Welcome to DoWntime’s new, 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 Second Doctor companion chronicles set, featuring Jamie and Leela meeting at a dinner party, a UNIT stand-off in the jungles of Belize, and LOADS OF DINOSAURS. Beware the spoilers after the “read more” tag, and also THE GIANT DINOSAURS.
Also, while you’re here, you might be interested in checking out the Twelfth Doctor fan audio series supervised by regular site contributor Janine Rivers – the next episode, coming at the beginning of August, was written by Scribbles, if you need any more incentive!
SCRIBBLES: Moving the Companion Chronicles has been an interesting choice. Unlike so many box sets Big Finish puts out, these stories are totally unlinked, which means there’s quite a wide array of stories featured. So a recommendation or not on this set comes not from a collective quality, but how well each story performs. On that strength, I think I would probably recommend this set. There’s a story in here that both my colleague and I consider an instant classic and highlight of the year, a nice piece of fanservice, a joyous romp, and a story that, while neither of us care for, is sort of inevitable in a collection like this. That’s not a strike against the range or the set, but just a fact of what happens when you have a series willing to dig in so many different directions. The highs of this set are unlike anything else Big Finish is doing right now, and demand to be heard.
TIBERE: I think the Companion Chronicles, at their best, are a really a space for weird, joyous character experimentations. When they’re good, they manage something really unique, they give new points of views on corners of Who you’d never have thought about beforehand. The move to boxsets has slightly reduced the potential for wild crazy storytelling, but the range has gained in ambition again recently, especially last year, with stories like “Across the Darkened City” and “The Plague of Dreams” really pushing the envelope in terms of what audio Who can do. And this pretty much continues on the same line – like pretty much all Chronicles sets, it’s very variable in quality, but the highs are spectacular: and really, on the four stories here, I’d say three of them are absolutely fascinating. Not necessarily fantastic, but really interesting and original. It’s a really compelling listening experience – capped by one of the most singularly perfect stories in the whole Big Finish library, too, which doesn’t hurt.
1) “The Curator’s Egg”, by Julian Richards
TIBERE: See, there’s one thing audio Who does very well, it’s crazy romps. Television always gets somehow limited the budget, but audio can just go balls to the wall insane. And when BF has gone that route, it has regularly given us some absolutely perfect stories – “Oh No It Isn’t!”, “The Doomwood Curse”, “The Grel Escape” (really, anything with the Grels), “The Revolution”, et caetera. They’re rare, but what can I say, it’s my kind of Who, I love all of them to bits. I wouldn’t quite say this is as good as the bunch I’ve just listed, but it’s not too far either, and I loved every second of it.
SCRIBBLES: While I can’t say I fell in love with this story the way my colleague did, it’s hard not to grin at what this story does. There comes a point when you have your antagonist declaring his aspiration to be to become “all the dinosaurs” where you just know this is a story that could never be told in the 1960s, but is all the more fun for it. It’s cashing in on modern meme culture and the childish joy of Jurassic Park, and is probably the one audio I would share with an primary school student if I wanted to convince them 60s Doctor Who elements could be cool. This is a Doctor Who story written for a child, in the best possible way. I don’t mean by that that it’s simple, or condescending, or lacking in intelligence. Just that it’s written with a sense of pure joy and fascination with the weird, wonderful things in the world, and making them smash against each other in exciting ways. It comes up with a strong idea and keeps building it and building it, and seeing how it tops itself is a fundamentally joyful experience.
TIBERE: One of the best parts of the Companion Chronicles is the way they’ve often been used to showcase new and rising talents – and the writer here, Julian Richards, is one I’ve really liked for a while and hoped he’d do more. His Short Trips, especially his last, where Adric fell in the plot of Don Qixote and had to deliver the fair princess Tegan from the claws of the evil wizards Tegan and “the Doctor”, were delightful – and he brings that same energy here; he has a very visual imaginary, an ability to grasp the best and most iconic moments of pop or literary culture staples. And the script is very-well constructed, too – it’s insane, utterly, utterly insane, but it’s very clever about it. It could just be a big farce, but it makes the craziness of the proceedings actually contrast with the characters, who are pretty straight-faced and trying to deal with all of this as if it were the plot of your standard monster story. The moment where Clarkson yells, utterly serious, that “My brother is a raptor!”, is the moment where I just started to love the story, and from there on, it never, ever lets down. Transplanting dogs in dinosaurs, having a man making shitty jokes to his own clones, it’s on. And you wouldn’t guess that from the beginning of the story – it’s perfectly serious and conventional, until it isn’t. Richards gets the aesthetics of trad Who very well, and he’s able to subvert them in some of the most hilarious ways imaginable.
SCRIBBLES: I think a particular shoutout for this episode has to go to the sound design work by Russell McGee, which the extras rightfully highlight. The work given to creating a convincing soundscape of dinosaurs is magnificent and convincing, and the effort given to create a convincing sound of a Tyrannosaurus Rex barking like a dog surely justifies the existence of Doctor Who in of itself. This is an imaginative piece of fluff, and a damn good time, realized well from the level of the script all the way through the production.
TIBERE: I think the way this audio ends, by inverting an iconic Jurassic Park image (the travellers coming back to find, awed, a giant dinosaur), speaks of how savvy Richards is, honestly. Like, not only does the story gets to my lizard brain (ha ha), who hasn’t grown past wanting to go digging for fossils, but it’s perfectly aware that is what it’s doing. Cue Clarkson declaring that the velociraptors are getting all the media coverage, and that it’s unfair for their taller cousins. I mean, that’s just wonderful. Beyond all the comedy – which is subjective, at the end of the day, I can completely understand that not everyone will appreciate it as much as I did -, though, I think there’s more to it. The subtle allusions to the events of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, for starters – there’s an implicit, but I think quite nice, acknowledgement of the story being fluff: it’s comfort after the hurt. It’s sitting in front of a big dumb movie after going through some shitty times – and the fact it’s set quite explicitly pretty soon after One’s regeneration reinforces that, I think.
SCRIBBLES: I think Anneke Wills sums up the joy of this story and why it works so well with Doctor Who best. In the interviews, she says, “I think you’re allowed to go totally go over the top in these things, that’s what’s such fun.” She nails it. That’s the joy of the series, and this story is a good reminder of why.
TIBERE: Exactly, and that is a great segue to my second point – Richards and Ian Atkins, the range producer, say in the extras that they wanted to do a Davies-style romp, and while I think it’s not the closest fit stylistically, there’s something incredibly modern in how it handles the character of Polly. Because it’s very rare to see a character from the 60s being empowered that way, being allowed to just have this kind of sheer raw fun, riding on a T-Rex, saving the world by herself. That kind of set-up would be, if not obvious, at least pretty logical with Davies’ or Moffat’s companions (I mean, hell, Amy did catch a ride on a triceratops in series 7). But for Polly? I mean, previous entries in the Companion Chronicles range, like Steve Lyons’ “Resistance”, have basically already complained that she’s a bit removed, that she tends to be reduced to the one that prepares coffee on the sideline. In “Twice Upon a Time”, a few of One’s problematic lines were about her, too. So seeing her get that kind of narrative focus, and being allowed to be this fun, free woman, is just something wonderful – and while I can’t argue that this is a masterpiece, it made me feel happy like very few things did this year.
SCRIBBLES: If I were to make one criticism, it’s that the story takes its time to reach the delightful premise. This story is a fantastic romp, but the best concepts and moments all wait until after the first cliffhanger to land. This is hardly a new problem for Big Finish, and has been impacting both the Fourth Doctor Adventures and the Companion Chronicles for some time now. I wish the requirement of a central cliffhanger wasn’t present, because this is a case of a few earlier minutes being a bit gratuitous setup waiting for things to happen, while the back half is a joyful rush. I have to say, this is a problem I think impacted all of the stories in this set, and that’s a shame.
TIBERE: You know, I totally agree with the central cliffhanger being a dumb idea usually, but for once, I really liked it here. It makes the subversion hit really well, and I think the initial set-up, even if it’s a bit lengthy, is really what allows for the fun of the second part. But, yes. The one hour, uninterrupted format is clearly the best thing you can do with Who, and I don’t get why BF doesn’t use it more.
2) “Dumb Waiter”, by Rob Nisbet
TIBERE: Speaking of typical issues with Companion Chronicles, this is a textbook case. Basically, it’s a story that entirely and fully exists to bring forwards a handful of scenes. And these scenes are indeed very good, might even make the whole story worth it for you if you really like the characters, but the plot that ties them together is pure filler. It’s a bit of a shame, because I really like the writer, Rob Nisbet – we both showered praise on his Time War short trip from last year, “A Heart on Both Sides”, but this doesn’t quite have the same snapiness in its conceits.
SCRIBBLES: For me, this story is a bit of a letdown. It’s not bad, but it’s a mixture of decent points about characters I’m not entirely invested in and plots I’ve seen elsewhere and thus feel a bit let down in hearing here. The whole prison that doesn’t look like a prison concept is a bit too predictable at this point, and when it’s been done so well in episodes like “The God Complex” and audio stories like “The Holy Terror“, you really need a strong justification for it. The twist offered up is fresh, with the obvious candidate to be the captive in fact being the person attempting to break someone else out. But it doesn’t really run with that concept in any direction. Perhaps rightly, the plot is just a backdrop to enjoy what happens when Jamie and Victoria meet Leela. But the backdrop feels so disconnected from the development there. I liked a few of the moments it offered, in particular with Victoria enjoying the garden party as something calm and normal, but it doesn’t really feel like a natural fit. Indeed, I found the lack of emotional payoff on that thread of Victoria looking for a rest to be a shame. It’s nice to have Leela laud her as a warrior, but mightn’t it be better to remember that not everyone needs to be a warrior? I love Victoria as a character, but her empowerment, such as it was within the confines of the era, never came from combat. She’s the girl who saved the day in her final story by screaming. It’d be nice to have modern feminist narratives that remember that not every strong female character has to be, well, strong.
TIBERE: And I mean, you can have a backdrop plot, that’s fine – but it should at least have some kind of connection to what’s happening with the themes of the story. I mean, the imagery is pretty compelling – you have the superposition of savagery and civilization that fits characters like Leela and Jamie, and yes, Victoria too, but it feels stilted, and not nearly developed enough. Which, really, is a recurring problem – the audio doesn’t have all that much to say. It feels like a bit of a box-ticking exercise: alright, we’re going to have some fight scenes between Leela and Jamie, because that’s going to be a big PR argument … And yes, they’re fun, but they feel deeply inconsequential. Especially when there are two of them, Jamie wins one, Leela wins one, it basically ends in a draw because the story had to present them as exactly equivalent narrative powers as to not upset the final balance of fanservice. And once again, fanservice is fine, I enjoyed these bits! But it does leave the audio feeling a bit empty from an emotional standpoint.
SCRIBBLES: I think part of my disconnect from this story also comes from the nature of the characters of Leela and Jamie. I know saying this will get a lot of fans mad at me, but the fact is, they are generally written as one-note, I personally find. They both are written as naive, loyal, and needlessly violent, but neither’s era really pushes that beyond them being a bit like the Doctor’s pet, a loyal dog who the Doctor loves but who occasionally bites strangers. It’s particularly awkward in the case of Leela, given the stereotypical nature of the savage characterization, based in racial stereotype (lest we not forget the blackface photoshoot). This sort of approach, I think, makes them both pretty difficult characters to work with, and while having them meet is intuitive for their similarities, it doesn’t necessarily offer much depth. Nisbet clearly is capable of great character depth from his previous Who work, but there isn’t much to be found here.
TIBERE: I think it’s interesting that, in a story that advertises itself as being about Leela and Jamie, the most emotional and interesting moment comes from the Second Doctor. The scene where he realizes that, since Leela has come from the future using Time Lord tech, it means that his people is going to find him eventually, is a wonderful moment, and some of the best acting I can remember Hines pulling off. But the story as a whole never reaches that kind of subtle character focus ever again. Still, I do commend it for what it’s trying to achieve: attempting a cross-over between two classic eras, while paying tribute to Deborah Watling, is a very ambitious goal, and I like that the range has the audacity to try it, even though it’s not as good as it could have been.
SCRIBBLES: I think the standout scene here, the one that gets the most weight out of the character of Leela, is the scene of her stabbing the Doctor with a Janus thorn. That is a whopper of a cliffhanger that says a lot about who she is as a character and the tensions between eras. The payoff to it is similarly good, with Leela finally realizing the second Doctor is the Doctor by having him tell her not to kill. There’s some very savvy beats in here, regardless of the criticisms I might have. And speaking of criticisms, I’m afraid that there’s one more I must pose: having the signifier of the main antagonist’s monstrosity be her obesity is deeply uncomfortable to me, no matter how much it’s played for comedic effect.
TIBERE: Oh, yes, that was … unpleasant. I mean, having Louise Jameson playing an alcoholic, vain heiress is a delicious comedic conceit, I thought, but, as someone who struggles a lot with body image … Can we … not do that?
3) “The Iron Maid”, by John Pritchard
TIBERE: If was to make a comparison, I’d say John Pritchard is proving, story after story, to be the Toby Whithouse of Big Finish. It’s not necessarily that he’s a bad writer – it’s just that he’s ridiculously one-note. I quite liked his breakout script, released on the first volume of the Two companion chronicles, “The Mouthless Dead” – it won awards, and while it’s not a favourite of mine, I definitely get the appeal of it. But Pritchard hasn’t written anything different since: all his stories seem to be about the TARDIS team trapped in some war environment where they have to see and learn about the horrors of human conflict. It’s a compelling plot to do once, especially with characters tailored to it, but that’s the fourth time now, after the aforementioned “Mouthless Dead”, “Fields of Terror” and “Sound the Siren and I’ll Come to You Comrade”. And you’re just left with a crippling sense of directionless misery porn, much like what happened to Whithouse after helming some very good scripts in the early years of the Smith era.
SCRIBBLES: I don’t mind the repetition of theme myself. But for me, the storytelling in this episode is far more muddled and less rewarding than in his debut. There’s some very odd creative choices here. For example, Zoe not knowing what a grave is is a truly odd character beat, and I’m not entirely onboard with it. There seems to be an effort to play up how strange history is to her, and while I can get behind that, I don’t think it entirely lands. Probably the oddest element of that is in the character of Marie. She is, of course, a real historical figure, but the audio never actually gestures toward that fact. It’s the sort of place where some exposition from the Doctor would go a long way; by facing Zoe with a real history strange to her, if that really is the angle the story wants to push, forcing her to consider new things about the people that came before her. And it’s not that this episode doesn’t try. There’s sweet moments of Zoe supporting Marie and even holding her hand to try to play up some sort of bond there. But I can’t say I connected with it, nor can I say I found the payoff entirely worked. The way Zoe leaves without ever even showing the slightest interest in engaging with the history Marie is suffering in just feels so clinical, and it feels like a story more interested in its themes than the humanity of the situation.
TIBERE: It’s not the repetition in itself that I have an issue with, really. I like authors with cohesive body of works, it’s always interesting – but repetition without evolution is stagnation, to paraphrase Pauline Kael. I just don’t get what the point of this story is, what it’s trying to convey, what the message is – because when you are using a deeply, deeply politically-charged imagery, with soldiers, gas masks, religious visions, of course the listener is going to expect a message. You mentioned a potential angle of Zoe discovering new things, but it’s not culminating in anything specific either. It’s an audio that sells itself on imagery and ambiance above all things – which in itself is fine, and I’ll be honest, the ambiance work is indeed quite good. It’s a very evocative period, the Hundred Years War, and the sound design and music to a fine job when it comes to convey its grimey horror. And I like the idea of wars bleeding into each other, too – but there’s no sense of real progression to it, there’s not a final image or tableau towards which it is building. If you’re going to to such an aesthetically-driven narrative, you need something more striking – I think a really good exemple is Marc Platt’s “The Silver Turk”: Cybermen meet Mary Shelley in 19th century Vienna. That’s a contrast interesting enough to warrant a story – but here? It’s exactly the kind of imagery you’d expect from that kind of story. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s very facile.
SCRIBBLES: I also have to reiterate my criticism about pacing here. It’s not entirely the cliffhanger that’s the problem, mind. Rather, it’s holding off the identity of the antagonist for so long robs the story of its most interesting thematic points for most of its running time. The concept of a soldier trying to prevent a war by meddling with history is brilliant. I love that. I also love the concept of him pulling his comrades through to join him, like a siren. But it doesn’t land, because by the time it comes in the story, it’s hard to say the interest has been engaged enough. It could have been set up more directly and lead to more sustained debate and character drama, but instead, the story deploys it as an entirely third act concern and resolves it quite swiftly. That leaves the story with two acts of very little happening. At the very least, show us more of that war that is supposed to be making Marie so miserable. Have Zoe experience it! But that just doesn’t happen. Nor does the obvious choice of letting Marie engage with the antagonist. Would Marie also want to change history to prevent the English from causing her such pain? Hell, would seeing that pain cause Zoe to want to do the same? Who can say, because this story just doesn’t ask those questions. That makes it a lot less than it might be.
TIBERE: I feel like they depicted that antagonist in a very one-dimensional way, too – his motives are interesting, but he never really feels like anything else than … Well, a villain. The fact he’s a German soldier from World War I is not neutral – and honestly, from the way he’s portrayed, you’d almost believe he’s a Nazi, bar the occasional mentions of the Kaiser. It never builds on anything bar Pritchard’s, admittedly compelling, aesthetic concerns, and that is just a shame, because the premise is fascinating, and, not wanting to brag, but French history is an incredibly compelling playfield for Who. I really wish I could like it more.
SCRIBBLES: And I have to say, I’m sorry to John Pritchard for going so hard in our reception. “The Mouthless Dead” is a very good story, and there are a lot of genuinely good concepts here. I do very much like the internal struggle of Marie, loathing herself for wishing for someone else to take on the heroic mantle and the suffering that comes with it. But this story could have been more. Hopefully, his next effort will be.
4) “The Tactics of Defeat”, by Tony Jones
SCRIBBLES: This audio is a frigging classic. I’m just gonna go right out and say that. From the very first minute, it gets under your skin with haunting tone and emotional charge, and it just keeps building from there.
TIBERE: Back to what I said about the sheer ambition the range has at its best … Yeah, this is it. I mean, it’s a direct sequel to an Eddie Robson short trip from earlier this year, while being also a continuation of “The Visitation”, a new outing for a very good original BF character, which manages to bring the Second Doctor’s era on top of it all. It’s a very tricky brief – pulling it off would already be pretty impressive, but the end result here is nothing short of mindblowing. This is an utter masterpiece, and a very strong contender for best story of the year.
SCRIBBLES: The title is a great clue into the thematic games of this story, and my god, they are layered. This story plays its protagonist in a very raw, vulnerable place, and then continually reveals how the weakness characters show betrays their power plays. For example, there’s an element of unreliable narrator present, in how Ruth conceals the incoming missile strike. It’s all set up beautifully, with the repeating device of the watch beeping and some very choice half-truths delivered along the way, but it’s concealed in just the right way. And the information she is hiding in that is in of itself a sort of loss. This mission is, for her, a desperate attempt against an impossible clock to try to do some good. That works magnificently alongside Zoe’s own sacrifice scene, which we begin the story hearing and come back to in the second half, in which her helping Ruth murder her turns out to be the key to survival for both her and later Ruth. This story is defined by how a clever loss can be the greatest victory, and my god that makes for poignant storytelling.
TIBERE: It’s a power play, in the purest, rawest form you can imagine. Two people struggling for control – it reminds me a lot of some of the best-known Tarantino scenes, like the Hans Landa introduction from Inglorious Basterds. Except better, because it has a deliberate modernist and progressive angle – really, as you said, the plot itself becomes a sort of impossibility, a tangled web threatening to swallow the characters. The construction of the plot is sheer poetry (dear boy), honestly – it feels on the level of what Moffat pulled with “The Big Bang”. For instance, the fact that Ruth threatens Deacon with a logic bomb Zoe hasn’t programmed into the systems yet – we hear her voice on the recording before we are shown the actual conversation at the end of the story. Or the utterly sublime set-up/pay-off with the temporal displacer: it’s so organic and well-done neither Scribs nor I actually understood it on first listen. And that could be a flaw in any other story, but it’s really not a problem here, because the story grabs you so well, and is at every single moment so tense and interesting that not understanding some of the impressively subtle plot mechanics never detracts from the experience. With the plot alone, it would already be a pretty perfect story, but it’s elevated even further by its imagery and politics, too – the fact it makes its power play an inherently gendered dynamic, for instance. A lonely, bitter man, literally incapable of escaping the room he’s trapped in, manipulating two women – and there’s a sense of random, wanton cruelty in what he does: he has no real reason to send Ruth kill Zoe, bar his own sadistic amusement. He’s coded in very masculine terms, too – he’s a “tactician”, he’s cold, he’s logic, he’s everything Rational Men on the internet admire. The story, then, is not only about women winning in part by relying on their most emotional side – which they do, with the sadness and desire for revenge of Ruth, and Zoe’s sense of sacrifice -, but also about them just outplaying him. If there’s one message the story has, it’s that the Women of Who are better than the old masculine guard, that they’re smarter, that they know the plot mechanics and the rules of the show even better and are able to triumph in a game of pure logic. I mean, what saves Ruth and Zoe is ultimately time travel, and that’s something very symbolical too – not to mention the fact that they are characters that come from opposite ends of the show’s timeline: one from the 1960s, one from the 2010s.
SCRIBBLES: The first half is, admittedly, a bit slow. Again, there’s a case of waiting for the cliffhanger reveal, in this case of Zoe’s arrival, to put the plot in motion. But the time is filled efficiently. Tony Jones’ deployment of a Dungeons and Dragons puzzle is a savvier ploy than it first seems, as it greatly emphasizes the visceral vulnerability of Ruth here, which pushes her character to the strongest places she’s ever been, while informing the listener of the sort of man Deacon is. It’s a slow burn, and by far the less interesting half of this story, but it sows the seeds quite cleanly for a back half that is nothing but exceptional payoff. And I have to say, this story greatly rewards relisten. I’ve mentioned before that I always strive to listen to each audio we cover at least twice, and on second listen of this story, it’s amazing how well every character motivation and decision lines up with the information learned in the second half. For example, Ruth’s bizarre, desperate offer of millions of dollars for the vial makes far more sense when one realizes why she’s in such a desperate hurry, and her attempts to get Deacon to come away for treatment at UNIT are all the more poignant when you realize she’s doing it for his benefit, knowing the vial will be stopped and he will die without her intervention. Examining this story further is an immensely rewarding exercise, offering greater emotional depth and plot tightness. An absolute masterstroke from Tony Jones, it really is.
TIBERE: Absolutely. I had a similar experience with the plot, but I feel like I also completely rediscovered the story through a symbolical prism on a second listen. I mean, the Dungeons & Dragons reference is interesting in and on itself, since it has been, in pop culture, represented as a very gendered game; but I think what’s most interesting are the mythological aspects. There’s a lot of talks about the temple being a place of sacrifices, equating Deacon to some kind of war god that demands young women to be killed in his name – once again, loads of play on very gendered cinematic and cultural conventions -; but I mostly see the story as a Who, modern reading of the Minotaur mythos. A half-human monster in the middle of a labyrinth, embodying masculine id and pulsions of violence? It fits. You even get a female figure that guides the hero through a thread/talkie-walkie, in Ariadne/Zoe. And of course, that hero figure is feminine, here – which is really compelling considering Theseus has to be one of the most insufferably misogynistic figures of the ancient world. It’s shredding ancient Greek myths to create postmodern sci-fi feminism; it’s using dramatic, tension-filled thriller tropes to build a life-affirming homage to the power and intelligence of Who’s female character. It’s just an utterly perfect slice of Who. And I do really mean it – every aspect of the story is just impeccably polished. Helen Goldwyn pulls off maybe her best direction ever; the music, composed by Rob Harvey, is soul-rendingly beautiful; and the two leads are absolutely superb. Of course the story wasn’t going to kill Zoe, but the scene where she quietly accepts death at the hands of Ruth, telling her that she has accepted that every single adventure with the Doctor might end up being a sacrifice for the greater good, is just a moment of stunning power and intensity. And one that’s deeply connected to the current run of televised Who – think of “The Doctor Falls” and its idea of meaningful sacrifice. This story manages to bring that to the 1960s. It’s a vital story, there’s no other way to put it. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.