Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: The Last Act

The Last Act brings Roger Llewellyn’s long-running, Sherlock Holmes, one-man play to audio. The story finds a somber Holmes reflecting on his life and career after Watson’s funeral. It’s an emotional and occasionally heartbreaking performance as Holmes reflects on his friend and his career. “You never appreciate the best things, the best people, until they’re gone.”

Not every moment is somber. There are humorous moments as Holmes will reflect on one of his friend’s oddities or on Lestrade’s unremarkable career that saw him never rise above Inspector.

The play covers a variety of ground. From “The Abbey Grange” to “The Speckled Band” “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” and The Hound of the Baskervilles and many more, Holmes offers his reflections on his cases and it’s a Tour de Force performance.

I enjoyed the second half far less as it offered insights into Holmes’ dark secrets, including his little discussed childhood. On one hand, this explained Holmes being merciful in one particular case. On the other, there’s a certain modern conceit that tries to explain everything anyone does as a result of some childhood trauma to provide motivation. This can be seen in superhero fiction where so many characters’ origins are being rewritten reflect that sort of trauma. It becomes somewhat monotonous in fiction when no one ever does anything good, noble, or heroic unless a parent was killed or was abusive, or some other trauma occurred to explain it.

I also didn’t like the way Holmes’ drug use was addressed. In the books, Watson claims to have weaned him off cocaine. However, the play insists Holmes’ use continued unknown to Watson and it leads the play into a dour place. While some would argue this is more realistic than the books (which removed the cocaine habit as it became socially unacceptable) and it might be clever to undermine audience expectations by moving from downbeat to depressing, I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by the turn.

Still, the play is well-written even if I have issues with the tone, Llewellyn’s performance as Holmes (and twelve other characters) is pitch perfect and thoroughly engaging. He captures Holmes as a man trying to come to terms with the greatest loss in his life as a lifetime of emotional restraint begins to ebb away. I only wish the play had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Poirot’s Finest Cases

Poirot’s Finest Cases collects eight different BBC audiodramas starring the late John Moffat as Poirot and dramatizing eight memorable Agatha Christie Stories.

1) The ABC Murders-Classic case as Poirot receives notices of murders in advance of  seemingly random people tied to the first letter of their last name, and the city they live in with an ABC railroad schedule left behind. A brilliant plot that is very well-adapted. Grade: A

2) After the Funeral: The death of a wealthy man appears to be natural causes, but then his sister suggests it was murder and she is soon found dead herself. A good case, and a solid adaptation. Only weak spot was Poirot as narrator narrating about obvious reasons for why certain people should be suspected. Grade: B+

3) Death on the Nile: This is my favorite Poirot story and this adaptation is simply marvelous. While it lacks the flair of the Ustinov version, this captures the essence of the story. If you wanted complain about Death on the Nile, I suppose you could point out the almost absurd number of romances that spring up on this boat. But, I think that serves to balance out the unhappiness that dominates the “A” plot. Overall, this is a great portrait of Poirot as a character and an absolutely brilliant adaptation. Grade: A+

4) The Murder of Roger Akroyd: One of Christie’s most controversial tales because of the identity of the murderer. I thought the TV adaptation was only “so so,” but BBC Radio 4 manages to do the story justice. It really is a clever and remarkable tale and manages to outperform the 1930s adaptation for the Mercury Playhouse with Orson Welles. Grade: A-

5) Murder on the Orient Express: Perhaps, the most iconic of Christie mysteries. It’s perfectly executed over radio. This requires multiple accents (including several Americans) and they’re all performed quite well. Grade: A

6) The Mysterious Affair at Stiles: The first ever Poirot story in which he solves the murder of a wealthy woman. I really enjoyed this adaptation. With all the great stories that followed, it’s easy to forget how good this one was. It establishes so much about Poirot in terms of mannerism, but is different as Poirot is closer to Sherlock Holmes in his first story. Still, this is incredibly enjoyable. Grade: A

7) Peril at End House: Another somewhat underrated story. It’s the classic tale of misdirection and of Poirot being pulled out of retirement. It’s incredibly and involved tale. I love how Moffat plays the beginning where he’s claiming to be content in retirement but his voice tone betrays it. Grade: A

8) Three Act Tragedy: This is probably the most questionable title in the set. Given that’s it’s Poirot’s Finest Cases, it’s odd to feature a case where Poirot is out of action for so much of it. This, like the other stories, were originally broadcast in five parts. Poirot’s role in the first three parts could be considered middling as he doesn’t actually actively join the investigation until the end of episode three and doesn’t take charge until the end of episode four. Most of the investigation is carried by amateur detectives. The story’s certainly good, but doesn’t really have the material to rise to the top echelon of Poirot stories, even with laying aside the issue of how much Poirot’s in it. I will say that I enjoyed the character moment in episode 2 when Poirot reflected on his life. Grade: B

Throughout all these stories, John Moffat makes a great Poirot. While David Suchet is the definitive Poirot on television, Moffat had a parallel run over radio lasting from 1987-2012 where he adapted most major Poirot novels and he was Suchet’s equal in many ways. Moffat was great in every story here.

As for the rest of the cast, Simon Williams (Counter Measures) appears as Captain Hastings and Philip Jackson (who played Inspector Japp on television) appears as Japp in The ABC Murders and The Mysterious Affair at Stiles. The cast of the rest stories are very good, bringing the type of talent you expect from BBC Radio 4.

The sound design is good, particularly on Murder on the Orient Express. 

However, the theme music for the majority of the episodes seems to have been chosen without much thought. It could best be described as, “This is the 30s” music. It’s very generic and sometimes doesn’t fit Poirot or a mystery story at all.

It also seems they could have done a little more with the way the episodes are presented. Essentially, each story is five episodes long and is divided into two chapters with two and a half (or so) episodes per chapter as you’re listening to it. It seems they could have combined each story completely or at the very least had each episode as its own separate chapter which would have made things more neat and symmetrical-which Poirot would appreciate.

If I’d been making the set, I would have substituted Five Little Pigs and Cards on the Table for After the Funeral and Three Act Tragedy. 

But these are extremely minor points. The mysteries themselves are superb and more than justify the minor annoyances over presentation. Given that the set sells for less than $20 for the general public and less than $14 for Audible members, this is an item I highly recommend for any mystery fan.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 1


The Twilight Zone was one of television’s most remembered and enduring dramas from the 1950s and 60s, running from 1959-64 and then being revived for a movie in 1983, and revival TV series from 1985-89 and again from 2002-2003.

Carl Amari, best known for his work at Radio Spirit, brought the Twilight Zone to radio in a series starring Hollywood actors and narrated by Stacey Keach, who took over for Rod Serling as narrator. The stories are often expanded and updated to the reflected the twenty-first century technology and society. We’ll take a look at the first volume of Twilight Zone Audio Dramas from Audible.com which collects six stories.

“Night Call” features Mariette Hartley playing an old shut-in who begins receiving disturbing calls with nobody there. The story is creepy and Heartley’s performance is perfect as she manages to play this character with gusto and depth. I found the ending a little disappointing but that is due to the original story.

“Long Live Walter Jameson”-Lou Diamond Phillips plays Walter Jameson, a professor with a secret. The father of the woman he’s about to marry discovers photos of Jameson dating back to the 19th Century. Phillips turns in the best performance of the set and the story has a classic Twilight Zone feel to it.

“The Lateness of the Hour”-In a house full of androids, with a middle-aged couple and their daughter, the daughter (played by Jane Seymour) is fed up with their artificial life and wants something far more real. It’s a wonderful Science Fiction story with a classic twist at the end.

“The 30-Fathom Grave”-Is a good and proper ghost story with kind of a classic feel as a 1960s Submarine comes upon the wreck from World War II and one crew member goes a little beserk over it.The story has a period feel—for the most part. The series had the idea of giving a woman the role of the ship’s doctor, but you don’t have to be an expert in military history to know that wouldn’t have been the case. Either moving the story forward a couple decades or having a male doctor would have made sense. In the case, the woman doctor on the 1960s Naval vessel came off as a distracting anachronism.

“The Man in the Bottle” features a modern day genie that offers a couple who owns a pawnshop four wishes Ed Begley, Jr. stars in a tale that’s amusing and has its own subtle lessons, though some of them unintended.

“The Night of the Meek” is probably the biggest disappointment of this collection. As made starring Art Carney, the story was a Christmas classic. Chris McDonald steps into Carney’s role and almost sleepwalks through it. The expansions and the revisions of the story make it even weaker. I will admit that, on reflection, “Night of the Meek” had its problems and if done wrong would have come off almost as bad as the audio version if not for the fact that Art Carney was in the lead and the future Oscar-nominated Actor was able to take a performance that would have been forgettable and make it gripping and real. Sadly Mr. McDonald was out of his depth in terms of doing this for radio.

Overall, this is a good collection with some good audio quality, some solid soundscapes, and mostly well-done musical production. I will admit the appeal of these audio dramas is probably a bit less than it was in 2002 when they first began. With the development of Netflix and Amazon Prime, coupled with 4G networks, many people can watch any episode of the original Twilight Zone anytime and anywhere they want and in most cases the originals are still better.

Still, if you’re a fan of audio drama, these are worth a listen. It’s particularly noteworthy for allowing us to hear many modern American actors in audio drama. Beyond those in this first set John Rhys-Davies, Louis Gossett, Jr.  and Jason Alexander are among the stars who found themselves in the Twilight Zone.

In addition to the sets on Audible, you can download three episodes off their website with a subscription to their newsletter.

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Audio Drama Review: Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama

Following the success of the first Star Wars film, George Lucas sold the rights to do a radio adaption to National Public Radio for $1. Adapting movies to radio was a tradition that dated back to the 1930s with the Lux Radio Theater. And in some ways, the resulting Star Wars radio drama bore some similarities to the old Lux Radio Theater with two stars (Mark Hamill as Luke, and Anthony Daniels as 3CPO) returning for their original while other actors filled in other lead roles.

But in other ways, the production was entirely different. Instead of condensing a story like Star Wars into an hour, this expanded it into 13 25 minute episodes, allowing for an expanded narrative.

So how did it work?

Positives:
The expansion of Star Wars into a multi-part audio epic makes a lot of sense given that it’s modeled after golden age sci-fi serials.

The sound design is absolutely gorgeous as it’s done with Lucasfilms cooperation and the same sound from the original film. But they do a good job of creating soundscapes in other areas including the race through Beggar’s Canyon.

The actors who take over roles played in the film are mostly just as good as the original actors, which is a testament to the strength of the story. I actually thought Ann Sachs was a slight upgrade from Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

Most of the expansions of the story were  thoughtful. The series begins with two episodes that serve as establishing shots for Luke and Leia prior to the events of the film, and it’s  nice to hear. We get to have Luke racing through Beggar’s Canyon and we also get to see him interacting with Biggs and trying to soldier through his uncle Owen’s constantly putting him off about going to the Academy. His frustration comes off as more reason and less immature.

The audio drama really fleshes out Leia’s character beautifully. She’s far stronger than in the film and more relatable. I really loved everything new they wrote for Leia. One highlight is a much better, more emotionally engaged reaction to the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan than in the movie.

The plot arcs for Luke and Hans Solo were also improved. You really got the sense growing throughout the story that Hans was or had once been more than just a smuggler out for himself in a way you don’t get from the film. Also, there’s enough time to discuss the insanity putting a back country pilot with no experience in space in charge of fighter as the radio drama has time for concerns to be raised about the efficacy of sending Luke Skywalker into battle.

These slight changes made the journey of Hans and Luke far more engaging. Hans’  journey reminds me of Rick from Casablanca (only with the Milennium Falcon) and Luke’s journey contains echoes of the Bible’s David.

We got a little bit more of a taste of the political intrigue on the Death Star and some insight into Grand Moff Tarkin’s decision to remain on the Death Star during the Rebel attack.

While most of the cast are obscure players, there are a few future stars featured. Perry King played Hans Solo three years before getting the lead in Riptide. David Alan Grier made his acting debut. Adam Arkin also features.

Negatives:

Perry King isn’t bad as Hans Solo but he’s a  downgrade from Harrison Ford, who’s the hardest member of the cast to replace.

While most of the material added was interesting, that greatest bane of serialized drama from the Adventures of Superman to Doctor Who shows up in the form of several scenes that are padding. The worst offender was a scene in which Obi-wan Kenobe taught Luke the proper stance for holding a Light-saber. That’d be boring TV, but it’s  mind-numbing audio.

Most of the production holds together because of the strong story and great sound design. There are several scenes where the lack of skill and experience in transferring visual adventures to an aural medium become apparent. Examples includes the Trash Compactor scene or Luke swinging Leia across a chasm in the Death Star.

The final scene may have been the worst. The production crew wanting to recapture every single moment of the film couldn’t figure out how to do the scene where Luke, Hans, and Chewie received medals from Leia so instead they had Hans and Luke bickering  with Leia joining in the arguing. Not a good way to end.

What’s odd about this is that the Star Wars Audio Drama was produced in Los Angeles in 1980, when many of the people who made the Golden Age of radio so magical were not only alive, but also active in productions like the CBS Mystery Theater. I wonder if it ever occurred to NPR to see if any of these people would have been willing to volunteer their services. If they had, this might not have had so many bumpy spots.

The one really odd change in this was that Darth Vader doesn’t appear during the climatic Death Star battle scene. It’s mentioned that he’s out leading the attack, but we don’t hear him inside his TIE fighter getting a lock on Luke Skywalker before the Millennium Falcon swoops in and that does hurt the drama of that vital scene.

Conclusion:

I used to watch the original Star Wars film several times each year, and did a couple times watching through the entire series in one sitting.

Yet, I haven’t done this for more than a decade. Part of it was growing up and not having time to watch 90 minute movies often, part of it was the prequels which, while having their highlights, replaced the fun, adventure, and heroism of the originals with annoying side characters, big CGI effects, and darkness. Along the way, the prequels’ portrayal of both Anakin Skywalker and the Jedi Knights was disappointing to say the least.

What I loved about this Audio Drama is it managed to recapture the fun and excitement when I watched and rewatched the original Star Wars film so many years. Of course, it’s not easy to get over prequel fatique as I found myself thinking how amazingly off-base Obi-wan’s description of Anakin was based on what I’d seen in the prequels. It wasn’t gilding the lily. It was gilding the skunk cabbage.

I found to properly enjoy Star Wars again,  I needed to follow the advice of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. I had to unlearn what I’d learned. And this wonderful audio drama helps to do that as it immerses listeners in the wonderful and fascinating world of the original Star Wars characters.

It has its weak points, as well as some unnecessary padding,  and could have stood some more expert direction to make this an even better production, but there’s no denying that it does a great job of capturing the essence of a movie grabbed the attention of the world and still holds a place in the hearts of fans to this day.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Audio Drama Review: The Condemned

In the Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama The Condemned, the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) picks up a distress signal and rescues Charlotte “Charley” Pollard (India Fisher), not knowing that she was a companion of a future Doctor.

Wary of creating a paradox and uncertain what to do, Charley feigns amnesia, but the Doctor is immediately suspicious. However, the question of who Charley really is is put aside when the Doctor lands the TARDIS in an apartment in Manchester where a murder just been committed. And when Detective Inspector DI Menzies (Anna Hope) finds him in the murder room which no one else could have entered, he’s arrested while Charley is kidnapped and locked in the apartment of one of the building’s tenants.

The story features the Doctor playing detective as he ends up teaming up with Menzies to solve this locked room mystery. Of course, calling this an “old fashioned” would be a bit of a misnomer as this story also involves aliens. It’s a Sci Fi mystery that reminded me a lot of Men in Black. The ending has a mix of tragedy, and a bit of light horror that feels almost Noirish in a sci fi sort of way.

The guest characters are well-written and the casting is superb. Hope’s performance as DI Menzies is top notch. The character is tough and realistic with a rye sense of humor. Everyone else is pitch perfect including Will Ash as the tragic Sam and Sara De Freitas who plays Charley’s surprisingly mellow captor.

As for the leads, Colin Baker turns in a great performance as the Doctor. I was generally surprised as I’d heard very bad things about Baker’s doctor as an arrogant and annoying guy in a garish costume. However, Condemned portrays a Doctor who has mellowed much since the time of the TV series. He’s superb in the role of the sleuth, also kind, particularly towards Charley who he lets travel with him despite distrusting her.

India Fisher is solid as Charley, a character who loved the Eighth Doctor and finds herself really disoriented with this prior doctor and having to keep this secret or risk severe consequences to time itself as well as being barred from future travels. One of the oddities of The Condemned is that this new Doctor/Companion pair spends so little time together in their first adventure. In this story, it works because Charley really needs time to process this new situation. The scenes between Charley and the Doctor in the TARDIS particularly at the start of the story are strong and would set the tone for the rest of this duo’s run.

In one classic bit of dialogue, Charley explains her surprise at seeing the Sixth Doctor in his TARDIS by saying she was expecting someone. The Doctor replies, “I hadn’t realised dimensionally transcendental time machines disguised as police boxes were so common!”

The story also represents a good entry point for those who want to listen to Doctor Who Audio. The first Big Finish Doctor Who Audio Drama I listened to over BBC Radio 4 Extra related so much to things that had happened in TV episodes I hadn’t seen that I felt lost. In comparison, this makes a solid jumping on point even if you’re not a fan of Baker’s run as the Doctor or even the Classic Series. To understand this episode, all you need to know is that: 1) The Doctor travels in time and space in the TARDIS and 2) That Charley previously traveled with a future version of the Doctor. The same can be said of the entire run of seven Big Finish stories featuring this pairing. It is very self-contained.

Overall, The Condemned works as a fun Sci Fi mystery with solid acting and a superb story. It’s a great jumping on point for anyone who’s curious about Doctor Who audios but doesn’t want to figure out 50 years of continuity.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

The Condemned is available from BookDepository.com

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