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Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #41
Nigel Parry

Previously, the writer of this story had penned one of the best Tomorrow People audios for Big Finish, entitled 'The Ghosts of Mendez'. So what happened here?

This story is not particularly bad, it's just extremely odd and shows alarmingly bad handling of the characters of the regulars.

This would be justifiable if the story was experimental in nature but it isn't. It is a rather traditional (and there's nothing wrong with that), quite gritty tale very slightly reminiscent of the superior 'Caves of Androzani'.

The direction does not help clarify matters either. There are rather too many sounds being thrown at the listener at any given time and there are times when dialogue is drowned out by it all. There's also a curious moment in part one when one of the Pakhars seems to greet the Doctor twice in what appears to be a sound design problem. I don't feel clever noticing this - in fairness, Big Finish's sound design is usually so good, that the very occasional blip is therefore more noticeable.

Whilst the Doctor is gleefully making deals with villainous Pakhars (voiced by their creator Gary Russell), Peri seems in a very strange mood. There's no reason why she shouldn't be, I suppose, but she seems rather more crude and flirtatious than usual (in retrospect, not a bad piece of character development ! No, I jest).

It seems that Erimem, in only her third story is truest to form here, although comparisons to Leela are evident.

Possibly most controversial, however, are two entirely separate characters.

The late Glyn Owen plays Commander Harlon in a harsh but mischievous way, laughing at jokes about catching cancer from the atmosphere and appearing to very nearly rape Erimem. Although the scene in question was trimmed, that seems clearly the intention. Not only is Erimem virtually unaffected by this, and seems characteristically cheerful later on in the story, but Harlon is ultimately presented as a sort of 'good guy'.

There is a difference between, for example, the Cybermen destroying a fictitious planet, and one of the Doctor's companions almost getting raped. The former is clearly fantasy, but the latter is horribly real. As the Director has admitted in 'The Inside Story' book, the scene should have been done away with entirely.

The second character is that of the witch Jal Dor Kal. Her manic cackling has been the subject of much comment from fans. With a little more restraint, she could have been a highly disturbing character, as could her, er, group (what is the collective word for witches?). As it is, she goes over the top (and was encouraged to, apparently) and the character not only loses any subtlety, but much menace too.

Simon Williams also features her, but typically of this play (ie: oddly) doesn't feature very much. When he does, his voice is often distorted. I mention in my review for 'The Sandman' how strange it is to secure the services and distinctive tones of a well known actor, only to throw it all away by modulating their voice until they are barely recognisable.

I sound very negative about 'Nekromenteia'. It isn't a favourite play of mine, but isn't really as bad as some might make it out to be. It could just have been so much better. Happily, one aspect of it that cannot be faulted is its sense of mood and atmosphere, thanks mainly to another excellent score from David Darlington.

Richard Radcliffe

Big Finish strive to produce a wide variety of stories, thriving on the diversity of the Doctor Who format. Arguably no other medium has succeeded as well. Nekromanteia was to be the Space Opera romp, the type Blakes Seven used to do. That made things interesting, and I hoped for a cast of characters on the edge, sniping at one another. I hoped for planetary shenanigans, and a blockbuster performance from the 5th Doctor (who seems to have had the best stories of the last half-year). I was hoping for more of that lovely friendship that Erinem and Peri are building too. My expectations of Big Finish CDs are always high, because the quality has been so good before.

What we get is pretty much what it says on the tin. This audio features quite a few battle weary soldiers, mercenaries are the common term I believe, epitomized by Glyn Owen as Harlon. His gravelly voice is well suited to the role he plays. His dealings with his superior are always full of loathing and mistrust. Harlon, Cochrane, Marr, Tallis - soldier types - all are in it for their own gain. They all have different agendas, but all think nothing of walking all over the others. This irritable group are a real plus for the story, there's real venom there.

It's quite an unusual story for the leads. Not to put too fine a point on it - they go through hell, with each suffering horrific and mentally scarring ordeals. There's a fantastic cliffhanger featuring the Doctor at the end of Episode 2, epitomizing this - he just can't get out of that surely! The tone is uneasy throughout, and the violence is more graphic than any other audio I can think of. As a result of this trauma all 3 lead actors/actresses have to stretch their acting skills - and all come through with flying colours.

I mentioned the uneasy tone that is present throughout Nekromanteia. This is primarily a result of the Female Savages of the planet Nekromanteia. Led by the cackling Jal Dor Kal, they are determined to rip everything to shreds, and their violence is cringe-inducingly portrayed - it certainly sent a shiver up my spine. The underground caverns that this group live in, is the setting of much of the action, and you're constantly aware of the horrors around each corner. Full credit to Big Finish sound Wizards for creating this chilling atmosphere. Full credit also to Gilly Cohen, as the aforementioned Jal Dor Kal, whose screeches linger in the memory long after the production.

It's also quite a bonus to return to the Garazone market, as heard in Sword of Orion. With it's tinkling Mobile Phone tunes, it was instantly recognizable. Markets are fascinating places, full of great characters, honest and dubious dealings - I love them - more Garazone please Big Finish!

The other characters (there are plenty) are okay. Simon Williams doesn't appear till well into the drama, and then that distinctive voice is adjusted. I couldn't help but feel his contribution wasn't quite as good as it could have been - things got very surreal around him - which didn't quite fit in with the rest of the story. Nigel Fairs, of BBV fame, is another notable exception to ordinary characters. He provides the voice of researcher Rom. His part is very interesting, a truly obsessive character. How anybody could involve himself in such a savage environment is totally mind-blowing.

Word problems reared their head again in this drama, not the kind presented in ...ish, but the "this sounds like something else, so it will confuse the listener" variety. The villain was referred to as Shara - I kept thinking of Shada. There was lots of talk of a Relic, I kept thinking of a Handbag. I know DW has done nearly a thousand stories now, and you are bound to get duplication - but there must be other ways of naming things. But this is a small irritation, and it shouldn't have spoilt my enjoyment of the story.

Nekromanteia is good production. It's not quite as comfortable listening as other productions, and the last 2 parts set partly in a sort of Neverland, aren't quite up to the first half of the drama. It's not one of the top stories of Big Finish, but it certainly is one of the more chilling - all very executed by all concerned. The script is interesting, and the performances are very good. I really like this new TARDIS team of 5th Dr, Erinem and Peri - let's hope another drama featuring them comes out sooner rather than later. 7/10

Paul Clarke

After the hugely successful 'The Eye of the Scorpion' and 'The Church and the Crown', Big Finish's next full-length Doctor Who audio is a considerable disappointment. Despite two controversial scenes guaranteed to ensure that the story sticks in the mind, 'Nekromanteia' is something of a mess, and although it raises several potentially interesting issues, its failure to actually address any of them makes it feel like a wasted opportunity.

One of my biggest criticisms of 'Nekromanteia' is the treatment of two of the regulars, the first of which is the Doctor. Whilst Peter Davison puts in his usual excellent performance for Big Finish, the character of the Doctor suffers from a script that makes him look ineffectual, in much the same way that 'Resurrection of the Daleks' did. The Doctor achieves very little in 'Nekromanteia'; he doesn't arrive on Talderun until the end of Episode One, and he spends most of Episode Two mollifying Harlon in order to avoid getting shot and to get Erimem medical attention since she already has been shot. Not to mention allowing Harlon to explain the plot. Memorably of course, he then blunders into the temple and is beheaded and eaten by the Witches of Talderun. Inevitably, this rather grabbed my attention the first time that I listened to 'Nekromanteia', but on repeated listens it increasingly starts to seem like an excuse for a cheap cliffhanger; the Doctor is made to sound stupid simply by the fact that he wanders guilelessly into the midst of a group of screeching undead harpies and attempts to reason with them, despite all that Harlon has told him. Episode Three sees the Doctor meeting Shara, an ancient scientist worshipped by the Witches who built the power converter on Talderun in order to achieve a kind of incorporeal utopian eternity; The initial scene in which the Doctor, having just died, finds himself at a cricket match, is rather charming, but any potentially interesting musings on the nature of death are quickly averted by a tirade of technobabble, as Shara explains his past achievements and the Doctor berates him for his folly. The Doctor does very little in this episode as a consequence of being deceased, but he is resurrected via more technobabble so that he can save the day. Except that he doesn't really: required, as he is, to provide a new body as a lodestone to control the energy converter given that the original, Shara's corpse, has been stolen and destroyed, he ends up having his thunder stolen first by Erimem and finally by a cat, in the form of Antranak. The actually characterisation of the Fifth Doctor is fine, and his intention to sacrifice himself for the good of the universe is very noble, but ultimately I am left with the feeling that he does almost nothing in 'Nekromanteia'.

Then there is Peri. During 'Nekromanteia' Peri is led to believe that the Doctor and Erimem are dead, she is captured by the Witches, drugged, and forcibly stripped and bathed. She also sees a man whom she briefly befriends have his heart and tongue cut out. Whilst this is not the most notorious violation of a companion in 'Nekromanteia', Peri nevertheless suffers considerably. Whereas in 'The Caves of Androzani' such trauma is reflected by her abject misery, resulting in a permanent change in the character, here she shrugs it all off. By the end of 'Nekromanteia' however, Peri is laughing and joking and seemingly unconcerned by all that she has been through and it just isn't consistent with her character. Peri is brave in most of her other stories, and this is reflected here, such as when she tells the Doctor to get Erimem to safety and later stands up to Jal Dor Kal, but she is by no means as indomitable as she is portrayed here. Worse still, her chirpy wisecracks highlight the fact that she is rather badly characterised throughout; suddenly, Peri is constantly flirtatious regardless of circumstance, obsessed by men, and making comments such as "I was born with the word trouble tattooed on my ass". This would have jarred in any story; in a story as unrelentingly grim as 'Nekromanteia', it is even more painful.

Erimem on the other hand is rather well characterised in 'Nekromanteia'. Her reaction to Harlon's attempt to rape her is disturbing, as a rape scene would be expected to be. Her stoic reaction to the experience (she fights Harlon off but gets beaten up in the process) is presumably intended to demonstrate her strength of character, since she later talks of the trials and tribulations of being groomed to be a Pharaoh and tells Peri that she can cope with most experiences, however terrible, as a result. And indeed, Erimem is very much in character throughout, exhibiting her usual joy at discovering new times and places and her tendency to fight when she faces death or danger. There are some nice character moments, such as when she sees a watch for the first time and realises that she has made her first trip away from Earth. In addition, her resolute acceptance of death is contrasted effectively with Peri's response to it, emphasizing the fact that the pair are from very different backgrounds. Her willingness to sacrifice herself in the Doctor's place demonstrates just how much she admires him, and says a great deal about her character.

But Erimem's attempted rape scene troubles me. Rape scenes are inherently unpleasant, which is often why they are included in stories. The problem is, I'm not sure why there is a rape scene in 'Nekromanteia'. One possibility that springs to mind is that writer Austen Atkinson included it to add to the grim and gritty air that pervades 'Nekromanteia'. The problem is, after the event actually takes place it is quickly forgotten, which results in the impression that it is gratuitous, in an attempt to bolster the story's dark atmosphere. Although it is an attempted rape, rather than an actual rape, it should not be so easily dismissed. Another possibility is that it is included to emphasize Erimem's strength of character, given her stoic response to it. The problem I have with this interpretation is that the inference would be that anyone who would be (entirely understandably) more traumatized by such an experience is in some way weak. I do not believe in the slightest that this is an intentional implication, and so I will not dwell on it further, except to say that it is why I question the wisdom of including such a scene. The final possibility concerns Harlon.

There seems to be an attempt in 'Nekromanteia' to portray characters not in black and white, but in shades of grey. I get the impression that Harlon is meant to be a sympathetic character; talk of his kids being under threat of death if he doesn't obey orders is presumably meant to convey the fact that he is forced to live in a harsh world as best as he can. His attempted rape of Erimem is presumably meant to confuse the issue further, but it doesn't work; the character is too brutal, and too straightforward, for his intentions towards Erimem to be even remotely understandable. He exhibits no guilt over his intentions and he has no concern for Erimem's well being at all; he simply acts as though it is his right to do what he wants with her. In Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America, Robert de Niro's character commits rape, forcing himself upon a woman whom he has long known and who has spurned his advances; it is utterly disturbing not just because of the nature of the scene, but because by the end of the film it is still possible to feel sympathy for the character, creating an emotional and moral conflict in the viewer. Had Atkinson achieved this with Harlon in 'Nekromanteia' I would have applauded the inclusion of the scene; as it stands, I personally find the characterisation of Harlon such that I have no sympathy for him whatsoever. Consequently, his attempted rape of Erimem doesn't resonate with me in any way; given that I can find little evidence of consequences of this action for either the story or the characters, I would much rather it had been omitted.

'Nekromanteia' ultimately suffers because none of the major characters in it other than the regulars is even remotely sympathetic, with the exception of Lieutenant Cochrance. Peri's rescuer Addison, although she never realises it, is as ruthless as everybody else on Talderun, secretly intending to kill Peri if she interferes with his theft of the relic. Even the Doctor's friend Yal Rom in Episode One is a petty criminal on the run from the law. But by far the worst offenders in terms of supporting characters are Jal Dor Kal and Wendle Marr. The corporation of which Marr is chairman is clearly an example of capitalism gone mad, but instead of attempting to explore the negative aspects of capitalism with anything approaching subtlety, 'Nekromanteia' instead provides a horribly over-the-top display of corporate evil in the form of Marr himself, who uses drugs to control the population, orders the mass slaughter of workers, and sacrifices his fleet for the sake of appearances. Although Ivor Danvers does what he can with the role, the character as scripted might as well have a moustache to twirl. Jal Dor Kal is even worse. It is revealed that Shara entrusted her and the Witches to guard the energy converter because of the immense danger to the whole galaxy if it is tampered with, presumably an attempt to show that their particular brand of barbaric, religious fundamentalism isn't as bad as it first appears. But they still cut out tongues, behead people, eat corpses, and generally slaughter anyone who lands on Talderun in the most unpleasant ways imaginable. To make matters worse, they cackle a lot in a horribly melodramatic way; frankly, making them sound like Zelda from Terrahawks was a serious mistake…

I have little more to about 'Nekromanteia'. Cackling Witches aside (and Gilly Cohen is horribly over the top as Jal Dor Kal, whether cackling or wailing), it's well directed, and as is often the case with Big Finish, the sound design and incidental score are pretty good. The guest cast is rather good too, even if I dislike the characters, or to be more precise, the characterisation; Glyn Owen, Simon Williams, Ivor Danvers, Kate Brown and Kerry Skinner are all worthy of note. But the polished production cannot hide the fact that I simply don't like 'Nekromanteia'.

Sean Bradshaw

Speaking of grim, here's a grim atmosphere for you ... but is there a point behind it? I'm not sure it comes across in this story, the first Doctor Who story by Austen Atkinson. This one's dark, with unlikable, gritty characters. Blake's 7 seems to be an influence here.

There are lots of menaces for the Fifth Doctor, Peri, and the add-on companion and ex-Egyptian Princess Erimem to confront: witches, corrupt leaders, centaur gods, and even a cricket match at the Olympics. The story is a "space opera" which begins in the Garazone marketplace, with the girls going shopping. They are then lead to the planet Kalderun, home to witches who chant and cackle. They are nasty, doing horrible things we don't want to see to their victims. The leader of the witches, played by Gilly Cohen, is intense but can be said to have cackled far too much.

Thanks for the shorthand "WITCH", Gilly.

Hunting the witches is Harlon, played by Glyn Owen (great voice!), who gets very unpleasant with Erimem in a scene referred to after the fact. It's a credit to Atkinson that he makes you really care what happens to our regular heroes ... lousy things happen to each of them thanks to the horribles in “Nekromanteia”. Although we know the Fifth Doctor and Peri make it out, because we've seen the TV show, what's gonna happen to Erimem? It does keep you guessing in that department. The scenes with the regulars are good, bringing the right amount of character development we want to see in these new stories, especially Erimem, who needed a little extra something. She's not the most original character, but this story helps make her seem more worthwhile than any she's been in so far.

There are subplots, one involving a corrupt leader and his involvement with the witches- he's trying to have them destroyed while having made a deal with them, which according to the author is kind of a comment on the Bush-Iraq relationship. It isn't really followed through very much. Other ideas, such as a reporter doing a study commenting on the witches' culture seem interesting though they take away from the story (if there is one).

Interesting ideas everywhere but they're not necessarily tied up.

“Nekromanteia” has a great sound design by David Darlington containing infectious music, a well-realized atmosphere, and some disgusting sound effects when the witches carry out their sacrifices. Unfortunately it is a little hard to hear some of the dialogue in several scenes, which is not good at all for an audio story, right? This isn't a fan-made Audio Visual production from the late eighties... you'd think these guys would have mastered this problem by now. Usually they do, but not here.

It seems like this was written in a hurry, and perhaps edited in a hurry. This is a good case of monthly release schedule being harmful to the quality of the audio stories, though I still say keep 'em coming. It's a decent first effort for the author; it has good moments, but still needs work.

Lawrence Conquest

This disc is a perfect example of how much of a team effort each Big Finish production is. Unlike the novel format, there’s a lot of that can go right – or wrong – after the author has played their part. For Nekromanteia newcomer Austen Atkinson has turned in at best an uninspired script, but many a mediocre story has been turned into an enjoyable play with the help of some sterling performances and production. Unfortunately here the opposite occurs, as director John Ainsworth lets one actress single-handedly destroy any remaining chance of Nekromanteia being a pleasant listening experience.

I don’t know quite what planet Gilly Cohen is on, but on the evidence of this performance I doubt its planet Earth. Cohen turns it what has to rank as one of the most abysmal performances ever as cackling witch Jar Dor Kal. This is bad pantomime witch, a screeching voice which swamps the microphone to the extent that half of the dialogue is indecipherable, and where every single line of her dialogue must be punctuated by a howling banshees laugh. We’ve had plenty of shocking performances in Big Finish plays before, but with this being the role of the main ‘baddie’ the agony is almost constant. Every time the actress spoke I wanted to turn the CD off and throw it in the bin – no mean achievement!

The rest of the cast seem unaffected and struggle gamely on, but the weakness of Atkinson’s material leaves them ill served. Dialogue is particularly poor, witness Peri’s ‘I was born with trouble tattooed on my ass’ (what?), or such witty come back as ‘takes one to know one’. Hilarious. The Doctors characterisation fares little better, with a puzzling opening seeing him cheerfully helping a pair of bank robbers in their trade. There’s an attempt to add some meat to Erimem with a between scenes rape sequence, only for Atkinson to suddenly backtrack unconvincingly when things get a bit too near the knuckle. There’s a blindingly obvious ‘Antranak saves the day’ conclusion – thanks to overuse of sound effect purring reminding us that the cat is in every scene. It’s also somewhat scuppered by having been pipped at the post by the previous adventure No Place Like Home. But beyond all that its very, very , VERY booooooo-ring.

Alongside Minuet in Hell, this is the worst play I have ever heard from Big Finish. Buy it, bin it – just be very wary of actually listening to it…

Joe Ford

Oh Jesus that was soooo boring! After last months superlative Jubilee I thought we were in for another top year in the Big Finish sector but it seems things are going to be as up and down as ever. To be honest I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this story as I, for one had never heard of the writer Austen Atkinson or director John Ainsworth and I hate to judge people before I hear what they have to offer. The blurb and excellent cover suggest a rip roaring space adventure, the type Big Finish have tried before (The Apocalypse Element, Dust Breeding) but never really suceeded at. With the fifth Doctor (oh dear), Erimem (who made a particular impression in her last release) and Peri (the ever reliable Nicola Bryant) who knew what this was going to be like?

Well I never thought it would ever be that bad.

It's not poorly written or anything, I mean there is some decent dialogue jotted about and the occasional twist buts its all so mundane. A corrupt empire, witches with their black magic, a companion in awe of the future...there is nothing Doctor has not done before better. The plot ambles along without any excitement or drama, the characters are for the most part kept in the dark about the plot and thus are we. Characters emerge in episode one who are so obviously enemies it is an insult to pretend otherwise. And the cliffhangers, ooh the Doctors been beheaded, well who cares when he clearly doesn't??!!

The biggest sin this production makes is letting that man Davsion near it who gives a performance so lazy I was astonished he was even awake! I mean honestly, when those guards come knocking at the door of his Packar friend he just mutters something about a smoke bomb and nips out the back door and when he wakes up after his 'death' he just accepts where he is with little interest. No i'm sorry you pro happy Davison supporters out there (hey there Mike Morris!) but this is offensive stuff! There is absolutely no sense of urgency to any of the story thanks to Davison, he doesn't appear to care at all for his companions lives and he plods along from episode to episode (and gee his cliffhanging statement at the end of episode three is delivered with all the sincerity of the man from the Daz advert!) sounding thoroughly bored with the whole thing. If anything confirmed my suspsions that this man was totally unsuitable to play the Doctor Nekromanteia proves it! And after last months tour de force from Colin Baker you can only highlight the talent between the two. truly awful.

Peri is neglected, they throw in a few witty lines for her to remind us she is an american (something about hot guys and Baltimore) but aside from that she spends most of the story at the hands of the withces or unconscious. Nicola Bryant is a talented actress and deserves much better. Unfortunately the three man team means she is now often pushed to the sidelines.

Fortunately Caroline Morris' Erimem is still wonderfully naive (and yet peppy!) and gives the deadly dull story a little kick start every time she appears. I love her comparisons to anceint Eygypt, it is good we never forget her origins and this being her first off world story she gets to display much more of that wonder and delight and the alien things she discovers.

Unforunately the other performances are ghastly! Glyn Owen is totally unsuitable for audio, his gruff-bored sounding voice does nothing for the potentially interesting character of Cmmdr Harlon. He was no good in Power of Kroll and he's no good here, his attempted rape of Erimem should have been a dramatic moment but instead his flat tones subverts the drama. Simon Williams too who gave us the wonderful Gilmore in Rememberance of the Daleks sounds wrong for the sly tongued Paul Addison, his chirpy voice has none of the menace the part implies. And as for Gilly Cohen as the witch Jal Dor Kal....she actually plays the role with a witches cackle and screech! I mean give me strength! Any chance we might be scared by those scenes lose merit as this screaming witch drowns out the tension!

To make matters worse the production lacks any of the regular Big Finish sparkle. Last months music for Jubilee was terrifyingly good, adding real suspense to the whacky proceedings. But this? David Darlington needs to get off this eighties beat kick imbuing every story with the same "what's up girlfriend?" attitude! He did it with the Excelis series and the Sarah Jane Smith series but in this space opera we needed a really menacing score, I dunno, flutes and drums not disco beats! It's almost as if Big Finish is screaming "look at Doctor Who in our hands! It's hip and cool!"

Add to that the fact that sound effects drown out the dialogue on regular occasions and lose the plot everyfive minutes. The sounds effects themselves were adequate but an early space battle denies us any thrills being low on blasters of exploding spaceships.

I have to admit it it was a struggle to get to the end of this one. With an unengaging storyline, a tedious Doctor and no atmosphere I give this Big Finish production one out of ten. And that one point belongs to Caroline Morris who deserves much better.