ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Monthly Range: “The Helliax Rift”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles talk about tbe latest Big Finish monthly range, where the Fifth Doctor gets to meet UNIT. Attention – and beware spoilers after the “read more” tag!


Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: I honestly really, really liked this one. It’s certainly maybe a bit awkward in its ambition – both being minimalistic and emotional on one side, and the set-up for a new Main Range arc with a bunch of original characters on the other. But I really like what it’s doing, and what that might mean for the Big Finish ethos in the long run – it takes the tropes and building blocks of a Pertwee story and ends up taking them in a very different direction, focusing on emotion and character above all things. That, in itself, is remarkable – beyond all the debates about the actual quality of these characters, I think it’s about the most character-focused the Monthly Range has been in ages: the plot, when you get down to it, could be summed up in a couple of lines, and everything that happens in it really is down to character conflicts and the way they interact between each other. It’s a very modern approach to storytelling – I could genuinely see a shortened up, revised version of this airing in one of the Moffat series. This kind of engagement with the personal connected with the political is just something I find incredibly compelling to see unfold – it’s not executed perfectly, just like what the Monthlies have been doing with the character of Constance wasn’t perfect, but I applaud the effort and it’s a direction I wholeheartedly applaud.

SCRIBBLES: “The Helliax Rift” is a very low-key story. I can see how it could charm; it eases the listener into some fairly standard UNIT investigations, before taking a veer in the back half toward a perfectly well executed science fiction character drama. I don’t think it sets a foot wrong in any particular way. But I think there’s more that could be done with it, and I wound up feeling somewhat frustrated in that regard. I still feel like I barely know any of the new UNIT characters, even the prominently used Lieutenant Daniel Hopkins, and I felt like I would have preferred to see less of them and more of the characters the second half turns its focus to, who have a story that functions in broader images, but never quite comes close to making me feel much emotionally. It reminds me of the early main range, I guess. It’s cozy, competent, a bit slow, and never quite rocking your world, but it’s not bad by any means. It’s charming. But when a story takes the emotional route, I prefer to see it commit to really making the audience feel, and this doesn’t really have that. It’s just a bit too broad and impersonal for my liking, despite the intimate nature of the story.

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Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the Tenth Doctor Chronicles, with Jake Dudman as Ten and the return of Slitheen, Lady Christina and Sylvia Noble on the menu! Allons-y, mes amis, and don’t forget to brace for spoilers after the “read more” tag.


Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: The Ninth Doctor Chronicles blew us away. I think that needs to be restated before we get to this new set. Because that set went from something we had lacking expectations for to one of our favorite releases of the year. This set, as a result, doesn’t manage to be quite the same shocking success, because we know now just how well the format can work. This Tenth Doctor Chronicles set is both surer and a bit more baffling, I think. The production quality is surer. Dudman is an impeccable narrator, the direction by Goldwyn continues to work wonders, and the score is utterly delightful and helps hold the attention well. But, of course, Big Finish hasn’t had the same lack of Tenth Doctor content they have had with Nine and, soon, Eleven, so that puts this set in an interesting position of having to narratively stand alongside the Tenth Doctor Adventures (as well as other ranges like Tales from New Earth, which, of course, we loved). It’s hard to judge. But despite my mixed feelings about its position in the larger Doctor Who landscape, there’s some fantastic stuff here that’s well worth a listener’s while if they’re looking for a Tenth Doctor fix, and one of my absolute favorite releases of the year so far in this set, and I very much love how most of these stories allow more minor players to shine, just as the Ninth Doctor Chronicles did. That seems to be the best wheelhouse for these stories, and one I hope Big Finish leans even further into in future.

TIBERE: It’s a bit of an odd one. The Chronicles sets, in their very nature, tend to be a bit more off-beat and experimental, because, well, that’s generally just what you do when you don’t have the original cast on hand. That’s an approach that worked well with Nine, who’s kind of an outlier among Doctors, for many reasons – it’s a bit odd with Ten, who’s kind of defined by his popular, populist even, appeal. As a result, this is a very mixed set that doesn’t really have a unified identity or take on the character. Is it good, though? I think it mostly is, yeah – the first half suffers from being a bit too much of the same classic Tenth Doctor romp formula we already saw plenty of in November last year; but the second, penned by much more experience Big Finish heavyweights like James Goss and Guy Adams, gets into much more interesting and odd places. And, much like the Ninth Doctor set, it ends up on a story that pretty much justifies the price of the boxset on its own. Plus, I can only add to the well-deserved heap of praise Dudman has got – he is utterly flawless as Ten, but manages to make an extremely compelling narrator and gives a lot of nuance and personality to the side characters (to the point where I, on several occasions, had to check whether he was the one playing them – the guy knows how to use his voice!). It’s an uneven collection of stories, but definitely a compelling one – and I think I’d even go as far as recommending it over the previous Piper/Tennant set.

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Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles, alongside guest contributor Enigma (’cause y’know, discussing a series largely about women and feminism while we’re all dudes wouldn’t have been the best thing), tackle the return of Liv Chenka, Helen Sinclair, the Eleven and the Eighth Doctor in the first installment of the new four-boxsets-epic, Ravenous. Say Kandyman five times in front of a mirror, sit comfortably (maybe with a sorbet), and enjoy. Oh, and obviously, beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag.


Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: It’s an interesting beginning for a new major arc, really. It’s very different from the big, brash, epic beginnings of Doom Coalition and even Dark Eyes before it. It’s very slow and deliberate, mostly doing a lot of set-up for future sets and adventures. Scribbles told me that the finale of this set felt, in many respects, like it was this series’ equivalent to “The Eleven”, and I agree with him. It’s a prologue above everything else: and I guess that it can understand why some would feel a bit frustrated by being asked to pay twenty-five bucks for the prelude to a larger story. On the other hand, it’s not without certain advantages – there’s a real charm in having something a little smaller in scale, some fun, consequence-free adventures. It’s not really something McGann has gone since … 2011 and the last EDA series, I think? Gives the character some breathing room, deals with the loose ends, all that good stuff. It’s nice and efficient, but I think Ravenous mostly leaves you hungry for more. Ah ah.

SCRIBBLES: This set is different, really. Doom Coalition had a rigid structure of giving each box set one little piece of the arc. There’s ways that worked, and ways that didn’t. Probably the biggest complaints about Doom Coalition were lobbed at the second set, which introduced new elements but didn’t do much in the way of revealing new information, culminating in a finale that had a fun use of River but seemed not to deliver big moments fans were hoping for. This set feels pitched to sort of balance that out, I think. It’s a very slow beginning, and half the set feels like a journey to get to Ravenous as an arc, with mixed results. But when the elements did start to hit, I quite liked what they became. This set feels like a conscious deflation and move away from the epics of Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, which is a welcome change of pace, but I must also admit to impatience to just finally get on with more Helen Sinclair. This set just feels kind of hard to judge right now. It’s all standalone pieces, yes, but knowing there’s more still feels like that’s what will determine how this goes down. The one thing I can say, there’s no highs like The Red Lady offered as a hook, but on the flip side, there’s nothing that misfires in quite the way The Galileo Trap did. It’s a safe, comfortable prologue to what’s to come.

ENIGMA: Um, well, stuff happened. Crap, I never really thought about it as a whole. I mean, for the most part each part was their own thing kind of tangentially related in plot. Good overall, I thought. Feels more like the New Who style than it has in the past two sets. And, um, no I don’t got a long paragraph for this section. I mean, it’s a nice break from the general doom and gloom I’ve been getting out of the Eighth Doctor Adventures books so far. Just nice to get through an Eighth Doctor story without any genocide. And also the nineties-ness.

TIBERE: I just finished reading “Alien Bodies” and … Yeah, there’s a bit of a tone whiplash! Still, I really like the way this series feels – they’re continuing the brand they’ve crafted for themselves in Doom Coalition, this mix of New Who style and plot with Classic ideas and characters.

ENIGMA: Yeah, I do like the box set styles. Nice mix of the Classic Style with the New to created an original format for Big Finish.

TIBERE: Really, I think there’s a larger pattern at work here – Doom Coalition kind of felt into a creative eruption, as far as Big Finish and the EU in general is concerned. The same timeframe that gave us the complex politics of the new UNIT, Gallifrey – “Enemy Lines“, Class … The politics of the Moffat era safely integrated and a gap year the show took, leaving room for other media to take the spotlight. Now, the context is very different. We’re all kind of waiting for the next big wave, which is going to be whatever Chibnall and Jodie bring to the table. And a lot of what Big Finish puts out feels that way, like it was biding its time. Gallifrey: Time War? Set-up. This? Set-up. Even the latest UNIT set has a lot of teases and build-up to major, future events. It’s not quite as good or ubiquitous as Doom Coalition, but I don’t think it’s trying to be, and I’m not worried.
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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood, series 4: “The Death of Captain Jack”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles enjoy the return of the Torchwood monthlies. Bow to King John, and beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag.


Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: The first series of monthlies opened with the fairly brooding The Conspiracy,” but since then, there’s been something of a trend toward opening with more lightweight romps. The Death of Captain Jackachieves something a bit greater than past openers by going for the romp with such twisted gusto, and achieves a lot of strength in fan-pleasing cameos that utilize a far broader cast than the monthly range has ever embraced before! There’s a lot of fundamental pleasure to be had from that, particularly for Torchwood fans, but even for those who’ve newly fallen in love with the series from Big Finish, with some affectionate riffing on one of the show’s less well-regarded moments. (We, being ever the contrarians, still will go to bat for The Blood Linebeing a masterpiece, incidentally, but there’s a gag here that got a big laugh out of me at its expense all the same.) It’s fun and frothy, with a lot of affection for the show shining through. Unfortunately, it sort of fizzles out. I highly recommend The Death of Captain Jackas a series of vignettes celebrating the gay, morbid weirdness that Torchwood is, but equally, I can’t sell it to people saying it will offer much more than that. It doesn’t have something to say, and scarcely even has much of a plot. That’s essentially the draw, but it keeps this from being much more than a fun ride through a bunch of already known variables, ever-so-slightly turned on their heads. It seems like it’s here to remind us what Torchwood is after Aliens Among Us put its heart into evolving that concept, and it succeeds, but it’s hard not to also feel like it just does that and nothing more.

TIBERE: It’s a bit of an odd one. I think that in a way, it’s very much of a statement of purpose after a very experimental, and slightly divisive (for all that we loved it, “The Dollhouse” wasn’t exactly a hit among the Torchwood crowd, from what I’ve gathered) series 3 that tried to explore the unseen corners of the Torchwood mythos. It’s very much coming back to the basic themes of the range, the parallel joy and toxicity of the show’s aesthetics, I think. So it is, in many respects, playing it safe: it’s a crowd-pleasing, fanservice-filled blockbuster, in a way the range never really attempted before – which might be a cause for worry. On the other hand, it’s just … fun. It’s darkly hilarious, really well-paced, and James Marsters’ deadpan delivery is a thing of beauty. It’s not terribly substantial, and it’s incredibly, incredibly self-indulgent, but really, is there a better way to pay tribute to the vain John Hart? Plus, when you’re into your fourth series, I feel like there’s this possibility to take a bit of a breather as far as establishing aesthetics and themes go – an episode like this one would have been worrying if it had come in 2015, but right now, I’m mostly seeing a range at the peak of its powers kicking back and having some low-key, loose fun. I mean, hell, something that contains both gay sex and references to Austin Powers in Goldmember has to be worth listening to somehow.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “Legate? Decate? Hecate?”: Considering the Canon

It’s a curious irony, I think, in a series with a rabble rouser as a hero, and in a narrative about multiverses, alternities and possibilities, that the fans of this very show want to close possibilities down. Sometimes it’s as if fans want reality dictated to them – definitively. Canonically. They want parameters setting and concretising around them. Maybe they want a stable universe after all…” (1)

If you’re hanging around the analytical circles of Doctor Who fans, then, you’ll have heard, as an universal and fundamental axiom, that canon does not exist.

It’s a key point – maybe the single most important one – of modern Who studies (if that’s a term that can be used without sounding horribly pretentious). And yet it’s probably not the one that’s best understood by the rest of the audience, the kind of people that don’t enjoy reading six thousand word dissections of obscure Big Finish audios. Hence, there’s a value in discussing this logical premise, be it only to explain it in a way a bit more substantial than “yeah, it ain’t real”.

Shall we?

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LOOKING FOR TELOS – The Daleks’ Master Plan (part 1/2: episodes 1 to 6)

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.


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GUEST POST – “Daleks in Manhattan”: the Depression & the American Dream

by Ricky Starr


[Please note: This article is an exploration of Daleks in Manhattan, the 2007 television episode of Doctor Who written by Helen Raynor, in isolation from its immediate follow-up, Evolution of the Daleks. This is for the reason that, although the two episodes ostensibly form a single story, it is the view of the essayist that the ideas explored in the former, and examined in this essay, are not satisfactorily followed through or reconciled in the latter. The second episode will, however, be referred to when it appears pertinent.]

In Evolution of the Daleks, Tallulah looks out at New York, from the top of the Empire State Building, and remarks, “New York City. If aliens had to come to Earth, no wonder they came here”. Of course, she has, in remarking this, missed the point of the preceding episode, but it is an apt illustration of an idea that can be referred nowadays as the “American Dream”: the idea of a glittering paradise where anybody can be successful and achieve mighty things in a personal sense. (The term itself did not become widespread in its use until 1931, the year after this episode was set, but the concept was already a well-known one, and was extremely pertinent to ideas of a prosperous America.)

Yet the American Dream is flawed, much like Tallulah’s outlook in this quotation. She looks upon the Dream, and thinks it good, because anyone can be successful; she fails to see the opposite side of it, which is that it inevitably breeds failure, exploitation and sorrow for others. It allows anyone to be successful, but not everyone. The same is true of the illusion of New York itself: mighty towering spires and monuments to freedom, liberty and the like, hiding the truth, the Hooverville and its desolation, in the centre. This paradox is one that Daleks in Manhattan plays upon extensively and creatively (and which Evolution of the Daleks, like Tallulah, then fails to pick up on- but I digress).


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