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Monday, January 05, 2009

Doctor Who on Big Finish Audio

Introduction

In July I participated in an American Cancer Society "Relay For Life", a typically social fundraiser. The mechanics of the event involve each team always having a team member on a walking path (hence, the notion of a relay.) To keep everyone entertained, the ACS provides music and fun events throughout the day, and late into the night.

However, I didn't participate in any of the games, or play any music: I had only one walking shift, from 4-6AM, part of the small period during the fundraiser without any music, when almost everyone is sleeping, and where the only game is 'speak quietly.' So instead, I crammed podcasts in to my recently resurrected iPod, including several episodes of The Whocast, a weekly podcast about Doctor Who. Season 4 (aka Season 30) was coming to a close in the United States and I was looking for something else to feed my fix. I was new to The Whocast, and the relay provided me with a period of uninterrupted listening time. So at 4AM I relieved my teammate, put in my earbuds, and silently walked.

As it turned out, nobody was scheduled to replace me at 6AM, and my teammates were tucked in their sleeping bags, so I walked until 8AM.

I started with the earliest downloaded episode, Episode 67, which turned out to be the first episode with its two new hosts. Awesome, this was new for all of us. While one host was a bit dominating, there was more than enough information to keep me interested, and I spent most of the night listening to The Whocast, with a short break for the most recent episode of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" By the end of the night, I was sold on The Whocast.

Besides dissecting Season 4 and a variety of interviews and whatnots, my hosts, Trevor and Tony, often reviewed new stories from Big Finish Productions, a source of Doctor Who audio tales starring earlier incarnations of The Doctor. They even dedicated an entire episode to Big Finish audio dramas. This caught my interest. I had until this point a passing interest in old Doctor Who, and new very little about some of the later early Doctors. This might be a good opportunity to get even more of my fix without having to look at a screen. Trevor convinced me to try Big Finish when he reviewed the story "Kingdom of Silver" in episode 95 [link to web page, broken], [link to mp3], describing it with particularly high regard.

Trying to select a Doctor Who story at Big Finish can be overwhelming. There are eleven different subsections for Doctor Who. As someone new, it's hard to find a single story just for the purpose of testing it out. The website sorely lacks a ratings system. Errors in the web server not only lack a human-readable description, the error pages display way too much of the web server's source code. That said, the site still delivers the MP3s, and that's what matters.

To start I selected two of the oldest stories, which were produced in 1999. I primarily went with older stories because they were less expensive: they cost $7.99 whereas newer ones cost $13.99. Presuming quality did not vary with age, older stories were almost half the price of newer stories. Additionally, I didn't want to listen to a story that relied on backstory from older Big Finish stories.

The Reviews

My brief reviews of those stories follow, in order that I listened to them:

#6: The Marian Conspiracy (with Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor):

My introduction to Big Finish, as well as my introduction to The Sixth Doctor was also the introduction of a new companion to the Doctor Who Universe, Dr. Evelyn Smythe, an older woman and educator. The Doctor and Evelyn travel back to the 14th century to investigate a temporal error related to Evelyn's ancestry and one of the favorites of British storytelling, Queen Mary.

While I tend to avoid stories regarding British history (I feel like it's overdone) the perspective they take here is fresh and presents Queen Mary as a more sympathetic and thoughtful character. I enjoyed the portrayal of Evelyn, even though she was portrayed as slightly more brash and bumbling than someone I would consider as a first-time time traveller. Smart companions stay in the TARDIS during their first trip. Their adventures just aren't turned in to audio dramas.

Nonetheless, the characters mattered and was an enjoyable story overall. It left me wanting to know more about Evelyn. As you'll see later on, I was severely disappointed.

#7: The Genocide Machine: (with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor)

My introduction to The Seventh Doctor. The Doctor and his companion, Ace (also the Seventh Doctor's regular companion in the television stories) travel to the planet Kar-Charrat. Kar-Charrat is home to the Universe's Library of Congress, or something similarly enormous. The library engineers have invented a superior method for storing information, which catches the Daleks' single eyes.

I knew nothing about Ace, nor about the Seventh Doctor, and this was a fun self-contained story. My only complaint here was that it was a little difficult for me to tell apart the voices of Ace and the other major female character. A minor issue, easily managed by rewinding. Overall, fantastic and recommended.

#5: The Fearmonger (with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor):

This has a fairly complex story with several groups of characters: two assassins, a political party candidate, a terrorist group, a talk-show host, an old friend of Ace, and there they are, The Doctor and Ace, right in the middle. Everyone's trying to stir up fear and anger. The longer The Doctor and Ace take to discover what's really going on, the worse the situation becomes.

Great story, straight through to the end. All the characters are interesting and true to their nature. My second favorite of the group.

#11: The Apocalypse Element (with Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor):

The Doctor and Evelyn travel to a distant planet where a meeting of many sentient time traveling races is about to take place. The Daleks appear and all hell breaks loose.

Fundamentally, this is an action story. The characters quickly move from one crisis to the next, with very little time for character dialogue. It also (apparently) features the return of Romana, the former President of the Time Lords. I didn't have much problem with missing back-story, there really was just too much going on, and often, the characters in crisis spoke too fast to be understood. By the end I stopped trying to understand what was being said and waited for the story to end.

Now, back to Evelyn: here she had absolutely no role in the story other than to continue to be a mild novice, and mostly served as a character that could be used to forward the plot, of which there was a lot to be moved forward. This doesn't just apply to Evelyn's character, I felt this way about several of the characters. Often characters were portrayed with a certain behavior or ethic, and then that ethic had almost nothing to do with the story.

If you listen to this story, and like it, I'd love to know what you liked about it.

The only reason to listen to this story is because Russel T. Davies claims this is "one of the opening skirmishes of the Time War". (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Apocalypse_Element)

#112: Kingdom of Silver (with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor):

The Doctor travels to planet Tasak on the verge of an industrial age, split into many factions. Thanks to a mysterious ancient technology, Tasak remains at peace. You know, right? Mysterious ancient technology? Can't be good.

I tried this newer story specifically because Trevor recommended it on The Whocast. He was on the money, and this was my favorite of the five. I appreciated having an interesting and nuanced storyline involving well-defined characters, even more so after The Apocalypse Element. Since this story has the Seventh Doctor without Ace, they were able to devode time to the other characters, several of which I am led to believe will appear in future stories. At least, I hope.

Kingdom of Silver also comes with an additional story titled Keepsake, an eerie coda to Kingdom of Silver.

Summary

So if you kept track, I recommend four of the five stories. Not a bad ratio. I will probably listen to more of these stories. Since I won't consume them like candy, I'll probably rely more on recommendations and reviews in the future.

Which Big Finish Audio stories do you like?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Nonsense post. Read at your risk.

I was sitting next to my wife while she talked with her father. Below, 'chew' refers to chewing tobacco.
Wife: Has Pat given up chew for New Year's?
Father-in-law: What?
Wife: Chew.
Father-in-law: What?
Wife: Chew!
Me: Bless you!
Wife: [smack!]