It seems ages since we have had a stand alone, un-celebratory, story from Big Finish. With the 8th Doctor Season, 40th Anniversary special, Villain Trilogy - everything kind of ran together. The audios of 2003 were largely experimental, not traditional. And I think the range has suffered as a result. There doesn't seem to be the same excitement around anymore for DW Audios. I suppose it is inevitable that the focus now shifts to the new TV series (which affected the 8th Dr audio stories recently negatively). I also suppose it is inevitable that after so many releases interest would wane slightly.
For my part I still think they are the best Who ever, with a brilliant story constantly emerging much more regularly than any other medium. The range thrived on Stand Alone stories - that is what launched and sustained it in 1999-2000. I am glad that (for a few months at least) that is where are at again. It kind of feels like a re-launch, but that is probably only within my own mind. Whichever way you look at it, it was time to press forward to great stories, with great Actors (who are still wonderfully The Doctor).
Axis of Insanity is by Simon Furman. I knew I recognized the name, and it didn't take me long to remember where. I am a big fan of the DWM Comic Strips - and he wrote a handful of these back in 1986-1988. He was the writer who launched the 7th Doctor in the Comic Medium in Cold Day in Hell. Maybe because his Comic Strip writing credentials were on my mind, I couldn't help but imagine this in Comic format throughout.
There is also the overwhelming shadow cast by Tides of Time, a 5th Doctor strip set memorably in a fairground. It all therefore got merged in my mind, and with Comic Strip writer, 5th Doctor, and Tides of Time locale - I felt I knew this kind of Doctor Who Story. This is a Fantasy Doctor Who Story, in the style and atmosphere of Comic Strip classics, such as Tides of Time, Voyager - and a few other Steve Parkhouse strips around that time. It is thanks to John Ridgway and Dave Gibbons, that I could visualize this Sound-Only Story so well.
I just love this Audio TARDIS team of 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem. Big Finish have yet to create a bad companion (they are fairly racking them up too), and Erimem is slowly emerging as an incredible and brilliant long lasting traveller with the Doctor. Caroline Morris is brilliant again, especially in the last half, when she is alone with the Jester/Jarra To. Peri remains a fascinating character, if a little different from her TV character. She benefits tremendously, for having a mate - someone to interact with, and be all older-sisterly with. Many times here though I felt I was listening to Cordelia Chase out of Angel - and I liked that. Peter Davison is uniformally good in most things. His Character is strong enough to stand on his own - but I would wager that Peri and Erimem are his ideal partners now - I can't recall any set of Companions working better with the 5th Doctor.
Axis of Insanity features a monumentally manic performance from Garrick Hagon. What could have been a silly, over the top character, was a joy to listen to. The Jester, so much a feature of Carnival, holds the whole production together. Big Finish Sound Wizards also delve into their Toybox of Trickery, to produce a mass of Sound - I was there, I was amongst the Stalls, smelling the Candy Floss.
There is actually not too many characters in Axis of Insanity, but enough for the story presented. Apart from the Jester, only Jarra To and Tog are worthy of mention. Jarra To is a female Jester character - and Liza Ross tries to capture the Jesters madness - but I wished that Garrick Hagon was speaking those lines instead. Tog is one of many DW supporting heroes, someone harmed by the events taking place, someone willing to go the extra mile - to save the TARDIS characters.
It's the highest accolade I can give to Axis of Insanity, to compare it to the Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgway, Dave Gibbons Comic Strips in DWM. I had been waiting for this genre to appear in other types of Doctor Who. I didn't expect it on Audio, but am totally entranced with how they pulled it off. It wipes the floor with the so-called superior stories of the 40th Anniversary period, and stands as the best Big Finish Audio, probably since Chimes of Midnight. Excellent in every department. 10/10
I wasn’t terribly excited by the announcement that Transformers maestro Simon Furman was writing a Big Finish audio; I’ve never been especially interested in the Transformers and whilst I have nothing against either cartoon or comic, I’ve always considered them to be mildly diverting rather than riveting. So for me Furman was just another budding writer for Doctor Who, even if he is something of an enthusiast of the series. The trouble is, after hearing ‘The Axis of Insanity’, I still wasn’t terribly excited; Furman’s fondness for the Doctor shines through, but for the most part the story is a cliché ridden exercise in faux surrealism that offers little new.
Part of the problem is the plot; based on pure technobabble, the Axis of Insanity is “the hub that regulates and maintains the truncated realties and ensures that the contamination doesn’t spread to the primary time line”, which is potentially interesting but ends up being an excuse for wacky japes and general weirdness that aren’t remotely original. We get a tired fantasy world replete with booby traps, including the collapsing stair, dragons (the Firebreed), and an evil clown, and the Doctor’s exasperation with all this twaddle matches my own, when he asks the Jester, “You really are determined to give me my money’s worth aren’t you? Aren’t you? An all-singing, all-dancing Grimm’s fairytale complete with scary monsters. Why? Why all this?” The villain is rubbish; the Jester is impressively voiced by Garrick Hagon, but he is basically a Joker rip-off right down the point of describing himself as, “The prince of fools, the joker in the pack, the “ha” in “ha-ha!”” and “I’m the spanner in the works, the ghost in the machine.” He gets a few good lines, most notably, “Come, come, Doctor, you routinely roll the dice of time and hope you don’t crap out. Your very existence is a random variable” but for the most part he’s Mad in a very stereotypical furniture-chewing, moustache twirling way and dialogue such as, “The lunatics have taken over the asylum!” and “I never touched him. Well, not much.” Inevitably, and tediously, the Jester plays games, offering doors to the Doctor, one leading to Peri, one leading to the TARDIS.
By Episode Three, the Jester stands revealed as Jarra To, an archetypal mad scientist from the Professor Zaroff school of villain, with ill-defined goals and a stupid plan, whose motivation is nothing more than “an unhinged mind and a quest to reconcile science and fantasy.” Her plan is stupid because it hinges on the need to obtain a TARDIS, Jarra To having (admittedly amusingly) been unable to locate the TARDIS of the last Time Lord she encountered because its chameleon circuit is working. Which is all well and good, but since Erimem stumbles upon said TARDIS fairly easily, it would have made far more sense for Jarra To to look harder before involving a notorious maverick famous for acting as a thorn in the side for mad scientists (and lest we forget, Jarra To knows a great deal about the Doctor). Jarro To’s motivation only become vaguely interesting when we learn that her madness comes from the fact that her work is incomplete – she’s always knows what is going to happen and is therefore always bored (“Why tell the joke if you already know the punch line?”), but this isn’t explore fully and seems like an excuse for random lunacy. –“Meet the last Time Lord to meddle in my affairs.”
Having said all of this, ‘The Axis of Insanity’ does boast a few memorable moments; the discovery of the rotting Time Lord corpse at the end of Episode Three is quite grim and adds a bit of real danger to the mix (technically, all of the danger is real, but this is the first time it really feels like it). The Doctor gets one or two great lines, including, “Science is no substitute for versatility” and there’s an intriguing suggestion that the massive weight of their responsibility to history and the time lines is responsible for the eccentricity and pomposity of many Time Lords. We also get to see the “elephant’s graveyard for TARDISes” which was first mentioned in ‘Omega’ and which is quite a nice touch. But it isn’t enough to really compensate for the paucity of the story as whole. The cast also tries their best, especially the aforementioned Garrick Hagon, and Liza Ross as Jarra To, but the characterisation is rather generally rather poor. Roy North brings a feeling of great weariness and horror to the Overseer, but the character is unmemorable, and Marc Danbury’s Tog is likeable enough, but a two-dimensional noble hero who inevitably sacrifices himself to defeat the villain.
What does make ‘The Axis of Insanity’ worth a listen however is the characterisation of the two companions. Peri is teaching Erimem to read, and this being a Big Finish audio script-edited and directed by Gary Russell, she is of course reading bloody Alice in Wonderland. But the scene is rather sweet, and there’s a genuinely amusing tongue-in-cheek moment when Erimem says that she can’t see the point in fantasy, questioning why a rabbit would actually carry a watch. Which might be a case of Furman chancing his arm a bit, but is nonetheless quite good. The two companions tease each other, but they are obvuiously developing a close friendship, even when there is a clash between Peri’s pragmatism about not letting people into the TARDIS and Erimem’s desire to save Tog from the firebreed. Big Finish seem to be reworking Peri as assertive and strong, rather than the whinging ornament she eventually became on screen, and it is more than welcome; she keeps her cool in a weird wonderland pursued by dragons, and is rather caustic towards the Doctor, offering criticism and withering sarcasm such as when he tells her “I thought I told you to stay in the TARDIS” and she dismissively replies, “Yeah, well that never works.” Furman also utilizes Erimem nicely; he exploits the fact that she’s less likely to spot the imposter Doctor than Peri is, since she hasn’t known him quite as long, but realises that she’s smart enough to spot that he’s unusually quiet and gradually become suspicious. He also realises that she isn’t stupid, and she demonstrates her resourcefulness and cunning when she tells him she wants to go home “to Chicago.” Furman rather spoils things by giving us the tired old companions as pets argument, Jarra To trying to bait Erimem by claiming, “You’re fashion accessories for the busy Time Lord about town” but for the most part his use of the companions redeems the story somewhat, as does the fact that Peter Davison gets to show off a bit by playing a false Doctor again.
Overall, ‘The Axis of Insanity’ is rather weak, albeit well directed and with some nice sound design. Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to actually hate it, and given Furman’s obvious enthusiasm I’d like to see him try writing another, but with a more original premise.
Big Finish’s output seems to be veering wildly between the extremes of rad and trad at the moment (shallow shorthand terms I know, but you get the general idea), and The Axis of Insanity, despite the initial appearance of being a little bit ‘off the wall’ is, sadly, very much in the traditional run-around mode.
This isn’t a truly awful play – it just never seems to live up to its premise. Episode One features a nice set up, as we are introduced to a new Time Lord realm where all the messy aborted timelines are tucked away to prevent infecting the main timeline, and the end of Episode Four has a nice climactic confrontation between the Doctor and the Jester – the usurper of this pocket Time Lord realm, but between these bookends the play just seems to go round in aimless circles. The pacing is terrible, as following the set up in the first episode we learn no substantial new information in the next two parts, and with only one real supporting character beyond the Jester (and his identical female counterpart) being the bland native Tog. In short there’s no real development of either plot or character in this story.
It is perhaps an obvious criticism to make against a comic book author, but The Axis of Insanity really doesn’t work as an audio. The run-around middle section of the story would be perfect for a comic strip, with the Doctor and co charging around mad funfairs and fighting off dragon attacks providing some great imagery (in fact, haven’t we already been here with The Tides of Time etc?), but on audio there’s nothing of interest to hold on to, and the logic of the play is more glaringly suspect (why all the 20th Century Earth references in this alien dimension anyway?). From as early on as The Land of the Dead it should have been learned by Big Finish that big roaring inarticulate monsters such as the dragons here do not an interesting audio make. The plot threads introduced in part one all tie up in part four, but in retrospect this rigid structure looks rather obvious and heavy handed (such as Erimem learning about the Chameleon Circuit in scene one so she can use the information later on; or the fact that she is learning to read in the first scene, which becomes a pivotal scene in the climax (which in turn leads one to question as to why an alien lift would seemingly have the word ‘Basement’ written in English)). Something else that’s obvious is the hasty re-titling of the Doctors Sonic Screwdriver for continuity reasons. And don’t get me started on Erimem’s constant habit of talking out loud to herself – a sure sign of poor audio writing.
The regulars are their usual good selves, and its almost worth sitting through the thing to hear Peter Davison’s big speech to the bad guy, but unfortunately the role of the Jester (in both male and female guises) is terribly overplayed by the actors, and comes across as a shallow rip off of Batman’s’ Joker. With his constant cackling laugh, this character immediately brings to mind the similarly dire witch of Nekromanteia, and although not quite as annoying it’s a damn close run.
The Axis of Insanity looks like its going to be another Mind Robber, but in the end it’s more like The Celestial Toymaker. In other words - boring, boring, boring.
It's good to have the 5th Doctor back. It's even good to have Peri and Erimem back. With this story they get to start a gentle sibling rivalry, which is more interesting than their previous adventures. Simon Furman is the new writer, having previously written comics for the Transformers and for Doctor Who Magazine in the late eighties.
That should tell you not to expect great audio drama, but it's actually not bad. There are some good moments in this one, even if it's not the greatest story. A fantastic element reminiscent of “The Celestial Toymaker” is welcome here, and the character of Jarra To played by Garrick Hagon and his wife Liza Ross has interesting moments. Jarra To can manipulate reality to a degree and has taken over the Axis, a place where damaged timelines are held. There are references to the Doctor's people, the Time Lords, and their involvement in the Axis, but it's a subtle acknowledgement. The Doctor must find his way out of the damage Jarra To causes. Part of the plot involves finding out who this new, dangerous character is and why he/she has involved the Doctor and his friends. The sound atmospheres are well created, even for a story where landscapes shift or change rapidly. The music is suitably crazed and adds to the feeling of campy madness.
Peri still gets lines that make you cringe and a bland character, Tog, is predictable. Peter Davison does a great job as usual bringing back his Doctor. Garrick and Liza go over the top because they can; sometimes it's fun, occasionally it's annoying. The “Axis of Insanity” is a more enjoyable time than recent 8th Doctor stories, but not essential. A good effort.
I've always really enjoyed "Doctor Who"'s occasional forays into fantasy; "The Celestial Toymaker" and "The Mind Robber" are both pretty high up on my list, and I think they appeal to me in the same way the surreal sci-fi trappings of "Warriors' Gate" or "Kinda" do: they take the Doctor completely out of his element. The Doctor is used to playing tricks and telling fairy stories to his enemies, not the other way around. There are no conquering armies, no galactic intrigue, just someone out to get the Doctor and his friends. Both the Doctor and the author of this type of story have to be unusually creative, and what we generally get is a very entertaining story. So it was with a good deal of pleasure that I gave "The Axis of Insanity" a spin.
Time has really paid Peter Davison a backhanded compliment. His voice is older now, grittier, and truth be told he often doesn't sound like the "young man trapped in an old man's body" anymore. At the same time, though, he's better able to achieve a sense of gravity and presence in his voice, and that lends itself very well to this story. There are scenes here where, in 1984, his Doctor would have been desperately shouting at the villain, red in the face and very frightened. Now, he's really able to face down villains, carry authority and be much more of a hero. It's an interesting change for the fifth Doctor, and I like it.
Nicola Bryant and Caroline Morris fare pretty well as traveling companions Peri and Erimem, although I'm afraid I still don't quite see where Erimem's story is going. Her differences from the Doctor and Peri were highlighted very well in "The Eye of the Scorpion" and "The Church and the Crown" (I've tried my best to forget the excrable "Nekromanteia")., but aside from the running plot point of her learning to read, she's pretty much a typical companion here. Peri, though, makes more of an impression than she has in the last two stories, and we get several much-overdue scenes of Davison and Bryant as a team. Everyone, I can happily say, gets something to due.
Unfortunately, the story's a bit on the slim side. The first episode is the most fun, with the Doctor wandering into bizarre scenarios in the Axis (which is, in itself, a very clever idea). That's where we meet the Jester, played with zeal by Garrick Hadon, and a let me tell you...a little of this character goes a very long way. He's like the Toymaker on speed, and while he's amusing for fifteen minutes you'll probably find yourself wanting him to go very far away thereafter. No doubt that's why author Simon Furman included his alter ego, Jarra To, but the damage is already done: the Jester gets my vote as one of the most annoying Big Finish villains to date. Not only that, but he's confusing, too. Why, for instance, does he make references to 20th century pop culture? And lapse into an American accent? And generally try to out-do Robin Williams' Genie in "Aladdin"? The world will never know, and it's probably better that way.
The second and third episodes feature, in large part, a funhouse scenario where the Doctor, Peri, and their new friend Tog get trapped on their way to find the TARDIS and Jarra To. With Tog being a dragon-fighting, vaguely medieval character, these episodes reminded me greatly of the middle portions of "The Tides of Time," the classic 5th Doctor comic epic. There, the fifth Doctor and Sir Justin were also stuck in a funhouse, while on a quest to stop an all-powerful demon who threatened the very fabric of Time and Space. Sound familiar?
In the end, it's really not a bad little play. The Doctor gets a nice showdown, and there's a simply wonderful scene set in a TARDIS graveyard. I just can't help feeling there could have been a lot more to it, that it should have been more original. "The Celestial Toymaker" and "The Mind Robber" have intrigued fans for years, both inspiring fan fiction and sequels in the official book range. I don't think "Axis" will have the same longevity. It's a fairly funny jest, is "Axis," but I laughed a lot harder the first two or three times I heard it.
The Axis of Insanity is a return to the traditional flavour of television Dr Who, after the unusual and sometimes jarring 8th Doctor season. It seems hard to believe that "trad" Doctor Who could ever be so refreshing.
However, I fear that time will not be kind to The Axis of Insanity. Its positioning in the release schedule perhaps makes it seem more accessible and invigorating than it perhaps is. The plot is a generic Doctor vs adversary run-around and the feelings of "we've been here before" pervade the story enormously.
That said, The Axis of Insanity is a very enjoyable story with some very fine performances. The most memorable character here, by a mile is The Jester, played with clear relish by Garrick Hagon. In fact, Garrick becomes a fine contrast to Davison's always understated Doctor. The Jester's maniacal laughter and obvious pride make him perhaps the most exciting opportunity to introduce a recurring villain. He far outstrips Klein and the like, who Big Finish have said they are willing to re-use. This Jester needs more than just the one outing.
His subsequent transformation into Jarra To, however is unnecessary. One feels that The Jester could have carried the whole story and anything less than Hagon's mighty performance could only be disappointing. Although Liza Ross turns in an admirable performance, she is a far cry from the frightening and crazed Hagon. Perhaps, Hagon overplays a little too much, as to lessen the performances of the other actors.
The regulars are served reasonably well and are given much to do. Blossoming in Peri and Erimem is a fine relationship which shows no hint of becoming stale. However, I think Peri is becoming increasingly less like her televisual persona. The accent being slightly weaker would not be a problem were she not given such alien dialogue. In Nekromanteia she was given cringe-worthy lines such as "I was born with trouble tattooed across my ass" and here she has similar, although nowhere near as crude lines which Nicola Bryant delivers to the best of her ability.This new gutsy Peri, although making for better aides to plot and momentum, jars terribly with her TV counterpart. This is a character who needs to be strongly held in check by the production team.
Erimem fairs much better. So far I don't think we've ever heard Caroline Morris give a bad performance. Her consistent and strong ability bodes very well for the future.
Davison gives a dependably strong performance and his subtle change in delivery as the disguised Jester is unnerving and unusual, marking Davison out not as the "same old same old" Doctor of old, but as a thinking, intelligent actor. Unfounded rumours that Davison could be leaving Big Finish would, if true, be a crime judging by his uniformly solid performances. He is an asset.
As I've said, the plot is not unusual and by Episode 3 transcends into the archetypal run-around of TV Dr Who. Of course, this is no bad thing. The episodes remain highly enjoyable and a fine testament to the tried and tested formula that is Dr Who. A fine release.