Friday 23 April 2021

WHO REVIEW ROUND-UP: Classic reviews on Television Heaven

Two new Doctor Who reviews up at Television Heaven. From the classic series, The Caves of Androzani, because I haven't given the Fifth Doctor enough attention lately and it's absolutely brilliant. And from the revived series, my perhaps unexpected choice of Best Of: series three episode "Gridlock." Enjoy!

WHO REVIEW ROUND-UP: Return of the Cybermen

This is the first in, I think, the sixth run of Lost Stories, which began over ten years ago and petered out a few years later when it looked like Big Finish had completely mined the resource of undeveloped Doctor Who stories. Then, the range made an unexpecter return with a pair of stories two years ago, and it looks like there are plenty more scripts to be unearthed from the depths of the Beeb's filing cabinets.

Return of the Cybermen is the original version of what would become Revenge of the Cybermen (Jedi return, but Cybermen can wreak revenge, apparently), which closed out season twelve in 1975. This is the script written by Gerry Davis, co-creator of the original Cybermen, adapted for the new format by John Dorney. Refreshingly, it's presented as what it is: an alternative final story for that season, with no attempt to fit it into existing continuity. There was, apparently, a plan to do this, with a timey-wimey twist at the end, but it was ultimately decided not to go with this, which is a relief. The earlier Lost Stories recreation of "Season 27" misguidedly rewrote original storylines to try to fit in with where Big Finish had already taken the characters, rather than giving us the original ideas as an alternative continuation. I prefer this: a look sideways at what might have been.

The big draw here is having the Fourth Doctor reunited with Sarah Jane and Harry for a new adventure, something which seemed very unlikely to ever happen. Ian Marter, of course, sadly died in 1986, aged only 42, while we've just had the tenth anniversary of Lis Sladen's death. While Sladen reprised the role of Sarah Jane Smith for Big Finish in her own series, before doing the same for the BBC, by the time Tom Baker finally decided to join BF she was too ill to continue and died soon after. Yet we now have a new season twelve TARDIS team, with Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller taking on her role, and BF stalwart Christopher Naylor playing Harry Sullivan. 

It's really rather a beautiful recreation of this classic team. While it was never going to truly recreate the combination of Baker, Sladen and Marter, it comes remarkably close. Miller sounds similar to her mother, of course, but occasionally, just occasionally, she sounds exactly like her, and it's spooky. Naylor, on the other hand, does a fine impression of Marter that never sounds like a send-up. Both are fine audio actors and do their forebears proud. Tom Baker, of course, is on fine form as always as the Doctor. He never seems quite as enthused with these straighter sci-fi stories as with the sillier ones, but he never fails to give a spellbinding performance. 

Not that Return of the Cybermen isn't silly. It's marginally more sensible than the version that reached the screen, but not by much. It still relies on the conceit that the Cybermen, having developed a terrible weakness to gold, would elect to go straight for an asteroid covered in the stuff, and that's just the start of their illogical actions. Still, this version, which has no Vogans on their planet of gold, is a bit more reasonable, although the asteroid we get, populated by what sounds to be a lost colony of South Africans, isn't exactly the most enticing setting for the climactic sequences.

Events on the Nerva Beacon are rather more gripping, with some excellent performances by the guest cast. I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Asbury's gruff interpretation of the station commander, a real no-nonsense spacedog. The music and audio effects provide a very 1960s feel to events. There are a lot of recycled elements from Davis's earlier scripts, too, such as the Doctor's reliance on his 500-year-diary (straight from The Tomb of the Cybermen) and the Cybermen's extreme vulnerability to radiation (The Tenth Planet). It would have been derivative in1975, but they would have gotten away with it then, while an audio presented to fans who've watched and heard this stuff over and over it seems repetitive. Still, at least there's consistency, even if it does hammer home just how many weakness the Cybermen have. 

I don't think Return of the Cybermen will top many best-of lists for BF this year, but it's a pretty solid, enjoyable adventure made special by the performances of the lead cast. In any case, it's a better, more coherent story than the one that replaced it, an let's be honest, even that old nonsense is a lot of fun.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Trek Trailer Treats

 Blimey, it's been a fortnight since First Contact Day and I've finally gotten round to posting my thoughts on the new trailers and info. Better late than never, I guess.


Discovery season four sees the crew, now under the command of Captain Michael Burnham, confronted with some kind of gravitational disaster that is threatening everyone and everything. They've only just solved the mystery of the Burn and now they're dealing with another cosmic crisis that threatens the whole galaxy – give these poor people a week off! It seems that S4 will carry on in much the same vein as S3, trying to rebuild the Federation while space travel, even space itself, is falling apart. I'd hoped for a bit more, well, discovery in this season, and we might still get that, but the trailer makes it look like we'll mostly be seeing places and people we recognise. 

I'm loving the colourful new uniforms, much better than the dreary grey ones the Disconauts ended up at the end of last season, although it reinforces the impression that Starfleet spends most of its time designing clothes for its officers. Clearly Book and Saru are to remain important in the series. Detmer also gets a bit of focus in the trailer, but that might just be because she's so hot. We see some hints here that the Vulcans are mending their relationship with the Federation, with the President of Ni'Var making some positive speeches, and we also see someone in authority in the Federation itself – perhaps the Federation President, oft-mentioned but unseen in S3? She appears to be part-Cardassian, which hints again that the Cardassians joined the UFP at some point between the 24th and 32nd centuries.



The Picard teaser really is just that, just enough to tell us that Q is back. Initially released without the interview, this was a nice surprise – well, not a huge surprise, but a nice revelation. I can't wait to see how Picard and Q interact in this new era, with Picard's age, more cynical attitude and new status as an artificial being surely changing the dynamic. (I presume that John de Lancie's physical age will be explained as a conceit for Picard, or perhaps a mockery.) 

Picard S2 has a lot to cover. The first season gave us the rights of artificial life forms, the repurcussions of the Romulan supernova, the fallout of the Borg incursion into known space, and didn't always manage to balance it all. S2 has to follow up on all this, plus Picard's new incarnation and the return of Q. That's a lot to fit in (and I still want to see them explore the rights of holograms in this era, and how it relates to the ban on artificial life). It's good to read that the showrunners have accepted there were pacing and writing issues in the first season, and that they have planned out more fully were the story is going this year. I'm ultimately just glad we're seeing the series return, especially seeing how production was stopped for a while due to COVID (Patrick Stewart being an elderly man, after all). 

We also know that Whoopi Goldberg is back as Guinan (and with Q as well – will we learn about their mysterious past encounters?), and there are persistent rumours of Robert Picardo joining as the Doctor. One interesting aside from the teaser is the inclusion of a sacred Bajoran relic among Picard's collection of cool galactic stuff – just a reused bit of set dressing, or a hint at something more intriguing?



Life seems to be carrying on as normal for Lower Decks, which is to say, utter chaos and monsters (there's a mugato! Sweet!) A well as a bunch of new bizarre creatures, we're meeting both the Cardassians and Denobulans again (about time). Plenty more references to the franchise, as expected – a Miranda-class starship like the classic Reliant, seemingly plucked from the 23rd century; Mariner picking up Riker's ultimate martial arts skills, Riker banging on about jazz as always. It looks like life's more stressful than ever for Bradward Boimler, as we might have predicted. And we only have until August to see it!


Strangely, we haven't had any footage from either Strange New Worlds or Prodigy, even though the former has begun filming in earnest and the latter is supposedly landing later this year. A general trailer released about a month ago recycled footage from Discovery S2 and Short Treks to represent SNW, while all we'e had from Prodigy is some artwork of the characters. Still, what we've seen and heard is intriguing.

I'm relieved to read that showrunner Akiva Goldsman is making SNW more episodic than the other series he's overseeing. Not because I dislike the serialised structure, but because it's something a little different, and suggests we'll be doing more standalone adventures on those strange new worlds of the title. He's particularly spoken about having tonally different episodes following each other, which will be a refreshing change from the more holistically styled series we've had recently. It sounds like the series is deliberately being set up to be more like classic Trek and there's nothing wrong with a bit of that amongst today's modern storytelling.


Prodigy is sounding more interesting the more we hear about it. Given that it's designed for younger viewers, new to the franchise, I expected it to be very standalone. From the sounds of it, it both is and isn't. The main characters (bar one) appear to be entirely new alien species (there's one who might be a Talaxian, but it's hard to be sure with the art style). Yet it's being positioned as a follow-up to Voyager: set in the Delta Quadrant in 2383 (five years after Voyager finished, three years on from Lower Decks and four years before Romulus gets destroyed, fact fans), it features an Emergency Training Hologram based on Captain Janeway.

This is a really interesting way to bring back her character, rather than simply having an older Admiral Janeway getting involved. I'm also glad to hear that Kate Mulgrew asked the artists to tone down the prettiness of her holographic image. She's still quite prettified, which makes me imagine the original design must have been like something out of a Disney film. But look at those aliens! One of them is a blob! A proper blob monster like Yaphet on The Orville. I'm stoked for a modern kids' adventure series take on Trek, and having a whole bunch of new aliens as main characters is the icing on the cake.


And finally... Paramount have confirmed that there's going to be a new Star Trek film in 2023. I mean, don't hold your breath for them to actually make that date, what with all the to-ing nad fro-ing on the movie front the last few years, but it's still encouraging. It's stated it'll be produced by J.J. Abrams, so I would expect it'll be another Kelvin Timeline film, but frankly, who can be sure? Kurtzam has also said that the line between the film and TV franchises is now gone (thanks to CBS and Paramount now making friends again), but given they were literally in separate universes before it's a mystery how this will actually work.

Tuesday 13 April 2021


It's out! The new charity anthology Sarah Jane Smith: Roving Reporter, featuring my story "Exposure." 

It's can be ordered now for £16.99 via Lulu, with all proceeds to the British Columbia Cancer Foundation. The full press release follows:

Sarah Jane Smith: Roving Reporter

It’s all about Sarah Jane Smith.

Sarah Jane Smith – without a doubt, the most popular Doctor Who travelling companion of all time. An investigative journalist – confident, courageous, compassionate, inquisitive – possessing a sharp mind and tongue, and unabashedly feminist.

Sarah Jane Smith: Roving Reporter is a celebration of the lives of Sarah Jane Smith and Elisabeth Sladen and features:

  • Twelve exciting short stories by authors Nick Walters, Paul Magrs, Simon Bucher-Jones, Rick Cross, Rob Nisbet, Tony Jones, Daniel Tessier, Russell McGee, Kevin Mason, Nick Krohn, Steve Ince and Matthew Kresal
  • Two exclusive comic strips with story and artwork by Jon Huff and Ken Holtzhouser
  • Essays by Jessica Chaleff, Sam Maleski, David Johnson, Niki Haringsma, Aidan C Matear, David McAllister, Thomas Spychalski, Claire Chaplin and Gary Phillips
  • Selected Artwork by Russell McGee, Ken Holtzhouser, Jon Huff, Brian Gorman, Jessica Chaleff, Faiz Rehman, Anne-Laure Tuduri, Lee Hamill, John Monaco, Mark Hyland, Robert Hammond and Steve Ince
  • A special foreword by Sadie Miller

All net proceeds from this publication will be donated in support of the British Columbia Cancer Foundation, the fundraising partner of the BC Cancer Agency and the largest charitable funder of cancer research in this province. The BCCF enables donors to make contributions to leading-edge research that has a direct impact on improvements to cancer care for patients in British Columbia.

Thursday 8 April 2021

Ten Aliens for Star Trek: Discovery

My first article for the official Star Trek site is  here! "10 Aliens We Want to See in Discovery Season 4" is a bit of fun, a listicle with some of my thoughts on which alien races that deserve more exploration in the 32nd century. It's up on the site just in time to coincide with the wave of interest in Disco's next season, after the trailer was launched over the Easter weekend for First Contact Day. I'll be posting my thoughts on the trailer, and the teasers and info for the other upcoming Trek series soon, but for now I'm just terrible excited to have my work on the official site. Hopefully there'll be more to come in the future.

Saturday 3 April 2021

WHO REVIEW: Masterful


Finally got round to getting the special Big Finish release Masterful, released in January to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Master's first appearance in Terror of the Autons in 1971. And a special it is – a three-hour extravaganza featuring no fewer than ten iterations of the Master, with five actors reprising their roles as the archvillain from TV, including the first ever appearance of John Simm as the Harold Saxon incarnation in a BF audio.

Following The Two Masters a few years ago and then the first double-Master story on TV with "Twice Upon a Time"/"The Doctor Falls," BF have gone a bit Master-mad lately, with multiple incarnations turning up in Doctor Who audios, The Diary of River Song and more. Before Simm, they managed to get Sir Derek Jacobi and Michelle Gomez back on board with their own series, and even sorted out the remaining rights issues that let them bring Eric Roberts onboard as the TV Movie incarnation of the villain (with his own box set just released as I write this). I haven't listened to all of these (money and time being something of a stumbling block when it comes to BF's gargantuan output) but it's hard to see how they could outo Masterful for sheer Masterly magnificence. There's a lot of Masters here so I'm going to go with Tumblr-style notation to tell them apart.

The basic idea is that Simm!Master invites as many of his past incarnations as he can reach to his big evil castle on his own planet at the edge of the universe, to announce that he's conquered reality and finally killed the Doctor (intriguingly, both he and Missy are familiar with the Thirteenth Doctor). He is joined by the incarnations played by Geoffrey Beevers (the crispy Master), Alexander Macqueen (BF's own resurrected Master), Roberts!Master, Jacobi's War Master, the Ainley!Master and even a teenaged incarnation, seemingly the very first, pre-regeneration iteration of the character, played by newcomer Milo Parker. Presumably this is an older version of the child Master we saw played by the William Hughes in "The Sound of Drums," who died tragically 2018, and will one day grow up to become the alleged "First Master" played previously for BF by James Dreyfus (notable by his absence since BF has ditched him for extreme TERFiness). Into this crashes Missy, who was very specifically not invited.

If you think the Doctor's incarnations rub each other up the wrong way, then sit down for the Master's inter-regenerational bitching. The character is so fuelled by a combination of arrogance and self-loathing that the different incarnations simply can't stand each other, and can't be trusted to not kill off their own past and future selves, regardless of the temporal paradoxes this would ensue. Notably, young Milo!Master, who has dreams of stamping his power-mad ideals on the universe, can't believe his future selves' callous disregard to life; the earlier Masters are all horrified by Simm!Master's sheer vicious brutality; and all the male Masters are utterly embarrassed by Missy, likening her to a "drunken aunt at a wedding," while Missy claims she's simply the first one to admit she'd mad and start enjoying it. Simm!Master is particularly furious to see Missy there, since he now thinks he's at the pinnacle of his existence and doesn't need to ever become her.

Things rapidly become more complicated. The Roger Delgado incarnation – the original, you might say – is conspicuously absent, which is a bizarre move in a production designed to celebrate his beginning this enduring character. I understand the deluxe version of this release includes a special audiobook featuring his incarnation, Terror of the Master, but his absence is sorely felt. Storywise, though, it's because he's just smarter and more cautious than most the others, and when the time scoop comes for him, he pushes Jo Grant in there instead. It then turns out that the Ainley!Master actually sent Kamelion in his place. When that lunatic is more cautiously sensible than you are, you've really got to rethink your approach. In both Kamelion and Master form he's voiced by John Sessions, who varies from parodic to spot-on depending on the line, but Ainley!Master really isn't all that important to things as they go on.

Of course, you should never trust the Master even if you're the Master, and it turns out that Simm!Master, in his desperation, has nearly destroyed the entire universe and almost killed himself in the process, and has brought his earlier selves here to feed on their regenerative energies. This is a bit of a fool's errand considering several of them are squatting in stolen bodies, or falling apart altogether, and will of course create universe-threatening paradoxes, but with reality falling apart anyway I don't suppose it matters. Missy takes control of both Kamelion and the time scoop and scatters everyone throughout time and space (although it turns out they're all in a fairly small area of chaos created by Simm!Master's machinations).

The success of this story is all in the interplay of the characters and iterations of said characters. For the most part, the Masters are paired off, but each thread treats them differently. The most effective, for me, was the thread following Beevers!Master. I'm not entirely certain where in his timeline this is intended to be – it could be the original incarnation between Delgado and Ainley, or a reverted version from after Ainley or even after Roberts – but it doesn't really matter. Beevers!Master finds himself stranded on a world almost abandoned, somehow fitted with a perception filter which gives him a normal, even handsome appearance and dulls the pain of his viciously injured body. He meets a woman named Kitty (Abigail McKern) who has her own secrets, but the two settle down together at her house and develop a real rapport that slowly develops towards love. Beevers gives an incredible performance that really makes you feel for this most sadistic of Master's, and makes it clear that his cruelty is his lashing out at a universe that has inflicted such terrible pain on him. It's a similar story to the seminal BF release Master, but with the addition that the Master knows exactly who he is and what he'll be going back to if he leaves. It's absolutely heartbreaking. Plus he calls himself Jeremy, which is hilarious. Into this precarious situation comes the Roberts!Master, slinking around and whispering seductively to Kitty, doing his best to gently turn her against his other self. It's a subtle performance by Roberts and one that makes me look forward to hearing more of him returning to his movie character.

Meanwhile, the Macqueen!Master finds himself in a desperate situation on a colony ship that's lost its way and is running dangerously low on food. It's great to his this camp smooth-talker again, after far too long an absence from BF, as he tries to turn things to his advantage but continually finds events working against him. It turns out the captain of the ship is the Milo!Master, and the two end up in a game against each other, trying to get and keep control of the ship – and it turns out that Macqueen!Master's more ruthless approach may actually be the best thing in the long run. The War Master and Simm!Master are forced to team up in a "Gridlock"-styled world that has been devastated by Simm!Master's interference. The interplay between the two successive incarnations – who amusingly start referring to each other as "dad" and "son" – is brilliant, with the War Master particularly disgusted by his near-feral future self. The War Master has been characterised by BF as the most sophisticated, and most humane of all the incarnations, which makes his turning to violence all the more disturbing when it happens. In comparison, Simm!Master seems barely in control of himself.

It's appropriate that of all the companion characters who could be included in this story, Jo Grant was chosen. She was, after all, there at the beginning of the Master's story in 1971. Katy Manning is always a treat to listen to, and she pairs up well with Culshaw's Kamelion, who takes the form of the Third Doctor for a time, giving the Doctor a presence in the story without actually involving them. Better, though, is later in the story when Jo teams up with Missy. It's a similar pseudo-companion relationship to Missy and Clara in "The Witch's Familiar," with the added element of a lot of history between the characters. Jo spends much of the time trying to get Missy to admit that, in spite of their enmity, she and the Delgado!Master were quite fond of each other, and that maybe there's something decent under the surface of the Master's angry and controlling demeanour.

Alongside all this is a side story with Mark Gatiss returning as the Unbound Master, happily ruling his own little universe and popping over to make sure the devastation sweeping the primary universe doesn't infect his own. His suave incarnation has some lovely, albeit rather incestuous interplay with Missy, and he begins by pretending to be the Doctor (something the Master seems to enjoy throughout his incarnations). He ends up saddled with Kamelion, but his storyline doesn't fully resolve or intersect with the rest so is a bit wasted. There's also an inevitable, but ultimately rather pointless, cameo by Gina McKee as the Lumiat, Missy's goodie-goodie successor.

While it's made by the bitchy interaction between different versions of the Master, who are considerably more different than each other than the Doctor's regenerations, there's a deeper story here. The Master's self-hatred becomes all the more apparent as the various incarnations turn on each other, with Missy's eventual revelation that she manipulated events so that her other selves had the opportunity to redeem themselves tying into this nicely. While this has to be before her redemption arc on the series proper, it's clear that Missy is already beginning to wonder if there's something more to her existence than evil and ambition. Combined with the revelations of the nature of the wave of destruction sweeping the universe, though, this makes the Master a tragic figure, doomed to play out the same pointless, self-destructive patterns of behaviour throughout their lives, never to find peace. While it's contractually impossible for BF to use the current Dhawan!Master, his reverting to furious evil and the seeming death wish he displays follow on perfectly from where we leave Missy at Masterful's catastrophic outcome. Inevitably this entire story disappears up its own paradox, being written out of reality like a time-travelling episode of Star Trek: Voyager, but the examination of its central character still hold. You'll come away feeling rather sorry for the old bastard.