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.