dorney really is one of my favourite writers at Big Finish (then again, there’s quite a large number of favourite writers I have, if I’m honest, but that’s down to just how great Big Finish truly is), and it’s precisely for stories like this that are the reason why. Because for a story involving the Master, the Daleks, Sontarans, and a lot of important story elements that have to be tied up or developed enough to lead into the finale to a 16 episode epic, it can be very, very easy to just leave us with a complete mess. Instead, we get another classic example of what Big Finish does best when it comes to Doctor Who: give us stories that are big, epic, emotional, fun and brilliant to listen to, sometimes in just one single episode. Not just as great as the best of the TV series but even better. 5/5

Eye of Darkness

So this is it. The grand finale. After 4 series, this is where the story ends, and like Master of the Daleks, expectations were pretty darn high. Does it live up to them? Definitely.

The story makes great use of an important part of Who mythology to set the scene, using the setting to slowly put the pieces into place. Major characters and enemies return from previous series, leading to one final confrontation, and one heartbreaking ending.

Storywise, I loved it, even if there were a number of elements like returning characters and some really complex use of time travel that made it just a little bit hard to follow, at times. If I’m honest though, for me, that’s not a complaint, as it really adds a great bonus to listening to the series from scratch all over again and seeing how much the ending was foreshadowed and hopefully getting my head around all the timey-wimey pieces of it. But beyond that, the final few scenes were really emotional to listen to. Eight is the Doctor that I always feel the most sorry for, as I can’t think of any other incarnation who lost as much as he did. Sure, Ten had his fair share of misery, but he didn’t lose half as much as what Eight did. Heck, by the end, he even gave up being the Doctor! As always, Paul McGann really sells how heroic his Doctor tries to be, even when failure is inevitable, as well as what happens when he deals with the consequences afterwards.

This final episode is a finale with real emotional weight, although that’s unsurprising – Matt Fitton is gifted at those kinds of stories, particularly ones that have huge impact on the mythology. With stories like The Wrong Doctors, Afterlife, Signs & Wonders, Return of the Rocket Men, Luna Romana, and a great deal of the Dark Eyes stories, including the whole of season 3, it’s no surprise that he’s been tasked to wrap the whole story up. He’s written a number of other stories for Big Finish too, something I’m continually impressed by considering how few years he’s been writing for Big Finish. This story, particularly the final moments, is up there with his best. 5/5

It’s sad to know that a series as great and ambitious as Dark Eyes has ended, but really great to know that it did so on a high. And while I look forward to Doom Coalition, I’m glad that it’s going to be a long wait for it – not just because I plan on re-listening to the whole epic from scratch as soon as I can, but the ending of Dark Eyes 4 left me so emotionally wrecked that I’m glad it gives me a break from my favourite Doctor for a while. I haven’t felt like that since To The Death, and while this story isn’t quite as devastating or brutal (but seriously, what story is? Bloody hell, Nicholas Briggs, George R.R. Martin treats his characters with more mercy than you did with that story!), this is still gonna leave its mark on Big Finish mythology in a truly memorable way. And I can’t say much higher praise than that.

Geeky Stuff I’m Excited About #2 – Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 4

So what’s it about?

This box set of audio stories is the fourth and final season of the audio series Dark Eyes, featuring the Eighth Doctor as played by Paul McGann. The series began in 2012 and continued with two more seasons in 2014, mainly focusing on the Doctor and his adventures with companions Molly O’Sullivan, a nursing assistant from World War I, and Liv Chenka, who had previously met the Doctor in his seventh incarnation. The series has also featured recurring enemies the Daleks, the Master, and the Eminence, the last of which is currently exclusive to Big Finish. The main arc throughout the series has been Molly, her ‘dark eyes’ and why she’s important to a number of people, including the Time Lords, the Daleks and the Master. While Molly won’t be in the final season of the series, previous key enemies of the series will appear as well as the Sontarans.

Why am I excited about this story?

Well, there’s the obvious: I’m a big fan of both the Eighth Doctor and the Dark Eyes series in general, so the final series of this is something I’ve been anticipating for a few months now. I also adore (and spoiler warning, for those who’ve not yet listened to UNIT: Dominion) Alex MacQueen’s take on the Master. It’s pretty extreme and over-the-top at times, but he’s just so damn fun and lovable, not to mention ruthless and pure evil. He’s featured pretty heavily in the series as well, so it’s great that he’s showing up for the final series. The Daleks also kicked the story off, so it’s great for them to return in the final season.

But the Master and the Daleks in one story? Holy. Crap.

True, we’ve had the Master and the Daleks team up before in the TV series, but that was in Frontier in Space over 40 years ago and, frankly, only something we got a glimpse of in the final 10 minutes. It’s still cool as hell to see two of the Doctor’s greatest enemies teaming up, but still, it’s a shame that it hasn’t happened on screen since, and not explored in greater detail.

Thankfully, that’s what Big Finish is for: doing the seriously cool ideas that the TV series won’t do, and even better, actually creating truly awesome stories out of those cool ideas: The Light at the End, teaming up the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors; The Worlds of Doctor Who, a story told across numerous spin-off series before climaxing as a Doctor Who episode; An Earthly Child, showing what happens when the Doctor finally returns to Earth in the 22nd century to see Susan, centuries after he had left her in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; and so many more. Stories that could come across as bad fanfic if not handled properly but still turn out to be great Doctor Who stories in their own right that are usually fun to listen to. So naturally, the idea of a full-length Master/Dalek team-up written and produced by the excellent team at Big Finish is almost too awesome to think about. The best part about it, though? They actually used the most Doctor Who-ey title that, for some reason, NO ONE has used before:

Master of the Daleks.

I mean, seriously…how the hell has that title not been used until now?

But also, I’m excited because the previous seasons have been so great and epic, and I know this final season will not only continue that trend, but, I expect, wrap the series up in a satisfying way. I’m continually impressed by the excellent work Big Finish does and, as much as I enjoy the TV series, I generally prefer Big Finish’s output, especially with their Eighth Doctor stories. Even though we now all know how his story ends due to the excellent Night of the Doctor, they can still take his Doctor into big and dramatic directions, something I know will continue with Dark Eyes 4.

When the series does finish, I know I’m going to be pretty sad when the story is over. And I also know that I’ll be immediately looking forward to the next Eighth Doctor series Doom Coalition in November. And, of course, I’ll be re-listening to the entire series and blogging about it as a whole, too. In the meantime, I’m just gonna enjoy the anticipation of more epic Who coming up in a little over a week.

Geeky Stuff I Love #1 – Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Adventures (audio series)

What is it?

A series of audio stories by Big Finish Productions, overall focusing on the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith). Set in the ‘classic’ era of the show, the stories are more based on the style of the revival TV series that began in 2005, with longer episodes but mostly shorter stories compared to the more serialized story telling of the classic era, a faster pace, and story arcs that built up to epic finales. As a result, the series was initially designed to be more accessible than with most other Big Finish stories to fans of the new TV series who didn’t know much about the classic era, although like the new series, it has featured a number of classic era enemies, some that have yet to make an appearance in the new era on television. The series ended in 2011.

Why do I love it?

For one thing, and this is the first thing you should know about me: I am a massive Eighth Doctor fan. While I admit, I haven’t read all of the Eighth Doctor Adventure novels that were published in the late 90s/early 00s, I have listened to all of the wonderful stories made by Big Finish that focus on his Doctor. This is mainly because I love McGann’s performance as the Doctor, ever since it made me a fan back in 1996 (say what you want about the TV movie, but McGann nailed it in his debut story), but also because Big Finish have taken his Doctor in such brilliant directions, both before the series came back on TV and the future of not just his Doctor but the Doctor in general was in uncharted territory (although admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on the Divergent Universe arc overall, but even that had some damn brilliant stories), and after, when the series returned on television in 2005.

Arguably, there was a clear influence from the TV series revival on Big Finish, especially with the Eighth Doctor, most significantly in two ways. First, the faster paced style of the new series – moving away from 4-part, 25-minute episode serials to stories told in one, maybe two 50-minute episodes – was copied when Big Finish decided to give the Eighth Doctor his own range back in 2007, with the wonderfully talented Sheridan Smith playing one of my favourite companions ever, Lucie (bleedin’) Miller. I really adored this series right from the first season: while I still love the Eighth Doctor’s previous stories in Big Finish’s main range of Who audios, it had started to lose some of its fun in later seasons. But then came a new, feisty companion from the 21st century, someone who doesn’t seem to fit the Eighth Doctor’s more classical, Edwardian style and yet compliments it so well. The dialogue between the two was often hilarious to listen to, and their journey from reluctant companions to the best of friends was a joy. Suddenly, the sheer fun of the Eighth Doctor, the one who had been so enthusiastically happy over a pair of shoes when we first saw him, was back.

At least, at first. Because something else that strongly influenced where Big Finish took the Eighth Doctor was the story. When the revival began with Eccleston’s Doctor, we quickly found out that between where the classic era ended and the new one began, the Doctor had wiped out his own people and the Daleks (well, mostly) to end a long and bloody war. And while the overall series of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller’s adventures were overall brilliantly fun (although they still had their dark and dramatic moments, of course, especially in the finales), towards the end, particularly in the final season, things started to get, well, pretty darn grim.

You’re probably expecting me to say that, once again, the Eighth Doctor’s story had lost some of its spark, but honestly, the final season of the Eighth Doctor Adventures is one of my favourite seasons of Who ever. And I do mean ever. It had an excellent exploration of what made the Doctor tick, why he tries harder to be a hero in his Eighth life more than ever, even when he’s faced with some truly terrible choices (The Resurrection of Mars especially is a brilliant example of this). Even some of the low key stories are brilliant: Prisoner of the Sun, a completely stand-alone story, has the Doctor imprisoned in just a couple of rooms for six years while trying to prevent the deaths of billions. He’s a man trying harder to be the hero more than ever, saving every single life he can and never taking another, not through choice, not if he can help it, which makes the knowledge of what he becomes – the man who fought and ended the Time War – even more horrendously ironic.

Then there’s the final two episodes: Lucie Miller and To The Death. Possibly one of the darkest and most grim Doctor Who stories of them all, this is by far one of my favourite finale stories. The Daleks are calculating and ruthless – really ruthless, for a change – the Doctor is pushed to his limits and perhaps even beyond in every possible way, and, most surprising of all for a Who story, there’s a body count of major characters that even George R.R. Martin would be proud of.

After four seasons of fun and thrills in time and space, (with more than a little bit of drama along the way,) the series ends with the Doctor a broken man, and far closer to a man ready for a war. The final scene especially is incredibly haunting. It also nicely leads into the series Dark Eyes (coming to an end early next month), although it is a great series that stands well on its own.

Who would I recommend this to?

The group of people I’d immediately recommend this to first are definitely fans of the new series. Not only do these stories have that style down to a tee, but it’s also very accessible continuity wise, with any backstory explained as easily as, say, those of the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master in the TV series. There’s also the prequel nature of the stories and how it plays around with it – for example, if you’re relatively new to the series and know about the Time Lords but know little of what those bastards were actually like, then this gives you a pretty good idea right from the first ep, as they pretty much thrust Lucie Miller right into the Doctor’s lap (no, not like that – one thing this shares in common with the TV series is that it’s still very family friendly).

There’s also some truly great drama that the new series has become known for (I’ve mentioned how dark and soul destroying To The Death is, but other notable examples of eps that are heartbreaking include The Vengeance of Morbius, Orbis, Death in Blackpool and The Resurrection of Mars), and it’s a nice way for newer fans to ease into the classic era. Obviously, classic fans like myself will enjoy this too, both for the little references and returning enemies along the way, but the mixture of classic and new it has makes it the perfect bridge for new fans to jump on board with the classics.