The Red Lines Page

May 3, 2009

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre: Reviews

msmThere was great enthusiasm for the return of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and the audio series got quite a few reviews. Here are summaries of those which commented on Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre.


Dave Owen in Doctor Who Magazine amusingly compared it with the UK’s written driving test: “It lasts 70 minutes, involved more suspense than you’d ideally want on a weekday afternoon, and the outcome is a mystery until you’re explicitly told.” He liked the way the story “deftly negotiates a number of treacherous ocales”, and saw “Sarah’s fallibility [as the] story’s heart. By walking into a trap, she faces a dramatic deconstruction worthy of a Shakespearian tragic heroine, learning she wasn’t as clever as she thought she was, that her friend is her enemy, that her ally has been symbolically killed, and that she will be implicated in her enemies’ scheme so that she faces not only death but disgrace.

Dave wasn’t so convinced by the plotting (an implausible continuity point from a previous story, and the obscure motivations of the villains); the production (“much of the realization sounds like a paint-by-numbers fleshing out of the proposal); or the dialogue (Wendy’s “over-formal and unnatural” speech, and Sarah’s “inability to make uninformative small talk”). But on the positive side, “there are no redundant lines whatsoever. In summary, though, Dave thinks this audio is worth another hearing “listening to this one a second time yields a wealth of significance absent at first”. Even if it does end the whole series “abruptly […] just as it was shifting into top gear.”

In TV Zone, Richard Atkinson rated the audio third of five in the series (with 6 out of 10), thinking it “much more engaging [than] the patchier contributions of veterans Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts” (authors of the first two episodes). He thought Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre was “genuinely witty with an ambitious scale that takes ‘SJ’ all around the world (more Bond than Bugs).” Richard thought it too similar to David Bishop’s Test of Nerve episode, and suffered “by ending rather abruptly when the villains only reveal themselves at a very late stage”. But he did also say that “it’s certainly successful in bringing our heroine’s paranoia to a quite unnerving climax.”


“Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is a triumph, combining a compelling script with bright performances from a strong cast and a sumptuous soundtrack,” wrote Simon Catlow in a long and interesting review on his own site about the Big Finish audios, Tertiary Console Room.

“A story that plays strongly to the strengths of the series and in the process creates a fitting final instalment” with “an intriguing and rewarding plot” plus “rich characteristics of the regulars”, there is “some welcome humour present which adds flavour to the drama and showcases the characters, particularly Josh. […] Anghelides’ dialogue is excellent and pushes the drama along well without resorting to blatant exposition.”

Simon enjoyed the pairing of Sarah and Wendy Jennings: “Anghelides uses her as a reflection of Sarah’s character before her credibility was destroyed. Thanks to the quality of the script, there is a real sense of believability that Sarah would put her trust into this character that she’s only just met as there is an empathy between them which she doesn’t share with her friends of old.”

He also has lots of praise for the actors: “Fittingly for a series which she is the star, Elisabeth Sladen has saved her best performance for last, showing both her guile and ruthlessness in the pursuit of the truth but balancing it out well with the impression that she’s overlooking something significant in the process.” The series has “reminded us what a good actress Elisabeth Sladen is.” He adds: “Both Jeremy James and Sadie Miller continue to impress with strong performances as Josh and Natalie […] putting their characters together here shows a genuine warmth underpinning the surface spikiness of their relationship with each other.”  And Simon has revised his disappointment from earlier in the series about the returning villain, because “after hearing Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre it becomes obvious that a wholly original character would have lacked the particular resonance [..] adds to the scenes of confrontation between her and Sarah Jane towards the conclusion of the drama.

Simon’s only real reservation was that the attack on the beach “does come off as ill-conceived […] there’s no real sense that they’re in danger”. But other than that, “the story develops excellently, moving deviously,” with the script able to “sustain the spectacle further through an air of unpredictability.” Simon also liked the way that the audio picked up on elements from the previous plays, drawing them together in way that “helps make the whole series more gratifying.”

He was impressed with the way the story used the end-of-series uncertainty to “create a sense of menace and dread […] Sarah’s enemies are out there, waiting to make their final move.” In the concluding scenes, the author raises the tension to “fever pitch.”. In summary, “A stylish close but perhaps not in the climactic conclusion that may have been anticipated.”

On his own site, Cameron Mason was enthusiastic, and rates it 8-9 out of 10: “Peter Anghelides has written a roller-coaster ride of a story. It starts off slowly, building up to thrilling climax that in the end seems a little too rushed—perhaps Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre could have done with being a double CD release.”

He liked the use of a voice mail system, which “works well to show the distance between Sarah and her friends”. And the confrontation between Sarah and her enemy is “an excellent scene […] A fine conclusion that leaves the way open for more.”

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre brings this increasingly assured short series of audio plays to a satisfying conclusion,” wrote Steve Hatcher on the Who Central site [now defunct]. “Peter Anghelides’ tight script, well directed again by Gary Russell, maintains a brisk pace, never allowing the listener’s attention to wander.”

Steve also praised the cast: “Once again Elisabeth Sladen is in fine form as Sarah, and probably for the first time both Jeremy James as Josh and Sadie Miller as Nat are both give enough to do to make a good impression as well.” He was less convinced about the returning villain, who he did not remember, noting that “the line that Sarah utters, when she is confronted by her tormenter [suggests] the writer and producers clearly were not confident that others would not share my confusion.”

“Not Quite a Big Finish” was Paul Halt’s judgement of the audio on the Ratings Guide site. He believed that it “isn’t quite all that I had hoped for”, but gave it 8 out of 10.

Paul enjoyed the story’s “breakneck pace”, but disliked the way that the exposition appeared “in dialogue hints throughout the first fifteen minutes [..] The script is well-written, so this exposition is more or less painless; nevertheless, some listeners may find it a bit frustrating.”

As to the story, it was “more than a little nonsensical, as Sarah travels to India to investigate a bio-warfare scandal from the 1940s and ends up uncovering an even more sinister, modern-day terrorist plot […] more the kind of tale you’d expect from a James Bond movie [and] lacking a real-world connection.”

Nevertheless, Paul thought “the most successful element was the characterization of an increasingly paranoid Sarah Jane. [Elisabeth] Sladen is at her best, playing Sarah at her most flawed and, consequently, most interesting.” He also praised Sadie Miller (“sorely missed” in the previous story), but thought  “Jeremy James’ Josh is a bit underused in this entry, though he plays a significant role in the story’s climax and does a good job with a fairly difficult scene at the end.”

Paul’s major complaint was that the audio “is more of a Season Finale than a Series Finale.” On the other hand, maybe that worked, because he concluded: “I will definitely subscribe again.”

The review by Joe Ford, also on the Ratings Guide site, is more about the whole series than specifically about Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre. He is clearly a big fan of “the exceptionally talented Elisabeth Sladen who imbued her character with a lot of charm and charisma” in the TV series, and who now in the audios “plays it to the hilt, not trying to make her likable or bland but a genuinely interesting character in her own right and well worth her own series.”

Specifically about this audio, Joe liked the “international feel” and the conclusion to “the wonderful ‘arc’ that has ran through the five stories.” He wrote: “The unveiling of the villain of the piece isn’t such a surprise […] but Sarah’s astonished and bitter reaction is well worth the wait. Indeed once the cat is out of the bag and the threat is exposed, the last ten minutes of Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre are utterly gripping. The plan to bring Sarah down is quite ingenious and her apparent helplessness leaves you gasping for a happy ending.”

Indeed, Joe thought there were “lots of lovely bluffs and red herrings”, with “three terrific action scenes […] The final car sequence was one of the best set pieces Big Finish have achieved.”

Roger Pocock seemed pleased with the play, and gave it four stars in his assessment on The Doctor Who Review site [since revised, but archived here] said that it “concludes the series of five plays with the showdown we have all been waiting for, and does it in style.” Roger’s principal reservation was that “At times the dialogue is a little unnatural, and Miss Winters’ motives are never made quite clear enough.”

1 Comment »

  1. I did review it in the fanzine Enlightenment (issue 114 to be precise). I don’t have a copy to hand– I did give you one when you were at Gallifrey in 2003!– but when I find it, I’ll send you the review. My recollection was I thought the story was pretty decent– though I wasn’t so wild about Winters and K9’s involvement– and it was really only let down by sub-par sound design.

    Comment by Graeme Burk — October 4, 2009 @ 3:02 am | Reply

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