Tag: best of article

Top Ten Big Finish Stories of 2020, Part One

We’re going to countdown my top ten favorite Big Finish stories of 2020. Big Finish is a British producer of audio dramas, best known for producing licensed Doctor Who Audio Dramas in spin-offs but have also have licensed several other series as well as doing their own originals.

In 2020, Big Finish not only released their expected releases but also was able to take advantage of the lockdowns to produce more audio dramas.

As usual with this list, while I listen to a lot of Big Finish, I can’t claim to have heard it all, and there are many ranges such as Torchwood, Class, Dark Shadows, Blake 7, Adam Adamant Lives, and Time Slip that I don’t really listen to. In addition, I have not heard every single release they’ve done this year even in the ranges I am interested in. That said, I’ve heard quite a bit and these are my favorites of what I have listened to. ‘

We’re going to have a lot of Doctor Who stories. So this article is going to assume basic knowledge of the series and how it works with the Doctor being an alien who travels in time and space in his ship, the TARDIS and when he dies, he regenerates into a new body (and is played by a different actor, with the latest being an actress. Each is numbered chronologically.)

10) Out of Time 1 by Matt Fitton

This is one of Big Finish’s lockdown productions and features the meeting between the most popular Doctor from the series’ original 26-year run and the most popular Doctor of the revived series. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) end up meeting by accident at a sci fi cathedral and have to team up to defeat their archfoe, the Daleks.

This story is a lot of fun with great interactions between the Doctors, as well as a few clever ideas, and at least one interesting side character.

The release is a perfect introduction to the type of audios that Big Finish makes today and is affordably priced for those who are curious about Doctor Who audio dramas. The story itself is a well-done but basic story of the Daleks invading to get what they want and killing anyone that stands in their way. But the moments between Tennant and Baker make this a fun release.

9) Scorched Earth by Chris Chapman

The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companions Flip (Lisa Greenwood) and Constance (Miranda Raison) arrive in a French village right after it’s been liberated from the Nazis. They find a festive atmosphere but its marred when an angry mob shaves the head of a young woman they label as a collaborator and the Doctor suspects that a monster made of fire may be inserting itself into the war.

The story really brings about a genuine conflict among the TARDIS crew that’s quite reasonable. This isn’t immature bickering but disagreements that come out of who the characters are. Flip is a Twenty-First Century woman and Constance is from Wartime Britain having served as a WREN.

The difference is about something that matters as Constance thought the punishment of the young woman was justified. Flip didn’t, and the Doctor is trying to walk a fine line to keep his companions safe and avoid alienating either. Constance does grow through the story. My only complaint about the conflict is that Flip never understands Constance’s point of view. Constance is of course wrong, but being able to understand where someone’s coming from even when we disagree is important.

The monster works pretty well and compliments the themes of the story. There’s some solid soundscapes and the story does a great job making it easy to imagine the scope and power of this creature. There’s also just the right amount of humor, and some really fun action in the fourth episode that makes this a worthwhile listen.

8) Vanity Trap by Stuart Manning

(from the Sixth Doctor and Peri Volume 1):

The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri meet up with an aging Hollywood star who claims to have met them, and so the Doctor travels back to 1972 and a film that was never finished.

This is a piece helped by a superb cast, including Stephen Critchlow. I enjoyed Sarah Douglas’ performance as the aging starlet, who is played as a very complex character who is better than her obvious faults.

The Doctor and Peri are given great material to work with, including good tension between them that is believable and avoids going over the top. I liked how Colin Baker was given a change to establish the menace of the situation, as Sylvester McCoy often does, but in a way that fits his Doctor.

The sound design and music are superb, knowing when to use a light touch, and when to add subtle touches to ratchet up the tension.

Overall, this was an engaging story that’s underrated.

7) Ghost Station by Steve Lyons

(From the Anthology Time Apart):

Ghost Station finds the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)  in an underground station beneath the Berlin Wall in the 1970s confronting an East German soldier with a body on the ground. The set up for the story is great, with superb atmosphere and effects. This story is a rare two-hander that allows the Fifth Doctor and the guard to play off each other for the entire runtime. Both Peter Davison and Timothy Blore turn in magnificent performances and play beautifully off one another. There’s just the right amount of plot and the story has some superb emotional beats. Overall, this is one of the best one-part Stories Big Finish has done. 

6) Quest of the Engineer by Andrew Smith

For this year, the ninth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, Big Finish reunited the Season 18 Tardis Crew of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), Romana (Lalla Ward), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), and K-9 (John Leeson) and told four additional stories set in Adric’s home dimension in E-space. 

In the “Quest of the Engineer,” E-Space creator Andrew Smith returns to write the final script. Smith offers a massive concept that begins with the TARDIS crew arriving on a planet that forbids technology and encounters a remarkable man who gives them information that leads to a planet-sized ship that’s the domain of the engineer.

This is a superb story. The concepts are all great, imaginative sci fi ideas that are quite mind-blowing. The Engineer is one of the stronger villains Big Finish has created. He boasts a combination of arrogance, hubris, and cruelty as well as genuine genius that makes him a force to be reckoned with. Except for K-9, all the regulars are given a chance to shine.

The Engineer’s backstory is more complicated than necessary. Through the course of the episode, its revealed that the Engineer had been a ruthless war criminal. Smith tries to add an extra layer to that, a more personal angle, but it’s a bit hard to buy. Overall, still a very fun listen and the best Fourth Doctor story of the year.

To be continued next week…

 

My Top Six Most Wanted Missing Old Time Radio Episodes

In podcasting, few things make me happier than getting word more detective radio programs have come into circulation. Over the last few seasons, we’ve revisited several series where I’d done every available episode for only for more episodes to come available.

The list of series I would love to have new episodes for is vast. I’d love more episodes of series that have 90% of their episodes missing, such as the Fat Man and The Thin Man. I’d love episodes for shows which we have only dozens of episodes out of hundreds, such as the Saint, Barrie Craig, and Nick Carter. I’d love more episodes of series where we already have most of them such as the Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Dragnet, Richard Diamond, and Johnny Dollar.

When it comes to specific missing episodes, the list is far shorter. We have no idea what the missing episodes are about, so one missing episode could be as good as another in theory. Yet, there are some episodes where we do have tantalizing details about them that make one I’m particularly curious about. Here are my top 6:

6) Dragnet, Production 1-June 3, 1949

We are missing the very first episode of Dragnet from the radio series that ran for six years and led to four different TV series, a major motion picture, and a successful spin-off in Adam 12. Production 1 is one of only eleven lost episodes of the radio show but it’s such a historic broadcast, and it’s a shame we can’t hear it. The only reason it ranks so low is we do have Production 2, which gives us a hint of what Production 1 was like with its very different opening theme and somewhat different style. Production 1 isn’t Dragnet as most people know it, but it’s still the beginning of the series, and I’d like to be able to hear it.

Note: This episode is one various sites frequently claim to have for sale, but when you listen to the episode, it’s actually Production 2.

5)Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Lonely Hearts Matter, Episode 4: April 28, 1956

The fifteen-minute Johnny Dollar serials with Bob Bailey are the best audio dramas of radio’s golden age. Thankfully, they are almost entirely intact, with only four installments missing. Three of these missing episodes are Parts Two or Three. If a chapter is going to be missing, one of these middle chapters is best as most plot developments are readily captured in recaps.

However, the Lonely Hearts Matter is missing Episode Four. In my opinion, that’s the second worst episode to be missing. The worst possible episode to not have is the final episode of the serial since you don’t know how the story ends. Episode Four is critical as it’s in this episode that Johnny begins to move towards the solution and the drama of the final chapter is set up. As it is now, the Lonely Hearts Matter is not a satisfying listen. The leap from parts three to five is a huge one.We can read about what happened in part four thanks to John C. Abbott’s definitive book on Johnny Dollar. However, there’s nothing like actually hear the episode.

4) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Curly Waters Matter, 02/01/1959

After the end of the serial era, the show resumed the typical half-hour format. Most episodes were entirely self-contained. So while we may not have all the episodes, we don’t need them to understand the episodes we do have. One exception to this is the Curly Waters Matter. This episode is missing and that’s bad for two reasons. First, it introduces Betty Lewis who would be a recurring character for the last year and a half of the Bob Bailey era as Johnny’s first and only ongoing girlfriend. In addition, the plot for next week’s program’s (The Date of Death Matter) is a bit of a sequel to this one. Many of the events are recapped, so you can understand what went on in that episode, but it’s disappointing we couldn’t hear these events for ourselves.

3)Let George Do It: George Meets Sam Spade-09/26/1947

Dennis at the Digital Deli located a tantalizing ad from a newspaper for the radio series, Let George Do It with the caption, “George Meets Sam Spade.”

The radio show doesn’t exist in circulation (only one episode of Let George Do It from 1947 does), so we’re left with a lot of questions. Was this an actual team-up between George Valentine and Sam Spade despite being on different networks? Was it a guest appearance by Sam Spade actor Howard Duff on Let George Do It? Was it a situation where a parody of Sam Spade appeared, perhaps voiced by Elliott Lewis who worked for Mutual around this time and could be a soundalike for his friend Duff. We’ll never know until the episode is found.

2) Dragnet-The Big Cop-Original Air Date: 08/02/1951

This is the only radio/television episode of Dragnet from the 1950s to tackle the issue of police corruption. A listener emailed me with the theory the radio and TV versions of this episode were being suppressed. It doesn’t require a conspiracy. Hundreds of thousands of hours of 1950s radio are missing. That said, I’d love to see how Dragnet dealt with this topic in the 1950s.

Note: This is another episode that is often listed as being available for sale, but the episode sold is an unrelated burglary case.

1) Matthew Slade-The Day of the Phoenix, Part Three: July 1964

This episode concluded the 1960s Detective series Matthew Slade, Private Investigator. It aired in 1964, a couple years after the official end of the Golden Age of radio. The absence of the concluding episode of the Day of the Pheonix is why I’ve held off on doing this series.

This episode is tantalizing because there’s evidence it exists. It’s listed in the Digital Deli’s log, and I saw the episode for sale on a now-defunct website that offered Old Time Radio MP3 CDs. I didn’t buy it because of the seller’s shady setup, but it does give hope the show is out there.

We’re running out of great detectives that we haven’t done yet, so we may end up running Matthew Slade without Day of the Phoenix.

If you have any of these episodes, I’d love to hear them and to share them with my audience. Before emailing me, please be sure that you’ve listened to the episode and verified it is what it purports to be. (Particularly with the missing Dragnet episodes.)

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My Favorite Non-Detective Old Time Radio Dramas

While we play detective shows on the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I love many other programs from radio’s golden age, too. If you’re looking for family drama or for an exciting adventure, this list might provide some programs that are good for you.

Family Theater (1947-57):

The program was brought to you by the idea of family prayer. This is a lovely program that engaged some of Hollywood’s finest actors from Vincent Price and Bob Hope to Edmond O’Brien and Maureen O’Sullivan and Raymond Burr. The stories range from retellings of classics to dramatic tales that illustrated powerful lessons. The program’s messages are positive, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Some dodgy moments may offend modern sensibilities. Otherwise, this is a great example of what a family program can be. My favorites include the original story, “God and the Red Scooter” and their adaptation of “The Hound of Heaven.”

Cavalcade of America (1937-55):

Cavalcade of America would occasionally tell well-known stories of American history. Those episodes are okay. However, what makes me listen to Cavalcade are all of their obscure stories. They’ll tell about some aspect of a founding father’s life few remembered back in 1937 or talk about some now unsung hero who made a great difference in American history.

Cavalcade of America tells stories about how an American began selling ice overseas or the first American to become an opera star overseas. There’s the story of a lawyer who set out to protect an abused child in the absence of laws against child abuse by trying to apply laws for the protection of small animals. I learn so much from this show, and I am more historically aware than the average person. Most Cavalcade episodes are entertaining and enlightening. A few are a little too pedantic, particularly some early episodes. This anthology series also has a great cast, including episodes featuring Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Basil Rathbone.

Dr. Christian (1937-54)

After playing a kindly doctor in a series of films featuring the Dionne Quints, the Danish-born actor brought to life the kindest country doctor imaginable. As Dr. Christian, he stood at the center of the upstate New York community of Rivers End. Dr. Christian lived a life of selfless love and care for everyone in the community. He not only cared for broken bodies but broken hearts and the health of the whole community. Later episodes in the 1940s were chosen from fan-submitted scripts. The lessons in Dr. Christian are often out of fashion, but few are useless relics. Usually, they’re timeless truths that we have forgotten.
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Fort Laramie (1956)

Just before he achieved stardom on TV, Raymond Burr stars as the rugged and wise Captain Lee Quince, second in command of Fort Laramie. The program featured uncompromising realism in its portrayal of life in the army in this Old West fort. Despite this, the show wasn’t dry or constantly dark or humorless. It was intelligently written. One episode would be funny and light, reflecting some odd but true aspect of life in the West. Then it would be followed by a tragic story. That meant the tragic story hit harder than it would have otherwise. The feature has a solid recurring cast including Harry Bartel and Jack Moyles and great production values.

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (1947-48)

Captain Phillip Carney (Elliot Lewis) captained the Scarlet Queen as she sailed across the world. He various adventures with the aid of his first mate Red Gallagher (Ed Max). This was one of the few adult adventure series on the radio. It’s brilliant, filled with great characters, suspense, and an ability to bring exotic ports to life in a Hollywood radio studio. While all 35 episodes of the series are good, the first 20 are superb. They have a running plot of a particular cargo Carney is trying to deliver with a big enemy that’s trying to stop him through the villain of the week. It’s a pretty interesting approach and not something done in the 1940s.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1947-56):

A lot of religious dramas aired in the 1940s and 50s. In my view, this was the best. It dramatized stories from the Bible, mostly the New Testament. It features a good (but uncredited ) cast and almost no commercial interruption. Much like some later dramatization of the Bible for television, it expands on some stories to fill half an hour. Usually, this works. On occasion, new themes are drawn from the added material and take the story in an odd direction. Again, most of the time, it worked quite well. It’s a shame more episodes of the series didn’t survive, with only about 1 in 7 circulating today.

I’ll also offer honorable mentions to Bold Venture and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Share your favorite radio dramas in the comments below.

Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Three

I began my examination of the top ten American radio detective performances in parts one and two, now we get to the big three.

 

3) Gerald Mohr as Philip Marlowe (1948-51):
That opening. It’s impossible to talk about the Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s performance without talking about one of the best openings in old time radio when Mohr comes on the air as Marlow and proclaims:

“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end, but they never learn.

It’d be tweaked throughout the series run, but it’s simply the best introduction to any golden age detective program. Mohr’s delivery conveys a mix of danger, excitement, and world-weariness. Even better were the teasers for the adventure Marlowe delivered in the earlier episodes of the series:

“This time it started as a routine search for a rich girl’s fiancé and the trail led to a silent house haunted by a face at the window and blood in an open cedar chest. But before it was over, it became a search for a corpse that wouldn’t sit still.”

You feel like you’re about to experience a true hard-boiled detective tale. It sets the tone perfectly.

Mohr’s performance goes beyond a superb opening. He’s superb from start to finish in every episode. Mohr portrays a Marlowe who could be as tough as nails with a touch of biting cynicism, but at other times he could show great kindness, a sense of humor, and also a philosophical side.

To be sure, Mohr benefited from some of the best writing and direction in the golden age of radio, but his performance took great material and made it excellent.

2) Phil Harper as Harry Nile (1976-78, 1991-2004)

The title of this list intentionally didn’t tie making this list to having appeared radio’s golden age. Of course, there haven’t been many contenders for this list since the end of the Golden Age. But then there’s a detective called Harry Nile and the actor who first portrayed him, Phil Harper.

Harry Nile originated as a part of the anthology series Crisis. He was a Chicago private detective in early 1940 with deep gambling debts, forced to go west to commit a murder. Harry was no fan of the idea and didn’t end up going through with it and instead drifted around until he settled in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to Seattle. Nile was assisted by Murphy, (Pat French) an LA librarian who was a recurring character who became his secretary and eventually his partner.

Harry Nile appeared in twenty-four episodes in 1976-78 and returned with an unaired Christmas special in 1990, and then in June 1991, Harper would begin playing Harry Nile regularly for the rest of his life.

Harper was incredibly versatile as Harry Nile. The original premise had Nile as simply a private detective who always seemed to be under a rain cloud of bad luck, such as clients who never paid. Yet, over time, the character grew and Harper brought him to life as a fully formed private eye. He could play the comedy of the chronically late and cheap boss and senior partner, the professional talking to a potential client, but also show a great deal of compassion. Nile’s Chicago-based siblings were recurring characters and Harper’s performance captured his realistic concern for them. Then there was the interplay between Harry and Murphy. Harper’s Nile never went beyond friendship with her despite hints that Murphy was interested in more, yet Harry often showed a tenderness and protectiveness towards that was very sweet.

Phil Harper grew up in 1940 and dreamed of appearing in radio dramas only to find he was born too late. However, Jim French offered Harper the opportunity to play Harry Nile and he jumped on it. His inspiration came from his memories of the golden age of radio, particularly Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Edmond O’Brien as Johnny Dollar. Harper fulfilled his boyhood dream of appearing in radio drama and managed to be the equal of the best Golden Age radio performances and surpassed many.

1) Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar (1955-60):

Bob Bailey makes our list twice. As good as he was as George Valentine, it’s his role as the fourth on-air Johnny Dollar that he’s best known for. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the  fact, for most of his run, Johnny Dollar was the only detective program still on radio, so he wasn’t competing with twenty other shows doing the same thing. The series re-aired frequently on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services even after it went off the air. Thus there’s a sub-generation for whom Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is the Radio Detective they grew up with.

That Bailey made it five years was remarkable. 1955 was a horrible time for anything on radio other than adult Westerns. So many detective programs came to air only to be cancelled after less than a year. Johnny Dollar was initially to be serialized and was the third show they had tried as a serial after Mr and Mrs. North and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. 

Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar was different than nearly every radio detective that came before because he was a fully fleshed out character. He had friends who weren’t just introduced as plot devices. He had ongoing relationships with recurring characters. He had a favorite hobby and a favorite vacation spot. And Bailey did a superb job pulling this off.

His Johnny Dollar had the best range of any performance on this list. He had a lot of times when he was fairly easy going. The character could get along with and connect with a lot of people. Bailey had good chemistry with every actor to appear on the program which made this seem effortless. His Johnny Dollar was smart and often brilliant in his deductions, but he also often blundered by jumping to wrong conclusions, which gave him a great humanity. Dollar also could be tough, at some times hitting Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer levels of intensity on deserving targets. At the same time, the character often showed a great deal of kindness and fell in love a few times. He was more believable in romance than most any other detective and this often led to heartbreak particularly in serials like the Lamar Matter and the Valentine Matter.

Bailey’s first year on Johnny Dollar was the best. The series was using multi-part fifteen minutes episodes often adapted from other detective radio series and they were brilliant. The Johnny Dollar serial era is the best year of dramatic production during the entire Golden age of radio. After that, the series went to once-a-week broadcasts and the quality declined as series producer Jack Johnstone had to write every script. He did the best he could while CBS’ budget cuts left him unable to pay writers and forced him to operate outside of his genius. He was a great producer and great director. And he was great at creating interesting characters, but he was not equipped to put out great detective scripts every week for years on end. That’s why there’s many weaker scripts in the later part of Bailey’s run.

The fact the writing worked against Bailey for the last three years of his run on Johnny Dollar was a testament to how good his performance was. He elevated every script he was given. Listeners love episodes that are subpar from a writing standpoint solely based on Bob Bailey’s performance.

Bailey’s performance with both good material and weaker material shows his strength as an actor. In the golden age of radio, where there were so many good performances, this one stands out head and shoulders above them all.

 

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A Look at the Revived Columbo: The Best of the Revived Movies, Part One

Having examined the five worst Columbo movies, in the next two articles, we’ll examine the ten best.

10) A Trace of Murder (1997):

A  woman teams up with her boyfriend to frame her tycoon husband for the murder of one of his enemies. The script is very clever and the resolution is classic Columbo if a bit over-emphasized.

9) Undercover (1994)

Another Ed McBain adaptation, but unlike No Time to Die, this one is good. It’s hard to view this as Columbo as it’s not an inverted mystery and Columbo has a partner, but despite violating typical formulas, this is a superb thriller.

8) Columbo Loves the Night Life (2003):

The last Columbo movie and a very interesting one that has Columbo entering a new century. Both the character and the formula show a great deal of flexibility as he faces very modern characters and has to adapt to modern crime-solving technology. Columbo enters the case as usual with little knowledge, but with plenty of instincts and a desire to learn. Whether it’s an electric typewriter ribbon in the 1970s or cell phones in the 1990s, Columbo has always mastered new technology in a way his opponent couldn’t predict, and it’s certainly the case here. It’s a pity Peter Falk didn’t get to do more because this movie shows how the character really stood the test of time.

7) Ashes to Ashes (1998)

Patrick McGoohan makes his fourth appearance as a Columbo murderer and the second in the revived series, playing an undertaker to the stars. The murder itself is far from the cleverest plot conceived as it was concocted on the fly. However, the solution is clever, and the chemistry between McGoohan and Falk is perfect as always.

6) It’s All in the Game (1993):

The production was nominated for a Golden Globe and Faye Dunaway took home an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress. The script was  written by Peter Falk. The plot was about two women conspiring to murder one woman’s no-good lover. One of them, Lauren, begins to flirt with Columbo. The movie works for several reasons. Dunaway is one of the few guest stars who rise to the same caliber of talent as the 1970s murderers. In addition, the script is clever. On the surface, Lauren is trying to seduce Columbo so  he won’t notice clues she’s the murderer. Columbo is acting smitten in hopes of luring her into a false sense of security, but it feels like there’s more going on. At the same time, while we see the murder occur, there’s so many questions about it particularly in regards to motive and what the relationship between these two women is. There’s far more mystery in this than your typical Columbo. On the negative, this is probably the most cynical interpretation of him. Plus a few of the scenes where they’re trying to act romantic don’t quite work, such as when Columbo brings her a big collection of roses. Still, despite these negatives, this is one of the best of the new Columbo movies.

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