I’ve had a bit of an audio binge over the last week after a long period of not having listened to any new Big Finish. I’m still just going through the “highlights” at the present time, although I’ve moved onto the Sixth Doctor stories. I’ve got a vague plan in mind to listen to a particular Doctor’s audio stories after I’ve finished with his television stories and while I’m watching his successor on television. So I listened to Peter Davison after I’d finished with him on television, and now I’m listening to Colin Baker while I’m watching Sylvester McCoy. When I finish my Classic Who marathon (which probably won’t be long, given the rate I’m getting through the stories now), I want to do a marathon of the Eighth Doctor on audio before I move onto the New Who segment of my 50-year marathon. I probably won’t do all of the Eighth Doctor stories, but I think at least the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and perhaps the Dark Eyes saga as well.
In any case, without further ado, here are my thoughts and commentary on the latest Big Finish audios I’ve listened to. Just a spoiler warning, though: I’m not going to keep my “reviews” of Big Finish spoiler-free anymore as I did in the last installment, as I felt overly constrained by having to limit my commentary in the way I did.
The Fifth Doctor, and Peri and Erimem, get stuck two years apart in London during the reign of Richard III, meanwhile both become involved in the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. This is an intriguing story that purports to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and indeed does so in typical surreal Doctor Who fashion. I listened to this story knowing of its reputation as a Fifth Doctor audio “classic”, albeit somewhat sceptically as Doctor Who historicals never seem to entertain me as much as the general sci-fi stories (despite being a huge history buff). Indeed, there are some excellent moments in there, and Peter Davison is in top form. Separating the characters and seeing them follow separate streams of the same plot in different points in time, only to see both the characters and the plotlines converge at the end, was a well-executed device that makes what could have been a somewhat tiresome and unremarkable story grip and intrigue the listener. There is some wonderful dialogue between the Doctor and Richard III dealing with the reality of time travel, precognition, fate and predestination. Richard III is not portrayed as the pantomime villain of Shakespearean myth, but embattled, manipulative, flawed and fatalistic, cynical about, yet resigned to, his place in history, and a reputation The Kingmaker posits he doesn’t deserve.
If this story suffers from anything, it’s the confused to-and-fro between comedy and tragedy — to be sure, this does work effectively at times; I enjoyed the scenes involving the publisher’s robot and the scenes with Peri and Erimem in the tavern, but I feel that, in general, the comedy detracts from the drama, e.g. the scene in which Richard’s adviser conducts a “press conference” with the top gossips of the kingdom. This audio could have worked a great deal better as a straight drama with a few comedic elements thrown in here and there, but, in attempting to be both tragedy and comedy, does neither wholly successfully. The twist of the pub landlord and his “nieces” being the Duke of Clarence and the (crossdressing) Princes in the Tower actually worked very well as a plot twist and as Doctor Who’s “answer” to the historical mystery, but the revelation was marred somewhat by the Duke and the Princesses being, in general, indistinguishable from your common garden cockney slum-dwellers (and very comical ones at that). Another detriment to this story is the fourth part, which after the initial revelations about Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence and the Princes in the Tower, seems to drag on somewhat pointlessly for the rest of the episode, as though filling in time. To be sure, the switcheroo with Richard III and Shakespeare was very clever, but the last fifteen minutes or so of the episode were quite unnecessary. For these reasons, I’m thus giving The Kingmaker a rating of 8/10 for what could have been a 10/10. Rating: 8/10.
Urgent Calls is a single-episode (half-hour) story involving the Sixth Doctor alone with one other major character. It’s a fantastic little story, an account, seemingly, of an alien invasion entirely through a series of phone calls between the Doctor and a woman called Lauren. The concept is ever so clever, and the story thrives precisely due to the limitations imposed upon it. There’s not much to say about such a clever little story like this, other than that I feel it would be a great introduction to Big Finish for newcomers to Doctor Who audios, a powerful and memorable exemplar of what Big Finish can do with Doctor Who on the audio format, albeit that it’s not a typical sample of a Big Finish audio.
Colin Baker plays the part of the Sixth Doctor with all the gusto and conviction with which, I am told, he is renowned on audio. This was my first experience with the Sixth Doctor on audio, and, although I had heard that the Sixth Doctor was somewhat “re-characterised” on audio into a more generic Doctor from his bombastic, brash, flamboyant, pompous persona on television (which I absolutely adored), and, from what I’ve since heard of Sixie on Big Finish, that is indeed something of the case, I was relieved to hear in Urgent Calls that the rough edges were still reassuringly there on what has become my second favourite Doctor. Nevertheless, the Doctor is also beginning to mellow in this story, a well-executed instance of character development. Kate Brown endears herself to us as Lauren, the sweet everywoman working in a call centre, and her chemistry with Colin is quite engaging. It’s interesting to hear Lauren’s and the Doctor’s relationship developing into something almost romantic (at least for Lauren), as they become familiar with each other, and as Lauren contributes to some initial character development for the Doctor. The story ends on a slightly sad note as (it is implied) the Doctor destroys the virus strand and the wrong number calls stop, meaning the Doctor’s and Lauren’s budding relationship has come to an end. I don’t know if Lauren makes a return in subsequent audios, but it would be great to see Lauren and the Doctor reunite in person. Rating: 9/10. [N.B. I think that picture is actually fanart; I’m not entirely sure, as I found it through a Google Image search. But whatever.]
Trial of the Valeyard
The Valeyard is on trial for charges unnamed in the familiar setting of the Time Lords’ orbiting courtroom, and the Doctor is his defence counsel. Big Finish effectively revisits the plotline from Trial of a Time Lord in this hour-long story, investigating the nature and origins of the mysterious figure of the Valeyard, allegedly the Doctor’s dark future incarnation. This audio also delves into the mysteries of Time Lord regeneration, and Rassilon’s legacy as “creator” of the Time Lord race. Trial of the Valeyard takes place predominantly as a courtroom trial, the three main actors of the original Trial — Colin Baker, Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham — reprising their roles as the Sixth Doctor, the Valeyard and Madame Inquisitor respectively. The story is slow to get moving, but when it does, there is immediately an air of intrigue as it becomes apparent the Valeyard’s charges are not allowed to be mentioned, suggesting, once again, High Council impropriety. The Valeyard’s recounting of his origins and life are absorbing exposition of one of the show’s more mysterious characters; likewise his explanation of his studies into regeneration are a fascinating contribution to the backstory of the Whoniverse, one of the most mystical aspects of the Time Lord species. It was thus slightly disappointing when the trial, the Valeyard’s revelations, everything, was revealed to have been an elaborate plot of the Valeyard’s to take revenge on the Doctor and the Inquisitor. A somewhat poor and lazy ending to what could have been a much better story.
Nevertheless, if this story does one thing right, it’s to bring home how very alien and otherworldly the Time Lords are as a species: watching and listening to the Doctor, it’s easy to forget that he, and his species, are not like us; Trial of the Valeyard reminds us, through compelling exposition, that the Time Lords are an impossibly ancient civilisation, a race of potentially immortal beings as exemplified in the mystery of regeneration. Colin Baker is fabulous here; it’s obvious he’s having delicious fun reprising the brash and petulant persona of the Sixth Doctor of the original Trial. The Doctor, at first having no qualms about seeing the Valeyard punished for whatever it is he’s done, soon becomes intrigued and curious and agrees to defend the Valeyard. It’s heartening to see that the Doctor’s sense of justice is not lost, as he becomes indignant at the lack of procedural fairness, even when it’s the Valeyard who’s on trial, prompting him to rally to the Valeyard’s defence. In the end this is an engrossing story that unfortunately suffered from a few detriments. Rating: 8/10.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri visit an intergalactic lexicographers’ conference, a gathering of the universe’s top word-nerds for the compilation of the greatest dictionary ever made. The leader of the grand enterprise is found seemingly dead by her own hand in curious circumstances. This was one of the stories I couldn’t wait to listen to, especially given that I adored Iterations of I, a story with a similar concept (in that a sentient number, in this a sentient word). Indeed, the concept is positively captivating: a sentient fragment of the longest word in existence, the “Omniverbum” a transcendental word around which meaning and reality itself becomes warped. This is all very clever and spacey-wacey, and has the potential to misfire if not executed well. For the most part, it is done well, enthralling and fascinating the listener, but there are times when the listener can lose track of what’s going on and have trouble following the very complicated explanations. I experienced this at times, and, for a while, was left listening not quite sure that I was following what was going on involving the “Ish” and Book. I was relieved, when reading other reviews, to find that I wasn’t the only one who encountered this problem. In any case, it detracts to a degree from the story in a way I never found when listening to Iterations of I, for example.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri work well together in this story, at least in the moments when they are actually together. It’s enjoyable hearing the playful banter between them, and their cute British-American double-act in defeating the “Ish” brought a grin to my face. It’s good to hear Peri characterised more intelligently than she was on television, where she appeared to be at times little more than a helpless bimbo. She’s a college botany student, after all, not just a pair of breasts, so it’s great to hear her using her intellect, resource and initiative in this story. I think the Six-Peri combination can work really well; there were moments of this on television, but …ish gives us a fairly good exemplar of what a joy to listen to the Six-Peri team can be. Overall this is an engaging and stimulating story unfortunately let down by its problems with exposition, which is a shame as in its imaginative concept was the potential for a classic. Rating: 8/10.