A Big Finish A Week 2 – Doctor Who And The Pirates

After no-one seemed to particularly mind which order I do these in, I asked my wife. She’s not a fan, and she would have to put up with me listening to the thing, so it was only fair to make her the final arbiter.
“So I could listen to one with Peter Davison and some ghosts, or maybe a Dalek one, or Doctor Who And The Pirates or”
“Yay, pirates! That’s the one with the singing in isn’t it? I like that one!”

So Doctor Who And The Pirates it is then.

One of the criticisms of the TV series is that most of the Doctor’s companions have been nonentities, and it’s a valid complaint. In the classic series, Romana was an actual character with a real personality, but pretty much all the rest of the companions were interchangeable figures whose only use was to be captured by monsters or to be exposited at. Ace was meant to be different, later on, but was let down by Sophie Aldred’s risible performance.

In the new series (and bear in mind I haven’t watched this year’s episodes) Rose seemed more promising, mostly due to Billie Piper’s performance, but had to bear the twin crosses of being a ‘normal person’ (which seems to translate in the minds of the makers of the show into having no interests outside of pop culture) and also the most specialest person in the whole of ever, which between them managed to crush the character.

So one of the things the audios did very early on is retcon in some better companions (I could, at this point, explain how they managed to do that, with reference to the problems with Trial Of A Time Lord, but either you already know or you really don’t care). In particular, there was Dr Evelyn Smythe, created in the sixth Big Finish audio The Marian Conspiracy, by Jacqueline Rayner, the writer of this story.

Evelyn is by far the best companion ever to have been created for Doctor Who, and the only one who’s a fully fleshed-out character. She’s an actual strong female character, and even more astonishingly for genre material (by which I mean the genres that are stocked in Forbidden Planet, not mystery or nurse novels, but I don’t know of a better catch-all term for SF, fantasy, superhero and horror) that doesn’t mean ‘kicking ass and taking names’ but rather drinking cocoa and taking heart pills. It’s certainly *possible* that she dresses up in a black leather bodice and high-heeled boots, but if she does, it’s strictly in private – the only clothing that’s ever mentioned in the audios is her collection of cardigans.

Evelyn is an academic, rather unworldly, highly intelligent (not at the Doctor’s level, but then who is?), deeply caring about others. Her first marriage split because she was more interested in her academic career (she’s an historian) and she seems to feel very disappointed that she never had children – her mothering instinct comes out in different ways in many of the stories (a bit of a stereotype, I know – but there *are* people like that). In particular, she seems to have turned her students into surrogate children, and only ever goes off with the Doctor because she’ll be forced to retire shortly.

She’s a woman of simple pleasures, who can make a cup of cocoa or a slice of cake sound like the most lascivious extreme of hedonism imaginable with her slightly throaty chuckle – which they may well be for her. She’s got a rather silly sense of humour, and can be quite witty, but is not very assured socially, often saying the wrong thing. It’s hinted at times that her relationship with the Doctor is more than just friendship – they cuddle in a couple of stories, and he gets incredibly jealous when she eventually leaves for another man, even as she continues to care for him. But this isn’t the moony teenage behaviour of Tennant’s Doctor about Rose, but a realistic relationship between two older people (Evelyn is close to retirement and refers to herself as an old woman, the Doctor is about 900).

The fact that I’ve found myself talking about her as a real person in the paragraphs above says something for the strength of the character. Normally in serial fiction written by multiple people, characterisation becomes at best a selection of tics and catchphrases, with the character’s behaviour and attitudes subject to the whim of the plotter. Here, though, thanks to the excellent performance by Maggie Stables as Evelyn (and her rapport with Colin Baker’s Doctor), as well as the scripts for this pairing being generally above average, it’s entirely possible to think of Evelyn as a real person. I don’t normally find myself feeling emotionally invested in fictional characters, but I’ve actually ended up quite fond of Evelyn. For all my criticism of Stables last week, I have to say her performance as Evelyn is one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Doctor Who and the Pirates (or The Lass That Lost a Sailor), the 43rd Big Finish Doctor Who audio, was the first one written by Jacqueline Rayner since she introduced Evelyn Smythe, and it’s one of my very favourites. Its synopsis – the Doctor and Evelyn on a pirate ship after hidden treasure, with the third episode being a musical – sounds like a deliberate attempt to ‘homage’ Pirates of the Carribean and the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling, but in fact this is one of the cleverest, funniest, and *best* uses of these characters in this format I can imagine.

Evelyn and the Doctor turn up at the flat of one of Evelyn’s students, who seems in a bad mood, and force her to listen to a story about an adventure they’ve recently had with some pirates. The story is quite funny and light-hearted for the most part, but it turns darker by the end – Evelyn was unable to prevent the death of Jem, the cabin-boy she’d taken under her wing. And it turns out in the end that the reason they’re telling the student this story at all is that that night she’d posted a suicide note to Evelyn, which Evelyn had received the next day. They’d come back in time a day to play Scheharezade and convince Sally the student to stay alive.

Now this makes for an interesting framing story, but what’s really fun is the story they tell. I love unreliable narrators, and the Doctor and Evelyn are unreliable in very different ways. Evelyn keeps forgetting details, making things up to cover herself, getting flustered and backtracking, and simply doesn’t want to talk about the cabin-boy’s death at all, often missing out pertinent details because they get too close to that central fact of the story. The Doctor by contrast just pushes ahead, occasionally saying the wrong thing. Their versions of Red Jasper the pirate’s description of the Doctor sum it up pretty well:
“You lily-livered foul-coated spicy-smelling scoundrel” versus
“You fine, distinguished-looking sailor wearing a stylish outfit”

The format also allows the producers to make a virtue of the cheap production. Big Finish audios often use the same repertory cast, with the same actor playing two or three bit parts. In this case, one actor plays pretty much all the sailors and pirates (named by Evelyn as “John Johnson, Tom Thompson, Nicholas Nickelby… son.. Nicholas Nicolson”) but this is because Evelyn isn’t very good at doing voices.

And Bill Oddie (the second Goodie to make an appearance in the series) turns in an excellent performance as Red Jasper – all over-the-top yo-ho-ho pirate cliche and exaggeration at the start of the story (which as you can imagine he does very well) but as the story progresses he becomes clearly psychopathic and very scary – following Douglas Adams’ rule that Doctor Who becomes a lot scarier if the bizarre is played absolutely straight.

But as if the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn, unreliable narration and the presence of one of the Goodies weren’t pushing enough of my buttons, the most famous feature of this adventure is the third episode – a musical, featuring rewrites of Gilbert & Sullivan songs (mostly from Pirates Of Penzance, logically enough, but also HMS Pinafore, and the Mikado for good and adequate reasons).

Again, this can be justified in-story as the Doctor and Evelyn making up silly songs to cheer up Sally (though even this doesn’t really justify the Doctor pausing mid-song to debate with himself the canonicity of the K-9 And Company TV special). But really, like the rest of the story it doesn’t need any justification – hearing “A pirate’s life is not a happy one” and especially “I Am The Very Model Of A Gallifreyan Buccaneer” is its own justification. While they’re imperfect – Gilbert would rather have shot himself than rhyme Rassilon with ‘hassle from’, and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s orchestrations are not improved by being played on what sounds like a multi-tracked Casio keyboard (sadly they probably spent more money on the music than any other aspect of this episode, but there’s still no substitute for a real orchestra) – they’re still clever, and funny, and you can tell the cast loved every moment.

Doctor Who and the Pirates is funny, clever, well-acted, touching and manages to have the characters be consistent with their previous appearances while also having them grow and change. It really is as close to a perfect Doctor Who story as I can imagine. Highly recommended.

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4 Responses to A Big Finish A Week 2 – Doctor Who And The Pirates

  1. olsenbloom says:

    I think that’s the first time I’ve ever made anyone squee…

  2. Persiflage_1 says:

    I listened to this one a few weeks ago and had a great time with it.

    I love Audio!Six, and Evelyn, and their rapport is fantastic…

  3. Brian says:

    Evelyn is definitely the best of the female companions in the Big Finish series, but I favor Charlie as well. Her relationship with the 8th Doctor was strong and unique, and I’m still having to adjust to her being with the 6th Doctor now. They really wrote some good stories around her being “out of time”, and even though “Zagreus” was a letdown, the stories leading up to it were good.

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