Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Audio Review 22: Fear of the Daleks, written by Patrick Chapman (2007)

Released: February 2007


Zoe – Wendy Padbury
The Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
Story Narration and other characters voiced by Wendy Padbury

Main Production Credits

Producer – Sharon Gosling
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Patrick Chapman
Director – Mark J. Thompson
Incidental Music
and Sound Design – Lawrence Oakley
Recording – Steve Tsoi at Sound Magic Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive in a city built into an asteroid in space. The society is a politically neutral one, and is currently hosting peace talks between the leaders of two disgruntled alien races, the Xantha and the Tibari, hoping to avoid an outbreak of war between their two peoples. However, Professor Atrikar, a mad deluded Tibari scientist, and his mysterious metallic allies have other ideas...

The Doctor and his friends are kidnapped by Atrikar’s men, and discover that the Professor has allied himself with the Doctor’s worst enemy, one which he thought long dead, the Daleks. The Professor has constructed a technology which enables him to transmit a person’s mind across space, give it physical form, and allow them to literally be in two places at once. Atrikar’s plan is to assassinate the Tibari president and join the Daleks in taking over the combined empires of both races. Atrikar forces Zoe to become the assassin, and once her consciousness is sent aboard the Tibari spaceship, is able to control her actions.

The Doctor is helpless to prevent the atrocity, until he tricks Atrikar into transmitting his consciousness aboard the Tibari spaceship, whereby he disarms Zoe and resists Atrikar’s control with ease. Atrikar sends the Daleks’ minds after them to complete the assassination themselves. However, after the Daleks let slip that Atrikar is just their puppet to abandon and murder once their plans are completed, the Professor rebels and announces the Daleks’ presence publically and calls for help. Before the Daleks’ physical machines murder Atrikar, he transmits his own mind onto the spaceship, attacking the Daleks telepathically before destroying them. The Doctor and Zoe are now free to return to their bodies and leave with Jamie, while the peace talks take place in safety without a hitch.

Story Placement

Between The Wheel in Space (TV Serial) and The Dominators (TV Serial).


I did originally choose Fear of the Daleks to review for the 49th anniversary, but after listening to how bad it was, I couldn’t bring myself to put out such a negative review on a day of celebration, so it inevitably went on the back burner. Weeks later, I’ve finally resolved to take it on properly, and the audio is sadly just as poor as when I first heard it. After the delightful and promising first release of the Companion Chronicles range, Frostfire, Fear of the Daleks is a dire retreat into amateurish, fairly unimaginative and possibly even lazy writing, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a Big Finish audio production till now. While the Companion Chronicles is a great and original audio format for Doctor Who, listening to the very first series, one gets the impression that Big Finish were still feeling their way along as to how to get the most out of the format, experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t, and as a result getting somewhat mixed results. Judging by the many positive reviews given of some of the range’s later releases, Fear of the Daleks appears to be one of Big Finish’s wake up calls as to how to proceed with and improve the Companion Chronicles, and listening to the audio itself, it’s not hard to see why.

On the surface, there’s much to look forward to – a nostalgic celebration of the Patrick Troughton years; a space age civilisation on an asteroid; hints of a political conspiracy; a machine which can project a person’s consciousness across space. However, it doesn’t take much exploration or examination to see that, minus the mind machine, all of the story’s promise is entirely wasted or realised so poorly as to be completely ineffectual. 

Instead of celebrating the best aspects of the Troughton TV episodes – chilling monsters, quirky characterisation, intelligent and challenging villains (Tobias Vaughn, for instance), moments of great atmosphere and dramatic tension, and the occasional sense of pervading mystery during the early parts of a story; Patrick Chapman decides instead to celebrate many of the Troughton era’s decidedly naff and poor elements – one-note monsters and villains, weak cardboard characterisation, dull, corny, or unimaginative dialogue, padding and tired, predictable storytelling. Sadly, Chapman’s script is guilty of all these things. While Fear of the Daleks may work thematically in the context of the era of the show its set in, as season six of Doctor Who had the most storylines with these negative attributes, it doesn’t exactly make an enjoyable experience for the audience. I’m sure there are some Doctor Who fans out there that pine for the days of The Dominators and The Space Pirates, but I’m not one of them. Also, I feel that Fear of the Daleks ironically doesn’t even match the standard of these stories due to how basic, tiresome, unimaginatively written, and poorly characterised it is. At least in the poor 1960s TV episodes there was always a comedic, suspenseful or thought-provoking element that helped the viewer through most of it, but in Fear of the Daleks, even that is denied to the listener. This is Doctor Who, not just by numbers, but boiled down to single digits, if you follow my meaning.

The story mainly boils down to the Daleks attempting to contrive a devastating war between two aggrieved races who are trying to make peace with each other, and little else. Any possible complication or mystery that could have made the story more substantial is neglected at every turn in favour of sub-standard ‘B movie’-like pantomime melodrama and lazy run-arounds, highlighted by the fact that the Doctor and his friends are whisked away to a direct confrontation with the enemy almost immediately after arriving. The so-called ‘mad scientist’ Atrikar himself is a poor and stupid villain, who is an incidental plot device at best, used to force the TARDIS crew into their dilemma, and also to easily resolve it at the end.

Furthermore, this has to be the weakest Dalek appearance in any official Doctor Who fiction that I’ve ever experienced. There is no tension, suspense, or even mystery; they are very quickly identified by the script as the main culprits of this conspiracy, and wheeled out later on to artificially contrive dramatic tension, when the assassination plot is stretched too thinly to carry the listeners’ interest. Rather than give the Daleks a big dramatic entrance in light of how much the script revels in the wake of The Evil of the Daleks’ climatic showdown, you get the impression that this is very much business as usual, and the Doctor comes off looking a much weaker and ineffectual hero as a result, due to how much emphasis Patrick Chapman puts on the Doctor’s belief in the Daleks’ “final end”. So in effect, Chapman is choosing to ignore the immediate continuity that he himself chose to acknowledge and highlight at the beginning of the story, or at the very least, is guilty of not using it to the benefit of its dramatic potential, beyond the Doctor going, “oops, I’ve got it wrong again”. If the Doctor himself is a weaker character, then the villain, Atrikar, is doubly so, just by being outwitted by him.

However, the problem with the script’s overall characterisation is far more than just wasted potential for the development of drama and character; it’s poorly written in general. The characterisation of the 2nd Doctor feels basic, generic and clichéd. He gets easily alarmed, shouts out his remembered catchphrases, and makes fun of his opponents. However, there’s no hint at all of the clever and wily intelligence that was often a key part of Patrick Troughton’s subtle, yet lively performance. Patrick Chapman also gives him some slightly bizarre things to say too, like saying how much he likes another genius aboard the TARDIS, for instance. I mean who would really say that, let alone the Doctor, and the humble and sensitive 2nd Doctor at that. I also can’t imagine him rebuking Zoe for being frightened, by complaining about her giving a “much a to-do”, both in the style of dialogue delivered, as well as the action.

Zoe too feels dumbed down and erroneous in character. Sure, we know Zoe is clever, but the script ham-fistedly harps on about it as if that was all there was too her and all subtlety and complexity is thrown out of the window. The rest of the time, Zoe feels like as if Chapman is writing Victoria Waterfield instead, always nervous, and often petrified, without the strong confidence and bravery that was present during Zoe’s TV episodes. Jamie however, gets the worst deal of the leading characters. He hardly features, and gets a few stereotypical one-note lines that do him no favours whatsoever. Sure, Jamie was mostly a thin character by modern standards, but there was always more to him than this. He doesn’t even get to fulfil his usual role as the action man, but then again, I suppose he’s not an easy character to write for, given his limitations as a simple man, Scottish background aside. Still, I’m sure could have made more of an effort with him than this.

The villains are handled even worse. The Daleks just trot out their usual catchphrases, and the script even seems to go to great trouble to show them up as being weak and stupid, rather than the cunning, clever and manipulative personas that we see in all their best appearances. Atrikar is also a complete joke of a villain. Assured of success, he boasts of his plans, and is completely blinded to the Daleks’ true nature, despite Chapman’s obvious headlining of this in dialogue during a scene that occurs right in front of Atrikar, which heavily undermines him further. He does come to his senses eventually, but only after 30 minutes of obvious clues, which is another thing that makes the audio come across as a dire and painful listen. The narrative takes ages to go anywhere, and contrives to delay any real dramatic or character development, so that it can include a run-around in a spaceship, and maybe even disguise that is a plot that could have been easily foiled in just 15 minutes flat. When the story reaches its final climax, I can’t really care about the dilemma or dramatic tension anymore, because of both how long it took to get there, and the fact that both Atrikar and the plot are so contrived, that I find them utterly unconvincing.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, Patrick Chapman, commits to audio, some of the most appalling and amateurish dialogue. These include such scriptural disasters as, “cabal of subversives”, “talking of sartorial lapses, be quiet skirt boy!”, and not forgetting, “Didn’t they teach you anything in Universal Domination School?” If I didn’t know better, I would say this was the writing of a ten year old. Now, if the story had had the imagination of a ten year old too, then that wouldn’t have been so bad, in fact it may have been quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, Fear of the Daleks doesn’t, or at least not in the script. As Patrick Chapman is himself a writer of many children’s’ fiction and television programmes, so in a way, a lot of this makes sense, but on the basis of Fear of the Daleks I dread to think of what his writing efforts for adults are like. Then again, maybe it was another case of someone confusing Doctor Who as being ‘just for kids’. It doesn’t take much examination and study of even just the 1960s Doctor Who episodes to discover that this is not the case, and there always was more to the programme, than more casual viewers would have you believe.

So, it begs the question “is there actually anything good to like about Fear of the Daleks?” There are a couple of things fortunately, even if that isn’t a ringing endorsement of this audio. Firstly, I like the idea of Atrikar’s mind machine, which can telepathically transmit a person’s consciousness across space, and allow it to have a physical presence, so that a character could indeed be in two places at once. It’s a brilliant futuristic idea, the like of which often sprung up throughout 1960s and early 1970s Doctor Who, and is probably the only nostalgic element that works and successfully fulfils its creative potential. The idea of the Daleks trying to trigger an intergalactic war, to help strategically weaken its opponents, while being an old one, is still a very strong plot concept that can work brilliantly in the right hands, and is still far from being tired. Although Patrick Chapman fails to handle it effectively, it is at least the beginnings of a good storyline, even if it didn’t work out well in the end.

The other good aspect of Fear of the Daleks is the strong performance of its small cast. Wendy Padbury holds her own here, even if it ends up in vain, with such a poor script. The actress puts in a great effort, despite the weak characterisation, to help give both the 2nd Doctor and Zoe more accurate and believable personas. Padbury’s Troughton mannerisms are very good indeed, and she also makes Zoe sound young again. Nicholas Briggs also brings his consummate vocal skills as a Dalek voice artist to the audio, and definitely livens up the production a great deal in places, despite the padded script. In fact Nick Briggs’ Dalek vocals are always a joy to listen to, even when the rest of the story is an absolute disaster, maybe even more so, in fact.

It’s a great shame then that the rest of the production doesn’t quite live up to the high quality of the acting performances either. The direction is ok, but hardly stands out, but what really disappointed me was the weak and poor soundtrack. There’s very little sound design to be heard, and the music feels so tired, clichéd and bored, that I’m certain, as an amateur composer myself, that even I could have done better on this one. Considering that Lawrence Oakley did a fairly good job on Frostfire, one hopes this is merely a misstep.

In short then, Fear of the Daleks is as complete a disaster as Big Finish audios have come close to since they first begun in 1999. Despite a couple of good ideas, wonderful acting, and a lots of potential, it is an audio full of tired clichés, padding, amateurish scriptwriting and weak characterisation, the likes of which I hope to never encounter again. I can say for certain, that the majority of the blame can be put at the door of the writer Patrick Chapman, given that the script is where all the big problems stem from. Given the usual stellar standard of Big Finish’s work, it seems that Fear of the Daleks was a timely lesson and reminder, in how not to write Doctor Who. For other listeners of Big Finish audios, I would strongly advise them to avoid this release. I certainly will be in future.

Score: 2/10

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Book Review 6: Time of Your Life, written by Steve Lyons (1995)

Released: March 1995

Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The Time Lords have sent the Sixth Doctor on a mission, but that’s the last thing he feels like doing right now. In the wake of his recent trial and the sudden loss of his friend Peri, the Doctor secludes himself amongst the shadows of the planet Torrok, mourning the loss of his companion, and cursing the Time Lords for their treatment of him. He resolves to change his ways, to never interfere with time ever again. However, an unexpected meeting with a native girl called Angela will change his life again for good...

Angela seeks to lose her loneliness and depression for good by accompanying the Doctor on his future travels, much to his reluctance. However, the Time Lords direct the TARDIS to a derelict spaceship closing on a large TV Broadcasting Space Station, and the Doctor and Angela become separated. As the Doctor hopelessly searches for the purpose of his mission aboard the Space Station, he is swept and caught up in some of its various horrifically violent, dangerous and tasteless Television programmes, at times even forced to fight for his life. Meanwhile, an organic alien, but digital viral intelligence kills Angela and sets about invading the TV Space Station with the aim to absorb as much digital data as possible. The Doctor discovers that the Space Station has two dimensionally transcendental sphere capsules, which are being unethically manipulated to impose two combative TV programmes on the environments of other planets. However the arrival of the alien virus has made both of these capsules unstable, as well as murdering those who stand in the way of its digital feast upon the station’s computer systems. Suddenly the chaos rapidly spirals out of control with people dying in their hundreds and the station simultaneously in danger of imploding and falling into the nearest Sun.

The Doctor manages to shut down the unstable Spheres and sends what little survivors are left down to the planet Torrok, where they unexpectedly find themselves having to fight the unruly and violent dropouts (known as Watchers) of the local population. The Virus is finally tricked by the Doctor into letting him escape and siphons part of itself into an Android in an attempt to bond with the intelligence in his TARDIS. However, upon being betrayed it fights with the Doctor to the death. The Android is successfully destroyed and the Doctor arrives upon Torrok to discover to his surprise that the Space Station survivors have championed over and negotiated with the Watchers to help start a more positive and proactive future for Torrok. The Doctor himself finally accepts that he still needs to interfere after all to save lives where it’s needed, and to help continue the fight against evil once more. He takes on a friend he made at the Space Station, called Grant, to join him and travel in the TARDIS. The future beckons...

Story Placement

After The Trial of a Time Lord (TV Serial) and Killing Ground (Virgin Missing Adventure).

(Time of Your Life indicates that it happens directly after the Doctor returns the future Mel back to his future self, however whether any adventures occur between The Trial of a Time Lord and that action is unknown at present.)

Favourite Lines

The Doctor – “ This morning I was on a hermitage, concerned about my increasing propensity towards violence. Tonight, for the first time, I bludgeon a foe to death with the TARDIS hat stand. Things aren’t getting any better”.

The Doctor – “Normal service will be resumed”.


When Colin Baker was unfairly, ignorantly, callously and scandalously fired from Doctor Who on BBC Television in 1986, it didn’t just leave a wound in the heath and stability of the show (as did the recent large fallout between producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, who promptly went AWOL soon after), which had already been gradually in decline over the last few years; but it also left a huge chasm in the fictional story of the programme itself. Like nature it seems, Doctor Who fans also abhor a vacuum, and imagined new adventures of their own for the 6th Doctor that occurred prior to the first TV appearance of the 7th Doctor in Time and the Rani, and have continued to do so to the present day. However, some of these Who fans later became professional writers themselves, for both books and Television, including the now recognisable and famous names of Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Steven Moffat, Russell T. Davies, Robert Shearman and Gareth Roberts. So when Virgin Publishing acquired a licence to make original Doctor Who fiction in the early 1990s, both for current and past Doctors, this large gap in the fictional story of the 6th Doctor was one that many writers leapt at the chance to write for. The first of these new books to explore it was Time of Your Life by Steve Lyons.

Time of Your Life tries to examine a Sixth Doctor directly after the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and explores how he reacts to them, as well as the immediate after effects they have upon his character in the short term. As we rarely get an insight into the Doctor’s intimate thoughts and feelings, Time of Your Life presents us with a special opportunity not only to get a sense of how he thinks, but also to delve deep into the character with him, holding up his perceived flaws and mistakes to the light. However, the book also presents a much appreciated opportunity to provide some real character development payoff for the Sixth Doctor after The Trial of a Time Lord, so in that sense Time of Your Life really is a missing adventure, showing how the character could come to terms with what came before, and slowly begin his journey to a better and brighter future; a future which would bring out the best of him, and the future that we never got to see on Television. However, I’m getting ahead of myself, but suffice to say it wouldn’t be till Big Finish came and really rejuvenated and renovated the Sixth Doctor many years later, that audiences would really get to experience the best of him. Back to Time of Your Life though, Steve Lyons neatly has the Sixth Doctor contextualising and reacting to his Television adventures in the same way that he reacted to his regeneration trauma in The Twin Dilemma.

The Doctor’s reaction to the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and perhaps in a more general extent his actions and behaviour since The Twin Dilemma in retrospect, is a combination of regret, sadness and quiet alarm. Sadness at the loss of of his friend Peri, regret for not treating her as well as he should have done, and for not being as considerate and aware of others as he should. Most of all though, the Doctor is still deep down in shock at the truths revealed during his recent trial, the indirect consequences of his actions and arrogant behaviour, the unnecessary deaths and suffering of innocents and perhaps most of all, the thought that the continuation of this path could at some point turn him into such a callous, unfeeling, bitter and evil person such as the Valeyard. Over time, this shock has turned to anger – angry with himself for not seeing the error of his ways sooner, anger at the continued hypocrisy of the Time Lords who are still using and manipulating him for their own ends, and anger at his own sheer helplessness. If he continues to meddle in space/time events, then he fears he will be cementing his seemingly inevitable future to become the Valeyard. However, if he does nothing, he still has to watch others suffer anyway. Like in The Twin Dilemma he has decided to become a loner and a hermit, only this time he means it, and goes about it with much greater resolve and determination than previously. On Torrok, the first planet the TARDIS takes him, the Doctor separates himself from the ongoing events of his surroundings and hides away, resisting the wishes of the Time Lords and cursing them for their continued interference in his life.

This development in the Sixth Doctor’s character arc is not only understandable and believable, but it also fits with everything we know about the character up to now and his behaviour during his short Television adventures. The Doctor isn’t just trying to prevent the becoming of the Valeyard, he’s also trying to make peace with his own demons, and hopefully try to mend his ways. It’s not very often, prior to Big Finish audios, and the resurrection of Doctor Who on Television in 2005 that we get to see such a naked insight into the Doctor’s character and psyche, and the experience is both refreshing and fascinating for the reader. Also in a cruel twist of fate written by Steve Lyons, it is perhaps precisely the Doctor’s inaction during the first half of the story that allows the disaster at the Meson Broadcasting Service Space Station to escalate to the catastrophe and massacre that it does. However, that’s one of the main points to Lyons’ story, as the Doctor needed to go through his ‘trial by fire’ in order to come to his senses about who he really was deep down, and that he still needs to be the hero when others are in desperate need and that he shouldn’t stand by while there is great suffering and evil to be fought.

There also seems to be a sizeable metatextual element to Time of Your Life. The original Television series in late 1986, was as I mentioned at the start of the review in a very vulnerable state, and of course with the benefit of hindsight, we know that by then the damage had already been done, and that in the eyes of contemporary TV audiences and BBC executives, Doctor Who was living on borrowed time. Time of Your Life seems to be asking the Meta question of whether the Doctor should still be part of the future cultural landscape, and more importantly should Doctor Who continue at all. Steve Lyons’ answer is a resounding yes, of course, but interestingly with the fictional collapse of a huge Television company, maybe isn’t necessarily saying it should have to be on Television. It’s hardly an insightful statement for 1995, I know, given that the original Television show had already been axed by 1989, and I could be reading too much into this, but it’s interesting that by this point Doctor Who had come more to terms with its transition from BBC Television programme to multimedia cultural franchise, arguably started by the blossoming of the Target book range in the 1970s and 1980s; and while temporarily losing its shelf life as a TV Show it had successfully established itself as a cultural work of fiction with a near endless shelf life, just like the immortal fictional franchises of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond; and Time of Your Life is perhaps another reiteration of the Doctor Who franchise and fandom’s final acceptance of this.

However, the main metatextual element of Time of Your Life seems to be a critique of Eric Saward’s script editorship of the Television show, or at least the 1984-1986 part of it. So while the Sixth Doctor is holding his own personal character flaws to the light, Steve Lyons is doing the same with aspects of the Eric Saward era of Doctor Who, although his conclusions aren’t necessarily what you might expect. This brings me onto my first big criticism of the book, in that I found it be quite gratuitously violent and gruesome at times. Of course, any critique of the Eric Saward period of Doctor Who is going to mention violence at some point, but ironically I never found the Saward-scripted episodes of Doctor Who to be too violent, in fact being just the right side of what could be appropriately broadcast for a mass audience, but Lyons deliberately evolves and heightens this to an illogical extreme. So much so, that by the last third of the book, Time of Your Life at times feels like Doctor Who meets Saw, with Steve Lyons seeming to particularly relish killing off a multitude of his characters in as many horrible and gory deaths as possible, which would certainly give squeamish readers, more than a tinge of nausea. So while the concept of Doctor Who turning into a slasher/gory horror film may be a novel one, I would say it’s not really an agreeable one.

Another element of mid-1980s Doctor Who that features in the book is the Doctor being relegated into the background along with the rest of the characters for the central part of the story. While it gives the lesser characters a chance to have their moment, Steve Lyons once again ramps this element to the extreme, badly plotting his narrative so that for a lot of the second act, it slows down to a very casual stroll, and the background characters are oddly made the main focus of the book for a while, with sizeable chunks of padding where every sub-character is explained to us and examined to the nth degree. While I commend Steve Lyons for trying to develop all his characters, quite a few of them are merely knowing references or satire to elements of the TV industry, and really only deserve a couple of scenes at best, and offer nothing to the reader afterwards beyond yet another opportunity for Lyons to create a nasty death for them later on. I suppose it wouldn’t be so tiresome if 90% of the characters in the story weren’t unlikeable, pretentious, criminal, narcissistic or completely self-serving types, which again mostly end up as cannon fodder for Lyons to play with in the final acts. While it’s an important part of the Doctor’s character arc in the story to see the negative effects of his reluctance to act, the plot of the second act should really have advanced earlier than it did. So in summary, Steve Lyons doesn’t just examine Eric Saward’s vision of Doctor Who and acknowledge it as a legitimate direction for the Television show to take, but seems to wholeheartedly endorse it, and even exaggerates its effects to suit his own tastes, to the detriment of the storytelling itself. However, there are other layers to Lyons’ story than just a reappraisal of Eric Saward.

The most important part of the narrative is of course the central storyline itself. I love the idea of the Doctor retreating into a silent rebellion against the Time Lords in order to take stock of not just the tumultuous events of the character’s recent past, but also to try and work out how to move on. It allows the unmissable opportunity for the wonderful introspective character development Steve Lyons puts the Sixth Doctor through during the story. However, it also allows for a very different kind of story, one that tests the Doctor to his personal limits, both emotionally and morally. The tragedy of Peri has made the Doctor become much more introspective and closed to others, avoiding any personal connections or ties that he might then endanger or hurt by association. However, his moral sensibilities are still as sensitive as ever, so he can’t help but succumb to Angela’s persistent cries to join him after claiming to be an abandoned and parentless youth, desperate for companionship and escape from her miserable existence on Torrok. However, Lyons is always able to keep us on our toes, particularly with clever, albeit brutal plot twists, the first being the death of Angela, who had up until that point looked like being a possible future companion. In fact it’s pretty clear that Lyons cunningly wrote the character such that we, the audience would inevitably like and feel for her, just before being floored by the event of her sudden and early death.

The central story about the invasion of the Meson Broadcasting Space Station by an intelligent, living and organic computer virus is a fairly standard generic Doctor Who plot, albeit a very modern one, even in 2012, seventeen years later. It’s a testament to Steve Lyons’ skill as a horror writer (as that seems to be what a lot of Time of Your Life is) that it’s introduced and developed so effectively and atmospherically. From the creature’s arrival halfway through the book (which sort of shows you how padded some of the book’s first half was), it holds a real meaningful threat that pervades the story from then on, gradually building until at one point near the book’s climax it appears unstoppable, which is a textbook Doctor Who writing technique. Then there’s the twist that actually the virus is an organic digital intelligence that merely wants to learn, and then also become the supreme logical intelligence in the Universe, much like Drathro in The Trial of a Time Lord. It’s only from that point on that we realise how mundane a villain it was all along, and indeed the Doctor overcomes it a lot easier than first envisioned, however it’s still a fascinating variation on an age-old Sci-fi classic, the robot with delusions of grandeur.

There’s also Steve Lyons’ final brilliant, but bleak twist, where the survivors of the TV Space Station disaster are transported to Torrok, only to find themselves having to fight for their lives against the local dropouts, the Watchers. Once again we’re treated to violence, but this time it feels a lot more justified and proactive, rather than gratuitous. In fact, the only two comforting moments of the whole book is firstly the fact that the survivors managed to rescue Torrok from its dystopia and look forward to better future; and secondly the Doctor finally accepting  who he is as a person, and starts towards a better life himself.

The final layer I’ve yet to mention is perhaps the obvious satire of the Television industry. There’s a vain and precious newsreader, a drunken has-been actor; a selfish, shallow, cheating and promiscuous retired actress; enthusiastic obsessive fans of an axed Sci-fi show called Timeriders (you can guess what that satirises); a proud, self-serving executive secretary, weak and pedantic bureaucrats; a domineering TV producer; and even a mock Mary Whitehouse-like TV standards critic. However, while many of these caricatures have a grain of truth in them, Steve Lyons’ satire, unlike that of 1980s Doctor Who writer Philip Martin, who Lyons is clearly trying to emulate, is misjudged and misdirected. Just as Eric Saward’s Doctor Who seemed to feature a cruel and harsh universe, where even the good guys had strong character flaws and moral ambiguities, so too does Steve Lyons’. However, Lyons’ satire is so cynical and negative that it could even be construed as a direct criticism upon the Television industry and its perceived future evolution. Everyone involved with it is so self-absorbed or has some other big moral vacancy that it seems to be portrayed as completely corrupt and self-destructive, with various conspiracies and power struggles abound purely for personal gain or short-term success, and everything that TV touches is turned into a soulless and lifeless wasteland where its viewers are unquestioning reclusive vegetables who know no better.

Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos attempted a similar kind of satire, where he imagined a future of a population endlessly fed on a TV diet of the violence, manipulation and torture of others for entertainment, predicting the future prominence and popularity of ‘reality television’. However, his satire showed a more balanced, complex and morally ambiguous population, one controlled at the behest of both selfish corporations and a few power mad individuals; however, most importantly had varying degrees of conscience and with the Doctor’s influence moved on to become better people. Lyons tries to achieve a similar kind of satire with Time of Your Life, but his attempt is so heavy handed and off-target to be taken seriously.

To interpret then, to an extent Steve Lyons seems to be saying that Television has, or will eventually evolve into a state where it promotes a society with no morals, feeds its audience with a seemingly endless supply of visual junk food, while simultaneously endlessly pushing the boundaries of good taste and violence to extremes; is operated and worked by people who care for nothing except their own personal wealth and success, and will seek it any cost; and ultimately destroys both itself and society in the end. Now of course, most satires have an element of exaggeration to their depictions, but the satire is so one-sided, unambiguous and devastating that it’s hard not to see it as anything other than reactionary. Of course, hindsight has shown that Television did indeed during the 1980s find the lines in taste that it would not cross, and has mostly settled comfortably within them, and in some cases even retreating back from it in the cases of prime time programmes; leaving it for the most part to cinema to try to challenge and redefine what those lines should continue to be. Irritatingly, since the turn of the century, and maybe a little before, a lot of television has been made that could successively be argued to be merely visual junk food, but on the whole this has been down to cost cutting to protect more worthy programming rather than a general disregard for quality Television. Of course there are many vain, self-obsessed and self-important actors, directors and other high ranking media officials; however society, other media, and more importantly democracy and free speech have helped keep their egos in check. There have also been corrupt media officials revealed too, but in an age where we demand more of our leaders, government and high society figures, the truth of wrongdoing will eventually be revealed and the perpetrators disgraced, even if not prosecuted, and once again reality and the common good will reassert itself.

However, what shows up Lyons are two things. Firstly, the fact that it was written in the mid-1990s, and not the 1980s, in a time when British TV had already started to retreat from its established 1980s boundaries in taste and violence; and despite the BBC taking nearly another decade before it recovered from its funding and identity crises, quality was still an important value in programme making, with the outbreak of popularity for reality television still a few years away, although daytime and family-friendly viewing was probably an exception, just as it still occasionally is now. The second point that shows up Lyons are the obvious comparisons with the fictional Timeriders programme and Doctor Who; not just that it was axed, seemingly for good, but also that there are hints of a conspiracy by some of high ranking TV staff to get rid of it, as well as shedding a negative light on the programme’s fans, also partly blaming them for Doctor Who’s TV demise in the late 1980s. So in this context, a significant part of Steve Lyons’ satire could conceivably be a reactionary lash out against the cancellation of Doctor Who, the people who tried to bring it about, and even the BBC itself, as part of a paranoid view of the makers of 1990s British Television as cultural vandals, now dominated by shallow capitalist ethics, endlessly dumbing down in the search of the next ratings hit.

For myself, I think the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989 was down to a multitude of factors. Firstly the decline in the quality of the show in the mid-1980s due to the inexperience of Eric Saward, and both his and John Nathan-Turner’s somewhat narrow definition of what the TV programme should be, perhaps slightly accentuated later on by the added inexperience of Pip & Jane Baker also, which slowly damaged the programme’s popularity and artistic integrity. Secondly, the unimaginative and clueless BBC bosses who completely misunderstood what the programme really was, what made it work, and what its appeal was; compounding any possible recovery for the show by shunting it into difficult timeslots, not to mention the cold and dismissive attitude towards John Nathan-Turner and Colin Baker. Some of those said executives even had a strong dislike for the show itself. Thirdly, to a lesser extent, the obsessive and narrow-minded possessiveness of some fans during that time, who ignored Doctor Who’s previous state as a show for a mass audience, and publically rejected any attempts by John Nathan-Turner (or anyone else for that matter) to change and rejuvenate Doctor Who until it was far too late, creating unnecessary negative press which helped excuse the BBC, particularly Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell, from their poor treatment towards the series at the time. So I have some sympathy for Steve Lyons’ view, but not much particularly considering how cynical and delusional it is. Sure the BBC was in trouble during the 1990s, playing it relatively safe with programming, and started to outsource its production to much smaller independent TV and film companies to cut costs, while ITV stole the limelight with a flurry of ground-breaking and popular dramas, but the BBC always strived for quality. The main difference was that it decided to concentrate more on sitcoms, entertainment shows, wildlife documentaries and the occasional period drama. There really was no conspiracy in Doctor Who’s demise as a TV show in 1989. Peter Cregeen merely misunderstood how the show worked, and why it really was working at the time. Even in 1985, when it wasn’t working, it was Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell’s dislike for the programme that encouraged them to attempt to cancel it.

Now getting back to Time of Your Life, if Steve Lyons had chosen to instead satirise the Video Games industry, or even ‘video nasties’ instead then his criticisms would appear to be much more on target. The level of violence, gore and immorality is something that has consistently escalated in video games for at least a decade now. Sure the games in which this does happen are meant to be entirely fictional, just like Doctor Who, but unlike it, these games frequently aim to entertain and satisfy its audiences in an increasingly basest form, particularly as the level of detail and graphics possible to achieve become gradually more advanced, so too does the audience demand for future games to break through those boundaries of taste and gore, and for them to offer a more shocking experience. Sure a lot of these games are adult-rated, but will any lines ever be drawn to prevent an eventuality where a game goes too far, or will they still remain fairly independent to do carte blanche as long as they have an adult certification? The level of sex, violence and gore are frequently ahead of anything broadcast on TV, even if not always the cinema, only made more palatable by the fact that video games look far less real, but this is changing at a fair rate; and most extremely violent and gory films were often banned from having cinema releases at the time they were first distributed. As long as users can still differentiate between the fictional immoral world of their games and the real one then there’s theoretically no problem, but there’s good reason to be afraid that in the future that might not always be the case. As the TV experience of the Meson Broadcasting Service is as much virtual as it is physical then it wouldn’t have taken much rewriting to achieve this, but the fact that the satire concentrates on TV, merely underlines how reactionary it is.

Anyway, finally dragging myself away from my soapbox, despite the padding and misguided satire making Time of Your Life a very challenging read in places, it is certainly made more palatable by some of its characters. Sadly again, a lot of these are unrelatable and immoral characters with positions on the TV station, who while are very well developed, are ultimately just ciphers for his TV satire, and cannon fodder for Steve Lyons to play with over the last few chapters. However, there are some notable exceptions, the main one being Angela, the lonely and depressed girl that yearns for travel and adventure. After seeing the Doctor on Torrok, Angela follows and meets him from time to time, fascinated by this unusual stranger to her world. After a while she begs to go with him in the TARDIS, but is brutally killed on their first destination, just minutes after the Doctor leaves her to investigate the Meson Broadcasting Space Station. Angela is very easy to like and warm to at once, and it’s refreshing to see a complex portrayal of loneliness and depression, and further more as part of a relatable and immensely likeable character. So often I’ve seen depressed and lonely people written off in a negative way in fiction, so it’s good to find a progressive character where it isn’t, even if Angela isn’t around for very long. As sad as it is for Angela to go, it’s a neat twist by Lyons that helps develop the character arc the Doctor goes on, and how he eventually begins to accept who he is again.

Grant, the computer programmer who eventually becomes the Doctor’s companion in the story, is a likeable character too, albeit somewhat bland. Think of Adric, without the whinging or arrogance and you’ll be mostly there. I for one, will be curious to see if Grant develops into a much more interesting character during his subsequent novel adventure, Killing Ground. The other character which I really took to was Miriam Walker, the TV Standards critic. Sure, Miriam started out as a transparent and painfully obvious satire of Mary Whitehouse, enthusiastically pursuing a ban on any and every Television programme that she can find. However, in later appearances, her steely facade slowly crumbles to reveal a much warmer, vulnerable and delightful persona underneath. After reading about so many hateful people, it’s great to see Steve Lyons at least give a couple of his satirical characters a more enjoyable and fleshed out human side. He even gives Miriam Walker a few wonderful jokes too.

So on balance Time of Your Life  is a fascinating read, albeit an occasionally challenging one. There’s too much padding with irrelevant characters which slows down the plot significantly for a time, and his very negative, obvious and misjudged satire, as well as some excessive gore and violence sometimes leaves a fairly bad taste in the mouth. However, the major point and aspect of the book is also its saving grace. Steve Lyons gives a brilliant and thought-provoking character arc for the Sixth Doctor that encourages him and us to re-assess his past, and seek to find out and consider who he’ll be in the future; a future that we have never got to see before 1995. In fact this is probably the first time this particular Doctor has ever received anything like a proper character arc before, and for that reason alone it is an interesting read, as writers try to explore where this Doctor’s character could have gone for the first time, beyond the obvious gaps in the TV show’s continuity. Steve Lyons’ attempt at that exploration is one that tries to reconcile the character’s previous persona while trying to gently push him towards a more traditional and amiable persona in possible future adventures. Lyons importantly also sets about showing the character the positive elements of his old ways that still needs to be continued, that he still needs to be the hero he tried to be before, and that by completely rejecting his past self leads to terrible effects and consequences on future innocents. The Sixth Doctor starts off the story in a very bad and dark place, but by the end, there’s a hint of hope for him in the air, that maybe his future is not inevitable. Time of Your Life, far from being the end of the Sixth Doctor, is gently pointing us in the hopeful direction of his future new beginning.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Audio Review 21: Robophobia, written by Nicholas Briggs (2011)

Released: July 2011


The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Liv Chenka – Nicola Walker
Farel – Toby Hadoke
Bas Pellico – William Hazel
Selerat – Nicholas Pegg
Cravnet – Dan Starkey
Tal Karus – Matt Addis
Leebar/Computer Voice – John Dorney

Main Production Credits

Producer – David Richardson
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording –Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, arranged by Keff McCulloch (Remixed by David Darlington)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

WARNING: All reviews contain SPOILERS!

Story Summary:

The Doctor finds himself on a Voc Robot supply ship heading for Ventalis, however before he can properly come to terms with his surroundings, he finds himself flung into a deadly murder mystery. Members of the crew are being picked off one by one, and Liv Chenka, the ship’s medical officer, has fears that history may be repeating itself. Many years ago re-programmed Voc Robots murdered the crew on a planetary Sandminer, but could it all be happening again?

The Doctor reveals that a human with robophobia, a psychological and debilitating fear of robots, is murdering the crew himself and is making the Voc Robots appear to be the culprits by setting up a fake disaster, so that human civilisation will do away with them for good. After drawing the real human perpetrator into the open, the Doctor discovers the murderer is Farel, the security chief. Farel though, has fixed the supply ship into a collision course with Ventalis, and tries to depart in the ship’s escape pod. The Doctor talks the security code out of Farel, which he fixed the ship’s directional control with, but also discovers that the source of Farel’s robophobia was the past death of his wife, which he blames the robots for. Although the spaceship is saved from a collision course with Ventalis, the controls are too damaged to land, so the Doctor and the robots set the ship for a collision course with the Sun, and help the humans evacuate to safety. The Doctor meanwhile asks the Voc Robots to relay the truth of events back to Ventalis to ensure that the robots place in future human civilisation is assured.

Story Placement

Between Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge (Big Finish Audio) and The Doomsday Quatrain (Big Finish Audio).

(Sadly, I cannot explain this as it would spoil the big twists at the heart of some of the 7th Doctor’s latest Big Finish audio releases, but suffice to say, the 7th Doctor’s personal audio chronology is a lot more complex and thought out than some may think.)

Favourite Lines

Farel – “We think we’ve found the culprit...a stowaway”.
The Doctor – “Ah, that old chestnut”.

The Doctor – “The real drama isn’t the Robots wiping out the’s the Humans wiping out the Robots”.

The Doctor – “We’re all different. That’s one of the few certainties I’ve ever come across”.


The Robots of Death is rightfully seen as one of the all-time great Doctor Who television serials. A tightly plotted thriller, this classic 1978 adventure effortlessly mixes and pays homage to the story types and fictional writings of both Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie. Although, like in many murder mysteries, the audience was always privy to the main culprit (the robots), in this case even before the opening titles had played out. The real mystery though, was identity of the controller of the robots, as well as how long it would take the rest of the characters to figure them out. In many ways, it’s one of the best examples of one of Doctor Who’s most common story types in itself, the ‘base under siege’ storyline.

So in light of how both popular and successful The Robots of Death was, Nicholas Briggs’ task of trying to create a sequel must have seemed daunting in the extreme, even terrifyingly so. Imagine my amazement then when Briggs comes up with a brilliant sequel that not only matches the quality of the original, but improves on it and surpasses it completely, without diminishing the value of its predecessor. In fact, Robophobia is such a fantastic story and audio release that it’s almost difficult to believe that this was written by the same person who came up with the clichéd and troubled mess that was Destination Nerva just a few months later. Then again, everyone has a bad day, so it’s easy to overlook it and forgive Nicholas Briggs for any innocent mistakes in light of such a hectic production schedule, particularly when he can come back and create works of genius like Robophobia.

Part of Nicholas Briggs’ genius is his skill here in being able to subvert our expectations. From the outset it appears to be another straight-forward retelling of The Robots of Death, where the Voc Robots have seemingly been programmed to start killing the crew of a Robot supply ship, the programming having been done by an unknown member of the said crew. However, Briggs springs a fantastic twist upon us, revealing that an unknown crew member is instead murdering the other humans disguised as a Voc Robot; their intention being to blame the crimes on the Robots and get them permanently decommissioned by the supply company, perhaps even removed from human civilisation altogether. The twist is all the more effective because both the plot and the dialogue are made to strongly suggest that the Robots are the real killers, a nice piece of calculated misdirection by Nicholas Briggs.

The following episode, part three, develops quite predictably after that twist, because the real culprit to the killings becomes obvious very quickly. However, the dramatic twist that I, and I’m sure many others weren’t prepared for was the late reveal in part four that the murderer’s Robophobia was brought on by the death of his Wife in a Sandminer accident, where the Robots tried to save her from being killed in the Scoop during a storm and failed. The cunningly more relaxed pace and plotting of parts three and four, meant that I was completely floored by the emotional sucker punch that Nicholas Briggs had up his sleeve, and I was genuinely moved to tears as the development was slowly told, building towards its powerfully tragic and sad climax. The episode, and most of the story in general is written quite subtly too, which makes Briggs’ emotional beats all that more believable and powerful as a result (New Series Doctor Who writers, take note).

Yet what I also love about Robophobia is that Nicholas Briggs ends the story on such a sublime and gloriously positive note. The Voc Robots sacrifice themselves to save the humans and aid their escape, but the Doctor makes sure that word of their good work, selfless natures and strong benefit to humanity are known and spread throughout the Planetary System so that their true worth can be appreciated by all. The final scene also acts as a subtle and uplifting reaffirmation of a simple truth that is as important now as it ever was - that one should always seek the truth, and work to overcome fear, superstition and ignorance in order to reach a better and brighter future. The conclusion is a perfect end to a magnificent story and a fantastic script by Briggs. This is the mark of a greatly talented writer, who has clearly perfected his craft, and knows exactly where to plot his twists and emotional beats with pin point accuracy (the other part of Nicholas Briggs’ genius in Robophobia).

Another reason why Briggs’ twists and emotional twists work so well is because he gives us more recognisably human and down-to-earth characters to begin with, their relatively mundane lives and natures well juxtaposed against the story’s extraordinary events and surprising reveals. This is especially true of Liv Chenka, who is set up as the audience’s window into the story, as well as someone to relate to; a sweet, shy, brave, clever and very likeable person with a brilliantly written and complex personality. Liv represents our conscience and guide to story events as they occur, as well as our mixed reactions to the clever interweaving plot strands as they unravel themselves into one big ingenious story arc. Liv Chenka also proves to be a great foil for the 7th Doctor, following his cryptic hints and suggestions; challenging him for answers to what takes place, as well as rebuking him for his clear manipulation of her throughout the story. However, the Doctor also has a more positive impact on Liv, encouraging her to question the events taking place around her and not take them for granted; as well as building up her strength of character so that Liv can challenge and face the problems and situations they face.

Of course this is as much about the Doctor manipulating Liv for his own ends as it is about helping her, probably more so, which is why this is also a fascinating take on the 7th Doctor. He uses Liv Chenka as an extra pair of eyes and ears, as well as a tool to poke about the affairs of the Robot supply ship and its crew, until a reaction is provoked that will tell him more about what is going on, or more to the point who is to blame. Considering where this seems to take place in the 7th Doctor’s personal chronology, this is a notable development in the colder and darker side of his nature, casually manipulating and deliberately accelerating events and people to find out the truth of the situation as quick as he can, albeit still for benevolent reasons here. Perhaps the latest 7th Doctor Big Finish audio trilogy (Protect and Survive, Black and White, Gods and Monsters) will set some more light on this development, as tonally the character moves ever closer to his darker extremes as shown in the Virgin New Adventures novels. In contrast, it’s also notable that while travelling alone, some of the 7th Doctor’s more wacky eccentricities have returned, which helps put a light spin on what is at times a fairly dark and earnest script, producing a neat range of emotions and reactions from the Time Lord, although this is as much to do with Sylvester McCoy’s quirky and delightfully mad performance as it is Nicholas Briggs’ characterisation. I like how the Doctor flits around the ship like a ghost, there one minute and gone the next. It’s also quite amusing how he creeps up on Liv Chenka and interrupts her reminisces about Tal Karus, telepathically following their train of thought.

For a character that has only a few fleeting appearances, Tal Karus is surprisingly well-sketched by Nicholas Briggs. His presence as an undercover investigator, as well as his murder at the start of the story, is a neat way of setting the darker tone of the narrative, and raising the dramatic stakes quickly in one fell swoop, so the plot can progress straight away without any lengthy exposition, or establishing scenes, and the listener is thrown straight into the heart of events. I also like the neat way Nicholas Briggs expands upon his character in flashback so he can structure in character development, story direction, mood and exposition at just the right moments. However, Tal Karus’ scenes are far more than just convenient narrative devices, as we see his cute first meeting with Liv Chenka and how they quickly create chemistry together in a believably shy and understated way. So even though this character departs the plot early on, we still get a real sense of who he is, which is masterful writing if ever I heard it.

Farel the Security Officer also gets an intricately layered and well-rounded character which is slowly peeled away as the story progresses us. The script cleverly fools us into thinking at first that Farel is a typical unimaginative security guard, a harmless and hopeless bumbling fool, who is tremendously insecure about his extreme incompetence in the role, leaps to conclusions, and seems to cowardly avoid taking any action whatsoever. However, the twist revealed at the end of part two also reveals Farel to be a clear candidate behind the mysterious deaths, even if the script refuses to confirm him as the real culprit until the end of part three. The twist about a conspiracy involving a human trying to discredit and destroy the Voc Robots for good, as does the sudden ‘takeover’ by the Robots that follows, shines a mirror onto Farel’s actions up to that point, and turns them on their head. Farel’s bumbling incompetence can actually now be understood as the Security Chief actively trying to stall and sabotage the investigation through hesitation, non-action and attempted misdirection, some of which the Doctor encourages Farel to enact prematurely, by revealing the apparent truth of events and forcing his hand. I also like the fact of his personal Robophobia being used by the script to make him initially appear innocent during part two, while at the same time actually being the source of his motivation for destroying the Robots and creating this conspiracy in the first place. The truth behind Farel’s Robophobia and the story behind it of his wife’s death, which although doesn’t absolve him from being a murderer, wonderfully rounds out his character and gives him a more human and multi-dimensional appearance that helps the audience to empathise with him. Have no doubt, Farel is still the villain of the piece, but he’s also a tragic figure, an emotional victim of an industrial accident that killed his wife; full of sorrow, wracked with guilt, and turned into an unstable wreck. It is such a breath of fresh air to encounter a villain who is not written in black and white, and it makes the final twist all that more meaningful and powerful, because most, if not all of us can relate to emotional trauma, even if we haven’t necessarily experienced it to the same level as others.

The other supporting characters, Cravnet and Selerat, while being entertaining foils for the more central characters, as well as the script’s jokes, add little extra depth or value to the story as a whole, except as useful plot devices to ask the right questions at the right moments, or offer misdirection to the audience when the script requires it. Cravnet though is particularly likeable and endearing as an innocent, sweet and bumbling security guard, who while not being the sharpest mind on board, often finds himself closer to the truth of events by the virtue of not having the arrogance and lack of humility as his superiors. Selerat on the other hand is merely the typical clueless fool in charge, and only succeeds in being the lesser light comic relief of the story.

However, none of the characters would be quite as enjoyable without the production’s stellar cast. Sylvester McCoy wonderfully plays on his Doctor’s more eccentric elements, while making sure they don’t dominate his performance. I would also say that Robophobia also features one of McCoy’s most assured and varied performances, ranging from mysterious and quiet pensive mumblings to subtle mischievous wit and wisecracks to weary deliveries of the Doctor’s age-old wisdom to occasional flashes of lunacy, and back again. Without a doubt, Sylvester McCoy is on top form, and this is definitely one of his best Big Finish audios to date.

Nicola Walker is one of those stellar British actors of modern times that I’ve been eager to see star in Doctor Who for a while now, so it’s great to hear her in as strong a production as this. Walker brings out the shy sweetness and vulnerability of Liv Chenka to the fore, while delivering the most naturalistic and believable performance of the cast, which really successfully encourages the audience to root for her in a way that makes you wish that the character would be a future companion. However, Nicola Walker makes sure that Liv is certainly no reluctant lightweight though, by neatly making sure that her vulnerability and the trauma Liv goes through emotionally makes her stronger, and more steely determined in her aim to find the truth and prevent any further deaths. The Doctor, through his manipulations also helps Liv to believe in herself and her own abilities, and Walker also deftly shows this braver and more assertive Liv growing throughout the story.

Toby Hadoke was the real surprise of the cast though. He’s cemented a successful reputation for himself as a comedian and an engaging and delightful presenter, as well as very genial and friendly Doctor Who fan in general. I had no doubt that he could act well, but I had no idea that he had the talent to pull off the huge dramatic and emotional denouement that was required of Farel’s character at the end of the story. In fact, Farel’s earlier persona and misdirection seemed explicitly written to show off Hadoke’s well known comedic talents, but his flawless depiction of Farel’s emotional breakdown was so well judged it helped to pull off that moving scene brilliantly. The rest of the cast also performed well, with Dan Starkey getting a rare opportunity away from portraying monsters to delve into a more comedic role for a change, and relishing it enormously; while Nicholas Pegg delivered another amusing variation on the bemused and hopeless spaceship captain stereotype.

Praise though also has to go to Nicholas Briggs again for direction, allowing Sylvester McCoy to have more fun with the role of the Doctor, while reigning in any potential excesses of eccentricity. At the same time, Briggs has also kept the cast performances as natural and believable as possible, and the results are superlative, and keep on giving on multiple listens, particularly on the twists and more emotional scenes. There was only one slip up I noticed, where Nicola Walker over emphasises Liv’s warning to Farel about the Robots in episode two, but I’m clearly nitpicking here, as everything else is so brilliantly done.

However, what is even more wonderfully done on Robophobia is the post-production. After listening to a production from over 12 years ago, one of the big things that blew me away on listening to this was, 11 years later, how far Big Finish has come in their overall sound production, something which has always been good from the start, but here in Robophobia was simply amazing. From the roaring engine of the supply spaceship to exciting stereo explosions to little things like the quiet rumble of the engine aboard the ship interior, the little bleeps and door sounds, and the change of EQ on the spaceship computer audio readouts.

The other big thing that blew me away from the start was the quality of the music soundtrack by Jamie Robertson. From the first plucked guitar strings I knew we were in for something special. Robertson is beautifully subtle and menacing when called for, but equally creates large and powerful orchestral themes just where the story needs it and never goes too far. I particularly enjoyed the little string section when Liv was reminiscing about Tal Karus, and the powerful section underscoring the reveal about Farel’s deceased wife, but I liked everything about the music. It was so good and professional I would easy rate it as being good enough to be used on a big worldwide feature film, and I say that as a passionate film soundtrack music lover. At times the score reminded me of The Matrix in scope, originality and tone. In fact it was such a joy to listen to that I took great enjoyment from listening to the small section of soundtrack put as a separate track on the end of Discs 1 & 2 (which as a great little CD extra I can’t recommend to Big Finish enough that they should keep doing for us music fans, so thank you for that). Plus I loved that great final big orchestral music statement at the end of Robophobia, which reinforced the story’s final positive note and left me feeling very happy indeed.

The Robots of Death may have been a brilliantly-produced and executed thriller, but Robophobia, its sequel, is so much more than that. Robophobia is a great examination of what it means to be human, in terms of both life and loss, but it’s also a great examination in how we should never take anything at face value and reminds us of an important teaching to always appreciate what we have, however common or mundane it appears to be. Furthermore, the audio is a completely first class production on all counts, and one that I’m sure I’ll revisit on multiple occasions in the future. Plus, to top it all off, Robophobia is a fantastic thriller in its own right.

Score: 10/10