Big Finish: Doctor Who - OTHER LIVES Review

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Andrew East visits the Great Exhibition of 1851...

I was looking forward to giving Other Lives a relisten. I remember enjoying the story but was also intrigued as I could also remember feeling the whole thing a little inconsequential and wanted to refresh my memory as to what issues, if any, I had with the story. Thankfully, this turned out to be one minor niggle which is explained by the style of the piece and therefore I can forgive in what is a thoroughly enjoyable story. There was one other aspect which I had a problem with this time around, but I will explain later what that was.

Released in 2005, Other Lives sees the Doctor, Charley and C’Rizz arrive at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. What ensues is, to all intents and purposes, a Doctor Who version of a Charles Dickens’ novel.

Dickens wrote novels which were full of coincidences and Other Lives’ plot hinges on many of these. It is also chock full of Dickens-style character names – Fazackerly, Dimplesqueeze, Crackles; which help add to the tone of the story.

Other Lives sees the Doctor ‘mistaken’ for a long-lost husband; Charley mistaken for a prostitute and a French diplomat and C’Rizz treated as a freak in a travelling show. The catalyst for this is the Great Exhibition and two of its visitors, French diplomats - Monsieur and Madame de Roche. When the TARDIS arrives, the Doctor and Charley set off to explore the Exhibition whilst poor Eutermesan C’Rizz is forced to remain in the TARDIS lest his alien, reptilian looks upset the sensitive Victorians. An assassination attempt on the French diplomats leads to C’Rizz being forced into a freak show, Charley ending up on the streets of London and the Doctor losing the TARDIS when it dematerialises with the de Roche’s aboard!

Other Lives rattles along at breakneck speed, but it is difficult to shake the feeling that little of actual consequence occurs throughout the story. The blurb on the CD exclaims “What begins as an attempt to prevent murder quickly becomes a desperate race to avert revolution” which oversells the ‘Charley and C’Rizz pretend to be French – badly’ storyline somewhat. It’s all very quick, but it’s also very gentle. C’Rizz probably gets the rawest deal in the freak show, but even his treatment at the hands of Crackles never feels as dramatic as it could. This makes the darkest scene of the whole story – C’Rizz’s blinding of Crackles in revenge – seem out of place. Of course, this scene is more a product of the ongoing character arc for C’Rizz – where he hears voices; is a murderer several times over; and ultimately will descend into psychopathic madness. Whether that arc ever worked is a discussion for a different review as it is such a minor part of this storyline as to be negligible (although it was brave of Big Finish to at least attempt something a bit different with a companion). C’Rizz’s anger isn’t helped by Conrad Westmaas’ performance either. I love Conrad and think when he’s being ‘nice’ C’Rizz he is wonderful and has a great rapport with other characters, particularly India Fisher’s Charley. When he is required to do psychopathic insane killer stuff, though, he just doesn’t convince.

And that is the one other slightly odd aspect of the story. It is blatantly obvious from the start that Westmaas and Fisher are playing the Monsier and Madame de Roche and although, in a story hinging on coincidences, you expect some comment to be made that they bear a passing resemblance (as much as a French diplomat can look like an alien from another dimension). Nothing is made of it until C'Rizz and Charley have to pose as the diplomats and even then it is under copious makeup wigs and costume. It just feels odd - as if something it going to be made of the fact they are playing both roles and then nothing actually is.

The other performances are brilliant. Paul McGann and India Fisher are great as the Doctor and Charley and their respective interplays with Francesca Hunt (as Georgina Marlow) and Ron Moody (as Wellington) are immense fun. Ron Moody is absolutely superb as the Duke of Wellington and every scene featuring him is a joy. His aide, Fazackerly, is played with oily, jobsworthy petulance by Michael Hobbs and the hilarious scenes where his hidden desire to be some sort of costumier is let loose on C’Rizz add another dimension. Francesca Hunt embues Georgina with the right balance of desperation, sadness and manipulation as she uses the Doctor to prevent herself and her sons from becoming homeless. I was under the impression that she was related to India Fisher and thought her voice was incredibly close to India’s in some scenes, but it turns out they are merely stepsisters rather than blood relations so it’s a little odd that occasionally her speech patterns sound so reminiscent of India. Mike Holloway (of The Tomorrow People fame) plays Crackles well, although for much of the first couple of episodes his role doesn’t amount to much more than touting business for his freak show.

The sound design is very good and the interior of the Crystal Palace hustles and bustles with the energy of all those Victorian visitors.

Other Lives is a brilliant audio. It stands out due to its purely historical nature and the way it borrows from the work of Dickens. I love the way C’Rizz, Charley and the Doctor just fall into the other lives that, with the disappearance of the TARDIS, seem like they may become their only lives. I particularly love anything involving Charley and Wellington and it’s a good use of C’Rizz who is a character that some writers seemed to struggle to incorporate successfully.

A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.

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