February 21, 2012

Doctor Who: "The Renaissance Man"

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson return as the Doctor and Leela in this second release in Big Finish's new Fourth Doctor Adventures range of Doctor Who audio dramas. In this adventure the Doctor tries to take Leela to an intergalactic museum, only to find the TARDIS has arrived in the English countryside instead - or has it?

It's certainly easier to engage with "The Renaissance Man" than it was the preceding story, "Destination: Nerva". I've grown used to the different sound of Baker and Jameson's voices, for one thing. I also knew in advance that the story would only be two episodes long, something that caught me off-guard the last time and left me feeling a tiny bit cheated. The other advantage that "The Renaissance Man" has is that writer Justin Richards absolutely nails the dialogue for the Doctor and Leela. Baker in particular seems to relish the script, which is filled with the sort of amiable nonsense he's so adept at performing. There's also a good supporting cast here, including Ian McNiece as the villainous Harcourt.

February 16, 2012

Space Rangers: "Pilot"

1993 was a great year for American TV science fiction. Not only did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 launch (and as you know, I've been writing about them quite a bit lately), we also got The X Files, Lois & Clark, SeaQuest DSV and a bunch of other shows.

The X Files was probably the most successful of the "class of 1993", but the least successful was probably Space Rangers. Created by Pen Densham, one of the writers of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it lasted six episodes before it was quietly and unceremoniously shoved off the screen. Since I've been giving the other two space shows of '93 a fresh appraisal, it seemed only fair to dust off my copy of Space Rangers and giving the pilot a watch.

It's predictably dreadful, but dreadful in that bizarrely watchable way. It's fairly fast-paced, and breezy, and certainly colourful, and it has that same use of slightly too early computer-generated effects as Babylon 5 had. It follows a team of peacekeepers known as the Space Rangers, based on the colony of Fort Hope, as they travel around rescuing starships in peril and fighting off attacks from the mysterious "Banshees".

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: "A Message from the Deep Sea" (1971)

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic anthology series. Produced by Thames Television from 1971 to 1973, it adapted late 19th century detective stories - more specifically, it adapted stories published at the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures but which had long been overshadowed by Doyle's vastly more famous literary sleuth. The series was loosely adapted from Hugh Greene's published anthologies of the same name. Each week a different leading actor would portray a different Victorian detective. The series managed to assemble a very prestigious cast of performers, making it one of those wonderful old British TV series where you spend almost as much time pointing at the screen exclaiming "Hey, that's..." as you do watching the episode.

"A Message from the Deep Sea" was the premiere episode of the series, which ran for two 13 episode seasons. In this first instalment John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The X Files) portrays R. August Freeman's Dr Thorndyke. Neville only died a few months ago, so it was a slightly bittersweet experience watching him here. He's predictably marvellous, and one drawback of the anthology format of the series is that we never get to see him play Thorndyke again.

February 15, 2012

Blog Space Nine part #3: "Cardassians"

When the tailor Garak spies another Cardassian on the station - a teenage boy wearing Bajoran dress - he is intrigued, and moves to introduce himself. His encounter leads Commander Sisko and his crew to uncover the shameful existence of Cardassian war orphans - children left behind on Bajor when the Cardassian Union withdrew. The boy's real father is found - but does the boy wish to be repatriated with his own people?

The thing that I have always loved about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the degree to which it explored the culture of a few key civilizations. Other Star Treks travelled around the galaxy, leading more often than not to a continuing factory line of interchangeable bumpy-headed aliens. Deep Space Nine, by virtue of its sitting in the one location, was able to explore the culture of both the Bajorans and Cardassians to a degree never previously done in SF television - and I'm not sure it's ever been done since (to be fair, Babylon 5 - through the Minbari, Narn and Centauri - gets remarkably close).

February 14, 2012

Babble On part #9: "The War Prayer"

A radical anti-alien movement, the Home Guard, has started to build support on Earth. On Babylon 5, a group of masked assailants are attacking non-humans on the station. Meanwhile, an old flame of Ivanova's arrives on the station, as do two Centauri runaways set to cause headaches for Ambassador Mollari.

I think this may be the best episode of Babylon 5 so far. No, I don't think it - I know it. It does what a lot of great science fiction does, which is to use the genre as a sugar coating for real world issues. It's unsurprising that the episode is written by D.C. Fontana, who was one of the creative hands behind the original Star Trek - and one of its finest script writers.

February 9, 2012

Babble On part #8: Mind War

Two "Psicops" arrive on Babylon 5, hunting for a runaway telepath with links to Talia Winters - but what is the mysterious Mr Bester not telling Commander Sinclair? Meanwhile Catherine Sakai takes a prospecting job in a remote star system, despite Ambassador G'Kar's warnings.

I recall "Mindwar" was one of the Season 1 episodes that fans generally liked back in 1994. It's easy to see why: it features former Star Trek co-star Walter Koenig as Alfred Bester, who is a showy antagonist rich with opportunities for cutting insults and barbed dialogue. Koenig is visibly enjoying the opportunity to play him too, and I think that enjoyment does rub off on the audience as a result. He even has a geeky science fiction name to amuse the hardcore.

February 8, 2012

Sea Change (2012)

Sea Change is a 90 minute radio drama, written by John Fletcher and directed by Marc Beeby. It stars Charles Edwards, Kim Wall, John Rowe, Richard Dillane and Carl Prekopp. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 29 January 2012. It is available to download from the BBC until Friday 10 February.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disgraceful process of “appeasement” with Nazi Germany remains one of the United Kingdom’s less pleasant periods of the 20th century. A new BBC radio play, Sea Change, explores not only the appeasement process but also the unexpected political coalition that changed British foreign policy and ended Chamberlain’s career. Docudramas are always a tricky thing to pull off; too dramatic and they lose authenticity, too withdrawn and they seem boring. Sea Change manages to skirt the line marvelously for its 90 minute duration, presenting an insight into historical that is at once familiar and surprising.

February 3, 2012

Doctor Who: Destination: Nerva

Fresh from facing Magnus Greel in 1890s London, the Doctor and Leela find themselves thrown headlong into a new adventure, taking them from late 19th century Kent to the far future - where an alien investation threatens the space station Nerva.

British production company Big Finish has been producing original audio dramas based on Doctor Who for some years, utilising the original TV casts to create a broad range of "missing adventures". They started off with dramas starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, and before long added Paul McGann to the list. For many years, however, Tom Baker has remained the sole holdout among the "classic" Who Doctors. With "Destination: Nerva", he finally reprises the role of the Doctor for Big Finish. Generally speaking, it's a terrific debut.

February 2, 2012

Blog Space Nine #2: "Invasive Procedures"

While the station is evacuated due to an interstellar storm, a group of renegades storm Deep Space Nine and overpower the crew. Their target is Lt Jadzia Dax, whose symbiont is to be removed and implanted into another person - with fatal results.

"Invasive Procedures" is what's referred to as a 'bottle show'. Designed to save money over the course of a TV season, the episode uses a small guest cast, no extras, and utilises only standing sets with no location shooting. Given the fairly significant production costs of the season's first three episodes, it's unsurprising that some costs were cut while making the following week's adventure.