Friday, 17 October 2014

Canon And Crocodiles: Review of Big Finish Audio ‘The Skull Of Sobek’

Doctor: Eighth (Paul McGann)
Companion(s): Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith)
Writer(s): Marc Platt
Director: Barnaby Edwards
Producer: Nicholas Briggs
Duration:  1 episode,  60 minutes.

Paul McGann was the first ‘new’ Doctor of my early Whovian days. In 1994, having completely caught up to the past 31 years of televised adventures (with the assistance of the telesnap archives printed in ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ to fill in the missing stories, and a full devotion to the Target novelizations to fill in the rest), I eagerly followed along with each item of news regarding what would eventually become the FOX Television Movie. Many Whovians malign that movie; they appeared to have missed the entire point of its existence as a ‘backdoor pilot’ in hopes of launching a new series. I didn't mind the oh-so-shocking kiss between The Doctor and his companion Grace;  it was a wonderful, innocent moment of two people expressing joy. I didn't mind the reference to the chameleon circuit as a ‘cloaking device’, to liberally borrow a term from ‘Star Trek’. After all, the Borg certainly had much in common with the Cybermen, so turnabout is fair play. In fact, both myself and Steve Lake, the other host of ‘The Whostorian’ podcast, will point to this single movie as the best place for people not familiar in the least with ‘Doctor Who’ to obtain a crash course. Call it selfish on my part, but one of the reasons I do so is the hope that the old adage of ‘you always remember your first Doctor’ for Whovians will ring true, and we can mint new fans of Paul McGann’s wonderful Eighth Doctor close to twenty years after the character’s first appearance.

Though the FOX TV movie failed to lead to a series, it refreshed the spinoff material and allowed for new stories to be told with a new Doctor, new companions, and new destinations. Future blog entries will review the BBC Books adventures of this Doctor (they aren't all as bad as ‘War Of The Daleks’, after all), who remains a long-serving Doctor in spinoff material; so much so, in fact, there has been more licensed work created featuring this incarnation than any others! Today we turn our attention to an audio story, ‘The Skull Of Sobek by Big Finish Productions. They began as the brainchild of Whovians who first ventured into audio/visual work with unlicensed, fan-made productions. Some of these I was fortunate enough to listen to on cassette tapes while sitting around local ‘Doctor Who’ fan club meetings, and they impressed me even then; it was pointed out to me their work strongly influenced the creation of Eleventh Hour Productions, the Newfoundland-based audio/visual club that would produce their own ‘Doctor Who’ movies. By the early 2000’s, Big Finish Productions had obtained the appropriate rights to produce officially licensed stories, and they were handed arguably the biggest one of all to work on: chronicling the future of the current, BBC-approved Doctor. The Eighth Doctor wasn’t fronting any new television movies or TV series and it appeared unlikely he ever would. ‘Doctor Who’, as it had been since 1989, was dead as far as the BBC were concerned; they exploited what they could from the FOX TV movie, farmed the license out to a select few, and moved on.  Thankfully, Big Finish Productions had formed from fandom itself, and there was none better to handle The Doctor’s future than his own devoted fanbase.

To that end, ‘The Eighth Doctor Adventures’ audio range was created, featuring Paul McGann as The Doctor, with a succession of actors as various companions created exclusively for the range paired with him. ‘Doctor Who’ was back, just in a different media form than the one he’d enjoyed for decades.  Those who had watched the mini episode ‘The Night Of The Doctor’ featuring McGann’s return to the role on-screen for the first time in almost twenty years are only now catching up to the fact that he’s been doing full seasons of stories in Big Finish for almost as long. That mini episode has sparked a renewal of interest in the Eighth Doctor; thousands of fans even signed petitions directed to the BBC to green light a TV spinoff series featuring McGann. Whether or not that ever becomes a reality nobody knows at present. Time will tell. But it must have warmed the hearts of everyone at Big Finish as well as their legion of fans when McGann salutes his companions on-screen. It was one small step for canonicity, one giant leap for harmonization ‘of’ canon.

For far too long, foolish and stubborn fans have belittled the Eighth Doctor, refusing to allow him into their own personal viewpoint of canon for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Personally, the moment he regenerated from the Seventh Doctor, I accepted him. The fact BBC then went out of their way to wrap the ‘Doctor Who’ brand around him with licensed merchandise, including a book and comic strip range, was icing on the cake. Then his first brief appearance in ‘The Next Doctor’ episode of the TV series should have hammered it home to these stubborn fans. Still, there have been holdouts! ‘The Night Of The Doctor’ itself and all it does in seven minutes of screen time to enhance the Eighth Doctor, provide a crucial bridge to the current series as well as acknowledging the Big Finish range, really and truly should finally, inevitably, stamp out any dissenters.

‘Doctor Who’ is unique in that unlike ‘Star Wars’, nobody seems to be going out of their way to denounce licensed material, nor arbitrarily deem entire reams of expanded universe material ‘non-canon’ after the fact. Years and even decades after ’Star Wars’ fans filled the coffers of the creators, these creators in turn simply decided to turn a blind eye on decades of material enjoyed by their devoted fan base.  Those actions are shameful, in my opinion; the second a cheque is cashed and material is purchased, then a fan, any fan, has the right to consider it all canon. The Eighth Doctor is, was, and always will be a canon Doctor. To suggest otherwise is to be boorish, pedantic, and insufferable.  We as Whovians should just be grateful that there isn't some Almighty Creator standing on an Olympus made of our money casting lightning bolts of banishment on all our spinoff material. The Big Finish audios, in my opinion, are canon. It seems, if all the clues, hints, ideas, concepts, characters and themes borrowed or adapted from them into the new series is any indication, that men like Steven Moffatt agree with me on that.

Now, then…on to the review. This story, ‘The Skull Of Sobek’, is from 2008, so right away, on the production side, it’s slightly dated. Since its release, advances in audio production have been made and the more current Big Finish stories that I've heard (such as ‘The Spectre Of Lanyon Moor,’ which Steve and myself reviewed on the podcast episode #73), contain far more scope in terms of replicating ‘real world’ environments. There are, unfortunately, moments in ‘Sobek’ in which far too many sounds vie for attention at once,. This makes it difficult to mentally reconcile a mind’s eye viewpoint of the story.  Some of the dialogue sounds ‘stagey’; actors reading lines in a sound booth rather than characters living and breathing and existing in the listener’s mind’s eye. It’s a fault of Big Finish unfortunately throughout the range, but again, it appears to have been addressed and corrected in the most recent releases.

The story itself, written by veteran TV series writer Marc Platt who wrote ‘Ghost Light’ and who has penned a tremendous amount of other Big Finish audio stories, is tightly written. It centers on the long and bloody personal conflict between two alien members of a race of crocodilians, last of the planet Sobek who blame one another for its downfall.  To the Sanctuary of Imperfect Symmetry on the planet Indigo 3 they decide on a final battle, individually choosing their ‘champions’ to battle for them. Naturally, those ‘champions’ are The Doctor and his companion, Lucie Miller! It takes The Doctor to wade through the self-preservation of the religious order caught in the middle of this war, by literally wading through the hidden waters in the lower levels that house the giant and merciless Old Prince (played by Giles Watling, brother of Deborah Watling who played Victoria in the Second Doctor’s era, and son of Jack Watling, who played Travers in two episodes featuring The Great Intelligence of the same era). Along the way, he discovers the metaphysical ‘Skull Of Sobek’, a religious artifact that is amplifying the situation worldwide, causing chaos and threatening to destroy the carefully constructed Sanctuary, which stands alone against several gathering armies at its gates, all eager to reign down fire and brimstone in the name of appeasing a holy relic from a destroyed world….

The story relies on science-fiction parallels to real-world religious orders, dogma, and trappings. Characters read from books meant to be bibles, invoking the wrath of ‘Sobek’ and foretelling of events to come in parables and prose. While that aspect of it can grate at times, given its rather ham-fisted and obvious parodying of the secretive and mystical nature of real-world religious institutions, the secondary characters belonging to the order are well acted. Abbot Absolute (Art Malik) is pitch-perfect as a stentorian, authoritative head of the order who absolutely loathes the idea of not only actually providing shelter to those in aid as advertised for fear it will cause him harm down the road, but as a character who gets his just desserts for it as well. Sister Chalice (Barbara Flynn) is equally old-school in a ruler-on-the-knuckles way;  Chalice is perfectly happy to allow Absolute to founder with his male charges, but retains Lucie as a ‘sister’ under her own guidance, and unlike Absolute she genuinely seems to care for Lucie’s well-being, even going so far as to attempt to convince Lucie to stay in the order after the threat has passed and The Doctor is naturally eager to take his leave of this world. For its muddled nature as a less-than-straightforward adventure that is at times hard to follow, the guest cast rise admirably to the occasion and there are no weak links.

Lucie Miller is a spirited and head-strong companion, who has the potential to be one of the best of the expanded universe (this story marks my first introduction to the character). Like the best companions of screen and prose, she compliments rather than overshadows The Doctor. Her relationship with McGann’s Doctor is not (so far) fraught with the tired and overused sexual tension hook, nor is she depicted as laughing at deadly enemies nor ridiculing The Doctor’s decisions, two irritating and all-too-common mistakes made with companions, especially those featured in adventures written by their creators who sometimes forget the name of the series is ‘Doctor Who’ not ‘Smart Mouthed Self Aware Companion’. Time will tell how her character further develops, as again this is early days for her to my ears, but I immediately liked her and her banter with McGann was witty and intelligent. She also faces some personal demons in this story (admitting a childhood fear of crocodiles and now being faced with giant, walking and talking versions of them), and Sheridan Smith imbues Lucie with plenty of personality and character.

Paul McGann is always a joy to hear as The Doctor. His incarnation is fun, lively, intelligent and full of wit, charm, and bravado. McGann has become a veteran of Big Finish audio and the results are easy to hear; at this point, he is so comfortable in the role that there are no timing mistakes, no miscues, and no tonal surprises. Paired with a good companion in a well written story with plenty of stuff for him to do and say, McGann shines.

In summary, ‘The Skull Of Sobek’ has few faults, but those that are there are somewhat glaring. It suffers from the ‘been there, done that’ nature of ‘Doctor Who’; after what is now 50 full years of adventures across several mediums, there are bound to be stories that feel like re-treads and ‘Skull Of Sobek’ immediately draws comparison to ‘The Awakening’ TV episode ( church setting, alien device/creature feeding off negative energy). The crocodilian aliens are not given much to do other than be rather one-note ‘baddies’; there is mild exploration of their motives, which include healthy doses of survivor’s guilt over being the last of a once-great planet that they tell Lucie equated to ‘paradise’ (seeing a representation of it, Lucie readily agrees). But any other character development is downplayed in favour of their single-minded devotion to warfare and revenge, and of finishing the last great battle between them that cost them their planet to begin with. It is their trashing about, lumbering along, and splashing in water that causes the majority of the issues with the story itself in terms of understanding what is going on; the sound effects used to convey their size and shape and actions are just turned up too loudly and literally wash out the other effects and dialogue when they are around. Perhaps a choice of a different ‘giant creature baddie’ would have been better; giant crocodiles are loud, unsubtle, and probably useless in the long run as their grandiose design is lost completely in an audio story.

On the plus side, at one hour in duration, this story is quite bite-sized, to use a terrible pun. I listened to it in one day in two half hour intervals, and it was a complete adventure which had little padding to speak of.  It was later re-broadcast on BBC Radio 7, in conjunction with an increase in interest for all things ‘Doctor Who’ in the wake of the revival of the TV series.  The hour-long format works well for the audio range, and I look forward to hearing more of these from Big Finish. My final gripe, which is also minor, is the theme music is a strange mix of several previous theme tunes, all thrown together. The classic ‘stinger’ effect is overused, being repeated several times. This doesn’t mesh well with the hints of the electronic 1980’s version which in turn fades in from the original huffy, chugging 1960’s version. The other classic Doctors stories have either chosen theme tunes from their respective eras or else have defaulted to the Tom Baker era tune, which is a perennial favourite of most Whovians. Granted, perhaps in this case the clearance to re-use the FOX TV theme couldn’t be obtained, but it’s a shame the stories are hampered right from the start with such a confusing and disappointing mix; pick one and be done with it, I feel.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, I’m giving this story a solid 7 out of 10.

‘The Skull Of Sobek’ can be purchased online through Big Finish Productions’ website,, along with all other ‘Doctor Who’ audio plays. Fans can also follow them for news updates on both ‘Doctor Who’ releases as well as other licensed work such as ‘Blake’s 7’ and ‘The Avengers’ (the British show, not the Marvel movies…god, you kids today and not respecting the classics!), on Twitter @bigfinish.

I can be contacted directly on Twitter as well, @Marshalllush or @TheWhostorian, and by email at and I welcome any and all comments and certainly love review suggestions.  You can also hear me discuss everything ‘Doctor Who’ with Steve Lake on The Whostorian podcast, just click the links on this website to hear the most recent episode as well as our archive.

Until next time, to borrow a quote from The Doctor in ‘Skull Of Sobek’, I’m not a champion..I’m more of a general busybody! – Cheers, Shannon.

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