Audio Frequencies (DWM #516, October 2017)
Reviewed this issue:
Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 2
The Lives of Captain Jack
Short Trips: Flashpoint
The Movellan Grave
When Doctor Who returned to our screens 12 years ago, Russell T Davies was so wary of “fan-servicing” (to use its pre-watershed variant) they didn’t even dare utter the word ‘Gallifrey’ for two years.
These days, though, all bets are off – which is why the most recent series featured a cameo from a hermaphroditic hexapod last seen 43 years ago, while the Christmas special is set to pick up where we left off in October 1966. (“Previously, on Doctor Who… actually, how long have you got?”)
Big Finish has never had any such qualms about crossing time streams. But it’s only in the last couple of years it’s been allowed to play in the sandbox of New Who, gifting the world such hitherto unimagined delights as River Song canoodling with the Sixth Doctor and Peter Davison’s Roman holiday being interrupted by the Weeping Angels.
The latter was one of the highlights of last year’s Classic Doctors, New Monsters set, which is now back for more, minus Sylvester McCoy, but with Tom Baker bumping into the monsters on his behalf. Except, of course, you can’t really bump into the Vashta Nerada – “the shadows that melt the flesh” being one of those classic Steven Moffat creations that favours exploiting primal fears over squeezing a man into a rubber suit.
The setting for Night of the Vashta Nerada – an abandoned fairground world at night – is deliciously creepy, in a Scooby Doo sort of way, as the Doctor and a hunting party on the trail of a mysterious predator learn the hard way that the skeletons aren’t confined to the haunted house.
It’s a taut, tense script from John Dorney, in which the listener is often one step ahead of the luckless cannon-fodder, and in which Pam Ferris is clearly having a blast playing against type as a gung-ho mercenary looking for her latest trophy kill. Fellow national treasure Tom Baker is also in fine fettle as a Doctor who’s witty, wise and full of righteous fury in the face of callous indifference from the corporate blowhards who just want to get the rides running again. “Do you think you can kill the dark?” he booms at one point. That’s the perfect movie tagline for this terrific, nerve-jangling thriller right there.
Fifth Doctor adventure Empire of the Racnoss is Medea – the Greek revenge tragedy about a spurned princess who murders her own children – but with spiders. I know: only in Doctor Who, right?
Scott Handcock’s script is a deft exercise in world-building, depicting a society where complex personal and political alliances and enmities have escalated into full-scale civil war. There are so many betrayals, reversals and double-bluffs from the rival claimants to the Racnoss empire, in fact, that it stars to get a bit wearing, especially when it’s all conducted at such a screeching pitch. But it’s clever stuff nonetheless, and all credit to Adjoa Adhoh who, as the Empress, more than matches her screen forebear Sarah Parish for sheer to-hell-with-it commitment. It’s a hissing, gurgling, shrieking, chattering masterclass in Doctor Who monster acting. I just feel for whoever had to wipe down the pop shields in the studio after this one.
(A word of praise, also, for the attention to detail shown by sound designer Russell McGee, who created the story’s ambient background tones using “the mating sound of the jumping spider, and a tonne of reverb”. Which, let’s face it, is as close to a sex scene as we’re ever likely to get in Doctor Who.)
The Carrionite Curse starts with the Sixth Doctor playing the clown – literally – at a children’s party. “Some of the parents took one look at my clothes and made assumptions,” he explains. Oh dear. Before long, though, he’s been recast as a warlock, charged with casting out the titular crones from the Black Country in the 1980s, in a story that serves as both prequel and sequel to 2007’s The Shakespeare Code.
You can see the logic of this particular Doctor-monster pairing: it is words, not numbers, that form the building blocks of Carrionite science – and if there’s anyone better suited to weaponising language, it’s the Sixth Doctor, who attacks the enemy by bellowing things like “flagitious”, “flapdoodle” “foofaraw” and (an old favourite) “pusillanimous” at them. Pip’n’Jane would be proud.
Simon Guerrier’s hocus-pocus black comedy has fun with the idea of witch trials in the age of the Datsun Cherry, with the petit bourgeois head of the local council acting as Witchfinder General in what amounts to an unholy mash-up of The Crucible and Keeping Up Appearances.
There’s also a perfectly lovely scene inside the TARDIS library where two books of significance are consulted. One is a certain children’s story about a boy wizard, the other the lesser-known Reminiscences of the Peculiar by Professor George Litefoot. That good old George should still be saving the world from beyond the grave – in the very month we said goodbye the wonderful Trevor Baxter – feels both sad and entirely fitting.
Finale Day of the Vashta Nerada hits the ground running with a thrilling cold open in which is a single Vashta, bred in captivity by scientists aboard a scientific research station, is isolated and magnified to millions of times its actual size. As people in the Big Finish green room are fond of saying: it looks amazing in your head.
After that, Matt Fitton’s story – a companion bookend to John Dorney’s opener – shakes down into a more standard base under siege tale, playing out like a 70s disaster movie as the Eighth Doctor and the space station crew run for their lives from the genetically-modified shadow critters. It doesn’t want for energy or excitement, but did leave me slightly pining for the slow, creeping dread of The Ark in Space, which approached similar material with considerably less frenzy.
Really, though, who can argue with anything that gives us Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Paul McGann doing the mash, doing the monster mash? It’s worth saying, also, in a summer when Doctor Who finds itself inextricably bound up in gender politics, that while it might be four men with their names over the title, the cast of these stories is overwhelmingly female, with women playing all the antagonists, as well as filling the more traditional companion-of-the-week roles. So full credit to the writers and director Barnaby Edwards, and take a bow Pam Ferris, Adjoa Adhoh, Lorelei King, Emma Lowndes, Lisa Kay, Maya Sondhi, Adèle Anderson, Jacqueline Pearce, Jan Ravens, and more.
Jack Harkness was pushing boundaries and popping taboos in Doctor Who long before it was fashionable, and new box set The Lives of Captain Jack catches up with the irrepressible, omnisexual time traveller at four distinct points in his life, each inspired by on-screen events.
Guy Adams’ The Year After I Died finds our usually effervescent hero, angry and embittered after being abandoned by the Doctor and Rose, living a hermit’s existence, Obi-Wan-style, on an Earth ravaged by the Dalek assault seen in The Parting of the Ways. But after joining forces with an idealistic young journalist he quickly gets his groove back, leading a rebellion against a sinister (and topical) plot to exploit desperate refugees.
In Wednesdays for Beginners – James Goss’s delightful two-hander for John Barrowman and Camille Coduri – Jackie Tyler’s humdrum reality of post office queues and pound shops is interrupted when a mystery man with tight trousers and a nice bum moves in at number 52. Before you know it, they’re teaming up to save the world from… well, the usual, in a funny and poignant story that – fair warning – contains several musical numbers.
Remember the Tenth Doctor’s parting gift of a date night for Jack and Midshipman Alonso Frame (the adorable Russell Tovey)? Turns out a no-strings fling is too much to expect in the Doctor Who universe and, in One Enchanted Evening, the star cross’d lovers experience a violent case of coitus interruptus when they’re attacked by a carnivorous alien beetle played by Katy Manning. I swear I’m not making this up.
James Goss’s larky script has something of a Douglas Adams vibe to it (less charitably, it also reminded me of Eric Saward’s Sixth Doctor radio play, Slipback), while Manning’s Mother Nothing is the campest villain this side of Harrison Chase: “I’ve always done my best,” says Jack, earnestly. “It’s all anyone can do.” “Aaaw, stitch it on a cushion for me, would you?” she retorts. How I’d love to hear the Daleks say that.
And finally – or firstly, if you want to get technical – Month 25 takes us back to when Jack was the hotshot young buck of the Time Agency, in a story that finally addresses those missing two years our man was searching for when we first encountered him during the Blitz. As a bonus, we even discover his real name, as slipped to writer Guy Adams by Russell T Davies himself.
It’s an action-packed finish to a set that succeeds in shucking off all the baggage of Torchwood and remaking Captain Jack as the dashing matinee idol of Saturday teatimes circa 2005. And John Barrowman, naturally, radiates enough megawatt enthusiasm to power a warp star. Best just to surrender and have done with it.
Just time for two honourable mentions, both from the pen of Andrew Smith. Short Trips: Flashpoint is a mini-space epic that feels more like a Star Wars spin-off than Doctor Who, but is notable for the return of the magnificent Sheridan Smith, who narrates the tale as the Eighth Doctor’s companion, Lucie Miller. Coming so soon after Nicola Walker’s turn in the Short Trips booth, we really are being spoilt rotten lately.
In The Movellan Grave, meanwhile, Smith returns to the era of Full Circle – his 1980 script for Tom Baker and Lalla Ward – for a delightful tale in which an archaeological excavation unearths a crashed Movellan spaceship in the rubble beneath what will become the M25. The fact the story is actually set in 1980 (and what rotten luck for Doctor Who’s most disco robots to have lain dormant for 2,000 years, and then missed the 70s by mere months) brings a pleasing sense of events coming… well, full circle. And the Movellans themselves, of course, are fresh from a fleeting, fan-pleasing cameo opposite Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, after an absence of 38 years. Which I suppose brings us full circle, too.
Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #516, October 2017 © Panini UK Ltd
All titles available from Big Finish