The Island of Dr Moreau (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 31 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Island of Dr Moreau (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt FittonExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Ken BentleyDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Ronald Pickup (Doctor Moreau), John Heffernan (Edward Prendick), Enzo Cilenti(Montgomery), David Shaw-Parker (Captain/ Constans), John Banks (Mate-LV/ M'Ling/ Satyr-Man), Tim Bentinck (Helmar/ Captain John Davies/ Ape-Man), Daniel Goode (Seaman/ Mate-I, Dog-Man).

Now this was the biggie. The Island of Dr Moreau, is my favorite H.G Welles novel and easily the adaptation out of this entire series that I was looking forward to the most. After being astounded by The Martian Invasion of Earth, which was then blown out of the water by The Time Machine, I became convinced that Big Finish could do no wrong with these adaptations. Biting the bullet, I decided to test this theory and see if their version of, in my mind Welles masterpiece, lived up to these expectations. Needless to say, The Island of Dr Moreau, is another sure-fire hit in what is doubtless one of best series put out by Big Finish in recent years.

Like Time Machine and Martian Invasion, Moreau sticks rigorously close to its source material. The novel tells the story of Edward Prendick (John Hefferman) a castaway after a shipwreck, who’s picked up by another boat containing Dr Montgomery (Enzo Cilenti). Montgomery is heading to an Island on which lives the mysterious Dr Moreau (Robert Pickup, recently seen in cinemas in Darkest Hour) and after a misunderstanding, Prendick ends up there also. When there he discovers that Moreau has been conducting experiments through vivisection, turning animals into man-like creatures. These ‘Beast-men’ are contained by strict laws which attempt to hold back their animalistic nature. However, Prendick’s arrival sets off unforeseen events and soon catastrophe looms for all on the island…

I said in my review of Martian Invasion, how generally terrifying that adaptation was, and although the interpretation of the Morlocks within The Time Machine, was somewhat lacking it had equally horrific moments. Moreau is easily the most ‘horror’ of all of Welles works, written as a pamphlet against vivisection. Thus this audio features large amounts of body-horror, with detailed descriptions by Hefferman of the inside of Moreau’s workshop. Truth be told the descriptions are not that extreme, but the constant emphasis on blood and the scars on Moreau’s creatures is powerful and leaves the impression of an incredibly graphic tale. Ken Bentley’s adaptation has expertly weaved this horror throughout the entire piece but his crowning achievement is the sequence in which Moreau explains his work and motivations to Prendick. The dialogue in this sequence is utterly chilling and what’s more, like the previous examples, the historical political subtext so important to Welles work is once again inherent here. As stated, Moreau was originally written as a pamphlet against vivisection and (unlike several film adaptations) the means through which Moreau conducts his experiments is still through vivisection and not updated to genetics or any other form of modern science.  This works particularly well and the horror with which Welles viewed this particular form of biology is inherent in this audio play. Thus, although comparisons can certainly be drawn, Moreau is not a god-like figure- but a scientific meddler who conducts his work without a care for the creatures he makes.

The cast is- as always- exceptional. These Welles adaptations have attracted some talent who are not usually drawn to the more ‘cult’ orientated material that Big Finish usually puts out, but who seems well at home in their ‘classics’ label. None more so than Robert Pickup, who at first comes across as a somewhat kindly Moreau but later transforms into an utterly chilling and inhuman monster. The aforementioned speech he gives about the nature of his work is the golden moment of the entire play, a testament to Pickups superb performance. Hefferman similarly gives an excellent performance, managing to allow his character to come across as somewhat unhinged. This presents a different level to the piece, leaving the audience to wonder whether perhaps his bizarre story is true- or simply the fantasies of a madman. Enzo Cilenti gets some particularly juicy moments and at points comes across as more villainous than Moreau.

All in all, The Island of Dr Moreau is another success story in what is quickly becoming the best thing to come out of the classics range.





The Time Machine (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 26 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Time Machine (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Nicholas BriggsExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Marc PlattDirected By: Ken Bentley

Cast

Ben Miles (The Time Traveller), Nicholas Rowe (Mr Wells), Anjella Mackintosh(Uweena), Nicholas Asbury (Mr Filby), James Joyce (Mr Pollock), Hywel Morgan(Morlock Leader), Christopher Naylor (Mr Naylor).

Other parts played by members of the cast.

My second venture into Big Finish’s range of H.G Welles adaptations tackles his first novel, 1895’s The Time Machine. Welles story of a man who invents a time machine and travels into a horrifying vision of the future is a tale that should be familiar to many a Whovian as its influence upon our beloved show is beyond vast. That said, it’s not a particularly easy tale to adapt, given that the narrative occurs primarily in the first person with the unnamed ‘Time Traveller’, retelling his story to a group of friends in London. The future world unto which our hero finds himself is not one that allows easy dialogue scenes, as the two species he encounters cannot communicate with him. Big Finish has adapted the original novels narrative style, and what results is something akin to their earlier ‘Companion Chronicles’, with Ben Miles time traveler retelling his tale and other voice actors providing the sounds of the Eloi and Morlocks.

An audio drama in this style then relies heavily on the actor delivering it. Admittedly Ben Miles is not an individual I am particularly familiar with, but I am delighted he'll be playing the brooding Callan in BFs upcoming release because here he is fantastic. Throughout the course of the two hours, Miles goes through a variety of emotions, often with no one but himself to bounce off. Not only that, but the nature of Welles 1895 novel means that he is often required to break with the story for sections of discussion regarding such subjects as the class system. Reams of philosophical debate and huge chunks of descriptive dialogue are, with Miles skilled tongue, transformed into mesmerising or terrifying depictions of a future gone horrifyingly wrong.

One of the great joys of this version of The Time Machine (and the same can be said for The Martian Invasion of Earth though I failed to mention it in my review) is how much the script revels in its Victorian heritage. Unlike, for example, the 1960 film adaptation (which by the way is still my preferred version away from the novel) this drama doesn’t attempt to update its source material by having trips to events that are to us history but to Welles in 1895, was the future. Not only that but this version sticks rigorously to Welles central theme of class conflict, that is the cause of the development of the Eloi and the Morlocks. So no trips to WW1 here, no world war III sequences and nuclear holocausts. Not only then is it exceptionally close to its source material, but the entire atmosphere of the piece reeks of 19th-century fantasy. Indeed one can imagine that, were the technology around, that a contemporary audio version would have a similar tone. A wonderful score (which includes frightening electronic pieces for the travelers arrival into the future and a beautiful theme for our hero) perfectly captures the wonder present in Welles story, that has been so expertly transported to this version.

Which of course brings me to the sound design. In a production like this one can imagine it’s an incredibly hard thing to do after all the soundscape conjured up by the Big Finish team has to stop this piece appearing like a talking book. It must reflect what Miles is saying and compliment it and whilst not dominating the proceedings. Admittedly whilst on the whole, I thought they did a stellar job, there were a few choices which I felt were somewhat uninspired. The sound effects used for the Morlocks, which are made incredibly Simian in this version (I mean just look at the cover) are particularly ape-like and in my opinion a little too much. The Morlocks are on paper, truly terrifying creatures and although there is the reasoning within the plot (Darwinism in reverse) to make them Simian, having them screech like monkeys and nothing else is far from frightening. Perhaps if the ape-like noises had been enhanced somewhat the effect might have been better but as it stands it feels like a missed opportunity. Sadly the same can be said for some of the Eloi sound effects, which come across as intensely irritating and can have an impact on the drama when we’re supposed to care about them.

All in all, however, The Time Machine stands as a marvelous achievement and another great entry in Big Finish’s adaptations of H.G Welles. In fact next to the 1960 film, it might be my favourite version of the novel.





Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures - The Way AheadBookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 March 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

     

Written by Mark Wright
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila),
Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Stephen Greif (Travis),
Glynis Barber (Magda), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Olivia Poulet (Avalon), Kate Brown (Cassandra),
Sam Woodward (Sheltak/Freighter captain), Catherine Bailey (Mutoid/Captain), Fanos Xenofós (Interceptor commander/trooper), and Gareth Thomas (Blake).

‘They were titans of a rebellion that tore the galaxy apart, symbols of hope against tyranny. They had been comrades, blasting through star systems to topple dictators and liberate the oppressed. Some called them terrorists. Many called them heroes …’

Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!

Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead

 

It’s the 40th anniversary of a science fiction phenomenon – and the latest instalment in this space opera opens on a remote island world where our hero is living his life in seclusion, away from the rest of the galaxy which has feted him (much to his chagrin and reluctance) as a hero and a symbol of the resistance against an evil galactic order. The young woman who persuades him to tell his story is convinced that he’s still a beacon of hope and there is good that he can still do …

No, it’s not the plot for the most recent Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi – although you could be forgiven for thinking it is, especially when the supreme commander’s seat of power is trashed in a brazen rebel attack (while aboard said vessel the key antagonist offers the protagonist a shot at an alliance) …

It’s actually the recent Blake’s 7 serial The Way Ahead, a three-disc special release from Big Finish that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the program’s debut on BBC TV on 2 January, 1978 – approximately seven days after the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV – A New Hope) premiered in UK cinemas.

Star Wars, of course, has just commemorated its own 40th anniversary with a myth-busting tour de force of the second film in its sequel trilogy, much to the consternation of traditionalists. The Way Ahead, despite a few superficial parallels with its big screen counterpart, is perhaps not so daring, largely because the broader B7 saga has already been told. Nevertheless, perhaps those same purists decrying the latest Star Wars installment may find some solace in The Way Ahead, which is a more predictable approach to storytelling by scriptwriter Mark Wright, compared to screenwriter/director Rian Johnson’s more unconventional style with The Last Jedi.

That’s not to say that The Way Ahead is a staple B7 adventure – the two-part story doesn’t shatter the status quo of the B7 universe but Wright dares to tinker around the edges a little, particularly in the second half. It is set across three eras: some time in the first season of the TV program (the first episode Project Aquitar), when Roj Blake (the late Gareth Thomas) is in charge of the Liberator; at some point in the third season (the second episode Dissent), when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) has taken command of the iconic starship; and at least 20 years after the showdown on Gauda Prime (GP) which ties in with Darrow’s Lucifer trilogy of B7 novels.

The post-GP framing device is probably the only thing that might upset B7 traditionalists, as Darrow’s books would be viewed by some – including this writer – as apocryphal (“lurid nonsense” indeed!). Nevertheless, the telling of the two episodes in a flashback is executed well, thanks to the chemistry of Avon and his lover Magda, played by a mature Glynis Barber (who portrayed crew member and gunslinger Soolin in the TV program’s fourth and final series).

Blake's 7 - Project Aquitar (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)Project Aquitar is the most traditional of the two episodes and encapsulates what the first season of B7 was about – Blake’s feud with his scarred arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (brilliantly reprised by the original actor Stephen Greif). Sadly, with Gareth Thomas has passed on, the character of Blake is relegated to the background, and merely mentioned in despatches (ie Blake and Gan, originally portrayed by the late David Jackson, are manning the Liberator when it is attacked by pursuit ships while the rest of the crew teleport to mining world Lorgan Minor to destroy Travis’s latest scheme). It is up to Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and Darrow to shoulder most of Blake’s dialogue and actions in Thomas’s absence. Indeed, if Project Aquitar had been made for TV, it would have been Blake and Travis trapped in an underground rockfall, not Travis and Jenna. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the pair is fascinating, as they attempt to justify being on opposite sides.

On TV, Knyvette fell into the trap that often befell some Doctor Who companions in the 1970s and 1980s – she went from being an Avengers/Emma Peel-type heroine to being (as Knyvette recalls on the 40th anniversary retrospective on the third disc) “a bit girly and a … sex symbol which is a shame because … I would have liked to have seen the stronger sides of her character coming out”. The one thing Knyvette has relished since BF revived B7 for audio has been to restore (again to paraphrase the actor) integrity, feistiness, and strength to Jenna’s character. Those qualities are most evident when she takes on Travis one on one, mocking him for his incompetence. “I don’t need Blake to rescue me!” Jenna tells Travis while in combat. “I can make an idiot out of you myself!”

What’s also interesting about the portrayal of Jenna in Project Aquitar (and indeed in some of BF’s other portrayals of the character) is how much she believes in Blake and his cause (and how much she maintains that faith after departing the Liberator). When Travis asks why a smuggler would follow a would-be freedom fighter on his “senseless crusade”, Jenna insists that if she “dies today … then I’ll die knowing what I did was right”. She also refutes Travis’s allegation that she is a terrorist with the following reasoning: “The Federation endures through terror, so you tell me who the terrorist is!”

This revolutionary idealism is shared by fellow freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), a character that was originally introduced on TV in the 1978 episode Project Avalon and bridges the gap between Project Aquitar and Dissent. The difference between Avalon and Jenna, as well as her crewmates Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating), is that they will not fight dirty. When Avalon seizes control of the plot’s “MacGuffin” (which hails back to a bit of dialogue in the third episode of the TV series Cygnus Alpha), she is prepared to strike at Federation troops with the same force that has befallen her comrades on the planet Malanar Delta. It takes Cally’s persuasion to make Avalon (it seems) see the error of her ways.

While Project Aquitar is a traditional, serviceable and enjoyable episode in its own right, Dissent is the strongest, most dynamic installment of The Way Ahead boxset. The listener jumps ahead to B7’s third series as the Liberator crew – minus Blake, Jenna and Gan, and incorporating Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) and Orac (Alistair Lock) – once again cross paths with Avalon. The events that follow are unexpected (albeit only temporary) but they raise the stakes for both the rebellion and the Federation, now personified by arch nemesis Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).

Having explored the nobility behind Blake and Jenna’s fight in Project Aquitar – to restore democracy and independence to the galaxy – Wright explores the reality of what that fight has truly achieved by this point in the broader B7 saga. In the third series opener Aftermath, Avon remarked that he hoped Blake “survived long enough to realise he was winning”. In Dissent, it becomes clear that Blake’s victory (if indeed it ever was one) was only temporary and that under Servalan’s leadership, the Federation is rebuilding and becoming more streamlined and deadlier than before. Further, Avalon’s zeal and meddling, far from striking a blow to the heart of this new incarnation of the Federation, will merely harden Servalan’s resolve.

Blake's 7 - Dissent (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)My only criticism about Dissent is the “MacGuffin” (or plot device) which is central to Project Aquitar is barely utilised (being reduced to one scene and a couple of throwaway lines). The manner that Wright deploys it – and then discards it – is far less convincing (are we seriously expected to believe Avalon’s group would really have the brains to assemble another “MacGuffin” patterned on the original?).

That aside, the performances of the returning cast members are outstanding. The dialogue of Greif and Knyvette in Project Aquitar and Darrow and Pearce in Dissent are the highlights of the serial. The other supporting actors – Keating, Chappell, Bannerman, Pacey, Barber, and Lock – are solid performers. Knyvette deserves to do more audio work based on the strength of her performance and perhaps the solution would be a box set about Jenna’s own adventures in the years after she left the Liberator (perhaps following the lines of Jenna’s Story, one of the installments in Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles).

It’s also a nonsense that going forward Barber may have to play other guest roles if she wishes to continue doing B7 plays. BF claims it doesn’t have the rights to do B7 stories set during series 4 and therefore can’t use the Soolin character (even though two of the serials in the aforementioned Liberator Chronicles V6 are nominally set during series 3 and 4, Soolin is mentioned by Magda and we even hear the teleport effect used in series 4 at key moments in Project Aquitar). While I can understand that BF feels there is plenty of fertile ground to still explore by keeping its serials rooted in the third series, it is inevitable that the company will eventually want to venture into series 4 territory. If so, then BF should already be opening negotiations with B7 Media for those rights and employing a talented actor like Barber while she’s available.

In conclusion, The Way Ahead is an outstanding release. Wright and the BF production team subtly place plenty of Easter eggs honouring B7 throughout the narrative, largely in dialogue and in sound effects. There’s also a couple of fun, humorous parallel moments in both episodes between the same characters (eg Avon’s responses to Vila’s disappointment at the survival of B7’s antagonists are beautifully written and performed). We also get to hear dialogue and exchanges between the antagonists and protagonists that could almost have been written for the 1979 and 1981 finales Star One and Blake respectively. The play also is more than happy to riff off other SF properties in its dialogue as well (notably Star Wars and Doctor Who) but the most touching Easter egg features the titular character himself – Blake – in the closing moments of Dissent, as we hear a monologue by Gareth Thomas (sadly) for the last time.

As an anniversary tale, The Way Ahead is an enjoyable listen and a worthy celebration of a short-lived yet popular and memorable TV program that through BF’s audio output endures today. B7 will never be as grandiose as Star Wars (nor should it ever try to be) but the enthusiasm of its storytellers and artists remains as undimmed and avid as the small band of rebels that it portrays.





The Martian Invasion of Earth (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Martian Invasion of Earth (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt FittonExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Nicholas BriggsDirected By: Nicholas Briggs

Cast

Richard Armitage (Herbert), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Amy), Hywel Morgan (Curate), Ewan Bailey (Daniel), Richard Derrington (Ogilvy), Helen Goldwyn (Agatha), Christopher Weeks (Edward), Benedict Briggs (Boy), Nicholas Briggs (Martians / First Officer). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Available to order from Amazon UK

The last in Big Finishes series of H.G Welles adaptations, The Martian Invasion of Earth is of course a version of Welles’s magnum opus The War of the Worlds. The story has something of a history on Radio with Wikipedia stating fourteen broadcast versions. Most famously Jeff Wayne created a wonderful musical version starring Richard Burton (later re-recorded with Liam Neeson) and Orson Welles panicked America with his 1938 Halloween broadcast. Admittedly I was intrigued to see how Nick Briggs would handle what he stated was a ‘pet project’, when the story has been done many times and done well. I needn’t of worried however, with Briggs achieving that very rare mix of an adaptation that pushes it’s source material into new and interesting directions, yet allows it to be faithful at the same time. Not only that but he manages to rival the Orson Welles version in how utterly frightening it is.

Richard Armitage stars as Herbert Welles (not the first time one of his unnamed characters finds themselves taking their creators name in an adaptation) and it is partly his wonderful performance as a man struggling to keep it together in the face of a terrifying event that lends the play its horrifying power. By adding an extended role to the narrators wife (more on that below) this version works rather wonderfully as a love story. Briggs shows us how the narrator puts on a front for his wife, showing bravery before silently creeping away and sobbing. Armitage makes these moments truly horrifying and it is with this human factor that the play really succeeds.

The most startling change implemented by Briggs is the extended role he has given to the protagonist’s wife. In the original novel, the character disappears somewhat early on, only to miraculously reappear at the end. The tome is certainly a mail orientated one and our hero meets no significant female characters. Period adaptation or not, Briggs appears determined to make this adaptation current and thankfully that includes a strong and respectful female role. ‘Amy’) as she is called in this version) is played by Lucy Briggs-Owen who gives a powerful performance and has wonderful chemistry with Armitage. Briggs appears to have invested much time in her character, allowing her to become a wonderfully rounded character. At times she feels of the period and beyond it, having much to do and making meaningful decisions. Coupled with Briggs-Owens acting, she’s one of the highlights of this version.

Nick Briggs script also includes several interesting moments of commentary concerning some of the socio-political subtext featured within the novel. This includes interesting moments of discussion concerning colonialism, militarism and religion. At times this is somewhat heavy handed but for the most part it’s effective and certainly allows this version to be current and meaningful.

Ian Meadows provides incredible sound design, helping the audio to fully capture the feel of a full scale onslaught with a very small cast. His version of the Martians war cry, is terrifying, particularly when listened to through headphones and mixed with the sounds of screams.  The soundtrack is similarly effective, a mixture of bizarre sounds and an epic feel adding to the chaotic atmosphere. Unfortunately it is let down by some ‘bombastic’ moments early on that don’t quite fit with the intimate nature of the horror as portrayed in this version. Thankfully these moments are brief and less frequent as the play continues.

For fans of the novel, they really can’t go wrong with this version. Alongside Jeff Wayne’s musical and Orson Welles 1938 version, this has to be one of the best adaptations of the novel. Nicholas Briggs really has outdone himself and along with superb performances from Richard Armitage and Lucy Briggs-Owen create a masterpiece and one of Big Finishes best.