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Winter for the Adept

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #10
Richard Radcliffe

This highly unusual tale starts with a diary entry, read by one of the girls many years in the future. The atmosphere is one taken right out of a Jane Austen book - hardly usual Dr Who domain. I really thought we were in Austen's time period as a result - but that's not the case. It is December (3 days before Christmas) 1963 at a Girl's Finishing school in the Swiss Alps. 2 students (Alison and Peril) are trying to escape. Enter Nyssa, teleported to the snowy mountains. She is helped by Londo Mollari, sorry Lieutenant Sandos - and taken back to the school. The school is being plagued by poltergeists. Jane Austen, Dickens, teleportation, Babylon 5, Sapphire and Steel! This is not a normal Dr Who story at all!

After the promising beginning that is the 1st episode, the rest of the story is average. Andrew Cartmel has written a ghostly script with Sci-Fi overtones. It works okay as a ghost story, when the Sci-Fi stuff arrives it starts going downhill. Nonetheless the early episodes contain much to like. My personal favourite bit was the moving piano chasing the Doctor - like to see that one on screen! The supernatural elements are well portrayed by Big Finish, but I never got the feel of this old, gothic school they were in. The music was quite haunting, particularly the piano playing by itself, but I can't say I was ever freaked out by any of it. The "almost Christmas" setting promised more seasonal stuff too eg, Dickens, but in fact we get none at all. It's just that date to show there are not many people are in the School!

Nyssa has lots of things to do, and has her best story of the audios. The Doctor is on top form too, more inquisitive here than ever. Davison is a great Doctor in any form of Doctor Who. The rest of the cast are as diverse as they are interesting. The 2 girls, Alison and Peril, are the best. India Fisher, due to become the 8th Doctor's companion - Charley, shows her skills in the audio medium. Peter Jurasik, him of Londo Mollari fame, uses that peculiar accent of his to good effect. As the only male presence, (apart from the Doctor) the potentially disturbing notion of him involved with one of the girls, is handled with care. The school mistresses are weird. The religious fanaticism of Miss Tremayne is so over the top, its too extreme. By contrast Miss Maupassant, the French mistress is timid in the extreme. Neither is ideal teacher material. Maybe I have missed the point, I don't know!

Overall quite an oddball this one. It is entertaining in its own way. It just didn't fully utilize the isolated setting, and the talents of the outstanding cast as well as I would have liked. 6/10

Paul Clarke

Big Finish's tenth Doctor Who audio adventure is notably different from 'The Land of the Dead', in that it is decidedly not a Doctor Who story in the traditional format. Anyone who has read Andrew Cartmel's 'War' trilogy will immediately recognise some typical Cartmel touches, such as the use of psychic abilities in humans, and the late introduction of the Doctor into the proceedings. But for the first time, Cartmel writes for a Doctor other than the Seventh, and it makes for a refreshing experience.

During his tenure as script-editor on Doctor Who, Cartmel became known - for better or for worse - for casting the Doctor in the role of a manipulator who often arrives at his destination with foreknowledge of what is to unfold. This approach works for the Seventh Doctor, but would feel distinctly unusual for the Fifth; as a result, Cartmel compromises in writing 'Winter For the Adept'. Unusually for this Doctor's era, the eponymous Time Lord does not appear until almost the end of Episode One, with Nyssa, accidentally teleported to the Alps, let to carry the action. When the Doctor does arrive, it is into a situation that he has no foreknowledge of, but Cartmel allows him to swiftly take control; learning of the putative poltergeist activity at the school, he spends the rest of the story methodically uncovering the truth, eventually discovering the role of the Spillagers. Significantly, whilst he does not initially predict their involvement, he does already know of them and deals with relatively easily once exposed, destroying their entire fleet in the process. Yet Cartmel writes the Doctor so well, that he allows the Fifth Doctor to take a more proactive role than usual whilst remaining true to the character. Davison rises to the challenge with ease, conveying the Doctor's usual enthusiasm and keen curiosity very well, whilst also easily adapting the unusual level of authority that he commands here. For once, the Fifth Doctor is not caught out, given nasty surprises, or forced into a desperate until the end of the story, and when he does find himself dealing with the Spillager invasion, he remains a lot calmer than he often did on screen. Davison - and the script - makes it work, and it provides a slight but welcome new slant on this particular incarnation.

With the Doctor absent for almost the first quarter of the story, Nyssa gets plenty to do. Thrust into an alien environment and forced to cope on her own until the Doctor arrives, she proves resourceful, covering her lack of knowledge of Earth customs and colloquialisms adequately and quickly befriending her new acquaintances. Once the Doctor arrives, Nyssa too is cast in a new light, as the character's indignation at being unexpectedly teleported into a snowdrift makes creates a relationship with the Doctor that is more spiky than usual. As the story progresses, their usual dynamic is restored, but again it provides a refreshing new slant for the character. In addition, Nyssa's character is developed a little more beyond what was seen on screen, as her psychic abilities once more come to the fore. Having been touched upon in 'Time-Flight' (and possibly 'Kinda', depending on exactly why she suddenly requires forty-eight hours of delta-induced sleep), this was revisited to an extent in 'The Land of the Dead', and will ultimately be addressed in full in 'Primeval'.

The actual plot of 'Winter For the Adept' is actually rather predictable; given that this is Doctor Who, it is inevitable that some pseudo-scientific explanation for the poltergeist will be arrived at, and psychic abilities was my first guess when I originally listened to it. However, Cartmel adds some interesting twists by revealing that it is not one psychic supporting character who is responsible, but three; furthermore, by revealing one of these to be a deliberately ill-defined energy being with the memories and abilities of a long dead climber, he turns expectations around since despite the technobabble, Harding Wellman essentially is a ghost. The revelation that hostile aliens are involved is also unsurprising, and one of my criticisms of this story is that they are almost superfluous; with the Spillagers not appearing until mid way through Episode Four, they feel rather like token monsters.

But 'Winter For the Adept' works far better than I would expect it to. The first person narrative at beginning and end immediately put me off the first time I listened to the story; first person narratives often mean narrative short cuts, an easy and convenient method for a writer to dump information without working it into the actual dialogue. In this case, it is used to tell the listener the location and the date, and provide some background on several of the characters. But as with the potentially predictable plot, Cartmel recognizes the potential shortcomings and keeps this narrative to a minimum; he later proves more than capable of providing plot exposition through convincing dialogue, and rather than using the introduction to take short-cuts, he uses it to set the scene. And the atmosphere of 'Winter For the Adept' is its triumph. Despite the seemingly supernatural goings on and several deaths (Miss Tremayne and the Helicopter crew), 'Winter For the Adept' unfolds at a leisurely pace that nevertheless maintains interest by providing carefully judged revelations at regular points. In addition, the production massively enhances the atmosphere, the music and sound effects being superbly deployed; when necessary, the effects of howling winds effortlessly invoke the feeling of a snowy mountainside, the explosion of the helicopter sounds just right, and the piano-based music throughout taps into the mood of the characters inside the school brilliantly, reflecting fear, confusion, melancholia, and even joy as required. And speaking of sound effects, the Spillagers might be feel like they've been stuffed into the plot at the end as an afterthought, but their gleefully malevolent voices are eerily well realized. I know I sometimes complain about villains who are portrayed as one-dimensional personifications of evil, but every now and then I do rather enjoy it…

The acting of the guest cast is generally of a high standard, although I have serious issues with two of the characters. Miss Tremayne, a God-fearing fanatic who talks of corruption and attempts murder in the name of the Bible is a ridiculous cliché, although Sally Faulkner gives her all in the role. Harding Wellman, despite being technically dead, is another cliché, coming across as a stereotypical upper class twit; whether this is the fault of the script, or Christopher Webber, or both, I'm not sure. On the other hand, Peter Jurasik, better known to science fiction fans as Londo Molari of Babylon 5 fame, has a perfect voice for audio and is great here, if possibly slightly wasted. And Hannah Dickinson, Liz Sutherland, and the rather familiar India Fisher all put in decent performances as Maupassant, Alison, and Peril. Having said which, it's difficult not to feel like Charley Pollard is present, for obvious reasons!

On the whole, 'Winter For the Adept' has a rather experimental feel after 'The Land of the Dead', and rises above its shortcomings admirably, as well as continuing to make good use of the regulars.

Lawrence Conquest

A perennial problem for supernatural Who stories is that the Doctor is such a committed rationalist that there’s always some half-baked scientific explanation wheeled out Scooby-Doo fashion in the last episode. Winter For the Adept features some spectacularly ludicrous explanations, with a plot depending on aliens bringing together an epileptic ghost, a telepath and a telekinetic to open a dimensional wormhole for their invasion fleet (we wont ask how the two alien scouts managed to get to Earth and set all this up before the wormhole even existed). The aliens themselves are pointless generic warmongers with a tendency to spout bad action movie dialogue. Just what we don’t need - another bloody ‘aliens invade Earth’ story!

Before things completely implode in episode 4 Winter For the Adept is a reasonable, if plodding ghost story. Once we’re past a refreshingly different voice over framing device, the situation soon settles down into a repetitious poltergeist tale. The low point is a fairly ridiculous scene where the Doctor and Nyssa are chased by an angry piano before being attacked by a ski pole for episode 2’s cliffhanger.

Peter Davison gives the poor script his all, but the other characters fail to engage. Nyssa is in a mood from the outset, and her constantly argumentative attitude to the Doctor feels as though the role were written for Tegan. Headmistress Tremayne is so loopy as to be a caricature rather than a character, and her very French assistant fares little better. Their charges are more convincing, though distractingly India Fisher plays Peril identically to later companion Charley. I’ve no idea who featured actor Peter Jurasik is in TV-land, but his performance here is pretty dire.

So, a lacklustre play that implodes in the last episode. One for the Davison completists only, you’d think Andrew Cartmell would have some idea on how to produce a decent script, but a more appropriate title would have been Winter For the Inept…

Nigel Parry

During the last three years of its televisual life, Andrew Cartmel helped bring to Dr Who The Kandyman, The Cheetah people, Ace and characters called Bin Liner and Fire Escape.

After the return of the Daleks, Ice Warriors and the Brigadiar in recent Big Finish audios, the time is now for a release that requires no preconceptions - other than the controversial authorship of the afore mentioned Mr Cartmel.
Spoilers follow...
The whole story is framed by a sort of prologue and epilogue from an older Alison Speers (one of the focal characters in the story). Nothing in this play quite lives upto the sumptuous first episode, which sets the scene nicely. A tetchy Nyssa, lost in the snow, meets up with Lt Sandoz, superbly played by 'Babylon 5's' Peter Jurasik, who brings her back to the Girl's Finishing School where the bulk of the story is set. There, she meets the waspish Miss Tremayne, played by Sally Faulkner from the Troughton story 'The Invasion'. Whispers and mutterings of a poltergeist abound, and the tension is effectively built-up until the manifestation toward the end of episode 1. However, the manifestation is that of the TARDIS, and with it, Peter Davison's consistently superb fifth Doctor.

Having said this, the only two slight niggles with the entire story crop up in this opening episode. Firstly - and this may just be a personal thing - upon meeting Lt Sandoz, one of the first things Nyssa tells him, as if she were discussing the weather or the price of a swiss-roll, is that she has just materialised from the TARDIS, and that it is a ship that travels between worlds, and that she is in fact not from earth. When Sandoz seems surprised by this revelation, she even asks what that matter is! One of the things that always seemed to prove the stupidity of many companions (and occasional Doctors), is when they casually drop into a conversation that they travel in time, or come from the future or another world, and seem surprised when the character on the receiving end of the information raises an eyebrow. Ace's insistence on carrying a ghetto-blaster down a street in 1963, years before such things existed, is a good example of this. Can she not appreciate the anachronism? Maybe, as I said, this is just a personal thing.

Secondly, as recently as 'Phantasmagoria' (the second Big Finish release), the fifth Doctor waxed lyrical about being a rationalist when confronted with the character Samual Holywell's hypothesis on spirits and ghosts and the like; here, he seems very quick to surmise that, 'It would seem we have some kind of genuine haunting here.' A little inconsistent, unless his earlier adventure taught the Doctor to have a more open mind. As the story unfolds, the 'ghost' is explained away as merely a preparation for the arrival of the Spillagers, a new alien threat. This is mildly disappointing, to be honest. Wouldn't it be interesting if, at some time in the future, an unexplained and mysterious being actually did turn out to be a ghost?

Anyway, that aside, 'Winter' is great fun. Slightly wacky in places (especially in the character of Harding Wellman) - and wackiness was always the trademark of the McCoy era. But, as 'Spectre of Lanyon Moor' proved last month, featuring a particular Doctor in situations more typical of another, is no bad thing. Flexibility has always been what Doctor Who is all about.
Special mention, too, must go to the character of Peril Bellamy, as she is played by India Fisher, who is to play Paul McGann's companion in his four plays early in 2001. Here, she is feisty, precocious and great fun. Obviously she is playing a different character, but her inclusion certainly bodes well for the future. She rather outshines poor old Nyssa, to be honest. The fifth Doctor, however, is as always, humourous, absent-minded and thoroughly likeable - just don't accept if he offers you some of his 'special' tea!

Simon Catlow

Winter For The Adept sees the return of the McCoy era script editor and author of the exceptional 'War' trilogy of New Adventures Andrew Cartmel return to the world of Doctor Who with a Fifth Doctor and Nyssa story for Big Finish.

By reason of an experiment of the Doctor's that goes awry, Nyssa finds herself alone stranded in the Swiss Alps of 1963. After being rescued by a member of the local police force Lt. Peter Sandoz, she gets taken to the only building in the area - a Young Ladies Finishing School which has been snowed in by the blizzard, where strange, mysterious events have been occurring and the only apparent explanation seems to be supernatural in nature. After Nyssa and the rest of the occupants of the building witness something very disturbing, the Doctor's arrival seems fortuitously timed.

Every one of Cartmel's previous novels for Doctor Who featured the Seventh Doctor, and given the fact that he was the script editor who formulated the so called 'Cartmel Masterplan' to put the mystery back into Doctor Who, it seems an odd choice that he has written a Fifth Doctor story rather than a Seventh, but the result is one of the most interesting Fifth Doctor stories that Big Finish have produced.

Cartmel's story takes the old idea of a haunted house and gives it an usual Doctor Who style twist. As well as having one of the most intriguing titles to feature on a Big Finish audio, Cartmel has composed an intriguing plot. He chooses an interesting way to begin the story and set the scene, by having one of the main characters narrate a flashback sequence and then continues to have the younger version of the character act as a narrator throughout the majority of the first part. This approach works to a certain degree as it helps to set up the scene of the story being in the Academy, but it does deny the listener the chance to formulate opinions on the characters without having the narrators opinions first.

Key to the story is the idea that a Poltergeist is at large, although the Doctor is quite sure that there is a more scientific explanation for what is happening. The problem with this though is that it becomes necessary for the characters to describe what is happening when inanimate objects start to try and attack them. The idea of this would be easy to convey on television as it would be readily apparent what they were doing. But on audio, it's much more difficult to convey that a ski pole is rising up and moving towards someone on sound effects alone, and so this leads to overly descriptive dialogue such as 'They're rising up. They're floating into the air' which doesn't really help to convey the terror that such a spectacle would inflict on the person seeing it. This happens on several occasions throughout the story and although it doesn't spoil it to any great degree, it does become annoying. It would have been very difficult to convey what is actually happening in these scenes without this descriptive dialogue, but it would have been better if some of this dialogue had been toned down a little and not been so overtly descriptive.

Youthful was always the charge made against Peter Davison's Doctor on television, and here his performance is hard to reconcile with the way he was played on television. It's not just that he sounds older, which of course he does, but that he seems a much more mature version of the Doctor, whose less prone to the outbursts of anger against his companions that he was prone to in the television episodes. This works well in this audio and Davison's performance is excellent. Sarah Sutton is also good as Nyssa, particularly in the first episode when the Doctor isn't present for the majority of the episode.

Peter Jurasik is the special guest star of Winter For The Adept, and his performance is excellent. Jurasik, best known as Ambassador (then latterly Prime Minster and then Emperor) Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic in the epic science fiction series Babylon 5, puts in a superb performance as Lt. Peter Sandoz and succeeds to convey him as the local policeman who seems very suspicious of everyone.

India Fisher makes her first appearance in the audios here as Peril Bellamy, a girl who knows what she likes and does whatever is necessary to get it. Her performance here isn't as good as in the later McGann stories where she is simply excellent as Charley, but it is a good performance and she shows what a good actress she is. Liz Sutherland plays Alison Speers who acts as the introductory narrator in the first episode, and she forms a very good partnership with Fisher. The cast is also notable for the inclusion of The Invasion's Sally Faulkner who is very convincing as the slightly disturbed Headmistress Miss Tremayne.

The music in Winter For The Adept, provided by Russell Stone, is often very melancholic and this feeling helps the production to gain an atmosphere of this tone. The production sound effects are also excellent here, with the sound of the blizzards being very realistic and only being let down a little by the actors not really sounding unaffected by it, but apart from this it is a very successful production.

The overall result of Winter For The Adept is a success, if not a resounding one. The sound effects and the setting blend to create a very evocative tale and the performances of Davison, Sutton, Jurasik, Fisher and Sutherland (in particular) help to ensure that it is a good story, but saying that there isn't a bad performance amongst the cast. Cartmel's script is good as you would expect from a former script editor of the television show, but it is a shame that the overly descriptive dialogue was necessary to convey the images of the scenes that Cartmel wanted. The sudden change of direction that takes place in the last episode seems a little out of place, but it works and concludes the story in a satisfactory fashion. Winter For The Adept falls short of being a classic entry into the audio line of Big Finish, but nevertheless it is a very good one, and certainly one of the most interesting stories that Big Finish have produced.