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28Jun/140

Audio Drama Review: Charlotte Pollad Box Set

Charlotte Pollard Box Set
As we continue to honor Big Finish’s 15th Anniversary of doing Doctor Who Audio plays, we’ll take a look now at their latest Doctor Who Spinoff series, Charlotte Pollard.

Charley Pollard (India Fisher) was introduced as Eighth Doctor Paul McGann’s companion in 2001 and continued in that role until 2007. She is most aptly described as an Edwardian Adventuress, originally from the 1930s. In 2007, she departed from the Eighth Doctor, falsely believing him to have died. She then ended up travelling with the Sixth Doctor, a previous regeneration which caused untold paradoxes. She ended up leaving the Sixth Doctor in 2009's Blue Forgotten Planet, and began travelling with the Viyrans, a race dedicated to ridding the universe of a series of viruses released in an explosion.

The Charlotte Pollard Box Set features four adventures of about an hour as Charley breaks free of the Viyrans and begins her own adventures.

1) The Lamentation Cipher

This story picks up with Charley continuing her work for the Viyrans who have been repeatedly using her services for a time and then putting her into Chryogenic sleep until needed in. Charley is not happy with this life though she believes the Viyrans intents are altruistic. However, when a mysterious Viyran who is different from the semi-automotons of that race offers her a chance to escape she takes it and eventually makes it.

This is a necessary chapter as it does a great job establishing where Charley is at and Robert Buckham Jr. (James Joyce) and others who would be play a key role in the story. It also does the necessary work of introducing people to the character who hadn’t followed the Doctor Who stories Charley appeared in.

2) The Shadow at the Edge of the World:

Charley escapes from the Viyrans via the Forever and Ever Perlexity and finds herself in the 1930s wandering with a group of women who are the last survivors of an expedition. The story has plenty of suspense and atmosphere and is a great all female performance. (With the exception of monster voices done by Producer Nick Briggs.)

3) The Fall of the House of Pollard

This story focuses on Charley’s family and at last she returns home only to find how much her disappearance has affected them. At times, the pacing is a little slow as it takes quite for Charley to interact with her parents. The way Charley actually gets home is oddly contrived and doesn’t make much sense, the cruel treatment of the character of Michael Dee seems gratuitous, and the ending is disappointing. Still, the scenes with Charley and her family are moving with Terrance Hardiman and Anneke Wills turning in solid performances as Lord and Lady Pollard. This one works primarily as a character piece that probes issues rarely raised in the classic Doctor Who series about what happens to the families of those who travel in time and space.

4) The Viyran Solution

Charley is back with the Viyrans and learns that the virus hunting cyborgs have come up with a solution to eliminating all viruses but it’s one that is so insane that the entire Universe depends on her discovering it and thwarting it. Meanwhile, Robert Buckham Sr. has other plans to use the Viyrans for his own profit.

The story concludes in a way that could mark, a “the end” moment for Charley or could leave the door open for future installments.

This also comes with a bonus “making of” CD with more than an hour of interviews with writers and cast members on each episode.

The series has some high points. Throughout, everyone performs well. Though Charley is a bit more cynical than her run with the Doctor, she still a likable character who delivers some great lines, particularly in Episode 4. The story concepts are interesting particularly in Episode 2, which gives a good idea of what Charley would be like in an adventure where the Viyrans were not playing such a huge role as pursuers.

The downside as I see it is that Charley’s actual role in these drams is a bit too passive. Charley doesn’t come up with clever plans or even take initiative for the most part. For example, her escape from the Viyrans in the first episode wasn’t really her idea. While she makes a couple key decision in Episodes 2 and 4, the first box set of Charlotte Pollard is much more about things happening to Charley rather than her doing anything or making anything happen. That’s fine if you're the sidekick. Not so much if you’re the main character.

However, I hope there is a second series of adventures. Charley’s definitely a fun character with a very unique voice. The stories are well-written and intelligent, and the folks at Big Finish are consummate professionals whose use of sound effects makes the story come to life with fantastic sound effects.

Overall, I give Series One a rating of 7/10.

The Charlotte Pollard Box Set  is available from Big Finish Productions.

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21Jun/140

Big Finish Celebrates Fifteen Years of Doctor Who Audio Dramas

In July, Big Finish Productions celebrates  fifteen years producing licensed Doctor Who audio dramas.  In celebration of this milestone, we'll take a look at the history of Big Finish's work this week and next week we'll review one of their latest releases as we take a look at some of the most successful contemporary audio drama being produced.

From 1963-1989, BBC aired Doctor Who which chronicled the adventures of the Doctor, a time travelling alien known as a Time Lord. Every few years, the Doctor would "regenerate" and take on a different face and a somewhat different personality than he had previously. This element introduced when the first actor to play the doctor, William Hartnell was ailing. This served to allow the recasting of the role and since then had served to allow both the lead and the direction of the series to change while still remaining Doctor Who. 

There were seven doctors in those twenty-six years, the most popular of which was Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor which ran for seven years. Baker's multi-colored scarf became iconically associated with the show. Still eight seasons, after he'd left the show left the air with a whimper in the final Seventh Doctor story, "Survivor."

After that, Doctor Who went off the air for most of the next sixteen years. 1996 saw a joint U.S./British effort to revive Doctor Who with a made for TV movie that aired over Fox and starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. When the TV was made,  McGann hoped to star in a brand new Doctor Who Television series, but that failed to materialize.

The series would finally return to television in 2005 and become an international sensation.

However, during the intervening years, that didn't meant Doctor Who wasn't being made...it just wasn't being made on Television.

Doctor Who and Radio

Doctor Who and the Pescatons
During Doctor Who's television run, audio dramas didn't play a huge part in the series. The fourth Doctor recorded two audio dramas in 1970s, one of which was a 20 minute educational piece on geography, as well as a 45 minute commercial release Doctor Who and the Pescatons which was kind of a hybrid of audiobook and radio drama.  In 1985, during an eighteen month hiatus for the TV show, the Sixth Doctor played by Colin Baker starred in a radio serial Slipback.

In 1993, Doctor Who returned to BBC radio with an intriguing idea. The Doctor present was not the last doctor to appear on television, but the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee who'd left the series nearly twenty years before. The story Paradise of Death was set in the midst of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

Paradise of Death

The program was a success and fans demanded more. Pertwee made a second program in 1994 but there were snags in getting the program to air as the BBC was wrangling with potential suitors to purchase rights to the series according to Pertwee and the story, The Ghosts of N-Space didn't end up airing until January of 1996, a few months before Pertwee died.

The demand for Doctor Who audio continued through the series' dedicated fan base. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Allred who had played the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace starred in a series of audio dramas called The Professor and Ace which while avoiding flagrant copyright violation, was obviously an attempt to tell a Doctor Who story without the Doctor's time machine The TARDIS  or other tropes of the series. 

In addition, many fans made unauthorized productions of Doctor Who. One of these being the Audio Visual tapes in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Many of those involved in these efforts helped to start Big Finish Productions in 1996, a company focused on producing audio dramas.

Big Finish’s first release were audio dramas featuring Bernice Summerfield, a character who had first appeared in Virgin’s New Adventures Doctor Who novels but was licensed seperately from the Doctor Who series. Some novels that had featured the Doctor were rewritten to feature the Summerfield alone.

However, Big Finish would quickly move on to bigger things. They negotiated non-exclusive rights to produce new Doctor Who audio dramas secured the involvement of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy who had played the fifth through seventh doctors on the TV series. The format of the new Doctor Who Adventures would be much like the Pertwee BBC dramas except there would be one new Doctor Who Adventure per month beginning with the Sirens of Time, an adventure which would feature all three Doctors in it. From there on out, each month Big Finish put out a new Doctor Who full cast audio drama featuring one of the three doctors.

Sirens of Time

Big Finish added Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor to its lineup in January 2001, thus allowing him the chance to realize the hope of being able to play the Doctor in a series of dramas rather than just the single telefilm.

Big Finish continued to expand its line of programs, adding several Doctor Who spinoffs including a series about Doctor Who enemies the Daleks and Cybermen as well as one about 1970s Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, one about U.N.I.T., a military organization from the series, as well as a series of alternate dimension looks at the Doctor.

The revival of Doctor Who on television didn't end Big Finish’s run on Doctor. In fact, one of the Big Finish Audio plays actually became the basis for one of the revived Series’ most acclaimed episodes, “Dalek.” However, Big Finish was only allowed to use stories featuring the first eight doctors and scripts for radio dramas were scrutinized by the production team for the television series in Cardiff to be sure that nothing would in the radio drama would conflict with the television series.

These limits haven’t really hurt Big Finish as they’ve continued to expand their Doctor Who spinoffs including the very popular Jago and Lightfoot series, while also obtaining licenses for new audiobooks and audio dramas based on programs such as the gothic horror classic Dark Shadows, Stargate: SG1, and the British Sci Fi classic, Blake’s 7.

On the Doctor Who front, after nearly three decades of refusing to reprise his most famous role as the third doctor, Tom Baker joined Big Finish in performing a series of new adventures, joined by his former compatriots. In 2013, as Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary Big Finish put on its own fiftieth anniversary special featuring the fourth through eighth doctors, Light at the End, which some fans consider to be superior to the internationally broadcast television special featuring the two latest Doctors.

Light at the End
In advance of the fiftieth anniversary television special, McGann’s Eighth Doctor finally has his regeneration scene and recognized all of his companions from the audiobooks which many interpreted as making all (or most) of the audio dramas canonical within the Doctor Who universe.

When Big Finish began doing Doctor Who fifteen years ago, it was taking advantage of huge demand from fans who demanded more of a series they loved, and having the cooperation of original actors certainly helped.

However, the audio dramas proved to be winners all around.  Big Finish Productions was able to make a wide variety of stories including large tales with relatively small casts. Actors enjoyed a family atmosphere as well as the unique opportunity radio opportunity afforded to play a wide variety of characters. And many fans discovered the benefits of radio drama. One of the chief challenges of the Classic Doctor Who series was that its special effects budget were often quite limited, but the power of audio is that you can have as big of an effect as you want when you're playing the theater of the mind.

Thus, Big Finish's Doctor Who work has survived and thrived for fifteen years. Well done and good luck on many more.

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11Jan/140

Audio Drama Review: The Power of the Daleks

Last Christmas, Time of the Doctor marked the end of Matt Smith’s reign as the Eleventh Doctor, and this fall the BBC will kick off a new series featuring Peter Capaldi in the role. Today, we take a look at the first regeneration from First Doctor William Hartnell to Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, “Power of the Daleks.”

Due to the BBC's horrible archival policies in 1960s, this isn’t a story people can “watch.” This is one of several stories that are completely missing on video and the only way they can be enjoyed is as audio dramas using the TV soundtrack recorded by fans and narration by a star from the series..

Without belaboring the point, in the “Tenth Planet,” the last First Doctor story, it was clear that William Hartnell was pretty well played out in the role. The four episode story featured almost no action from the Doctor in the first, second, and the fourth episode, and the third episode was spent with the doctor asleep. The fourth ended with the Doctor changing into Patrick Troughton.

Troughton actually really gets into the role right off the bat. While long time Whovians have seen newly regenerated doctors go through the process of picking out their wardrobe and getting used to new appearances, Troughton was the first and does it quite well. His character is fun and clever. The Second Doctor plays a recorder which is another nice bit of characterization.

Of course, his companions, who were with the First Doctor, are skeptical that this is really the same Doctor, with Ben being far more skeptical than Paulie.

The Second's Doctor’s inaugural adventure is a blast. The TARDIS lands in the future on Earth's colony Vulcan where they discover the murdered body of a government official called an examiner. The Doctor assumes the examiner's identity and is determined to uncover why the Examiner was killed and what was going on in the colony.

In the course of his investigation, the Doctor comes across his most dangerous enemies, the Daleks. One of their ships has crash landed and a scientists is studying the dead Daleks. The Doctor wants them destroyed but finds out to his horror that the scientist who discovered the Daleks is actually trying to revive one and that he succeeds.

The revived Dalek, whose gun armed has been removed insists, "I am your servant." The Doctor of course doesn't buy it and is trying to stop the crazy scientists from reviving more Daleks. However, the whole Dalek issue is caught in a web of political intrigue which has more than one person thinking they can use the three revived Daleks as pawns. Some consider the small numbers of Daleks to be minor matter, but the Doctor warns that one is enough to destroy the entire base.

This is a wonderful serial that really works on every level: it has intrigue, mystery, suspense, and fantastic sci fi action. This is a story that illustrates the true power of audio story telling. The early writers of Dr. Who had great imagination, but lacked in special effects. That's no problem here. The music and the dialogue tell the story powerfully.

The story has some genuinely scary moments that are really brought home by the audio. Of course, the Daleks are up to evil and two separate episodes end with Daleks chanting and there are few things more scary than a group of Daleks chanting, "We will get our power! We will get our power!" as they circle the scientist brought them back to life.

The scientist, Dr. Lesterson also has a fascinating character arc as the Daleks true nature becomes more apparent and things go from bad to worse. His final scene is the last episode of the serial is just haunting and fascinating at the same time.

Bottom line: "The Power of the Daleks" packs a powerful punch with a tone that's often a bit dark, but also brilliantly conceived and executed.
Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0.

The Power of the Daleks is available at Audible.

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26Oct/130

Audio Review: Dr. Who: Marco Polo

Dr. Who has become a 21st phenomena with the series revival growing to even greater acclaim than the previous stories. Yet, it still has its roots in the 1960s where the first two Doctors played by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton gave the character his roots. The stories of the Doctor and his companions were originally produced as half hour programs that were serialized stories as opposed to the one hour usually self-contained today.

I've watched a decent amount of first doctor material. I've seen the first three serials with Hartnell as well another, "The Aztecs." News came out that two previously lost serials are now available for purchase both starring the second doctor Patrick Troughton, but that leaves nearly a hundred episodes of the show lost,  effecting twenty-six different serials including the last two Hartnell stories and first seven with Troughton.

While hopefully more of these videos will emerge, Dr. Who fans don't have to wait to at least enjoy the stories because sound tracks of early Dr. Who episodes, recorded by fans at the time the series aired, and remastered and re-released by the BBC are available through Audible. So, I'm going to listen to all the Dr. Who missing  episodes I can't see beginning with Marco Polo and see how the  audio format helps or hurts.

"Marco Polo"  is  the fourth Dr. Who Serial and ran seven episodes from February to April 4 and follows after the events of "The Edge of Destruction" which left the TARDIS  damaged and finds the Doctor and the TARDIS crew (Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, and Susan Foreman) stranded on top of a snow capped mountain and in danger of freezing to death. However, they encounter several Chinese as well as a Mongol warlord named Tagama who wants them killed. However, the Chinese are led by Marco Polo who saves them and treats them kindly.  However, they quickly find that Polo's motives are not entirely pure: He wants to give the TARDIS to Kublia Khan in hopes of securing his own return home to Venice. However, the warlord Tagama has designs on TARDIS of his own.

The audio is narrated by William Russell (who played Chesterton in the series) who shares bits of action that the soundtrack can't pick up. These bits are minor. In some ways, being in an audio format helps this series as the setting is quite ambitious  with luscious and ornate Oriental settings.  Given the budget of the original show, it's safe for me to say that the theater of the mind will easily beat what 1960s British TV could do in its portrayal of the Khan's palaces.

This serial also seemed reminiscent in its slower pacing of radio serials I've listened from the 1940s and '50s which often had more deliberate pacing overall with cliffhangers built in to keep the audience's attention.

Another big difference from the modern Dr. Who is that other than involving time travel, this story has very little science fiction. If there were a modern Dr. Who/Marco Polo stories there'd be ghosts, space aliens, or zombies thrown in.  Instead what we get is a great historical adventure with its share of twists but just an adventure happening in medieval China.

The character of Marco Polo makes this story unique from many early serials. While in other programs like "The Aztecs, "  characters like Tagama scheme and turn initial allies of the TARDIS crew into enemies, this is a lot more complex as Polo is enlightened. He isn't superstitious, bloodthirsty, and works to save the crew despite requests to kill them.  His broad experiences have made him willing to consider anything including their claim that the TARDIS is a flying caravan, which is why he stole it. He feels bad about it too.  Polo's moral struggle really does create some solid dramatic tension. 

Less interesting is the overused trope of the girl about to enter into an arranged marriage that doesn't want to do it, and the convenient plot device used to resolve it, though they did do a decent job making the character likable and someone you care about.

While the serial isn't great, it's good for what it is: a fun historic adventure serial. It works well with the audio format  and for now, it's the only way to encounter the classic Marco Polo story line unless you want to read the novelization.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.00

This serial is available from audible.com

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