Doctor Who: The End of the Beginning

Not to be confused with The Beginning of the End, which is a film about giant grasshoppers crawling on photographs of Chicago. This Big Finish audio drama is about the Doctor in four regenerations in four different time periods,  but all of them eventually facing the same cosmic crisis.

The End of the Beginning

A brief prologue introduces us to the Kethlar Death Lords—an “ancient order of ruthless warriors”—who were engaged in a great war eons ago. Only one survived their final battle and, while floating aimlessly through the millennia, he “declared war on the Universe.” This survivor, Vakrass, is the narrator of this opening piece, and provides occasional bridging comments between the three short dramas that follow.

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Doctor Who: Expiry Dating

And two other audio stories featuring River Song (Alex Kingston) and the 10th Doctor (David Tennant). It’s especially noteworthy that this set was recorded during these months of social isolation. Each of the actors involved recorded their own part from a “studio” set up in their own homes.

Expiry Dating

Expiry Dating

Given the method of recording, it seems appropriate that much of this first story in the CD set is in the epistolary style. It’s a delightful follow-up to the 10th Doctor’s first encounter with River Song in Silence of the Library.

After receiving a “message in a bottle” from River on a piece of psychic paper — which allows for immediate response — the Doctor engages in a correspondence/conversation with this mysterious woman who claims to know him so intimately even though he’s only just met her. He’s interested in finding out who she is, without giving away “spoilers” regarding her fate at the Library.

10th Doctor

“Who are you? How do we know each other? How do I know I can trust you?”

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Doctor Who: Out of Time

While most of my purchases of Doctor-Who-related audio dramas from Big Finish have been about companions whom I’ve wanted more stories about, I remain a sucker for any interactions between Doctors; I’ve been that way since I first saw The Three Doctors as a child. I enjoy the contrast of personalities and the sparks that fly whenever a given Doctor clashes with his previous or future selves.

So when I learned about this one, featuring two of the most popular Doctors from the original and new series, I just had to have it. I was hoping for a lot from the interaction, and was not disappointed.

Out of Time

The Cathedral of Contemplation is a unique example of trans-temporal architecture: a massive structure that rotates carousel-like outside of Time itself, with doors opening to different times and places as it spins. This makes it irresistible to the 10th Doctor (David Tennant — Dr 10, as I’ll be calling him hereafter), who is at this point traveling alone after the loss of Donna Noble and before he faces his next regeneration.

He’s welcomed at the Cathedral by the Abbess in charge; she makes some curious remarks about a “coincidence” and, even though he doesn’t recall ever being there before, tells him that he always visits when he’s in trouble. Well, “someone else, and all of them you.”

The Abbess says that the Doctor can go anywhere he wants within the Cathedral, except for the Panoramic Gallery, which is what he’s come specifically to see in hopes of picking up some new travel ideas. The door to the gallery is locked, but he’s not going to let a little thing like that stop him from getting in. He twiddles the lock with his sonic screwdriver as soon as he’s alone…

Meanwhile, Dr 4 (Tom Baker) is painting in the gallery, working on frescoes with an assistant, a young woman named Jora whom he’s met at the Cathedral. She’s run away from her military after a traumatic battle and is in hiding.

While they’re taking, some sort of strange temporal disturbance occurs at the door, and a man comes in. “Oh, hello.”

“Do I know you?” asks Dr 4.

He doesn’t recognize the visitor, but the visitor certainly recognizes him.

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Doctor Who: The Movie

Paul McGann as Doctor Who

I had mixed feelings about this made-for-TV movie when it first aired in 1996.

On the one hand, it was the first new Doctor Who since the original long-running series had finally been cancelled in 1989. I’d stopped watching it by then anyway, but had fond memories of the Doctors I’d watched growing up and would have liked to see the show come back again.

On the other hand, the movie was made by Fox TV in cooperation with the BBC and Universal Studios with the prospect of introducing a new version of the series in America.

While a few British series have been successfully adapted into US versions, the odds are against it. What made the UK show successful is more often altered out of recognition to suit US television standards, or simply doesn’t translate from one country to the other. For example, there have been at least two attempts to transplant Fawlty Towers, both of which crashed and burned. The science fiction/time travel element of Doctor Who might survive, but much of the charm and whimsy of the character would be lost.

So I watched it with a certain amount of hope and trepidation.  And it was okay. I liked Paul McGann’s Doctor, but there were a couple of things in the story that really irritated me.

The movie received good ratings when it aired on the BBC, but not so great on Fox. There was no new series at that time; Doctor Who would have to wait until 2005 to return to television.

I thought little more about this movie for 20-plus years unless I had some reason to list actors who played the Doctor. But since I’ve been viewing and writing reviews of old Doctor Who episodes recently, I thought I’d give it another look.

It’s not as disappointing as I remembered it being in 1996. Viewing it again after 15 years of modern Who, I can see it as the transition between the old and new series. One of the things I disliked about it still bothers me. The other… well, the Doctor does that all the time these days and I’ve gotten used to it.

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The Paternoster Gang: Merry Christmas, Mr. Jago

I won’t have time to review the full set of The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4 before the holidays, but the story on the first CD is a Christmas tale so I’ve decided to do it separately and save the rest for later.

The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4

This story sees the return of a character from the classic Doctor Who era: that late-Victorian music hall impresario, Henry Gordon Jago.

Jago (Christopher Benjamin) first appeared in the 1977 4th Doctor’s story, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” in which he and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) assisted the Doctor in investigating the strange disappearances of several young women in the Limehouse streets in the vicinity Jago’s theatre. The two made an amusing double act, and there were jokes about a Jago and Litefoot spinoff–which never came to be on television, but did much later become a popular audio series on Big Finish.  Jago and Litefoot continued their adventures in Victorian London long after the Doctor had gone on his way. The series only ended when Trevor Baxter passed on.

As this story begins, we learn that Mr. Jago is already acquainted with the Paternoster Gang.  He’s on his own this holiday season, since his friend Prof. Litefoot is spending the winter in Egypt, and he’s on friendly enough terms with the Paternosters that they invite him to join them for a Christmas Eve tea.

But before tea-time, Jago–who happens to be dressed like Father Christmas when he calls at Paternoster Row–has a charitable act to perform. He intends to put on a magic show for the entertainment of the children at an orphanage and needs some specially impressive new magic tricks or illusions to use.

Strax helps out by taking him to Old Smallpiece’s Emporium. The entirely dubious Old Smallpiece happens to be the Sontaran’s favorite underworld informant, as well as a merchant of alien artefacts that are out of place in London in the 1890s.

While Mr. Jago is “well versed in alien matters,” because of his work with Prof. Litefoot, he seems rather naïve as he chooses a magician’s wand and the Top Hat of Surprise (or a “a short-range transmat,” as Strax identifies the latter).

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The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3

The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3

This third audio-drama boxed set from Big Finish gives us the further adventures of Madame Vastra, a Silurian detective in late-Victorian London, with her Cockney wife Jenny and their Sontaran manservant Strax. I was hoping to get this review done before the newest set, Heritage 4 arrived, but then the package from the UK was in my mailbox a couple of days, so I’d better get moving. 

As with the Heritage 1 and 2 sets, there are three separate mystery stories, each on its own CD.

Family Matters

As suggested by the title, this first story has a family theme. The focus is primarily on Jenny’s estranged family and background, but there are conversations about the family she has now at Paternoster Row as well the blood relatives she left behind years ago.

A mystery involving lions and crocodiles in London leads Vastra to investigate  the sewers beneath the city, when things suddenly turn personal. She ends up kidnapped and chained in a circus sideshow exhibit. She’s not alone; also on exhibit are other human “freaks” and a blue, four-armed alien lady.

“There are no monsters here,” Vastra declares to her new alien friend.

“Personally,” the alien responds, “I have always found humans terrifying.”

There’s just a hint about Vastra’s personal history too, indicating that this is not the first time she’s been exhibited in chains by ignorant 19th-century humans.

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The Curse of Yig

Yig ledger art

The Curse of Yig was a collaborative effort of H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop.  Bishop provided the idea of a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory who was terrified of snakes. Lovecraft recrafted this basic concept, making it a psychological horror made manifest–and incidentally adding a new god to his pantheon: Yig, “an odd, half-anthropomorphic devil of highly arbitrary and capricious nature… not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children.”

But those foolish enough to harm the children of Yig (that is, snakes) could expect to feel the wrath of his terrible curse.

The text is online at https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cy.aspx

The story is one that I’d read some years ago, but not one of the Lovecraft stories that I could say I was extremely familiar with. I mean, I knew who Yig was when I first saw that Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was planning to do an adaptation of The Curse of Yig for their next audio drama, but could remember very little about who had been cursed, or why.

Listening to this new DART adventure before re-reading the text, I’m struck by how closely this adaptation has stuck to the structure of the original story, and I make note of the changes the DART guys have made to allow for the very different sensibilities of people nearly a century later.

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Casting the Runes

I’ve written blog reviews of two other adaptations of this, the most influential story written by M.R. James: Night/Curse of the Demon, the 1957 Jacques Tourneur film, and the 1970s ITV version starring Jan Francis. Both adaptations moved the story to a contemporary setting and made changes to the characters and plot, while retaining that central idea of a curse that you can only get rid by passing it back to the man who gave it to you. Three months were allowed.

You can read the original story on the Thin Ghost site.

I was somewhat surprised when I first watched this dramatic recitation by Robert Lloyd Parry; it, too, is an adaptation of James’s story and not a straight reading of the text.

Although the setting hasn’t been changed, there are some notable emendations to the cast of characters with some of the smaller roles in the drama are cut, or their parts revised.

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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 4

Vivian and the Stones. It looks like they're performing at an awards ceremony.

Part 3 ended with Vivian Fay (a.k.a. the Cailleach) gloating over trapping the Doctor in hyperspace.

Part 4 starts the same way, but Vivien’s gloat doesn’t last very long. The Magara, those sparkly justice machines the Doctor accidentally unleashed, now float in to intervene–and bring just about everything that was interesting in this story to a screeching halt. They announce that they’ve tried the Doctor while he was busy elsewhere, and in spite of a spirited defense from Sparkly Magara 2, Magara 1  has judged the Doctor to be guilty. The punishment is execution.

Vivian would like to see this execution happen right away, but the Doctor gets the Magara to grant a 2-hour delay so he can appeal the sentence. This “appeal” will take up the greater part of this final episode. Nothing really finishes off a good horror story about blood-absorbing stone monsters quite like a farcical trial with comic robots.

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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 3

Vivian zaps with her wandAt the end of Part 2, Romana was zapped by Vivian Fay and beamed out into some other as-yet unspecified place.

Sadly, this story, which has started out so well, begins to go downhill from here. While there are still some good scenes in the next two story parts, there’s a distinct shift from the trappings of folk horror to some rather silly science fiction.

It’s Doctor Who, so you have to expect all things that might be otherwise taken for supernatural events to have a scientific explanation, even a wonky sci-fi one. But did it have to be so- 

Well, we’ll get to that when we come to it.

Over in the secret cellar at the Hall, formerly the home of Mr. DeVries before the stone-monsters got him, the Doctor and Professor Rumford are examining those paintings that were removed from the wall upstairs. All three ladies who used to own this house and the meadow where the stone circle sits look just like Vivian Fay.

Professor Rumford is surprised that Vivian never mentioned that she belonged to the Montcalm family.

She isn’t, the Doctor makes it clear. “She is the Montcalm family,” as well as the two other families that have owned the Hall since the Dissolution. Not to mention being the Mother Superior of the convent that was there before the house. And she probably manages the company that now owns the property that the stone circle is on.

Rumford, who’s still adjusting to these new kinds of ideas, objects. There’s a span of over a 150 years between the three women in the paintings.

The Doctor replies, “What’s 150 years when you’ve been around for 4000?”

For Vivian is the Cailleach, the Celtic goddess whom the Druids have been worshipping. (But that’s not who she really is either.)

Prof. Rumford and the Doctor look at portraits

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