Thursday, 21 October 2010

Audio Review 1: The Sirens of Time, by Nicholas Briggs (1999) – 8/10

Story Summary (Spoilers!):
Gallifrey is under siege by a powerful force known as ‘The Knights of Velyshaa’. This cataclysm has been made possible by the mysterious ‘Sirens of Time’ – temporal beings who thrive on energies released when the course of history and web of time is altered. To sustain themselves, they have manipulated the 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors at various points in time to
unwittingly do precisely that. However, the three Doctors are aided and enlightened to this by another trans-temporal species – the Temperon. Once they know the truth, the Doctors set the Temperon free to contain the Sirens at the beginning of Time, saving both Gallifrey, and preventing the destruction of history.

Story Placement:
5th Doctor: Between The Five Doctors and Ringpullworld (TV Episodes: Between The Five Doctors and Warriors of the Deep)
6th Doctor: Between The Spectre of Lanyon Moor and The Apocalypse Element (in Instruments of Darkness, it is implied that Evelyn was trapped in the TARDIS while The Doctor visited the Kurgon Wonder) (TV Episodes: Between The Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani)
7th Doctor: Between Return of the Daleks and Master (TV Episodes: Between Survival and The TV Movie)

Review:
As far as Doctor Who on audio is concerned, The Sirens of Time is as good a place to start as any other. Although it wasn’t the first official Doctor Who audio adventure I heard, I still have strong memories of going into the Forbidden Planet London Sci-fi shop for the very first time, and seeing brand new Doctor Who to buy for the first time in ages, albeit in CD form. The date was September 1999, and it was The Sirens of Time that had entranced me. Of course for fans who have only known Doctor Who as it is today, with regular new episodes both on TV and audio CD, it may not seem as big a deal. For me however, I first became a fan in 1995, and grew up with Doctor Who in what is now termed as ‘The Wilderness Years’. The 1996 TV Movie, and The Ghosts of N-Space were the first brand new Doctor Who I had ever experienced on transmission, so before The Sirens of Time was released, it seemed like Doctor Who would never come back. Of course there were multiple fiction books too – the New Adventures, Missing Adventures, and the BBC’s own book ranges, but it just wasn’t the same as experiencing an actual production of Doctor Who. So when the newly-formed BIG Finish Productions announced The Sirens of Time back in July 1999, there was a justifiable amount of hype amongst the Doctor Who community, not least because of the returning Doctors – Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, who was my favourite Doctor at the time.
Looking back in retrospect, it’s surprising quite how much strong criticism The Sirens of Time has come under since its initial release, and I for one can’t quite see why. While it may be true that The Sirens of Time is a very simplistic story that helps Nicholas Briggs and the BIG Finish team to find their feet in producing new Doctor Who adventures, as it is also true that they would all write and produce numerous magnificent and superior audios in the future, I believe it stands reasonably well on its own as a good work in its own right.
Firstly, the story itself is, for the most part, quite imaginative and captures the attention from the very beginning. As well as that, the story is also intelligently and well-structured, with each of the three Doctors having an episode to themselves, before they all join up to share the limelight in the final part.
Sadly, the first episode greatly lacks the promise of the later ones, with a seemingly irrelevant assassination of an old Velyshaan war criminal - Sancroff, which The Doctor just happens to be stuck in the middle of, with which what seems to be at first, a promising new companion – Elenya. This could have worked if it had been a character piece around Sancroff, exploring what had brought him to his imminent terminal fate. Instead, we’re treated to the usual clich├ęd Doctor-assistant antics (damsel in distress, running away from crashing spacecraft/advancing robot assassins, etc), and paper-thin, one-dimensional characters that nearly verge into pantomime. Still, it’s entertaining, and the 7th Doctor is thankfully not as zany as some of his early TV appearances.
The second episode focuses on the 5th Doctor, who finds himself stranded on a German Submarine in the First World War, and urged by the desperate besieged Time Lords of the future to return to the TARDIS as fast as possible. Here at last the story starts to engage with more substantial plotting, as The Doctor has to at first dupe, and then force the crew the Submarine to take him back to the TARDIS. In between attempts though, he suffers mysterious assassination attempts by the Time Lords. The introduction of a little action and mystery into the continuing storyline certainly makes this episode more interesting than the last, but it never really takes off beyond showing how well the production can recreate the period, and the 5th Doctor on audio.
Thankfully, that changes greatly with the next episode, in which the adventure raises its game significantly. The 6th Doctor, also mysteriously stranded from his TARDIS, finds himself caught up in a disaster, as a space delegation investigating the “Kurgon Wonder” is suddenly swept up in massive waves of Time distortion, and The Doctor has to solve the mystery of the Legend of the Temperon, before the Time distortion finishes them off. Furthermore, not everybody is who they appear. This is a delightful little short adventure that feels very traditional for Doctor Who, and has a touch of ‘base-under-siege’ about it.
Of course, the solutions and truths behind these mini-adventures are only revealed in the final episode, and it is here where The Sirens of Time reaches its stride. In many ways this is due to the coming together of the 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors, who liven up the production enormously, and between them create the most engaging multi-Doctor ensemble since the days when Patrick Troughton verbally-sparred with Jon Pertwee in The Three Doctors. This successful ensemble would be reunited again in Zagreus, and prove how brilliantly they go together once more. Uniquely for a multi-Doctor adventure, the three Doctors all share the lead in the story, but the 6th Doctor ultimately shines through best. I suppose you could argue that would be because of how badly the character was treated in his respective TV Episodes, but I would suggest it’s more complicated than that. However, I will leave that discussion for a future 6th Doctor audio. In short, the 6th Doctor will prove himself a much better Doctor than many have given him credit for.
Despite all the interesting ideas and entertaining episodes however, The Sirens of Time still partly suffers from being the first, and perhaps most inexperienced production of the Doctor Who range produced by BIG Finish. The script is as simplistic as the story itself, and many of the supporting characters feel as one-dimensional as they are clich├ęd. The dialogue also seems rather basic too. Although to Nicholas Briggs’ credit, the script is very well structured, despite the padding in the first episode, and all the Doctors feel just right. However, this script is/was also a massive positive step for Nicholas Briggs, and he should be congratulated for coming a long way from his other earlier written work for both BBV Productions, and his own Audio Visuals Doctor Who fan audio productions, all of which didn’t come close to the good standard written here. Of course, since The Sirens of Time, Nicholas Briggs has developed and written much better and greater scripts for Doctor Who on audio, but for both his and BIG Finish’s official debut Doctor Who adventure, you couldn’t ask for a more assured entrance.
What helps glaze over some of the script’s faults though, is firstly the professional sound design, which makes the whole production have such an interesting and believable aural landscape, but as BIG Finish fans know, the sound design would only get better, and even more amazing in future releases. Secondly, and most importantly though, the whole production is greatly strengthened by the wonderful performances of the cast. Although it proves to be Colin Baker’s show overall, and Sylvester McCoy is still feeling his way back into the 7th Doctor, there isn’t any bad or average performance among them. Even Maggie Stables as the witch-like Ruthley excels. And in a way it’s this magnificent team effort that makes The Sirens of Time such a joy to dip into. Sure, it’s not perfect, but with such enthusiasm and hard work behind it, The Sirens of Time set the foundations (that today we very much take for granted) for what good Doctor Who should be like on audio.
Although the first episode with the 7th Doctor is rather basic and dull, each successive episode is a big improvement on the last, with the final episode being the highlight of the entire story. So if you do have the patience to stick it out, The Sirens of Time is really quite a satisfying, and greatly entertaining listen. I just wish more people felt that way.

Score: 8/10