Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Those Who Were Rather Rudely Forgotten

I have come to the realization that I have not yet scratched the surface of the number of audio recordings which feature Sherlock Holmes. I neglected a great number of radio shows and I wanted to formally (or perhaps informally give them their moment in the limelight).

There are dozens and dozens and dozens (maybe more) one-off Sherlock Holmes radio recordings. Sir Cedric Hardwicke starred in a 1945 radio adaptation of "The Speckled Band" where he starred as Holmes. This forgotten radio drama is not highly regarded for Hardwicke seemed to lack the eccentric air which made Holmes so enjoyable. Furthermore, Orson Welles appeared as Holmes in an early radio broadcast of William Gillette's play which he adapted for radio.

Aside from Rathbone and Bruce, perhaps the second most beloved radio Holmes and Watson was Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelly as Holmes and Watson. Hobbs and Shelly became icons as Holmes and Watson in the mid 1950's through the '60's. They debuted on the 15th of October, 1952 in "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" and ended in 1969 with "His Last Bow." In that time, they had adapted more of Conan Doyle's story than had ever been recorded before (and held the record until the Clive Merrison series in the '80's). Hobbs and Shelly also made a recording of the Gillette play in 1953.

The two actors became sensations. In fact the two men were involved in a plaque which was set down at the Criterion Bar in London. It was at that restaurant that Watson and his friend Stamford left to visit Sherlock Holmes for the first time in "A Study in Scarlet." To commemorate the event, Hobbs arrived at the festivities dressed as Holmes - and riding in a hansom cab.

While Hobbs and Shelly made names for themselves, some already established stars were taking up the roles of Holmes and Watson. Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson turned up as Holmes and Watson in a series of twelve radio plays. Gielgud starred as Holmes and Richardson as Watson. Once more, I shall be rather opinionated here - I am not the greatest fan of these shows. While they feel less dated in comparison to the Rathbone/Bruce shows, I just don't feel the same level of excitement from the stars. Richardson got on my nerves as Watson, and although Gielgud is a grand actor, I didn't feel as though he truly got into the spirit of things. Throughout the stories, Gielgud speaks in a monotone, bringing very life into the character of Holmes. When in the last episode, "The Final Problem," which guest starred Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty, the actors involved just couldn't make the story interesting. It's rather sad since this series had potential of being some of the best Sherlockian radio ever made. But, that's a what-if, and I won't discuss it anymore.

Throughout the years, other actors have stepped up to the microphone in some capacity to play Holmes. There was Tim Pigott-Smith, who starred as Holmes in a 1980's adaptation of "The Valley of Fear." And then there is David Ian Davies, who has read a great number of Sherlockian pastiches over the years, including a reading of "The Tangled Skein." There was John Moffatt (the BBC Radio's Hercule Poirot) who starred as Holmes in an adaptation of Loren D. Estleman's "Sherlock Holmes Vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count" and then there was Roger Llewellyn, who after starring in the one-man play, "Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act" dramatized the show for Big Finish Productions (one year before Nicholas Briggs took over the role).

One of the more recent audio recordings to emerge from the Sherlockian world is Sir Derek Jacobi as Holmes, who recorded the entire canon on a series of audio books. Now, what you must understand is that I think Sir Derek is a great actor, who has showed some fantastic range in the past. He has been in everything from "I Claudius" to "Agatha Christie's Marple" to "Doctor Who" and even appeared on the American sitcom, "Frasier." I think he is a brilliant star and certainly one of the best in British film. Nonetheless, I cannot say that I was fully impressed by his readings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Although he seemed to be enjoying himself, I did not get the impression that he was putting forth his best effort. I could be entirely wrong, but he did not seem to show any of that range which I believe he is so skilled in. To someone unfamiliar to the stories and listening to these audio books, I don't think they could at once tell which character was speaking. His voices are Holmes and Watson were almost the same, and I felt as though Sir Derek could have done better. I have not listened to his recording of Anthony Horowitz's "The House of Silk," but the idea of him narrating is great. It creates a kind of continuity between Doyle's canon and the pastiche, and was a fantastic idea to do.

As I have said before, Sherlock Holmes has always been identified with radio. Throughout the years, dozens of radio broadcasts have been put forth, and as long as people continue to express interest in audio recordings of some kind, Sherlock Holmes shall remain a part of it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Audio Holmes Who Shall Reign Supreme

So about a week ago, I posted a poll on this blog to find out your opinion of who performed the role of Sherlock Holmes best on some sort of audio recording - be it radio or audio book or what not. Well, today I will take a look at who has won the poll and throw my own two cents into cyberspace.

Sherlock Holmes has always been around on a radio. In the excellent book, "Starring Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies (fans if you do not own this book yet, you must), Davies devotes an entire section to the detective on radio and the fascinating stories which were involved with bringing the detective on air. I won't go into those details too much, but I have found it so interesting to learn of this portion of the detective's history. Of course, no discussion of Sherlock Holmes on radio would be complete without including Basil Rathbone. Of course Holmes aficionados will know that Rathbone made his debut as the character in 1939's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and turned to the role of the detective on radio after two movies made at 20th Century Fox.

Rathbone played the character almost non-stop throughout 1939 to 1946. By '46, he had appeared in 14 films and starred in countless radio productions. It is no wonder that Rathbone felt as though the role has taken over his life, for it actually had. With his contract up, Rathbone decided to leave the part of the detective behind him and went off to pursue his love of theater. However, Nigel Bruce stayed on as Watson in the radio program this time playing Holmes opposite Tom Conway.

I will have to be perfectly honest and up front here - I cannot say that I really like the 1940's radio dramas. Of course Rathbone and Bruce are fantastic, but the shows suffer from being just too old. The technology which so benefits some of the latter day audio recordings wasn't around, and therefore the broadcasts are instantly dated. Also, the listener must deal with the endless prattling on from the sponsor of the show (in this case Petri Wine). To anyone who is familiar with these broadcasts, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Again, this radio shows are without doubt classics and provide fans obsessed with everything Sherlock Holmes (like me) to have one more outlet to hear Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

Let's jump forward say...40 years or so. Listeners to radio and devout fans of Sherlock Holmes have something in store for them. BBC radio has taken it upon themselves to dramatize each and every one of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. Clive Merrison is Holmes and Michael Williams is Dr. Watson. I just have to say, I love these adaptations. Merrison and Williams are brilliant as Holmes and Watson. If I were to cast my vote, I'd vote for Clive Merrison. He is excellent as Holmes, brilliantly capturing all of the detective's varied and often changing emotions. It's obvious that the actor has thrown himself into the part with gusto for he seems to be having such a good time playing the role. The same applies to Michael Williams. As I have remarked before, he wonderfully captures essence of Conan Doyle's original doctor. He is at once able to portray humility and intelligence. Bravo!

To fans of Doyle's original detective, they may not find a great deal to like in "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes." To read my full review, click here. However, for purposes here, let me defend Simon Callow who plays Sherlock Holmes. While he is by no means the epitome of a Sherlockian interpretation, it is not his fault and he is by far the best thing about the series of six short adventures. It is very possible to imagine Callow having gone on to play the character again and I'm sure if he did, he would be very good. It just feels as though his talents are wasted in this poor series of recordings.

However, let us jump to the other end of the spectrum. Although perhaps not radio, Big Finish's audio recordings featuring the great detective have been brilliant. They are in recent memory one of the best forms of media to feature the detective, and are all wonderfully executed. Nicholas Briggs, who plays Holmes in the five recordings, is excellent. However, the only problem with his portrayal of the character which changes depending on the script. For instance in "Holmes and the Ripper," the detective is portrayed as warm, compassionate human being, who even falls in love with a spiritualist. But in the next recording, he is the cold, calculating Holmes of the past, showing few signs of these strange rather out-of-character actions. Nonetheless, each of Big Finish's productions are handsomely done, and well worth listening to. At the time of this writing, Big Finish is preparing yet another Sherlock Holmes series - this time to be collected in a boxed set entitled "The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes." The stories are set to be recorded in March of 2013.

So, who is the winner of your poll? Well it is...(drum roll please)...Basil Rathbone. I suppose that you fans really appreciate the classics (as do I). I love Rathbone's performance and I suppose in the long run he deserves the award as being the audio Holmes who shall reign supreme!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doctor Who Season 7 So Far Part I

March 30, marks the return of "Doctor Who." Needless to say, I am excited so over the next few weeks, we'll take a look back at the first five episodes which has comprised the show's seventh season. And today, we begin with Steven Moffatt's "Asylum of the Daleks."

The Daleks have forever been the Doctor's arch-enemy. Traveling throughout time and space, the Doctor and his companions have faced the Dalek threat as they worked in vein to conquer the universe and "exterminate" all in their path. So it comes as a great surprise to the Doctor when he is summoned to the Dalek's home planet, Skaro. This rendezvous turns out to be a trap and he ends up kidnapped alone with his companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory(Arthur Darvill).

Taken to the Dalek's high council, the Doctor learns that his most hated enemy actually need his help. On another planet known as the Dalek Asylum, the most feared Daleks in the universe have potential to break free. It is up to the Doctor, Amy and Rory to arrive on the planet and reinstate the force-field which surrounds the planet. It is a terrifying and truly harrowing experience for the trio.

"Asylum of the Daleks" opens the season in grand style. It features some show-stopping moments and brilliant direction. I think what I liked best about this episode was the Daleks. They were actually quite terrifying. A problem which the show encountered during its first four seasons was that it used the Daleks too often. They turned up in three of the four season finales and of course in between. Moffatt has used the Daleks sparingly, and their return in this episode was great. In addition, the voice work done by Nicholas Briggs was great, and he was able to turn these creatures which seemingly have no emotions into almost sympathetic beings. Bravo Mr. Briggs!

What was also interesting was how Steven Moffatt deftly introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin, who would later return as Clara in "The Snowmen" which serves as Season 7's Christmas Special. I had no idea that she appeared in this episode, and the revelation which comes at the end of the episode was stunning. If Jenna-Louise Coleman acts like she did in this episode and in the Christmas special, she has potential of being one of the greatest companions the Doctor has ever had.

The episode's promotional poster featuring Matt Smith
and Karen Gillan
I know that some fans were disappointed by the fact that this episode promised every Dalek from the show's history, but let's honestly think about this. Is that even possible? We do indeed catch glimpses of many of the older Daleks, but this I suppose was not enough for some fans. I do not want to sound like an angry troll of the Internet, but I do think that people do have to put things into perspective with this episode. The acting was wonderful and the atmosphere of horror which permeated the Dalek asylum was genuinely creepy. This was honestly a wonderful story which set Season 7 up to be fantastic. I award Steven Moffatt's "Asylum of the Daleks" 4 out of 5 stars. Bravo to all involved!

Next Time: "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship!" Enough said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Does It stand the Test of Time?

I have remarked on this blog before about how much I loved David Stuart Davies' "The Tangled Skein." I gave it very, very high praise when I reviewed Big Finish's audio recording version which I gave a 5 out of 5 stars, something which is extremely rare in my reviews. But, what is somewhat surprising is that despite the fact that I liked the book so much, I had only read it once (and that was three years ago). Sure, I'd listened to the Big Finish version a number of times, but that is rather different. So, I asked myself - would "The Tangled Skein" stand the test of time?

I'll save you the suspense - it did, but perhaps not as much as it used to. Now, don't get me wrong, the novel was still splendid, but it perhaps didn't thrill me the way it did years ago. But, I'll get to that later. Overall, "The Tangled Skein" is a great read, and features grand suspense and thrills, and of course a few chills which are liable to run up and down your spine.

Well first of all, the style of writing is very evocative of Doyle's. Despite, the nature of the story, Davies managed to keep the style akin to the original. The portrayal of the characters is wonderful. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson begin as rather mellow portrayals, but as they wrapped up in the titular tangled skein, they become more and more involved in putting an end to Dracula's reign of terror. What is perhaps best about the writing though is the tight plotting. We quickly become enveloped in the story's plot and it flows beautifully. Tension mounts as Holmes and Watson venture out onto Dartmoor in search of Dracula. Furthermore, the inclusion of characters from Doyle's stories make the story fit well into the canon. Jack Stapleton is a major character during the novel's first half, and he is portrayed brilliantly as he seeks his revenge on Sherlock Holmes.

Count Dracula is also presented wonderfully. Despite the fact that the novel does not fit into the plot of Bram Stoker's book, the character of Dracula feels like the original. It is obvious that Davis drew upon the films made by Hammer Studios in which Christopher Lee portrayed the Count. Dracula is a real bad guy, and a thoroughly creepy one. Dracula does not make his first appearance in the book until the book is half over, but his menacing presence is felt throughout, and it is this feeling of overwhelming evil and dread which pervades the book. The mystery of the unexplained and the unknown is what makes this book so terrifying.

Sadly, the novel is not perfect. While the plotting for the most part is fantastic, there are times when it seems as though scenes are not going anywhere or don;t add much to the plot. Richard Dinnick's adaptation of the book for Big Finish corrected these problems by streamlining some of these scenes and omitting some which do not add to the story. For example, a scene in the novel finds Holmes and Watson dealing with a great owl sent as a envoy from the vampire camp. This scene does not add anything to the plot, and was wisely cut from the audio recording.

Nonetheless David Stuart Davies' book stands out as one of the best Holmes vs. Dracula books every written and surely one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches I have come across. It is highly recommended from me, as is the Big Finish adaptation. I would award "The Tangled Skein" novel 4 out of 5 stars.

Notes: As I mentioned above, Davies drew heavily upon the horror films of Hammer Studios. Beginning in the late 1950's, Hammer made colour remakes of some of the most famous horror films released by Universal some twenty years earlier. I will be perfectly frank and say that I am not the biggest fan of Hammer's work, however two films (which surely greatly contributed to this novel) I do find to be wonderful. 1958's "Horror of Dracula" and 1959's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" united Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing took the parts of Van Helsing and Holmes while Lee was Dracula and Sir Henry Baskerville. if you are unfamiliar with either of these two films, they also come highly recommended.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sixth Doctor Part V - "Mark of the Rani"

The Doctor (Colin Baker) has a problem on his hands. Arriving in a small mining community in the days prior to the Industrial Revolution, he finds himself facing two deadly enemies - the Master (Anthony Ainley) and the Rani (Kate O'Mara). When a number of Luddites begin to act strangely, the Doctor suspects a connection. But what are the renegade Time Lord's up to - and how will their plan affect the very human race.

I will be perfectly frank from the outset, "Mark of the Rani" is a mediocre episode. It is not good - but it is certainly not bad. It just seems to be a routine serial which is rather lacking in true excitement, but does hold in store some surprises. So, I suppose that I ought to begin by looking at the positives.

As usual, Colin Baker has turned in a good performance. By now, the Doctor has become quite humane and caring. It is somewhat sad to see the prickly edge gone from the Sixth Doctor, but I do understand that a story ark had been implemented and slowly but surely the viewer would come to love the newest incarnation of the Doctor. Also, Nicola Bryant continues to become a more enjoyable companion. Opinion rage about Peri as a companion considering she wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer and acting as a blundering, bumbling companion. However, here Peri is a given a chance to act a bit more intellectual and seems to have more purpose than just being the Doctor's companion.

In addition, "Mark of the Rani" provides another opportunity for audiences to see the Master (played here by Anthony Ainley). To those unfamiliar with the show, the Master can be summed as being the Doctor's arch-enemy (or perhaps the Doctor's very own Professor Moriarty?). Ainley was the forth actor to take on the role of the Master, a character who debuted during the tenure of the Third Doctor. Ainley is the longest-running actor to take on the role appearing with the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors. In this particular episode, the Master truly exudes a menacing persona, and in some scenes he is genuinely creepy. It was also nice to see all of the characters running around in the early 1800's, since the historical settings add an interesting flare to the show. "Mark of the Rani" was filmed on location at an authentic recreation of a small 1800's mining town.

"Can two renegade Time Lords share a TARDIS
without driving each other crazy?"
Now then, as to the Rani...she is, well okay. I never got the impression that she was much of a threat to the Doctor. In all of her scenes with the Master all she does is bicker and fight. In an alternate universe, could this have been the start of a comedy spin-off - "The Odd Couple: Time Lord Addition?" There are also times when all of the characters talk to themselves for no readily apparent reason whatsoever. These inexplicable things make up the serial's problems. The script just ins't that good. I know that the story is set around the time of the luddite rebellion, but really how many times in one episode can you repeat the  word 'luddite.' It is not that common of a word. If you're unaware of the word's definition, it is a person who is violently opposed to technology or social change. So, I suppose that the allegations that the show suffered script problems is rather true.

So, what is one bad mark against a tenure which has been until now rather free from fault. Sure, nothing is perfect, but "Mark of the Rani" does slip in the show's quality. But, what if that one bad mark suddenly became two...?

Coming Next Time: "The Two Doctors"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review - "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes"

If you have not guessed yet, I like audio recordings. That's why I have been reviewing so many of them lately (thanks to the wonder of iTunes and Anyway, the latest audio recording that I have stumbled across is not exactly the best example of Sherlockian audio recordings. "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" written by John Taylor does have some high points, but the mediocre outweighs the good in this collection.

The biggest problem with this collection is the scripts. John Taylor's six stories are rather weak, and do not exactly feel like Doyle's writing. Granted, Taylor does have a few good plot devices thrown in here and there. In synopsis form, each of the six stories presents us with a thrilling, blood-and-thunder story. Just to show you what I mean, I will give you a brief, one-sentence synopsis of each story.

"The Wandering Corpse" - A professor who claims to have discovered how to resurrect the dead has died, but his body has disappeared from his coffin.

"The Horror in Hanging Wood" - A man's mutilated corpse is discovered in a supposedly haunted woodland.

"The Paddington Witch" - It seems every possible that a friend of Mrs. Hudson's practices the occult when one of her enemies dies, burned to a crisp.

"The Phantom Organ" - An church organ with no player foretells the death of a noble family.

"The Devil's Tunnel" - A woman disappears as a train enters a tunnel, only seconds after speaking to Dr. Watson who is seated directly beside her.

"The Battersea Worm" - A man is found dead in his room, but the only entrance to that room is by a heavily guarded elevator.

The six stories which make up "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" sound fantastic. However, when Taylor must extrapolate upon those basic outlines, the stories fall apart. The other problem is that each story is only half-hour in length, which hardly gives us enough time for any proper character development or real detective work to be done on Holmes' part. The latter two stories don't feature the detective right away, and so his appearances in the two stories is decidedly minimal.

John Taylor's book on which the
six audio dramas were based
Well, onto some positives. Despite the fact that the stories aren't exactly fantastic, two do stand out in mind as being worth listening to. "The Horror in Hanging Wood" and "The Devil's Tunnel" are easily the two best stories. The ideas surrounding both are good, and the way in which the two are executed make the stories feel more fleshed out and they do not betray the fact that they are only 30-minutes in length. Furthermore the performances done by the main actors are probably their best in these two stories. And while we're talking about performances, this is the best time to discuss Simon Callow as Holmes and Nicky Henson as Watson.

Callow is a wonderful Holmes - and he is easily the best thing about these productions. His performance is fantastic and one can easily imagine him as Doyle's Holmes. It's upsetting that he is so underused in these six stories since his performance is so good. The same honestly cannot be said for Nicky Henson. Although his performance presents us with a level-headed, humane doctor, I just couldn't take him all that seriously. He never bumbles or blusters, but he might as well. This is Nigel Bruce's Watson personified - albeit perhaps a bit more serious. Also, Henson cannot raise the level of some of the writing above what it is. The writing is such that it sounds as though this a throwback to the radio productions of the 1940's (you know, "Look Holmes, I'm stating the obvious for the benefit of our listeners since they can't see us").

For A Sherlockian completest, "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" may be an interesting treat. Otherwise, it can honestly be skipped over and not much is missed. Simon Callow does turn in a solid performance as Sherlock Holmes, and one wishes that he could have gotten the opportunity to do more. My final verdict is that "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" gets a lowly 2.5 out of 5.

Take the Poll: By the way, answer the poll which I have posted on the blog. Due to my interest in Sherlockian audio, who do you think delivered the best performance as Holmes on audio? Was it Basil Rathbone who is forever famous for the role on screen and radio? Clive Merrison who starred in the adaptations of the canon done of BBC4? Simon Callow, who despite the lowly ranking of "The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" delivered a grand performance? Or perhaps Nicholas Briggs, who stars as the detective in the excellent recordings from Big Finish Productions. Or is it somehow else? Take the poll, and if your favourite ins't on there, leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sixth Doctor Part IV - "Vengeance on Varos"

Surely one of the most underrated Classic Doctor Who serials, "Vengeance on Varos" is both a powerful and compelling narrative. It stands out as one of the darkest stories from the show's history, but nevertheless a truly enjoyable one.

Varos is a very important planet in the universe. The planet has a number of important natural resources, however unbeknownst to most people is that Varos is in turmoil. The government of the planet has been corrupted by aliens and they broadcast torture and execution to the public for entertainment. It is into this dark world that the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) arrive. Accused of being rival spies, they are soon on the run - but will they be able to survive the terrifying trials on Varos?

"Vengeance on Varos" was the second serial released during the show's 22nd season. Following in the season's footsteps, the serial proves to be a dark story, but is still a very exciting one. It is wrought with suspense as the Doctor and Peri must escape the Punishment Dome, the building in which prisoners are tortured and executed on live television. This idea of television being a vessel to display cruel acts would appear in an episode of the newer Doctor Who series entitled "Bad Wolf." Due to this, it is interesting to see this serial which might have acted as inspiration for the latter.

By now, the Doctor has certainly become more mellow and humane. As I pointed out in my review of "The Twin Dilemma," I actually liked the conceited Doctor. Having the ability to travel all of time and space and be responsible for saving the universe time and time again would certainly go to your head. But, this more humane Doctor is nice and more in line with the character. Nevertheless, Colin Baker's performance is superb. He has a real dominating effect in the episode. He simply captivates in his dramatic scenes, and even shows off a bit of dark, devilish humour in one of the show's most controversial scenes (which I won't spoil for you).

The Doctor and Peri arrive at the wrong place
at the wrong time
While "Vengeance on Varos" is an example of great writing in the history of "Doctor Who," there are problems with it. My biggest gripe is the same as with "Attack of the Cybermen." Too often, the action is diverted from the Doctor and Peri. The first episode's twenty minutes or so features very little of our favourite Time Lord and we get multiple scenes of tedious dialogue, which is supposed to move the story forward, but doesn't exactly accomplish its task. A great deal of the dialogue doesn't even make much sense. However, once the Doctor arrives and finds himself on the run, the story becomes at once quite tense and exciting. The episode also has a genuinely thrilling cliffhanger ending, and you really must wonder how the Doctor could possibly escape this one alive since he seems on the brink of death.

All in all, "Vengeance on Varos" is an overlooked gem. It stands out as a testament that the show's quality didn't dip so dramatically at this point. As always, Colin Baker performs wonderfully and there's lots of creepy, unsettling atmosphere prevalent throughout the serial. Of all the stories from Season 22, this one is probably the best. Let's just remember this feeling when it comes time to watch "Mark of the Rani" and "Timelash." (Gulp)

Coming Next Time: How many times have you ever heard the word 'luddite' in conversation? Well, your about to hear it a lot more since they make up a great deal of the plot for "Mark of the Rani."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review - "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Volumes 1 & 2"

I will have to perfectly honest with you all. When I gave such high praise to the BBC Audio's recordings of the Sherlock Holmes audio adventures, I really was coming only from a stand point of knowing about the adaptations of the canon. I had listened to the "Further Adventures" stories, but only extracts here and there, and I couldn't locate any of those stories on CD. Luckily, I found them on and I was finally able to listen to these adventures for a low price (the preceding was in no way a paid advertisement from and I am in no way connected to the website or its affiliates in any business capacity).

So, with my new acquisitions I set out to listen to more of these audio adventures starring Clive Merrison as Sherlock Holmes and Andrew Sachs (taking over the role of Watson from the late Michael Williams). Did they live up my high expectations? The BBC had raised the bar high in regard to Sherlockian audio, so I decided to plunge headlong in and find out.

Tackling "Volume 1" first, I must say that Bert Coules, the author of these stories, has kept the Doylean spirt alive. While "Volume 1" does seem rather tame in comparison to the volume which followed it, I am sure that this collection was testing the waters and seeing what sort of reaction could he garnered from the recordings. Needless to say, Clive Merrison is still in excellent form as Holmes, easily making him the best actor to have lent his voice to the character (one of these days I really ought to get around to matching Merrison, Rathbone, Briggs and Simon Callow together in a head-to-head-to-head-to-head Sherlockian radio battle royale). Also, Andrew Sachs has comfortably integrated himself into the 221b Baker Street family as Watson. His characterization is a warm, humane one and he seems at ease in the role.

While the cast is brilliant, what of the stories themselves? Any pastiche writer has some trouble on their hands when adapting one of the lost adventures. They must not only feel Doylean, but have to integrate seamlessly into the canon. The series' premiere episode, "The Madness of Colonel Warburton" is regrettably rather dull. The titular madness is merely the colonel's interest in spiritualism and the occult (probably in part inspired by Doyle's own curiosity with spiritualism). However, it seems as though Coules was just trying to shoe-horn the topic into one of his scripts as it doesn't really make a great deal of sense. Luckily, more can be gained from the series' second episode, "The Star of the Adelphi." Interestingly, the case which Holmes investigates in this episode is actually based on a real-life murder case which rocked the Adelphi Theater in December of 1897. Lastly, "The Savior of Cripplegate Square" is an interesting flashback story told from Holmes' point-of-view concerning his very first case. This audio recording also benefits from a wonderful guest turn from Tom Baker.

Moving onto "Volume 2," I must say that this set cleared up any of the problems that I had with the first series. By now everyone seems far more comfortable in their roles, and we can really get back to the style of show which made the BBC's adaptations of the canon so enjoyable. First up in "Volume 2" is "The Abergavenny Murder," which is by far worth the price of the collection alone. Bert Coules creates a real tour-de-force in this episode, which relies on the performances of Clive Merrison and Andrew Sachs alone. When an unidentified man drops dead in Baker Street, it is up to Holmes and Watson to figure out who he is and what circumstances surround his mysterious death.

The two next two stories in the collection are are par on with the show's level of excitement throughout. "The Shameful Betrayal of Miss Emily Smith" is a wonderfully plotted impossible mystery and even has Mark Gatiss guest starring. This collection's last two stories, "The Tragedy of Hanbury Street" and "The Determined Client" are both rather dark and morbid stories, and although the story telling is wonderful, they are rather depressing to listen to. But, the quality of the show's is still grand and highly recommended.

To the Doyle enthusiast, the canonical adaptions is the best place to start with this series. All of the 56 short stories and 4 novels are preserved on CD (the box set collection is one of my proudest possessions). After that, I would highly recommend this series. At the time of this review, I am still working my way through some of the "Further Adventures'" stories, but a review of Volumes 3 and 4 should be due in the coming weeks. "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Volumes 1 & 2" deserve a well awarded 4 out of 5 stars.

...And to anyone interested, that battle of the radio Holmes' that I spoke of above will be forthcoming...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sixth Doctor Part III - " Attack of the Cybermen"

A group of gangsters are plotting to steal thousands in diamonds from the Bank of England. The group will enter through the sewer system which runs underneath the bank. However, they are unaware that only a few days earlier two workmen were brutally murdered by a strange creature in the very same sewer system. All the while, the TARDIS has arrived in London and the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) soon find themselves in a quandary when their confronted by the Cybermen.

"Attack of the Cybermen" can be viewed in some respects as Colin Baker's first true "Doctor Who" serial. Though he had starred in "The Twin Dilemma," that serial was tacked on at the end of Peter Davison's last season. "Attack of the Cybermen" was a brand new season - and an entirely new format. The show was now be broadcast over the course of two consecutive Saturdays and had a new running time of 45 minutes. To anyone who was familiar with the routine of the show, this change could be quite jarring, but I had started "Doctor Who" with the newer seasons, which also are broadcast in 45 minute long episodes.

With the beginning of a new season, it seems as though Colin Baker has mellowed out a little. He is still the rather conceited, pompous Doctor of before, but he has found himself a good balance between pompous prig and humane Doctor. It also helps that he is not introduced in this episode trying to strangle Peri. Colin Baker continues to grow on me. I liked him from the outset, however he continues to redefine himself and I find that I do not have the same view on him as other fans of the series do. That same statement can be applied to the writing of the show. While some fans say that the quality of the show's writing decreased dramatically at this juncture, "Attack of the Cybermen" is a well-plotted serial. It may begin with too many plot devices for itself to handle, but they are all tied up nicely in the end.

This story also introduces a quite surprising change which occurs in the series' run. Season 22 of the Classic Series ("Attack of the Cybermen" attacked as the Season 22 opener) is incredibly dark."Attack of the Cybermen" is one of the more violent stories from the Classic Series, and this dark trend will weave itself into upcoming stories in the series ("Vengeance on Varos" and "Revelation of the Daleks" especially). There were complaints at the time of the story's airing that the story was too violent, however this dark atmosphere do add to the overall villainous quality of the Cybermen.

The Cybermen have forcefully entered the Doctor's TARDIS 
My complaints about "Attack of the Cybermen" are few. For the most part, it is the fact that the Doctor's involvement in the story is minimal as the story begins. In my mind when you have a character as great as the Doctor that he should be utilized throughout the story. I know that the first portion of the story has to set up all of the plot points which will come into play as the story progresses, but it seems as though the story is always shifting away from the Doctor and focusing on other characters instead. Nevertheless, this is more of a nitpick than a real compliant. Surely, "Attack of the Cybermen" is a flawed story, but surely not a terrible one and is enjoyable in the extreme.

My thoughts about "Attack of the Cybermen" are essentially outlined in the above sentence. Colin Baker again turns out a good performance. He has mellowed out a bit so the Doctor is now a bit more identifiable Overall, it's an enjoyable story and a highly recommended one for Classic Who fans.

Coming Next Time: The Doctor will enter the Punishment Dome and face a series of unspeakable trials in "Vengeance on Varos."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sherlock and the Phantom

I would like to start off this post by proclaiming two things.

1) For all those who are anticipating my next review of the Sixth Doctor's tenure, "Attack of the Cybermen," that will be along shortly as will the rest of that review series.

2) I have to say that the real reason for writing this analysis today is because I have lately been watching the videos on the YouTube channel, "Phantom Reviews." The Phantom Reviewer's videos are fantastic and very enjoyable for a mild-mannered phantom fan such as myself. So, if by happenstance you end up reading this blog Mr. Reviewer, I just wanted to say thanks for creating such enjoyable reviews.

Now that we've cleared that up, let;s begin the post proper...

Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, a musical genius who hides his countenance behind a mask, was created by French reporter and novelist Gaston Leroux in 1911. Since then, the Phantom has grown immensely - he has become more than the antagonist of a rather disjointed melodramatic mystery. Due to the enduring appeal of both Sherlock Holmes and the Phantom, it seems very likely that novelists would throw the two characters together. Yet, the pairing of the detective and the Opera Ghost has only occurred three times. It's unusual when you compare this to the fact that the list of stories where Holmes has met Count Dracula is almost as long as your arm (if not longer).

To be perfectly frank, I have not read the very first book which paired Holmes and the Phantom. Published in 1993, "The Canary Trainer" was the third of three pastiches written by Nicholas Meyer (following "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and "The West End Horror" respectively). Nevertheless, the reviews that I have read of Meyer's novel are not the best. Set during the Great Hiatus, Holmes has taken up the position as a violinist at the Paris Opera House and reunites with Irene Adler to defeat the Phantom haunting the populaire. Again, I can make no formal opinion on this particular novel, however I can give you my opinions on the next two books.

Published the following year in 1994, "Angel of the Opera," became the second novel to feature Holmes and the Phantom. Sam Siciliano's novel is not exactly the epitome of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The main problems is how the author decided that he wanted to disregard Arthur Conan Doyle's canon and create his own interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. From the outset, we don't have Holmes working alongside Dr. Watson since apparently the two men have had something of a falling out (a pretty bad one if Watson decided to kill Holmes off in his writing). And so, Holmes goes off to assist his cousin, Dr. Henry Vernier. Soon, Holmes receives an offer from the mangers from the Paris Opera House to help get rid of the ghost which seems to haunt the theater.

The presentation of Holmes is mixed throughout this book. When he's not living up the standards of Doyle's original character, he is bossing people around and acting as though he is far superior to everyone. Now, let's just stop and analyze that for a moment shall we? Sherlock Holmes was never exactly presented as a nice, charming, likable guy, but this seems to be going just a bit far. I mean, a Sherlock Holmes novel where Holmes is pretty much insulting the majority of the book's main characters is disappointing. But, I should move on. For the most part, the characters of Gaston Leroux's novel aren't exactly treated wonderfully either. The Phantom is done in an okay manner and Siciliano presents Erik, the Phantom as being a self-loathing, depressed wanna-be Don Juan.

Well, it's about time that we actually look at a good pastiche. "Rendezvous at the Popualaire" was the third novel to feature Holmes and the Phantom. Published in 2011, this book decided not to put Holmes in the Gaston Leroux novel, but inserted the detective in the plot of the beloved musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Authoress, Kate Workman actually manages to weave a taught, enjoyable story which I easily read in two sittings. She also manages to create more than just a Phantom vs. Holmes book because the first few chapters deal with Sherlock Holmes who has come to a great crossroads in his life. Without fear of spoilers, I can tell you that Holmes is badly injured during a stand-off with Professor Moriarty and retires from the detective trade, until he is enticed into taking on the Opera Ghost case.

While perhaps not strictly adhering to Doyle's canon, the presentations of Holmes and Watson (yes Dr. Watson is actually in this one) is well done - albeit perhaps too humane. Nonetheless, there are some wonderful set pieces in the story including the tense opening and later on in the story Holmes actually sword duels with the Phantom. The following year, Workman released a sequel to her novel this time entitled, "I Will Find the Answer" found Holmes and Watson reuniting with the Phantom to investigate a doctor by the name of Henry Jekyll and the mysterious Mr. Hyde.

Without a doubt, in crossover pastiches like this, there is going to be something compromised with the character of Sherlock Holmes to make the story line make sense. However, when writing a story in the style of another author's fidelity to their work is imperative. While these two books outlined above are by no means perfect, they do have their enjoyable moments and I do recommend them to fans of Sherlock Holmes and the Phantom. However, be warned - you must enter these novels with the knowledge that liberties have had to be made.

Coming Soon: Those creative liberties I mentioned above? When do they go too far? Check back to "The Consulting Detective" in the near future as I examine The Good, the Bad and the Just Plain Ugly: An Analysis of Creative Liberties Taken Too Far. It promises to be most interesting...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Giant Rat!

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared." - "The Sussex Vampire"
Out of these short lines penned in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," Arthur Conan Doyle opened the flood gates for writers in the future. Pastiche writers jumped on this throwaway reference to an untold case and today there are countless numbers of short stories and novels which feature the great detective and "the story for which the world is not yet prepared."

So, where does one begin with recounting the history of the Giant Rat?Two of the earliest mentions of the story occurred during the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of made at Universal. In "The Spider Woman," Bruce's Watson sees his account of the story written up in an old scrapbook, and in "Pursuit to Algiers," the doctor recounts the story over dinner to a group aboard a cruise ship. Funnily enough, to thoroughly explain his story to the guests, Watson utilizes props readily available at the table - a stick of celery stands in for Holmes while a dinner roll stands in for Watson.

In the abominable 1975 novel, "Sherlock Holmes and the War of the Worlds," it is revealed that Professor George Edward Challenger aided Holmes in his search for the giant rat. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize Challenger as being the hero from another series of stories written by Doyle. Challenger debuted in the 1912 novel, "The Lost World" where he leads an expedition to a lost plateau and discover dinosaurs roaming free ("Jurassic Park" eat your heart out).  Also during the '70's, the Doctor met the Giant Rat in the beloved "Doctor Who" serial, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" my review of which can be read here.

1987 saw the release of perhaps one of the very best Sherlock Holmes pastiches very written. Richard L. Boyer's "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" still stands out to me as being perhaps the definitive version of the lost story, and although I read the book for the first time over three years ago, it still delivers a haunting quality when I think about it. Boyer's novel captures the Doylean voice wonderfully. The book also gives Holmes a chance to solve the mystery using deductive reasoning and logic - something which is lacking in many Sherlock Holmes pastiches today.

David Stuart Davies (author of "The Tangled Skein,") tried his hand at penning the giant rat's story in "The Shadow of the Rat." While Davies' novel is by no means the epitome of the lost story, it was an enjoyable read. Sadly, it was not as memorable as Boyer's Sherlockian effort, and what really let the plot down was the fact that Holmes does not act normally throughout the story. Throughout the novel, Holmes is hypnotized by the villains of the book, and therefore bows down to their mercy. However, much like Richard L. Boyer's novel, Davies expertly captures the style of Doyle's writing and it was an enjoyable read.

There have been many other contributions to the Sherlockian mythos concerning the giant rat (almost too many to talk about here - and I have not read them all). One wonders what makes this particular untold story so famous among writers. Perhaps it's the promise of Gothic horror and mystery which makes this story so appealing. The fact that Holmes says this story is one for which the world is not yet prepared tantalizes readers and writers alike to bring life to the most notorious untold story of them all. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Guest Starring as Mr. Holmes

Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in "Without a Clue"
The name Sherlock Holmes has been able to lure some of the biggest names in show business. Famous actors have taken to donning the deerstalker and Inverness to take on the role of the great detective. In today's analysis, I will be taking a look at some of the most famous thespians ever to take on the role of Holmes. Today I will not discuss such actors as Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett since they are so intertwined with the role of Holmes, they needn't really be looked at in depth.

I suppose the place to truly begin is with one of the earliest chronological guest turns as Holmes. After he appeared in 1959's "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Christopher Lee turned to taking on the role of Holmes in the rather dreadful "Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes" better known to English-speaking audiences as "Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace." I sad that I have to begin this analysis with such a bad film as this, but it is honestly a very disappointing film. This surely stems from the fact that the movie was a French/German/Italian production. The script is a strange combination of "The Valley of Fear" and pastiche as Holmes and Moriarty race against the clock to retrieve the necklace of Cleopatra.

Christopher Plummer as Holmes in "Murder
by Decree" from 1979
Then during the '70's, when Sherlock Holmes was making a real comeback (perhaps partly thanks to Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution), Stewart Granger was given the role of Holmes in a t.v. production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Granger, a star during the 1950's in such swashbuckling epics as "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Scaramouche." Granger is a good actor, but perhaps mis-cast in the role of Holmes. He doesn't exactly  come across as the cold, calculating genius of Doyle's detective.

Perhaps, I ought to look at some of the good star turns as Holmes. Beginning in 1979, Christopher Plummer took over the role of Holmes in the movie "Murder by Decree." Perhaps at the time of release, Plummer wasn't the biggest star, however Plummer has risen to stardom today. Plummer's performance is one of the very best - although at odds with Doyle's original characterization. This is a very humane Holmes, however for this story to really work, Holmes has to be a caring character. "Murder by Decree" tells the story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (played wonderfully by James Mason) as they wind their way through Britain's aristocracy in the search for Jack the Ripper. I give high praise to Plummer's performance, and to the movie on a whole, as it is surely one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes movies ever committed to celluloid.

In 1988, Michael Caine turned up as Sherlock Holmes (well sort of) in the comedy, "Without a Clue." The premise for the film is original and very enjoyable. Dr. Watson (played by Ben Kingsley) is actually the brains behind the detective duo and hires a drunken, dim-witted actor (Caine) to play Holmes. Despite the fact that "Without a Clue" isn't the ideal Holmes film for fans of the great detective, Caine's performance is both comical and at times moving and he surely provides a great performance.

I could go on and on with a list of stars to have turned up as Holmes: Tom Baker, Leonard Nimoy, Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant, Jonathon Pryce etc... But what would an analysis of stars in the role of Sherlock Holmes be without a mention of Robert Downey Jr.? Downey Jr. may not be every Sherlockian's cup of tea, but you do have to acknowledge that his performance (which coincided with the release of BBC's "Sherlock") really regenerated interest in Holmes. Even though 2009's "Sherlock Holmes" presented the detective as more of an action hero akin to James Bond than the intellectual master, there were some very nice references made to Doyle's canon, which could excite any true Doylean.