Big Finish’s latest ‘Doctor Who’ audio stories reviewed: December 2016 round-up

As the Doctor Who audio producers rounded out 2016 with another bumper month, Colin Baker was kept busy with a pair of main range releases, while the Early Adventure found the First Doctor enduring his first brush with ‘The Sontarans’.

A pair of Short Trip releases were under the tree for the Seventh Doctor; first a Christmas tale featuring Bernice Summerfield titled ‘The Hesitation Deviation’ and the second, a special competition winning, free to download story called ‘Forever Fallen’.

Sylvester McCoy was also employed in a pair of novel adaptations; ‘Original Sin’ features Benny and introduces new companions Roz and Chris, while ‘Cold Fusion’ chronicles a multi-Doctor encounter as the Seventh meets the newly regenerated Fifth Doctor with Adric, Nyssa and Tegan in tow.

 

Main Range #219: ‘Absolute Power’

The two releases month featuring Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and companion Constance Clark (Miranda Raison) complete the trilogy begun with November’s ‘Order of the Daleks’.

The first is director Jamie Anderson’s Absolute Power, set on the planet Teymah whose population was wiped out in an Anomalous Extinction Level Event. Apart from the usual tremendous casting and production, this story also gives Constance a strong central role that tells us about her as a person. Faced with a set of mysterious inscriptions, Constance draws on her skills as a cryptographer honed at Bletchley Park. While we normally get the TARDIS translation circuit short cut, this story builds tension as Constance exposes the mystery of what happened on Teymah.

It all starts on arrival when the Doctor is mistaken for a visiting expert, and plays on the ensuing confusion to poke his nose into everything in sight. As soon as Constance gets to revert to Wren mode there’s an interesting adjustment in their relationship with the Doctor now less an expert than his companion.

To counterbalance the extinction story we also have Lyam Ice (played by Paul Reynolds) a self-made entrepreneur and some side plots making this a well-rounded adventure, even if it, perhaps relies overmuch on some psychic shenanigans for its resolution.

 

Main Range #220: ‘Quicksilver’

No sooner have we been treated to a more central role for Constance, Matt Fitton pops up and brings her time in the TARDIS to an end. Constance must go back and find out what happened to her career, her marriage and her life. Both the Doctor and Constance are unable to say what they feel and the farewell is strained and awkward. It only lasts long enough for Constance to read a telegram telling her she is now a widow!

The Second World War may be over, but there is no lack of tension as the action move to Vienna, and project Quicksilver. Of course there’s an alien dimension and to add to the spice we have the return of Philippa (Flip) Jackson, played with the usual joy by Lisa Greenwood. Matt brings the two companions together wonderfully and in their contrast fans get to appreciate each of them more.

It’s not just about clever plotting but also a heart wrenching tale of love, loss and parting. Matthew Cottle portrays Henry Clarke and the rest of the cast are well chosen and bring post War Vienna to life. Doctor Who may be a science fiction/fantasy series but this is a superb example of storytelling beyond genre.

 

Subscriber Bonus Short Trip: ‘The Christmas Dimension’

For December, subscribers to the main range enjoy bonus Subscriber Short Trips story, read by Stephen Critchlow. Rob Nisbet gives us The Christmas Dimension, a Third Doctor and Liz Shaw story set in UNIT HQ on a quiet Christmas Day.

Naturally things don’t stay that way and before long our heroes must investigate a strange portal that quite threatens to derail preparations for Christmas dinner.

There is a great twist and a happy ending and every ingredient we need for a Christmas treat. The story is both a bit tongue in cheek and packed with memories of the Pertwee period. If you haven’t downloaded it already, what are you waiting for?!

 

Early Adventures 3.04: ‘The Sontarans’

Despite the title, this final story in 2016’s Early Adventures series is not an origin story for the clone warriors, Big Finish already has one of those, but rather the tale of the Doctor’s first encounter with them.

Accompanied by Steven Taylor (Peter Purves, who doubles as the Doctor) and Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh), during the events of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, the ship brings the time travellers to an asteroid and into the middle of a battle – with some of Sara’s own Space Security Service operatives up against the might of the Sontarans.

Earlier in history than Sara’s time, her knowledge of this crucial encounter ensures that the time travellers must become involved – as does the fact that the Sontarans make off with the TARDIS, unaware of its value.

While the Doctor may be at a disadvantage to his companions, he remains a wily adversary for the Sontarans and gains the trust of the SSS commander. For their part the Sontarans, voiced by Dan Starkey and John Banks, know little of humanity and relish the opportunity to understand their enemy.

With some ingenious plotting, including a clever twist hidden in plain sight, Simon Guerrier’s script provides a thoroughly satisfying encounter with the Sontarans, who are far from comic relief here and are instead presented as an incredibly ruthless and seemingly unstoppable force.

 

Short Trips 6.13: ‘The Hesitation Deviation’

Another year of the Short Trips range comes to a close with the James Goss story The Hesitation Deviation. It’s a seventh Doctor story with Bernice Summerfield as the companion, played by Lisa Bowerman who is also the director (presumably via the discrete use of a time machine).

As it is December this is a Christmas story and for once Benny (as she is known to friends) has found a place that gets it just right from the mince pies to the mulled wine.

Of course, this state of affairs can’t last and it’s not long before an ancient menace homes in on the Doctor. Only Benny can save the day, but only by making the ultimate sacrifice. Benny is faced with a terrible decision, and one she won’t even remember making!

As we expect from James, this is a fun story with some clever twists, designed to keep the listener guessing until the final line. Lisa delivers the tale with real relish and once again the Short Trips range fills a gap other ranges can’t easily address. Wonderful stuff.

 

Short Trips 6.X: ‘Forever Fallen’

The final Big Finish release for 2016 was the winner of the Paul Spragg Short Trips Memorial Opportunity, ‘Forever Fallen’ by new (to Big Finish) writer Joshua Wanikso. Free to download, the story is in the Short Trips range, meaning it is a piece of prose read, in this case, by Nick Briggs.

The story centres on the fate of genius scientist Sean Calvin and his android army, mind-control beams and space stations, but what happens if the Doctor turns up and persuades him to change his mind? What happens next?

Joshua Wanisko tells a clever story with a simple device – the Doctor and Ace dip into the Sean’s life once a year and we get to see how he moves forward, and the real effects of the Doctor’s interference in events. The dialogue is sharp, the story wry and enjoyable and gets to an ending that feels intimate while painting a real sense of part of what it means to be a time traveller.

As a bonus Big Finish has also given PDF copies of the studio script and the original pitch. It makes for fascinating reading and will no doubt inspire all those looking to enter the competition in 2017. For everyone else there’s the enjoyment of a superb story. Win, win all round!

 

Novel adaptation 10: ‘Original Sin’

December also brought the final two releases in the Classic novels range, with a pair of stories for the Seventh Doctor. The first sees him travelling with Bernice Summerfield and presents their first encounter with 30th Century law enforcement officers, Adjudicators Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej (who made their audio debut in 2015’s adaptation of ‘Damaged Goods’.)

Andy Lane’s expansive space opera takes place within the sphere of influence of an Earth Empire, in the wake of interplanetary wars in which humanity triumphed over the slug-like Hith. Deprived of their home planet, the surviving aliens are spread through the galaxy, adopting names like “Homeless Forsaken Betrayed and Alone” and “Powerless Friendless And Scattered Through Space”.

Set up as the victims of a conspiracy, the Doctor and Bernice become suspects in a murder enquiry which takes them from Earth’s spaceports to a training planet for space marines and a prison within the photosphere of a red giant – pursued by Forrester (Yasmin Bannerman) and Cwej (Travis Oliver)

Andy Lane’s vision of the future is rendered vividly; a feudal system mashed with hyperdrive capable spaceships and shillings for coinage, all ruled over by a divine Empresses. It is a time when animalistic genetic makeovers have become fashionable and indeed Chris Cwej starts the tale wearing a ‘body bepple’ which makes him look like a giant teddy bear.

Adaptor John Dorney uses news reports to explain the wider implications of the story, and it is a shrewd move as we get a taste of the novel’s scope, especially when one newscaster is killed and replaced with another, who seems to become increasingly more agitated as tensions escalate.

The villain of the piece, who remains unnamed in this version (perhaps for licencing reasons?) is wonderfully recreated by Philip Voss, and he successfully catches the spirit of the original.

Back in the early 1990s, the Virgin New Adventures were billed as “Full-length science fiction novels, stories too broad and too deep for the small screen”, it seems however that they are not outside the scope of Big Finish, and Original Sin is a worthy addition to the Doctor Who audio universe.

 

Novel Adaptation 11: ‘Cold Fusion’

The final novelisation adapts one of the later Virgin Missing Adventures, ‘Cold Fusion’, and offers a tantalising prospect as it unites two TARDIS teams’; the early Fifth Doctor line-up of Adric, Nyssa and Tegan and the Seventh with prose companions Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej.

While a novel is the ideal place to accommodate such a fulsome cast of regulars, an audio play might feel cramped, so we were thrilled to see the story granted six episodes and they are needed as this tale of dangerous experiments on a frosty Earth Empire colony brings both personal implications for the Doctor and cataclysmic ones for the Universe at large.

Peppered with pleasing continuity nods writer Lance Parkin, who has adapted his own novel, makes clever play of both ours and the Seventh Doctor’s foreknowledge, as well as delivering some interesting tidbits related to his origins. The presence of another Gallifreyan, who becomes known as Patience and may or not be the Doctor’s wife, throws connections back to the so-called ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ and the infamous mindbending scene from ‘The Brain of Morbius’.

Intermingling the companions cleverly, Parkin gets the most from them – especially the Fifth’s less strident pair of Nyssa and Adric. Chris, having appropriated the surname Jovanka for his undercover persona, suffers Tegan’s ire yet but ends up teamed successfully with Nyssa. Adric on the other hand, is taken under the wing of Roz and gets to suit up as an Adjudicator.

As for the Doctors themselves, their final meeting is wisely held off until the final chapter, and is far from harmonious, with the Fifth exasperated by the Seventh’s manipulative game-playing. Their coming together is however a chance for a few clever nods to other multi-Doctor encounters such as ‘Time Crash’ and even ‘The Day of the Doctor’, neither of which can have been in the original text yet make perfect sense here.

Styled as a Fifth Doctor tale, complete with the appropriate theme and prefect Paddy Kingsland-esque music cues, the Seventh and his crew feel like impossible guest stars, and as such, this is a fan pleasing tale that could only be created after the fact.

 

What was your favourite Doctor Who release from Big Finish this month? Let us know below…

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