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 BF’s latest boxset, full of old and new favourites. Also, Five and the Racnoss. Eh, the door was opened, there was light, they just kind of came in and the others didn’t want to make them sad. Anyway. Let’s go.
SCRIBBLES: Well, that was a rather nice surprise, wasn’t it? I don’t believe either of us were particularly won over by the first outing of this range, but this hits the spot well. Every story here, really, makes an interesting case for the juxtaposition of their classic Doctors of choice with the modern era and find meaning for their characters, all while expanding in logical ways on new series monsters (whereas in the first set, elements like the ending to Falling Angels made me wonder how much the writing even understood the new series). Every monster here, no matter how different the approach, and they do get quite different, feels like an exciting and worthwhile extrapolation of the modern show in a way that Big Finish really has always provided to other eras at its best. And this fresh exploration of modern narrative space befits the writing of the Doctor, too. Even in the weakest story here, every Doctor really gets a chance to shine in a way they rarely do, using the weight of the modern series to inform explorations of who the Doctors once were, and every lead actor rises to the occasion admirably. It feels coherent and polished and high quality, making a case for the existence of this range that actually has me hoping there will be a volume 3 sometime soon.
TIBERE: It’s weird, BF seems, this year, on a big mission to make their most improbable and kind of unneeded projects succeed. The Ninth Doctor Chronicles, UNIT – Assembled (I mean, I wasn’t too into that one, but it was compelling in its own way), and now this. I’m surprised, but happy about it! But back on topic – this is a good set. Very good, I’d even say. Among the many problems of the first one (writers mostly on the less experienced side of things, a general feeling of rushed production, weird picks for who faces what …), one of the most annoying was they way the stories felt like they had nothing to say, nothing to add to the monsters we knew. That’s not really the case, here – no matter the execution, all of these are cool, compelling premises that do really feel like they expand the universe, and feed into the TV stories organically. Mostly, it’s a sort of laboratory for BF writers to throw some cool ideas and concepts and twist the original premises of these creatures in new ways – and yeah, that’s hardly the deepest kind of stories you’ll encounter, and I wouldn’t cry “masterpiece” at any point, but there’s a real joy in that. Those are good romps, solid action movies – that, importantly, don’t use their nature as romps to get stale and uncreative. It’s a lot of fun, and I’d definitely recommend it.
1) “Night of the Vashta Nerada”, by John Dorney
TIBERE: And we start by a Four story. I’m kind of liking the very fact they bothered to include one, because if one BF Doctor needs the new energy brought by post-2005 concepts, it’s him.
SCRIBBLES: The Fourth Doctor Adventures are often a less ambitious range for Big Finish, so I was a bit anxious about this. Dorney’s a phenomenal writer, but even he pushes the envelope a bit less there. The Trouble with Drax is, for example, utterly marvelous, but still safely relying on a consistent light tone designed to be less daring, really. And I was anxious as the story began because it seemed to be going for something of a reissue of “Silence in the Library”, even playing out the life sign scan beat. And then, well, it hit in the most marvelously meaningful way and my anxieties vanished. This is a very modern take on the darkness of the Fourth Doctor era blended to relevant themes that Who never can hit enough, and that’s lovely.
TIBERE: Yeah – the Vashta Nerada are kind of a perfect pick for Four, really, perfectly in keeping with the “Hammer Horror in Space” aesthetic of the Hinchcliffe era; but it’s so perfect it presents the trap of being too comfortable, too safe. Thankfully, the story managed well. Not perfectly – it’s still a bit too ruthlessly trad for my liking – but very well, for what it is. There are a ton of really nice little touches, I felt – the way the amusement park setting, or Four’s quirks and one liners (“What’s a frumious bandersnatch?” “I don’t know, but she’s one!”) are used to counter the grim, dark atmosphere and produce something that sort of pays homage to Four’s era in its entirety, sillier, later years included.
SCRIBBLES: Even its trad impulses, however, are used to strong impact. The ordering of the deaths, for example, meant something. Usually in horror you get the final girl trope, saving one pure character for the audience to latch onto till the end. But here, the deaths actively weed out the most likeable and moral characters first, saving the despicable businesswoman and hunter for last, to condemn their ethical stances and make an environmental point. It uses the grammar of a trad Tom Baker serial, something like “Horror of Fang Rock” with the whole cast getting wiped away, to say something vital and something that’s utterly in tune with what the Vashta Nerada offer.
TIBERE: Really, the core of the story is the whole environmentalist message, and it’s really well-done. Because it makes a colossal amount of sense – it’s not stretching to repurpose a certain monster into an ethical signifier, it’s just taking the knowledge we already have of the Vashta Nerada – ie, that they live in forests – to deliver its points.
SCRIBBLES: As I mentioned previously, the moment this story won me over was the life signs beat. It turns a rehash of the Vashta Nerada’s televised story into a condemnation of anthropocentric thinking. Because that’s a huge issue, socially, in this current moment. Take Trump, for example, emphasizing how much more businesses mean than the environment. It’s rubbish, but seductive rubbish. People can very easily get wrapped up in the idea that because humans have all this society and culture and transformative potential, our survival and well-being is all that matters. It’s easy to think humanity is special and above the rest. Douglas Adams nicely skewered that by arguing humanity was merely the third most intelligent race on this world, because Douglas Adams was brilliant. But humanity isn’t special and has no special place above the rest. Ecosystems are fragile things and we merely play one role in those complex landscapes. We are, at the end of the day, animals. And like any species in an ecosystem, we’re precariously balanced against other species, competing for resources and survival and reproduction, but though we can influence our habitat more than most, we don’t totally control it. We still depend on so many complex, interconnecting levels of the ecosystem, and throwing that off balance through neglect and such is tremendously damaging, with consequences we will only see more and more of. And here, due to a programmed in assumption that would appear moderate but is instead tremendously political and dangerous, the crew visiting Funworld miss all the environmental damage they are doing by only caring about one kind of organism. Anthropocentric thinking always comes back to bite you. In this case, literally, as the Vashta Nerada strip the flesh from your body for wrecking their habitat.
TIBERE: Another really compelling bit is the way Four initially dismisses the idea that it might be the Vashta Nerada, based on his previous experiences with them. We sort of are treated to their origin story – or at least, the origin of their appetite for flesh. It’s re-writing space gothic into fiery politics; taking the boogeyman under your bed and making it into an ecological disaster. Which kind of makes sense when you examine the roots of Gothic in science-fiction, I guess – we are kind of used to the aesthetic of Frankenstein, for instance, but it’s easy to lose sight of its ideological point, about the dangers of science, and of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in general. Hell, even something like Dracula kind of has ideological basis, with its strange fascination/repulsion for the figure of the foreigner. In a way, Dorney is taking the Gothic aesthetics of the Hinchcliffe era and re-injects into them the political meaning they might have lost with time. It’s an absolutely amazing idea – almost too good for that audio, I could say; you kind of want that kind of topic to be at the centre of something bigger and more important. But with that said, I think using entertainment and easy-going fun as a medium for challenging political points, especially, as you pointed out, in a context full of politicians saying global warming is a Chinese hoax, or YouTubers celebrating the American repeal of the Paris accord by letting the taps running all night (yes, that actually happened), it can’t hurt.
SCRIBBLES: Environmental Doctor Who often has a hard time, as I was talking to contributor Janine Rivers about a little while ago. It’s something that should happen, but something that never does enough, and rarely well enough, at the very least in the eyes of the fans. “In the Forest of the Night” for example, the most recent case of that, gets a lot of flak for how it handles those messages. Leaving aside the debate about that episode (which is still brilliant, for the record), this audio exemplifies how the general logic of a Doctor Who story can be potently merged to these vital social arguments. That’s something that really should happen more.
TIBERE: Like, it’s showing what BF can bring to the table, really. Merging Classic aesthetics with new series messages – that was a big part of what made “Doom Coalition” (which is oh, shock, another Dorney project) so good. And I hope they keep going down that path, which, so far, has only given birth to really high-quality storytelling.
SCRIBBLES: Dorney and Fitton, no less, who contributes the Eighth Doctor follow up that closes off this set. If we take nothing else from Classic Doctors, New Monsters volume 2, let’s just appreciate that that writing team is one of the greatest things Big Finish has going today.
TIBERE: Weirdly enough, while I’m generally one to think Dorney is much, much better than Fitton, I actually preferred Fitton’s contribution here. But see you in two episodes to read more about that …
2) “Empire of the Racnoss”, by Scott Handcock
TIBERE: And here, we run into trouble. I think it’s better to let Scribbles talk about it first …
SCRIBBLES: I liked this one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a rougher script than the rest. But gosh, it tries some interesting things, and the opening portions in particular soar. The Fifth Doctor is a difficult character, and above all, this story makes him work. Crossing his often ineffectual but well-meaning side with his snarkier side and then contrasting it all with the Tenth Doctor melodrama of Time War-esque angst and grandeur really elevates Davison to a level that I haven’t heard in some time. The premise is simple but beautiful, that the Fifth Doctor, in trying to be a good man, saves an ancient enemy of his people. He’s getting played the whole time by the Racnoss, it’s obvious from the off, but it works because what would his Doctor be if not doomed by trying to help? And every element of this story is built around that. Even elements of this that don’t work as well, such as the lengthy stretch of relationship drama involving going off to find the Empress’ ex-lover, are built around that. The old Emperor serves as a nice reminder of why he tries to help in the first place, why it’s worth hoping that life is fundamentally good. The themes of this story slightly outreach its grasp. The pacing grinds to a halt in this middle portion, and it’s difficult to listen to as a result, but it’s easy to see why all of this was worth doing, and the ideas and themes are very compelling to me.
TIBERE: I definitely hear your points. But holy hell, I thought this was bordering on unlistenable. Having a story that mostly consists of him going from one group of spiders to another, being betrayed and double-crossed at every turn, talking at length with each faction, might be interesting on a thematic level, but … It’s just not very fun to listen to? Especially in a 65 minutes story, by far the longest of the boxset, where every single antagonist decides to ham it up at levels that make Eric Roberts’ Master look tame. I mean, I enjoy a bit of ham as much as the next man, and it’s absolutely one of DW’s joys, but the constant level of sheer pure noise had me close to an headache at the end. I find it deeply unpleasant to listen to, and that initial impression makes any attempts to actually engage with its contents extremely hard. The ending doesn’t really help, too – the Fifth Doctor leaves the Racnoss eggs to be born in a planet that’s being formed; so we can assume they are those same eggs at the core of the plot of “The Runaway Bride”. Which means that we spent an hour with a Doctor trying to save lives he would eventually destroy five lives later. There’s a bitter, deep irony about it, but it’s never quite dwelled upon – the story could have a lot more bite and aggressivity to it, and I think it ought to have. Because, as it stands, it’s deeply frustrating and seems like it deliberately misses its most interesting sides.
SCRIBBLES: To me, that’s not what was best about the ending. What worked for me was the condemnation of the Time Lords and their war, which was a lovely reflection of the modern approach through the lens of the Fifth Doctor and his era, through the perspective of Alayna, the closest thing to a one-off companion here.
TIBERE: Yes, I will definitely say that the idea of having Time Lords from two different periods of history is a good idea. The good old “Gallifey’s civilization and history is not as peaceful as the Time Lords would like to pretend” theme never gets old, really – it was good in “Zagreus”, it’s still good now. Another nice touch – the way the Time Lord soldier’s death echoes the Racnoss Emperor’s torture – eaten alive by a bunch of young spiders.
SCRIBBLES: On the point of Alayna, I recall you making a comment about how the one-off woman leads in most of these stories meet a rather bitter end as part of how they tell their tale. Here, it’s nice to see one survive and become a pure moral outlier to this bitter war. I guess that’s the closest thing to a coherent ethical perspective Doctor Who has, and one that’s been honed well in the modern era. When war and politics and cruelty become all too strong, the most empowering and noble position is to break free. It’s an anarchic, rebellious principle at the heart of this Time Lord renegade lead, the Doctor, and one that defines the series so well. Here, we get it recreated with Alayna coming to break free of this war and become a renegade like the Doctor, rejecting Gallifrey. It really feels like new series logic built smoothly into the classic mold, all emphasized with the juxtapositions you highlighted, like Gallifrey of old and new, or of the implicit evoking of the Time War against the war against the Racnoss. The collision of the Davies era ethos with the Davison era continues to work wonders, just as it did in “Time Crash,” and I hope that becomes the dominant approach to writing the Fifth Doctor on audio. Though this isn’t the strongest outing in the set, and, like you have argued, there’s a good case to be made that it’s the least effective here, but that still doesn’t it stop it from being a fascinating and meaningful piece that utterly justifies its own existence. And, given recent controversy, hard to complain about a Fifth Doctor story ending in a woman Time Lord becoming a Doctor-like renegade…
TIBERE: I think there’s probably a point about gender politics buried in there – the Empress versus the Emperor, the Emperor being devoured alive by the younglings the female spawned, and the Time Lady surviving at the end. As I said – there are compelling elements to that story, but it just feels like it never manages to make them the core of the story and a compelling basis for the actions and plot. When you can write “Cascade” (still, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best audio of 2017), this really feels like a bit of a rush job. Shame. Still, Scott Handcock is one of the best BF writers of late, so I won’t hold that one against him.
3) “The Carrionite Curse”, by Simon Guerrier
TIBERE: If there is an audio that panders more to my sensibilities than this one, I haven’t heard it. Like, damn – good ol’ Sixie, language theory, feminist symbolism. Just add a sprinkle of gay on top and it would be the perfect bingo.
SCRIBBLES: Meanwhile, this one was my turn to be a bit more cynical. Like all the stories in this set, it’s clear to see why it was worth doing. The Carrionites in a story about witch trials just makes sense, as does using them to explore the Sixth Doctor, a character who is himself in a perpetual state of trial and who is nothing if not verbose. The juxtapositions and extrapolations are fascinating and worthwhile. But for me, it didn’t quite click. Some elements did, of course. Every scene about the Valeyard soared for me. But on the other hand, the engagement with language and literature didn’t satisfy me in quite the way “The Shakespeare Code” did. The wordplay here actually let me down a bit. Simon Guerrier is very good at that sort of thing, from what I’ve seen, so having the Carrionites stick to a couple repetitive ditties and having the power of words mostly just being saying a bunch of fun, lengthy words with a triumphant tone while the Carrionites shriek in pain just doesn’t do as much for me. What can I say? I wanted a bit more on the rhyme and pun fronts, with perhaps a touch of new words. The story works well, but I really adore “The Shakespeare Code”, and while I’ll never complain about Big Finish breaking away from faithfulness to an existing story to tell its own thing, I missed that approach and think it would have added something here.
TIBERE: Like, I can understand your reservations – it’s a very messy story. Rather than taking a single strong core concept, like “The Shakespeare Code” did in its engagement with the Carrionites, Guerrier is taking a good twenty different ideas and mixing them in a kind of awkward witches’ brew that never entirely coheres. Still, I absolutely adore the ideas at work here – the whole thing about the Carrionites being vulnerable to the words of anyone placed in a position of authority is a fantastic touch; at its core, the myth of the witch is about femininity out of control. A woman that’s deliberately sexual, unbound by the rules of God and society, and that will even corrupt the traditional emblems of household life, twisting their purpose – the broom that should be used for cleaning becomes a way to fly.
SCRIBBLES: And a long stick held between the legs of a woman is, of course, loaded with meaning.
TIBERE: Exactly! So of course, it makes sense that they would be hurt by the words of the people that are associated with positions of authority, with petty, ordinary conformism – like the mayor of the local minister, in that story. Same goes with the choice of having most of the plot centered around a book – it’s not just a loving homage to Professor Litefoot, whose actor, Trevor Baxter, sadly passed away earlier this month, it also seemed, to me, a pretty direct reference to the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, that book that was used by the Church as a guide to hunt down and execute witches.
SCRIBBLES: That Litefoot subplot was one of my absolute favorite elements of this piece. It worked perfectly given the recent passing of Trevor Baxter, and makes it feel like the stories will never end, even if they already have. He lives on through words and through stories, even if he had passed away long ago, the way Litefoot had. If that’s not the purest encapsulation of the magic the carrionites exist to explore, I don’t know what is. And it’s the magic of Doctor Who, isn’t it? Time travel means everybody is still living, somewhere or when, through time travel. The words and stories we tell in Doctor Who bring that to life, and ensure that there really is magic in the world. Perhaps not cackling witches, but words nonetheless have so much power to make life continue on and on.
TIBERE: My favourite thing is probably the way Six’s verbosity is used. I mean, the concept of having Six defeat the witches through the sheer power of pomposity is amusing, but it could have gotten repetitive and gimmicky very fast – but I’d argue they actually avoid that by making a nicely thought out tie to gender dynamics. The Doctor, the man of science, keeps unchecked, monstrous femininity through the power of education, of culture – a culture dispensed and controlled by male-led institutions. It’s no coincidence if the female lead here, Katy Bell, is an outlier in that she seems the only woman around to have attended college, to be attuned with that kind of academic culture.
SCRIBBLES: And let’s not forget, there’s a character in Harry Potter named Katie Bell.
TIBERE: Ah yes, there are a couple delightful references to Harry Potter in this, too. Six does fall on Rowling’s books while searching for Litefoot’s! Nice way to tie in “The Shakespeare Code”.
SCRIBBLES: That scene was wonderful. Blurring the line of causality within the TARDIS, where the crystal ball the Carrionites would eventually be trapped in is already there, in the chest seen in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” complete with the audio referencing Agatha Christie at this point. I suppose, like you’ve been suggesting, that also ties to the way this audio engages with gender. It’s influential women novelists like Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling that form the backbone of this engagement with language, creative figures offering the way forward with their literature. It turns these Tenth Doctor era Gareth Roberts celebrity historicals into a coherent ethos to stretch back into the classic series and argue a way forward.
TIBERE: The resolution, which is brought when Katie, the bridge between the male academic world and the female ethos, sacrifices herself to save the day, is pretty nice from a conceptual standpoint. Not sure if it manages to land entirely – like, there are three stories that kill their female lead in this, that’s a lot, and that’s uncomfortable. That’s the big problem with this story – for all its exploration of sexism and feminist imagery and all the like, it kind of doesn’t really pull of an articulate critique of male conservatism? Which is a damn shame. But still, there is a focus on her agency, which will probably have to do in the meantime. As I said – it’s hardly a perfect story. But it kind of gets to the essence of what “Classic Doctors, New Monsters” should be, in my opinion – a nice playground for creative experimentation by talented writers. This definitely would have been better as a two-hours long main range audio, but as a fun little aside, it’s already lovely, and bursting with fascinating concepts.
4) “Day of the Vashta Nerada”, by Matt Fitton
TIBERE: Before any kind of constructive analysis, I’d like to emphasize this is “Jurassic Park”. Seriously. It couldn’t be clearer. A facility where dangerous creatures are contained, where all goes to shit when an industrial spy makes the power go off? I mean, for God’s sake, said spy is called Dendry while the one in Jurassic Park is Nedry! It’s an absolutely stupid, awful, wonderful, awesome idea and I want to snog Fitton for having it.
SCRIBBLES: And more than just “Jurassic Park,” even, there’s an engagement with the ideas of “Jurassic World” in this. Genetic experimentation to weaponize and exploit animals, with people assuming control over these species they view as lesser even when nothing of the sort is there to be had. The Eighth Doctor isn’t quite Chris Pratt (though both are quite handsome, I must say), but the message of how dangerous animals can be and how their needs and ferocious potential need to be respected is shared quite prominently.
TIBERE: Yeah. Jurassic World without the sexism and with actual tension. What’s not to love! Really, I think my favourite part with that audio, more than its themes – simplistic, if efficient – had to do with its structure. It’s just exploring a laboratory, with every room holding a different variation on the core concept threat. It basically feels like a Dungeons & Dragons game with a sadistic game master, it’s wonderful.
SCRIBBLES: For sure. It’s mired in concepts and imagination, a constant progression of new conceptual ground to heighten the bare-bones, taught script. It dazzles with new suggestions of possibilities while using that to keep the survival story moving and get its characters in position for the hard-hitting ending. And gosh, what fun variations there are. Nerada Vashta, that’s just delightfully irresistible.
TIBERE: Oh god, yes. Or the giant specimen, that for some reason I couldn’t stop picturing like that giant ball with teeth from the Mario Kart games. And among those possibilities, the most compelling one is probably the ending, which feels like a huge, colossal teaser for Eight’s upcoming Time War range. But honestly, it’s a very good teaser, that made me really interested in it even though my hype levels were below negative beforehand.
SCRIBBLES: I like how the final bloodshed of this story stems from the Time Lords and colleagues underestimating the Vashta Nerada and exploiting the militaristic, violent impulses of their captors. I mean, the shadows concealing themselves within a gun is such a potent and wonderful image.
TIBERE: Definitely. And I love how they use Ollistra as the incarnation of everything wrong with Time Lord society here, too – like, it’s no secret that we have no love for her character around this part, but here she manages to actually hit the right notes. She still is a one-note ideological opponent, but by showing her out of her depth and in grave danger, it manages to make her a much more realistic presence than the almost god-like, never-changing iron lady from the War range.
SCRIBBLES: Another wonderful final beat with her, indeed. Matt Fitton tends to write her more effectively than anyone else, with “Side of the Angels” and “The Neverwhen” delighting in her cruelty and selfishness while making it feel totally real and reprehensible. This continues that well. The ending’s reflection of the opener, with him having saved one person this time, but it being Ollistra, is absolutely delicious. Both stories climax in strong, flawed women taking it upon themselves to extinguish the savagery of both humanity and the Vashta Nerada, the opener through poison and the former through a leap into space. But the former ends on a darker note with survival. I think war can be looked at as the thematic throughline in this set, really, be it wars of gender and language, or of exploitation and revolt, or of two epic, all-powerful armies in the stars. And rather than extinguish it in this final piece, it lives on in Ollistra, a far more worrying prospect than the utter dominance of death.
TIBERE: The Guerrier audio kind of hints at that in the moments where the Carrionites make a prophecy to the Doctor about him being stained by all the bloody hands of those he failed to save – war and conflict, as embodied by the different monsters we see it (be it unbound environment, cruel imperialism, or gender war) can be prevented through this almost ritualistic sacrifice of life – often female ones. Except at the end, it’s no use. The final sacrifice doesn’t work, and Ollistra is still going to galavant around the stars extinguishing planets at her convenience. That does have the rather unfortunate effect of making the main female character, Eva Morrisson, victim of something closely resembling fridging, though – I guess it might be worth it for the thematic points, but it’s still a bit of a shame in a set that’s usually pretty progressive in its themes.
SCRIBBLES: I suppose that’s always a question, isn’t it. Where can you draw the line for fridging? All the deaths these stories hinge on are utterly defined by choices, agency, and even, in the Vashta Nerada pieces, atonement. More than anything, I feel, they’re built around these one-off protagonists making their choices and taking horrifying matters into their own hands. But, at the same time, they are also done to drive the story of the Doctor onward, at the end of the day. Really, I guess, that shows the struggles the grammar of Doctor Who has had so far with its gender status quo. The main characters are always going to be the women who come in and out of this series, but the core figure being a man makes that more complicated, given he’s what endures through it all. Which, really, is why Jodie Whittaker is such a wonderful choice for the Doctor. It changes the grammar of the series as a whole and frees it up to tell these stories without limit and without implication. All of this set is a worthwhile exercise. But it’s an exercise in synthesis and commentary, reflecting on and informing both classic and modern eras. Big Finish is always going to exist in the shadow of the televised series, by its very nature, which prevents it from making big changes like the casting of the Thirteenth Doctor. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an important place. Here is a great box set encapsulating what Big Finish is for, I think. To take the massive, sprawling text that is Doctor Who and scribble in the margins, finding greater beauty and meaning along the way.