Doctor Who: Minuet in Hell

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Synopsis

“The twenty-first century has just begun, and Malebolgia is enjoying its status as the newest state in America. After his successful involvement with Scotland’s devolution, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart has been invited over to Malebolgia to offer some of his experiences and expertise.

 There he encounters the charismatic Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, an evangelical statesman running for Governor who may not be quite as clean-cut and wholesome as he makes out. One of Dashwood’s other roles in society is as patron of a new medical institute, concentrating on curing the ills of the human mind. One of the patients there interests the Brigadier – someone who claims he travels through space and time in something called a TARDIS.

 Charley, however, has more than a few problems of her own. Amnesiac, she is working as a hostess at the local chapter of the Hell Fire Club, populated by local dignitaries who have summoned forth the demon Marchosias. And the leader of the Club? None other than Dashwood, who seems determined to achieve congressional power by the most malevolent means at his disposal…”

A few months ago I mentioned that there were two serials that I did not finish; the first was The Apocalypse Element, a serial that I think I fell asleep during the first time I tried to listen to it. And now we have the second one – and this one was rough. The story is great, the sound design is great, the brigadier is also great; so what went wrong? This serial takes place in America, vaguely set to be in the “Bible Belt” somewhere, in this part of the country most people have very little accent – so much that this part of the country is usually referred to as having a “general American accent”. Like “BBC English” this is the version of the language spoken in many TV shows and movies. I’m bringing this up because this play employs what I like to call “old prospector English” a variant in our language not heard since the film The Apple Dumpling Gang graced our screens all those years ago.

Dear England: I know you guys hate how many Americans talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins when doing bad community theater renditions of your manner of speaking, but talking like you crawled from a “Wild West” themed historical park is not good revenge.

After hearing Mark Gatiss do this exact thing in The Mutant Phase, it makes me wonder if this is a common misconception on that side of the world. Morgan Deare is the chief perpetrator here as he fleshed his character, Senator Waldo Pickering, out in this very manner. After hearing a whole string of “Jed Clmapett-isms” I turned to play off.

Well, I’d like you guys to know that I got over it and ploughed my way through the play once again. Waldo tried very hard, but I was not broken this time. I was strong and persevered through the terror. Upon completion I figured out that this play was actually very good, if not one of the best ones conceptually that they’ve done. It takes on very mature subject matter in a way far more fitting of what I feel is typical Doctor Who. Some of the Virgin New Adventures stories (plays or books) try to do the same thing (Adult Doctor Who), but end up with foul language, sex, body horror, drug use and other things more in line with an episode Torchwood. Instead of resorting to shock, this play talks about religious extremism, far right politics, and other topics usually left out of the show. Really, the only risqué thing in the entire drama is the fact that Charley is forced to be a serving girl in the Hellfire Club, and is too naive to realize that she is basically supposed to be a prostitute. The play doesn’t dwell on this, and by the time we realize this, she’s already out of there.

While, not the best episode for me, mainly due to the accents, I will say that this is one of the better plays that Big Finish has done, and a real step up from the previous play. Paul MGgann does a great job, especially when he is questioning who he really is due to having amnesia for a while. And let’s not forget that The Brigadier is here in his full glory, meeting the Eighth Doctor for the first time. All these positives tip this to the plus side for me, and I’m glad I listened again.

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Doctor Who: The Stones of Venice

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Synopsis

“The Doctor and Charley decide to take a well-deserved break from the monotony of being chased, shot at and generally suffering anti-social behavior at the hands of others. And so they end up in Venice, well into Charley’s future, as the great city prepares to sink beneath the water for the last time…

Which would be a momentous, if rather dispiriting, event to witness in itself. However, the machinations of a love-sick aristocrat, a proud art historian and a rabid High Priest of a really quite dodgy cult combine to make Venice’s swansong a night to remember. And then there’s the rebellion by the web-footed amphibious underclass, the mystery of a disappearing corpse and the truth behind a curse going back further than curses usually do. The Doctor and Charley are forced to wonder just what they have got themselves involved with this time…”

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I’ve really been enjoying these Eighth Doctor adventures from Big Finish so far, and was excited to dive into another one. This play is slightly surreal in both setting and plot. While it exists in the far-flung future, the characters and things happening in and around Venice make it seem as if it could have honestly been a historical episode. There are Dukes and Duchesses, art dealers and religious cults wandering the streets – all of these scream “medieval period piece” to me. This oddness in setting makes for a serial that revels in atmosphere and characterization over the story itself.

We basically have a group that wants Venice to Sink, another than does not, and a religious cult that believes a long-lost Duchess holds the keys to salvation. These three groups run around and talk to each other for four episodes, and not much else happens. This simple story is kept this way because the author wanted to build an engrossing mystery, but there is one problem. The story is really quite simple, and many will figure out the big M. Night Shyamalan-styled twist at the beginning of episode one. For me, this would be like watching (or reading) a Hercule Poirot mystery knowing the killer from page one. No matter what sort of swerves and red-herrings come our way, it just isn’t that exciting.

I’d say that this is the weakest of the Paul McGann episodes so far, and there is a great explanation for this. When Big Finish did these audios, they actually recorded a few of them at the same time. While we got “Storm Warning” as a smashing introduction to Charley and a great re-introduction to the Eighth Doctor, this was actually the first one recorded. I’m not saying that those portrayals are bad, but they are a bit more subdued than earlier episodes. Keeping this in mind, the episode is a success and an entertaining listen based on the setting alone, although it fails to meet the standards of its predecessors.

Doctor Who: Sword of Orion

Hot on the Heels of my last Big Finish audio review, we have yet another Paul McGann /India Fisher Eighth Doctor audio drama to take a look at. This time we have the return of one of my favorite villains of all time – the Cybermen. This play actually marks the very first time we see Cybermen appear in one of these plays, and this is a good thing. After having a ton of these already star the Daleks, it’s good to see other classic villains get sprinkled in.

Here is a synopsis:

“The human race is locked in deadly combat with the ‘Android Hordes’ in the Orion System. Light years from the front line, the Doctor and Charley arrive to sample the dubious delights of a galactic backwater, little suspecting that the consequences of the Orion War might reach them there. But High Command’s lust for victory knows no bounds.

Trapped aboard a mysterious derelict star destroyer, the Doctor and Charley find themselves facing summary execution. But this is only the beginning of their troubles. The real danger has yet to awaken.

Until, somewhere in the dark recesses of the Garazone System, the Cybermen receive the signal for reactivation…”

What really stands out to me in this episode is the sound design. This story could have had a horrendous story, and I still would have liked it based on the atmosphere alone. Not only is the music well done, but the care at which the background noises and sound effects were produced sets a benchmark, for me at least, that no other drama up to this one has come to. The first instance of this occurs at the very beginning of the play. The Doctor and Charley are visiting a “space bazaar” of sorts to hopefully find a way to cure an ailing vortisaur, the creature that they met in the last episode. In this scene we hear layer upon layer of creatures talking, music, and idle chatter, all leading the listener to imagine a robust market side, hustling and bustling with tons of business.

Another place where this stands out is when we finally see the Cybermen that we all know take part in the serial. For the first few encounters we only ever hear a creature that is attacking various people. The noises are both animalistic and insane, making this creature terrifying. Later we find out that this is in fact a rogue Cyberman that has gone totally mad waiting for its connection to a cyberleader to get re-established. After years of seeing sub-par Cybermen that either stomp around saying catchphrases, or are wussy enough that they can be destroyed with a flick of a gold coin, I feel that this is the sweet spot for the creature. Well this or the unsettling voice that the original Cybermen had, which is definitely nightmare fuel of the highest octane.

While some of the side characters in this drama aren’t really all that well fleshed out, they do serve a great purpose to antagonize the Doctor and Charley when they initially believe the pair to be murderers of a fellow crewmate. These characters, the crew of a scrap ship, are your typical Doctor Who rag-tag, and somewhat mutinous ship crew. There definitely could have been a bit more fleshing out of a few of these characters, but it wasn’t really needed. Much like any Alien of Predator movie, some characters are just destined to be bad guy-fodder.

I’m not going to say that this is the best Doctor Who drama that I’ve listened to, but it really does have a great atmosphere and storyline to it. If this is the beginning of a quality plateau that holds steady for the next few releases, I’ll be insanely happy for the rest of the line.

Here is a trailer: