The Cosmic Hobo

Thoughts & reviews about the science fiction series Doctor Who.

Audio Review: Neverland

“Neverland” (Big Finish #33)
Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by Gary Russell
Featuring the Doctor, Charley, and Romana II

Rating: B

After traveling through space and time for about ten adventures (that we know of) with Charley Pollard, the girl who was supposed to die at the crash of the R101 in the early 20th century, time has finally caught up with the TARDIS team. The Doctor is forced to accept that perhaps the only way to restore time to its own rightful order is to kill Charley and fulfill her unfortunate destiny. The pair go to Gallifrey where Paul McGann’s Doctor must answer for breaking the laws of time to none other than the President of Gallifrey and former Doctor companion Romana.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of the overly Gallifrey-centric stories. Things like “The Deadly Assassin” just don’t appeal to me that much, and before this, I didn’t really have much feeling for anything Gallifrey related outside of the last two episodes of the Patrick Troughton serial “The War Games”. Although this story gets a bit bogged down in wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey towards the end, I actually ended up really enjoying “Neverland”.

The Eighth Doctor and Charley as a pair are one of my favorite TARDIS teams ever, and probably my favorite of the audios (though it may be a tie with the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe). I’m one of the few people who really enjoys the 1996 TV movie, and I’m a big fan of Paul McGann’s interpretation of the Doctor. That being said, I don’t feel like up to this point that McGann’s Doctor had gotten particularly good scripts in the audios. Aside from the really phenomenal “The Chimes of Midnight” and the enjoyable “The Sword of Orion”, I could take or leave the rest of his up to this point. That said, the chemistry between India Fisher and McGann is so strong that it makes even the weaker stories listenable and enjoyable (with the exception of the completely unsalvageable “Invaders from Mars”). Luckily, “Neverland” proves to be a damn good story. Compounding the enjoyability of India Fisher and Paul McGann as a team, Lalla Ward makes a great appearance as one of the cooler Fourth Doctor era companions, Romana (in her second incarnation).

Although there are times in “Neverland” where the plot is a bit hard to follow, and the solution didn’t really register in my head (probably my fault), I really enjoyed the ride in this one. It is a bit odd that this one features two hour-long parts rather than the standard four, the story flies by so it doesn’t bug me. Lalla Ward was phenomenal in “The Apocalypse Element” (featuring the Sixth Doctor) and once again kicks ass and takes names in “Neverland”. The dialogue throughout is strong, and using India Fisher ina double role suits the story’s flow and gives it more gravity. Also quite interesting to see the return of an important Time Lord (not counting Romana and the Doctor), but I won’t spoil it in case there are readers here who haven’t taken a listen. Although not in the same category as “The Chimes of Midnight” or the aforementioned “Spare Parts”, I seriously enjoyed “Neverland” and look forward to getting to the further adventures of the Eighth Doctor.

Serial Review: The Seeds of Doom (Season 13)

“The Seeds of Doom”
Written by Robert Banks Stewart, dir. by Douglas Camfield
Featuring the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and a plant monster thing

Rating: A

A group of scientists in the Arctic region discover a strange seed pod. When folks back in the mainland are informed, they seek out the help of UNIT, who in turn send the Doctor and Sarah Jane to investigate this strange alien life form. At the same time, corrupt operators are trying to sell the rights to the seed, while the scientists become overly violent in protecting their discovery. Meanwhile, the seed seems to burst and take over one of the scientists, turning him into a strange plantlike humanoid. All sorts of shit hitting all sorts of fans.

Six part stories have the inherent problem of having 150% of the time to fill that the usual four parters do. Slow pace is a common complaint of the classic serials, and when you have that much more space to deal with, it is all together too likely that the problem will pop up even more. “The Seeds of Doom” seems to be an exception to this, however, as it is one of the few stories longer than four parts that seems to fly by, much like the similarly named Patrick Troughton serial “The Seeds of Death”.

This serial has Tom Baker playing it very serious, as the script requires. I’ve always said that I think Baker handles comedy much better than he does drama, but he’s damn near awesome here. Both he and Elisabeth Sladen absolutely bring out their A game. There are times when Baker’s version of the Doctor is written as being a complete asshole towards Sarah Jane, but I still like the Doctor overall as a character more as a dramatic role than a comedic one. Although I don’t think Tom handles drama as well as say Sylvester McCoy or Patrick Troughton, I’d still rather watch a serious Doctor than a funny one, and in this particular serial Baker is excellent.

In terms of story, “The Seeds of Doom” has a lot of intrigue. The idea of a sort of symbiotic plant alien landing on Earth and taking over the life forms isn’t all together too original, but it is interesting enough and this story has a great pace that was able to hold my interest better than the average story of the Tom Baker era. I would imagine it would be slightly controversial in that at one point the Doctor pulls back and punches a guy in the face in part three, but being that I really enjoyed the Pertwee era, I like when the Doctor goes for a bit of a rough and tumble. In real life, I’m not a fan of violence as a rule, but somehow I enjoy a good fist fight in my fiction.

To compound the excellent parts of the story, the villain is brilliant. He is sort of a cross between your average conniving Bond villain and Poison Ivy from the Batman comics. He’s a psychotic environmentalist and plant enthusiast who is played picture perfectly by Tony Beckley. There are some thematic similarities between this and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, both of which deal with extremist environmentalists. In both instances, the Doctor indicates that he sympathizes with their overall perspective of concern for the environment, but feels that their means are too extreme. It’s a fair point and a good moral for the story, really.

I was jumping for joy when watching “The Robots of Death” a couple weeks ago, but I liked this even more. I basically have nothing at all to criticize about this story, which is definitely a rarity for me. My new favorite Baker serial by far, and at the very least in my top ten favorite Doctor Who stories.

Serial Review: The Brain of Morbius (Season 13)

“The Brain of Morbius”
Written by Robin Bland, dir. by Christopher Barry
Featuring the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and a brain in a jar

Rating: B-

Set design, in many cases, can turn an alright story into a pretty good one. Although watching Doctor Who I have learned to suspend my disbelief, it makes for just an overall more pleasurable viewing experience when the stories have settings that look vaguely realistic. I don’t mind if the explosions and lasers look ridiculous, but I just adore good sets.

“The Brain of Morbius” is sort of a mix between a story about a fanatic religious cult and an obvious inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a bit of Doctor Who lore jammed in for good measure. The cultists in the new series episode “The Fires of Pompeii” were apparently inspired by the soothsayers in this story, and I find them equally irritating in both. That isn’t to say that story isn’t without its merits.

As I alluded to earlier, this story has really good sets. I never felt like I was watching painted posterboard while seeing this serial, and it makes it a much more enjoyable experience. I like the story of Frankenstein, so I didn’t mind seeing its influence here, and I think this story has a lot more good about it than bad.

The best part of the story, especially early on, is Philip Madoc as Solon. He plays the part perfectly, and Elisabeth Sladen is very sharp in the serial as well, despite being relegated to the unfortunate part of constant screamer. It is well known that I’m not a particularly big fan of Tom Baker, and he kind of continues to be the same for me here. He wasn’t distractingly bad and was hardly as charming to me as everyone else seems to think he is.

In the end, this story is a bit too jumbled at times for me to think it is one of the best. That said, I like the ambition in the story and there are enough good parts working together to make “The Brain of Morbius” another firmly above average Season 13 serial.

Serial Review: The Robots of Death (Season 14)

“The Robots of Death”
Written by Chris Boucher, dir. by Michael Briant
Featuring the Doctor, Leela, and robots

Rating: A-

It only took about three minutes of watching “The Robots of Death” to realize that I was watching the Doctor Who interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, featuring basically the same laws of robotics as featured in Asimov’s series. Although I like Asimov, I’m not crazy about him, and actually found the story collection I, Robot a bit repetitive and boring. That being said, the concept is great and I was immediately taken by the visual design of these robots. They are entirely badass looking.

Leela, just after joining the TARDIS, arrives with the Doctor on a ship where a string of murders has the TARDIS team become prime suspects due to their strange circumstance of “stowing away” on board the ship. Of course, this doesn’t last particularly long as if the Doctor were to spend the entire serial in the brig he wouldn’t have a chance to set everything straight.

This is not the first time I’ve seen Leela, but the first time I’ve seen this version of the TARDIS control room. I instantly thought “Why did they get rid of this? It is totally badass.” The design of the control room seen early on with the people and robots before shit hits the fan is also very good. The pace is fast by classic Who standards, and basically I was in love with the story by about the twelve minute mark.

Although I’ve previously been a bit negative when it comes to Tom Baker, I was pleased with him here. I find that he often hams it up, but I was never distracted by him in this story. Louise Jameson is quite strong as Leela. She is definitely a character I like, and not just from “Oh boy lookit her outfit!” sort of way. She’s pretty sharp despite her unfortunate history and tough as nails. I’ve always had more of an affinity for female companions who were tough and/or brilliant (Ace, Zoe) and Leela fits in nicely with that bunch.

There are times in “The Robots of Death” when I thought the people on the ship hammed it up a bit, but not so much so that it distracted me from the fact that I was really enjoying the story. I’m always a fan of when Doctor Who gets particularly sci-fi heavy, and this is definitely as pulp science fiction as it gets, complete with its Asimov influence. “City of Death” and “Pyramids of Mars” are often cited as the best of the Fourth Doctor era, but for my money I would pick “The Robots of Death” over either of those. This is easily my favorite of his so far.

Audio Review: The Chimes of Midnight

“The Chimes of Midnight” (Big Finish #29)
Written by Robert Shearman, directed by Barnaby Edwards
Featuring the Doctor, Charley, and a haunted house

Rating: A+

Audio plays as a medium for Doctor Who are generally at their best when they take best advantage of the way they are telling their story. Horror as a genre is the perfect area for Doctor Who in audio form to dabble in because horror as a genre in any medium is always more scary when you can’t see what you’re being afraid of. When it is left up to your imagination to generate the evil, it is much more affecting. By virtue of audio being just audio, you’re forced to imagine the scary parts in your head, which is actually a positive for the medium in this case rather than a negative.

The Doctor and Charley find themselves in a house that is experiencing a strange sort of time dilation. People who apparently die seem to vanish from everyone’s collective memory, while likewise everything seems connected in a strange and incomprehensible way. The Doctor is particularly confused in this one, and it all starts with a mysterious message in dust from a time passed, or yet to come.

I’ve previously enjoyed the Eighth Doctor in audio form (and in the TV movie, for that matter), but this is really the first excellent audio from his era. After the godawful “Invaders from Mars”, I was so pleased to see that things managed to pick up right away. Both Paul McGann and India Fisher are frankly fantastic in this audio, who are helped in no small part by really excellent writing and solid direction. I’ve never actually been scared by anything in horror, much less Doctor Who horror, but I would say that “The Chimes of Midnight” came closer to it than even television stories like “Blink” that are outstanding but didn’t manage to scare me.

Aside from brilliant acting and perfect atmosphere, one of the things that I think made this audio play better than the rest is that there are actually characters here that are worth liking. There is a subplot involving Charley and one of the workers at the old house that is pretty heartbreaking, with India Fisher totally knocking it out of the park. I feel like I have less interesting things to say when a story succeeds on every level, but audios like this are the reason I am such a fan of Big Finish. If I were to try to convert someone to the audios I would have to pick either this or “Spare Parts”. Being that it was written by the guy responsible for the first actually good episode of the new series (“Dalek”), I expected something at least solid, but I adored it.

Serial Review: Planet of Evil (Season 13)

“Planet of Evil”
Written by Louis Marks, dir. by David Maloney
Featuring the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Anti-matter

Rating: B-

I know I’m some kind of weirdo for not liking Tom Baker, but that’s just kinda the way it is. And the even stranger thing is, no matter how much I see, he isn’t really growing on me. Unlike Paul McGann, who I am enjoying more and more for each audio I hear, I’m actually liking Tom Baker less and less as every story goes on. That’s not to say he’s getting worse, it’s just that it is becoming more clear that I don’t like him. When I had only seen a few stories, I could tell myself that I just haven’t seen enough yet. I’ve now basically seen two seasons worth of serials, and am still scratching my head as to why everyone likes him so much.

That being said, I like him the best so far in “Planet of Evil.” This isn’t my favorite story of his that I’ve seen, but as far as Tom Baker himself in the role, I think he is strongest here of what I’ve seen. There are actually moments here where he has to be slightly dramatic where I don’t think he’s hamming it up. Everyone knows he does the comedy part well, but he is significantly bad when the scene requires him to be dramatic. The scene in “Genesis of Daleks” when he contemplates whether he has the right to kill all of the Daleks at once before they have a chance to take over the universe is seen by many to be one of the seminal scenes in Classic Who. For me, it’s a wasted opportunity, because I think Baker is pretty shit in that scene.

“Planet of Evil” is most notable for it’s excellent sets, and that is definitely worth mentioning. The jungles here look like they were made on about ten times the budget they actually had. Sure, they re-use them endlessly and run past the same square of jungle a dozen times, but it’s such a good set that it doesn’t bug me. This serial also gets some points on my good side for just being bizarre. I love the really strange moments in this, much like I enjoy the slow motion fight of the minds between the Third Doctor and Omega in “The Three Doctors.”

That being said, I never found myself REALLY into the story; it just doesn’t have enough there to be one of my favorites. Still, with great sets, enough bizarre to keep me amused, and an actually pretty solid Tom Baker, I think in the end, “Planet of Evil” is an above average story. Worth a re-watch down the line.

Torchwood Episode Review: Ghost Machine

“Ghost Machine”
Written by Helen Raynor, dir. by Colin Teague
Torchwood – Series 1 – Episode 3

Rating: B-

Being that I think Owen is by far the weakest member of the Torchwood team, this episode had an in-built problem in that it was heavily focused on that character. The Torchwood team discovers an alien device that allows the user to see memories of the past, which leads to Owen accidentally seeing the events leading to a young girl’s rape and murder nearly half a century ago. When he discovers that the killer was never found and was allowed to go free, he makes it a personal mission to track down the murderer and somehow bring him to justice, despite the rest of the team telling him it isn’t their business and they don’t have any real evidence.

Stories like this are good for characters because it actually makes them more likable. I still think Owen Harper is the least likable character on the show, but showing that he cared enough about the girl he had no previous knowledge of to look into her murder only in the interest of bringing her justice, it makes Owen slightly more likable. I also think it is strong characterization in that it makes sense that someone would react like that, considering that he witnessed something awful like that and had to go through the emotion of it; it would be a traumatic experience for anyone, and I have to say that if I was a super secret agent with the capability Owen has, I would do the same thing.

The episode has a few issues early on, as it takes a while for the action plot of the episode to get going. It has a much slower build that it ought to have, as there are a lot of moments in the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode that didn’t really have anything to do with what turned out to be the overall story. The Owen plot line doesn’t really even start at all until the second third of the story, and as a result of that, I think it could have been overall a better executed episode than it was.

That being said, I still think there was a lot more good about this episode than bad. It is nice to see a show that allows its supporting characters to occasionally take the center stage, and it is also good that they take characterization seriously. Adding depth to Owen was a definitely necessary thing that I was worried wouldn’t ever really happen, but I’m glad it did. I am still really deeply enjoying this series, three episodes in. Still waiting to get to the crap everyone has talked about.

Serial Review: The Underwater Menace (Season 4)

“The Underwater Menace”
Written by Geoffrey Orme, dir. by Julia Smith
Featuring the Doctor, Ben, Polly, Jamie, and Atlanteans

Rating: B

Being that I’ve always had a bit of interest in stories revolving around Atlantis, whether it be reading Aquaman comics as a kid or otherwise, I figured I would enjoy “The Underwater Menace.” I was also quite pleased that at least one of the episodes survives, having just finished “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Highlanders” both of which are completely missing aside from a few clips here and there.

The Doctor, Jamie, Ben, and Polly find themselves on a beach, and upon doing a bit of exploring, in Atlantis. Of course, they are escorted away by religious zealots and just about sacrificed to their god. There are some pretty cool snaps here (which I assume reflext camera shots from the footage when it existed) of an aerial view of the four members of the TARDIS team on an altar. Crazy stuff, and I’m a sucker for a cool camera angle.

Something about Joseph Furst’s portrayal of Professor Zaroff appealed to me pretty early on; I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I think he’s a compelling villain. He acts very dramatically and perhaps overly so, but I think it actually works for the character. He has minor symptoms of being a Bond villain, but being a James Bond fan that isn’t really an insult coming from me.

Once the plot starts to really unravel and the Atlanteans start doing things like trying to surgically give Polly gills, this gets particularly twisted. It’s dark as hell, and the first cliffhanger actually gave me chills. I usually find the cliffhangers one of the biggest problems with a lot of otherwise good stories (“City of Death” comes to mind), but this isn’t an issue with “The Underwater Menace.” The first and third episode cliffhangers are particularly stirring. Just as crazy as Polly in surgery is the scene that ends the third episode (thankfully still existing), in which Professor Zaroff shoots someone at point blank with a menace in his eyes, orders his cronies to execute two more, then yells into the camera “Nothing in the world can stop me now!” Brilliant.

There’s a distinct thread of anti-religion in this story, with the zealotry of the religious people in this story being easily manipulated. A perfect example of this is when the Doctor and a friend are about to be executed, Ben simply speaks to the religious warriors from behind a wall, claiming to to be the voice of their God, allowing the Doctor to slip away easily. Almost every religious character in the story meets a sticky end, and in the end everyone decides to re-build society without religion. I like when Doctor Who gets all heathen-y.

As it is, there are definitely some issues with the story. There are times where it is slow, and the design of the fish people is terrible. There are some that don’t look bad, and actually look like fish people, and others that are just extras in wet suits and goggles… which doesn’t really work. That being said, I think the plot line of the Doctor arranging for the food supply to be cut off to the Atlanteans an interesting way to stop their plans. Perhaps it is overly convenient that their food has such a low shelf life, but I like the idea.

Despite the issues, I really enjoyed this story in spite of itself. There are some really genuinely scary moments, and I love a good twist villain. Those two cliffhangers I mentioned are both just really outstanding, and I think this is the first story where Patrick Troughton gets to play his Doctor straight– in the previous two stories, he was under assumed identities. It showed the range of his acting quality, but here he gets to be the real cosmic hobo. I’m definitely a fan of “The Underwater Menace,” another apparently strange opinion.

Audio Review: Invaders From Mars

“Invaders From Mars” (Big Finish #28)
Written & Directed by Mark Gatiss
Featuring the Doctor, Charley, and bad American accents

Rating: F

“Invaders from Mars” is the perfect example of why I should never get my hopes up about anything when it comes to Doctor Who. I tend to like stuff a lot of people don’t, and when I expect to like something, I am quite disappointed. This was the case with “Invaders from Mars,” which may very well be my least favorite of the Big Finish audios so far.

The idea is great: The Doctor and Charley arrive in New York just in time for Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As the story goes, there was mass panic as people tuned in to the radio in the middle of the story and thought the events being described were real. In typical Doctor Who fashion, aliens actually WERE invading, and the Doctor showed up to sort things out.

I’m not a huge fan of Paul McGann as the Doctor but I do like him, and he has a strong chemistry with India Fisher (Charley Pollard), which makes most of their work together listenable on that level alone. Unfortunately, this is pretty much pure shit.

I tend to like stuff set in the 1930s, as I love the “noir” feel of most of the stuff set in that era, but in this case, it fails pretty miserably. The voice acting is here pretty much the worst thing I’ve ever heard; almost all of the American accents are so unbelievable that I think the casting director behind this story should be fired, and then taken out back to be drawn & quartered. How do people who can’t do American accents keep getting roles like this in Doctor Who?

On top of the subpar voicing, the story is just slow. It takes ages to get rolling, and once it reaches its peak, it still isn’t good. I have trouble saying anything nice at all about his story. It fails for me on every possible level. It’s the “The Monster of Peladon” of audios. I even preferred “Minuet in Hell.” It’s a shame Simon Pegg is one of the voices in this… Nobody could have saved this garbage.

Serial Review: The Highlanders (Season 4)

“The Highlanders”
Written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
Directed by Hugh David
Featuring the Doctor, Ben, Polly, Jamie, and evil Brits

Rating: C

Being as big a fan as I am of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, it is impossible to separate him from Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon. As much as I loved “The Power of the Daleks,” it did feel like something was missing, and that something would be Jamie.

The Doctor, Ben, and Polly stumble upon early 18th century Scotland, where the titular highlanders are fighting against the English. Naturally, the Doctor is thrust into things rather quickly, with Ben and Polly being forced into the conflict by proxy. I like the idea of historicals, but my previous experience with them has been minimal. I really enjoyed “The Aztecs,” but aside from a couple Big Finish audios, I think that’s the only one I’ve actually experienced, unless something is escaping my mind.

My first impression of this story, unfortunately, was that the supporting cast isn’t nearly as good as in “The Power of the Daleks.” I had previously read the novelization (a year or so ago), and obviously the acting in my head is always flawless. That isn’t to say that they’re woeful, but I was really impressed by the cast of the previous story, and think this one is relatively standard in terms of acting quality. One thing I will say, though, is that I like the shots; although this is obviously a reconstruction, the few clips that exist show some good work and the set design is solid. The number of clips of existing footage is surprisingly high, which makes it easier to get a sense of the visuals of the story.

Although Jamie isn’t my favorite companion, I like him and am glad to have him around in this one. He really doesn’t have all that much to do, but it’s still good times. I also like that Polly gets separated from the rest early on, and gets a chance to go out and do her thing. As I mentioned in my review of the previous story, I dig her character, and I think she is particularly cool in this. I love her line to Kirstie (sp?): “Didn’t the women of your age do anything but cry?” She also gets cool points for taking charge when a British soldier falls into a trap– she holds him at knife point and essentially threatens to mess him up if he won’t help them in their cause. It’s a shame she only has one complete story left, but I guess it’s better to have been on Doctor Who and have no one able to see it than to never have been on Doctor Who at all.

Being that I am not German, I find it difficult to judge the quality of Patrick Troughton’s German accent, but I find him pretty amusing in this story. He shows his trademark brilliant use of guile in getting himself out of capture and behind enemy lines to do his grand tinkering. I love Troughton’s Doctor’s penchant for pretending to be less than he is to get his enemies to stop worrying about him. It’s nice to see this Doctor become who he is so early on in his run; it didn’t take him long to get a hang of it.

Unfortunately, the story itself has its issues. I really enjoyed the first half quite a bit, as much as I did “The Aztecs,” but it seriously loses steam in the second half. Part three is really boring, and doesn’t offer much at all to hold my interest. I like the Polly scenes a bit, but I think probably only because I just like the character. Part four is a slight improvement, but… eh.

So, adding up an above average first two episodes and a below average second two, it ends up being solidly average. It wouldn’t be particularly remarkable if it weren’t for the debut of Jamie, but it still has some merit. Not one I’ll re-visit any time soon, but I don’t feel like it was a wasted two hours, either.

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