I found Big Finish's second three-part serial to be a tremendous improvement on the first. Paul Sutton's previous contributions to the monthly series have been deep and moving emotional dramas, and whilst "Exotron" does have a warped love story at its core, it is much more accurately summed up by Alex Mallinson's vivid cover art. A remote colony. Giant, wolf-like monsters. Big robots. Huge robots. Colossal robots. Gargantuan robots?
But as much as the cover may fire the imagination, there is also something incredibly refreshing about hearing Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant breeze their way through a serial, pre-Erimem. Now I love Erimem as much as the next man -- a wonderful character, beautifully brought to life through Caroline Morris -- but there is certainly something enchanting about an adventure set in Big Finish's proverbial 'past'. It almost feels new.
Furthermore, Sutton writes very well for this Doctor / Companion team. There are some lovely scenes where the Doctor's thoughts betray him -- literally; those pesky telepathic circuits -- including one very amusing altercation with Corporal Mozz. The fifth Doctor is so fecklessly polite that it can't do anything other than amuse when people can hear what he's really thinking! And as for Peri, Sutton actually lets her use her brain. She gets to put her botany background to good use, playing a pivotal role in solving the mystery of the Farakosh.
It wouldn't be a Paul Sutton play though, without a twisted romance. Paula (Isla Blair) and Taylor (John Duttine) share a remarkable and tragic tale over the course of the three episodes. However, I do have to admit that in the early stages I wasn't overly interested in their domestics -- it was only as the story progressed, particularly towards the end of Part 2, that my attention was really grabbed. Sutton uses these two to unveil his two big plot twists; without giving too much away, he delightfully plays on both those wonderful Cyberman-type fears and also the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover'? no matter how ferocious. Both work fiercely well, turning what would have been quite an average story into, on the whole, a pretty good one.
"Urban Myths", on the other hand, has the distinct feel of one of those Doctor Who Magazine freebie CDs -- it could be easily pigeonholed with the likes of "The Ratings War" and "The Veiled Leopard". It is more than just a long Big Finish advertisement though -- the writer sums it up best himself in the CD booklet: "Short, to the point, and with a satisfying/shocking/funny punchline". That's "Urban Myths".
The Gallifreyan C.I.A. agents are a delight to listen to as they recount their different versions of the Doctor's most recent adventure, and Peri is almost as entertaining doing her 'waitress' thing. Best of all though, the ending genuinely made me laugh. Only the fifth Doctor could get away with doing that to her?
In truth though, I did much prefer Eddie Robson's one-parter last month. "Urgent Calls" has a bit more heart than this episode, but in fairness you don't buy a four episode CD on the strength of a one-off episode, and "Exotron" is in an entirely different league to "I.D.".
Incidentally, this 'Virus Strand' story arc -- are these one-part stories supposed to be linked? Aside from both "Urgent Calls" and "Urban Myths" featuring two completely different viruses, I don't see the link. "Cat's Cradle" held together better than this?
Finally, I think a word should be said on the whole Nicholas Briggs revamp of Big Finish Productions. The quality of the package that Big Finish are now putting together each month is a phenomenal improvement on what came before. I've touched upon Alex Mallinson's beautiful artwork earlier in this review, but it's not just that. There is a stunning two-page centrefold in the CD booklet as well as a colourful, modern and informative layout. Compare "Exotron" to "The Sirens of Time" and you can see the eight years separating them! And of course, at long last we have 'CD Extras'? That much said, Big Finish could really do with pulling one of their masterpieces out of their hats right now. I'd have to go all the way back to January ("Circular Time") to find a release that I'd enthusiastically recommend to those who don't already subscribe. Recently the releases have ranged from passable to good, but I want fantastic!