Saturday, February 18, 2017

Drama in My Ears! Big Finish Productions February 2017

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts about Big Finish Productions, I used to listen to their stuff regularly while walking on the treadmill. I fell behind on my exercise routine, and consequently on listening to Big Finish audio plays. I’m back on the treadmill now, though, so I thought I would start blogging about the Big Finish plays I’m listening to as I walk.

(Note: I have added the trailers for the stories at the end of this post. I don't like the way imbedded clips from Soundcloud look on my posts, and am too lazy to figure out how to do it better.)

While the series Big Finish licenses from other media are tons of fun, I love it when they create something that is completely their own. After years of quality products, they have earned my faith to the point that I will buy almost anything they produce, and so I was perfectly happy to order this legal drama set in ancient Rome, starring the historical figure Cicero (about whom I know almost nothing).

I was also sold on by the fact that it’s produced and directed by Scott Handcock, who did the fantastic Confessions of Dorian Gray series for them, and written by David Llewellyn. Also, it stars Samuel Barnett, who plays Dirk Gently on the BBC America TV series based on the Douglas Adams character.

While this is a classical story in terms of setting, it’s also a classic legal whodunnit in terms of formula. We see the lawyers taking the case and beginning their investigation. They end up in contact with some dark characters, who warn them off their investigation, which only spurs them to investigate further. And there’s a twist courtroom revelation. 

However, while it sounds like an average Perry Mason episode, the historical setting, the quality of the writing, and the acting raise it to another level, making it very compelling listening. I particularly enjoyed hearing Barnett play a straight dramatic character, as opposed to the more heightened performances he’s given in Dirk Gently and in Big Finish’s Torchwood stories.

According to the behind the scenes interviews that I’ve read, the speech Cicero gives at Sextus Roscius’ trial is taken directly from the historical record. In it, towards the end, he refers to the cruel, violent times that Rome is going through as a consequence of having been under a corrupt dictatorship, and how the people of Rome need to be better than that, to rise above it. Considering that these events took place in 80 B.C., they feel unfortunately relevant today, almost 2000 years later.

Here’s hoping this is only the first in a series. At only $5, I absolutely recommend it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this set, except the usual Big Finish high quality of writing, acting and production. From the summary on the Big Finish web site, the story looked like a fairly typical of Torchwood adventures, seen through the eyes of new recruit Rachel Allan. What I got was so much more.

Set before Torchwood’s first appearance in the second season of Doctor Who, this set was great. Like the best Torchwood stories, this isn’t a typical humans vs aliens story. In fact, there’s not a lot of science fiction elements at all. It focuses on the drama of the office politics and character drama among the staff of Torchwood One. We get a lot of action and suspense, but it all comes from within Torchwood itself. This exploration of the organization makes this much more interesting than just another series of Torchwood stories, only featuring Yvonne Hartman instead of Captain Jack.

In fact, one of my favorite parts of this story was the fleshing out of Yvonne Hartman. I had enjoyed Tracy-Ann Oberman’s portrayal of her as chirpy-office-manager-meets-ruthless-soldier in those Doctor Who episodes, and she expands on that here. I actually started feeling a great deal of sympathy for her, but the series also did not fail to remind us of how hard she is at her core, so it never felt at odds with the character from the TV. Overall, this was a really nice expansion on the Torchwood series, as were the other recent Torchwood stories I listened to, Torchwood Archive and Torchwood: Outbreak. 

I need to get caught up on the Torchwood single-disk stories. I’ve only listened to the first one; it was great, but it was more of an enhanced audiobook (Jack telling a story, with music, special effects, and a couple of other actors). Later releases in that series look to have bigger casts, so maybe they are full-cast dramas, but they still only feature a single Torchwood member having an adventure on their own. I want to see them acting as a team, which is what made Outbreak so much fun. However, as much fun as Outbreak was, it was very much a “missing adventure,” set between seasons two and three, when Ianto was still alive. What I really want are full-cast adventures, telling what happened to Jack and Gwen (and Rhys, and maybe new members) after the events of Miracle Day. Maybe someday.

I also listened to the adaptations of the Virgin novels Cold Fusion and Original Sin. Original Sin introduces Adjudicators (space cops) Roz Forester and Chris Cwej, who end up traveling with the Doctor as a pair of new companions. Cold Fusion is best known for crossing the New Adventures ongoing series of adventures of the seventh Doctor and his companions with the Missing Adventures series, which told previously untold tales of earlier Doctors and their companions, in this case the fifth Doctor with Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. Plus, in Cold Fusion, author Lance Parkin (obliquely) introduces a lot of background for the Doctor, including bringing in his wife.

The adaptations of both novels were great, especially hearing Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy actually playing their Doctors opposite each other in Cold Fusion, instead of reading it on the page. But listening to those also took me back to the heady days of the 90s, when Doctor Who was off the air, and the only way to get new stories were the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine, and the monthly releases of the New and Missing Adventures from Virgin Publishing.

While the Missing Adventures had the same concerns as I mentioned above with Torchwood: Outbreak—while well-written and entertaining, they mostly didn’t feel like they were part of an ongoing narrative—the New Adventures were must-reads the day I got my hands on each new volume. Each one felt like an exciting new chapter in an ongoing series, and particularly books like Original Sin, which introduced new companions who we’d never seen before, were big events. 

I haven’t reread very many of those books, and I don’t know how many of them would hold up today. Probably, for every Human Nature or Also People or Lungbarrow, there are four or five run of the mill adventures of the month. But I think I looked forward to those books more than I have the last season or two (or three) of Doctor Who on television. I haven’t listened to the other Big Finish adaptations of the Virgin novels, but I’ll have to make that a higher priority.

While I know a bit about Dan Dare, the comic, I haven’t read all that much of the original. I’ve read the relatively recent revivals by Grant Morrison & Rian Hughes and Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine, but I’ve only read the first collection of Frank Hampson’s original strip, published by Titan Books. That’s been a while ago, so I can’t say how faithfully this new audio adaption, produced by B7 Productions and distributed by Big Finish, sticks to the story.

I can say that it feels like a faithful updating of the original concept of the comic. Dan Dare is often referred to as the British Flash Gordon, and this set of three adventures definitely fits that bill. Dare is a solid, classic two-fisted hero, voiced unironically by Ed Stoppard. He is ably assisted by a cynical military man—perhaps a bit more cynical and sarcastic than in the comics—named Digby, played by Geoff McGivern, who played Ford Prefect in the original radio Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And scientist Professor Peabody, the sole regular woman in the cast, is played by Heida Reed.

If memory serves, the original strip treats Peabody and the other female characters with all the sensitivity and enlightenment you would expect from popular culture of the 1950s. While this version of Peabody isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a shrinking violet, I don’t know that she’s any better for the updating; Dare and Digby are presented as the physically strong ones, while Peabody generally is expected to sit out the action and stick to solving problems with her mind. While there’s something to be said for the series giving Peabody her own set of strengths, it still falls across stereotypical gender lines. However, that may be a problem inherent with trying to adapt material that’s 60 or 70 years old.

The acting and sound design are every bit as excellent as you’d come to expect. The storylines are something a bit unique for Big Finish Productions: they are classic space opera tales, with handsome heroes, brainy scientists, and evil aliens to be defeated. I believe there is only so much breaking of ground you can expect of an adaptation of stories that are over 60 years or so old, and this should please listeners who are looking for an adaptation that captures the tone of the original, while still being fast-paced and entertaining.

As I write this, I am in the middle of the latest fifth Doctor adventure, The Star Men, so we will probably pick up there the next time I publish a blog about Big Finish. 

This week, I am introducing a new feature, in order to show off my growing collection of Funko Pops. I’m not sure when I turned the corner and became a Pop collector, but it has definitely happened. I like the overall aesthetic of them; they are cute and friendly, and I like seeing them sitting out on my desk at work or on display at home. I appreciate the detail that the designers at Funko put into them, despite the stylized faces and bodies. And I love that they produce characters that we aren’t likely to see from other licensors; does anyone seriously expect to see a Hot Toys or Hasbro action figure of older Leia from Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Not likely. But Funko produced a Pop of her.

This week’s Pop of the Week: Levitating Doctor Strange from the October Marvel Collector Corps box.
Morticia checks out the Sorcerer Supreme

Trailers below. See you next week!

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