Tag: Radio Drama

Audio Drama Review: The Diary of River Song, Series 7

River Song (Alex Kington) was married to the Doctor in Doctor Who, making her last appearance opposite Peter Capaldi. This spin-off series continues her adventures.

One thing that was established in the TV series was that River Song was a detective, operating in New York under the name Melody Malone. For the Seventh Series of her spin-off, Big Finished did an anthology release featuring River encountering mysteries in a series of different genres from Scandinavian Noir to Legal Dramas.

“Colony of Strangers” finds River Song in a Nordic Noir story on an Earth Colony world that just happens to feature a Fjord and a perpetually frozen landscape. Bodies of creatures begin washing up on the shore where River Song is renting her house and the local police begin to suspect her.

The mystery, its solution, and the sci-fi element are all well thought out, but ultimately what makes this story so compelling is how it goes all in on its concept. This is River Song doing Nordic Noir and they hold to that pattern, unlike the 2018 Doctor Who audio story Hunting Grounds which borrowed some elements but was essentially a Doctor Who story. It maintains clipped stylized dialogue, sparse soundscape, and a downbeat feel. This could easily come off as pretentious, but it’s done well and the result is something that’s very different from any other River Song story we’ve heard.

In “Abbey of Heretic,” River arrives at a 12th Century convent disguised as a nun. When she arrives she discovers a strange disease spreading with the blame being cast throughout the nunnery.

“Abbey of Heretics” is inspired by the Brother Caedfel Mysteries and the TV adaptions starring Derek Jacobi which are set during the same time period. This is a fairly good story, though it felt longer than it needs to be. There’s a great sense of atmosphere and each of the characters is well-drawn. I also thought it showed a sufficient amount of respect for faith.

In “Barrister to the Stars”, River’s accused of murder at a bizarre space station. River appoints an English attorney from the 20th Century as her barrister. This is a remarkable story, particularly for the writer’s first Big Finish. While the writer cited a number of sources in the extras, Rumpole of the Bailey’s influences are clear from the barrister’s asides during Counsel/judge statements, and he refers to himself as an old Bailey hack. This is nearly a perfect Rumpole pastiche but set…in space. David Rintoul is fantastic as the barrister.

There’s quite a bit of imagination and world building that goes into creating this situation and the weird and amazing creatures that inhabit it. It’s a wonderful, hilarious, and practically flawless mix of genres.

“Carnival of Angels” is the only story in the set that doesn’t standalone. It’s a prequel to the Doctor Who TV episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan” and also sees the return of what seemed to be a one-off assistant character from the fifth River Song box set, though its not required to have listened to that story as its explained with some blatantly expositional dialogue.

The story finds River Song operating as a private detective in New York City as Melody Malone when a hard-boiled musician comes into her office to report he saw someone murdered…himself.

Like all the stories, this one aims for a sense of atmosphere…this time the feeling of 1930s and 40s Film Noir. It hits somewhat, but at times it tries too hard and at others gaps in knowledge show up. For example, the writer has American characters use British idioms like, “What are you playing at…”

Still, there are are some spooky moments as well as a great hook for the start of the episode. Despite the flaws, most American production companies couldn’t have done better in creating the feel of film noir. So this story was still a worthwhile hour of listening.

Overall, if you liked River Song on Doctor Who, or if you just like mysteries with a Science Fiction twist, this is a pretty good box set with Barrister of the Stars easily the highlight of the set.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 4


The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 4 brings together six more Twilight Zone radio episodes:

“Steel” stars Lou Gossett, Jr. as a fight manager and former fighter in a world that’s outlawed humans boxing and now leaves it to robots. Gossett’s character has an assistant who doubts the efficacy of everything Gossett’s character does which begs the question of why the question of why the guy is training an outdated robot boxer. Despite that, this one still works for its overall thrust about the triumph of the human spirit in a world that seems to try to move human beings towards obsolescence.

“Four o’Clock” stars Stan Freberg as a crank who persecutes everyone as guilty of some kind of evildoing and sets out a plan to shrink every evil person to two feet tall. This episode is mostly Freberg ranting as an over the top character. It seems like a commentary on the McCarthy era using the most cartoonish caricature possible.

“Uncle Simon” features a woman named Barbara (Beverly Garland) who has spent her life caring for her disabled, brilliant, and cruel uncle (Mark Richman) in hopes of inheriting his estate. He has a secret experiment he carries on but won’t tell her about. This is an all-time classic Twilight Zone story with a great twist. Garland was a true professional and turns in the best performance of the entire set.

“The Parallel” is about an astronaut (Lou Diamond Phillips) who returns to Earth from space but everything in his life seems to be slightly different. This one may be a story that doesn’t hold up well in modern times. Genre savvy fans will easily guess what’s going on and the title may give the game away for modern fans. The solution to the problem is well-executed but  simple with relatively little consequence. The story’s strength is supposed to be its concept but the concept’s been done so often and so much better that this is the most forgettable story in the collection.

“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” begins with a wagon train traveling from Ohio to Arizona. A man (Jim Caviezel) goes to see if he can find help for his sick son and stumbles into the then-present day. While in some ways, this feels like the Time Travel version of “Parallel,” there’s a bit more to the story emotionally with our hero trying to save the son, plus there’s a powerful idea of pioneers seeing the West that was founded on their efforts and the society that emerged. It’s a solid tale.

“One for the Angels” is about a kindly salesman (Ed Begley, Jr.) who has just gotten by in life. He’s kind to the kids in the neighborhood but is otherwise unremarkable. That’s when Death arrives to tell him to give him time to prepare to die. However, the Salesman objects he never had a  successful big pitch and asks time to achieve this pitch “for the angels.” Death agrees, but the salesman resolves to one-up Death by never making the pitch. However, Death is hard to cheat. Over television, the part of the salesman was played by comedy Ed Wynn. While Begley’s not the same sort of actor, he does do a good job and this is an enjoyable take on the story.

Overall, this is a pretty good collection. While there were a couple of stories that didn’t work as well as I’d like, these six trips into the Twilight Zone make for nice listening.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 3

This is the third six episode set of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas presented by Falcon Picture Group. This volume, like most others in the series, adapts stories from the TV Show.

“The Obsolete Man” stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) as a librarian in a totalitarian state who is sentenced to die because he’s been declared obsolete. I have to admit, I was nervous about this one because the TV version featured an iconic performance by the great Burgess Meredith, but Alexander does a good job carrying the performance off and the timeless message of the story still makes it work today.

“Back There”starts Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) as a young man who visits a Washington DC based club and has a conversation with four wealthy men over whether a time-traveler could change history. As often happens with those sort of debates, he finds himself transported back to 1865 on the day Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and gets a chance to test his theory. This was a nice story with a good twist at the end, though a lot of the time travel stuff is never explained.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” stars Adam West (Batman) as an older wealthy man married to a gold-digging wife who he wants to please. His brother is working on a de-aging formula that works on animals and he pressures his brother into trying it on him. The TV version is not a favorite of most fans, but this was entertaining and it’s all down to Adam West’s performance. You feel sorry for this guy, who, by modern standards, we’d consider a victim of emotional abuse.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” stars Adam Baldwin (Firefly) as a two-bit crook who has been ordered to commit murder. He rents a cheap room and waits to do the job and encounters one person who tries to change his mind: The man in the mirror. This one works over radio and Baldwin does a good job playing both versions of his character.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” finds a suburban neighborhood cut off from civilization when power fails and no one can leave. Paranoia spreads as the residents suspect one of them is in league with whatever caused this. This was a great tale of what fear and paranoia can do to a community and, by extension, to the world. It’s a chilling cautionary tale and the radio version is almost as good as the TV take.

“Escape Clause” is a Faustian bargain story where a middle-aged hypochondriac (Mike Starr) sells his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to live as long as he wants. The story is a bit of dark comedy as the protagonist finds out immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however I think the story has a more subtle message.

Overall, I probably enjoyed this Twilight Zone collection. The stories all work fairly well and there are a couple all-time classics that are well-handled. On top of that, we get to hear radio acting by some actors who never got to work much in the medium due to when their careers began.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5 

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Audio Drama Review: Lord Peter Wimsey: BBC Radio Drama Collection Volume 1

The BBC has begun release its adaptations of Dorothy Sayers novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. The series originally aired between 1973-1983 with one story being recorded in 1993. All feature Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.  The first collection features radio adaptations of Wimsey’s first three novels.

The collection begins with the first novel Whose Body. It opens with his mother calling him when a dead man is found in an architect’s bathtub and the dead man is wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez glasses.

The story does a good job of establishing Wimsey as a detective as well as much of the supporting cast. The story has a light tone. One big exception is when Lord Peter has an episode of what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to his service in World War I. His servant Bunter (Peter Jones) served with him in the war and has to bring him out of it.

Overall, Whose Body is delightful and at five parts, it moves at a quicker pace than the other stories in the set. It’s a well-done and pleasant puzzle mystery.

Next up is Cloud of Witnesses in which Lord Peter returns from abroad to find his sister’s fiancé has been murdered and his brother is suspected of the crime.

This is an eight-part adaptation, and the mystery is much more involved and complicated. It works and it gives some insights into Lord Peter’s family and their relationships to one another.

The final story in this collection is the seven-part adaptation of Unnatural Death which has Lord Peter investigating the death of an elderly woman three years previously that was apparently from cancer. Her heir was her great niece who had served as her nurse. A doctor became suspicious of the true cause of the death and was pushed out of the town because of it.

The question of motive is at the heart of the mystery. Lord Peter recruits a marvelous spinster to help with the investigation.

The mystery is complicated and several elements are a bit iffy. The story also suffers from a lack of Bunter, who is absent from most of the tale. By no means is it a bad mystery, it is just not as good as the other two.

Beyond the mysteries themselves, the acting is good throughout. I also love the theme music. It fits the detective like a glove.

I have to say I was impressed by the quality of the sound and the sound effects. It was better than it was on the Poirot’s Finest Cases set that the BBC released a while back, which is odd. The Poirot adaptations came later. Whether this is due to advances in audio restoration technology or due to the Whimsey production team creating a better sound, the sound design is very impressive.

Whether you’re a long-time fan of Peter Whimsey or you like old-fashioned British detectives in general, these radio plays are a delight and I highly recommend them.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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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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