Audio Frequencies (DWM #514, August 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

The Ninth Doctor Chronicles
The Haunting of Malkin Place
Vortex Ice / Cortex Fire




“D’you wanna come with me?”

It’s 12 years now since Christopher Eccleston invited us aboard the TARDIS and, in some ways, it already feels like the trip of another lifetime. The brevity of Eccleston’s tenure (‘era’ feels a bit strong), and his subsequent desire to keep his distance from Doctor Who, leave it standing slightly apart from everything that’s followed. It’s become a cliché to say he was the actor who “kicked down the door” for New Who, but it also feels like the door has been firmly closed on the Ninth Doctor – at least until Eccleston makes good on his promise to bring his sonic and his stair-lift along to the 100th anniversary special.

In the meantime, we have comic strips and short stories and now this, The Ninth Doctor Chronicles – an audio anthology that pushes that door open a crack and allows a little light in on the Who Class of 2005, albeit with a six-foot hole in the middle where a certain leather-jacketed, daft faced northener ought to be.

Stepping into the breach is the ever-game Nicholas Briggs, a man who, thanks to this magazine’s comic strip, can actually lay claim to having been the Ninth Doctor before Eccleston. Sort of. Here, he serves both as narrator and Time Lord, switching between his natural RP purr and a very credible take on Eccleston that, despite occasionally drifting perilously close to Wallace and Gromit territory, cleverly succeeds in capturing the rhythm and intonation of the “fast and sarky, cheeky and brave” Doctor outlined in Russell T Davies’s original series pitch.

Opener The Bleeding Heart has something of the RTD spirit about it, too, clearly sharing his enthusiasm for the comic book aesthetic of 2000AD and, indeed, the early Doctor Who Weekly comic strips. Centred around that old chestnut, the galactic peace conference, its menagerie of alien delegates include a race of hippo soldiers and luminescent jelly fish on anti-grav discs that you can just picture filling a panel of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Meanwhile, events are being covered by reporter Adriana Jardsel – a delightful companion-of-the-week performance from Claire Wyatt – for Cosmic Nine News, which is just one step along from ‘space news’.

Cavan Scott’s script is an entertaining romp, for the most part, but takes a darker turn in a poignant final act that keys into the Ninth Doctor’s survivor guilt, and foreshadows both the coming of Rose Tyler and the re-launched show’s theme of the Doctor inspiring ordinary people to heroic deeds, in ways that are quite lovely.

Briggs gets the opportunity to give us his Rose in sophomore tale The Window on the Moor (verdict: as good an approximation of the young Billie Piper as you could reasonably expect from a 55-year-old man). This one’s a celebrity historical with a twist, writer Una McCormack setting up an intriguing mystery as to what connects Emily Brontë with a far-flung alien city of glass under siege from banshee-riding warriors.

The literary scholars among you may already have made the connection between this world and Gondal and Angria, the fantasy kingdoms dreamed up by the Brontë siblings as children. Here, Emily gets to step through the looking glass and actually the visit the land of her juvenile imagination – a lovely gift bestowed by McCormack, no slouch when it comes to a writerly turn of phrase herself.

Laura Riseborough is terrific in the dual roles of the “tiny and tough” Emily and her parallel world doppleganger, Ada, who McCormack memorably introduces sitting captive in a cell, “embroidering angrily”.

With echoes of Camelot and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, The Window on the Moor is a charming romantic fantasy, full of wuthering and wonder. Plus, extra marks for the regionally accurate use of the word ‘ginnel’ (look it up).

Depending on your point of view, The Other Side either starts in 2012, or at 7.45pm on 30 April, 2005, seconds after the credits have rolled at the end of Dalek, when Adam Mitchell steps aboard the TARDIS for the first time (and, as it turns out, nearly throws up with the shock).

As such, Scott Handcock plays fast and loose with established events as, instead of flunking his first test as potential companion material in The Long Game, the whizkid pretty boy (the Doctor’s words, not mine) actually acquits himself rather well here. Once he’s managed not to chunder all over the console, anyway.

With all of time and space at his disposal, Adam’s maiden voyage takes him to… Birmingham. Specifically, a derelict cinema that’s at the centre of a schism in time. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric location, and the feel of this being a great lost Sapphire & Steel adventure is only heightened when the Doctor is cast back in time and materialises on stage during a Victorian music hall show, while Rose appears in the midst of a Twenties jazz dance.

Bruno Langley slips easily back into the role of Adam, and it’s fun to witness him and the Doctor fanning their peacock feathers as rivals for Rose’s attention. Nick Briggs, for his part, does a fine job of selling the Doctor’s unquenchable sense of adventure: “It’s beautiful,” he marvels, as all hell’s kicking off around him. “A stitch in the space-time vortex fraying apart; echoes of memory bleeding into the present, infecting the here and now. Fantastic!” Or, if you prefer: A stitch in time, raves Nine.

And so to Retail Therapy, in which Rose takes her washing home and discovers her mother has accidentally launched an alien invasion from her living room. True story.

Succeeding where her late husband’s get-rich-quick schemes failed, Jackie has become a hotshot saleswoman for Glubby Glubs: pink, furry eggs with the mysterious power to soothe away all your cares and worries… at a terrible price.

If you think we’ve been here before, we have: the Adipose, in 2008’s Partners in Crime, were a similarly cute and squishy menace, and both stories serve as sly satires on our susceptibility to fads and fashions (“Have you got to fish pedicures yet?” snarks the Doctor). But the CBBC plot is really just a cover for a touching character study of Jackie, beautifully written by James Goss, in what may well stand as Camille Coduri’s finest hour in the role.

She’s funny, of course, asking, “What sort of race would invent time machines but not the cardigan?” But Jackie was always more than just a comedy fishwife, and it’s heartrending here to observe her fighting for a toehold in her daughter’s life – unable to offer the universe, but trying her best with a week in Torremolinos (“with a balcony”).

I can’t help thinking Russell T Davies would approve of The Ninth Doctor Chronicles, all four quarters of which succeed in bottling something of the romantic, starry-eyed spirit of Doctor Who circa 2005. Is it the trip of a lifetime? Not quite. But in this age of instant gratification, when we can watch The Web of Fear on our phones on the bus, maybe it’s good for a small piece of Doctor Who history to remain vacuum sealed, and for us to have to make do with a slightly compromised version. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of an off-air audio recording, or a Target book. And did we ever cherish those any less?

 

I’ve discussed several times in these columns the ways in which Big Finish’s current run of stories set during Tom Baker’s swansong year either cleave to or depart from that season’s very particular house style. But, at the risk of trapping us all in a chronic hysteresis of critical repetition, it bears further scrutiny this month, as The Haunting of Malkin Place does rather confront the matter head-on.

“What’s the point of a ghost story?” asks Romana, as she plods miserably through Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

“The chill up the spine!” cries the Doctor. “The glorious tingling mystery of the inexplicable!”

“The inexplicable getting explained – THAT’S exciting!” counters Romana.

Substitute our heroes for Christopher H Bidmead and Robert Holmes and it’s exactly the sort of conversation you might imagine the two script editors having over a subsidised scotch in the BBC bar.

Lalla Ward, naturally, sells Romana’s frustration at “silly” ghost stories as well as you’d expect from someone who spent so many years living with Richard Dawkins. “I constantly want people to understand,” sighs the actress in the bonus material, “that reality is more exciting than this nonsense of the supernatural.”

Well, nonsense it may be but, as Ward is forced to concede, it’s rather fabulous nonsense. And spooky, too. Doctor Who is often overly timid when it comes to ghost stories; too quick to reveal the mechanical hand behind the clanking chains. But this is the real deal: a haunted house story set in the middle of the fogbound Romney Marsh where a shell shocked returnee from the First World War and his sister are plagued by giggling children, slamming doors and things going bump in the night.

When the Doctor and Romana arrive on the same train as Talbot, an amateur spiritualist played by everyone’s favourite hitchhiker, Simon Jones, the scene is set for a fiery clash between science and superstition – Jones and Tom Baker locking horns like a pair of magnificent stags.

Phil Mulryne’s lyrical script has a genuine weight of sadness to it, with moving meditations on loss and grief in the long shadow of the Great War. With suitably evocative sound design and sympathetic direction from Nicholas Briggs, it may well be Doctor Who’s best ghost story since that early Big Finish classic, The Chimes of Midnight.

 

The last time I saw the Sixth Doctor down a mineshaft, he was a blob of patchwork pixels in 8-bit 80s folly Doctor Who and The Mines of Terror. Back then, he was charged with stopping the Master constructing a time-splicing device powered by a mysterious mineral compound. In Vortex Ice, which opens the latest in Big Finish’s run of double-bill releases, he’s caught up in a similarly sticky subterranean fix – this time involving solid chunks of actual frozen time. Except, instead of being accompanied by a cat called Splinx, he’s now travelling with a girl called Flip.

Lisa Greenwood is enchanting as Flip. Like Bill and Rose and Jo, she adds weight to the argument that the best Doctor Who companions are street smart, rather than educated – allowing the Doctor to mansplain (Time Lordsplain?) everything to his young charge along with the boys and girls at home.

Hundreds of feet beneath Northern Mexico, the duo encounter the remains of an ancient spaceship, and an alien cyborg octopus trapped in the walls like a fly in amber. More alarmingly, they also discover themselves entombed in the ice of the time vortex, setting up a temporally tricky tale from Jonathan Morris that you suspect would require even Steven Moffat to keep a spreadsheet handy.

Second act Cortex Fire shifts the action to the futuristic alien city of Festin, where the Doctor is hoping for a night at the opera, but ends up accused of being a terrorist insurgent. Ian Potter’s script is a busy, cartoonish affair that recalls 2007’s Gridlock, with much of the action revolving around flying space cars – including an impressive display of “face squashed by airbag” acting from Colin Baker. I bet they don’t teach that at RADA.

Though some effort is made to make the technology behind the air cars vaguely plausible, the “science” and plotting gradually degrade and become more outlandish as the story bumps along – most notably when Flip manages to survive a collapsing apartment block by, er, climbing in the bath.

Still, who ever said Doctor Who had to be sober and sensible? Let’s not forget this is the same show that, back in Christopher Eccleston’s day, saw the Doctor foiling a plot by a farting green alien – who was also the Mayor of Cardiff – to escape the Earth by riding the wave of a nuclear explosion on an intergalactic surfboard disguised as a scale model of a Welsh power station. Tell that to today’s kids, and they won’t believe you.



Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #514, August 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish