A Big Finish A Week 7: Storm Warning

Sorry about the lack of posts recently. It’s been a very, very hard week for me…

Paul McGann is almost certainly the best actor, by quite a large margin, ever to have played the part of the Doctor on TV (Eccleston comes close, but it’s arguable as to whether he was playing the same character). However, he only ever got to make one appearance.

In 1996, seven years after the end of the original series and nine years before the start of the new one (and three years before the start of the Big Finish audios), a TV Movie called Doctor Who (aka Doctor Who: The Movie and The Enemy Within) was made as a joint production by Fox and the BBC, an attempted pilot for an eventual new series which never happened. The film itself was a mess, and the seres was dropped, but one of the best things about it was the casting of Paul McGann as the star.

McGann’s Doctor is a unique take on the character, gentler and more softly-spoken than previous versions, owing most in the performance to Peter Davison’s Doctor, but showing elements of all his predecessors – it’s a studied, nuanced performance – and so when he agreed to start doing Eighth Doctor audio adventures for Big Finish, even those fans who hadn’t enjoyed the film were eager to see how he’d do in that format.

To be honest, though, McGann’s Doctor is my least favourite of the audio Doctors, precisely because his audios (grouped in ‘seasons’ until 2005, rather than interspersed among the other Doctors’ stories) are a ‘continuation’ of the TV series rather than fitting in between the previous episodes. This led the writers regularly to write story arcs, have Major Changes After Which Things Will Never Be The Same, and all the other enemies of comprehensibility that comic fans have had to put up with. The audios rapidly became not good stories in themselves but a means to drop pieces of information about the larger plot, reaching a nadir with the incomprehensible and interminable series of stories where the Doctor is trapped in a universe without time.

Throughout, though, McGann manages to hold things together with a performance that is so note-perfect that the stories still feel like Doctor Who stories. But the writers make it difficult for him.

His first audio adventure, Storm Warning, is actually one of his better ones in that it’s comprehensible as a story in itself (even though it’s also the springboard for much of what followed). The basic plotline seems remarkably similar to the second part of the very first Big Finish story, The Sirens Of Time (which I previously reviewed here). In both, the Doctor, travelling alone, ends up stuck on a British vessel, then has to pretend to be a German spy (though in Sirens he pretends this to the Germans), gets involved in a famous disaster and meets up with a young woman who he teams up with. There are many more minor differences as well, suggesting the plot was inspired by the earlier story.

The main problem with the story is the first part, which for large chunks consists of the Doctor narrating primarily visual events, talking to himself. Even McGann can’t make great huge chunks of exposition sound convincing merely by adding “I must stop talking to myself”.

Things liven up slightly with the addition of Charlotte (Charley) Pollard, an ‘Edwardian adventuress’ as she refers to herself (rather inaccurately, as she was born in 1912 and so the king for her entire life up to that point would have been George V – at least on our Earth, the ‘Whoniverse’ earth may differ I suppose…). One of the more interesting of the Big Finish companions (she’s no Evelyn but she’s miles better than Hex or C’rizz), she’s a rather posh teenager who’s far more adventurous than her social class would normally allow (when the Doctor meets her she’s stowed away on board an airship disguised as a male crew member in order to get to Indonesia) and in some ways actually reminds me of Ace, but crossed with the female members of the Famous Five (pretty much equal parts Ann and George actually).

The whole story is more or less a rousing Boy’s Own adventure, with airships, secret conspiracies, German spies, aliens (the relatively well-thought-out Triskele, who do have the major stumbling block of being one of those aliens who’ve left traces of themselves on Earth that no-one ever picked up on, in this case the triskelion symbol *do you see?* – that kind of thing worked with Douglas Adams’ Krikkitmen, but it’s a major blow to suspension of disbelief in something ostensibly serious) and stowaways – it’s a very, very British story as well. One suspects this was a deliberate attempt to placate those fans who thought that the TV Movie was ‘too American’ (although the elements they picked up on as being ‘too American’ – the possible romance for the Doctor, the terrible acting from the Master, the plot holes half-covered by technobabble and the reliance on special effects – were precisely those that the new series has aped, suggesting that bad television knows no national boundaries).

On the whole, Storm Warning is best described as serviceable – there’s not much to say about the story that’s particularly good, but nor is it especially terrible. McGann does an absoutely superb job as the Doctor, but is let down by a fairy weak script – but the script is not unforgivable, either. It’s a mildly promising start to McGann’s Doctor Who audio career.

Unfortunately, it may also be the best audio McGann ever took part in. Without the formula which kept the other Doctors’ audios in check (though they’re always best when they strain against it) the McGanns tended to sink into the worst kind of self-indulgent fanwank. But McGann’s performance gives us a clue what a real re-invention of the Doctor for a new century should have been…

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2 Responses to A Big Finish A Week 7: Storm Warning

  1. David says:

    Great article as always. I’d be interested in your thought process behind how you decide who the worst/best actors ever to play the Doctor are, as you’ve made references to this in several posts. I will agree with you that McCoy was the worst – almost everything I’ve seen of him outside Doctor Who seems to consist of blowing raspberries and pulling faces. But personally I struggle to put McGann ahead of, for example, David Tennant “by quite a large margin”, who was/is a stage actor with long list of acclaimed performances (many of which I saw), including an Olivier award nomination, before he ever made the move into TV. Also William Hartnell has always impressed me in the pre- Doctor Who films I’ve seen with a very strong, often sinister, presence, and had a long screen career. I’m not saying McGann isn’t a good actor, but I don’t think the number 1 spot is clear cut. Interested in your thoughts on this – perhaps you could provide your full rankings!

  2. olsenbloom says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, David.
    I don’t have a clear, ranked list of the various Doctors as actors – I’m more aware of some of them outside Doctor Who than others. I don’t really consider Tennant to be playing the same character as the rest of them – and his performance in the show itself is not an especially good one, being essentially a two-note performance (sensawunda and Kenneth Williams impression). Perhaps he’s good in other stuff – I’m not really familiar with his work – but I’m not at all impressed by him.
    McCoy to my mind is clearly the worst actor to play the part, but then he was never really meant to be an actor – he’s a comedian, and he was hopelessly miscast. I actually think he did a good job given the circumstances, but still rank him at the bottom.
    Pertwee would come next – another comedian rather than actor, but quite a good comic actor. Interestingly those two are also my two least favourite ‘classic’ Doctors.
    My two favourites – the Bakers – come next though. Neither is a very good actor, but both are excellent at playing the specific role of the Doctor.
    I wouldn’t want to choose between Hartnell and Troughton as actors, but they were both very fine, thoughtful, underrated performers. Davison was miscast because of his age – he’s clearly an extremely good actor, and he’s superb *now* in the role, but he never had the presence at the time.

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