ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood, series 4: “Instant Karma”

Welcome to DoWntime’s 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 take a look at the newest Torchwood monthly story, starring Naoko Mori as Tosh. Smile, and tell us what annoys you (while watching out for the spoilers after the “read more” tag).

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: It’s a pretty tricky one to assess, for an obvious reason – look above, see it has three writers, and draw the conclusions that arise from that. We can’t really be sure, because it has no extras (although that can be proof in and on itself), but this feels like a very troubled production that went through loads and loads of drafts and rewriting. Being too harsh on it would then feel a bit like shooting an ambulance – but, well, it’s a really flawed audio, that doesn’t really fix the general downwards direction of the Torchwood monthlies. There are some really neat bits and pieces, but the ensemble doesn’t really hit – it tackles some really tricky subjects, and is overall pretty clueless about them, running in massive tropes and clichés at every turn. There’s an interesting engagement with modern politics in this – but it’s just not really hitting the mark, or saying anything that interesting. It’s a mess, really – not a badly-intentioned one, but not an especially enjoyable or compelling one, considering it deals with some really ugly subjects – but in a deeply flat and uninvolved way. It’s kind of the worst of both worlds that way. Of course, there’s still the charm of Naoko Mori and of the Torchwood range at large, plus Blair Mowat doing some great work with the music, but at the end of the day, it’s just mostly running in circles, searching for a relevance and potency it only manages to reach for seconds, at most.

SCRIBBLES: There are scenes in this story which are inspired. There are also a lot of cliches, a massively tone-deaf moment, and a lot of muddle. None of this particularly fits together. Overall, it doesn’t really even feel like Torchwood much at all. Tosh serves as a generic investigator in the midst of an investigation that is at once too obvious and too convoluted. It could be a story from anything, and in the end, feels like a story about nothing. I find “Instant Karma” difficult to recommend to anyone but a completionist or a person studying drama writing. For the first, it’s another hour of Torchwood, though not a great one. For the second, it’s a good example of how hard it is to save a story when the script just isn’t working. In the end, you’re left with an hour of things happening, all of which signalling to something bigger, but none of which able to agree on what that something bigger even is.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Monthly Range: “Hour of the Cybermen”

Welcome to DoWntime’s 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 have a look at the new Cybermen outing from Big Finish, the first bringing back David Banks as the Controller. You shall follow our opinion. You shall be like us. You shall avoid the spoilers after the “read more” tag.

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: This is another story I find fairly difficult to asses. That’s not because I have very complicated feelings about it, but rather because what it does right and does wrong are fairly obvious. This is a Cybermen story with a number of pretty good ideas and no idea how to incorporate them into an emotional piece of storytelling, despite some clever aspects of the construction. It also, similarly, marks a major turning point in an ongoing main range Big Finish story arc, but as a result of the same problems, lacks the necessary emotional follow-through to feel as big as it should do. If you’re invested in this new UNIT arc, checking out this story is a must. But as a piece of drama, I find it tepid. Not catastrophic, not amazing, just tepid. It exists, changes some stuff, moves a couple pieces, and might have more interesting impact in a future story, but we’ll have to wait and see. If you’re looking for a perfectly competent piece of Cybermen action that foregrounds the David Banks version, well, you have probably ordered this already and loved it. For everyone else, it’s a bit harder to recommend, at least not until the trilogy concludes.

TIBERE: There are some absolutely brilliant ideas in this, I’m not going to lie – but I really can’t pretend I enjoyed it. It’s an immensely frustrating audio – well, more than frustrating, at this point, really. Big Finish has always tended to have issues when it comes to editorial supervision, and due to an honestly flabbergastingly narrow pool of writers – and while it’s possible to get into the details of what works and doesn’t work within the narrative (and indeed, that’s what we’re going to do in like, two paragraphs), at the end of the day, well, it’s pretty much because all because it lacks editorial polish and because the writer – Andrew Smith -, while certainly not a bad author, seems really ill-at-ease with the subject he’s tackling. Which is not something that should still happen when your company is twenty years old and one of the biggest purveyors of audio dramas in the world. I mean, the fanservice works, and it does get quite a lot of things right, but its flaws are so obvious and would be so easy to fix it’s really hard for me to try and come up with a redemptive reading of it; and it certainly more than spoiled my enjoyment.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, volume II

Welcome to DoWntime’s 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 follow the Eighth Doctor into the Time War (and submarines), as he meets an old enemy and also the Ogrons, because apparently they needed a comeback? Anyway – spoilers after the “read more” tag, you know the drill.

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: There’s quite a bit to unpack here, following the good old range/set dichotomy. I think that the Time War range proves itself to be pretty engaging as a whole – there’s an attempt to truly engage with the strangeness of the War and a level of originality that was sorely absent from the John Hurt range, for instance. On the other hand, this is a rather average set – not because the basic concept of the range is flawed or that the base ingredients are bad, just because most of the stories fail in the execution stage, partly due to awkward briefs, partly just to a lie of strong emotional and thematic throughlines. There are plenty of great bits through the four-hour runtime, though, mind you – this is not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, and it still manages the aesthetics of the War really well, with McGann and newcomer Julia McKenzie on top form (Rakhee Thakrar as Bliss, though, mostly just still hangs around, and that’s a bit of a shame). It’s just very flawed, and a bit disappointing. Could be worse! Could also be better.

SCRIBBLES: For me, this set was very much a disappointment. Not an unexpected one, but one all the same. The first Eighth Doctor Time War set was a blast of new, exciting potential to the two of us, after a Big Finish track record of varied success. However, this set doesn’t have the same emotional or conceptual grounding for me that made the first such a runaway success, and the less successful elements, like the lack of development for new companion Bliss (she’s been in eight hours of story now, and I can’t think of a single companion in the new series who had this little to do still after eight episodes), become more obvious. I like a good deal of elements of every story in this second set, and the cast knocks it out of the park on every single one (with a standout score to boot), but I don’t think I’d feel safe saying any of the stories are entirely successful. Nonetheless, the Twelve makes for a great addition to the Big Finish stable, and that alone is enough to create a net positive effect coming out of this set. I just wish the set had been better told and structured for everything else to work so well.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Main Range: “Iron Bright”

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 look at the latest Monthly Big Finish story, from the pen of relative newcomer Chris Chapman! Spoilers after the “read more” tag.

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: It’s the kind of audio where the sentence “baseline level” is uttered a lot. It’s a solid story, it really is – I think Chris Chapman is one of the most interesting recent additions to their writing line-up, he has a really good handle on pacing, character, and theme and some very unique aesthetics; but, for now at least, he might be erring a bit too much on the trad side. I mean, it’s only natural for a writer that’s starting in the world of Who to rely on already-trodden paths; but, in front of the unquestionable talent he deploys here, and deployed, especially, in last year’s excellent “The Middle”, it’s hard not to feel a bit frustrated at how safe he’s playing it.

SCRIBBLES: I find this story exceptionally difficult to comment on. Big Finish has done a fantastic job this year of increasing the average quality of the monthly range, and this continues the trend. It’s a well-paced celebrity historical that doesn’t do anything wrong, but it’s also one I don’t find much to care about in regards to. There’s no companion on-hand to really fill up the story with humanity, and I don’t think the period characters ever threaten to take over in that regard. The most prominent character with an arc is of course Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who is well-realized, but like many celebrity historical figures in Doctor Who, there’s a limit to how far the drama can push him to do interesting and unexpected things. For people who enjoy this period of history, I’m sure this story is a treat. For me, it exists, did its job, but unfortunately won’t be long remembered. It’s an effective vehicle for competent plot married to equally competent historical details that provides little else.

TIBERE: In regards to Big Finish’s larger trajectory, I think it all makes sense. There were big, big problems with the Monthly Range, and I think they realized that – the decisions that have been taken, ie. distributing the responsibilities that were previously taken care of by the Alan Barnes/David Richardson duo, breaking up the trilogy format, etc. …, are for me all unequivocally positive, but they’ll take time to reap dividends. For now, it looks like the main objective of the Monthly Range is not to fuck up. Which is frustrating, in a way – but, at the same time, if you want to build an edifice, you have to do it on steady ground – I feel like the end of the year, bringing in characters like Narvin, Iris and Klein, will go in more adventurous directions, that hopefully will be auspicious. Or at least I hope – because while this is a good audio, it’s not the best its author, and Big Finish in general, is capable of.

 

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood, series 4: “Goodbye Piccadilly”

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 look at the newest Torchwood monthly story. Let’s get funky, sweeties, we’re going back to the fifties! (also, spoilers after the “read more” tag).

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: There are moments in this story that are vital, hard-hitting things that Torchwood has always existed on the periphery of and never explored. They are stunning, powerful, and thematically meaningful. They are also, unfortunately, just moments. Overall, this is a fairly standard issue romp, but one with some moments that transcend all else and make you wish for more. I’m glad “Goodbye Picadilly” exists, but I wish it had chosen to have more focus and, honestly, less comedy, or at least more comedy integrated into the character aspects and less romping about Soho in general. There’s a lot to love here, but it’s a hard story to quite like.

TIBERE: The premise is fascinating, it really is. And of course Samuel Barnett is a catch, and his Norton continues to be one of the most energetic and fascinating characters in the world of Who – an enigmatic, camp, sinister crook. I’m not sure you “can” make a bad Norton Folgate story, honestly. He completely carries the story through. Which isn’t bad, really, but just very by the dots. It’s exactly what you’d imagine going from the premise: so, basically, an inversion of 2016’s “Ghost Mission”. There are worse things to be, I think “Ghost Mission” is a perfectly fine story, but there’s definitely something to be said about the state of the range right now – when Norton first popped up, it felt like something new and completely unseen, whereas now, even he has kind of fallen to that safeness that is dragging the range down of late. It’s interesting that the two weakest audios of this series, this one and “The Death of Captain Jack”, were written respectively by the range producer and its script editor – there seems to be a bit of a creative crisis at the moment. Still, a James Goss script is very rarely going to leave you unsatisfied – it’s a good story, but once again, it feels like it misses the opportunity to be truly special, and that’s frustrating.

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GUEST POST – South London Forever: Doctor Who and the Inner City

by Janine Rivers

 

And I don’t know anything,

Except that green is so green

And there’s a special kind of sadness

That only comes with spring.” [1]

south london1

A striking image: England’s capital city, caught in a stranglehold of vegetation.  A forest in the middle of Trafalgar Square, branches entwined in traffic lights, the Houses of Parliament rising out of the woodland in defiance, transformed into some storybook castle.

We hear news reports from the rest of the world; we hear other languages; we see the planet from afar, overrun with green.  But this is not a story about the rest of the planet, as the opening sequence establishes. This is a story about a city. Something has happened to London.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Big Void at the End of the Universe: The Morality of “Last of the Time Lords”

If there’s one thing that I hate, it’s people saying that all fiction opinions are subjective.

Of course, subjectivity is important – but there are still, whatever importance you end up placing on them, criteria to measure the success of a story. They’re vague, because you can’t judge a narrative like you judge a poodle in a dog show, but they’re still there – how the arcs and plots come together, the thematic work, the direction, the acting. Complete relativism is always an annoying direction.

All of which makes it quite annoying for me to talk about “Last of the Time Lords”. See, I hate this episode with a passion. Always have, from the first moment I saw it from now. And, well, by all metrics, it’s quite a good episode, and I can’t just be an asshole and ignore that. It’s in many ways the best finale of the Tennant era (although being the only that doesn’t shoot itself in the foot by completely ignoring its own themes might have something to do with that …). The ending to Martha’s arc is a superb piece of writing, and easily the most deftly handled character exit in Who entire history up to that point. John Simm’s Master, in the same way, is by far the most compelling the character ever was until, of course, Michelle Gomez, mixing threatening theatrics with a real sense of emotion and character depth. Murray Gold is on fire.

And yet …

[CW – mentions of depression]

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Short Trip: “The Siege of Big Ben”

Welcome to DoWntime’s 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 look into the latest Who contribution of the most excellent Joseph Lidster, which also happens to be the debut of the Metacrisis Doctor and the return of Jackie Tyler in audio form. Exciting times! Grab some wine, and beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag.

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: The Short Trips have continuously gained in relevance recently, with the rather high-profile McGann releases from last year, “The Turn of the Screw” serving of preface to one of this year’s best stories, and now with a two-parter by Lidster tackling one of the biggest hanging threads of the Russell T. Davies’ era. And it’s pretty delightful, too – the audios have started exploring a lot of possibilities with Ten’s character, but we haven’t really seen a straight critique of him, and Lidster, as usual, delivers the goods with a perfectly-pitched and subtle study. I mean, it’s not really a “straight” critique of Ten, considering he’s playing with the Metacrisis incarnation, a rather nebulous concept to say the least, but he makes it work very well – it’s not the romp that some people might be expecting, but I personally like it better. It’s very engaging, very layered character drama, especially for such a short story.

SCRIBBLES: This is a magnificent character piece. It’s only the first half of it, of course, so it’s very likely there will be emotional and thematic resolution in the second half. But it takes the known quantity of Jackie and some familiar character traits of the Tenth Doctor and his Metacrisis and runs with them, crafting a wonderful little bit of a tale that pulls out all the stops for a whopper of a conclusion. The best part of it, really, is how natural it feels as an extension of stories now a decade old. There is no doubt in my mind, this just is what happened next. It feels so thoroughly right as a continuation, with all the characters perfectly captured. And I’m so glad it’s Jackie that gets to be the point of view. She’s been one of the best and brightest new series acquisitions by Big Finish, with a consistently wonderful track record, and her voice here allows old tensions between her and the Doctor to take the reigns of the story in a way it’s difficult to imagine with anyone else. You couldn’t tell the story of doubting the Metacrisis Doctor through Rose’s eyes, she just wouldn’t. You couldn’t tell it through Pete’s, he’s not the same defined, human perspective. You need Jackie, someone bursting with humanity and impulsive judgement in equal measure, to take this story to the highest place it can go.

TIBERE: I think having Lidster as a writer really is a smart move – he is, after all, a Davies-era writer, even if he didn’t contribute to the flagship (and the flagship is the poorer for it). He has worked with these storylines – I don’t know if Davies had oversight on this release, but whether that’s the case or not, he just “gets” it. He perfectly understands the voice of these characters, and what they can go from there. And yes, you’re right – this had to be Jackie, be it only because she’s probably the one character best equipped to criticize the Doctor. They have baggage in their interactions – even beyond the initial tension, there’s always something a bit uneasy about them. The Doctor is just a little too mean, cuts a little too deep when addressing her. This is not a whole thesis on the topic, of course – it’s not even the main focus of the story, really, it’s still a rather upbeat release, it’s not assassinating any character. But it’s nevertheless fascinating to see, well, a sort of coherent take on the subject being slowly built up.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Companion Chronicles: the Second Doctor, volume II

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 new Second Doctor companion chronicles set, featuring Jamie and Leela meeting at a dinner party, a UNIT stand-off in the jungles of Belize, and LOADS OF DINOSAURS. Beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag, and also THE GIANT DINOSAURS.

Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: Moving the Companion Chronicles has been an interesting choice. Unlike so many box sets Big Finish puts out, these stories are totally unlinked, which means there’s quite a wide array of stories featured. So a recommendation or not on this set comes not from a collective quality, but how well each story performs. On that strength, I think I would probably recommend this set. There’s a story in here that both my colleague and I consider an instant classic and highlight of the year, a nice piece of fanservice, a joyous romp, and a story that, while neither of us care for, is sort of inevitable in a collection like this. That’s not a strike against the range or the set, but just a fact of what happens when you have a series willing to dig in so many different directions. The highs of this set are unlike anything else Big Finish is doing right now, and demand to be heard.

TIBERE: I think the Companion Chronicles, at their best, are a really a space for weird, joyous character experimentations. When they’re good, they manage something really unique, they give new points of views on corners of Who you’d never have thought about beforehand. The move to boxsets has slightly reduced the potential for wild crazy storytelling, but the range has gained in ambition again recently, especially last year, with stories like “Across the Darkened City” and “The Plague of Dreams” really pushing the envelope in terms of what audio Who can do. And this pretty much continues on the same line – like pretty much all Chronicles sets, it’s very variable in quality, but the highs are spectacular: and really, on the four stories here, I’d say three of them are absolutely fascinating. Not necessarily fantastic, but really interesting and original. It’s a really compelling listening experience – capped by one of the most singularly perfect stories in the whole Big Finish library, too, which doesn’t hurt.

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