This is a spread of reviews I did for DWM of audio dramas by Big Finish Productions. The Tenth Doctor Adventures Vol.1, featuring David Tennant and Catherine Tate was Big Finish’s highest profile release to date, with release day downloads crashing Big Finish’s website!

The rest of the spread features reviews of the excellent ‘Master Trilogy’ featuring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, the last of which, The Two Masters I recall hammering out near-instantaneously in a mild panic whilst listening to it, as I had a plane to catch to Italy in the morning. I hope I did it justice, I made a point of apologising to the very nice and talented writer, John Dorney if I didn’t.

Publisher: Panini
Cover Date: September 2016

The Tenth Doctor Adventures Vol. 1

It’s funny, isn’t it, running into friends that you haven’t heard from in a while? They might have changed a lot, or a little, or maybe they’re exactly the same as they were when you last met, and they’re still great company. So, welcome back, the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble, plucked from their pomp in the 2008 series, for this box of three new adventures. The Doctor-Donna relationship is a fan favourite, and it’s easy to see why – they’re simply the best of mates. David Tennant’s reunion with Catherine Tate revives their old chemistry effortlessly, and that combination of friendly bickering and dazzling verbal dexterity that is the Tenth Doctor and Donna, appropriately, hits the ground running.

The first story, Matt Fitton’s Technophobia, sets the tone nicely, an Earthbound adventure set a couple of years in Donna’s future but a few in our past, in the early days of our love affair with smartphones and tablets. Technophobia is in the mould of a season opener, teasing a mystery then immediately reintroducing the Doctor and Donna, as she arrives from a shopping trip to pick him up from an afternoon mooching around the surprisingly quiet Technology Museum. Upstairs, overworked tech genius Jill Meadows, (Rachael Stirling) wrestles with her invention, the brand-new M-Pad, while trying to conduct an interview. Back downstairs, exhibits begin to attack humans. There’s a cliffhanger sting, and we’re off. Fitton’s story takes that old argument about technology dumbing you down, and cleverly runs with it. London finds its collective senses under attack from the malign Kognossenti, an alien intelligence that’s making humans first develop acute techno-fear, then gradually lose their faculties altogether.

They are, however, a mixed bag of a monster. What they do is extremely creepy, and they announce themselves with a chilling catchphrase – “We are the Kognossenti. You know nothing.” What works about them is the primal fear they awaken in people, like Jill Meadows, illustrated perfectly by the superb Stirling’s transformation from workaholic to a childlike, scared figure who’s losing the power of language. In execution though, they lose a little, coming over like the Dominators (from the 1968 story of the same name) but with modulated voices.

Fitton’s script captures both the Doctor and Donna well. In-between cracking the customary funnies and being swaggeringly clever, the Doctor’s mask occasionally slips to reveal the angry lonely god. Meanwhile, Donna is as funny, sharp, and compassionate as ever, and she benefits from being given a sidekick in fellow temp Bex ‘with an x’ (Niki Wardley). It’s a bit of a romp all-round, but the advice dished out by Donna and the Doctor to Jill to take a bit of an extended screen-break feels exactly right, and is a sweet message to end on.

Next up, Jenny T Colgan gives us a space station tale turned up to 11 with the marvellous Time Reaver, where a trip to the garage turns into something completely unexpected. Dropping by the spaceport of Calibris for a new fluid link, they meet the bureaucratic-but-nice Vacintians, teenage runaway Cora (Sabrina Bartlett), and the octopoid gangster Gully (John Banks). All of them, for different reasons, are trying to get their hands (or tentacles) on the titular Time Reaver, a device that could be a terrible weapon in the wrong hands (or tentacles). Colgan’s story skilfully takes everything we love about Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who – humour, pit-of-stomach emotion, and a queasily nasty sci-fi concept – and makes something that feels both authentic and new. Tennant and Tate are as brilliant as ever, and Colgan nails their voices with laser-beam accuracy.

There’s rip-snorting comedy – Donna’s looking for the “Planet of the Boys”, and the Doctor’s aghast when offered a scone – but it’s not all larks. The Doctor’s righteously angry at the misuse of the Time Reaver, while Donna is at her most human when taking Cora under her wing, and listening to the heart-rending story of Cora’s home world, which Bartlett delivers beautifully.

The supporting cast features Alex Lowe as a Minder-ish mechanic and Dan Starkey in henchman mode – but the real stand-outs are a quiet, thoughtful turn from Terry Molloy as lead Vacintian Rone and a tremendous villain from Banks, who goes for it, gurgling and cackling, and clearly having the time of his life.
The box is rounded off by Death and the Queen by James Goss, which gives us another ill-fated wedding for Donna, who’s about to become queen to the slightly limp seventeenth-century monarch Rudolph of Goritania.

It’s all going swimmingly (snooty Queen Mother aside) until the ‘gooseberry’ Doctor rocks up, and the castle finds itself under siege from a skeletal army led by what appears to be the Grim Reaper.

It’s another belter, a witty, inventive romp that gives the leads some of their strongest material – with Tennant in particular at his most energetically, shoutily Doctorish. Tate, meanwhile, excels as Donna lords it up around the court, schooling an entire castle of ladies-in-waiting in the ways of Jackie Collins and shorthand. The guest cast is also fantastic, with Beth Chalmers as the plucky handmaiden Hortense and Alice Krige as the venomous Queen Mother. It’s also possibly the only story in Doctor Who ’s canon to feature lucky pants.

So, Big Finish’s most full-blooded trip so far into modern Doctor Who is a big success. There’s some subtle differences to the show we remember; Nick Briggs’ direction is pacy but not as breathless as the Tenth Doctor’s TV adventures, while Howard Carter’s music is a less bombastic than Murray Gold’s. It’s exactly the clever, fun ride you would expect, though, with everyone involved having a rare old time. The bonus behind-the-scenes material is testament to this, capturing a happy, enthused cast and crew in studio, led by Tennant and Tate, who sound just as stoked as everyone else. Welcome back, old friends. Please stop by again soon.

The Master Trilogy – And You Will Obey Me

The Master has always had a curious relationship with death. He’s very fond of it, and it of him. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to want to let him go.

So what’s the Fifth Doctor to do, when his best enemy seems to actually be dead this time? The Doctor finds himself on Earth, caught in a bidding war over a very familiar grandfather clock. His investigations lead him to what appears to be the Master’s final resting place, in the rural town of Hexford, and before long he’s got Russian mercenaries, a young couple with hypnotic powers, a mysterious MI5 agent, and a pair of psychotic giant alien dragonflies to deal with.

And You Will Obey Me takes a novel approach to telling a story about the Master, by making it largely about his absence, and his baleful impact on others. It’s told mostly in flashback, and focuses on the tangled fortunes of a group of teenagers who chance upon the injured Master and his crashed TARDIS, and become his agents on Earth. He becomes a twisted father figure to vulnerable Mikey, vain Janine, awkward Colin and spiky Helen. They become his wide-eyed accomplices, and assist him in gathering what he needs to recover.

Naturally, he’s a terrible role model, and his ‘children’ are all left lost in the world after his apparent demise, with his mocking laughter still haunting their dreams. It’s interesting for the Master, who doesn’t usually have companions, to have these surrogate children. He gets inside the heads of each, casually ruining their lives to further his cause, none more so than the tragic Mikey – his ‘favourite’. Geoffrey Beevers is brilliantly understated; of all of the incarnations of the Master, his silky-voiced walking cadaver is perhaps the greatest manipulator of the lot. It’s sometimes said that the best Master stories relegate the Doctor to second fiddle. Here, Peter Davison’s Doctor takes a back seat to both the Master and his young charges. There’s a lot of ingenious, complex plot to negotiate here, and the Doctor almost takes on the companion role – asking all the questions and spending a lot of the time trying to get his head around exactly what’s going on, until he realises just what a long game his sneaky old ‘frenemy’ has been playing.

It’s a fine story, fast-paced, clever, and poignant all at once. Masterful.

The Master Trilogy – Vampire of the Mind

Big Finish has had a lot of fun mixing and matching eras of Doctor Who recently. The middle part of the Masters trilogy is no exception, pitting the Sixth Doctor against Alex Macqueen’s Master.

Dropping in on old friend Professor Threadstone and finding he’s gone missing, the Doctor teams up with Threadstone’s daughter Heather. Their investigations lead them to reports of other missing scientists, and the mysterious Dominus Institute – a front for… guess who?

Much mileage is had from the Sixth Doctor’s out-of-sequence meeting with this Master. The Doctor knows who he’s looking for, and that he’s likely not to recognise his opponent. This allows him an amusing moment as he mistakes the CEO of Dominus, Andrew Gobernar for his best enemy, going in with hackles up, only to have to climb back down again. When the two Time Lords do eventually meet, they’re a great pairing.

Perhaps the Sixth Doctor is more likely to respond to a classically convoluted Master plan, as he has much in common with his Third incarnation. He’s still haughty and imperious, but there’s a certain glee at being able to play detective in the pub over a glass of ginger beer. Colin Baker sounds very much at ease, and the catty put-downs he bats back and forward with Macqueen’s fruity, almost flirty Master are great fun. Their bickering is the highlight of the story.

The supporting cast is very strong, especially Kate Kennedy as surrogate companion Heather, but this isn’t really about them. This is very much Macqueen’s show. He’s soft-spoken and camp, but just as he starts to feel slightly cuddly, he shows his fangs, which makes his Master’s cruel manipulation of the tragic Gobernar all the more shocking.

Justin Richards’ tale has plenty of atmosphere, but much of it is smoke and mirrors – the set-up of Vampire is sideshow to a bigger plan, a larger mystery. It’s a trap within a trap, or perhaps a trap cubed. At the conclusion, there’s a creepy sting in the tail, an old-school reminder of the Master’s knack for brainwashing, which sets the stage for Macqueen’s charming schemer to cross paths with Geoffrey Beevers’ charred psychopath, as the trilogy concludes…

The Master Trilogy – The Two Masters

The Two Masters, by John Dorney, is a fitting conclusion to the Master trilogy, tying-up the nagging loose threads of the trilogy in a riot of invention.
The Seventh Doctor finds himself in the middle of a dispute between the two Masters, who unusually both seem set on killing each other. The backdrop to this skirmish is a galactic war, and behind that, gaps are appearing in the fabric of time – gaps that lead to the end of everything.

In the, er, dark corner, the ‘bubbly’ Master of Big Finish fame (Alex Macqueen), who’s unusually subdued, a shadowy figure manipulating the outcome of a war in the Gorlan Empire. In the really dark corner, the ‘decayed husk’ Master (Geoffrey Beevers), who’s not quite his usual baleful self. His rescue of the Doctor early on is both surprising and swashbuckling, with Beevers firing off catty one-liners and puns as if he’s starring in his own warped action movie. He’s also spectacularly bloodthirsty, leaving an above-average trail of bodies in his wake. The Doctor is moved to not that this incarnation is having more fun than usual.

There’s a very good reason for Beevers and Macqueen’s apparent role-reversal, which becomes clear as Dorney’s intricate script unfolds, expertly steered by director Jamie Anderson. There’s a sense of the snake eating its own tail here, as the clever plot revolves around a nifty paradox. There’s also a juicy bit of fan-lore explained, as we pay a visit to Tersurus.

But the real highlight of the story is the fabulous repartee between Macqueen and Beevers, who give us a coal-black version of the familiar matey bickering from multi-Doctor stories. When the Doctor meets himself it’s usually an opportunity to have a bit of fun. The relationship between the Masters is perhaps more interesting, oscillating between murderous resentment and the jolly air of a pair of old lags going on the run together.

The Doctor takes a backseat for much of the story, but Sylvester McCoy shines, especially in his scenes with Jemima (Lauren Crace). Having allowed the Masters their moment, he casually swaggers back in for the last act, and assumes command.

The Two Masters is a meeting that’s been a long time coming. It doesn’t disappoint, and also features some of the finest snarking ever committed to audio.

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