Peevish actors are descending mournfully upon the remote English village of Happenstance for the funeral of TV legend Tom Baker. His one-time co-star Suzy Goshawk is sucked into a parochial vortex of intrigue involving the quailsome local vicar, Tom’s acidulous housekeeper Mrs Frimbly and various other fruminous scrumblebums. None of them can agree upon how Tom met his disastrous end and Suzy is starting to suspect that something murksome and swervish is going on. The snow comes down and Suzy finds herself trapped at Baker’s End for Christmas, with all the village’s creepy pensioners enslaved by a strange, dancing dragon… and a Sinister Presence lurking on the sidelines. Why are old ladies twerking their bottoms outside the post office-cum-mini-mart? Why is the vicar creeping about in the bushes in the dead of night? And why, just when all looks hopeless, does a strange, scobberlotching creature sproing into view? Who exactly is The King of Cats in his furry costume and his battered golden crown? Also, there are elderly mumblecrusts who shoot lasers out of their knockers.
You may think that you’ve heard almost everything that audio has to offer, that the life and times of Tom Baker are whimsically madcap.. but you’ve seemingly got a grasp on the triumvirate of the man, the myth and the legend… but you clearly haven’t had the pleasure of Baker’s End, the latest collaboration between Baker and writer Paul Magrs. Heavy on the meta and the surreal, the first episode of Baker’s End, The King of Cats is exactly what you’d expect if Tom were let loose on the world – part Alice in Wonderland, part Roald Dahl, part evidence in an insanity accusation.
Suzy Goshawk, a one-time co-star of Tom (played by the ever wonderful Katy Manning) is on the way to Happenstance, a quaint English village, for the sad occasion of the passing of Tom Baker. While nobody seems to know how exactly Tom met his end, it seems he’d been acting strangely of late, believing fans had been replaced by doppelgängers. Failing to find answers, Suzy is soon cut-off from the outside world by a snowstorm and forced to spend Christmas at the late Tom Baker’s former residence. Soon things take a surreal and sinister turn with Suzy confronted by twerking old ladies, tarot readings, sinister buskers, an odd man in a cat costume and much much more besides.
There was a danger given the subject-matter, the death of Tom Baker, the script could have become morbid, somber or even descend into bad taste, yet Paul Magrs has crafted both a symbolically moving and funny script while remaining at his most surreal, playing homage to the dark and macabre visions of Tom Baker. Gripping, yet proceeding at a gentle pace, we can’t help wishing the play had been longer, particularly with a somewhat hasty finish. Yet there are enough questions raised to whet the appetite for the second instalment and you can’t help but wonder what the minds of Baker and Magrs can possibly come up with next.
Making his grand entrance into proceedings at the halfway point, this is Tom firmly in his element, relishing the rich material offered by Paul Magrs and clearly having a whale of a time throughout, dominating (yet never overshadowing) proceedings as only Tom can do. Yet this is not a solo offering and Katy Manning is more than her co-stars equal here, playing off Baker wonderfully, her straight role acting as the perfect juxtaposition to Tom’s insanity. Susan Jameson (Mrs Wibbsey in the Nest Cottage Trilogy) meanwhile returns to familiar ground as Tom’s sinister housekeeper Mrs Frimbly. Given Tom’s delightful performance, this is very much peak Tom Baker, yet we’re never quite sure how much is “acting” and how much is Tom being Tom. It’s both amazing and incredibly worrying to believe this sort of thing might just happen to him every day.
Whimsical, macabre and delightfully bonkers, Baker’s End will not be for everyone. Full of enough Doctor Who references to please fans however, those who’d enjoy a collision between Magr’s Nest Cottage plays and Tom novel The Boy Who Kicked Pigs will find much to adore here. A recommended release from Bafflegab Productions and a highly encouraging start to the series with the second episode, Gobbleknoll Hall, released this November.
Introducing the character of River Song to Big Finish’s ranges, The Diary of River Song sees Alex Kingston resuming her role in four new episodes, surprise released by Big Finish this last Christmas Day following The Husbands of River Song. Will River translate well to audio? can Big Finish match the highs of their other ongoing series releases? read on!
The Boundless Sea by Jenny T Colgan
River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses. But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River. Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?
Acting as the set-up to the rest of the set, The Boundless Sea is an excellent opening chapter for River Song with Big Finish. Taking River right back to her archeologist roots, there’s something of the Indiana Jones and Mummy series’ here, River taken back to the golden “Howard Carter” age of archeology to investigate a mysterious tomb and possible death in it’s walls.
Alexander Vlahos stands out as the wonderful Bertie, River’s companion for the play, and the opening chapter is enthused with a sense of fun and energy, fixed with some heavy emotion when called for. It is perfect echo of the best aspects of the River Song character on television and, as fans of the genre, Jenny T Colgan has given us one of our favourite Big Finish hours of 2015.
I Went to a Marvellous Party by Justin Richards
River Song always enjoys a good party, even when she’s not entirely sure where or when the party is taking place. But the party she ends up at is one where not everything – or indeed everyone – is what it seems… Being River, it doesn’t take her too long to go exploring, and it doesn’t take her too long to get into trouble. The sort of trouble that involves manipulating other civilisations, exploitation, and of course murder. River is confident she can find the killer. But can she identify them before anyone else – or quite possibly everyone else – gets killed?
Our second instalment, while not reaching the highs of the opening chapter, brings firm echoes of the River we saw at Christmas, a murder mystery at a very posh party attended by the decadent elites… and does River have a whole new husband?
The idea of a universal elite pulling strings like a galactic illuminati is one that has potential to be either incredible fun or provide quick and effective drama and their introduction is effective.
Big Finish have produced a number of plays along the murder mystery theme, as recently as You Are the Doctor and Other Stories, and while there is enjoyment here, the play seems to be a holding piece between the explosive opening and both the emotional Signs and the return of Paul McGann in the final instalment, foreshadowing both episodes with the promise of River’s “husband” arriving throughput.
Signs by James Goss
River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips. Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch. But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…
The third part of the boxset, Signs, is the standout, yet presents a very different type of story to anything else herein. Essentially a two-hander between Alex Kingston and Samuel West, Signs is a clever and emotional piece by Big Finish regular James Goss. River and her husband investigate the mystery of the SporeShips, River beset by illness and memory loss as we flash backward and forward.
An episode that requires concentration, Alex Kingston is at her absolute best here, coupled with an equally standout performance by Samuel West and there are distinct echoes of the closing moments of The Husbands of River Song here alongside, perhaps surprisingly, The Next Doctor and Heaven Sent.
The Rulers of the Universe by Matt Fitton
As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all. Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication. The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives – intact…
The Rulers of the Universe sees Paul McGann and Alex Kingston together as River and the Eighth Doctor for our big “set finale”. Despite asking “how will they do it?” before the release, the answer is simple and effective and we get our first glimpses of the Eighth Doctor we saw during the events of The Night of the Doctor, Paul McGann having an instant chemistry with Alex Kingston, a fact that bodes well for their coming reunion in Doom Coalition 2.
With the stakes high, The Rulers of the Universe brings the set to a satisfying conclusion with Matt Fitton crafting an episode that’s possibly closest to the ongoing series in spirit, the resolution being straight out of Steven Moffat’s time bending playbook.
The Dairy of River Song takes the best aspects of the River Song and uses them to their fullest effect here, many of the settings and themes complimenting not only The Husbands of River Song but both Series 8 and Series 9. The Dairy of River Song tells a tale worthy of River and Alex Kingston effortlessly transfers her performance to the new medium, the character written as somewhat more sober than her more extravagant TV excesses. With strong performances from the supporting cast, Samuel West in particular standing out, The Dairy of River Song is an excellent start to the range and comes highly recommended… dare we say we enjoyed it more than The Husbands of River Song?
Alex Kingston returns to the series in sparkling form as Professor River Song, hooking up with her third on screen Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fiftieth, One mark two – or whatever) incarnation. After the gripping and intense three part finale to Series Nine, this year’s Christmas special brought much needed light relief for the viewer and more importantly for the Doctor.
Forget Clara’s postponement of her date with death, Series Nine ended with the tragedy of the hero who could no longer travel with his most beloved companion because they were simply too dangerous together. There was a degree of ambiguity at the end of Hell Bent as to whether or not the Doctor remembered Clara. After all, the Tardis was decked out as a shrine to his forgotten companion, complete with the face of the woman he had spoken to in the diner. And cheeky Clara, ever needing the last word, left him with a massive hint on the chalkboard in the Tardis. Did that mean he had reconnected with that part of his backstory? Pleasingly, it would appear otherwise.
The Doctor begins this adventure feeling a sense of loss, locked inside his TARDIS hating not just carol singers, but singing full stop. That song in the diner, Clara’s theme, the only experiential link he now has with that part of his past, is bittersweet. Significantly, he still has the sonic glasses, but there’s no sign of the electric guitar. The Doctor may be withdrawn and in need of the TARDIS to perk him up with comedy antlers, but there is no brooding over the past because he simply cannot feel it – Clara is never once mentioned.
So step forward River Song, yes she’s his wife (sort of), but she’s also a direct link to the last companions he properly remembers – Amy and Rory. The events of the last two and a half series haven’t been retconned, but they’ve been compartmentalised into a non-autobiographical part of the Doctor’s thought processes: at best diary entries, only ones that feel like they’ve been written by somebody else. So this is the time to tie-up some different loose ends for the Doctor that go way back to before he first knowingly encountered the impossible girl. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring back Kingston to star alongside Capaldi – a pairing too good to turn down. Matt Smith and Alex Kingston worked surprisingly well, but just from this one episode, the suspicions that River Song would have made a far better companion for the Twelfth Doctor seem to have been fully vindicated.
The chemistry between the two leads is electric. The viewer starts from the Doctor’s perspective, feeling his bemusement at River’s lack of recognition or acknowledgement of his existence. We then switch to River’s perspective once the true nature of her mission is revealed, and we sympathise with her as the unrequited lover who nonetheless accepts that fate, because it’s the only way to love the Doctor. And then finally, we join them in their relationship, as partners in the adventure, working out the solution together, second guessing each other’s moves until at the end they are standing side by side on that balcony overlooking the Singing Towers. Of all his companions, River Song is as close to being the Doctor’s equal as is possible – any closer and the universes would have another hybrid to threaten its existence.
In fine Christmas Special tradition, The Husbands Of River Song includes some headline guest cast members, but in this instance their roles are hardly challenging or against type. Nonetheless it’s good to see the likes of Matt Lucas and Greg Davies inducted into the Doctor Who hall of fame (though Lucas has also featured in the Big Finish audio – The One Doctor) and they do not disappoint in what they’ve been scripted to do.
Until the last ten minutes or so, the story is a light-hearted romp, in the vein of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), and once again there are plenty of comparisons between Capaldi and Tom Baker, particularly from the latter’s more off beat performances from the Williams/Adams era. But there are throwbacks to early Baker too, particularly with the parallels with The Brain Of Morbius, as once again the Doctor’s head is required. There is a classic scene in Baker’s debut story, Robot, where at a meeting of The Scientific Reform Society the Doctor takes to the stage and performs tricks to distract the crowd. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is similarly theatrical when he attempt to bluff his way out of trouble after he and River have discovered that the buyer for the diamond venerates Hydroflax. Capaldi excels at these moments of buffoonery, and it’s the most unexpected aspect of his brilliant characterisation of the Doctor.
We knew he could do grumpy, we knew he could do intense, but the range of Capaldi’s work is quite extraordinary, and this episode shows it off better than any other. Once again we see the Doctor in preacher mode as per Inversion of the Zygons, this time lambasting the privileges of royalty who “crush the hopes and dreams of working people.” Comparisons to the labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn have been made by several reviewers on account of its topicality, but this is exactly the kind of thing we might have heard Troughton, Pertwee or Baker say back in the 60s and 70s.
Another highlight is when we see him faking bewilderment at the bigger on the inside TARDIS when finally he gets his turn, showing how it should be done (did anyone else notice the incidental music here going all Sherlock?). Interestingly, Clara didn’t play ball on her first entrance into the TARDIS in The Snowmen, commenting instead that it was smaller on the outside. Were he to have remembered the other half of the hybrid, I wonder if his mock surprise would have been played out differently, taking a leaf out of her book. Although it’s fun to see River failing to recognise the Doctor, at this point and several others thereafter it’s hard to see why she is so slow on the uptake, or indeed why she doesn’t expect the Doctor to come to her aid, given that in previous episodes her trust in the Doctor was such that she could leap out of a spaceship or jump from a building.
Despite being a light hearted episode, The Husbands Of River Song also carries some deeply moving scenes, mostly reserved for that scintillating ending, when we realise the Doctor is taking River Song to the singing towers for their very last date before she meets her fate in the library. First it is laughter that comes back to the Doctor in a charming scene in which the two begin to connect for the first time as River is infected by the Doctor’s laugh. But by the end, the music has returned for the Doctor, almost. He talks the science of the wind, but the tear in his eye is a sure sign that the music has touched him again. It runs deeper than the knowledge that River’s diary is almost complete.
The aftermath of Series Nine could have set the whole tone for series ten, affecting the Doctor’s choice of future companion for instance, or his demeanour and outlook (just as Series Eight did for Series Nine). Instead, it looks like this meeting with River Song has brought the resolution and wiped the slate clean from the Doctor’s Clara graffitied chalkboard. We are left with a wonderful sense of freedom ahead for Series Ten.
The idea that River and the Doctor’s final night together lasts 24 years could signify that there are many more adventures in store for them (and not surprisingly there are plenty of calls for River Song to be the next companion), but more plausibly, just as in the case of Clara it is another example of the stalled ending. I have a hunch that in the return of Ramone and Nardole, Steven Moffat is satirising himself, or more correctly the disingenuous image of him amongst some vocal critics. Sometimes endings are good.
Which brings us onto the perplexing end caption. After “And they both lived happily ever after,” is followed by “And they both lived happily,” we might have expected the sequence to end with “And they both lived.” But instead the final caption reads simply “Happily.” Once again it could be viewed as a subverting of what has become a stock trademark of the current showrunner’s era. The ending in this instance is not life or the escaping or undoing of death, but the happiness of a past moment.
In recent years the spin off worlds from Doctor Who has proliferated thanks to the incredible imagination of the fan base and the output of Big Finish in particular, and once again there are possible nods to this wider Doctor Who universe – the madcap scenes with the head in the bag wouldn’t be at all out of place in an Iris Wildthyme adventure and River Song’s reference to her second wife might be of interest to fans of another archaeologist, Bernice Summerfield. Speaking of Big Finish, if this is to be River Song’s final televised outings, fans of the character ought to check out their excellent new range, The Diary Of River Song, which fills out all those blank pages between the stories we’ve seen on screen.
YOU are the Doctor, a mysterious traveller in time and space. Will YOU succeed in foiling the ghastly plans of the horrible Porcians, the most inept invaders in all the cosmos? Or will you get yourself killed, over and over again?
Come Die With Me by Jamie Anderson
A spooky old house. A body in the library. A killer on the loose. The Doctor accepts the challenge laid down by the sinister Mr Norris: to solve a murder mystery that’s defeated 1,868 of the greatest intellects in the universe… and counting.
The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel by Christopher Cooper
The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Ace to the most opulent casino hotel in the cosmos – a haunt of the rich, the famous and the unutterably corrupt. There’s a robbery in progress – but is the Doctor really in on the plan?
Dead to the World by Matthew Elliott
Tourist spaceship the Daedalus hangs suspended in space, all but three of its passengers having fallen victim to a bizarre infection. But if the Doctor saves those last survivors, he risks destroying the entire human race.
Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventures series from your childhood? or even the 1980s Find Your Fate/Make Your Own Adventure With the Doctor? We were big fans of both here at DWW Towers (that’s a place, honest) and remember many an idle day sat cheating at the Fighting Fantasy novels between bouts of Tintin and Target’s finest, Vault of the Vampire being our fondest memory of the range. So this months release from Big Finish comes at something of an advantage as their very own take on the genre, the format lending itself readily to CD/download.
The first story for the reasons above is our personal standout of this four story collection that sees Ace slowly (but not very surely) learning to pilot the TARDIS. Played with humour throughout, You Are the Doctor has something of a comicbook quality to it and with the “choose a path” format, has immediate longevity as you uncover all the possible outcomes. Tremendous fun and we can’t help hoping for a longer release using the same premise. Go on Big Finish, adapt Mission to Venus and Crisis in Space, you know you want to! That said, having killed the Seventh Doctor and Ace by plunging them down to a planet, we can’t help but feel guilty and that their blood is on our hands! And as for the continuity issues…
The second story of the collection also feels a treat as Jamie Anderson provides an excellent Agatha Christie pastiche with Come Die With Me. Ignoring the pun, Come Die With Me feels suitably Christiesque, complete with manor house and servants straight out of the murder fiction of the era. With the suitably enigmatic Mr Norris on hand, the listeners are kept guessing and re-guessing both the guests and situation throughout as with any truly great murder mystery. With Ace the next potential victim, there’s a real sense of danger here and the only “fault” that could possibly be highlighted with the episode is that the idea has the potential for a full episodic release.
Taking the darkest turn of the release, TheGrand Betelgeuse Hotel sees Ace standing trial for crimes she (presumably) didn’t commit. Mixing a casino/hotel with uprising and a robbery attempt that fails miserably, the influences on the third episode are proudly on show. A strong outing from Christopher Cooper, he successfully manages to convey both a sense of a real and living world with all the cruelty and oppression it entails, and equally a sense of urgency at events, no small task in the short time provided. With some topical social commentary, it is again a shame the story was not given longer as a regular series release and we hope Cooper is given a crack of the bigger whip soon.
Finally, Dead to the World, sees Ace again landing where she didn’t intend, the spaceship Daedalus. Possibly the most traditional fare of the audio as an alien menace threatens Earth and with people dying of a mysterious and very nasty plague, Dead to the World is very much in the mould of the classic base under siege formula, all be it with a unique villain. The play mixes elements found throughout the entire four episodes, with humour at the nature of the threat mixing somewhat uncomfortably with darker material than that found in the opening two instalments, complete with added commentary on the nature of capitalism.
Overall, a very worthwhile release from Big Finish without a poor episode amongst the four. The unique You Are The Doctor was a personal highlight, but there is something for every fan of the McCoy era here. With humour, darkness and social commentary at varying levels through the differing episodes, You Are The Doctor and Other Stories both reaffirms the best of McCoy and takes us in experimental new directions.
Written By: John Dorney, Jamie Anderson, Christopher Cooper, Matthew Elliott Directed By: Ken Bentley
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Jon Culshaw (Keith/Guard/Chafal), Kim Wall (Chimbly), Nadine Marshall (Katrice/Kordel), Amrita Acharia (The Resurrectionist/Clerk), Juliet Cowan (Bryer/Adriana Beauvais), Oliver Dimsdale (Morecombe/Mervyn Garvey), George Potts (Ruben/Guard), Vinette Robinson (Cynthia Quince)
Adding the question mark to Doctor Who has become the defining feature of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. In the past the odd “Doctor Who?” reference in a script was little more than a tongue in cheek nod to the programme’s title, but over the course of the last three series’, the lead writer has been boldly exploring the essence of the enigmatic Time Lord. And yet as the curtain closed on series nine, we were none the wiser. Just who the Doctor is and what makes him tick remains a mystery, with the answers to fundamental questions such as why he ran away from Gallifrey and whatever happened to his family, still open to debate. The issues have been foregrounded as if they matter in a way that they never did before. It was once enough to accept that the Doctor was an alien with deep secrets who didn’t like to talk about his past. But now, every time his backstory is teased we are enticed into wanting to dig that little bit deeper into the Doctor’s psyche and the reasons he is the way he is.
This approach opens the showrunner up to accusations of teasing the fans and of adding scenes and lines just in order to play devil’s advocate. Series Nine, whether by design or accident, certainly had its fair share of fan baiting. While the general audience were worryingly becoming less invested in the show, pockets of fandom became ever more obsessive in their in-house debates. Arguments raged about the Doctor’s genetic makeup, his relationship with the Master, his nonviolent moral code, the difference between Time Lords and Gallifreyans and the ability of Time Lords to change gender when they regenerate. But by focusing on single issues, the broader sweep of Moffat’s reimagining of Doctor Who is missed.
Series Nine secures the future of the series by reversing the companion/Doctor dynamic. Whereas the emotional pull of the stories used to revolve around the impact that travelling with the Doctor has upon the companion, now the focus has moved towards how the hero himself is affected by his companions, his foes and his own choices. The shift had already started with the Eleventh Doctor and the Ponds, if only fleetingly (The Angels Take Manhattan). In no other era of the show would a one hander episode work and it is the remarkable Heaven Sent that best illustrates this change in perspective.
The introduction of the Doctor’s new toys also indicate where the Doctor is at psychologically. The sonic glasses as a temporary replacement to the sonic screwdriver are as equally multi purposed, but as an alternative symbol, they place the emphasis away from the Doctor’s tendency to want to fix things and towards his need to see whilst also protecting and hiding his soul. Both the shades and the electric guitar help in the characterisation of the Doctor as a dad trying to be hip, but they are more than signs of a midlife crisis. Near the beginning of the series the Doctor’s guitar playing breaks through the fourth wall and into the title music as if he is reaching out to us, but by the very last episode he is playing Clara’s theme within the drama. We the audience who have faithfully and vicariously travelled with the Doctor through identifying with his chosen companions, have finally broken into his psyche. It’s a clever sign that his memories have indeed been fictionalised from his point of view, but more importantly, in the process we have joined the tune in entering the Doctor’s head. Rarely has the character generated such a degree of empathy. But we certainly feel it as the Doctor experiences a taste of his own medicine, with the clever reversal of Donna’s memory wipe in series Four.
Series Eight charted the adventures of the Doctor through his most introspective phase. Questioning his morality to a level of self-obsession that verges on the narcissistic, we see him giving scant consideration to the needs and feelings of others in the process. In reflecting on what makes him tick he forgets to be the Doctor, forcing Clara to step into the role. The impossible girl who was scattered throughout his time line to save his life, again and again, is now tasked with redeeming his soul. It’s not exactly new, we saw Donna do the same for the Tenth Doctor (The Fires Of Pompeii) and Amy Pond for the Eleventh (A Town Called Mercy), but for Clara it’s not just an occasional intervention or timely reminder – it’s her duty as the Doctor’s carer (Inside The Dalek). As we discovered in last year’s series finale (Death In Heaven) she has been handpicked by Missy to become the Doctor’s companion.
Clara’s personality is such that she revels in the opportunity to manipulate the Doctor, but it’s a little too muted in Series Nine. We do see a more passive Twelfth Doctor who is happy to defer to Clara every time she selects an appropriate prompt card for him to read out in a socially awkward situation. At times he sounds like an impotent parent, appealing to a duty of care, but knowing that he cannot control Clara’s thirst for adventure. Although the wider arc highlights Clara’s impact upon the Doctor, the stories in Series Nine fail to build upon the Clara being Doctor-like motif that we saw so effectively in the later part of the previous series, and too much is left to inference. The dots may be easy to join up, for example the comparison between Clara hanging out of the TARDIS over London and the Eleventh Doctor doing the same in The Eleventh Hour and The Day Of The Doctor, but it would have been fun to see this explored in more detail and it would have made the concept of the hybrid seem less of a stretch.
Series Nine is less about who the Doctor is and more about what the Doctor has become as a result of his relationship with Clara. We are teased in the series finale that the Eighth Doctor’s throwaway line might be true – the Doctor himself might be the hybrid, only for Me to stumble upon the truth. It is the Doctor and Clara’s relationship that is the hybrid. We were promised in Series Nine that we would see the Doctor and Clara having the time of their lives, gallivanting around like two excitable children without a care in the universe. We knew it would end in tears, that something devastating would come and spoil the party, but little did we suspect that the fun itself was part of the tragedy.
It’s the in-between moments that best illustrate their madcap adventuring – Face The Raven even begins as another unscreened story is resolved. The Doctor’s occasional moments of concern for Clara, as if he knows she is going to die, come from him being acutely aware that she is enjoying being the Doctor a little too much. The Doctor knows the intoxicating effects of wandering across all of time and space, because it’s his drug of choice too. It is unhealthy – an abnormal grief stuck in the denial stage, after the terrible events of Series Eight. The scene in which Clara counsels Bennett following the death of O’Donnell in Before The Flood is the one vital clue that Clara is not over the loss of Danny Pink, however well masked that brokenness is.
Jenna Coleman’s about turn decision to stay on for another series presented a challenge to the writers. In many ways Clara’s story had run its natural course at the end of Death In Heaven, and Series Nine sees her completely removed from real life in a throwback to companions pre-Rose. Starved of the social and relational hooks of work, family and relationships, Clara loses some of her appeal to the viewers and her characterisation suffers for it (Jenna Coleman’s stand out performance in this series was as Clara’s evil Zygon counterpart). And yet the unexpected chance to make her the longest serving companion, forced Steven Moffat to up the stakes when it came to the reason for Missy bringing the two together. In Death In Heaven Missy tells the Doctor that he would go to hell if Clara asked him too. In Heaven Sent, he experiences that hell by choice in an effort to save Clara against her wishes.
It would be a mistake to think that the Doctor is less badass in Series Nine. Without the checks and balances of his own morose meditations, and with Clara enjoying the game so much, at times he strays into even more dangerous territory. In Into The Dalek, the Doctor is, not for the first time, likened to the Daleks, but in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar he is prepared at first to leave the child Davros to die and is justifiably compared to the evil scientist, save for one flaw – compassion; which he then demonstrates was a front all along. In that story and the next two parter (Under the Lake/Before The Flood) it is not so much mercy, but the desire to save Clara that motivates him. Davros’ alternative fates as a boy, whether he lives or dies, are both determined by the Doctor’s unDoctorishness on account of the unhealthy relationship he has fostered with Clara.
The seeds of the Doctor’s impassioned response to Clara’s martyr-like death in Face The Raven, are planted in his public appeal on Skaro for her safe return and his cringe worthy begging before Davros. They are watered by his displays of overprotective concern for Clara in other episodes, such as Before The Flood, when saving her life is all that motivates him to intervene. But there is little to prepare the viewer for the lengths that the Doctor will go through to bring Clara back to life. Consequently his enduring billions of years of suffering, lack the plausibility of Rory Williams’ Centurion. Onscreen, the closeness of the Doctor and Clara is underexplored through the series and we are forced to take it on trust that they are ideally compatible. The shift from Series Eight, where they remained largely antagonistic and suspicious of each other is softened ever so slightly by the Doctor having already begun to call Clara his friend in Death In Heaven, and is cemented with the Doctor now being able to hug her (The Girl Who Died). But by Hell Bent, he is ready to go all War Doctor again, even taking his actions a step further by using a gun on the commander and banishing Rassilon.
The Doctor experiencing billions of years locked inside his confession dial should be seen as a consequence not the cause of his bullish, take no prisoners attitude. The intensity in his relationship with Clara has to have been there from the start for him to endure a fraction of this sentence. And while Steven Moffat himself has stated that the Doctor can sort of remember those billion years, it is at best a trace memory, and in reality he has only ever suffered the horrors within the confession dial one time over. His anger at the Time Lords’ unauthorised use of the dial to trap him, matters less to him than the method used to get him there – the sacrifice of Clara. The point is not the length of the sufferings, but the fact that every time he makes the same choice. The viewer and later Clara herself are under no illusions, the Doctor will always choose to save her at the expense of his own freedom and health.
Series Nine was the year of the comebacks and flashbacks – with the Sisterhood of Kahn, classic Daleks, Davros, Missy, Skaro, past Doctors, Zygons, UNIT, Kate and Osgood, Rigsy, the 60s TARDIS interior, monster cameos, and most surprisingly of all Gallifrey. Some of the returnees had already made less than satisfactory reappearances in previous series and it was as if they were back this time to show how it should have been done in the first place. The classic Daleks whilst not at all central or pivotal to the plot, get more screen time than they did in the overhyped “every Dalek ever” of the Dalek Asylum. The extended scenes in the classic 60s TARDIS console in Hell Bent, finally fulfilled many fans wishes, including Capaldi’s. And design wise, the Zygons were back to their horrific best after their underwhelming new Power Rangers villain look in The Day Of The Doctor, largely due to the better lighting effects. But it was the introduction of a new recurring character that was the more memorable aspect of Series Nine, as Steven Moffat continued to add to the mythos of the Doctor Who universe and the range of spin off possibilities: Maisie Williams’ Me/Ashildr.
Ashildr’s story became extraordinary as like so many before and after, she was brought back from the dead, but we first meet her as someone who is already exceptional from others in her society not ontologically, but because of her imagination. She represents the child who doesn’t quite fit in at school, the day dreamer and storyteller; the type who very often find themselves bullied or singled out by their peers. Doctor Who has always appealed to those who find themselves similarly at odds with the bland conformity of the crowd and it’s pleasing to see a character from another time and culture who shares such an identifiable trait. The woman who emerges from the Doctor’s interventions is not nearly so loveable. She becomes another of his guilty secrets, another reason for him to curse his ‘always win’ mentality. The Girl Who Died is one of the highlights of the series, perfectly paced with notes of humour and tragedy brilliantly interspersed. It is unlikely to feature in clip montages, but the scene with Ashildr fighting a make belief dragon only to be interrupted by the Doctor is one of the most touching moments of the series. Parents and children across the world will identify with the awkwardness of that intrusion on the imagination at play. If only her future battles were similarly played in the realm of fantasy. Instead she becomes a tragic character who like the Doctor and Jack Harkness experiences the pathos of a life of endless years, with the added indignity of being marooned on Earth for the first 800 years of it.
Maisie Williams’ performance is understated even when she is being deliciously callous, and hits the right tone in all four of her appearances. Story wise The Woman Who Lived failed to match the other three but it offered the best exploration of her cursed immortality. Some of the dialogue between the Doctor and Ashildr is up there with the strongest in the show’s entire run and indeed these intimate one on one conversations are a defining feature of Series Nine as a whole (cf. the Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara in The Magicians Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor and the Fisher King in Before The Flood, the Doctor and Osgood in The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor with himself in Heaven Sent, and the Doctor and Clara in Hell Bent).
Steven Moffat periodically shakes the format up to keep the series fresh, and this year marked the return to two-parters, with a twist. In reality the only classic two parter was The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion which was so reminiscent of Russell T. Davies’ global threat stories, all that was missing was Trinity Wells from the formulaic TV news montage scene. Although the language and themes reflect real life global issues in a similar vein to Malcolm Hulke and Robert Sloman’s Pertwee stories, over analysing the story as political commentary leads to some fundamental inconsistencies. The Doctor’s message of non-violence and welcome to the stranger fits ill at ease with the efforts of the peaceful Zygons towards cultural appropriation. Doctor Who does politics far better through satire and allegory (The Sunmakers, The Happiness Patrol).
The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar came the next closest to being a linear two part narrative but tonally the episodes were quite distinctive and didn’t really lend themselves to the omnibus repeat on the BBC. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were so different that aside from the clever association of titles and the final dramatic scene in the former as the Doctor steps onto Gallifrey, they are best treated as distinct stories, a trilogy in fact with Face The Raven. Under The Lake and Before The Flood, though penned by the same author (Toby Whithouse) were a victim of trying to be clever with the format. The excellent Under The Lake culminating in a grotesque if predictable cliffhanger created a buzz of expectation for part two, which was soured by the ill-judged opening explanation of the bootstrap paradox, virtually killing any suspense that had been effectively built up in Under The Lake. Fortunately, typical of Toby Whithouse’s writing, the memorable and well-crafted supporting characters deserved the added screen time of a two parter, and our investment in them, especially Cass, gave us enough reason to continue watching.
Continue watching was something that Rassmussen explicitly tells us not to do in Sleep No More knowing very well of course that we will. Ironically it was this single episode oddity that sorely needed a second episode. The sudden resolution was a great twist to end on in a story meant to be disturbing, and refreshingly, just this once the Doctor doesn’t save the day. But there was nonetheless, a sense of incompleteness – there are surely more tales to be told of Rassmussen and the Sandmen. Watch out for a sequel at some point in Series Ten or beyond. Although it was heralded as Doctor Who’s first example of the found footage approach, it is not the first time the form of the story has been part of the story itself (cf. The God Complex). Such stories are ambitious and bold examples of Doctor Who at its most inventive.
The quality of stories in Series Nine were consistently strong with incredible performances to match throughout. There are a few off moments, Coleman is out of form in Sleep No More, perhaps because of the rather insipid role Clara plays in that story, and Jemma Redgrave still needs to be given something more substantial to develop the character of Kate Stewart on screen (But her delivery of the five rounds rapid line will live long in the memory). On a final note, though his Doctor is unlikely to win the forgiving affections of the nation as enjoyed by Tom Baker and David Tennant, he is at this rate unlikely to need such grace. Peter Capaldi has clearly established himself as a fan favourite through sheer hard graft, pushing himself to the limits of his craft. And if his critically acclaimed performance in the stand out episode of the series, Heaven Sent is anything to go by, it will take some doing for his work to be surpassed.
Overall Series Nine was bold, inventive and more character driven than we have been used to in recent years. Not surprisingly given Jenna Coleman’s eleventh hour decision to stay for one more series, it suffers slightly from knowing exactly what to do with her character post Danny Pink and the resultant concept of the hybrid is a little underexplored. But overall it has plenty of grounds for being justly remembered as one of the strongest series of all time, if not the best.
For a little while it seemed that Sir John Hurt’s War Doctor was destined to become almost a footnote in Doctor Who history, to be relegated to the status of a well-acted plot device. Paul McGann got a book range and his own Big Finish audios, and while Sir John got the excellent Engines of War, it seemed we’d hear little more of this unique incarnation… until today. With Big Finish planning four box-sets, spanning 12 episodes in all (a full series!), it seems we’ll have plenty of Time War shenanigans for some time to come. With expectations running high, can Big Finish bring us the Christmas present we’ve been hoping for? can they capture a war that many believe can’t truly be portrayed? or will we be saying “no more” once it’s all said and done? read on!
Beginning in somewhat overall quieter and more reflective terms that we might have expected, the first story in this four disc set, The Innocent, sees the War Doctor replacing two Time Lords on a suicide mission to strike against the Dalek fleet as they mass for a final assault on Gallifrey. Starting the audio with an action packed pre-credits sequence plays into the audiences expectation and the new War Doctor opening theme by Howard Carter meanwhile will either be adored or hated. With definite nods to the Paul McGann TV Movie (and the recent Damaged Goods release), the theme cuts a suitable militaristic and darker tone than we’re used to.
Seemingly killed in action however and given a full funeral (though in reality, injured on the planet Keska), we’re given the opportunity to get reacquainted with the War Doctor, hear his nightmares of the Time War and gain a deeper understanding of just what makes this unique incarnation tick.
The Thousand Worlds is possibly the weakest story of this initial trilogy, occupying the unenviable middle position of the set. Building further on the War Doctor’s character as he returns to Keska, The Thousand Worlds is somewhat standard fare in terms of story, bridging the gap and building up the final episode, yet one with an excellent plot twist. Assigned to rescue the high-ranking Time Lord Seratrix, the War Doctor finds only betrayal and a deadly alliance as he returns to Keska. Beth Chalmers as the deliciously villainous Veklin is the highlight of this second instalment and the return of Rejoice, who fulfilled the companion role admirably in the previous adventure, was welcome.
Can the Daleks be truly planning a peace? The War Doctor doesn’t think so in the final part of this opening trilogy, The Heart of the Battle. Would it be a spoiler to say that the Doctor is right and the Daleks aren’t really after peace? discovering a plot to destroy Gallifrey itself, not everybody will leave the episode alive. Fast paced and with an excellent resolution where just desserts are served, The Heart of the Battle continues and expands on the character studies developed throughout the set.
John Hurt’s performance as The War Doctor is, as you would expect, sublime, with Hurt recapturing the role as if he’d played it a thousand times and adding new layers of development. Possibly even more maverick and rude than his appearance in The Day of the Doctor, this incarnation shows a manipulative side, an irritability and writer Nicholas Briggs has woven a suitably complex make-up to this near blank slate. Hurt is joined by Jacqueline Pearce as the manipulative Cardinal Ollistra, Pearce is, as always, great value and puts in a show stealing performance in every scene, the listener questioning her motivations and true nature throughout (there needs to be more of her!), the Time Lord’s war here portrayed as far more complex and morally ambiguous than many may have expected.
Only the Monstrous ends up as something more of a character piece than the bombastic Hollywood action spectacle we might have expected, combining the best elements of Big Finish’s Gallifrey range with new series scope and grandeur. With stand-out performances from Sir John Hurt and Jacqueline Pearce, Only the Monstrous builds both on the mythos of the Time War and that of the War Doctor, which Big Finish make their own here. With strong nods to Time Lord political shenanigans and strong action sequences, Only the Monstrous is quite firmly the opening salvo of a much longer story, yet it bodes well for the rest of this series and the ongoing legend of the War Doctor.
The War Doctor 1 – Only the Monstrous is available now from BigFinish.com.
Strax, the Sontaran butler to Victorian investigator Vastra and her wife Jenny, suffers a disorienting attack and mistakes Jago & Litefoot for Jenny and Vastra and moves into Litefoot’s home. Together, they are on the trail of a creature that is stealing brains, which may or may not be linked to a haunted house in London…
With the new-Who influx to Big Finish, including new adventures for the Tenth Doctor, The War Doctor, UNIT, River Song and more, it was always on the cards to see (part of) The Paternoster Gang sooner rather than later in audio form. With Jago & Litefoot already treading the gaslit streets of London however, the arena of Victorian supernatural shenanigans and infernal incidents would seem to be sewn up… so Big Finish take the logical step of crossing over Jago, Litefoot and new-Who in the two-part feature length The Haunting… and it’s quite brilliant.
Searching for an alien power source, Strax finds himself coming across the home base of our intrepid investigators, the Red Tavern, almost immediately engaging in a bar fight! Jago & Litefoot meanwhile soon find themselves investigating a trail of corpses all with their brains removed. With a mysterious mansion, the centre of strange goings on for a century, the audio is something of two-halves, with an early traditional murder mystery giving way to the sci-fi action/horror of the second.
“Sublety is my watchword” – Strax
“Really?” – Ellie
“One of them” – Strax
“What are the others?” – Ellie
“Obliteration… destruction… devastation… annihilation… demolition… fragmentation…” – Strax
Any production featuring Strax is bound to be full of comedy moments and The Haunting doesn’t disappoint, Strax very much in-keeping with his on-screen characterisation as he struggles with the social complexities of the Victorian era, mistakes Ellie for a boy and Jago & Litefoot for Madame Vastra and Jenny (no, really!). The focus on the characters and their interactions masks something of a simple story, yet Justin Richards perhaps uses this to his advantage, the play being a perfect “hop on point” for listeners new to the range, presenting more of a science-fiction orientated plot, certainly in the second half, as opposed to the more macabre and supernatural goings-on of the main Jago & Litefoot range.
“Get out of the way, human scum!” – Strax
Trevor Baxter, Christopher Benjamin, Dan Starkey and Lisa Bowerman are all on sparkling form, Starkey slipping almost seamlessly into the established Jago & Litefoot set-up and developing a hilarious chemistry with the regulars. Carolyn Seymour as Mrs Multravers brings an understated and chilling menace to the role and Stephen Critchlow guests as Marvo the Magician. With Inspector Quick having heard of Madame Vastra, the ending is left open for a full crossover between Jago & Litefoot and The Paternoster Gang in the near future, which, on this form, could be a genuine treat.
A riotously funny entry in the Jago & Litefoot range, The Haunting successfully bridges the classic and new series’ inside the unique framework of Jago & Litefoot and bodes well for future releases featuring elements of the ongoing series. A perfect mix of action, humour, mystery and suspense, The Haunting is a true triumph and possibly the most enjoyable Big Finish release of 2015. And listen out for the fate of a poor parrot in possibly our favourite moment of the play!
Written By: Justin Richards Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Cast: Christopher Benjamin (Henry Gordon Jago), Trevor Baxter (Professor George Litefoot), Dan Starkey (Strax), Lisa Bowerman (Ellie), Conrad Asquith (Inspector Quick), Stephen Critchlow (Marvo) and Carolyn Seymour (Mrs Multravers). Other parts played by the cast.
Inside this book is another book – the strangest, most important and most dangerous book in the entire universe. The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey is one of the Artefacts, dating from dark days of Rassilon. It wields enormous power, and it must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Skagra – who believes he should be God and permits himself only two smiles per day – most definitely has the wrong hands. Beware Skagra. Beware the Sphere. Beware Shada.
Shada has been elusive since it failed to show up on our screens in early 1980. It needs little introduction, if you’re reading this site you already know it was a six part story by Douglas Adams that fell foul of BBC industrial action about a third of its way through production, and for many years represented one of Doctor Who’s great unknowns….we’ll never know for sure how the other two thirds of it would have looked and sounded.
Even what we can see, the raw footage shot before the studio doors were bolted represents part of a puzzle. It eluded John Nathan-Turner’s attempts to remount it in 1980. It eluded novelisation as Douglas Adams had bigger fish to fry, and didn’t want anyone else adapting his work, despite his own low regard for the story.
The bootleg video copy that did the rounds in the 80’s with the blanks filled in by text from an archaic computer was succeeded in 1992 by JNT’s no-budget attempt at reconstructing it for home video, even that took twenty years to eventually crawl onto DVD in the same form. Big Finish’s audio adaptation is impressive but is missing something due to being retooled and recast for a different Doctor, not to mention the obvious lack of visuals. More recently, Ian Levine produced an animated version that eludes us for copyright reasons.
Shada was a watershed for the 1970s that never came, the Doctor saw off Soldeed and the Nimon, then the season abruptly ended. There was also a change of production team, this was supposed to be the swan song for both Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams. Imagine if you reached the end of term and it ended early, but there was no party. It’s a shame, from what we can see of Shada Tom Baker was clearly having a whale of a time. When our hero returned in Autumn, it was with a foul mood, a new costume, star field titles, and a po-faced obsession with ‘entropy’.
Gareth Roberts’ wonderful novelisation of Shada managed to elude me for a couple of years, until curiosity finally got the better of me in Waterstones, and I marched out with it in paperback form. (I resisted wearing a silver hat and cape and saying “Give me. The book.”, but only just.) I’m glad curiosity won out, as this is the most fully realised Shada we could have hoped for.
The original scripts for Shada were knocked off in a panic by a genius writer with an insane Hitch-Hikers Guide related workload on his plate, and his not inconsiderable Doctor Who commitments piled up precariously on a similarly-sized side plate.
Consequently in amongst brilliant dialogue and ideas there are threads set up that aren’t seen through to the end, and elements which suffer from Douglas, a man never on the best terms with a deadline, rushing it desperately through to completion just to get it made.
It’s perhaps telling, given the writer’s history with fraughtness and writer’s block that the macguffin of the story is a book that people read and can’t understand.
It’s still worth pointing out though, that despite his low opinion of his Who work compared to his own I.P, the scripts still sparkle and knock a lot of Who’s 80’s output into a cocked hat, possibly a silver one at that. He clearly couldn’t help himself. A story by an exhausted, rushed Douglas Adams that he isn’t that interested in is still a better story than a lot of other stories.
Gareth Roberts is perfect casting for Shada. He has form with the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K-9, his marvellous Missing Adventures novels set in that era effortlessly capture both the characters and the wild, witty, fun nature of that season. The Adams-guided Season 17, barring City of Death tends to cop a lot of flack. That said, I was surprised on a recent re-watch how well Destiny of the Daleks hung together as a script, considering the chalk and cheese nature of credited writer and script editor, it’s only really Davros and the Daleks that let it down.
The rest of that season is hit and miss, but the TARDIS team of the time have great chemistry. This book version of Shada evokes the best of that era perfectly, and dials up the dramatic elements to give you something from the 1970s that is also very evocative of modern Who. Roberts seamlessly inserts new scenes with the leads that you’d struggle to tell weren’t there already, I won’t spoil it for you and tell you where to look.
Perhaps in a parallel universe a version of Shada exists in print where Terrance Dicks somehow managed to economically cram it all into under 150 pages. Gareth hasn’t done a ‘Target’ here, this version of Shada sings, and breathes beautifully at 407 pages. That said, Terrance’s influence can be felt to a degree, as although Gareth expands on the source material, he also shares Uncle Terry’s script editor’s eye for tidying up plot holes and making changes for the better.
The characters, already beautifully written, are allowed their own internal dialogue, interests, and insights. In particular, Professor Chronotis and Wilkin the porter spring off the page. Even Skagra’s Uriah Heep-like computer, an idea done far less well a couple of years later by Blake’s 7 sparkles as a character. It’s not all character and local colour either. The drama and fear factor are beefed up somewhat from what you’d expect from the post-Mary Whitehouse Who of 1979, the horror of losing your identity and the creepiness of the sphere are well defined here.
Our caped and pimp-hatted villain, Skagra, is fleshed out and given a plausible god complex from the start. Much mileage is had from his narcissism and cruel good looks, perhaps a nod to Christopher Neame’s portrayal of the charismatic Johnny Alucard in late Hammer effort Dracula 1972 A.D. The vaguely hinted at relationship between Chris Parsons and Claire Keightley is turned into an awkward british love story, and becomes a strong thread, with Young Parsons coming across as a sort of younger, braver Arthur Dent figure. Claire’s first meeting with the Doctor as seen through her eyes is also a highlight, capturing the wonder of meeting a mad man in a box, even when you don’t know about the box.
Roberts also brings his own touches to the party, fun references to prog rock and student debauchery fit right in with the 70s university setting. He also sketches in a tragicomic backstory for the poor unfortunate who picks up Skagra in his car and gets more than he bargained for. The Tom-esque joke about upsetting Status Quo works well as part of the Doctor’s manic bicycle chase. However, I’m not so sure Four would own a Bonnie Tyler cassette. Eleven, maybe, but Four? Doubt it. Maybe Romana slipped it in his jacket pocket to mess with him.
It’s a shame Gareth’s take on City of Death won’t be out for another year, I could read it now. As a kid I used to zip through a Target novelisation at a rate of knots. Shada is nearly three times the length of a novelisation of its vintage, but flew by for me as an adult. It was hard to put down, partly due to the short, addictive chapters, and mostly due to it being, in my humble opinion, the best Douglas Adams book he never wrote, and the best realisation of a story that no longer need be elusive, just buy it. Go into a bookshop and say “Give me. The book.” Silver hat and cape optional.
Based on the scripts for the original television series by the legendary Douglas Adams, Shada retells a classic Doctor Who adventure that never made it to the screen. Shada is available now from all good bookshops and via the Amazon link below. A full-cast play starring Paul McGann is also available as is the story on DVD and an audio reading of this Gareth Roberts adaptation.
The Doctor and Romana are in Paris, enjoying the culture and art. However trouble is not far behind, just what are the Count and Countess Scarlioni up to and what are their plans for the Mona Lisa? What is causing the time distortions that the Doctor and Romana have felt? And just who is this chap Duggan, and what is his role in all of this? All will be revealed in the ‘City Of Death’.
So where do we begin? Although the writer of this is ‘”David Agnew”, it is in fact a pseudonym for David Fisher (original idea), Graham Williams (producer) and Douglas Adams (God) and it is the last one, Douglas Adams, who really shows his comic sci-fi writing that we all would come to love in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. After a poor season opener with Destiny of the Daleks, with a script that Terry Nation had phoned in on a bad line, Davros now speaking with more of a Scottish accent then the Dalek-esq vocal harmony that Wisher had given (Watch the clip of Davros saying ‘Davros Lives!’ and hear what I mean), and a case of Daleks that looked more like a kid had made them for a Blue Peter special then the gleaming bad ass machines from the previous story (as you can gather, Destiny may not in fact be my favourite Dalek story, but seeing as Day of the Daleks happens to be that story, what do I know?), City Of Death comes out of this bad patch to bring something to Doctor Who that had been missing for a while – the right combination of comedy and horror.
So a quick rundown of the story. City starts with a landscape shot of an alien world, but is in fact Earth in the distant past, and a spaceship attempting to take off. Scaroth (the pilot with a face that looks as if someone put a lot of green spaghetti over his head with a meat ball in the middle) tries but fails, and the end result is the ship exploding into little pieces. Anyway we catch up with the Doctor and Romana (in that School Girl outfit we all love…. , but the major difference here is we are not in some Devonshire quarry, oh no, the BBC have spent some money on the program and shipped the crew to a small place in Europe known as Paris. With wonderful shots of Tom and Lalla walking around the Parisian streets, we get to the story in a small café, the Doctor and Romana feel the effects of a ‘time distortion’. Deciding to go to the Louvre to look at one of the ‘great treasures of the universe‘ the Mona Lisa, they run into Duggan, who is tailing the Countess Scarlioni . Much hi-jinks later, and the three are taken the to Count and Countess home, to discover that there are six Mona Lisa’s bricked up and awaiting to be sold once the real one is stolen. But this hides the true intention of Scarlioni, to fund his time travel experiments, and not the way of producing food, but as a means to get back in time to the spacecraft explosion and stop it from happening. The Doctor must stop him at all costs as this means that life on the Earth will be lost, for it was the explosion that caused life to form on this planet. To cut a long story short, the Doctor finds out that Scarlioni is in fact Scaroth, who is splintered through time and using a mental link to each version of Scaroth to plan his deed. Needless to say, the Doctor manages to stop the plans of Scaroth, and make sure that history is on its true course.
So what can I say about the City Of Death. I cannot lie, it ranks as one of my top five Doctor Who stories of all time as it manages to combine a top acting cast, with Tom Chadbon as a superb casting as Duggan, the bumbling private detective with a habit for punching first, asking questions later. There is are the Count and Countess Scarlioni, played by Julian Glover and Catherine Schell. Both bounce off each other as a believable villainous couple, but it is Glover who brings a double edged side to Scarlioni/Scaroth that is a charm to watch on the screen. Even Tom Baker & Lalla Ward are on top form as the Doctor and Romana as they begin their onscreen (and later off-screen) partnership. But my favourite actors in this story happen to only have a cameo. John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as the two art gallery visitors bring an amusing moment of surreal humour to the show, discussing the artistic nature of the TARDIS, yet neither playing the part for a cheep laugh, but both for their moment on screen, making a believable couple who think that the TARDIS dematerialising is just part of the artists show (and having been to art shows, I could see why)
But it is down to the man who wrote City Of Death, Douglas Adams, as to why this is in my top five, and in the top five of many in fandom. Although he is often taken to task for adding too much ‘joke humour’ into the show, it is not just down to him for this as there was pressure from the top to lighten the show after the Hitchcliffe/Holmes Gothic Horror era of the mid 70’s. Adams managed in his story to inject what the show needed, that of a comedic streak but with the seriousness needed to pull it off. Douglas Adams gets a lot of stick in fandom for making the show too jokey during his tenure as Script Editor, but it was not down to him along as there are many factors that add to the change, including Tom himself, but it is stories like City that show humour can be used at the right times, something that we wont see that much in the JNT era of Doctor Who, and doesn’t come back to Doctor Who properly until the new series, though Love & Monsters (A story that I hate with a passion) took it too far, anyone who states that the Douglas Adams era was to jokey should watch that and see he was being far more serious.
City of Death would be the last time that Doctor Who would have a true ‘Classic’ in any sense until the end of Season 18 with Logopolis, and stands out as a classic in the 48 years of the show. What makes City Of Death a joy to watch is that all of the hallmarks of a classic story, that of good writing, casting, directing, and acting, all to be seen here, along with shots of Paris that add to the stories flow, and not detract from it like on other occasions where location filming in other countries has been used (Such as The Two Doctors). In the end I have to give this story my second 10 out of 10 for the fact that it is to this day one of the best Tom Baker stories out there, and ranks as of the top five stories in the history of the show.
City of Death was originally broadcast between September 29 and October 20 1979 as the second serial of Doctor Who‘s seventeenth season. It was released on VHS in July 1991 and reissued in May 2001. It was released on DVD in November 2005, available from the Amazon link below. City of Death was novelised this month by James Goss, our review which can be found Here.
Somewhere in a suburb of North London, there’s a crisis. More than a crisis, a positive disaster: Belinda and Ralph are expecting four for supper, and there’s no Marie Rose sauce for the Prawns Marie Rose. All in all, the evening couldn’t possibly get any worse… Until the doorbell rings, bringing the Doctor and Leela to the dinner party. They’ve got a crisis, too – temporal ruckage has sent the TARDIS to another time zone entirely. Meaning they might have to endure a whole evening in Belinda’s company. But the Doctor and Leela aren’t the only uninvited guests tonight. There’s a strange fog falling, out in the road. And in that fog: savage blue-skinned monsters, with dinner party plans of their own. Because it’s not Prawns Marie Rose on their menu – it’s people!
After being such a mixed bag of offerings throughout the first three series’ of Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor range, the series has recently seemed to find it’s footing and a consistency, recent releases hitting the note in terms of tone and performance. After the impressive Death Match last month, can Alan Barnes keep the trend going and equal his other release this month Last of the Cybermen? no, he betters it.
While Last of the Cybermen was excellently plotted with magical performances from our leads, Colin Baker and Frazer Hines standing out in particular, we felt the play was let down somewhat with a sense of over-familiarity, that we’d walked a similar path with the Cybermen all too often. Not so here, the concept and execution refreshingly new. While we like to see the audios staying within the bounds of the realities of the era (lower your weapons rads vs. trads veterans) there is a danger of straying into complacency and the realms of deja vu.
Bringing a nightmarish dinner party to life, Barnes’ tale is benefited by the perfect Doctor for the role, the premise having “written for Tom Baker” all over it and it’s difficult to see it working in this way with any other Doctor. The icon is having a ball here, you can visualise the eyes bulging – all teeth and curls as he’s gifted some riotously funny material, stealing the show as only Baker can, while ensuring the drama never suffers. This is vintage Tom, offsetting the ever increasing threat with humour.
The rest of the cast is excellent, Annette Badland (Aliens of London, Boom Town) standing out as Thelma and Katy Wix’s Belinda is suitably monstrous in her role as hostess, both served well by the script as once again is Leela, her scene with Penny and her husband a highlight. While the play stays strong throughout, the ending unfortunately lets it down, feeling at odds with the rest of the audio and something that unduly effects what came before.
That said, Suburban Hell is a fantastic entry in this very strong fourth series of Tom Baker audios. A genuine rib-tickler with a dark underbelly that shines it’s most with a Tom at his sparkling best. Excellently cast and scripted, the series has found a fine footing and the play comes highly recommended as we head into the anticipated The Cloisters of Terror next month and the return of Emily Shaw. Suburban Hell is one of the highlights of the Fourth Doctor at Big Finish.