One Tardis, two careless owners, says Tony Fyler.
There are, after 51 years in the Tardis, relatively few big questions left about the Doctor’s life. Who were his family, are any of them still alive somewhere, what’s his name (despite the sweet fan-dangle of The Name, Day and Time of the Doctor) and so on. One that’s rarely even mentioned though is the subject of The Abandoned. We know the Tardis was ancient and technically obsolete when the Doctor stole it. Big Finish fans know there was a technician on board at the time. What’s rarely asked though is if the Tardis was ancient by the time the Doctor found her – then whose was she before that? Whose was she when she was in her technical prime?
The Abandoned, co-written by Nigel Fairs and Louise ‘Leela’ Jameson, who also stars in the episode alongside Tom Baker, answers that question reasonably firmly. Spoiler alert - it was Stephanie Cole, of Tenko, Open All Hours, Doc Martin, Waiting For God, Cabin Pressure, Talking Heads and a thousand other fantastic things fame.
So. That’s that settled then. Tea, anyone?
I’m sensing you need more before you rush to the Big Finish website and order it. Well, alright then – before you do, I’d offer a note of caution. There’s a line in this story where Leela tells the Doctor ‘You make no sense today’ – and that’s very firmly the territory we’re in here. There are ideas thrown together like a child’s laundry pile – imaginary friends, the power of the imagination for better or worse, fairy tales, creative expression and more – but to say they coalesce into anything too solid or well-defined would be too far a stretch. The result is more impressionistic, like Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night (which also gets more than a mention when Leela reasonably points out that ‘there are no stars here – just swirls’). There’s a story here somewhere, but you might have to step back a few paces and unfocus your eyes to really get a good idea of what it actually is, like a Magic Eye picture.
But on the upside, did we mention Stephanie Cole? As a Time Lady? And not just any Time Lady, thankyouverymuch, but the one less-than-careful previous owner of the Tardis we know and love as the erratic blue box of time and space. As a performance, Cole is in fairly familiar territory here – irascible old woman with occasional bursts of screaming, then sweet-as-you-like, turn-on-a-dime offerings of sandwiches, out of left field. If you were going to get anyone to play this role, and with its Little Black Book of Equity Members, we assume Big Finish could have, you’d probably struggle to find anyone who could do this sort of thing more effectively or with more polish than Jameson’s old Tenko-pal Cole, and while it may look a little thin on paper, there’s enough characterisation here to make the Lady Mariana the sort of Time Lady who’s more than ripe for fan fictionalists to imagine adventures for. It would even be possible to imagine her joining the list of would-be suspects whenever any mysterious female character appears in the TV series (remember the ‘Who Is Missy?’ hoo-ha? She’d be a perfect candidate to join that list). The Imagined, who fill up the gaps in the soundscape with all sorts of discordancy, from whispers to cackles to screams, are frankly a bit of a pain, and they do make The Abandoned one of those audio stories that, halfway through, have you checking the remaining run time, a little grateful that the number you see includes ten minutes of Behind The Scenes footage and a trailer. There’s a Toclafane-like childish quality to the voices of the Imagined, for reasons that become clear as the tale unfolds, but neither that nor the fundamental idea of them, which is absolutely very New Who creepy, entirely justifies the fact that, like annoying attention-seeking children in airplanes or restaurants, you just wish they’d go away most of the time.
The thing that really stops me recommending The Abandoned as a must-buy is the big plot-hole around which the whole thing circulates. Lady Mariana’s been away from the rest of the universe for quite some time, and it turns out that’s because she went somewhere That Shall Not Be Named. There’s a good amount of Whovian technobabble about what happens if you name the place That Shall Not Be Named, or more especially if you go there, and the whole story appears to spin outward from there like a spiral galaxy with a black hole at its centre. All of which, to Whovians, just has a tendency to make us want to go there and poke it with sticks. We’re not particularly used to placed That Shall Not Be Gone To, Or Even Named, though we’ve had a reasonable run-in with them recently – Trenzalore, anyone? – but the point of them is often precisely to build them up as places you Shall Not Go…and then go there and poke them with sticks anyway, in the Trenzalore tradition. There’s usually some sort of investigation of why they’re so utterly banned to travelers, so to have them simply be places That Shall Not Be Named feels instinctively like a bit of an authorial cop-out. Of course, maybe there are further stick-poking stories in development, so that at some point down the line the oogly-boogly mysticism of the central conceit of this story will eventually make more sense. It rather needs to make that sense, because at the moment, The Abandoned can leave you feeling a bit like a sack of shrugs, having listened through the baboon-like sound-painting of The Imagined for reasons that ultimately amount to little more than ‘I’ll explain later.’
So should you buy The Abandoned? It depends how curious you are about the Tardis’s history. If you absolutely can’t wait for a sale to find out about the Lady Mariana, or are an absolute Stephanie Cole junkie (‘My name is Tony Fyler, and I am a Cole-aholic’), then yes. Otherwise, there are better Tom Baker stories in terms of the reward you get for both your money and your listening time.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk