Doctor Who: The Secret History review

Big Finish Production have just reached a landmark this month with the release of their 200th monthly Doctor Who story. To celebrate, they decided to do something special: a “season” of 3 linked stories of 80s Doctors swapping places with their earliest incarnations. So you’ve had McCoy turning up in a Pertwee era story, C. Baker in Troughton’s and Davison in Hartnell’s. The result? A trilogy of stories that’s proved to be a rather intriguing listen – not just a great excuse to hear Doctors meet companions from other eras, but also a great look at how much the Doctor has changed over the years and the contrast of what happens when one incarnation ends up in a story that doesn’t suit ‘him’. I’ve enjoyed all 3 of these stories, but The Secret History has definitely proven to be my favourite one of the trilogy, for several reasons.

One is how well writer Eddie Robson gets the First Doctor’s era spot on. It begins with all the right ingredients for a Hartnell classic: the Doctor and his companions land sometime in ancient history, at least one companion gets separated/kidnapped from the rest, with a good strong focus on both the historical characters and the setting. There’s even a villain who appeared in a couple of Hartnell TV stories, but we’ll get to that later. In short, almost everything about the story fits Hartnell’s Doctor spot on.

Except, of course, for the Doctor himself, and this was my favourite thing about The Secret History. Because the story really helps to highlight two things about the Fifth Doctor: first, that he is, despite his outward appearance, much older in personality than his first self, and second, that he’s a lot less sure of his actions. This is a man who has lost a companion and seen too much death, and while he still knows that history can’t be re-written, the cost of maintaining history is a great deal harder for him to bear than it once was. I love how the difference in personality to his earlier self is a central point to the story, and indeed the entire trilogy, and how one moment’s hesitation causes utter disaster.

I also enjoy the return of a particular villain with Graeme Garden back as the Monk, for the first time in 4 years. I love how this character that’s been sadly ignored by the new series (and to be fair, most of the classic series after Hartnell) has been given a wonderful new lease of life by the excellent team at Big Finish – less of an ‘evil’ character like the Master and more of an amoral, overgrown child whose complete lack of responsibility causes more danger than some of the Doctor’s more traditionally ‘evil’ foes. In fact, the last time he showed up, his actions caused more pain and suffering to the Doctor in his Eighth life than the Master could even begin to hope for, and the worst thing was that they were the actions of someone as reckless and naive as a child instead of someone who actually wants to be destructive, something that probably made the Doctor angrier than ever before (seriously, if you haven’t listened to it yet, check out the excellent 2 part story Lucie Miller/To The Death, one of my favourite finales/Dalek stories ever. If you want to get a good idea of what it’s like, imagine Journey’s End as written by George R.R. Martin. Yep. That dark/shocking/depressing/bloody brilliant).

But the Doctor here hasn’t lived through any of that – while he’s still more than aware of how dangerous and reckless the Monk can be, he hasn’t reached the point of completely hating him, either. A point I can certainly never reach: Graeme Garden is delightfully charming in the role. As I’ve mentioned, childlike but intelligent, both the writers and the actor have continued to avoid the trap of making the character just another copy of the Master, and instead continued the legacy that writer Dennis Spooner and actor Peter Butterworth created fifty years ago.

The Secret History is a fantastic way for Big Finish to celebrate it’s 200th main range release. It not only shows just how far Big Finish have come since releasing The Sirens of Time back in 1999, with a mix of an 80s Doctor, 60s companions and their own fresh take of a brilliant villain, but in it’s own right, it’s both a great science fiction story and a great drama, too. 9/10

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Doctor Who: Damaged Goods & The Well-Mannered War Review

In the 1990s, Virgin published two series of novels that told brand new stories of Doctor Who – one range for the Seventh Doctor, the ‘current’ Doctor at the time (the New Adventures), and the other for the first six (the Missing Adventures). These stories were designed to be darker, more adult and have more depth than the original TV series. How well this worked is debatable, as for some writers, this meant more violence plus added swearing and even sex scenes, things that a family TV show would have never allowed, but its undeniable that the books have their own very devoted fanbases. I’ve been reading the New Adventures in order very, very gradually (I’m only about 5 books in so far), but I’m appreciating their take on the 7th Doctor and how much darker and slightly more morally-ambiguous his Doctor started to become.

Within the past couple of years, Big Finish productions have been adapting a number of these novels as full-cast audio drama, and so far, I’ve greatly enjoyed them all. The two stories that have been released this month – both individually in standard releases and together in a limited edition – are both very significant. The Well-Mannered War was the final story published in the Missing Adventures range as well as originally written by the excellent Gareth Roberts, while Damaged Goods (which I’ll be reviewing first) was the first ever Doctor Who story written by Russell T. Davies.

Damaged Goods

I have never read the original novel, but, even while it’s been adapted by someone else (the ever excellent and reliable Jonathan Morris), still has that clear Russell T. Davies feel to it, not just as a Doctor Who story but in general. There’s a rather urban feel to it, with a focus on a family living on a council estate (and even having the surname of Tyler, although no relation to THAT Tyler), there’s a heap of more down-to-Earth human drama mixed in with all the sci-fi shenanigans, and all the characters are well-written with very human problems. It’s also incredibly dark, in fact possibly one of the darkest Russell T. Davies stories I’ve experienced yet, almost making the story feel like a cross between Doctor Who and Torchwood. More than that – it feels like a combination of both shows at their very, very best.

There were a number of stories that Russell T. Davies wrote for TV Who that I wasn’t too keen on, (especially Love & Monsters,) and some of his stories and villains weren’t really up to scratch, but when he was good, he was damn fucking good. Usually, this was because ironically he limited the sci-fi to a very small idea that allowed a lot of drama to flow – Midnight is one of my favourite episodes because how much it focuses on human paranoia, and how it turns a bunch of really likeable characters into complete monsters within 45 minutes, and The Waters of Mars is more about the dilemma one man faces over whether he can change history or let it take its course. (Like the excellent Star Trek episode The City at the Edge of Forever, but with zombies.) I do wonder if the faster-pace of the new era sometimes meant that other stories of his suffered because of how rushed they were, especially after listening to something as excellent as Damaged Goods, a story nicely spread over 2 hours, only includes just the right amount of science-fiction, and allows the human drama and horror to flow throughout.

The story flows beautifully, giving you very clear visuals and really drawing you in, and there are so many great performances. Sylvester McCoy is brilliant as ever, playing a Seventh Doctor that is still more concerned about the larger picture than with human problems. Michelle Collins, a casting choice I was initially surprised by, is fantastic as the mother of the family, as she plays someone who’s made a very difficult choice that is haunted by the consequences of that choice, but I think my favourite character of the story is the horrifying Eva Jericho. Another mother, but one who’s rapidly losing her sanity, she becomes the worst kind of monster. I’m not going to spoil anything, but when I found out what the title “Damaged Goods” actually referred to, I was completely and utterly horrified. And, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, that’s one of my favourite things about watching, reading or, in this case, listening to Doctor Who – to be scared or horrified as much as possible. 5/5

The Well-Mannered War

This Fourth Doctor and Romana story is, in some ways, a much lighter story, but still incredibly enjoyable.

It begins with our two key heroes arriving in the far future in the middle of a war, although a rather unusual one – while the two sides in this conflict claim to be ‘at war’, no lives have yet to be taken, and in fact the two opposing forces seem to get on rather well with each other. And then of course, as soon as the Doctor and Romana arrive, the words “escalated” and “quickly” immediately spring to mind.

This is clearly a Gareth Roberts story, as its got a huge Douglas Adams influence, full of colourful characters and aliens and wonderful dialogue. It’s also very grand science-fiction that’s also fun, in some ways the equal and opposite of Damaged Goods.

This would be the fourth adaptation of a Gareth Roberts story that Big Finish have done. It’s also my favourite. There’s a rich amount of complexity in this story that makes you wonder how all the strands come together. It’s very gradual, but it really draws you in. There’s also a fantastic mix of comedy and horror within the story, and the number of characters that are hilarious, funny and yet feel distinctly true to life (especially Stokes as brilliantly performed by Michael Troughton) are wonderful to hear. It also has a fantastic ending that’s incredibly memorable – in fact, the ending was the only thing I knew about the story before going in to listen to it. Even when I knew it was coming though, it sent shivers down my spine and I adored it. It’s the kind of ending that’s bold and built up incredibly well and really shows just how flexible Doctor Who storytelling can be.

I really enjoyed The Well-Mannered War. It’s complex, full of colourful characters, and a really fun story to listen to. 5/5

Overall, these two very different stories work really well together. They’re two very different but equally great examples of exactly the kind of storytelling that Doctor Who is capable of: stories full of humour, horror, tragedy, darkness and even pure joy. They’re also two further examples of exactly why Big Finish are so great, translating two stories originally written in novel form for the very tricky medium of audio. Once again, through the excellent production team, including adapters Johnathan Morris and John Dorney, director Ken Bentley, and of course, the brilliant cast for both stories, these stories find a brand new way to come alive for listeners both old and new. One of my favourite releases of the year so far.

(One more thing – anyone who’s a fan of Russell T. Davies, get the special edition of this set directly through bigfinish.com. There’s a bonus disc included with the Limited Edition CD set already that includes behind the scenes stuff for both stories, but you can also download an extended version that’s two hours long, and it’s more than worth it to hear Russell T. Davies himself interviewed, both for his experience when he originally wrote his first ever Doctor Who story and how enthusiastic he clearly is for Big Finish. Absolutely beautiful listen and worth every penny for that little extra feature alone.)

Film Review – It Follows

It Follows is a wonderfully refreshing horror. It’s not a slasher, it’s not a ‘found footage’ movie and, bar one or two very nasty scenes, it doesn’t rely on an abundance of gore, either. It’s just a very well made film with a very neat little idea that provides plenty of suspense and does it very, very well.

I’m reluctant to go into too much detail of the plot – half of the reason  of why I wanted to watch this film was the teaser trailer, which told me almost nothing, and that worked beautifully at capturing the film’s essence because, like so many great horror films like Halloween and Alien (the original films, at least), it’s more about the unknown and the fear of that that makes this film terrifying.

What I will say is that the plot focuses on teenager Jay who, after having sex with someone, finds herself stalked by something. I won’t say what that something is (and to be honest, by the end of the film, it’s still not exactly made clear what it is, and that was something I really liked about it,) only that it doesn’t run, it doesn’t walk through solid walls or any of the usual cheap horror tricks you’d expect, and that was something I really appreciated. But it doesn’t stop either.

Some of my favourite horror stories are really great at taking something ordinary – the dark; shadows; statues; dreams – and make them absolutely terrifying. This is the first horror film I’ve seen since the original Halloween that has made fucking walking absolutely fucking scary. Just walking. And that’s the real beauty of this film. You’ll be watching scenes as closely as possible to see if there’s anyone or anything in the background that’s walking at all, coming closer and closer. And then, when the film’s over, you’ll be paranoid of anyone who’s walking towards ya. I haven’t felt that paranoid after watching a horror for a good long while, and that’s something I was really impressed with over this film.

Lead actress Maika Monroe is great in this. The character of Jay needed to be played convincingly with a lot of vulnerability to really draw us in, someone who gets pushed to their absolute limit and beyond, and she portrayed that beautifully. After appearing in last year’s excellent action/horror The Guest, she could very well end up as a ‘scream queen’ for modern horror if she keeps this up.

I mentioned earlier about how closely you’ll be watching this film, and I’d just like to mention that the film in general is shot really well. There’s plenty of really great wide shots that build up the suspense really nicely (is that person walking towards us actually a person, or is it…?), and some nice close-ups, too. In fact, the whole cinematography of this film is just fantastic, and really adds a lot, especially in the climax – there are plenty of horror movies where the suspense is gone towards the end, but this isn’t one of them, and, while I won’t explain why, there were quite a few points when I was ducking at times, something that I just don’t ever do.

I’d also like to mention the soundtrack. It’s fucking gorgeous. Reminiscent of 80s horror soundtracks while avoiding being derivative, it’s the kind of electronic, synthesized music that you just don’t hear anymore in horror films these days, something else that reminded me of last year’s The Guest.

The only niggles I have are ones that this film could’ve avoided – namely, a couple of moments that I just thought were really, really dumb, done to provide more suspense at the cost of potentially ruining the suspension of disbelief. One such example gave me the following reaction: “HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHIT, THIS IS GETTING REALLY- wait, why are you running up the stairs? This thing will FOLLOW you, no matter where you go, but it only walks and you can run away easily with enough space, and instead of being near an easy exit, you run UP THE FUCKING STAIRS?!” (Not that I said any of this out loud, obviously.) It’s something that’s bad enough to see in an average horror film, but this film has such a great concept and is so well made that it makes it even more of a shame that it includes very old horror cliches like this from time to time. However, these moments are thankfully rare and fail to ruin the overall enjoyment of the film.

If you’re looking for something that’s reminiscent of classic 70s and 80s horror while also providing something fresh, then this is definitely a must-see. 9/10

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.