At the request of Lisa and because it seems like a jolly idea, I'm going to start reviewing the Big Finish stories, something that launches a new category on the blog: audio plays. I'm not going to review all of them, because there's only so much time in the day and only so much cash in my pocket (although if Big Finish would like to just send them to me, that would be just fabby), but I'm certainly going to carve my way through the Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel stories at the very least.
However, we're starting with what looks like an ending: Panacea, probably the last of the 'Gallifrey' range of stories, which are set on the eponymous home world of the Time Lords. Featuring former companions of “the good Doctor” Leela (Louise Jameson), K9 (John Leeson) and Romana (Lalla Ward and Mary Tamm), Gallifrey has been running for three series now; Panacea ends those series' many story arcs and if the now-former Big Finish producer Gary Russell is to be believed, marks the end of the range.
So would I recommend buying the whole lot, now the series has finally displayed all its colours? And can I do it without spoiling you? Here's hoping!
I'm not even going to start with the plot (which is how I'll be doing the subsequent reviews). You can read it on the Big Finish site, but if I tell you it now, it'll spoil the previous three series worth of plays, since it's all one big story, effectively.
So let's just leap into the “Is it any good?” phase of the review.
Is it any good?
Not especially. Like the rest of the Gallifrey series, it suffers from a few problems. The first is the attempt to make it “relevant to the modern listener”. Essentially, Gallifrey and the society of the Time Lords is depicted as a slightly hi-tech version of modern-day England, right down to the worries about migrant workers. Ignore all references to The West Wing in interviews with the writers: this is the sci-fi version of Yes, Minister, updated for a Tony Blair government. Just in case you don't get all the subtle parallels, all the dialogue uses modern English vernacular, right down to “It's all gone a bit Pete Tong”. Couldn't we have a society that's at least slightly different from our own?
Unfortunately, unlike The West Wing, all this politics is as exciting as you think it's going to be: points of order, complaints about procedure, references to the constitutional line of succession, etc, etc, etc. Dull, dull, dull. You could argue that Doctor Who suggested that was what the Time Lords were like as far back as Terror of the Autons, but this has taken it to mind-numbing limits. Fortunately, Panacea avoids much of the politicking that mars the rest of the series.
I did say “slightly” hi-tech earlier and that's another problem, albeit minor. The Time Lords appear to have access to technology that's only very slightly more advanced than ours is now, bar that handy time-travel facility. In fact, it's inferior in some ways, with simple things like tracking people around the planet proving to be impossible, despite the millions of years of extra tech they have.
In particular, one character's dilemma could be readily solved using tech that's probably no more than a century away at the outside right now, let alone on a planet of virtual gods. For a range of titles that are absolutely obsessive about continuity – with almost interminable references to symbiotic nuclei, et al – and making everything fit together neatly, it's strange to have such liberties taken.
Who are you?
There's also the odd characterisation of the protagonists. Romana, Leela and K9 never act the way you'd expect them to based on their televisual adventures, even given the allowance of maturity. They also tend to vow things in one episode and then change their minds in the next one. Some tighter script editing and co-ordination was needed, I suspect.
Of all of this series, Panacea is probably the best. The dialogue grates, the Free Time zombies are a rubbish idea (not too much of a spoiler, I hope) and the plot is mainly a rush to get everything tied up neatly by the end of the play. The explanation for the whole Free Time strand that's been running since the start of the series is cobblers and all wrapped up with a “with one bound he was free!” moment that you know is going to be carried on over in the Bernice Summerfield range at some point.
But it is at least fun, right down to its Italian Job ending designed to neatly tie in with the Dalek Time War of the Eccleston/Tennant era of Doctor Who. If only the rest of Gallifrey could have been as entertaining. Happily, the denouement leaves room open for the Time Lords to make a return, should Russell T Davies ever need them.
Lalla Ward is, once again, the audio-equivalent of Bonnie Langford (ironic, given that Langford is so much more subdued in her Big Finish appearances than she was on-screen). It's a tempting thought for an actor: why restrict yourself to simply audible when you could so easily annihilate small rodents using the power of your voice? Ward has been drawn to it like a moth to a flame, although she does turn the volume down a couple of notches from 11 by the mid-point of the play.
Louise Jameson continues to give an impressive recreation of her performance as Leela from 30 years ago, while Leeson is impeccable as K9. The supporting cast is acceptable, bar a few ringers, although Hugo Myatt (you may remember him as Tregard in Knightmare, although I could swear he does the voice of Basil Brush as well. There's certainly a “Boom, boom” gag in Panacea that I suspect is an in-joke) is particularly fine as Mephistopheles Arkadian - even if the character's name does give the game away.
Panacea is a good way to round off Gallifrey, even if it's ultimately let down by problems in the underlying set-up and is a little campy for a set of plays that took themselves a tad too seriously for the rest of their run. If you're a continuity buff of the first circle and can put up with their lack of polish, you'll love them. Otherwise, they're probably not worth splashing out for.
Listen to the trailer (Windows Media Audio).
Romana (Lalla Ward)
Leela (Louise Jameson)
K9 (John Leeson)
Romana (Mary Tamm)
Darkel (Lynda Bellingham)
Narvin (Sean Carlsen)
Valyes (Steven Wickham)
Matthias (Stephen Perring)
Arkadian (Hugo Myatt)
Hallan (Michael Cuckson)
Elbon (Paul Grunert)
Annos (Dickon Tolson)
Janartis (Charlie Ross)
Henzil ( John Dorney)
Gerber (Charles Pemberton)
Blastern (Daniel Hogarth)
T~z (Richard Unwin)
Egopolis (Ann Bird)
Delox (Roger Parrott)
Aesino (Lisa Bowerman)
Robersuun (Dave Cromarty)
Writer: Alan Barnes
Director: Gary Russell
Release Date: August 2006
RRP: £10.99 (non-UK: £11.50)