Tony Fyler asks if you have the time.
When the First Doctor met the Celestial Toymaker, there was a distinct hint that he was by no means unique or alone in either his desperate quest for diversion or the cruelty with which he played his games with those who stumbled into his domain.
The Queen of Time, a lost story by Brian ‘Ice Warrior’ Hayles, adapted for Big Finish by Catherine Harvey, introduces us to another of his ‘family,’ Hecuba, the Queen of Time.
They’re a strange lot, these immortals with a central defining motif – toys, time etc – and they allow us to wander into a realm of surreal, philosophical storytelling rarely visited in on-screen Who and while somewhat more common in the Big Finish range, still only sporadically attempted, because of the numerous challenges these demi-deities entail.
Firstly of course, you can’t kill them – the answer has to be rather more complicated and clever than that. And secondly – perhaps more importantly from a storytelling perspective – they don’t want anything except the diversion of seeing you play their games. A dangerous storytelling conceit, that, because it can – and indeed in The Celestial Toymaker arguably did - come off feeling like a lot of episodes of running about in expansion of a single central theme, rather than in actually getting anywhere or doing anything of consequence.
When Big Finish took on the Queen of Time, they decided to deliver it with a more pronounced separation of strands – as with the Toymaker, the Doctor is a ‘superior’ being and gets to spend time with the immortal while his companions jump to their tune and play their games. But here we’re dealing with a very different Doctor. This is not the crotchety old man who half-believed his own superiority in any case. This is the Second Doctor: more devious, more charming, more inherently conniving than the first – and so the whole story has a different dynamic, the more arms-folded, I’m-not-playing vibration of a child faced with spinach, rather than the grand master invited to the Rotary Club for a quiet game of chess.
In terms of the storyline, the bones are familiar, the beats very different. The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe get not so much pulled off course as invited to play with Hecuba via a kind of omni-dimensional junk mail. Hecuba being a beautiful young woman (a subtle satirical reference to the ultimate creature in control of time, perhaps?), Jamie is initially all for going to have dinner in her dimension. Soon though the familiarities of the territory hit home, as Jamie and Zoe have to solve a number of temporally-based puzzles, run down corridors and escape from a pair of guardians who even on audio sound authentically no-budget sixties. There’s endless fun had in The Queen of Time, ageing the companions, regressing them, swinging lethal pendulums at them and the like. As far as the companions are concerned in fact, both Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury play The Queen of Time with a straighter, more sixties-conventional bat than they do in most other Big Finish audios – something about the ‘Lost Story’ status making it imperative that they deliver the companions as they originally appeared on-screen - Jamie being brave but clumsy, Zoe being clever and precocious, though as an added bonus, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Zoe have cake thrown at her head by Marie Antoinette, you’re in luck.
All this is perfectly fine and – well, if not yet dandy, then at least fine and cosmic hobo – but it’s not where the real gold of The Queen of Time is hidden.
The real gold is in Caroline Faber’s performance as Hecuba, and Frazer Hines’ take on the Troughton Doctor.
While Michael Gough’s Toymaker was a spectacular portrayal in itself, and David Bailie’s audio version of his character is if anything darker and more intense than the original was allowed to be, Caroline Faber’s Hecuba beats them both for sending a shiver down the spine, by virtue of the girlish beauty portrayed in the narrative and by her voice. There’s a degree of twisted pleasure in her setting of traps which makes her sound half like Alice in Wonderland, and half like the Queen of Hearts – unpredictable, quixotic, coaxing, laughing. The shorthand way to explain her performance would be to ask you to imagine a fusion of The Mistress and Lucy Saxon – it’s that disturbing.
As for Frazer Hines, it’s conceivable he has a travel Ouija board and simply dials into Patrick Troughton on the way to the Big Finish studios. His rendering of the Troughton Doctor is positively uncanny, and again perhaps because of the straight bat with which the storytelling is played and the companions are delivered in this story, there’s enough separation to actually make you forget this is Frazer Hines, who you heard in the last scene nearly having his sporran sliced off by the pendulum of a grandfather clock – this quiet, polite, charming but utterly immoveable Second Doctor surely has to be Patrick Troughton. He’s just found a Tardis somewhere and popped back for an afternoon’s recording. If you’re new to the Second Doctor on Big Finish, listen to this one first – that separation of voices between Jamie and the Doctor works arguably better here than anywhere else in the range.
For the Toymaker’s trilogic game, Hecuba substitutes a banquet of quite blatantly disgusting items as a way of judging the external passage of time, as well as a way of squeezing the most sadistic fun out of the Doctor’s reactions of concern for his companions. The end of the meal will signify the end of Jamie and Zoe’s lives, but Hines’ Second Doctor balances on the knife-edge of charm, concern for his companions and contempt for his host, refusing to eat anything she serves him and thinking all the time of a way to get out of her domain.
With exceptional performances from Hines and Faber, a real feel for the period and sound design that both enhances that period and gives Hecuba and her realm an additional dose of fairly modern dark fairytale chill, The Queen of Time is an exceptional piece of work and a great Second Doctor story. It takes an idea that could have worked reasonably well on TV at the time it was due to be broadcast, and gives it whole new levels of creepy believability through the audio medium.
One to buy then?
Without hesitation, yes. There are a solid bunch of Second Doctor stories adapted or freshly written by Big Finish, and most if not all of them give you your moneysworth – he’s a Doctor very well served considering the sad fact of Troughton’s death. But if you’re only going to buy one, this edges out Lords of the Red Planet (also originally by Hayles – what can we say, he was a talented writer) for its creepy, doolally soundscape and those two blisteringly good central performances.
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