Who is the grey giant that haunts the mountain of Ben MacDui? What exactly has the Brigadier come to investigate? And will Ace, ever, get to the Edinburgh Hogmany street party she so desperately craves?
Big Finish’s Grey Man of the Mountain, by Lisbeth Myles, is, it has to be said, a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, Ms Myles’s writing is accomplished and natural. Characters are expertly made real through their actions and exchanges rather than cumbersome exposition, and the narrative proceeds at a satisfying pace. Sound design is, as ever, fantastic: the mountain atmospherics are beautifully evoked, creating a real sense of place. And the background music is, pretty much, spot on for the period of the TV series it tries to fit into.
Performances, too, are (on the whole) excellent. Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy as Ace and the Doctor inhabit characters they are intimately familiar with, and yet obviously nowhere near bored of playing: there’s a real joy from both that is easily passed from actor to audient. (Singular of audience. It’s a word. Honest.)
And mention must be made of John Culshaw’s performance as the Brigadier. In many, many cases – Tim Treloar as the Third Doctor, for example – the fact that the actor plays an interpretation of a character rather than an impression of someone else’s performance is a real plus. Here, though, Culshaw’s expert rendition of Nicholas Courtney’s Brig is exemplary, and would be a lesser thing were it not so close to the original. It is very hard to hear without seeing the TV Brig in the mind’s eye, and that’s no mean feat. It’s an absolutely glorious thing to have him back for an entire story.
So, why a curate’s egg then? Well, there’s no one thing that is majorly wrong, but a number of small things that add up.
The script is very funny in places, and played for comedy, especially in the first episode. However, occasionally that comedy is hammered home with incidental music that completely overplays it, in one instance very nearly going the full shave-and-a-haircut. To my mind, this does the comedy of the moment a disservice. Thankfully, this isn’t the case for the majority of the story.
The music is also part of another problem for me: the Christmas motif. There is nothing essentially festive about the story, but being released in December there was obviously opportunity for a bit of yuletide reference, and that we get in spades. The Brigadier’s entrance is heavy-handedly Yuled-up by its incidental music, for example; and later in the story, an impromptu bit of Christmas singing feels artificially inserted in a somewhat laboured manner. I’m all for a Christmas story – but please, let’s have Christmas as a main character rather than a bystander.
My third issue was with the story itself. While beautifully written, it very much tells what happens rather than why it happens. There’s a bit of supposition later on regarding what might be going on, but to a great extent it is a series of events that occur rather than a mystery being solved or a larger picture emerging. As such – and despite one character’s story definitely going through an arc of sorts – there doesn’t feel like much of a satisfying third act to be had.
And lastly – and it really pains me to say this – one performance is just execrably poor. Not throughout, but enough bad acting that the fourth wall is repeatedly broken and the story undermined.
All in all, I am sad to say that I found this a disappointing listen. A lot of good things, and much that I look forward to hearing in the future (Culshaw and Myles to name but two); but enough small annoyances to make the whole thing less than the magic carpet ride it could have been.
Why are the Doctor and Peri aiding the Scarlet Pimpernel is his efforts to rescue French aristos from Mme la Guillotine? How has the Pimpernel proper become so injured that the Doctor is forced to take his place? Why is there an android stomping the streets of Paris? And perhaps the most perplexing question of all: how do the Doctor and his companion come to be in eighteenth century Europe conversing with and abetting a person who is, let’s face it, fictional?
It is to writer Chris Chapman’s immense credit that this latter question is adeptly avoided for almost all of the first episode of Plight of the Pimpernel – right up until the Doctor asks it, straight to the point and out of the blue. This piece of narrative is executed with subtlety and skill, the elephant in the room having been so well ignored up until that point that the listener either entirely believes the fictional universe the Pimpernel inhabits to be the one the Doctor is currently in, or wonders if this is a piece of ‘Robots of Sherwood’ style literary legerdemain in which we are invited to consider the Pimpernel an historical reality. That this rug of imagination is pulled out from under us in a single line is almost a laugh out loud moment.
And this skill is evident in Chapman’s writing for – almost – all of the story. Very obviously not a pure historical from the start, the script expertly sets up peril and a bevvy of questions demanding answers right from the get-go. The action sequences are exciting and pretty quick, which actually works in their favour; the ever-deepening mystery teased out with narrative that is every bit as efficient as the ‘but he’s fictional’ moment described above; and the characters, of which there are just the right number, feel like people rather than caricatures, with enough depth to gain the listener’s empathy.
Obviously this speaks to the quality of acting, direction and sound design too. With regard to the former, the performances are, as is rarely not the case in a BigFinish production, exemplary. Colin Baker’s Doctor – bombastic, sympathetic and taking of far too much personal responsibility in equal measure – continues to just get better and better; and Nicola Bryant’s Peri is, as always should be the case, every bit the equal of her companion. Her portrayal of Peri-playing-Lady-Blakeney is particularly good, with a voice that comes somewhere between Tracy-Ann Oberman and Linda Snell off of the Archers – not a criticism.
Jamie Parker’s Sir Percy is also a fine performance, the nobility and sacrifice of the Pimpernel being made evident right from the start, seamlessly translating into other equally believable aspects of his personality as the story progresses. Similarly Oliver, albeit a second-tier character in the writing, is made utterly believable by Joe Jameson’s performance.
Sound design by Andy Hardwick is seamless, creating a very believable universe for the action to take place in. (Andy also created a ‘remote recording dialogue assembly’ – I don’t know what one of those is, but I imagine it’s made necessary by the pandemic, and therefore can only be part of his job having got harder. Further respect to him for that.)
I really only have one beef with this story, and that is that, in its closing, it falls back on an awful lot of exposition. There is one especially long piece in the closing moments that explains what the listener has just listened to over a period of time that is, I’m pretty sure, longer than the time it took to listen to it.
I’ll admit I was surprised by this, considering the skill evident in the earlier episodes. It feels a little like Chapman ran out of time, or hit a word limit that he struggled to cope with, and fell back on a device that at least got the story told, but not in as satisfying a way as the earlier episodes told their parts. Having said that, after the closing moments there are actually a couple of extra scenes that, IMHO, were not really needed. I wonder if there may have been scope for a little honing there? A bit less tell and tell some more, and a bit more show of just the important bits?
Overall, though, a great listen, and one of my favourites of the main range of recent months. Big Finish continues to excel, and I genuinely look forward to more from Mr Chapman.
Masterful is many things – a celebration of a classic character, the WHO version of an Avengers movie, a showcase for superb actors and a hysterical comedy.
The best way to describe the plot of Masterful is simple: The Master. That’s it. This is a showcase for each of the surviving actors who have played The Master to step up, have their turn and provide three hours of glorious, riotous entertainment. This isn’t high brow WHO, this is a broad comedy, a balls out bawdy celebration of the Doctor’s greatest nemesis. James Goss has crafted a tribute that manages to succinctly capture the tone, mannerisms and essence of each of the Masters.
I would be remiss not to highlight a few of my favourite performances:
Michelle Gomez – she is simply stunning, a genuine tour de force from a performer who dominates each and every scene she is in. Missy is at her most wild, unhinged and gloriously funny. Goss provides Gomes with dialogue that she chews on, and then spits out with such force and sheer vigour that it is impossible to ignore. This lady is in the same scene as Derek Jacobi, and I can only remember her performance. Stunning, legendary and a blue print of how a gender swapped Time Lord should be portrayed.
Eric Roberts – an utter joy. Roberts captures not only his Master, but fully embraces the camp excesses of the part. He is imply wonderful to listen to here, and a Television reprise is a must after this. Roberts is worth the price of admission alone – he is fun, menacing and absolutely sensational. A superb actor, who is cruelly and sadly overlooked these days. A proper legend.
John Simm. Simm goes full Frankie Howerd here, and his performance is all the better for it. I was in tears of laughter at how he approached the part – absolutely wonderful – he plays this a bit more broad and camp then his last televised appearance – but no matter, this is Simm at his most entertaining.
Derek Jacobi – trust an old pro to find a bit of humanity and a bit of subtlety in his latest performance. He is a unmitigated joy here. Savour him – a proper acting legend.
This is not to say that Mark Gattis, Geoffrey Beevers, Alex McQueen, Milo Parker are bad – they aren’t, each would be a star turn on their own, however the above performers are SO assured, their parts approached with such gusto that it is hard to look past their sterling work.
I must, in closing give a massive shout out to the legend that is Katy Manning, her Jo Grant, ably assisted by a Jon Culshaw powered Third Doctor. She provides a tangible and welcome link back to The Masters first appearance.
I cannot end, without giving a much needed tip of the hat to Messer’s Delgado and Ainley. Two superb actors who provided the platform for all those who followed to explore. The world of Doctor Who is sadly smaller, and less fun without them.
The Master, we have attended, and we have enjoyed! Here’s to another 50 years of crazy schemes, high collars, “Drezzing for the occasion” and shrinking rays, disguises, and beards (of all descriptions)
THE CHURCHILL YEARS: THE ONCOMING STORM is available for FREE as a digital download from the Big Finish weekly deals page and there is up to 70% OFF Winston Churchill adventures on collector’s edition CD and digital download.
Marc Platt has the distinction of having the last “classic” episode of Doctor Who filmed in the highly acclaimed Ghost Light. He was also one of the movers and shakers in Andrew Cartmel’s planned shake up of the programme in the late 80s and has written one of the most iconic and fiercely contested NAs ever, Lungbarrow. I found him in the cloisters of Big Finish Towers, and subjected him to The Mind Probe…
How did you get the commission for Ghost Light?
I’d been sending story ideas to the Doctor Who office for about ten years, and over that period there had been a gradual increase in interest with each story. Standard rejections, personalized rejections, visit to Chris Bidmead’s office, lunch with Eric Saward. I think I was very lucky when Andrew Cartmel took me under his wing and guided me through the writing process, alternatively prodding me and encouraging me in the right direction. The first story that Andrew read of mine was Cat’s Cradle, which eventually transmogrified into the book Time’s Crucible. Andrew knew that to realise the story properly would take up most of a season’s budget, so he asked for another storyline. The result was Shrine, set in 19th century Russia, with alien priests seeking the reincarnation of their spiritual leader and trying to kidnap the wrong one. That was when I was invited along to Andrew’s office. After that meeting, we worked on Lungbarrow about the Doctor’s return to his own lost home and family on Gallifrey, but when John Nathan-Turner decided that we were revealing too much too soon, we took the element of the Doctor’s worst place in the universe and turned it into Ace’s nightmare instead with Ghost Light.
A lot of TV writers are disappointed by what ends up on screen. What did you think of the finished product?
We are exactly twenty years on from Ghost Light and I still love it to bits. Its energy surprises me. Of course there are things that could have gone better. It was over-long, and so the editing is gaspingly tight. All three episodes need an extra five minutes, not so much for plot expansion, but for time to breathe. What you also learn on your first story is how much other people bring to your work. They find things even the author didn’t know were there. Alan Wareing’s direction added depth, clarity and momentum to proceedings, and the endeavours both costume and set designers went to get both the overall feel and the intricate period detail were extraordinary. The terrific cast, even if some of them famously claimed not to understand parts of the script, went at it with great dedication and faith. Sometimes actors just run on instinct. I certainly couldn’t be disappointed with that… just wholeheartedly grateful.
Were you aware at the time it would be the last produced Who in a long while?
The production team may have had inklings, but the writers certainly didn’t. We were all beavering away at the next season.
There was much talk of The Cartmel Masterplan in the years since, but Andrew himself seems to distance himself from there actually being such a thing. How did you perceive it at the time?
The ‘Masterplan’ as such was something that the magazines came up with in their need to label and pigeonhole things. It’s closer to think of it as more of a mood and direction for the series. Both Andrew and Ben Aaronovitch wanted the series to be darker. The Doctor had a past which we didn’t know about. Andrew would say, “The Doctor knows what’s going on.” I’m not sure that I agreed totally with that, but it was a good place to start. This dark past would be alluded to and it was suggested that the Doctor was somehow involved in the early genesis of the Time Lords. But at that point, even in the proposed Lungbarrow, there was nothing too explicit. That came later.
Were you going to write for the next series? What would that have been?
I was asked to produce a story featuring the return of the Ice Warriors. I planned to set it on a terraformed Mars – an industrial-scaled pasture planet which sees the reawakening of the former Martian civilisation. Andrew wanted a story set in Sixties London. JNT wanted to use the London Dungeon as a location. And it was to have been Ace’s final story where the Doctor gets her enrolled at the Academy on Gallifrey – with hilarious results obviously. So there would have been lots to juggle with.
Your next official foray into Whodom was Time’s Crucible, again a complicated tale of Time-folk – is the history of Gallifrey of particular fascination to you?
I was intrigued by the differences in the Gallifrey that we see in Deadly Assassin with everything we’d seen about Time Lords before that. It became a sort of exercise in slotting all the conflicting details and knowledge together. How could such an all-powerful society become so remote, fusty and sterile? How did such an iconic figure as Rassilon come to power and what did he do to become so utterly revered? And, sneaking about in the shadows, what part did the Doctor (or whoever he was before he was the Doctor) have in it all?
Surprisingly, after Time’s Crucible it was a while before you wrote another novel. Why was this?
Well, I did have a full-time job at the BBC, and there was also Downtime, both the video and the novelization, during that period. Yeti can be time-consuming!
Tell me about Lungbarrow – probably the most iconic NA ever written. How did those ideas come about? Were they really going to appear as written on TV? Do you think they fit in with the ‘canon’ of the series? Has the new series scuppered this?
When the Paul McGann TV film was announced, the BBC grabbed back the rights to Doctor Who novels from Virgin, so with the New Adventures series coming to a close, something was needed to tie up the loose threads set up in the novels and the TV series. Ben Aaronovitch suggested to Rebecca Levene at Virgin that Lungbarrow was the right story for the job.
I’d felt that after thirty-odd years of learning so much about Doctor Who, the Who bit had lost its impact and it needed putting back. Obviously we couldn’t ignore everything we already knew about the Doctor, but if we explained his roots and family and home in some detail, we could then knock all that aside with new questions which would restore the mystery. That fitted very much with what Andrew and Ben had wanted to do with the old TV series, but in the books, particularly faced with a new regime taking over, there was a feeling that much of what all those writers had been working for would be unfinished or lost unless it was resolved here.
Lungbarrow certainly doesn’t go against the canon of the TV series. It’s just that we hadn’t seen the families of cousins or the living houses before. It’s no different from an alien arriving in London who has no idea about the culture in Japan or Madagascar. I really cringed at the idea of the Doctor being half-human. That was unimaginative and had been done so often on Star Trek. Everything on Gallifrey is hidebound in bureaucracy, hence the thorny question of everyone being born from the family looms. But the looms are also Rassilon’s solution to the terrible curse laid on Gallifrey by the Pythia when Rassilon seizes power. And throughout, the Doctor’s part in all this remains a mystery. At the end of Lungbarrow, quite correctly, there are more unanswered questions than there are at the start.
Of course, the new series has its own new ideas, but that’s not a problem. It’s an alternative direction. Both versions exist.
You’ve of course written a couple of novelisations as well as original novels – do you have a preference? Are they different disciplines?
They shouldn’t be different at all.
Why didn’t you write a BBC EDA/PDA? I know you were missed…
I was asked to send in a synopsis for something, but never heard anything back.
Your Big Finish work is very broad. Do you have a favourite Doctor to write for?
Each Doctor is special in his own way. They all have their idiosyncrasies and styles. One Doctor’s story shouldn’t fit another’s. If I have a favourite, it’s probably the one I’m writing at the time. Or Geoffrey Bayldon, who is rather wonderful.
Which do you prefer? Full cast plays or the Chronicles?
I like them both. Although I do really enjoy the way that the Chronicles let us explore the lives and thoughts of characters who have maybe been a bit overshadowed in the past.
You’re very detailed in your continuity, I’m guessing canon is important to you? I asked Nick this question too: does canon fit in happily with BF and particularly the new series? I know Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen borrowed concepts from your own BF Spare Parts…
Of course continuity’s important. I have a huge respect for what went before and in one way it’s like a huge toybox of ideas to play with. But it should never get in the way. We should always create something new as well. In the case of Age of Steel and Spare Parts, it’s all about parallels. We were both drawing from the same original source. Some ideas are similar, and some go off on different tangents.
On the subject of the new series, briefly, what do you think of it? And the choice of Doctors, etc?
Its mammoth success shows what we already knew. The concept is pretty nigh inexhaustible. It wears out writers, actors, producers, but whoever comes to it next finds new angles. The new Doctor will surprise us. That’s something worth cheering, isn’t it?
Your next BF project is Paper Cuts – bringing to an end a huge Charley Pollard arc. How did you approach this? Did you have a shopping list to go through?
It’s the middle of a trilogy of stories. All Nick asked for really was a Sixth Doctor and Charley story set in the coldness of space with Draconians. Actually, Nick is dealing with the Charley story far more than I am. I just had to know the situation and drop a few hints. But I jumped at playing with the Draconians. Frontier in Space makes their culture very Japanese in style, which gives me huge amounts to work with: the strictly honour-based society, the mix of formal elegance and savage ferocity, ancestor worship, the reverent pursuit of beauty. And the Doctor has ties with the Imperial past of Draconia, which means that he’s up to his neck in trouble right from the start. It should be great fun.
Next up you’ve the privilege of bringing Susan back in the brilliantly titled An Earthly Child… what can you tell us about that? I’m guessing it was a bit of a thrill…
It’s something quite special. A bit like joining two opposite ends of time. The Doctor finally meeting up with his own grand-daughter Susan, some twenty years after he deliberately left her behind on Earth, is a rather emotional and touching experience. And naturally she has a few surprises for him as well. She’s spent two decades on a decimated alien world, and to survive she’s becomes a lot tougher. It’s fascinating for the Doctor to be backfooted for once and to see how he copes.
And again, the BF tends to contradict “established” continuity in that Susan and David are childless…
Who said that? I had no idea! Bit late for a rewrite now! Will you tell Susan or shall I? (John Peel, in the EDAs! – Ed)
What do you have coming up in the future?
Circling overhead at the moment are one of the lost Colin Baker stories from a rather wonderful storyline by Barbara Clegg (of Enlightenment fame), something else with the Fifth Doctor, another Companion Chronicle with (Companion deleted) and something else even more annoyingly unmentionable. Sorry, I hate blogs that do that, but there are at least four guns at my head!
Big Finish are making one of the Companion Chronicles free this week and it’s well worth grabbing.
The tale by Marc Platt features both Anneke Wills and Nicholas Courtney along with John Pickard and Russell Floyd.
The Three Companions – Polly’s Story by Marc Platt Polly Wright has tracked down an old friend of the Doctor’s… Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, former Brigadier at UNIT. As they trade stories of their time travelling in the TARDIS, it soon becomes clear that their pasts are intertwined, and linked to a current crisis on the planet Earth. And there’s a third companion, watching them from a distance. A certain Thomas Brewster…
Sky has announced that BAFTA and Academy Award® nominated actress Sophie Okonedo (Ratched, Death on the Nile) will join the all-star cast in the third series of critically acclaimed, Sky original drama Britannia.
The series, which is currently filming in the UK, is an epic genre-bending tale of clashing civilisations and religions set in a wold of mythic Celtic tribes, psychedelic druids and terrifying Romans, as a young girl tries to build a rebel alliance with a group of misfits.
Welcome to Outpost Skaro, we are mid regeneration and were not quite baked yet.