Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency BBC Radio Casebook Vol. 1

BBC Radio 4 produced a series of audio dramas based on Alexander McCall Smith’s massively successful No. 1 Ladies Detective novels which follow the adventures of Precious Ramotswe (Claire Benedict) as she uses her inheritance to establish the first ever detective agency in Botswana for “ladies and others.”

The radio adaptations is done by Smith himself and the first casebook is eight episodes adapted from the first four novels in the series. The radio plays do a great job capturing the warmth and charm of the characters in the book with many bits of dialogue taken directly from the books.

The episodes have a much stronger focus on the mystery element than the books do. The earlier mystery plots tend to be a bit more complex and interesting such as when Ma Ramotswe finds clues that indicate a missing boy may have fallen into the hands of witch doctors and helps a woman who’s not sure the man claiming to be her long-lost father really is. Later we have cases that are more domestic such as a middle-aged man who wants to find a woman he robbed and a girl he wronged to settle his affairs in life.

The theme music is a nice and catchy African theme that makes a solid lead-in for the series.

Not everything from the books is included in the adaptations, but what is omitted mostly isn’t problematic. The two minor exceptions to this is that the audio drama doesn’t address that Ma Ramotswe moved her office from its original location to inside the same building as her fiance Mr. J. L. B, Matekoni’s auto repair business. That was jarring. Nor is it portrayed that Ma Ramotswe’s Secretary/Assistant Detective Ma Makutsi doubled as Assistant Manager of the garage. Omitting that begs the question of how Matekoni’s business survived a long illness in the middle of the series.

However, as the audio dramas stick close to the books, most of the faults come from the books. For example, the series has a habit of raising plot points that disappoint. For example, in one episode, Matekoni’s maid hatches a plot to have Ma Ramotswe sent to prison. In another, a male detective opens up a practice and uses his being male as a selling point for his business. Both of these ideas are resolved in the most anti-climatic way possible.

Still, for all their faults, there’s a reason the No. 1 Ladies Detective series books are so popular. These first eight episodes capture the charm of the book series almost perfectly. If you’re looking for a light mystery series with likable and interesting characters, this set will definitely hit the spot.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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My Big Finish 20 Honorable Mentions

We finished my Big Finish 20 which features 20 great Big Finish releases last week. However, Big Finish has a massive back catalog and there so many other releases that could be on there. I could list great individual releases for a long time. However, for brevity’s sake, I’ll only list two individual releases for honorable mentions and then focus on a few series of worthwhile audio dramas.

Individual Releases Honorable Mentions:

1) Treasure Island: A faithful adaptation that casts the magnificent Tom Baker as Long John Silver. Also the music suite on this one is just perfect for days you want to imagine you’re at sea. (Amazon) or Big Finish

2) The Scorchies: The Third Doctor’s Companion Jo Grant finds herself at the mercy of the Scorchies, a group of insane singing alien puppets. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but the music on this is great. The Scorchies would later return in Jago and Litefoot Series 8 and Iris Wildthyme: Reloaded. (Amazon or Big Finish

Series Honorable Mentions:

1) The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Big Finish began a series of audio dramas starring Paul McCann were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and were told in the style of the revived Doctor Who series as (mostly) standalone 50 minute episodes. The initial companion co-star for the first four series was Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller (OBE). After the first four series, the Eighth Doctor Adventures continued as a series of inter-connected series box sets under the titles Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition, and Ravenous. The series has so many high points and great stories, but it’s also inter-connected, and I don’t think you get the full benefit if you listen to an episode as a one-off.

2) Dalek Empire: The Doctor’s greatest enemies are the Daleks. What happens when the Daleks attack and the Doctor is not around? Dalek Empire tells the story of Dalek invasions and human attempts to resist them. The series is part space opera and part war story. It features fine acting. Series 1 and 2 featured Blake’s 7 star Gareth Thomas, Series 3 featured then-future Doctor Who star David Tennant, and Series 4 featured an intense performance from former Doctor Who supporting actor Noel Clarke. The entire series was written, directed, and produced by Television Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs. With the Dalek Empire, you get great acting, a lot of action, and stories that can have surprising twists.

3) Counter-Measures: This series features a team investigating paranormal activity in the 1960s and 1970s. There are four main characters, three of which originated in the 1980s Doctor Who story Remembrance of the Daleks However, knowledge of Doctor Who is not required at all as the Doctor or the events of their appearance is never even referenced in the series. The stories are about a variety of threats, ranging from science gone mad to extraterrestrial threats, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. It’s like a vintage British version of the X-files. The stories remain true to their eras with the first four box sets in the 1960s and a special and last two box sets set in the 1970s (New Counter-Measures.)

4) The Diary of River Song: River Song (played by Alex Kingston)  was introduced in Series 4 of Doctor Who and married the 11th Doctor in Series 6. Doctor Who hinted that River had her own adventures and this series is about her adventures traveling in time and space. She’s not entirely separate from the Doctor as in each of the first four sets, she’s met up with an earlier version of the Doctor (or two) but because of the rules she’s not allowed to reveal herself to any of them (at least that they’ll remember.) This series has continued to improve with each successive set, with a lot of fun and unusual stories.

5) The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations: Big Finish took on the task of adapting eight eight-page comic strips featuring John Steed and Emma Peel into eight full-length audio dramas on two box sets. The results were delightful. Julian Wadham continued his role as Steed from the Lost Stories and adapted to the lighter style of the Emma Peel and Olivia Poulet does a great job stepping into the iconic role of Emma Peel. The stories are mostly solid and show some great imagination, given they just started from eight pages.

6) Sherlock Holmes Stories by Jonathan Barnes: While Big Finish made some interesting Sherlock Holmes releases prior to 2012. Jonathan Barnes 2012, “The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, ” Big Finish came into its own with its Holmes stories. The new stories are respectful to the characters of Holmes (Nicholas Briggs)and Watson (Richard Earl) and explore that relationship while also taking some bold directions in the story. We get to see an elderly Holmes coming out of retirement in 1920s London after living years in the country. There’s also some great interconnection of stories beginning with the Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner and concluding after three box sets with the Sacrifice with Sherlock Holmes. For those looking for new Holmes Adventures, Big Finish is offering the best productions I’ve heard in many a year.

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My Big Finish Twenty, Part Four

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary.  Last week, we featured #10-6. Two week ago we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16.

We wrap up our Big Finish Twenty with my final five.

5) Jago and Litefoot Series 10

I love Jago and Litefoot. I wrote four long posts detailing the history of their wonderful audio drama adventures, so of course they’d go on this list. Their absolute best Series was Series 10. (See my review here.) The set features some great adventures including Jago and Litefoot sending letters to their younger selves, competing with each other for the attention of their biographer, and Jago being buried alive and waking up in a dystopian future. The individual episodes are superb with the finale serving as a capstone to the first Ten Series of Jago & Litefoot.

Other contenders for Best Jago and Litefoot Series for me would include Series 1, Series 3, Series 5, and Series 8.

4)The One Doctor

The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) arrive in what the Doctor terms as a vulgar period of history where most things are known and there’s little exploration or curiosity. The Doctor and his exploits are pretty well-known. So well-known that a con man is impersonating the Doctor with the aide of his assistant Sally. The Doctor stumbles onto his impersonator but before he can get that sorted out, an evil overlord shows up and threatens to destroy the entire star system unless the system’s greatest treasures are brought to him.

This is the best Doctor Who comedy story Big Finish has released. It has a great cast including the future Doctor Who companion actor Matt Lucas, a clever script that makes sense, while still delivering a variety of humorous situations. Overall, this is an absolute joy.

3)Hamlet

Yes, you read that right. While it’s best known for its Science Fiction and Nostalgic TV adaptations, Big Finish did two Shakespearean plays, King Lear and Hamlet. Both plays were  well-performed with stellar casts that bring these legendary stories to life. Hamlet is my favorite of the two, since I generally like Hamlet a bit more than King Lear.

Hamlet is one of the best stories ever written, but that doesn’t mean adaptations of Hamlet are all good.  There are many poorly acted and poorly executed versions of the play that involve actors giving hammy performances or droning through their lines. There was a version of Hamlet that was subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff.

This is a brilliant Hamlet. Big Finish didn’t mess around with the script but they got some very good actors to appear in it. Alexander Vlahos is a great Hamlet. His delivery is pitch perfect. He makes every line real and credible.

The big advantage of this one is the sound design. Most audio versions of Shakespeare plays tend to be either recorded versions of the play or actors just reading the lines. However, this story has a very realistic and well-done sound design done by a company that specializes in making great-sounding audio. The sound and music are never intrusive or overdone and definitely enhance the experience.

This is a tremendous production that does justice to one of the greatest stories of all time.

2) Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his companion Charlotte Pollard (India Fisher) arrive at an Edwardian Mansion on Christmas where on the stroke of midnight, a servant is killed in a bizarre way. The Doctor and Charley find themselves drawn into the story and try to solve the mystery as reality and time seem to bend in this strange and unusual place as more servants continue to die each time midnight strikes.

This is an amazing and multi-faceted story. It’s science fiction, it’s a mystery, a dark comedy, and a satire on the English class system. It has some hilarious moments, some dark moments, and ends with some sweet and emotional moments. It features great acting, superb direction, and top-notch writing. Chimes of Midnight has been consistently listed as one of Big Finish’s best releases since it came out in 2002. (In 2015, it was voted the best monthly Doctor Who release by listeners.) It’s a story that lives up to its massive hype and is a must-listen.

1) Doctor Who: The Last Adventure

All of the Doctors who appear in Big Finish Doctor Who stories were given a proper ending to their tenure on television with their regeneration, or I should say all but one.

When Colin Baker was cast to play the Sixth Doctor, he had high hopes for a long, happy tenure in the role but ended up with a short, unfortunate tenure. His character as written was unlikable (particularly in his first story) while he was given a clashing, multi-color costume universally panned. On top of that, the show’s script editor thought he wasn’t fit for the role and said so publicly. The show went on hiatus for 18 months and when the show returned, it did so with a “trial” that reminded the audience of the recent unpleasantness. Baker did a good job with what he was given, but was ultimately fired from the show and didn’t return for a regeneration story. Instead, his successor Sylvester McCoy appeared on the TARDIS set wearing Baker’s outfit and a blonde wig.

Baker’s Doctor got a second chance at Big Finish. On audio, the Sixth Doctor became a more likable character and got several new companions while starring in a host of well-written and memorable releases including the previously mentioned One Doctor. That really gave Baker a chance to show how good a Doctor he could be and gave many fans a new appreciation of his Doctor.

After so many years and so many stories, Producer David Richardson had the idea of finally giving the Sixth Doctor a proper ending. This led to the Last Adventure, which features four stories throughout the Sixth Doctor’s life that ultimately set the stage for his regeneration and a final confrontation with his enemy the Valyard. Each story is told with a different companion and the stories take different tones from an eerie story about a strange train yard to a light-hearted story about doglike people who have stay indoors to avoid becoming human to a suspenseful tale of malicious evil in Victorian London (with Jago and Litefoot) to a final confrontation in the TARDIS, this box set covers a lot of ground and each chapter is well-written and well-executed. They’re not only a solid conclusion to Baker’s era, but they also each stand up as strong stories in their own right.

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My Big Finish Twenty, Part Three

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary. Last week we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16. This week we’ll cover numbers 10-6.

10) UNIT Encounters

Big Finish’s original Doctor Who license was limited to production based on the classic era of Doctor Who and the first eight Doctors. That changed in 2015 as they were allowed to tell stories based on characters in the revived series. The first new series that Big Finish did was UNIT featuring Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgraves) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) and adding a new cast of characters around them. The UNIT releases are action-packed stories of UNIT defending the Earth from danger in the absence of the Doctor.

Encounters is one of my favorite of these sets. While generally, the UNIT box sets feature four hour-long episodes based on a single threat, this is much more an anthology piece. In four different episodes, the UNIT team deals with a disabled Dalek in South America, has a creepy sci-fi ghost story, meets up with classic Doctor Who monsters like the Sontarans, and has a hilarious meet-up with an alternate dimension. It’s a fun box set that shows the great range of both the writers and the actors.

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9) Live 34

This is one of Big Finish’s most impressive experimental stories as we are brought four separate news casts from the radio station Live 34, the top channel on Colony 34 where the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companions Ace (Sophia Allred) and Hex (Philip Oliver)  have inserted themselves to challenge the regime of Premier Jaeger, the Colony’s long-time ruler, who has been delaying a general election for five years.

The story is chillingly realistic. The news programs feel true to life. Andrew Collins and Duncan Wiseby deserve a lot of credit for the way they played a news anchor and a news magazine host respectively. They manage to create a feeling of authenticity that brings appropriate gravity to the proceedings. The realism makes the grim nature of this police state planet feel plausible and that’s terrifying.

One complaint some people have about the story is that we’ve seen this all before: tyrannical government feeds masses misinformation and oppresses the planet, Doctor comes to the rescue. Yes, that’s true. But the difference between a good Doctor Who story and a bad one isn’t the total originality of the plot, it’s how the story is told. And this one is told brilliantly in a way that makes the grim reality of a police state come to life.

 

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8) The First Doctor Adventures, Volume 1

I was dubious of this series. The idea was to record adventures featuring the First Doctor, played by David Bradley (who played the original First Doctor William Hartnell in an Adventure in Space and Time.) The series also had the actors who played the original Doctor Who companion actors in that same film play the First Doctor’s companions. This seemed gimmicky and unnecessary.

Yet, it worked wonderfully. The two stories were marvelous. “The Destination Wars” features the First Doctor encountering the Doctor Who villain the Master in an encounter that predates their meeting on television in a great science fiction time manipulation plot. Then there’s “The Great White Hurricane” which finds the crew landing in New York City just before the Great Blizzard of 1888. This story is a fantastic historical which brings to life a part of American history which I’d never heard about before and tells a really compelling story.

The acting is also superb as each of the leads offers their own interpretation of their classic roles and makes these characters their own. Whether you’re a fan of the original Hartnell stories or not, this box set features some incredibly well-done drama and is definitely worth a listen.

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7) The War Doctor: Casualties of War

For Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Anniversary, the series introduced legendary British actor John Hurt as a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor (the War Doctor) who lived and fought during the great Time War with the Daleks. Hurt’s appearances on TV were limited to two TV episodes, but Big Finish did a series of four three-episode box sets examining the life of the War Doctor, of which this is the last, having been released just after Hurt’s death in January 2017.

The box set contains three solid stories that deal with the cost of the Time War not only in lives, but in the cost to the soul, and to the very idea of truth. The set works on many levels. On one hand, the story is a great space opera offering big battles and high concepts. There are even a few moments of levity. On the other hand, the costs and suffering of the Time War are wearing on the Doctor’s heart and mind, particularly as he sees how the war has touched one of his previous companions, Leela (Louise Jameson.)

The entire set is well-written with great music and sound design, as well as solid acting including featured performances from Hurt, Jameson, and Jacqueline Pearce.

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6) The English Way of Death

In this story adapted from a novel by Gareth Roberts by John Dorney, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Leela Ward) travel to 1930s England to return an overdue library book but they run into time tourists who have illegally come from the future and more alarmingly, a sinister alien who is using zombies in a nefarious scheme.

The villains in this story are somewhat generic, particularly the zombies, though I found one plot twist in part four to be quite hilarious. Roberts does best with character pieces and this is quite cleverly done as a period drama gives him the chance to introduce all the sorts of interesting characters including a gung-ho British Colonel who gets drawn into the adventure, the cowardly Percy, and some of his braver colleagues from the future. The dialogue is rich and is perhaps even funnier than the TV story, “City of Death”, though not quite as stylish.

This is one of Big Finish’s best releases with the most popular classic series Doctor and one of the funnier stories they’ve ever made.

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My Big Finish Twenty, Part Two

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary. This week we’ll cover numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16.

15) Dan Dare, Volume 2

Being an American, I never grew up with Colonel Dan Dare of Space Fleet as portrayed in Britain’s Eagle Comics, but Big Finish’s two Dan Dare releases in association with B7 helped me fall in love with this iconic British character. He begins as a bit of a cynic but quickly shows his stuff as a tough, principled, courageous, and tenacious hero as he battles his arch-enemy The Mekon as well as a few other baddies. This is imaginative, swashbuckling space fun with great moments. At the same time, Dare has to deal with corruption and political skullduggery that often undermines his mission. For me, this volume stands out because of the final story as Dare’s mental battle with The Mekon.

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14) Doctor Who Unbound:  Masters of War:

For the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who, The Doctor Who Unbound range took a look at and altered several key concepts and events of the Doctor Who Universe. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Emmy award-winning actor David Warner was introduced as an alternate version of the Third Doctor  (played on television by Jon Pertwee) who arrived on the earth in 1996 rather than in the 1970s as happened on TV.

This release was a sequel released five years later as this alternative universe Doctor is now traveling with his new companion, retired Brigadier Alastir Lethbridge-Stewart  (Nicholas Courtney) as they land on Skaro, the homeworld of the Daleks, the Doctor’s most iconic enemies where they are lording over the Thals. The Doctor being the Doctor, he is here to liberate the Thals from the Daleks. In our Universe, the Daleks are out to “exterminate,” to “conquer and destroy.” But in this Unbound Universe, the Daleks want peace.

This raises a lot of questions. How did this other Universe’s Daleks develop differently? What did their creator Davros do differently?  How will they interact with the Daleks? This story offers a different spin on one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, Genesis of the Daleks, and it holds up. It’s a massive audio story at two and a half hours long, but in my opinion, well worth it as we get great acting from Warner, Courtney, and Terry Malloy (Davros), and a solid script. This is the type of story that’s best enjoyed by fans who’ve seen the original stories that these are based on, but it could also be enjoyed as a sci-fi epic in its own right.

Warner would reprise his role as the Unbound Doctor in two box sets in 2016 and 2017 alongside Big Finish’s first dramatic hero Bernice Summerfield and those are both good solid collections, though not quite as epic as this.

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13) Death and the Queen

The chronically single Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is swept off her feet by the prince of a distant land which the Doctor (David Tennant) had never heard of. The prince asks Donna to marry him, but of course, Donna learns there’s a catch.

The story has some great comedic moments and is a bit of a fractured fairy tale with a science fiction twist. Tennant and Tate are one of most beloved pairings of Doctor and Companion in the revived series and this story is a great example of how charming these characters are together and how well the actors play off each other. The script moves at a fast pace while providing good dramatic scenes and a great resolution. This makes a great audio drama and would have worked very well on television.

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12) 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men

The Fifth Doctor and his companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) arrive in 1963 with the Doctor determined to show Nyssa the Beatles. The Doctor is in for a surprise as he discovers the Beatles have been replaced in time by another band known as the Common Men.

The story’s premise, the mystery, and its solution are perfect. The gorgeous Abbey Road-theme cover art is a delight. The music is well-done and really creates a 1960s feels for the world of the story’s wannabe Beatles.

Beyond that, the story makes an effective use of Nyssa not being from Earth as well as having her own separate storyline. The entire cast performed well, and the story has the added bonus of being easily accessible even to those who haven’t listened to Big Finish before.

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11) Solitaire

The Companion Chronicles range at Big Finish are typically dramatized audiobooks featuring an actor who played a companion of the Doctor telling a story of one of their adventures with the aide of another actor. This one is instead a two-handed audio drama without narration.

Eighth Doctor companion Charlotte “Charley” Pollard (India Fisher) arrives in a toy shop with amnesia, not even remembering who she is at first. She quickly finds the shopkeeper of this Toy Store is the Celestial Toymaker (David Bailie)who gives her no choice but to play a mysterious game that the player doesn’t realize they’re playing, and the game rules are unknown.

At its core, this feels like an old Twilight Zone story as the tension builds throughout towards the twist ending. The two-voice radio drama works brilliantly.  The actors are perfect, Fisher plays Charley as unnerved and confused at first, but whose intelligence leads her closer to the truth. Bailie manages to imbue the Toymaker with a sinister sense of mystery.  The story grows increasingly claustrophobic, and we get great interactions between these two actors and a wonderful payoff.

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