ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – UNIT: Encounters

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 latest UNIT boxset. Spiritus abysso invocat te voco, and all that jazz. Spoilers after the read more tag – also, please do check out our partnership with Ruth Long’s Untold Adventures project if you haven’t!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: UNIT’s been a hard range to get a hold on, quality-wise, I think. At its best, it’s been exceptional. At its worst, downright baffling. But I’m very happy to say that the change of pace in Encounters, which could have just been an excuse to shove Daleks and Sontarans in, works a treat. This stands strong with the best of the UNIT releases and Big Finish in general, four very solid stories that go great lengths to evolve the characters and their world. If this is setting the tone for the next three sets, announced at the same time, then we’re going to be in for a treat and I’m very glad I pre-ordered the lot.

TIBERE: It’s a really solid set – the change of focus, away from big, multi-parts storylines, allows for some quieter storytelling and for a series of really interesting character vignettes. As good as the range has been before, and it has been really good, it mostly dealt in the realm of broad thematic strokes and political affairs; but this set fleshes out the different protagonists a lot more. Kate Stewart gets some of her finest material, whereas some previous storylines could rely a bit too much on her iconic status and Jemma Redgrave’s excellent acting; and Josh Carter, who we both considered until recently the weakest spot of these stories, makes a lot more sense as a character now. It’s a real return to form for the range, and it lays very solid bases for future developments.
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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Tenth Doctor Adventures: 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 tackle the return of Rose Tyler and the Tenth Doctor on audio formats! Featuring warthogs from space, Ice Warrior terrorists, non-binary swashbucklers, and spoilers after the “read more” tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Well, it does what is says on the tin. There’s not a tremendous lot of observations to add to that – it’s a release whose primary goal is to give people more Ten and Rose stories, and it does that. With efficiency and competency. It’s not a must-listen by any means – and its lack of ambition beyond being a series of pleasant adventure vignettes is noticeable, especially after a first set that may have tripped more along the way, but tried, in its two final stories at least, to offer new and original angles on the characters and their life. But that could have been expected – what’s more surprising is how little they actually do with that TARDIS team. Rose feels more nondescript here that she has ever been in the show – she is given some good material, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no justification as to why exactly the narrative requires her presence. I wasn’t a fan of the first set’s opener, “Technophobia”, but it did rely on Donna’s own quirks and specificities as a character in a way this set never really achieves. The romance between Rose and Ten is a fascinating ground to explore thematically – series 2 gestures in that direction in really interesting way, but there’s plenty of space left – so it’s equally surprising to see how little they lean into it. It’s not that the set is full of fanservice – it’s not character-specific enough to achieve that. Really, the best way to describe it is as a product. It’s a good product, in the sense that it is well put-together, with solid acting, productions, and quite decent scripts. But it’s hard to shake the lack of ambition you feel throughout the set. Nothing shameful or outright bad, but it could – and maybe should? It’s not my place to say – have been better.

SCRIBBLES: It’s hard to praise this set, and equally hard to criticize it. It does with it does with a typical exuberance and energy that keeps things ticking along, and it’s all quite competent, but it feels a bit too safe. Tennant and Piper bring plenty of energy to the proceedings, but the stories aren’t as crafted to their dynamic as they were in the previous volume with Tate and Tennant, and things here are a bit less delightful as a result. Like you say, the romance isn’t pursued as much. It feels crafted to please everyone. There’s just enough chemistry shining through to please shippers, and I’ve seen plenty of enthusiasm from those circles, but equally, there’s little enough that those who can’t stand the pairing to pretend the love story never existed. It’s safe and nice. There’s glimmers of more ambition and character-driven darkness, particularly, surprisingly, from the Ice Warrior romp that closes the set, but overall, it’s just a delivery mechanism for a few more hours of the Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler. It works at that, and given their iconic power, maybe that is enough.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Time War, volume I

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 first adventures of the Eighth Doctor in the Time war. Spoilers after the “read more” tag – be also warned that our analysis of the fourth story contains some minor spoilers from Doom Coalition IV. We made them as vague as possible, but if you want to go in blind, maybe don’t read that part. Anyway, Sebastian and Talbert wish you a happy reading.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: Well, that was remarkable, wasn’t it? I think both of us agree, as far as sets to bear the Time War name and theme tune go, this is the finest yet by far.

TIBERE: No contest there.

SCRIBBLES: Matt Fitton and John Dorney have long been proving themselves to be the most valuable Eighth Doctor writers, leading the way out of Dark Eyes and into the Doom Coalition era, which I have not been very subtle about being one of my favorite things to ever come from Big Finish. Well, I didn’t believe it possible, but they’ve gone and matched it. This is a wildly successful set, working through extremely fascinating high concepts and genre explorations to slowly scale down to an intimate level, offering up what is in my opinion the single finest characterization as the Doctor Paul McGann has ever received. He is an absolute triumph of a character here, juggling zany passion with scared, wounded emotion in a wonderful way.

TIBERE: The most remarkable aspect of this box set, I think, is the way it is tailored specifically to the Eighth Doctor. The tone and stakes are very different from the War Doctor stories – and, at least personally, I find them a lot more compelling. And that’s a great thing – not only because it gives us a fresh perspective on the Time War, but because, for the first time in forever, we get a set that is actually mostly centered around the Eighth Doctor as a character. Now, he has had plenty of stories, but – maybe because his characterization, established through the cross-media weirdness of the wilderness years, is hard to wrap your head around sometimes – Big Finish has mostly relied on his companions to carry the major story arcs. Doom Coalition is the latest, and obviously finest, example of this, but that also applies to Charley Pollard or Lucie Miller’s tenures. And honestly, I agree with you: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a consistently strong and interesting characterization for Eight – nor a better performance from Paul McGann since at least, phew, “Scherzo”? I mean, there were attempts to do Eight-centric arcs before, most notably the first, Briggs-penned Dark Eyes set, which I do like quite a bit, but as far as I’m concerned, this blows it out of the water. Beyond the story quality, which is pretty damn high, if not without wobbles, that is the real appeal of that new Time War project. I was skeptic, but I’m absolutely charmed – and the opportunity to have, in the coming years, both this Eight-centric series and the continuation of the Doom Coalition storyline running side by side is pretty damn delightful.
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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood: Aliens Among Us 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 tackle the next chapter of the exciting Torchwood continuation, “Aliens Among Us”. Read the talk. Enjoy it. Beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag. Take five packages. Take three packages. Leave a comment. Maybe look up our thoughts on the first boxset. Take seven packages.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: It’s still impossible to fully know where the narrative of Aliens Among Us is headed, although we know have some serious clues, and we still can’t pass a definitive judgement on the project as a whole – but as a set of Torchwood stories, this is some absolutely terrific stuff, picking off from the last boxset and expanding the characters in fascinating ways, allowing for some really strong standalones stories.

SCRIBBLES: It’s somewhat frustrating, not having the whole picture. There’s wonderful stories in this set, there truly are. The climax in particular is a favorite of mine from the series so far. But there’s also a slight feeling of a holding pattern, certain beats being held off until the end. Some of that works wonderfully, particularly the end of set cliffhanger. But other aspects don’t, particularly the Gwen plot, being revisited but put on hold with motion. And similarly, a few characters don’t get as much to do in these episodes. On the whole, of course, this is tremendously worth a recommendation. It’s Big Finish doing Torchwood, when isn’t that worth a go? And here it’s with a raw dedication to political fury meaning that elevates the weakest of stories here, all while staying true to the themes at the core of the show from the beginning. Aliens Among Us 2 isn’t quite new ground here, but there is much to enjoy, and some exciting build toward the payoff of the range.

TIBERE: I must admit, I rather enjoy the teasing. It can be a problem sometimes, and we’re certainly going to discuss those, but overall, I’m enjoying the sense of mystery the range is working towards – and the omnipresence of little clues, mysteries and continuity call-backs make it an incredibly intriguing and rewarding object of analysis. It’s not perfect – some characters get a bit sidelined, chiefly Orr, and not all the thematic deep dives land – but it’s unique, challenging and political. Actually – I might take that back a bit. It’s not all that “unique”. That might be the greatest flaw of these stories: while I do really like them, I must say I prefered the first set – because it was carrying a bit of fresh air, presented itself as a reinvention above all things, introducing new characters and problems to deal with. Here, we tread more conventional ground, and while I wouldn’t say the range is playing safe – I mean, that finale! – it certainly does lean a lot more in nostalgia and the classic brand of James Goss-inspired metatextual commentary than in a new bold direction. Still, for what it is, it’s pretty damn fantastic, and if the final set does stick the landing, this will go down as an unmitigated success.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Bernice Summerfield: True Stories (audiobook)

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: So this is something a bit different, isn’t it? Not an audio drama, but an audiobook. There of course has been a long, long tradition of Bernice Summerfield books in Big Finish, sometimes criss-crossing with the Main Range – and they have gone back to it this year, as a sort of fun aside, going beyond the main plot of sets III and IV.

SCRIBBLES: The main thing, really, is that this book exists for people like me who are griping that Benny hasn’t gotten quite enough to do in the Unbound universe arc, which, in the most recent set in particular, has favored the Doctor’s perspective. It’s something, really, you’ll know from that whether you want to get. It’s not the most world-changing set of stories ever, though there is one piece in here I’d go to bat for and say is one of the finest explorations of the Unbound universe setting ever and is worth digging into for that alone, but really, it exists to satiate a very specific appetite. There’s limitations in how far it can go with that: I rather wish the Benny relating past stories format was taken beyond just the Unbound time period so we could see more of her with her old gang, which I dearly miss. The New Adventures reboot, good as it has been, has felt like a bit of a distraction from that world. But in the meantime, this will do, and that seems to be exactly what it was made for. It scratches one particular itch not everybody will have, but I personally am very glad to have it scratched.

TIBERE: It basically exists only as comfort food for hardcore Benny fans. Which, thankfully, we both are. It’s not something you’re necessarily going to want to check out if you’ve discovered her through the New Adventures range and aren’t interested in something else – but if you’re nostalgic for the original Benny range, this is a good way to recapture the feel of it all. Regardless of the quality – consistent, but not especially high – of the stories, this really exists to have a set of Benny stories that are pure, classic, unadulterated Benny stories. Down to bringing back Kate Orman to pen the opening tale – her last contribution to the range being the original text of “Walking to Babylon”, adapted as an audio by Jac Rayner in 1999. That’s … That’s some Rona Munro shit right there. But eh! It’s nice fanservice. I felt appropriately catered to. Not going to say it’s the best thing under the sun, but it’s an excellent way to spend a few hours (and, at around five hours for ten pounds, it’s a nice deal, too).

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Short Trip: “All Hands on Deck”

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: So, this is a sequel of sorts to last month’s Short Trip, “A Heart on Both Sides”. We reviewed it, we really loved it, you can check it out here. Well, I say sequel. More like, another little thematic vignette on the horror of the Time War. It’s … Interesting, I guess? And … Yeah, really not as good as the first.

SCRIBBLES: I find this story pretty hard to react to as a story, because it isn’t, really, It’s more twenty minutes of nostalgia and loosely connected incident that isn’t particularly interesting, building to an astonishing scene that feels more like the beginning to a greater story. And that scene is very, very worth hearing, particularly for the low cost this story is available for. But in comparison to the highs A Heart on Both Sidesachieved with plot, theme, and character, this feels a little lackluster. Not reprehensible, actually very enjoyable, but a bit quieter and less eventful than it needs to be.

TIBERE: Basically. I do find the beginning of the story interesting, though, if not especially good. In part because this is a post-“To the Death” audio written by Eddie Robson. Now, very much was – or so it felt – the brain between the Eighth Doctor Adventures range.

SCRIBBLES: Moreso, I’d call him the heart. He’s engaged with the fallout of the range once before in spectacular fashion with The Secret History,” and it’s lovely to just hear the mundane moments that fill Susan’s life after all that transpired. It’s less aggressively raw than I’d have hoped, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without merit.

TIBERE: It feels like him almost reclaiming the range, in a way. That range always felt conflicted, between the very trad efforts offered by Nicholas Briggs and some other writers (“To the Death”, or “Vengeance of Morbius”, being prime examples of that ethos), and the care-free, fun, character-driven version Robson offered. I do agree that these initial bits feel a bit aimless in the context of the story, but they do take some degree of additional meaning when placed within the context of the EDAs. And if you’re a fan of the EDAs, I think that’s a really indispensable purchase – it kind of finds some thematic resolution that the actual finale didn’t offer. So yeah – it’s definitely not the best thing under the sun, but it offers interesting commentary on the past and opens new prospects for later on. Not great, but interesting, that’s the assessment.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Short Trip – “A Heart on Both Sides”

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. Spoilers after the “read more” tag.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle Big Finish’ latest short trip, following Nyssa at the heart of the Time War. Beware terrorists, and keep on reading.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: Big Finish has started, of late, to use its Short Trips range (which are, in case you reader are not aware, short thirty-minutes stories with one or two actors) to tackle some New Who themes and characters – we got Ten and Eleven meeting Jago & Litefoot earlier this year, and it happens that today, just as we were starting to write this talk, they announced that Jackie Tyler would star along the Metacrisis Doctor in two stories by Joseph Lidster next year. So, well, we had to get on that train and start reviewing those, hadn’t we? Because seeing how Big Finish tackles and problematizes the New Series, well, that’s kind of our job, I suppose. So here we go, writing about the two Time War stories they are releasing: one with Nyssa this month, and another with Susan in October.

SCRIBBLES: I must admit, I was pretty cynical about the idea. In general, I don’t think third person narration is the strongest angle Big Finish has in its wheelhouse, and I tend to worry that the shorter stories give less space to develop. And while there are a few aspects of this story I’d have liked more time to expand on, it surpasses all expectations and really, really works. It finds some fantastic moments of meaning in juxtaposing its lead characters, all to shine a light on an aspect of the Time War that has generally not been developed despite being a vital piece. It works. Very well.

TIBERE: I think the background BF has in short story anthologies (like the Bernice Summerfield ones they use to release as tie-ins to the audios) really help them to create really short, but effective little stories. A strong concept that doesn’t overstay its welcome and explores some really fascinating thematic ground – really, the interaction of Old and New is something Big Finish tends to do very well (look at Doom Coalition), and this is no exception. It’s a gripping, political, extremely-well written little tale, and I think it’s fair to say it has put newcomer Rob Nisbet (who has so far only penned a Companion Chronicle and this) on our watchlist of writers to watch out for. Strongly recommended (plus, it’s cheap!).

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, volume IV – Ruler of the Universe

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. Spoilers are tagged accordingly.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles sink into a therapist’s couch to talk about the latest entry in everyone’s favourite time-travelling archelogist’s adventures (well, maybe not if you prefer River).

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: This … This is interesting. It’s also very good, but above all, it’s interesting. We both love Bernice Summerfield and her audios, and I think it’s fair to say we both have enjoyed the New Adventures range quite a lot (volume I, especially, being one of the best Big Finish releases of all time). But they have had their problems – throwing the Doctor, be it the Seventh Incarnation, or the Unbound, David Warner-played one, wasn’t without certain problems. The focus on Benny’s own personal life, and the struggles she had to face as a single mother and the leader of a vast ragtag bunch of misfits were largely gone, replaced by strong, but much typically Doctor Who-ish narratives (down to the theme song, which has shifted to the Who theme since 2014).

SCRIBBLES: This set is a pretty finely-crafted character arc, and I really have to give a lot of kudos to the fine writing on that. And yet, and I hate to say this, it doesn’t really have all that much Benny in it. This is David Warner’s showcase, and he excels, but it’s hard not to miss the title character, all the same.

TIBERE: I’m probably a bit more positive than you on it – because yes, while it doesn’t change the problems the range has had before and still has, it at least draws attention upon them. The Doctor’s presence is relevant here in a way it wasn’t necessarily before – and the whole set felt like a very pointed, very relevant, and oh so very James Goss-esque interrogation on the relationship between Benny and the Doctor, and between the Classic and modern versions of the show.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Monthly Range – “Time in Office”

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. Spoilers-free, and then less spoiler-free thoughts follow after the ‘read more’ tag.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest Monthly Range entry, Eddie Robson’s “Time in Office”. Rise, gentlemen and ladies, the council is now in session.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Torchwood – Aliens Among Us I

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. Spoilers after the “read more” tag!

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the long-awaited Torchwood sequel, “Aliens Among Us”. Cardiff says no to hate, but we say yes to that boxset. Spoilers after the read more tag. CWs: discussion of sexual harassment,

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

Torchwood and politics never mix.”

“Maybe they should.”

TIBERE: Well, that was rather amazing. It’s a little bit hard to put all the puzzle pieces together and to deliver a final verdict on “Aliens Among Us”, because we’re dealing with a heavily serialized twelve episodes arc we have only seen a third of; but, just from the first four stories, I think it’s safe to say it’s shaping up to be something truly, truly special, and maybe one of Big Finish’ greatest storytelling successes. Of course, it’s an occasionally frustrating – infuriating, even, experience, that loves to tease and build-up and leaving you unsatisfied. But at any rate – even if they end up screwing up massively (which doesn’t seem likely considering the level of talent involved), the ideas, the concepts and the themes on display here more than justify the existence of this range. Maybe we can’t yet say how good it is at storytelling, but there’s no way to attack its ambition. This feels like Torchwood, and Big Finish, at their most creative, courageous and cutting-edge. I’m all for it, and I’d probably say that if you have to buy a single boxset this year, that one is probably the one to go for.

SCRIBBLES: It almost feels too soon to call, doesn’t it? There’s so much up in the air at this point. I feel like the closest point of comparison is Miracle Day, another serialized story across a bunch of episodes with occasional episodic concerns, which didn’t really make a big statement about what it was going to be until the halfway mark with The Categories of Life.All we can judge right now is the setup and character work, and that certainly is promising. While not as high concept as “Children of Earth” or “Miracle Day,at least not yet, “Aliens Among Us” has set up fascinating and tremendously relevant political storytelling that looks to place characters new and old in remarkably interesting places, while not entirely losing the delightful identity of individual episodes along the way building to that. It feels raw, and, yeah, rather incomplete at this point, but it’s really already set to be an absolutely essential piece of Torchwood and the Doctor Who universe at large.
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