Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the new Ninth Doctor boxset from Big Finish, narrated by Nicholas Briggs. The process leading to that post was complex, we can tell you that. Lots of delay. Because of a multitude of reasons, among which a trip to Holland, a bowl full of peas, vicious stairs, a train accident, and capitalism. I know right. Tough times. Anyway, with some hope those two might have some insightful comments. For a change …
Spoilers follow, obviously.
0) Preface: The Curious Case of the Briggleston
SCRIBBLES: I think I can speak for both of us in saying that the trailer for the Ninth Doctor Chronicles provoked extreme cynicism.
TIBERE: You say “extreme cynicism”, I say “one-hour long uncontrollable fit of laughter”. It was … kind of baffling. The music choice, the clips they picked to showcase Briggs’ impression … All of them gave the impression of a slice of BF audios written and directed by Ed Wood and scored by Bozo Moretti the Happy Clown. It sounded like a parody. A very fun one, to be honest – I laughed, a lot. And it gave us a lot of very fun memes. The Briggleston will always shine in our hearts.
SCRIBBLES: The trailer sounded unusually low in production values for Big Finish, for sure. Bemusement and amusement were had. I’m very glad to say the actual audio won us both over, though. What sounded awful in the trailer turned out to not be nearly as misguided in practice. Briggs’ impression will certainly never sound like the real thing, but it works in the context of the narration, and the scripts were strong. And Briggs is a fine reader, keeping the narration all dynamic and interesting, which is good, because it’s an awful lot of narration and it could be a pain with someone less adept.
TIBERE: Like, as an impression, I don’t think you can defend it. As an acting performance in itself? It’s decent, it does the job just fine. And yeah, Briggs does nail the vast, vast amounts of narration. His Rose is stretching it a bit for me, though. Briggsy Piper ain’t exactly the pinnacle of his career. But still, he’s perfectly listenable. You know, with the caveat that you have to be able to endure lots of narration, but if you can, it’s a pretty darn good set.
SCRIBBLES: A big part of me still wishes they did the Companion Chronicles format. I’d have loved the framing of the stories to be from the PoV of the supporting characters, perhaps with a touch of suggesting where they are after the narrative, like the Companion Chronicles often provided. Jackie telling the story to little baby Tony, for example, would have been the best thing ever. But for exploring a new format, well, they proved its viability to me. Against all my skepticism, I was swept along by all the stories, my attention even held better than some full cast stories!
TIBERE: I WANT THAT JACKIE IDEA. But yeah, absolutely. They had the journalist from the first episode, Jackie in 4, Adam in 3 … That would have worked much better. But still, I enjoyed it. A lot. And I find myself kind of hyped for the inevitable Briggsant and Briggsmith. I think a great part of what I liked about the set – and we’re about to get into the details of this – is that while a lot of the New Series BF stuff can feel a little too crowd-pleasing and easy (hello Tenth Doctor Adventures and Diary of River Song), here, they hadn’t any big names to carry their stories forwards, so they had to think a lot more about the ways they could expand the universe of the TV show, about the gaps they could fill and the new narratives they could craft. It’s an intelligent boxset. Not perfect, but intelligent – and I respect that.
1) “The Bleeding Heart”, by Cavan Scott
SCRIBBLES: I listened to the Big Finish podcast for the preview, and I remember thinking, a tad slow, but intriguing, and more promising than the trailer. And in practice, I think that was a fairly good impression. It’s a slow burn, this one, but sparkling with promise. It’s all just there to lay groundwork for the stellar climax, and you know what? It works. It works very well.
TIBERE: I didn’t listen to the preview. Didn’t wanted to spoil the trainwreck or the good surprise. And honestly, this was the latter. A hell of a good surprise. I absolutely loved that one. Admittedly, it takes quite a long time to keep going, just like you said, and those beginning scenes do feel kind of silly and weirdly put together … But when you hit the latter parts of the audio, you actually realize why that’s the case: this is an incredibly well put-together pastiche of the Eccleston era. Of course, bits are silly: mooing adepts of peace and deadly female hippopotamus warriors, that’s kinda goofy – but not more that farting aliens or the Adherents of the Repeating Meme. It starts like a textbook “trouble-in-space” Nine story, a la “End of the World”, or “The Long Game” – and then it subverts that, and goes poking around the darker corners of Nine’s runs (it references in a very obvious way “The Unquiet Dead”, with a psychic female sidekick accepting to sacrifice herself). And of course, the ultimate beat goes further than series 1 could, in actively going back to the Time War and commenting on his trauma directly. It’s a really well-crafted story.
SCRIBBLES: There’s definitely moments of the camp sensibility of the early RTD era offset against the darkness. That whole procession of peace delegates was tremendously End of the World, and I’m sure that was deliberate. It took me right back to that era, really, and how I was seeing the Doctor Who world for the first time through Rose’s eyes. Of course, she’s not in this. Instead, we get Adriana Jarsdel, who nicely prods the Ninth Doctor’s darkness in a different way. I like that it’s a little person who could never have been the companion but paves the way for the one who can. It feels very true to the era and true to the characters, and I gladly will slip this in before Rose in my personal Ninth Doctor timeline. I like that it doesn’t aspire to change too much, to be too groundbreaking with Nine. Instead, it just wants to be a little prologue to the run of the show we know and love, the starting point from which we’ve seen him heal.
TIBERE: I do appreciate the little bits about her repressing her psychic nature through medication, too. You know, not an especially unique metaphor, but it’s a good bit of world-building, and it parallels Nine’s own repressed feelings wonderfully. It’s a very psychological story, really: Nine’s trauma is what causes the situation to escalate, what wakes the entity prisoner on the planet. It plays on his central contradiction, the caring man with blood on his hands, very nicely – and when the antagonists are people that literally want to heal you to death … Nice symoblism. Very nice.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, the Time War concept was stellar. I’ve actually imagined stories similar would be lovely to tell before, so that was pleasing. Embodying the timey-wimey damage as a sentience adds stakes to the abstract construct of a Time War, and playing it as a tragic euthanasia is an effective beat. I like the way it reflects later new series episodes. Usually when we get moral dilemmas about a hurt creature, the impulse is to save it. Here, it’s the purest and most innocent thing exploited by the Time Lords, but the Doctor can’t find another way the way he would in stories like The Beast Below. So instead of the companion helping him find that way, the companion helps keep his hands clean and does the sacrifice he can’t, so he can go on to be the Doctor again.
TIBERE: It’s sort of an subversion of the “Beast Below”, “Smile” principle, that’s your point? I like that. The fact the Time Lords sealed it, too, that’s a nice beat. Builds on “The End of Time” nicely. And on the final War Doctor audio, I suppose, too? I didn’t listen to that one. Speaking of the War Doctor – they find a way to fill the continuity gap by showing us how War’s sonic got destroyed, but what could have been some really pointless continuity porn turns into a pretty emotional, lovely scene. Honestly, Briggs is just killing it in that final scene – his best performance in the whole set hands down, for me. Most of the time, he’s just “okay, pretty good”, but here he is given a really interesting emotional beat, and milks it pretty damn well.
2) “The Window on the Moor”, by Una McCormack
SCRIBBLES: “The Window on the Moor” was also an interesting engagement with the Ninth Doctor era. The celebrity historical is a new series construct, really, and particularly a Davies one, and this is the episode designed as a homage to that format. I think it’s interesting how it tries to mix it up, too. Matt Fitton and Una McCormack say they both wanted a woman from history, and Bronte was picked off Wikipedia, if I recall right from the extras. So far, so interesting. McCormack has done fascinating portrayals of a woman-lead literary world before, such as in the Breaking Bubbles anthology, and though I know little of the Brontёs, I know they lend themselves to a lot of interesting material. But the problem here is in the presentation, I think. It’s not really so much an Emily Brontё story as a Gondal story she cameos in, and it doesn’t really explain who she is until the ending. And there’s a curious paradox in that. The audio expects the listener to not really know who she is, with the Doctor cutely even teasing Rose that she’s never even read any of her stuff. But it also expects some innate investment in Gondal by the listener to get them through the early portions, and it doesn’t quite work. I’d prefer a story about Emily first, but this isn’t really that story, and so it feels oddly hollow.
TIBERE: Interesting experience, listening to an Emily Brontë story while never having read any Emily Brontë. Yeah, I’m an English Lit student that has never touched her stuff. One of my badges of shame. But it did affect my enjoyment quite a bit: the story is a bit confused without that kind of context. Hell, even with it it’s a bit confused. I’m not sure how much I agree about the story being an homage to that celebrity historical format, though – I mean, it kinda is, but in term of tone, it feels very different from something like “The Unquiet Dead”, or even most of the Tennant historicals. It felt much more like something out of the Moffat era, for me – an exploration of a specific imaginary space, with a bit of reflexion on the power of storytelling, with a whole lot of fairytale aesthetic on top. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all – it’s an interesting setting to place Nine in. I like the concepts at work here quite a lot, but I don’t think the execution ever manages to weave them in an interesting whole. The pacing plays a big part in that – it drags. It drags a lot. And just as you pointed out, there is really not much in the way or character arcs, or emotional core to the story. It’s basically just a conceptual shell without much meat beneath. I think the problem they might have encountered was to try and give Nine some ties to that kind of setting, which led them to the whole “Gondal as an expansionist kingdom that wants to conquer other worlds” idea, but it doesn’t do the characters justice. Not even Nine, really – the metaphor never coheres. Still, it’s not a disaster – even if it’s flawed, at the very least it’s an original and creative entry, which is to be appreciated in a boxset that could just wallow in easy fanservice. Oh, and also, it stealthily uses a concept from the Davies era, with the “Time Windows” spoke of in “Girl and the Fireplace” popping in the narrative.
SCRIBBLES: I don’t think the problem is just that it’s conceptual. To refer to another Una McCormack story, “The Very Dark Thing“, well, that’s tremendously conceptual, but it works better in how it approaches it, I think. It manages to luxuriate in a weirder setup to get to an emotional and conceptually poignant climax. Whereas here, I don’t think the setup really gets as weird as it could. It’s mostly capture-escape shenanigans. With strange creatures and fictional worlds, there’s so much more you can do. And the final revelations don’t really hang themselves on anything particularly meaningful, I don’t think. It tries to be a bit about the romance of these great fictional battles, but I don’t think it quite achieves the investment it needs.
TIBERE: Yeah, basically that. Overall, it’s in a weird in-between, not quite character piece and not quite high-concept story on crack.
3) “The Other Side”, by Scott Handcock
SCRIBBLES: I quite liked this one. I can’t pretend not to be biased, I’ve always thought there was more potential in Adam. He’s sort of a weird artifact of this era, the most unfortunate character, and left abandoned. He’s clearly not totally awful, but he can be conceited and impulsive in addition to being clever and rather loyal to his family and to Rose. And I like that this showcased him. He gets to be clever, be gets to even prove himself a bit above Rose in the end, which was a fun little beat. He clearly doesn’t get the way this lifestyle works, and that’ll obviously be the doom of him, but it’s nice to see a story of him very nearly fitting in.
TIBERE: I’m probably a bit colder than you on it – a bit like the previous entry, it feels like a lot of really interesting threads that don’t necessarily all pay off in great and satisfying ways -, but I can’t deny it’s a really interesting expansion of the series 1’s narrative. And one that was needed, too – I do rather like “The Long Game”, but it ends up perhaps needlessly hostile to Adam. Here, he’s still a flawed character, but you do get to see while he was even considered as companion material to begin with. Because as far as the TV material goes, he is basically a plot device: he showcases the rules of the show, he showcases the value of Rose, but he falls short as a character, on its own.
SCRIBBLES: I also really loved the handling of Rose in this one. This story captured the fun of Rose and the series 1 dynamic best to me of the set. One of my favorite moments was when Nine grumps at her over the phone about how Adam probably impulsively followed him, while Rose tries to figure out how to awkwardly break she’s the one who did to him. All the stuff of her going back in time, feeling lost, and him finding her, it felt really sweet. As you mentioned earlier, Briggs isn’t exactly close to capturing Billie Piper, but here I felt closest to hearing Billie Piper’s performance in it, because it’s just written very well at capturing her voice. Quality cheeky, awkward banter.
TIBERE: They also do insist on the way Adam feels isolated, and put ill-at-ease by the very close dynamic between Rose and the Doctor. It’s there in “The Long Game”, but in an almost unpleasant way – here, it just has them being fascinated with each other with Adam being the straight man and not understanding how anything works. In a kind of meta way, really: he’s the guy who doesn’t know in what show he’s in. He sees the Doctor disappearing, well, he assumes he must be dead – which is the reasonable thing to do, and also completely stupid when you exist in the realm of Who logic.
SCRIBBLES: I really appreciated that beat. Because it’s only a natural conclusion for someone to make, and a fun new perspective on beats we take for granted. Sort of like how Bill is providing new observations of Doctor Who right now on TV, this sort of shows another side of logic applied to it. It feels real in a new way, and reminds me how many other directions Doctor Who can move in.
TIBERE: That audio makes some really interesting aesthetic choices, I found, too. I think it relies a bit on very Torchwood-esque elements, from the cinema (“From Out the Rain”) to the heroes being taken to the past “(Captain Jack Harkness”) – it’s interesting to see these audios use all the aspects of the Davies’ era. Makes sense considering Scott Handcock is also a writer and director for the Torchwood BF range.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, like in “The Bleeding Heart“, there’s a fascinating engagement with Time Lord concepts. I dunno if I’ll ever get tired of how that beat can be used for the Ninth Doctor. It’s like the Seventh Doctor facing a god from the dawn of time, it just feels so right. As always, it provides a quick aspect of nuance and guilt to the story, as well as an aspect of mythic importance. Worked well for some creepy moments, too, taking over all the people and making them speak in unison. Of course, the end has to be unfair to them. They didn’t deserve what they suffered as a result of the War, but it doesn’t justify what they have become. That’s all that can be done about the Time War when working in a pre-“Day of the Doctor” space. But I love the way it handles it, and how it pushes Adam to the fore.
TIBERE: Constructive comment: I just love the name “Bygone Horde”. Sits right next to the Neverwheres and the Could-have-been king. They’re a good way to give Adam’s actor more space, too, since he’s playing them – overall, I think they kind of sum up perfectly my experience with the episode: it’s a fun engagement with the Davies era, both expanding on concepts that are already present in said era (unreliable technology, a place of popular entertainment – concert hall/cinema – turned evil in the service of the remnants of a past war …), and adding new, exciting stuff. It’s a good story – which I hope leaves room for some more Adam down the line. He’s a really interesting character, and there’s a lot to be done with him, both pre- and post-”The Long Game”.
SCRIBBLES: I really hope they do a story after The Long Game for him someday. (Yes, I know a comic did it, but let’s ignore that.) There’s a lot more potential, and it’s good to hear him come into Big Finish. I hope this is just the start.
4) “Retail Therapy”, by James Goss
TIBERE: Okay, let’s just say it now – this is a masterpiece.
SCRIBBLES: Rather marvellous sums it up, doesn’t it? Jackie Tyler is already one of the finest Davies era characters, and Goss’ love for her shines through. And Goss is brilliant, so him writing about something he loves is impossible to go wrong.
TIBERE: I don’t know when Goss first came up with the concept of this story, but he really caught lightning in a bottle here – Big Finish can often feel stuck in the past, but this could basically air as a series 10 episode, and nobody would ever notice. It gets the Davies era, but does something incredibly modern, clever and original with it.
SCRIBBLES: It’s rather gloriously twisted. The reveal that the economic exploitation of the working class literally feeds on their life force, that was brilliantly horrific. I gasped. Jackie as a hero of the people, what’s not to love? The ambiguity of those scenes where she parlayed with corporate evil, that was stunning. Like, you know she won’t go with it in the end, but it’s scary seeing her on that precipice, trying to make a big moral and political decision. The dream of escape from the working class versus the implications of joining the oppressive elite, it’s good, innit?
TIBERE: Literal capitalist vampires. The satire is wonderful – and nuanced. There are plenty of neat little details, little vignettes of people reacting differently to the Glubby-Glubs (that name is a thing of beauty, isn’t it?) in their own ways, each showing a different angle on consumerist fever.
SCRIBBLES: Gotta love the way it gives them all false hope. It’s painful to hear, the underprivileged class thinking they’ve finally got something just for them, just to make their lives better, and it’s all just a barbed hook of exploitation. All the conversations about what it’s like to have difficulty sleeping and never get enough, that really grounds it in basic human struggle in such a poignant and heartbreaking way. All mired in light comedy and Jackie’s hilarious quips, it’s a tone-juggling masterpiece.
TIBERE Oh yeah, it’s quotable as fuck. “You must be hell to get Christmas presents to.” But, most of all, In a way, it’s a really cool mean to get back to a sort of earlier, darker Davies – I remember Jon Arnold, in his book about “Rose” (1), saying that for television, RTD made the ethos of the council estate, as a fictional element of the diegesis, evolve from pure, everyday horror (that would be “Damaged Goods”) to a sort of familiar warmth – well, here, Goss is doing the opposite movement. He doesn’t negate the warmth – and I think we could talk at length of the Jackie scenes, especially the one where she buys the Doctor a drink and where they have a little chat -, but he goes to find the horror and the crass exploitation that goes on in that setting. It’s an incredibly clever idea.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, it’s not aliens in this one, just as it should be. It’s all human evils in the real world. I think the worst part of “Retail Therapy” is that it’s difficult to say anything about it that the story doesn’t say for itself. It’s brilliant and says it all, taking glee in expanding on its terrifying thematic implications and providing stellar character beats. And speaking of character beats, all of this set strives to fit into series 1 in an additive way, but more than any other audio in the set, this feels like a vital beat we missed. It feels like it needs to slip in there somewhere, a bit before “Bad Wolf“. It’s hard to imagine that we never got this onscreen, it feels like it’s a vital beating heart of Jackie’s arc and of the whole shape of the run. Never knew I was missing it.
TIBERE: This doesn’t just feel like it “belongs” to series 1, this feels like it goes beyond it. Much like Goss’ best work on Torchwood, it’s about finding the contradictions, the empty spaces at the core of the existent narrative arcs, and putting them to the front, creating conflict out of it. And yeah, definitely, this feels like an important, crucial part of the Davies era in a way that’s incredibly surprising – but at the end of the day, just wonderful. It’s one of the strongest BF stories I’ve ever listened to, and it’s done with basically nothing, just Briggs, Camille and a bag of squeaky toys. I’m impressed.
SCRIBBLES: I think “I’m impressed” sums it up. What could have been a naff forgettable piece with Eccleston’s face slapped on the cover instead becomes a vital and wonderful engagement with and expansion of the era. Every story in this set, no matter how successful, adds something of worth in theme, concept, and character to that very short run of episodes, and the Doctor Who world is certainly a better place with this box set adding to it. I never expected it to be the case, but I’m tremendously glad it happened.
(1) – The Black Archive #1 – Rose, Obverse Books