GUEST REVIEW – “The Lost Dimension”: Just another Who story?

by Z. P. Moo

 

For their now-annual summer event, Titan Comics Doctor Who ranges came together in 2017 to create the second-highest-profile multi-Doctor story of the year. The Lost Dimension is an odd beast. On one hand it’s an offshoot of one of the weirder and less coordinated areas of the expanded universe in the oft-overlooked comic medium, and yet it adds vast swathes of new information to the canon (in so far as such a thing as canon exists) and several interesting ideas and touches on a number of unusual concepts that the whole thing simply demands attention.

So for that reason I’ve decided to examine it and pick out some of what it touches on for closer inspection. It’s more than just another Doctor Who story.

Consider this your spoiler warning.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”, is, like, really good y’all

Or – “Tibbles & the Daleks #4: Capitalist Dalek”

 

Sometimes, there’s just a story that pushes you to reconsider a lot of stuff you took for granted.

See, one of the very first things I wrote for this humble blog was a contradictions-ridden series about the Daleks, their aesthetics, and their politics. Which arrived at the semi-sincere, semi-provocative conclusion that Daleks, as symbols and embodiments of fascism, had kind of ran their course, prisoners of a rather dated idea of totalitarianism, incapable of properly carrying a story in a post-Trump world. By othering fascism, they shift the blame away from the human race, away from our own potential for horror.

As it turns out, that might have been a really bad take. For starters, giving human fascists the benefit of “complexity” feels a tiny bit too centrist, in this day and age. But mostly – writers have adapted, and overcome, and found ways to connect the Daleks with sheer, raw political horror once again. The first sign came from Janine Rivers’ “Ghosts in the Machine”, a fan audio which came out a few months ago (1), and its very direct engagement with the worst of alt-right ideology, albeit seen through a sci-fi prism. And then, completely unexpected, the Big Finish writing debut of one David K. Barnes, award-winning audio writer and official recipient of the Best BF Barnes award (they have like, four of those now?) – “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Lady Christina

Welcome to DoWntime’s increasingly late 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 discuss, around some champagne and caviar, the latest extraordinary adventures of one Lady Christina de Souza. Monsieur, or madame, will watch out for the spoilers after the “read more” tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Big Finish has gone all out on expanding the Russell T. Davies’ era of the show through various stories and spin-offs since last year. And, as it turns out, this is probably their best attempt yet. Which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but, well, not going to complain – it’s a great set, that feels incredibly fun and engaging, and just fits naturally into an until then free corner of Who. We have military morality plays with UNIT, we have spy thrillers with Counter-Measures, but the whole glamour James Bond pastiche is something Big Finish hasn’t really tried within the boundaries of Who. And turns out, it works – it made me think a lot of Jago & Litefoot, probably the golden standard as far as feel-good entertainment ranges go. And for my money, I think that’s a better first set than Jago & Litefoot got – the stories are all solid, if varying in quality, but above all, it just feels like a confident start that sets up characters, themes, emotional arcs and key relationships. You do legitimately feel, after these four hours, like the range could, and honestly should, keep going. Christina’s backstory, her relationship with Sam Bishop (the best ever outing for that character, by the way, who really shines when placed in less typically UNIT-esque settings) or with her father … These are incredibly rich bits of drama, and there’s incredible potential in them. I had an absolute blast listening to this, and seeing all the at first improbable gambles it took (Sylvia Noble?! Sontarans?!) pay off; but, above all, it just made me excited to see all these new avenues opening. It feels better than just good – it feels fresh.

SCRIBBLES: This is just so. Much. Fun. I was grinning from start to finish. It oozes a new tone and genre for Who media. It’s not something you’d get in any other range, and that’s a win in of itself. The fact that it’s such an overwhelmingly, deliriously fun one just goes even further to making this a must-listen. But above all, this range has an infectious lead duo. The chemistry between Lady Christina and Sam Bishop is absolutely sparkling and makes me invested in what comes next. Slapping that in a campy, Roger Moore as Bond-inspired lineup of storytelling just makes it even better. I could listen to so much more, which is exactly how a range should kick off.

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DoWntime Interviews – Tony Jones and “The Tactics of Defeat”

If you’ve been following DoWntime coverage & stuff this year, you might have heard of a little story called “The Tactics of Defeat“, written by new BF scribe Tony Jones.

We called it one of the best stories of the year – an absolutely incredibly well-structured story that packed tons of rich symbolism and drama in a tense power play between characters.

And, being the huge nerds that we are, we just … kind of sat down with Tony Jones and interviewed him. For science.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood, series 4: “Deadbeat Escape”

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 tackle the last Torchwood monthly of the year. Come, sit, and relax, we shall lead you to your room … Watch out for the spoilers after the read more tag … Yes, that way …

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Well, this is not quite perfect, but it’s the most … Torchwood-esque the range has been this year. After a rather uneven and frustrating series, it’s nice to end things on an audioplay that’s neither of those. It’s textbook James Goss: strong aesthetic play that puts aspects of the show under pointed thematic scrutiny, lovely low-key existential horror, and an ending where everything goes to shit in the most spectacular way. As far as the flaws go, well, it’s textbook James Goss. It’s not very surprising, and even though it is very good, I’d struggle to call it the best thing he’s ever done (to be fair, lots of competition on that front). But whereas some stories this year played the card of easy fanservice, this rather feels like the continuation of a coherent and interesting thematic approach. Not its crown jewel, but a great reminder of why exactly that range is so loved – to the point where it’s going to become year-long from 2019 onwards. Plus, there is a level of originality at work here, with a new character added to the monthly pool, in the person of Bilis Manger. This is an absolutely perfect showcase both for him and Murray Melvin, which injects constant unpredictability and complexity into a part that could be quite flat in less capable hands. It’s an engrossing, and deeply satisfying, listen.

SCRIBBLES: Above all else, this story oozes atmosphere. The soundscape is one of the most engrossing of recent Big Finish, an oppressive world of rain and confinement. This is a tone piece, and it excels at that, building a world of intriguing horror aesthetics out of the loosely defined quantity of Bilis Manger and going a long way to defining him. That means that, as a showcase for what the character might be and for Murray Melvin as a menacing presence, it’s exceptional. What those excellent aesthetics are used in service of has the potential to be more divisive. There’s an interesting character story at the heart, but one that didn’t tug at my heart as much as I wish it did, and the plot is even more loosely defined, in service of those beats. But at the end of the day, that’s a Torchwood thing to be. This is the first time Torchwood’s audio series has approached the pure weirdness and aesthetic wonder of episodes like “Small Worlds” and “From Out of the Rain”, and just as those episodes elevated the series on television for being so different and oddly engrossing, so too does this. I’m glad this audio exists. There’s moments I could wish for more from, but if you want to lose yourself in weird, wonderful Torchwood atmosphere, this is hard to top. And if you don’t want that, well, you should.

 

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Short Trip: “Flight into Hull!”

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 witness the conclusion of Joseph Lidster’s Jackie two-parter. Take a seat, grab the champagne, and relax. Spoilers are located after the the read more tag of the machine. Thanks and have a good flight.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Most of what we said about “The Siege of Big Ben” applies to its sequel – it’s a fantastic homage to the RTD years, continuing its themes organically and addressing unresolved tensions between the character in a singularly brilliant and masterful way. It rocks – especially in how it characterizes Tentoo, which was a distant, unknowable quantity in the first part, but opens a lot here, to fascinating, and surprisingly emotionally affecting, effect.

SCRIBBLES: As with the previous, Joseph Lidster does a magnificent job easing at the tensions of the Tenth Doctor as a character and the new struggles raised by his metacrisis through a frank talking to with Jackie. In many ways, this is her story, but it’s the story of who she is and what she’s struggled through as the means to bring the Tenth Doctor’s Metacrisis incarnation down to earth with pathos and depth. And it does that all in a witty, crazy, and utterly physics-defying adventure with zeppelins and parallel universes. Really, what more could you want? These two short trips are essential listening, you don’t need us to tell you that.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood One: Machines

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 are required. To discuss the new Torchwood One set, starring Tracy-Anne Oberman and Gareth David-Lloyd. Which is the best thing, by the by. 

Warning: spoilers after the read more tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: Torchwood versus WOTAN. I mean, really, who comes up with that? Of all the obscure classic monsters to dredge up and stick into a random range? Really? Well, that’s what we said before being blown away by a legitimately perfect box set that justifies every creative decision involved and then some. This is probably going to be the box set highlight of 2018, by far. The three stories offered here do have some form of narrative linking, though loose, but more importantly, they have an emotional, aesthetic, and thematic consistency that each story pulls at in a fresh and compelling direction, providing three equally brilliant tales that add to each other through their contrast and juxtaposition. I find it impossible to name a favorite, because really, all three are. They develop the horror and emotion of the terrifying nationalist force that is Yvonne Hartman, show some truly disturbing and touching new angles to Ianto Jones, and have an utterly blistering political examination to make of surveillance, social class, worker exploitation, and everything that exists buried under the white collar office world. If you check out one Big Finish release this year, I really would bat for this one.

TIBERE: Well this is pretty majestic. Torchwood is having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment, I think that’s the main takeaway if you’ve been reading these write-ups regularly: but it doesn’t mean it can’t still deliver the goods. Exhuming the political anger bubbling beneath the original show and channeling it through dark sci-fi has been one of Big Finish’s best decisions of all time, and this is one of its most immaculate representatives yet. The three stories are all absolutely fantastic, for starters, but more than that, they echo with each other, creating something so much more richer. It’s a bit like, I don’t know, the series 9 finale – a triptych of thematically-connected pieces serving a larger point. Which manages to be also one of the most biting and corrosive pieces of political Who, possibly ever. And also add layers and layers to Yvonne and Ianto’s characters. I mean, there’s only so many ways to say “it’s a masterpiece”, right?

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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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