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After some reflection, I am going to do something I generally try to avoid, and slap a general ‘Spoiler Alert‘ on these reviews of the Big Finish Survivors audio plays. These are, as I’ve said before, comparatively new pieces of work, unlike the 40-year-old TV show on which they’re based, and there are probably people out there who’d be interested in them who aren’t familiar with the details of the plots yet. Yet it’s quite difficult to write about them without going into at least a little detail concerning the stories and characters. So, be warned: key revelations lie ahead.

The most obvious difference between the first couple of stories on the initial boxed set and the concluding pair (with which we shall concern ourselves today) is that Revelation and Exodus were largely about new characters, with only a comparatively small cameo from Lucy Fleming as Jenny. Episodes three and four (for this does ultimately resolve itself into a single story, albeit a slightly rambling one) feel very different, mainly because they’re largely focused on Jenny and Greg (played, of course, by Fleming and Ian McCulloch). We even get a bookending sequence with a cameo from Carolyn Seymour as Abby.

As Andrew Smith’s Judges begins, we have jumped forward from somewhere in the middle of the first TV episode, The Fourth Horseman, to around the end of episode twelve, Something of Value, and Greg and Jenny are heading to the south-east of England in search of much-needed supplies for the community at the Grange. Abby is dead set against this, of course, but it’s not like Greg to pay much attention to her, is it?

On the outskirts of London they meet another party of survivors looking to get out of the city, led by Phil, a former policeman. Could they be new recruits for the Grange community? Before they can find out, however, they encounter a patrol from the enclave led by former lecturer Gillison, and are taken in for questioning.

By now the listener is well aware that Gillison is a prime example of that prominent Survivors archetype, the small man turned post-apocalyptic despot, but none of the other characters know his capacity for ruthlessness – yet. Gillison quite reasonably clocks that Greg is an extremely handy and resourceful fellow to have about, and ropes him into a plan to survey the area using helicopters from Heathrow and make contact with any other communities they may find. But is that really what he’s up to?

On first listening, my response to Judges was heavily coloured by the simple fact that it has McCulloch and Fleming in it, playing Greg and Jenny again after all these years. As I’ve already said, the recreation of the characters is almost uncanny – it takes no effort at all to imagine Greg’s parka and that little cap he used to wear, even if he probably wouldn’t actually be wearing them (the episode is set in early summer). The script captures the characters superbly – Jenny is perhaps a touch stronger than she was at this point on TV, but that’s no bad thing.

The bulk of the story inevitably recalls Lights of London a little, in that it deals with an encounter with an urban settlement under the control of suspect leadership. Once again, no bad thing, but on reflection you do wonder what’s going on with the whole helicopter plan, given it’s eventually established that Gillison has a paranoid hostility towards any other group of survivors. Presumably he just wants to know where they are so he can move against them later. There’s also a very slight loose end, in that Smith wheels on some shotgun (more likely rifle)-toting raiders at one point, simply to service the plot.

Andrew Smith started his career as the youngest-ever writer on Doctor Who, responsible for the really-not-too-bad-at-all story Full Circle in 1980 (also its equally really-not-too-bad-at-all novelisation a couple of years later), but then decided to pack in writing for a successful career in the police (he has since retired from the fuzz and become something of a Big Finish regular). You get a sense of this background in the scenes with Phil, the ex-copper who still feels a sense of social responsibility even though society is in ruins. At one point there’s a genuinely interesting discussion of what it means to talk about law and order in a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s clearly the work of someone who has devoted serious thought to the concept of justice, as well as one who’s spent serious time at the business end of law enforcement. Unfortunately it doesn’t really inform the plot, which eventually turns out to be a mixture of drama and action-adventure about Gillison being a despotic control freak.

Episode four is John Dorney’s Esther, which continues along the same lines: Gillison is refusing to let Greg and Jenny (or indeed anyone else) leave, fearing they will come back with reinforcements and try to unseat him. The atmosphere in the community is growing more and more fraught as Gillison becomes more openly autocratic and authoritarian. Can our heroes make it out alive in time to get back to the Grange for the final episode of the first TV season?

It sounds like I’m suggesting that Greg and Jenny’s script immunity is the biggest problem in creating drama in Esther, which is not actually the case – you’re interested in the fates of the new characters, too, and they have no such guarantee of survival. The main issue with Esther is that it ultimately turns out to be a bit, well, melodramatic.

If there’s an ongoing theme throughout this first audio series, it’s that of the gradual transformation of Gillison from a slightly irritating polytechnic lecturer to a totally unhinged tyrant. And, largely as a result of the last episode, I’d say this doesn’t really work, because Gillison goes just too mad too quickly for it to feel credible – it’s happening more because the plot requires it than for any other reason. This is particularly awkward because Dorney makes a point of including flashbacks to his pre-plague life in an attempt to explain just why he has turned out in this way. It’s these flashbacks, by the way, that provide the sole pretext for titling the episode Esther – the theme of naming the episodes after books of the Bible is fair enough, but they have to stretch with this one, and it inevitably ends up feeling a little bit contrived as a result.

It’s well-played by all concerned, and you can never find much fault with Big Finish’s sound design, but in the end I would have to say that this is a set which starts off strongly but wobbles significantly towards the end. There are still more than enough strengths here to make me want to stick with this range, however.

 

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And here we go again: no, we are not finished with Terry Nation’s Survivors quite yet. One thing about revisiting these old genre TV shows in earnest: it sometimes leads to you uncovering stuff you’d never known about them before. I was completely oblivious to Babylon 5: The Lost Tales for five years, until I bought the complete boxed set. And did I ever actually hear that Big Finish were doing their own series of Survivors plays? I suppose it’s possible, but if so it was one of those things that never really registered – Big Finish’s output is so prolific these days it’s difficult to keep track of everything they’re doing.

I go back with Big Finish (creators of high-quality audio drama) to the end of last century, when they launched their range of Doctor Who stories. I bought dozens of these, didn’t miss a single one between 1999 and mid-2006, but since I went off to Japan I’ve only partaken of their wares very, very sparingly. (Perhaps I am subconsciously keeping all these hundreds of stories as a potential supply of new Doctor Who ahead of that moment when Chris Chibnall or whoever casts a woman in the part and I finally part company with the TV show.) The best of their output is quite brilliant; the bad stuff is still rarely painful to listen to. These days, it seems that they have expanded their scope, and as well as doing a vast number of Doctor Who-related plays, they’re also tackling everything from The Avengers to Terrahawks. So Survivors feels like a natural fit for them.

The first installment of the series, Revelation (also available as a free download), is written by Matt Fitton. I suppose it’s notable that Big Finish managed to negotiate the rights to the actual TV version of Survivors, which is something the BBC either couldn’t or chose not to do ten years ago when they were preparing the new version of the series. The most striking thing about Revelation is how little use it makes of those rights. None of the characters from the TV series appear, nor are there any references to specific on-screen events; it could just as easily be a spin-off from New Survivors, or a completely original drama. All that survives (no pun intended, probably) from the TV production is the theme tune, which sounds like it’s been recreated using a synthesiser and given a key change in the process – I can’t decide whether this is just about acceptable or slightly painful to the ear.

The story itself is a, brace yourself, paraprequalel (i.e., a parallel prequel) to the bulk of the TV show, depicting events happening around the time of The Fourth Horseman, but featuring different characters. Some interesting creative choices here: Big Finish have decided that the virus hit its peak during the run-up to Christmas, which seems equally as valid as my own feeling it might be early to mid January. If nothing else this expands the gap between the end of Gone Away and the beginning of Corn Dolly, quite useful if you’re looking to find places to insert Further Adventures not shown on TV. (The Big Finish version of the plague virus causes a lot more coughing than the TV one, but then it is audio, after all.)

The story advertises itself as that of a pair of journalists who uncover the story to end all stories (quite literally), and while one of the story threads does concern these characters (portrayed by John Banks and Caroline Langrishe), it doesn’t quite dig into the potential here in the way I might have expected: they just get overwhelmed by the chaos the outbreak causes like everyone else. The other major element of the story concerns a Loud American Lawyer (something of a stock type, I would suggest), stuck at a British airport and unable to get home as the transport system simply breaks down. This is largely a two-hander between Terry Molloy as a civil servant struggling to follow his instructions in defiance of all common sense, and Chase Masterson as the lawyer. (I was once standing three feet away from Chase Masterson while she shouted ‘There are no men around here! I have no-one to flirt with!’ and I hope you appreciate that I’m working very hard to be fair and objective in this review despite that.) Minor plotlines concern a polytechnic lecturer and a woman who works on a farm.

This episode is all set-up and hardly any resolution, but needless to say it functions efficiently enough. The plotline with the two journalists recalls The Fourth Horseman most clearly in its more domestic elements (one of the character’s family is stricken with the virus), but probably the most memorable parts of the story are the scenes at the airport between Molloy and Masterson, as they do give just an inkling of a sense of the international scale of the crisis, not to mention an insight into the handling of it by the government.

The Fourth Horseman, of course, took us from peak virus, through the collapse, and then to the very beginning of the reconstruction. Revelation operates a little differently, in that the collapse still seems to be very much in progress as the episode concludes; certainly not many people seem to be thinking in terms of how they are going to survive the secondary kill yet (with the possible exception of Adrian Lukis’ sociologist). The story is notably free of Terry Nation’s proselytising for more self-sufficiency and the need to rediscover traditional skills. If there is a thematic underpinning to the new series, it probably gets its best elaboration from Lukis as James Gillison: early on, before the collapse, he delivers a lecture about how it is only the construct of society that forces people to keep their baser natures and desires under control. As a foreshadowing of the rest of the Big Finish version of the series, it is rather ominous.

The biblical nomenclature continues with Jonathon Morris’ Exodus, a slightly odd title for an episode about characters going to a place rather than leaving it. This is very much part two of the same story as Revelation, dealing with most of the same characters as they begin to come together. The focus is on the London-based community set up and overseen by the lecturer Gillison, and the increasingly authoritarian methods he uses to maintain it. To say much more would be to start unloading spoilers, and as this is still such a relatively new series (at least compared to the episodes it is based on) I don’t feel I can really do that.

Suffice to say the secondary kill starts to kick in with a vengeance, and Big Finish fully exploit the possibilities that come from having almost an entirely new slate of previously-unknown characters – by the end of Exodus you are fully conscious of the fact that anyone could potentially die at any moment in this series. Making a particular impression this time around is Louise Jameson as Jackie, a woman struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family. There will always be a special place in my affections for Louise Jameson – I have known she was since before I could read or write, after all – and this episode shows just what a talented actress she has always been. This is probably the bleakest and darkest version of Survivors yet, and the wrenching quality of Jameson’s performance sells this as much as the grimness of events as the story unfolds.

In contrast, what could have been the episode’s most significant moment passes off almost unheralded – Daniel (Banks) and Jackie are driving across London when they encounter a young woman walking out of the city. Her name is Jenny, and she is heading for the countryside, on doctor’s orders. I expect I shall be saying this a lot, but the ease with which Lucy Fleming recreates a performance from forty years ago is utterly astonishing – she does literally sound as though she’s just walked off the set of The Fourth Horseman. But, as I say, this is very much a minor moment in a story which is notably confident of its ability to survive on its own terms – confidence, I have to say, which seems entirely justified. If this is the quality they can produce with a new cast and characters, then the possibilities when all of the original trio get a chance to go to work in earnest are incredibly exciting. I am aware I am well behind the times when I say this, but just in case you haven’t heard it before: if you like the 1970s version of Survivors, this new version from Big Finish is sounding very much like an essential purchase.

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Just today I got my (virtual) hands on a copy of Cubicle 7’s Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, which I am still assimilating and may yet return to in order to comment in more detail. (As you might expect, given my vintage I am a sucker for almost anything with Tom Baker’s Doctor on the cover.) This is, putting it briefly, a guide for creating storytelling game scenarios either featuring the fourth Doctor, or imitating the style of his stories. It’s actually a little surprising that the book is either too vague when it comes to summarising what makes this era distinctive, or rather too specific. ‘Be knowingly derivative’ is about the limit of the book’s advice, which if you ask me is simply waving vaguely in the direction of the surface, let alone barely scratching it. Then again, perhaps I am being too harsh: but nevertheless, if you know what you’re about it is relatively straightforward to distill the essence of the Hinchcliffe-produced seasons, at least, and whip up some new ideas in the same vein.

Or perhaps I’m taking too much for granted, as convincingly recreating the style and atmosphere of this most celebrated, not to mention dissected, era of Doctor Who is one of those challenges which quite a few have taken on, with outright successes being notably thin on the ground. Quite by chance, I’ve also recently been listening to Destination: Nerva, an audio from 2012 which also has a go at synthesising the magic.

nerva

Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, this story sees the Doctor and Leela drawn to the aftermath of a battle between British soldiers and aliens, which has – somewhat surprisingly – taken place in Kent, in 1895. The victorious Brits have stolen the alien starship and headed off to parts unknown, and the Doctor, as usually, feels morally obligated to go after them.

However, the TARDIS takes the duo hundreds of years into the future, to a construction complex in Jupiter orbit where a new space dock is under construction: the Doctor knows that eventually the dock will become the Nerva Beacon, repository of the most precious cargo in human history, but that all still lies in the future for now. (The story is charmingly vague about when Nerva was actually constructed, most likely because the exact dating of one of the TV stories set in its early history is still somewhat controversial. Personally I’d date Revenge of the Cybermen to the mid-to-late 25th century and suggest this story occurs anything up to a century before that. But I digress, as usual.)

No sooner have the Doctor and Leela made themselves known to the authorities on Nerva than an unknown spacecraft is approaching – and, not entirely unsurprisingly to the listener, it turns out to be full of the nasty imperialist toffs and their followers from the start of the story, mysteriously unaged, and now carrying a horrific mutagenic disease of some kind…

Now, I would have said that all you needed to create a properly authentic fourth Doctor story in a performed medium was the presence of Tom Baker. He’s still so iconic, and still inhabits the role so utterly, that you really don’t need anything else, do you? However, Big Finish seem to have thought different and, no matter what horrific contortions the victims of the virus go through in this story, they’re not quite as extreme as the way that the story itself bends over backwards to try and cement its place as a bona fide extension to Season 14.

It opens with a virtual reprise of the end of Talons of Weng-Chiang, for one thing, with explicit references to Jago and Litefoot and the leads’ mock-Victorian attire from that story. As if that wasn’t enough, the story goes on to revisit the spiritual starting point of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, the Nerva Beacon (as seen in The Ark in Space), and serves up a body-horror-influenced story about possessed astronauts. Okay, okay, guys: we get the idea.

The really weird thing is that, despite crowbarring in so many references to the on-screen stories from this period, Destination: Nerva really doesn’t feel much like any of them. One can’t really blame Nick Briggs for not being Robert Holmes, hardly anyone ever has been, but this just feels like a fairly bland runaround, with no sense of the ‘genuine gothic’ so beloved of Philip Hinchcliffe himself. (The swipes from Holmes, by the way, extend to reusing a plot idea from one of his Blake’s 7 scripts, but I’m not entirely certain this has been consciously done.) It’s pretty much a wit-free zone, too: I may be doing the script a disservice, but most of the Doctor’s funniest lines sound like ad libs from Tom. And, for a story so intent on immersing itself in the spirit of 1977, there are signs of a modern sensibility at work: there are two significant female characters, which isn’t exactly evocative of an era where many of the stories had no guest roles for women at all.

(Man, there’s a big can of knotty worms – I would never judge the sexual or racial politics of a 1970s story by modern standards, or at least not too harshly, but on the other hand is it acceptable to criticise a period pastiche for being too diverse? In this case I would cautiously say yes, given that Destination: Nerva plainly has being a Hinchcliffe pastiche as its prime raison d’etre. The inclusion of a more diverse cast may or may not help the story as a story, but they’re certainly a mark against its authenticity.)

On the other hand, the story’s desperation to prove itself a genuine part, or at least a continuation of, this era of the series may be understandable given that neither Tom Baker or Louise Jameson sound quite match-fit in this story. Their performances aren’t quite pitched right – 2012 Leela sounds shrill and up-tight where 1977 Leela was matter-of-fact and sincere, while the Doctor… I don’t know, the dividing line between the fourth Doctor and Tom Baker himself has always been, umm, porous, but to me it sounds like there’s a lot more Tom than the Doctor in the performance here. The effortless domination of every scene, and that subtle alien aloofness – both of them are not quite there any more. Some of it may simply be down to the fact that, inevitably, Tom’s voice has changed as he’s aged, and it doesn’t quite have the richness or power it once had.

Oh dear, I’ve been almost entirely negative about a story for which I am, theoretically at least, the ideal target audience: I’m a die-hard fan of the series who started watching at the end of Season 14, which is exactly when this is set. Are my standards too high? I don’t know. I have to say that I’m not particularly a fan of Nick Briggs as a writer – his stories are always solid enough in terms of narrative cerpentry, but they’re almost never especially witty or inventive, or indeed pack much of a punch in terms of subtext or emotional content. All this is true of Destination: Nerva – it feels like a statement of intent rather than an actual story, with the realisation not living up to the ambition.

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Well, one consequence of the recent transformations in my life is that I am now sharing the garret with 700+ CDs and DVDs (not to mention a couple of dozen World of Darkness sourcebooks, but I suspect they may be a bit too niche even for this blog), including the majority of existing TV Doctor Who and the entirety of the first six years of the Big Finish audio range.

I suspect that, ironically enough, the rise of Doctor Who to its current world-conquering televisual status has been really bad news for the audio range. These initial CD-and-tape releases were a massive deal for Whodom in the early 2000s, being the only place you could find proper actors doing proper new Doctor Who stories (followers of the novel range were prone to grumpiness on this point). Now, however, they are as niche as they have ever been – with all-singing, all-dancing Doctor Who readily available (and, occasionally, seemingly inescapable), you have to be especially dedicated to want to pay for even more.

I have to say that the only new Big Finish productions I’ve listened to in the last nine years have been their fiftieth anniversary special and a few Paul McGann stories that turned up on digital radio back in 2011. Increasingly I am beginning to wonder if my life might not be a little bit brighter if I dipped back into this particular world on a more regular basis: God knows I am disenchanted enough with the current version of the TV show, and the moment where I part company with it entirely is (I suspect) only one more change of lead away. Plus, partaking of more Doctor Who means more opportunities to write about Doctor Who, which is always something that makes me happy.

May as well start with a good one, so the first story I figuratively dusted off was The Holy Terror, from 2000. This tale was written by Rob Shearman, notable for being probably the only writer for BF to graduate to working on the TV series itself (a few others have come up through the ranks of the various novel ranges). It was highly regarded at the time, at least by those who bought it: however, it was apparently rather less successful than other plays of the time, something which the producers ruefully referred to as the Penguin Effect – shorthand for the tendency of insular fans to eschew stories they don’t consider to be ‘canon’.

holyterror

Insular fans are idiots, if you ask me: more than a decade on, The Holy Terror still sounds superb. Shearman’s audio stories tend to be set in strange pocket realms cut-off from the rest of the universe, and so it proves here. Irked by the Doctor’s current companion, Frobisher, interfering with the systems, the TARDIS lands in a very peculiar castle. The ruler of the population is venerated as a god by his or her subjects, and intricate systems and rituals have long been established to dictate the behaviour of virtually everyone involved. The newly-installed God, Peppin VII, is very unsure of his suitability for the position, but the grinding wheels of tradition look set to crush his rather tentative objections – until the Doctor and Frobisher (who closely resembles a large talking penguin) find themselves mixed up in events. But a homicidal, near-omnipotent presence is incubating in the depths of this very strange place – but what exactly is it? And does it have any connection to the strangest fact of all – that the castle has an inside, but no outside…?

Doctor Who on audio is a somewhat different beast to its 20th century TV incarnation, and vastly unlike the thing which is currently on TV. In some ways this is beneficial, as dubious sets and problematic special effects are considerably rarer in a sound-only environment. Certainly the story is (obviously) much less reliant on action and visual spectacle, but I think this rather helps it attain a state of true Whoishness: the series, for me, is all about strong ideas and characters, properly developed, and The Holy Terror is almost too densely packed with these.

Then again, this is a Rob Shearman script, and these are usually distinguished by savage black humour, unflinchingly graphic violence, and a fearsome density of ideas and themes. On the surface, The Holy Terror initially plays like a pastiche of I Claudius, played especially for laughs, and much of the play is about the seeming-absurdity of religious belief – characters complain about not being executed in the manner they expected, and so on. Then again, the play does have things to say about the importance and comfort of ritual, both religious and otherwise, which did not seem to me to be entirely unsympathetic. Then again, by its closing stages the story has moved on to be about guilt, and the effects of being caught in cycles of violence, and what it means for a parent not to love their child. On top of even this is a more scientifictional concern – namely, the morality of the treatment of sentient artificial beings. Just because someone isn’t objectively ‘real’, does that mean their feelings are of no import?

There is, obviously, much to contemplate here and it’s to Shearman’s credit that he manages to juggle these concerns and still keep the story intriguing and frequently very funny. That said, anyone used to the recent TV series will probably find it very talky, in additional to being tonally quite different: to say nothing of the fact that Shearman is quite happy to concentrate on his own characters for whole scenes at a time – not only are there key moments in which the Doctor and Frobisher aren’t present, they aren’t even discussed by the other characters.

Just as well, then, that the performances are so universally strong: the characters are usually stereotypes, but then that’s the point, and the players bring them vibrantly to life. The big names in this play are Peter Guinness, Roberta Taylor, and Sam Kelly, all of whom are excellent – Kelly gives a remarkable vocal performance in a dual role – but even a supporting actor like Peter Sowerbutts finds real pathos and poignancy in his scenes towards the end of the story.

Clearly revelling in it all is Colin Baker. His era of the TV series is still, for good or ill, relatively little-loved, but possibly the best thing about the whole Big Finish range is the opportunity it has given Colin Baker to show the Doctor he was moving towards being on TV: here he is slightly pompous and doesn’t mince his words, but he is still perceptive, intelligent, and deeply humane. Many other great Colin Baker audios were to follow, but this is perhaps the first that was truly outstanding.

As I intimated at the start, however, the revived TV series has seemed less keen to draw upon the audios for inspiration and talent than it has the novel range. Shearman only wrote one story, in 2005 – perhaps the process of writing eleven drafts of the script was not to his liking – and while Dalek is still one of the highlights of the revived series, it doesn’t have quite the depth or complexity of the CD story it was based on. Perhaps I, too, am getting more insular as I grow older, but it increasingly seems to me that the best of these CDs capture the essence of really great Doctor Who more closely than some ‘proper’ TV stories of recent years. And if you were drawing up a case to this effect, The Holy Terror would surely be one of the exhibits.

 

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