Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Not-So-Dark Mystery of Time and Space

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 8.02

Title: Invaders From Mars
Written By: Mark Gatiss
Team TARDIS: Eighth Doctor, Charley Pollard
Adversary: The Laiderplacker, Cosmo Devine
Originally Released: January 2002
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range, #28

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -

Hallowe'en 1938. A month after a mysterious meteorite lit up the skies of New York State, Martian invaders laid waste to the nation. At least, according to soon-to-be infamous Orson Welles they did. But what if some of the panicked listeners to the legendary The War of the Worlds broadcast weren't just imagining things?

Attempting to deliver Charley to her rendezvous in Singapore 1930, the Eighth Doctor overshoots a little, arriving in Manhattan just in time to find a dead private detective. Indulging his gumshoe fantasies, the Doctor is soon embroiled in the hunt for a missing Russian scientist whilst Charley finds herself at the mercy of a very dubious Fifth Columnist.

With some genuinely out of this world 'merchandise' at stake, the TARDIS crew are forced into an alliance with a sultry dame called Glory Bee, Orson Welles himself and a mobster with half a nose known as 'The Phantom'.

And slowly and surely, something is drawing plans against them. Just not very good ones...

My Review:

Oh Big Finish. I’ve already sung your praises for giving the Sixth Doctor a new lease on life. And now, I get to gush about your extensive line of Eighth Doctor audios. It’s like Christmas and my birthday have come all at once! (except I don’t have to listen to my dad whinge about how I’m not married or listen to the airheaded goofballs my brother brings home. So, really, it’s nothing like my birthday or Christmas).

So, the TV Movie didn’t quite work out as a pilot for a rebooted Doctor Who series (I’m certain that there’s an entire blog post about the whys and wherefores of that). But the Eighth Doctor Adventure novels continued under BBC Books’ licensing and the Eighth Doctor features in the comics as well. Which is all well and good - but a huge part of the persona of the Doctor comes from the actor playing him. Even when I read a Doctor Who novel, I still would like to be able to picture that particular actor’s performance as I read (that was partially my problem with “Ten Little Aliens” - the Doctor, Ben and Polly were not at all how they would be played on TV). We have the TV Movie, yes, but Whovians are insatiable (well, most of us are. Some still can’t get over the fact that Tom Baker is no longer playing the Doctor on TV) and we want MOAR, dammit!

And there, Big Finish enters the stage.

The geniuses behind the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the Classic Who DVD range recently produced a series called "Doctor Forever" in which different aspects of the Doctor Who franchise outside of television are discussed. "The Apocalypse Element" is the the installment on Big Finish and Doctor Who audios in general (it's available on the Special Edition of "The Visitation") and is very much worth your time and money (hell, the entire DVD is worth your time and money).  This documentary goes over the genesis of Big Finish, in that there were a group of dedicated fans who thought Doctor Who could have a home on audio. At first, Paul McGann’s agency said he wouldn’t be interested, but when McGann himself actually heard about it, he was excited and gung-ho for the idea (according to people like Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs - and I assume that those guys ought to know about things like this, so I’m taking it as gospel truth).

And thus, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor got a new lease on life. It’s not the TV series that some of us want for Eight, but it’s pretty damn close.

I haven’t listened to the separate Eighth Doctor Adventures series with Lucie Miller, nor have I had the pleasure of listening to “Dark Eyes,” but I often hear fans whose judgment I trust expound upon the virtues of those stories and I can’t wait to listen to them when I finally get the chance.  But I can talk about the start of Eight’s Big Finish run, which is pretty solid. “Storm Warning” is consistently considered a pretty good first outing and “Sword of Orion” is quite notable as well. “The Chimes of Midnight” is touted as a masterpiece and I can’t say I disagree. But one that I always, always, always enjoy - for vastly different reasons - is “Invaders From Mars.”

(And I didn’t realize that Mark Gatiss had written it until I looked it up on TARDIS Wikia. So, there is that).

“Invaders From Mars” is Eight’s “The Kingmaker” - it’s fun and quirky and rompy. And it’s got a crapton of American Nostalgia, which is a little odd for a British institution like Doctor Who to tackle. But I figure if it’s done right and not too much, it can be quite fun (and it’s appropriate for an audio adventure to celebrate the Golden Age of Radio).  I don't even mind the goofy American accents because, well, to someone from the American West, people back East (particularly in New York and points northward) sound pretentious and funny anyway.

The time period this is set in is the famous Halloween broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" that sent everyone into a panic, thinking Martians were invading Earth. Most historical events Doctor Who has tackled have been super-serious things, like World War II or the French Revolution or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius over Pompeii. But this historical event has an element of lightheartedness and humor at the center of it, which lends itself to the lightheartedness and humor in this story.  Even the actual aliens that are threatening to invade are kind of clownish and silly, but that's perfectly okay because the rest of the story is a bit silly too.  Even down to the classic, old-timey "Ba-da-dum-dum-DUMMMM!" audio cue that plays throughout the story during scene changes and at cliffhangers (which is even blended into the traditional Doctor Who end credit sting that Big Finish continues to utilize in their stories).  This story succeeds because it doesn't take itself seriously, so even the over-the-top exaggerated caricatures (which might annoy some fans) aren't that bothersome.  Best of all, it allows Paul McGann and India Fisher to indulge more in the fun side of the Doctor and Charley's personalities - which they both do beautifully.

Recently, I've been going over the Eighth Doctor's Divergent Universe arc which gets downright dark and gritty.  Some aspects of that I like, but most of the time it gets very heavy and I want to find something more light.  Even in the early Eighth Doctor Big Finish, there is a sense of weight that foreshadows how dark and heavy the writers are willing to go with this.  But I like that they allowed themselves a break from that heaviness and were able to step back for a breath before diving into the head-spinny-and-very-serious "The Chimes of Midnight" (which is one I very much enjoy, don't get me wrong).  It's good to take things seriously, but don't discount the fluffy stories just because they're fluffy.  Certainly, fans cannot live on fluff alone, but neither can we subsist on a diet of nitty-gritty, grim-and-dark, soulsucking horror.

This story is a neat little tribute to classic 1930s radio and "The War of the Worlds."  It's fun and enjoyable and definitely worth a stop before heading into the next story in the Eighth Doctor's timeline - "The Chimes of Midnight."

It's interesting that this particular promotion came up while I was writing this review.  Paul McGann chose his favorite Eighth Doctor Big Finish plays and people can vote on their favorites from that list and whichever ones gets the most votes, Big Finish will offer them at a discount.  Most of them are from the Lucie Miller range (plus the "Dark Eyes" boxed set), so I haven't heard them myself, but it's still a neat little list.  Give it a look and a vote if you feel so inclined.

Also - seeing as this is the last Big Finish review this project with undertake *sad tear* I'd like to plug "The Minister of Chance" audio drama that both Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy are in.  Taking the plunge into Big Finish Doctor Who has given me an appreciation for audio stories and I wanted to branch out into other audios and see how I liked it.  And after listening to the first episode, I quite like it!  So, check them out too.

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 8.03 - Big Finish helped keep Eight alive - but the novels got there first.

Previously -
Review 8.01 - Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive

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