Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Starring Mark McDonnell, Hannah Smith, Barnaby Edwards, Jo Castleton, Ian Brooker, Andrew Dickens, Toby Hadoke, Martin Trent, Cal Jaggers, Bess Robinson, Stuart Crossman and Nicholas Briggs
There is nothing to fear…
It’s an interesting experience to look back at the early Big Finish releases, especially in this new era of transtemporal glasnost between the show and the audio dramas. In the space of the last year alone we’ve had the massively welcome return of the 10th Doctor and Donna, the surprisingly innovative Churchill Diaries, an excellent examination of the missing parts of River Song’s life and a triumphant return to audio for UNIT. The connective tissue between all the various incarnations of Who has never been stronger than it is now and, arguably, neither has the show itself.
So returning to this, eleven year old, series might well seem a little odd. This was a period where Big Finish were producing very nearly the only new Doctor Who (along with the DWM comic strips) and Christopher Eccleston had only just uttered ‘FANTASTIC!’ for the first time when series 1 came out. A lot has changed since then and if there’s one thing the storied history of the show has proven it’s that sometimes while you can go home again you’ll sometimes be oddly disappointed when you get there.
Not this time though.
This boxed set collects two four part stories, the first written by Nicholas Briggs, the second by James Swallow. That’s an early indicator of what to expect in terms of quality and neither series disappoints. Briggs’ four episodes neatly slot into the Orion War continuity and open with humanity in a deadlocked war with their android creations. Admiral Karen Brett (Sarah Mowat) has just achieved the near impossible: a victory. With her political status riding high, Brett is haunted by the men she had to sacrifice to get the job done. Until a very odd message from political operative Paul Hunt leads her to Project Scorpius…
This first series has two distinct gears, both of which mesh perfectly when the time is right. The first is essentially a futuristic West Wing, with Brett, Hunt (a scorpionically charming Barnaby Edwards) and Brett’s friend and confidante Captain Liam Barnaby (Mark McDonnell) front and centre in a battle for Earth that’s lost almost before it starts. Those early stories are Who with a small w, no one saying the C word and the whole thing unfolding with a measured, Le Carré-esque pace. This is a story about the world ending and no one noticing, humanity a frog in slowly heating water not sensing its imminent demise. Or at the very least that it’s trapped.
That’s where the second half comes in, as the action moves to space and a subtle reveal of just what Project Scorpius is. This is Briggs on top form, telling a grim but never quite dystopian SF story that’s entirely character driven and still somehow manages to cram in lots of high action. The closing scenes, featuring a pitched, frantic battle for one character’s humanity and the Master Vault of the Cybermen are especially good.
The second series picks up directly from this, and Swallow’s style meshes with Briggs’ perfectly. The survivors of the first series are first rescued, then separated as the action splits along multiple lines. Barnaby finds himself faced with the consequences of the war, Samantha (an excellent Hannah Smith) with the consequences of her actions and taxi driver Hazel Trahn (Jo Castleton) with a very personal apocalypse.
The decision to provide a ground level view of this world pays dividends and Swallow manages to both make the story more personal and far larger in scope. Each character provides a different perspective of this almost unimaginably huge event and each one has a clear arc that defines themselves against it. Barnaby, a carbon bigot as the story starts due to the brutal android war, is especially interesting here. However it’s Castleton’s pragmatic Hazel and Smith’s unflappable, charmingly fatalistic Samantha that stay with you. Their responses to events, the choices they make and the ways they live with those choices stand amongst Big Finish’s finest hours even now, as does the story as a whole.
If you want to be nitpicky then there’s some stuff that hasn’t aged. An early romance is sabotaged by unintentionally hilarious kissing noises for example and if Cybermen voice effects ever annoyed you then several scenes will be hard work. But that’s really all they are: nitpicks. Tiny flaws in a story that was born out of entirely whole cloth and yet stands perfectly with its catalogue mates, and Who canon, at their very best.
Verdict: Ambitious, darkly funny and definitively human, this is a long overlooked classic and one worth checking out if you missed it the first time. Set 1: 8/10 Set 2: 9/10