I come to Big Finish’s new Gallifrey series from a slightly different angle from most of its listeners. I listened to the first three series several years ago, and was unimpressed – I remember the first series as being moderately entertaining fluff, while the second and third series got so far up their own arsehole they actually succeeded at navel-gazing from the inside, (This may be an unfair judgement. I remember them as being the very definition of fanwank, but it may well be that the attempt to do a fifteen-part epic story was just too ambitious for my own attention span).
But series three of Gallifrey had ended on a cliffhanger – the start of The Time War, with ‘some metal gentlemen’ having infected all of Gallifrey with a virus. And if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s the Time War. Especially since reading Richard & Alex’s wonderful Fractal History Of The Time War, I’ve been treating the Time War in my head like a gigantic multidimensional puzzle.
The interesting thing about the Time War is that the further one gets from ‘canon’, the more interesting the stories become. The Faction Paradox books are among the best books I’ve ever read, as is Dead Romance (which is slightly more ‘canon’ than the books). The Faction Paradox audios (with officially licensed Doctor Who baddies) and the Eighth Doctor books are good – sometimes very good – but rarely great. And the actual 2005-2009 TV series that established a version of the war as ‘canon’ is, to my mind, pretty much uniformly awful. The Time War/The War/The War In Heaven is as much as anything a war between alternative versions of history, and a history written by the winners and imposed from above is usually far less interesting than the multiple perspectives of the oppressed – would you rather read Homage To Catalonia or a piece of Falangist propaganda?
That’s not to compare Russel Davies to Generalissimo Franco – though I can imagine certain of the more rabid message board denizens emulating the example of the Tilbury dockers – Davies has actually been remarkably good on the issue of ‘canon’, loudly and publicly refusing to use his position of authority (in the minds of the kind of fans who like authorities) to adjudicate on what does and doesn’t ‘count’. For all the faults I find with him, Davies’ view is an inclusive one.
Rather, it’s to argue that those who are looking for certainty and ‘canon’ are limiting themselves unnecessarily (an argument I have made before, of course, in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!). The Daleks as one possible Enemy in the Time War is a decent, though rather obvious, seed for other stories. The Daleks as *the* Enemy, on the other hand, closes off the other possibilities (an incursion of Time Lords from another ‘bottle universe’, the Time Lords themselves in the future/past, a new idea that radically disrupts ossified ways of thinking, the writers of the books themselves, a non-existent threat created purely to give the illusion of conflict, humanity, the vampires/Mal’akh wanting their universe back, the new TV series itself… ).
It might be fun, in fact, to do a few posts here looking at different options as to who or what The Enemy is. I particularly like the war between the Time Lords and The Enemy as the war between the ‘classic’ (small-c conservative, big-L Liberal) and Welsh (New Labour – modern, glossy, “we can brook no criticism, because however bad it is, it’s better than the horrible wilderness years we had before, do you want Thatcher back/the show off the air again?”) series…
But anyway, if we pop out of this digression from a digression from a digression, the Gallifrey audios – like the Big Finish audios generally – are in an odd place when it comes to ‘canon’ for those who care about such things. They’re officially licensed, but have to be approved by the makers of the current show. But at the same time, they can’t make reference to anything in that show. So even though Gary Russell, who is in charge of the Gallifrey series, is also a script editor on the Welsh series, and he has clearly stated (including on the special features for these stories) that he intends the War that happened off-stage between series three and four to be the Time War featured in the TV show, this can’t be stated directly in the stories themselves. This leads to an interesting kind of forced ambiguity being imposed *against* authorial intent.
And whether intentionally or not, this has produced a story where the in-universe and out-of-universe epistemic statuses are mirrored. We have a multiple-universe story (always a very good thing), but one where all the alternate universes travelled to are just that – alternate universes. They exist not as the parallel worlds in, say, Lance Parkin’s Faction Paradox novel Warlords Of Utopia, do – as worlds whose divergences produce results both good (in Parkin’s case, a peace that has lasted millennia, and a flowering of culture and technology) and bad (dictatorship, paedophilia as social norm, slavery). Rather, they exist as wrong turns that could have been taken, lessons that this (or in this case, the main Doctor Who universe) is the best of all possible worlds, with each of these universes being defined as wrong, inferior timelines, and each one diverging in precisely one way, which leads to disaster.
So along with the ‘real’ Romana, Leela and K9, plus the characters Narvin and Braxiatel from earlier stories, we get alternative versions of Romana (both her first and second regenerations), Leela (an articulate, educated fascist torturer, whose distinctly different tones show once and for all that Leela’s rather stilted way of talking is a deliberate acting decision by Louise Jameson, rather than a poor performance), two Sixth Doctors, and more, all in some ways ‘worse’ than the ones we know.
(Sadly there is no alternate K9. John Leeson was the star of the earlier Gallifrey series, with his bitching between the two K9s. Here, there is only one, and he doesn’t get to shine the same way except during his brief promotion to Castellan).
Of the four stories here – which can only be bought as a bundle, though for a very reasonable £30 (£35 if you want the CDs rather than just downloads), by far the best is CD3 – Gallifrey: Annihilation. Oddly, given that Russell was a co-writer, and he’s known for being more obsessed with continuity and fan-wank than most, there are no alternative Doctors or Romanas or whoever (though Lord Prydon *may* be intended to be an alternate Master, given that he’s played by Geoffrey Beevers), and surprisingly/thankfully Katy Manning isn’t playing Jo Grant or Iris Wildthyme, but a female Borussa.
For those of us who like playing games with that sort of thing, in fact, this story could fit quite neatly in with Faction Paradox, as it’s set on a Gallifrey where Rassilon was turned into a vampire by the Great Vampire, and there’s a civil war between the Vampire Gallifreyans and the ‘True Lords’, who never developed time travel but *could* regenerate. This could easily be the timeline from which the Faction’s masks come, and it will be in my ‘personal canon’ from now on. (Also in my ‘personal canon’, these are four of the Nine Homeworlds. No-one said the Nine Homeworlds had to be in *this* timeline – or if they did I don’t remember, which is the same thing).
It’s quite a nice piece of space-opera-Gothic, Beevers makes an appropriately sepulchral vampire, and it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour, though hardly ground-breaking stuff.
The worst, unfortunately, is Justin Richards’ Gallifrey: Disassembled. I say unfortunately, partly because this has the best performances of the bunch (from Louise Jameson as two Leelas, and a great turn by Colin Baker as Lord Burner), and the first half-hour or so is genuinely good, but it soon degenerates into a load of nonsense, with illogical, made-up-on-the-fly rules about what does and doesn’t count as a paradox, hints at Braxiatel being the Doctor’s brother, explanations as to why the Doctor originally left Gallifrey…
When I say that the big turning point in this universe is that Zagreus took the place of The Other in its history, I think that will tell everyone all they need to know (if you don’t know what those words mean, be thankful…)
The other two stories, Gallifrey: Reborn and Gallifrey: Forever, bookend the series quite nicely, providing us with, respectively, the set-up for this four-story series, and a new status quo at the end with Romana and Leela trapped on a Gallifrey which hadn’t yet invented time travel but where Romana’s now president.
Overall, quality-wise this sits somewhere in the middle of Big Finish’s range. Nowhere near a genuine masterpiece like Peri And The Piscon Paradox or some of their other recent triumphs, this still feels like it was created because of someone’s desire to tell the story, and so it’s still above some of the landfill “let’s have the Doctor team up with two companions from different eras, and have them fight the Celestial Toymaker, who’s teamed up with the Zarbi” stuff they do when inspiration fails completely.
You already know if this is the kind of thing you like or not (in fact you probably either ordered it in advance or are never going to hear it), but for the kind of thing it is, it’s well done. And thankfully, either through diktat from above or through taste on the part of Gary Russell, it leaves as many questions about the Time War unanswered at the end as at the beginning.
Big Finish’s output has been very, very variable recently. In the last couple of years, since they started doing ‘trilogies’ rather than stand-alone stories, they’ve become increasingly likely to do complicated continuity-twisting stories – the Sixth Doctor travelling with the Second Doctor’s companion, the Sixth Doctor travelling with the *Eighth* Doctor’s companion, three Celestial Toymaker stories in a year… this month’s story involves the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn teaming up with DI Menzies (a character from the Sixth Doctor’s future who has to pretend she doesn’t know him) against Thomas Brewster (a character from a Fifth Doctor trilogy from a couple of years ago).
But then you get stuff like A Death In The Family, the recent story by Steven Hall (the writer of The Raw Shark Texts), which manages to play with continuity lightly and tell a story about the nature of reality, the nature of fiction, the power of words, and the sacrifices people will make for each other. The gimmick – the Seventh Doctor and Evelyn – and the continuity references (it ties up threads from at least eight different stories going back nearly a decade) don’t matter. A Death In The Family is as good as anything Big Finish have done in the last five years, and was far and away the best thing they put out last year.
It’s only the 23rd of January, but I already know what the best thing they’ll put out this year is.
Peri and the Piscon Paradox is part of the Companion Chronicles range – a range of stories closer to audiobooks than the full-cast dramas Big Finish usually do, where an actor playing one of the Doctor’s companions tells a story over the course of a single CD, with one other actor usually taking part to play a character they’re narrating to or something.
This one, by Nev Fountain, is a little different in that it’s two CDs long, and the second actor is actually Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. It’s also the single best multi-Doctor story ever. This post, like all my reviews, may contain spoilers from here on in, but be assured I’m not actually spoiling anything.
The first disc tells a story of Peri and the Fifth Doctor fighting a fish-monster-thing in LA in 2009, with the assistance of Peri’s ‘forty-several’ year old self, an agent for a secret government agency who Peri quickly grows to despise. It ends with Peri vowing never to become like her older self.
The second disc tells the story of Doctor Perpugilliam Brown, presenter of a ‘celebrity relationship counselling’ TV show, and how she gets dragged into a complicated plot by a man claiming to be someone she once met in Lanzarotte, more than twenty years ago, even though he looks nothing like him, and how that plot involves tricking a past self she can’t remember.
Those who remember Nev Fountain’s earlier Big Finish work, especially The Kingmaker, will recognise a number of his regular motifs as the story goes on. Not only are there multiple Doctors interacting without being fully aware of each other’s actions, and time paradoxes, there are many, many jokes set up in the first half that only pay off in the second. The first three-quarters of this story, in fact, is pretty much laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I know it’s hard to believe, given that Fountain also wrote for Dead Ringers, but it is a good piece of comedy.
And Nicola Bryant is excellent. Despite the fact that she’s hampered by having to do the accent and characterisation she lumbered herself with as a much younger actor, she manages to play the two Peris remarkably well, and it’s an astonishingly subtle, nuanced performance. Colin Baker is, of course, as excellent as ever, and is in it more than you might think.
But it’s only at the end, when the full story is revealed, that what Fountain is doing really falls into place and you realise just how good this actually is. In a couple of lines of dialogue, Fountain clears up a continuity problem that avid fans reading this have already spotted. At the same time, he also manages to make the story about things – about growing up, about betraying our youthful ideals, about our youthful ideals betraying us, and about how we harden with age and with compromise. It’s a very sad, very political story, in the end. He gives the story a bittersweet ending that fits in with my own preferred ‘all stories are true’ Doctor Who ‘canon’, and he manages to make the same scene seen from two different angles mean two totally different things. It turns what was already one of the best stories Big Finish have done in a long time into one of the best they’ve ever done.
A Death In The Family is better, but that requires you to have listened to more stories and to have an attachment to the characters. This is a wonderful comedy that suddenly punches you in the gut, and will do so no matter who you are.
All the praise that people have been giving Moffat’s A Christmas Carol should really be going to this story – it does the same things (and indeed some of the same things that this month’s main-range Big Finish story does) so much better that the TV story looks like a sad parody of this one. It’s a story that anyone at all could listen to and get a *lot* out of, and it’s something that could only have been done as Doctor Who. I’ve only listened to it once, but it may be in my all-time favourite Doctor Who stories. It’s certainly in my favourite Big Finishes (along with Davros, The Kingmaker, Jubilee, A Death In The Family, Doctor Who And The Pirates, The Holy Terror and Spare Parts) and is one I would urge anyone to listen to.
Even many Big Finish fans don’t buy the Companion Chronicles, because they’re seen as cheap filler things This one really, really isn’t. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. Buy it, if you like funny, intelligent, thought provoking science fiction, whether or not it’s labelled Doctor Who. It’s only a tenner as a download, and it’s worth every penny.
I do have one proviso though, that I feel obliged to mention even though it may be slightly more of a spoiler than the other things I’ve said
and that is that the ending may be triggering for those who have experienced spousal abuse. It’s dealt with sensitively, and in a way that’s necessary to the plot, but be aware that it’s there.
This CD only came out today, so for once I’ll precede my review with a Spoiler Warning. I don’t actually have a *lot* to say about it, but it’s worthy of comment, so…
Have you been adequately warned?
Then I’ll begin…
Hornets Nest: The Stuff Of Nightmares, by Paul Magrs (who I’ll be talking about in a future hyperpost, incidentally), has been getting a lot of publicity, because it’s Tom Baker’s first ‘proper’ return to the role of The Doctor since he left in 1981 (he did a thing for the godawful charidee Dimensions In Time excrescence, and he reads some of the audiobooks of the Target novels and narrates some of the soundtrack CDs of lost stories, but it’s the first actual new story he’s done since Logopolis).
Rather surprisingly, he’s chosen to work with the BBC rather than with Big Finish, who up to now have produced every legitimate Doctor Who audio story since 1999. This caused a huge amount of worry among some people, until it was announced that Big Finish’s license had been renewed. Judging by this, they needn’t have worried – rather surprisingly, the BBC can’t compete with Big Finish when it comes to producing audio drama.
Partly, that’s because that’s not what they’re really trying to do here. The format isn’t like Big Finish’s regular range – an audio play with dialogue, sound effects and music. Rather it’s closer to their Companion Chronicles format – a narrator or narrators doing what amounts to reading a prose story, but with dialogue supplied by other actors, along with background effects.
This similarity is unfortunately exacerbated by the fact that this story has two narrators and a storyline about inanimate objects coming to life – just like The Mahogany Murders, a recent and rather better Companion Chronicle.
In fact, the story, while well-written (some great lines, like “I opened the badger’s brain, using very tiny brain scissors”, from the Doctor) , is surprisingly generic. In fact, it ‘reads’ like a Pertwee (or first-Baker-series) story – the plot (a factory owner, originally motivated by environmental concern, is brainwashed by evil insects and used by them to turn stuffed animals into drones controlled by the insects, which then kill prominent political figures) sounds like someone’s half-remembered the plots to The Green Death and Spearhead From Space and turned them into one story. It’s Generic Pertwee Plot #12, and feels like something Bob Holmes (and Holmes is definitely the influence here, with the mind-control and inanimate objects coming to life, but it’s the comparatively restrained Holmes of the Pertwee years rather than the Gonzo Gothic of the Baker era) tossed off in five minutes as a gap-filler.
It also doesn’t play to Baker’s strengths – Baker does a great job here in the bits where he’s narrating (the narration switches between Baker and 70s companion Mike Yates, played by Richard Franklin, another link back to the Pertwee years), but he’s always been at his best when interacting with others – the contrast between his Doctor’s eccentricity and the normal characters around him always being a big part of his appeal. By having so much of the story told as infodump, that appeal is largely lost – there is very little actual dialogue in this (and for the first long chunk of the story it seems horribly like the Doctor will be confined to the odd line here or there, before he takes over the narration).
For an audience coming to this from the other BBC audiobooks – straight readings of novelisations of TV shows – this will be a pleasant change, but compared to Big Finish’s productions it seems slightly underwhelming – it’s just not using the medium well enough.
That said, I will still be buying the rest of the series – it’s definitely entertaining, and while the story is not up to the standard of Big Finish’s best, it’s definitely not *bad* either – it’s a pleasant, diverting hour-and-ten-minutes of entertainment, with Tom Baker getting to do his thing again. It’s firmly aimed at a casual nostalgia market, rather than being aimed at either hardcore fans or people who are interested in innovative drama, but that’s not a bad thing. On its own terms it’s enjoyable enough, but I hope if Baker does any more, that he will turn to Big Finish…
THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY (WHICH MAY NEVER HAPPEN, BUT THEN AGAIN MAY) ABOUT A MAN WHO CAME FROM THE SKY IN A BIG BLUE BOX AND DID ONLY GOOD.
IT TELLS OF HIS TWILIGHT, WHEN THE GREAT BATTLES WERE OVER AND THE GREAT MIRACLES LONG SINCE PERFORMED, OF HIS HIS ENEMIES CONSPIRED AGAINST HIM AND OF THAT FINAL WAR IN THE BLIND WASTES BENEATH THE MEDUSA CASCADE; OF THE WOMEN HE LOVED AND OF THE CHOICES HE MADE FOR THEM; OF HOW HE BROKE HIS MOST SACRED OATH, AND HOW FINALLY ALL THE THINGS HE HAD WERE TAKEN FROM HIM SAVE FOR ONE.
IN THE BIG CITY, PEOPLE STILL SOMETIMES GLANCE UP HOPEFULLY FROM THE SIDEWALKS, HEARING A DISTANT WHEEZING, GROANING SOUND.. BUT NO: IT’S ONLY A SAW, ONLY A MACHINE. THE DOCTOR DIED TEN YEARS AGO. THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY…
AREN’T THEY ALL?
I didn’t write that, it’s from here. I was actually googling to find the precise wording of the opening paragraph of Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, so I could quote the first couple of sentences, but if you google “This is an imaginary story which may never happen” (without the quotes) that’s the first result involving the quote. One of those synchronicities…
There’s a long tradition in comics of ‘imaginary stories’, started by Superman editor Mort Weisinger in the 1960s (though someone will no doubt point me to an example from Pep Comics from 1939 or something), where stories that ‘didn’t really happen’ could happen – Superman could die, or marry Lois Lane, or split into red and blue versions of himself, or something else that could never happen in the ‘real’ comics, with no consequences – it was just an ‘imaginary story’, not a true story like all the other ones. This later became formalised in both the major comic companies as the series “What If?” in Marvel and “Elseworlds” in DC, where we could ask questions like “What would happen if Superman had landed in King Arthur’s time?”, “What would happen if Superman was adopted by Batman’s parents?” or “What would happen, right, if Batman had been a vampire? Wouldn’t that have been, like, just kickass?”
While these stories *could* have been an exciting and interesting thing to do – a way to tell stories about these well-known characters without having to dot the is and cross the ts and ensure they say nothing that contradicts anything in 70 years of already-mutually-contradictory stories, in fact they never were. In the DC Elseworlds stories, no matter what the premise, it almost always went the same way – everything would turn out exactly as it had ‘in continuity’, just with a different backdrop. Sir Kal would joust with the evil black knight Sir Luthor for the hand of Lady Lois, while his squire Jim Olsen looked on along with his aged mentor Sir Perry The White (I’ve not actually read the ‘what if Superman landed in Camelot?’ one, but I already know exactly how it would go). Meanwhile, in Marvel’s hands, the ‘What If…?’ question was always (for values of always that equal ‘quite often’) answered “the world would have ended”. What if Wolverine had had baked beans instead of tomatoes for his breakfast? – He would have broken wind and alerted the Skrulls to the X-Men’s presence and they’d have destroyed the world. What if Ben Grimm had bent over to tie his shoelaces? – A villain wouldn’t have tripped over them, and wouldn’t have been caught, and would have used his doomsday device…
In other words, what could be a way of freeing writers and artists from the creative straitjacket of continuity is instead turned into a way of reinforcing the primacy of ‘canon’. Things couldn’t be different, because no matter what change you make, no matter how major or minor, things still turn out exactly the same (DC) or the world would end (Marvel) so the only story that ‘matters’ is the mainline one. All is for the best in the best of all possible continuities. Hopelessly Panglossian indeed.
Big Finish also created their own range of ‘Imaginary Stories’ – the Doctor Who: Unbound range of audio stories – in the early 1990s, and for much the same reasons. Fans wanted to hear what it would be like if The Doctor was played by David Warner (the answer is exactly as you’d expect, which is a good thing), or “What if… the Doctor regenerated into a woman?!” or “What if the Valeyard had won?!!!!!”
These plays (which are all, incidentally, in the Big Finish For A Fiver promotion if you want to pick up some fun, cheap entertainment) were done at the time when BF were doing their best work, so they were pretty good, but that’s all they were – pretty good – with one exception, Rob Shearman’s Deadline, starring Sir Derek Jacobi (available here).
While the blurb for that story makes it seem like it’s an absolutely standard Doctor Who story, it’s anything but. In fact, it’s not a Doctor Who story at all, but a story *about* Doctor Who. Jacobi plays a retired writer, a once-prominent playwright who had descended to hack TV work (any resemblance of this character to prominent playwright turned Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman is, one hopes, purely coincidental given the life the character is living). Stuck in a nursing home, slowly losing his sanity, estranged from his family, he muses on where it all went wrong, deciding that the turning point probably came when a TV show for which he’d been commissioned to write, Doctor Who, was cancelled before it ever aired.
While there are many hilarious moments in the story , as one would expect from Shearman, “We have so much in common – we write, we have bladder control, and we’re lonely” being a prime line, the story is one of the darkest, most upsetting pieces of drama I’ve heard in a long time.
Every character is emotionally crippled and monstrous. Martin Bannister, the writer, destroyed three marriages in pursuit of writing which even when he was at his youthful best never had any humanity to it. Sydney, the journalist for the official Juliet Bravo Magazine (Juliet Bravo was a real British TV cop show from the early 80s, which had many of the same writers and directors as Doctor Who, especially from its third series when Robert Holmes’ protege/former Who and Blake’s Seven writer Chris Boucher was the script editor) is a parody of the sad anorak fan (one of the few missteps in the story – this character seems dislikeable because Shearman dislikes people like that, rather than through his own actions). Nurse Wright is a sad old spinster, desperate for a sexual relationship with her patient but turning violent when it looks like it might actually happen, and Martin’s son Philip has spent his entire life trying not to be anything like his father, but is exactly like him in the end, and so desperate to talk to him he fakes his own mother’s death just for an excuse to get back in touch.
Throughout this, we keep slipping into Martin’s fantasy world – the world of the Doctor, made up of Martin’s scripts for those first few episodes (all of which are *almost* exactly like the scripts for early or unmade Hartnell stories, but not quite as good), with Martin as the Doctor – where he can be a good person, and has a granddaughter whom he loves, and where he’s a hero and nothing ever goes wrong. Slowly his dreams start to leak into reality – that wardrobe seems bigger on the inside than on the outside, doesn’t it? And doesn’t that green stain look like alien footprints? – and he has to decide if, in fact, reality is all it’s cracked up to be – if it’s better to be the Doctor, or to be someone whose greatest achievement is that he wrote the fifteen least-popular episodes of Juliet Bravo.
Many of the themes in this story are very much of a part with Shearman’s earlier story The Holy Terror – the writer who harmed his son because of his obsession with his own work, and who retreats into a fantasy world, occurs in both, while the characters being haunted by ghosts of their past, and the thin borderline between reality and fiction, are recurring themes in all Shearman’s Doctor Who work.
Deadline is in an unfortunate position, in that Doctor Who fans are the only people who could really appreciate it, yet that conservative group are probably the least likely group to be able to understand what Shearman is doing. This is simultaneously a Radio 4 Play For Today about a dying writer’s relationship with his family and a genre ‘Elseworlds’ story. In fact, it’s an Elseworlds that manages to use this world as the world from which it departs, rather than the fictional universe it’s ostensibly connected to. Like those Elseworlds, it shows that if you change one thing – in this case, the broadcasting history of a forty-year-old children’s programme – almost nothing would have changed. But like the What If? stories, it shows that for at least one person, getting rid of Doctor Who would have been the equivalent of the end of the world.
In this play, Doctor Who is both the least and most important thing in the world, a pernicious, damaging influence and the one thread of happiness in the mind of a monstrous old man who hurt everyone he touched but himself more than anyone. It’s a bitter, twisted little play, full of spite and heartbreak, but also surprisingly touching. Well worth seeking out.
Tomorrow, Melmoth (yay, more stories about people on their deathbeds! Don’t worry, after that it’ll be superheroes).
Apologies for the continued lack of posts – unfortunately I’ve had to work a lot of long days this week, as we’re preparing for a release. I’m going to try to get a few posts up this weekend, and while I’m away next week (on holiday with my family, with no net access) I’ll try to write a *lot* of stuff, so when I get back I’ll have a backlog to post.
The biggest problem with Paul Sutton’s Thicker Than Water is also its greatest strength, which is that it is explicitly part of a larger continuity, and the end of a ‘story arc’. As (in story terms) the last story to feature Dr Evelyn Smythe, it ties up details of her relationship with the Doctor. It’s a sequel to the earlier story Arrangements For War, where Evelyn’s reactions were based on the events of Project: Lazarus, which was in turn a sequel to Project: Twilight. Meanwhile, the emotional turning point of the last episode (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t yet heard it) is a revelation about the events in a completely different set of stories – the Cyberman trilogy The Reaping, The Gathering and The Harvest, which were in themselves a series of stories involving three different Doctors in reverse-chronological order and…
You see what I mean?
Rather miraculously, the story still works as a decent adventure story without having heard these stories, and for the most part you can pick up what you need to know, but there are a few scenes in the last episode that pack a real punch when you’ve heard them but would just be confusing without it.
Overall, however, the story is extremely effective. Doing the ‘new companion meets an old one’ story a good few months before it happened in the nuWho episode School Reunion, and in a significantly more adult manner, one of the two main plots of this story involves the Doctor taking Melanie Knownasmel off to meet Evelyn, who he credits with having mellowed him and made him a more decent person, but who (it is revealed) he left in a somewhat petulant manner when she decided to marry.
The scenes between the Doctor and Evelyn are some of the best acting you’ll hear – especially at the end when Evelyn tells the Doctor (for the only time) “I love you”. It’s clear in context that she means it in a fatherly way – it’s also clear that he may have loved her in a somewhat different way. But the performances here are a world away from the mopey teenage angsting of the new show – these are very *grown-up* performances, Colin Baker’s Doctor clearly embarrassed by any kind of display of real emotion, his bumptiousness and bluster all shown as cover for a very restrained, repressed person who cares more than he ever dare let show. At their best (and they are at their best here) Colin Baker and Maggie Stables have a rapport completely unlike anything in TV Who – a genuinely adult, *real* relationship between characters who are real people. It’s very unfortunate that it was decided after this to reduce the number of stories featuring Evelyn (and the scripts for those with her in have been noticeably worse since this than the ones before it), as they’re really the only ones in which the Doctor has a truly adult relationship with his companion, and they’re all the better for it.
The main ‘adventure’ plot, on the other hand, is fairly easy to follow for even someone who knows little or nothing of Doctor Who. Doctor Who (the original show and spin-offs, but not the new series) was always about … well, ‘always’ is a big word… one of the most enduring themes of Doctor Who, from the very second story up until the last series, was the fight between small-l liberalism and fascism, specifically Nazism. Almost all the memorable stories in Doctor Who have been about this in some way , from the what-if-the-Nazis-won of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, through the whole of Tom Baker’s first series, through Curse Of Fenric, with villains like the Sontarans being caricature German officers, only missing a monocle.
The audios have returned to this theme a few times – sometimes rather clumsily just having the Doctor fight some Nazis, as in Colditz, but often looking more at the moral issues involved. Davros, for example, is ‘about’ Holocaust denial. This story, in so far as it is ‘about’ anything (and for the most part it’s actually about the human relationships involved, rather than about the subject of the plot) is about the morality of using data from Nazi ‘experiments’ to save lives (see this link if you’re unaware of the debate about this, but be warned – some of the stuff described there would turn anyone’s stomach). Actually, the debate is twisted a couple of times in this for plot purposes – it’s not a straightforward morality tale – but it at least nods to the issues, which is more than many supposedly more thoughtful stories do.
So while by no means the best of the Baker Big Finish stories, this is a good, solid story, raised above what it should have been by the performances of the two leads (and despite Bonnie Langford’s equal billing here, it really is a Sixth Doctor and Evelyn story). The only real annoyance (at least if you’re familiar with the rest of the stories referenced) is that the science at the end is so poor – I for one would like to see a ban on the use of the term ‘DNA’ from all SF/fantasy/superhero stories. DNA DOES NOT DO WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES, SF WRITERS! Today alone, I have ingested chicken DNA, potato DNA, corn DNA, wheat DNA, cow DNA and probably the DNA of a few other species as well. I have not yet turned into a horrible chickpocowheacow , and nor would I have had I injected same directly into my veins. See also black holes (I’m looking at *you*, new Star Trek film).
In general, it’s far better to just use made-up nonsense terms if you’re doing made-up nonsense science – using the real terms won’t make any difference to anyone who doesn’t understand them, and will only remove any suspension of disbelief from those who do.
But that apart, this is definitely worth a listen for Baker and Stables’ performances, and I only hope Big Finish will soon start giving this pairing some more solid stories together.