Monday, 7 May 2018

Interviews Interview with Alex Harries by DJ Forrest

Interview with Alex Harries

Aka Arthur Davies – Keeping Faith

One of my favourite characters in Matthew Hall’s drama Keeping Faith, is Arthur Davies, and after discovering that Alex Harries was in Torchwood episode Sleeper, I finally had my opportunity of catching up with him, for a phone interview, and I had one burning question to kick off the interview…

Are you related to either Mali or Phylip Harries?

Alex: No. No. Always get that question. No, we're not, no.

Have you always been interested in acting or do you have other passions besides acting?

Alex: I was always interested in it and not knowing I was interested in it. I mean as I grew up, my father was a big film buff you know, growing up, you know, all sorts of Westerns and films from the 50s and 60s and my grandfather, sort of, films from the 30s and 40s and I sort of grew up watching those videos and films each week. And I was about 10 or 11 when somebody said, a teacher stuck me in a Christmas play or something and I was like Okay and I can do this a little bit, and so at that point I wasn't particularly talented at anything else. Then I came back and forth to it through school and then I joined Amateur Dramatics Society when I was about 14 and did various Shakespeare and Chaucer and things like that, and then eventually I went to National Youth Theatre of Wales and got bits and bobs and then ended up going to drama school and it went from there really.

Did you go onto the Royal College of Music and Drama in Wales?

Alex: No, I did the National Youth Theatre of Wales. It was basically 4 weeks over the summer where you did a residential thing where you went away and you did something like a play of sorts and then I took a year out before going to drama school in Edinburgh, and I funnily enough went to play rugby up in Gloucester. I then decided to apply for drama schools and got in a few places but decided to go to Edinburgh and got into the Welsh college in Wales. I decided I just needed to get out of Wales. I sort of went to Edinburgh for 3 years and then it kind of kicked off from there then.

It's a fair trek from Wales to Edinburgh.

Alex: Yeah, the longer the trek the better that was my thinking at the time. 

What drew you to the character of Arthur when you first read the script?

Alex: Flaws. I always get drawn to flaws because, I mean it's just humanity then isn't it? When there's flaws then there's something then to work the character from. Because I think we're all defined maybe by what's imperfect or what's not so good or weak, not weak, I don't like that word but, you know, things that we don't like showing and then it always becomes a bit more interesting working the character from there than anything else and Arthur has got plenty of flaws. And I think unattractive flaws as well. So when there's genuine flaws then, that people wouldn't want to show or would try their best not to show, then it's interesting then because  you can really sort of find the juxta position in the character then, I suppose.

How long did it take for you to get your hair to look like Arthur's dreadlocks?

Alex (laughs): Well I mean first of all, a little while but now it's a wig and when the wig was set, it just literally popped on my head and clipped in, it wasn't too bad.

Oh, so it wasn't that you had to make your hair so it was back combed and sprayed or hours in make-up?

Alex: No, no I mean I was going to make-up where they prepared it and did it and I'd sat in the chair for a good while, doing it and perfecting it and then each time then it was clipped on my head. It was probably the longest I've been sat in make-up for a character anyway because there was a lot of ingrained dirt to get into my skin and under my nails and all that stuff to begin with at least for the transformation of the character.

Was it a relief towards the end of the series that he had really short hair then? I preferred Arthur with the short hair.

Alex: Well in some ways yeah, it was a very itchy bloody wig

Or was it filmed the other way around or something

Alex: Well, the funny thing was that I had short hair anyway for the wig to go on. So, they cut the hair obviously because you don't always have the novelty of being able to film in sequence so there was a little bit of going back and forth to scenes, where I'd have the wig and didn't have the wig.

Keeping Faith isn't the first series to have the Welsh language in one series and then the English language in the next, was there any time during the filming that you had to replay scenes that you forgot which language you were playing in?

Alex: Oh yeah, I did all the time. I mean, funnily enough I did a series before Keeping Faith where they did that for the first time for a long time, where they did it in both languages, called Hinterland. I remember in Hinterland, I used to forget all the time what language we were in and come into the scenes speaking Welsh when it was English and vice versa and the same in Keeping Faith. Yeah, I'm useless at that and absent minded at the best of times, so, yeah I had a lot of trouble with that.

I saw that there were 4 characters moved from Hinterland into Keeping Faith that I noticed.

Alex: Yeah, four of the main characters but there were others spread out over the Hinterland series.

I only noticed that the other day when I was looking up the names of the four and thought, hang on, the blond haired woman, she looks familiar, oh my god it's Cerys.

When you've been in a successful programme such as Hinterland, then coming over to Keeping Faith, do you ever keep in touch with the people you've acted with or do you go your separate ways after filming?

Alex: A bit of both. For some I keep in touch with more than others, not because of anything sinister or, just the way it works really. I'm very good friends with Aneurin who plays a Dad in Keeping Faith but plays Prosser in Hinterland, and I'm very good friends as well and keep in touch with Hannah who plays Cerys, and Sian in Keeping Faith and Hinterland respectively and there are others, I come across, and most of us are living in and around Cardiff, so you see people about, so both.

Your role in Torchwood was the masked Burglar in the Sleeper episode

Alex: Oh god, yeah.

Was that your first acting role or had you applied for any other roles in the series?

Alex: I wasn't long out of drama school for that one. I think it was my first TV job after drama school. I'd done through the interim period mostly theatre. Actually, I think I had another TV job straight after it an S4C thing and then I didn't do anything for a while actually. Mostly theatre again. Didn't do many TV until I got Pobyl y Cwm, a Welsh soap.

Have you ever played a character in Doctor Who, at all?

Alex: No, I haven't no, nothing at all. Torchwood was my one science fiction outing I'm afraid.

What roles have you played in theatre?

Alex: A bit of everything really. Some Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, the Citizens of Glasgow, quite a lot of stuff, yeah, quite a lot really, various stuff.

Was it all around Cardiff theatres or did you travel all over?

Alex: I toured a production with Macbeth when I was back in theatre and I was gone for three or four years, not the Autumn just gone but the Autumn before, just before Keeping Faith. I did a production of Macbeth which toured England and Wales and then before that, the last time I was in the thing before that was, I did a one man show about a boxer and he was a science specific and he was in a boxing gym and I can't remember before that.

I mean, even though I do enjoy theatre, I think just because I grew up watching so much film and not really exposed to theatre my love of acting or my interest in it then and my interest in drama has come through the medium of film really. So, I've always been a bit more comfortable acting for camera than I have for a live audience. Even though I'm fine with it it's just the thing with theatre generally, is that the emphasis is way more on language and on writing whereas film and TV tends to be more about circumstances. I find people in circumstances to be quite fascinating and so I was naturally drawn more then towards screen than theatre maybe.

So, when you've played different roles even on the stage, have you kept your Welsh accent or do you put on a different accent like English, Scottish, regional, etc?

Alex: No, I mean theatre, these accents are a lot more. I did Afrikaans for one play, did northern Lancashire accent for another. For screen I've never had to use another accent in terms of it being non-Welsh but, funnily enough in Keeping Faith in English and Welsh it's sort of got back to an accent I used to have a lot more of. Obviously, I have a Welsh accent now but the accent I used to have was a much broader thicker Welsh accent than what it's become now.

Is your accent much stronger for television than what it is in real life?

Alex: To be honest, I've not watched the series much yet because I'm terrible, I'm not quite there yet to be able to watch it. With Arthur sort of trying to be as ambiguous as he can just for the sake of survival he purposefully thickens his accent, just so he sounds like the village idiot or the village comedian as it kind of protects him a little bit. And then he begins to reveal a little bit more I try to sort of maybe come back a little bit more towards the way I speak now but not quite, just to give it maybe a little bit of, I don't know, something, but whether I'm not sure how it all came through, that's at the mercy of the edit a lot of the time.

In Hinterland I'd listen to a lot to the accent of the area - West MidWalean accent is thicker in a different way. The vowels are much more open. The accent I grew up with was...depends what it is, I mean, I suppose I alter my voice somehow, one way or another, yeah.

The funny thing is in Welsh, it's not happened so much because, I don't know, I don't know why that's happened as much in Welsh my accent is much nearer to what it was. Maybe because I've never had to refine that, but it's just through circumstance that my English is refined.

So, when you're at home do you speak Welsh or English?

Alex: Well it depends. When I'm home with my parents I speak Welsh with my father, my Mum, it's complicated actually. My Mum's parents were Welsh speaking but because, without going into it, the politics at the time, my parents were discouraged from speaking Welsh to the other children, so they didn't speak Welsh to them. But my Mum always understood Welsh. I still grew up in a house where my father spoke Welsh but my Mum spoke English back. So, I've had a complete bi-lingual upbringing really. But I speak English to my Mum but ironically Mum speaks Welsh now to my children.

I mind about the politics of the time. I was brought up in North Wales.

Alex: It was more prevalent there.

So it was very strong there, and so everyone in the schools had to speak English, and it was like, if you were born Welsh, then you should have the right to speak in your own tongue.

Alex: I agree. I absolutely agree with the principal. I think people would speak it more when they weren't allowed to speak it. I think Brendan Gleason when he was asked about saving the Irish language and he said Ban it. And I sometimes think, you know, I didn't go to Welsh school, it was kind of unfashionable like you said, I think I spoke more Welsh because of that and I would if I'd have gone to Welsh school. And it was a bit of a battle with my own children as to whether I would do and I spoke more Welsh when I didn't go to Welsh school. But they do go to Welsh school now. It's a complicated old thing, Wales (laughs) it really is.

North Wales and West Wales especially.

Why is it harder to find Arthur Davies images on Google search than any other character in Keeping Faith? All I can find is your Hinterland character and your profile photo. 

Alex: I don't know. That's a good question. I don't research myself so I don't know.

So, it's not just a case that you're keeping things private so it limits what is on Google, under the copyright laws?

Alex: Oh god I wouldn't say that. I mean no, I don't know. Maybe you should start a campaign!

Have your children shown any desire to become actors like their Dad?

Alex: I hope not! They're twins and they're three and the funny thing is my partner, Zoe Davies is an actor as well so I don't think I've really got a lot of hope, do I?  I think they are, however, I wouldn't want to encourage them in the least. I mean I've always, and this isn't judgemental on other actors by any stretch of the imagination but I always think as an actor you're playing people at the end of the day and it's a study of people and you want to get as much experience as you can get, not acting but doing other things. So, if they do, I really hope they do other things before they do.

I asked after Alex's partner Zoe Davies. Alex explained that she is a theatre actor, who has done many regional theatres.

Do you do a lot of book reading - novels, that kind of thing?

Alex: I do. I did a lot more until the thing called iPhone came along and Wikipedia and that's ruined my life, it really has. I used to read a book a week at one point.

What are you reading at the moment?

Alex: Funnily enough I've just started Kirk Douglas' autobiography. I've read only two pages in.

On the set of Keeping Faith, are all the indoor scenes filmed in a studio?

Alex:  Yes, they are all in a studio.

Because Faith's house looks so real with the staircase going up the middle of the room.

Alex: Faith's house is a studio, and the interior is a studio. So yeah, they did a wonderful job of that, it was incredible.

I quite fancied a house with a staircase up the middle

Alex: Yeah, I know.  I was quite envious as well.

What are you currently working on at the moment?

Alex: I've just finished doing a bit for Pip again actually - who directed Keeping Faith. They're making a film called To Provide All People which is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS, so it's broadcasting in late June I think for the BBC. Other than that, nothing at the moment.

Thank you, Alex for an absolutely brilliant interview. Loved it. 

Warren Orchard - Hinterland group photo

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Articles Welcome to Issue 58 - WATNOW: Out of Time

Issue 58: Out of Time

Contents Guide

WATNOW: Out of Time Cast

Big Finish Reviews+
Heroes of Sontar
Ravenous 1
The Helliax Rift

Beyond the TARDIS
Bafflegab Productions: Hellbound Heart

Good Omens

TW Reviews
The Last Beacon

Fans Fiction
Jack’s Master Plan

Who Reviews
The Coming of the Terraphiles
Target Zone:
The Power of Kroll
The Time Monster
The Loch Ness Monster

Hugh Holman

Editor’s Note
Yep, it’s that time again, crikey it comes around fast. We’ve two great interviews for you this month which I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading – Alex Harries and Hugh Holman

We’ve got a new story idea that we hope you guys will enjoy delighting us with. It’s called the One Photo Short Story, and involves you choosing one Torchwood, or even Doctor Who photo from the internet or in your collection, and writing a story around it. The only characters you keep real (as in their character names, are the main ie, The Doctor and companions, and The Torchwood team), the rest you can change to suit the story. It’s to be no longer than 3000 words and can be a stand alone story or a series.
Check out Jack’s Master Plan to give you an idea.

We have a lot of Reviews this month – Tony as usual has been uber busy with the Big Finish range, including Bafflegab Productions, and I’ve been busy with a few Target Novels.

Check out our Connections for this month and do let us know what you think to this month’s Issue. Follow the links on the Contents Page to take you to the articles.

Right, enough gabbing from me.

Croeso i, Issue 58 – WATNOW: Out of Time


Beyond the TARDIS Bafflegab Productions: The Hellbound Heart by Tony J Fyler

The Hellbound Heart

There were reasons that when he read his work, horror legend Stephen King declared Clive Barker ‘the future of horror.’

Barker has written intensely imaginative, richly detailed and characterized work for over thirty years, but the depressing truth is that if you were to ask most non-afficionados what they knew about Clive Barker’s work, they’d be able to tell you about the Hellraiser movies, and not much more.

If you’re going to have a legacy, a thumbprint on the popular culture of generations, though, the Hellraiser movies, and their chief villains, the Cenobites, are not a bad way to leave that imprint on the minds of the world.

The Hellbound Heart is where the Hellraiser world, and the Cenobites particularly, first drew breath.

The novella was largely the basis for the first (and arguably still the best) Hellraiser movie, but there are significant differences. They’re differences the new, audio version of The Hellbound Heart from Bafflegab Productions exploits to enormously good effect.
While the story of Julia Cotton, trapped in a loveless, undersexed, underthrilled marriage to the nicer and duller of two brother remains, Larry from the movie reverts to Rory from the novella here. Likewise Kirsty, who was re-cast as Larry’s daughter in the movie, is here, as in the novella, simply someone who’s a long-term friend of Rory’s, and who fancies her chances of being with him. That makes for a more legitimately tense dynamic, and also stops Rory seeming so irredeemably pathetic as he did in the movie, by proving that while Julia may want the harder, more macho love of his disreputable brother Frank, someone fancies the relatively feckless Rory. That’s the set-up here then – unspoken, hidden relation drama boiling away to eventual multiple murder.

But oh yes, then there are the Cenobites, led by the ‘Pinhead’ character so definitively brought to life by Doug Bradley on screen.

Pinhead who’s here played by Evie Dawnay.

Now, while some horror fans’ heads explode, with the words ‘It’s political correctness gone maaaad!’ on their lips, it’s worth going back just briefly to the novella itself. Here’s how it describes the Pinhead Cenobite:

Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy – the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through to the bone.

Yes, Pinhead was always meant to be female and breathy, and her pins anointed with jewels. Almost everything you think you know about the character is probably wrong.
Everything about the Bafflegab version though is gloriously right. Casting Tom Meeten as both Frank and Rory Cotton allows for a vocal similarity that’s believable, but the characters work as two sides of the same genetic coin, Meeten making his Rory voice all lightness, concern and new man, and his Frank a growling, rasping, whisky-soaked come-hither of primal power and muscle and violence. You can practically smell the testosterone dripping off Frank Cotton’s voice, whereas from Rory, you get the faint, uninspiring whiff of niceness and a lived-with, undersexed frustration.

Neve McIntosh brings new levels of weary despair to Julia in this audio version too – a character who drifted towards Rory for the daylight safety and concern and veneration of his arms, but who found a vicious thorn of sexual thrill with his brother Frank, and who, from then on, was tormented by that sexually-driven love for the other brother. Julia’s is very much a story of obsession with the love she feels over the marriage in which she’s trapped – it’s a masochistic love that drives her to do what Frank says, to get what Frank needs, and which therefore drives her in the story of The Hellbound Heart to procure lovers in a local bar, who are sacrificed to Frank’s need for flesh as he claws his way back to life, having tangled with the hellish immortal sadomasochists known as the Cenobites. While Claire Higgins in the movie has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her, McIntosh’s version reveals more of the desperation to feel, to love, to be part of something with a man who brings her sensuality to life. McIntosh brings a pathos to the part that really drives Julia on in a way that makes dramatic sense to the listener, and even allows us to sympathise with her.

Alice Lowe’s Kirsty feels more alive and pro-active in this version too, more driven by her love of Rory than Ashley Lawrence’s movie version. Part of that is the shift back to Kirsty’s position of being a woman who loves Rory, rather than being his daughter – the lines of loyalty and action are much clearer when she’s fighting for him as a potential partner than they are when she’s fighting for him as a father. But Lowe gives Kirsty something believably 21st century too, a sense of not quite being able to give up on the man she wants, which allows us to at least briefly wonder if it isn’t in fact Kirsty who’s on the wrong side of the ethical divide in this dynamic, interfering in a married couple’s relationship.

Evie Dawnay plays the Pinhead Cenobite as slightly androgynous in her distance from human concerns, a Borg Queen of pleasure and pain. Dawnay is hypnotic in this role, and she’s ably assisted by her junior Cenobites, Chris Pavlo, Scott Brookman and Nicholas Vince, making for a new-old iteration of the Cenobites that captures the imagination, and run away to Hell with it.

Dawnay also takes a gloriously perverse secondary role in the drama as Amy, Kirsty’s friend who’s perpetually urging her to quit her obsession with Rory, but in the normality and the everydayness of her Amy voice, you’d have to have the cast list in front of you to tell that Dawnay’s doing double-duty. As with Meeten playing both Cotton brothers, there’s a joyful internal symmetry in having Dawnay deliver both the voice steering Kirsty away from the Cottons, and the voice that demands she pay for their sins.

Lisa Bowerman, known among other things for many audio roles at Big Finish, is never anything less than a story-helper, though here, her dual role as both the Cottons’ neighbour, Susan, and the nurse who tends to Kirsty in her post-horror hospitalisation, leads to the faintest touch of confusion, and for a moment, we believe Susan has found Kirsty on the street outside the Cottons’ house and gone to hospital with her in the absence of anyone else who cares.

That’s the tiniest of nits to pick in a compelling new audio version of The Hellbound Heart, though – at just an hour and a quarter, the pace is punchy, the scares are delivered at their full weight, and the elevated performances from Tom Meeten, Neve McIntosh, Alice Lowe and Evie Dawnay make for a Hellbound Heart that’s true to the original, while feeling new and bright and sticky for an audience perhaps grown slightly complacent on the Cenobites’ continual returns to the screen.

Bafflegab’s diversion into straight-up horror audio feels like the mark of a label that’s come home and settled into its ideal niche. Staggeringly intelligent casting, and a blistering treatment of the original material by Paul Kane makes The Hellbound Heart better than 90% of the audio drama out there. Fans of Barker’s Hellraiser universe will now be hoping for more in the same (ahem) vein in the future, looking with optimistic eyes to Bafflegab and Kane for an adaptation of Barker’s later Hellraiser novel, The Scarlet Gospels.

Big Finish Reviews+ Heroes of Sontar by Tony J Fyler

Heroes of Sontar
Tony feels a certain sympathy for the Sontarans.

Disclaimer: If you’re a Who-fan who thinks Strax is bringing the Sontaran race into disrepute… this is not the story for you, move right along to something like Starlight Robbery.

The point of course is that Robert Holmes pretty much intended the Sontarans to be a joke. A joke that has its own inherent danger, certainly – the idea of intergalactic Jobsworths with Napoleon Syndrome is both funny and dangerous and is rife with the potential to make the universe more miserable for anyone who runs into them. But from the moment Lynx crash-lands his sphere on medieval Earth, salutes to no-one, plants his flag and loudly claims the planet, its moons and satellites for the glory of the Sontaran Empire, the Sontarans are funny and, in their blinkered delusions of supremacy, just a little bit stupid. Being invaded by the Sontarans is like having a hundred thousand Dick Cheneys turn up on your doorstep.

In Heroes of Sontar, it must be said, the majority of the Sontarans you’ll meet are more than a little bit stupid. These are Sontarans that probably have the rest of their clone batches face-palming in every battle. But once you understand that, they’re really rather fun. In fact, they’re pretty much Dad’s Sontaran Army.

Field Major Thurr, Sergeant Mezz, Corporal Klun, and Troopers Vend, Jorr and Nold are from a range of clone batches, and as such, each of them has a unique voice – Thurr sounds most like Grand Marshall Stike from the Two Doctors, but there are Sontarans here owing vocal performance royalties to Stor from The Invasion of Time, Varl, also from The Two Doctors, and Styre from The Sontaran Experiment. There are also fun references for the more attentive geeks, with both Lynx and Styre getting a name-check, and the Doctor throwing a reference to The Invasion of Time in to boot. They’ve been sent to the world of Samur – the furthest the Sontarans ever made it into Rutan space, with highly secret, extra special, do-not-open-till-you-get-there sealed orders for a highly secret special mission.

But before it becomes apparent that this is just a bunch of Sontarans stomping about being stupid, it’s important to note that the tone of Heroes of Sontar is also funny when it comes to the humanoids – the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough come to Samur ostensibly so Tegan can have a rest cure after the events of The Cradle of the Snake – though arguably the Doctor and Nyssa need one more. At the point in time the Doctor thinks it is, Samur is a restful, lovely planet, full of courtyards literally as far as the eye can see. As it turns out, that was thirty years ago. The Sontarans first arrived on Samur twenty years ago, claimed it, and then fell back. And back. Something about Samur has meant they haven’t been able to advance any further.

So, there’s your mystery – why haven’t the Sontarans been able to go any further, and what’s the highly secret special mission that Dad’s Sontaran Army have been sent to Samur to fulfil?

For all the Sontarans on Samur are a useless bunch, their deployment on this mission to the furthest reaches of Sontaran space does deliver a glimpse into what the species is like when it’s not just being used as an invasion force or a pain in the Doctor’s Gallifreyan hide – a race of song-singers, marchers, jingoistic cheerers and blasters of things into plasma.

There are solid comic techniques used here, line-overlaps or replays from different characters undercutting each other’s assumptions, and given a choice between left or right, the characters are simply separated by following their instincts in different directions. But there are solid characterization techniques too – each of the Sontarans is given a backstory – one’s a coward, one’s a veteran, one’s had his tongue torn out but has the biggest working brain of the lot and so on. Turlough and Trooper Vend in particular actually achieve a kind of friendship, which becomes important as events on Samur unravel.

It sounds odd, but in a story where the majority of the Sontarans are fully taxed with the business of not falling over and taking breaths, the main threat is a purple moss that is much creepier than the potato-men from Sontar (and which renders its creepiness effectively – which for a moss is pretty impressive on audio!).

What becomes clear as the story goes on, and each of the Tardis crew get involved in some aspect of the planet’s challenges – Nyssa nearly dying as the evil purple moss of doom refuses to leave her alone, Turlough and Tegan teaming up with the Sontarans to try and find a way to stop her dying, the Doctor beggaring off into space in a gravity bubble to explain another key element of the plot – is that there’s a reason these particularly stupid Sontarans are on this particularly stupid mission, and why these Sontarans are particularly stupid. No, really, there is – you have to stick with Heroes of Sontar in order to find out what the hell is actually going on, but there is what at least passes for a legitimate reason for everything that happens, Alan Barnes crafting a story that leads with laughs, but ends with a degree of, if not tragedy, then at least sympathy for these heroes of Sontar: in some ways, they’re an analogue of the soldiers of World War I – a mixed bag, eager to bring glory to their cause, determined to do the very best they can, but led by officers content to have them slaughtered in pursuit of their own agenda.

The character development in Heroes of Sontar is delicious in terms of both the humanoids (or indeed humanoidlings, as the Sontarans call them), with Turlough being perhaps even more of a louse than he ever managed to be on screen. Turlough’s characterization also brings in elements of his personality and backstory that are, if you like, Easter eggs for the full-on nerds in the audience – he drops in a reference to Rehctaht, who was only ever mentioned in the novel Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, and he eventually gives Trooper Vend, the scaredy-cat Sontaran, an order, using his own military rank to point out he’s actually the trooper’s military superior.

Nyssa spends most of the story dying, in a creepy, moss-related way, but it’s at the end of this story that she reveals to Tegan that she has not only a husband back on Terminus, but also two teenaged children.

But it’s Tegan who has the most fun with the pack of stupid Sontarans, coming into her own mostly by dint of attitude, shouting and a sarcastic bent – she labels Thurr both Shorty and Napoleon, and avoids being shot for insulting a Sontaran officer by claiming it’s not a slur but satire.

So is Heroes of Sontar a classic Big Finish story that you should rush out and buy right now?
Oddly enough, in its own way, yes. It’s a real love it or hate it story, and if you don’t like Doctor Who played for shameless laughs, then you’re going to be in the latter category and it’s not for you. But if, now and again, you enjoy a story that shows you more about a classic enemy while ruthlessly sending up their whole reason for being, Heroes of Sontar is tremendously good fun, and all for some coherent reason.

Big Finish Reviews+ Ravenous 1 by Tony J Fyler

Ravenous 1

Tony’s feeling peckish.

The Eighth Doctor’s straight, non-Time War chronology last saw him defeat the Doom Coalition by the smidgenest of smidgens, but there was a cost to be paid – Helen Sinclair, the Doctor’s friend from 1960s Earth (Hattie Morahan) was sent spinning off into almost certain oblivion with the Eleven, a Time Lord whose eleven incarnations are all accessible within his current body, and who frequently fight for dominance of his arms, legs, brain and mouth. It’s a great concept, brought to life with some degree of manic genius by Mark Bonnar.

Ravenous begins with the Eighth Doctor and his other friend, Liv Chenka from Kaldor City (home of the Robots of Death), hot on the trail of their friend, trying to rescue her from the machinations of the multi-faced, multi-minded monster.

Except much to Liv’s intense irritation, there’s a good deal of faffing about before they can actually get any credible rescuing done.

In defence of John Dorney though, who writes the first two episodes of this box set, it’s faffing of an exceptional class and quality. Faffing with a cherry on top, in fact. First up, Their Finest Hour brings Ian McNeice’s Winston Churchill crashing into Classic Who territory. It’s a wartime story that in particular pays tribute to the bravery and brilliance of the Polish airmen who played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. It’s also a relatively straightforward premise, almost worthy of Douglas Adams – in the skies above Britain, there’s a slab of…nothingness. A big oblong patch of nothing-there, which is heat-raying planes and pilots to incredibly thorough destruction. Needless to say, it’s not from around here, and the Doctor and Liv are called in to twiddle screwdrivers at it and make it go away.

McNeice’s Churchill and McGann’s Doctor have an easy, bouncy repartee in Dorney’s script, but the stand-out star of the story is Nicola Walker as Liv Chenka. Since she first appeared in Sylvester McCoy story Robophobia, Chenka’s been getting better and better, more comfortable with the business of bouncing around space and time saving people, and in Their Finest Hour and in fact throughout this box set, she rocks your world and pushes the stories on with a sense of indefatigable belief that, knowing Big Finish, probably means she’s set to meet a stick end pretty soon. She’s reached the level of mickey-taking, problem-solving, citizen of the universe competence familiar from New Who companions like late-stage Amy Pond or Clara Oswald, only with a joyfully dry undercutting wit and her own set of distinct skills.

There’s punch and poignancy in the story which you can hear coming if you’ve listened to enough Doctor Who from Big Finish, but Dorney pitches his punch just right to achieve a balanced result, and for all it’s a detour on the road to finding Helen, it feels like a worthwhile one, and a rich experience.

How To Make A Killing In Time Travel, Dorney’s second story in the set, is more outrageously comedic than Their Finest Hour. The action centres on a genius scientist who turns absolutely rubbish criminal. It’s a ‘desperation romp,’ the comedy coming from what people in horrifying situations do to try and push their luck to a satisfactory conclusion. There’s blackmail, chicanery, a robot with a funny translation circuit, a positively Trumpian financier…oh and a couple of royal warring scorpions. Because why wouldn’t there be a couple of royal warring scorpions?

Against that background, the Eighth Doctor and Liv wander round like Holmes and a highly savvy Watson, switching off machines here, investigating murders there, dealing with galaxy-imperilling temporal implosions and generally saving the day. It’s a rich, fun, runaround bit of business, and a complete, concise world that’s going terribly terribly wrong. Again, you’ll be listening to everything Nicola Walker says, because she’s an utter joy, but kudos too to Judith Roddy as Stralla Cushing, an unexpected driver of the drama here, along with the comedy-blackmail duo of Sarah Lambie and Jane Booker as Gorl and Dron respectively, of whom it would have been fun to hear more in future encounters with other Doctors.

The final two episodes of Ravenous 1 are a single connected story that get the Doctor to his object – in this case, a reunion with Helen. But Helen Sinclair is not quite the woman she was when she last saw the Doctor – she’s spent a lot of intervening time with The Eleven, in a penal colony-cum-asylum where the inmates are remarkably docile, as a result of a very special diet.

The Kandyman was an interesting concept when he was first devised, as an obsessive, flavour-demented chemist who made sweets so good they killed people. When he was eventually realised on-screen as Hell’s Licorice Allsort Assortment, yes, he looked absurd, but actually, if you stopped and thought about him for a moment and watched his mouth move, you could still get a shiver out of the will to survive beneath that absurdity.
Matt Fitton brings the calorie-compulsive chemist back to Doctor Who, and does it rather more as his creator, Graeme Curry, envisaged, a slick-faced, sugar-sheened humanoid with an android intelligence hidden in his sucrose-based body. He’s played by Nicholas Rowe as a brilliant, brittle figure – important, powerful but desperate to be recognised for his brilliance and the role he plays. In World of Damnation, the first part of the two, he’s responsible for pacifying the prisoners on the planetoid where The Eleven and Helen have been hanging out, working on The Eleven’s control issues and getting rather close.

Needless to say, by the time the Doctor and Liv get there, things are getting out of control, and here we learn not only how the Kandyman has been plying his trade, but also why it’s really not a good idea to cross him. It’s a joy to hear the Eighth Doctor and the Kandyman banter, both of them significantly older than they were in The Happiness Patrol. As disorder threatens to overwhelm the prison, we’re introduced to new important characters, including a crab in a robo-suit and a deeply sweet couple, comprised of a criminal and a nervous ultra-psychic – annnd why not? – and as the action moves into Episode 4, Sweet Salvation, there’s a satisfying underlying logic revealed to what the Kandyman’s actually up to, who his friends and allies are, and what, exactly, the ‘Ravenous’ might be. If life is all just chemistry, then sweets can kill, can pacify, can modify the mindset of anyone who eats them, and free will dies of disobedience or hunger.

Sweet Salvation is well plotted and better paced, so it ramps up the return of the Kandyman, the creepy hints at the Ravenous, and the battle of the egos as the Kandyman, The Eleven and the Doctor pit their wits against each other. Ravenous 1 overall is definitely two episodes of productive, enjoyable faffing and a two-parter of ramped-up, amped-up action, but it works for all that, the styles of the stories feeling right within the first stage of this new Eighth Doctor boxsetathon. Will you enjoy every episode of the four this time out? Absolutely – what you get are three interesting, character-rich, plot-driven stories that let Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor shine, bring Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka screaming up the ranks of all-time best companions with a box set that shows her to the best advantage in her Who history so far, and gives the other characters, from Morahan’s Helen to the Eleven and the Kandyman, to Churchill and the smaller players with lives and stories and  agenda of their own, quite enough time and space to graft themselves onto your memory with meaning and impact. It’s a jewel, this box set, boding well for the beginnings of another long multi-set arc for the Eighth Doctor. Ravenous 1 will leave you (appalling reference alert!) thoroughly satisfied, but hungry for more.