Big Finish’s latest ‘Doctor Who’ audio stories reviewed: April 2017 round-up

Peter Davison

While the Twelfth Doctor has returned to our television screens with a new season, his predecessors remain busy on audio all year long.

April was no exception, bringing outings for his Fourth, Fifth and Tenth incarnations.

The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa star in a pair of two-part stories, ‘Alien Heart’ and ‘Dalek Soul’ which form this month’s main range release, and they are together for the Limited Vinyl Edition re-release of the chilling Cyber-genesis tale ‘Spare Parts’.

Meanwhile, Tom Baker is busy in multiple eras too; firstly teamed with Leela and battling Vikings in this year’s Phillip Hinchcliffe Presents tale ‘The Helm of Awe’, and then with Romana II for the curious Fourth Doctor Adventures submarine-in-space adventure ‘Dethras’.

We also enjoyed a pair of outings for those investigators of the infernal, Jago & Litefoot. They conclude their Short Trip with the Tenth Doctor in ‘The Jago & Litefoot Revival – Act Two’, before launching into a thirteenth (count ‘em!) box set of their own exhilarating escapades.

Finally, in the wider Whoniverse, it is the turn of Torchwood to spin a Hollywood tale which opens a fresh chapter for the organisation as ‘Torchwood: The Dollhouse’ introduces us to three new faces, 1970’s style.

 

Main Range #224: ‘Alien Heart / Dalek Soul’

Big Finish has mixed up the main range with a brace of two-part stories for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, and they feel very different in style from the recent trilogy of stories for Davison’s Doctor (which had Nyssa, Tegan and Adric crowding the TARDIS). The two stories have a loose connection and but still bear listening to in the order provided.

Stephen Cole wrote ‘Alien Heart’, and here the Doctor and Nyssa are on the trail of a group of ten worlds all obliterated by means unknown. The change of style is immediately apparent, with less exploration of the setup and getting straight on with the action. And the action is gripping with a new monster, a kidnap and an extra alien threat. Of course the Doctor rises to the challenge but even in two parts it feels like a full story.

The action segues into the Guy Adams story ‘Dalek Soul’, and there’s quite a twist. A group of rebels on the planet Mojox are struggling to fight the Daleks, but at least the mysterious Doctor can help, and help they need. The Daleks have their own ally, the Chief Virologist Nyssa!

From the first the usual roles of the heroes are not what we expect and Guy Adams does a good job of keeping listeners gripped as they attempt to figure out just what is happening, and how far Nyssa and the Doctor will go in pursuit of their goals.

The pair of stories work well, and having different writers allows them to contrast and makes the pairing work as a concept. The extras make clear that this idea is an experiment Big Finish is keen to understand in terms of how fans react. It gives a far more modern-Who feel to classic Doctors, and on the evidence of this it is a success.

Next month brings the Sixth Doctor and Flip on stage for their own pair of stories. We can’t wait!

 

The Fourth Doctor Adventures 6.04: ‘Dethras’

“You know for a genius you really are rather thick!”

‘Dethras’ begins with what must be one of the bemusing Doctor Who ideas yet, that of three men and a chimpanzee adrift in a 1940s submarine, in space.

From this unusual star a rather engrossing adventure evolves with Tom Baker’s Doctor is on tremendously spiky form playing a game of cat and mouse in a space graveyard.

As the Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) grapple with their situation, and the inevitable loss of the TARDIS, matters escalate as the men begin to exhibiting knowledge they should not have, and outside a demanding Xankari space captain (Shelia Ruskin) arrives on the scene.

While it is difficult to say too much more without spoiling some superb reveals, suffice to say that there are solid reasons for the bizarre situation and plenty to make the Doctor incredibly cross, giving off a very Series 18 vibe.

Guest star Alistair Petrie (The Night Manager) impresses as the morally compromised John and Shelia Ruskin makes for a very believable war weary space captain, in what feels like an era-appropriate JNT-style casting. Credit too must also go to John Banks, who is endlessly entertaining as Franklin, the chimp who ends up in a quasi-companion role to Romana.

If this is Adrian Poynton’s first Doctor Who script, we cannot wait to see what comes next!

 

Short Trips 7.04: ‘The Jago & Litefoot Revival Act Two’

The enduring double-act of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot conclude their two-part tale which began last month, given in the form of a lecture to Lifefoot’s own “Club For Curious Scientific Men”.

With the pair split up geographically, Litefoot on Minos and Jago in a theatrical basement, both are in the company of the Doctor and in trouble. Litefoot has unwittingly summoned the wraith-like ‘Gentlemen of the Dice’, while Jago faces a fearsome spider-like beast.

The tale continues apace, including a pair of breathless chases – one through the streets of London chase and another across Minos – and writer Jonathan Edwards eventually draws the pair together for a showdown which plays perfectly to their strengths.

Of course, the presentation of this story as a lecture offers the perfect format for banter between Jago and Litefoot, as Henry derails the tale with his loquacious asides and George fights to keep it on track.

For all the sci-fi trappings, the story is utterly grounded in the lives of our heroes and celebrates their friendship. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter own these characters so well, and it is fun to hear them voice the Doctor too – as well as to relate the story’s clever surprises.

Blending Jago & Litefoot with the modern era of Doctor Who has been a joyful success, and it was a lovely touch to think that the Tenth Doctor would have also sought to look up these old pals during his ‘farewell tour’.

 

Jago & Litefoot: Series 13

The adventures continue for Jago & Litefoot as forty years (almost to the day) after Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter first appeared alongside Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, Big Finish has released the thirteenth box set of stories for our Victorian investigators of infernal incidents.

Rest assured the quality and entertainment are as high as ever, and in four interconnected stories, writers Paul Morris, Jonathan Barnes, Matthew Sweet and Justin Richards have woven a great unified adventure for our heroes.

Not ignoring their roots, this set of stories is firmly grounded in the events of ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’, but building on them rather than trying to milk them for a poor sequel. Starting with a series of nightmares and a time agent, reality is not all it might be and no sooner have Jago and Litefoot dealt with a dystopian future than they are shunted into a parallel world.

This parallel world offers a similar but different London, explored in the final three stories. There’s plenty of chance for the cast to play different aspects of themselves, from director Lisa Bowerman’s barmaid Ellie (never met you before) to meeting themselves in a world where the Doctor never arrived to make the events shown in 1977 happen.

There are dozens of delightful scenes with every combination of Jago, Jago, Litefoot, Litefoot and this world’s Inspector Quick (Conrad Asquith) imaginable. There are also villains and a serious menace, too many to detail but very well done to everyone involved.

It wouldn’t be Jago & Litefoot without a mysterious alien menace, but don’t fear as this version of London has its own infernal investigators in the form of Betterman (David Warner) and Aubrey (Jamie Newall).

Bringing back characters from earlier sets of stories gives yet another fresh set of angles on not only Jago and Litefoot, but also Betterman and Aubrey themselves. Things are of such a scale it takes every version of everyone available to resolve, but will the resolution leave our versions of Jago and Litefoot trapped, never to return to their own world?

It’s a great set of stories, brilliant music and sound with every performance as perfect as could be dreamed. Producer David Richardson is handing over the reins to Ian Atkins, and has set the bar very high indeed.

Superb!

 

Phillip Hinchcliffe Presents Vol 3: ‘The Helm of Awe’

Shetland, or rather the fictional Isle of Bothness, is the location for the latest collaboration between celebrated 1970’s producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and writer Marc Platt (‘Ghostlight’).

With the Doctor and Leela recalled to Earth, thanks to the good old Space/Time telegraph, the time travellers arrive in search of alien technology, and in time for the annual celebration of “Up Helly Aa” – the Viking fire festival.

Though only four episodes long, the story has great scope and paints some vivid images, from fire boats to floating platforms and unnatural patterns in the Northern Lights. As well as the familiar theme of superstitious villagers who are hostile to outsiders, there is also a temporal twist at play as we travel back to WWII for an episode which deals with a famous undercover operation known as “the Shetland Bus”.

As ever, both the regulars put in a fine performance; Tom Baker is rather serious mode with the Doctor on the back foot for much of the adventure, while Louise Jameson’s Leela finds plenty that chimes with her view of the world as the islanders celebrate their barbaric history and she gets to take Leela to the edge in a horrific sequence.

Leading the guest cast is David Rintoul, in dual roles as the male members of the Renwick family, and we particularly enjoyed Leela’s friendship with Joanna (Dancing on the Edge’s Joanna Vanderham), the laird’s daughter – in particular the scene where she teaches the women’s canoe team her Sevateem war cry!

Interestingly, the alien threat itself, once revealed, was something which we felt might not seem out of place in modern day Doctor Who, with the monster conjuring thoughts of Douglas Adams’ time on the show; regardless, it was well conceived and amusingly voiced by Chris Porter.

The CD extras tell us that tale was paired down to focus on the island, but we wonder if it might have been better to go the other way and expand to a six-parter?

 

‘Spare Parts’ – Limited Vinyl Edition

Another Marc Platt script, hailing from 2002 gets a special rerelease this month. ‘Spare Parts’ is widely regarded as a Big Finish triumph, bringing the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa to the lost world of Mondas, Earth’s errant twin planet, it dramatises the origin story for the Cybermen as the remnants of human life on that doomed planet seek survival at any cost.

Putting the regulars through the wringer, with the shadow of Adric’s death still looming, the story is heart-breaking and we see the horrors in a very personal way as they affect the lives of a relatable, circa 1950s northern family.

Nicholas Briggs provides a scarily effective recreation of ‘The Tenth Planet’ cyber-voices, and Blakes’ 7’s Sally Knyvette leads the guest cast as Doctorman Allan.

Released as a Limited Edition 4 LP set, in keeping with ‘The Chimes of Midnight’ last September, this new version of ‘Spare Parts’ comes restructured into a six-part format, as well as boasting brand new documentary and fresh artwork.

With only 500 copies available, this Limited Vinyl Edition is available through the Big Finish website.

 

Torchwood: ‘The Dollhouse’

Up to this point all of the Torchwood audios have featured a familiar character or two. Outside of the core television cast, we have enjoyed adventures with PC Andy, Suzie Costello and even Doctor Who’s Yvonne Hartman.

‘The Dollhouse’ by Juno Dawson takes a markedly different approach, introducing us to three fresh Torchwood agents who form the 1970s Los Angeles branch of the organisation.

Working for an upper-class Brit named Beamish (Guy Adams) who gives them their missions over the telephone, a spate of missing persons, coinciding with spikes in galactic cosmic rays, set Marlow Sweet (Laila Pyne), Charley Du Bujeau (Kelly-Anne Lyons) and Gabi Martinez (Ajjaz Awad) on the case.

Marlow is a super smart, sassy Brooklyn gal, her brains overlooked for the colour of her skin, while Charley is a Louisiana born cat burglar, forced to turn her skills to Torchwood’s advantage. Completing the trio, Gabi hails from Mexico and is a stuntwoman with a natural affinity for all things speedy.

Highly competitive, while remaining a close-knit team, the trio maintain a frenetic barrage of banter throughout and the script is both emotional and funny – there’s a great Rock Hudson gag, and some play at the expense of Gabi’s gullibility. The three leads are terrifically well cast too, with three very distinct accents.

Undercover operations see each playing to their strengths though mired in the racist and sexist attitudes of the time; Marlow plays the secretary while Charley and Gabi get to be an aspiring actresses.

Providing the voice of human villainy is Stuart Milligan (Jonathan Creek, Doctor Who‘s Richard Nixon), who excels in the role of Don Donohue, seedy and sexist agent to the stars.

We half expected a cameo from a certain Captain, but Jack Harkness would have been surplus to requirements here among these fiercely independent women. Revelling in its Charlie’s Angels pastiche from the outset, ‘The Dollhouse’ is thoroughly engaging, unlike anything else in the range and yet, at the same time, utterly Torchwood.

 

What was your favourite Doctor Who release from Big Finish this month? Let us know below…

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