From the streets of Edwardian London to the corridors of a near-infinite library in the distant future, a single book holds the key to the fate of life on Earth…
Big Finish have a pretty crowded flight plan these days. Classic literature adaptations and a fleet of Doctor Who spinoffs all ensure there’s usually something for every taste on a pretty regular basis. Last year’s The Worlds of Doctor Who did a good job of tying a story together across Counter Measures, The Vault, Jago & Litefoot and Gallifrey. This year’s The Worlds of Big Finish tries the same thing with Graceless, Sherlock Holmes, The Confessions of Dorian Gray, Iris Wildthyme, Vienna and Bernice Summerfield. And it works, mostly.
Every episode here is written by David Llewellyn and they involve the journey a very important, immensely dangerous, book takes across history. Things kick off with Abby and Zara, the Graceless sisters who, along with Iris Wildthyme, make a return appearance to the range here after some time away. The story opens with them returning to The Archive to ask for guidance and finding themselves first prime suspects, then primary detectives in a murder case. The Archive is a splendid, utterly Who idea; a near infinite archive of every book in history tended by an army of archivists and Llewellyn has great fun letting the sisters cause, and solve, some trouble there. This is my first real experience of Graceless so I can’t speak to how in tonal step it is with the usual series. However, both Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington have natural authority and drive the story along nicely.
Until the book lands in London and at the centre of The Adventure Of The Bloomsbury Bomber. This is the first place the cracks show, not so much in the story but in the delivery of it. Big Finish have pioneered this sort of ‘Monologue Plus’ approach where the vast majority of the heavy lifting is done by one actor with a small amount of minor orbiting parts. When it works, it works very well and some of the early Stargate discs in particular made a real virtue of the format. That almost works here, with Briggs’ cerebral Holmes matching wits with an apparent bombing campaign targeted against London bookshops. There’s some nice moments, including Holmes being smart enough to realize he’ll only ever see some of the picture and Watson’s absence proving a genuine weakness for Holmes. Where it falls down is in the sense of the plot just passing through. It’s a fun story but it feels like a Sherlock Holmes story with a very light seasoning of the weird and as a result is one of the less successful entries here.
However, it does set up The Feast of Magog which is huge fun. The Dorian Gray range has always been one of the highlights of Big Finish for me and every strength it has is on display here. The story is punchy, incident heavy and very, very dark for a start. Dorian is the least heroic of this set of characters but also the one most versed in this sort of world and Llewellyn very cleverly folds a science fiction conceit into a spiritualist delivery system. It still serves the overall story, and the Sherlock Holmes episode especially, very well. But it also feels like a Dorian Gray story in its own right. Anchored by Alexander Vlahos’ usual, fierce and cold Dorian it’s a real highlight of the set.
As is Kronos Vad’s History of Earth (Vol. 36,379) which sees Iris Wildthyme get in on the action. The sort of but not quite Time Lady is a force of nature at the best of times and this is her at her very best. Accompanied by splendidly grumpy army officer Captain Turner, Iris breezes into the middle of a World’s Most Mysterious Mysteries style TV show fronted by Jenni Marcel and produced by Zack Hoffman (Katherine Mangold and David Menkin respectively). Together, they discover the true nature of the book and also tie off a loose end from an earlier episode with remarkable clarity and grace. This is as knockabout as the story gets and if you weren’t a fan of Iris before this will probably do nothing to change your mind. However, it’s another strong episode that bends the overall plot to the style of the series instead of vice versa. Plus Hugh Skinner as Captain Turner is colossal fun even if the Captain clearly isn’t having any himself…
We’re taken into the home stretch by Chase Masterson as Vienna Salvatore in The Lady From Callisto and it’s another strong entry. Vienna struggled, for me, in the early stories. It wasn’t that it didn’t work but that her approach is so drastically different it took a while to get used to. However, once again this is a really strong entry. Hired to locate a missing casino employee, Vienna is firstly a little surprised to be given the job and secondly very surprised to find out what’s really going on. Space Vegas Noir is difficult to pull off but Llewellyn again hits the primary beats of the series (sardonic cheerfully violent lead, strange codes of ethics, wheels within wheels) and again makes the overall plot serve the episode. Plus the ending, which leads directly into the final episode, is huge fun and shows that Masterson and Lisa Bowerman clearly need to work together a lot more often.
The Phantom Wreck rounds things off, appropriately, where Big Finish began; with Professor Bernice Summerfield. It’s also the most Bernice-y story there’s been in ages; a mysterious wreck, competing agendas, grumpy archaeologists and actual field archaeology. Again, Llewellyn has a deft touch with this world and gives the supporting characters some welcome nuance and depth. Plus Bowerman, who’s never less than great, is on especially good form here playing Benny with the sparky, endlessly cheerful Ford Prefect-esque verve that’s made the character so successful.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the individual stories are all either simply good or immense fun, the whole isn’t quite the sum of the parts. The bad guys are kept off stage for so long that by the time you see (or rather, hear) them they’re not given very much room to do anything. Likewise, the actual ending is exactly the sort of ‘everything back in the box’ return to the status quo that this sort of story all too often falls victim to. It’s a varied, interesting, immensely fun ride but, ultimately a circular one.
Verdict: There is a lot to enjoy here and if you were looking for a good way of sampling some of Big Finish’s more esoteric lines this is a pretty great selection box with almost no secret rock hard toffees. Not entirely successful, but that’s far more on the format than the individual episodes and still definitely worth a listen. 8/10