Big Finish: Doctor Who - SHIELD OF THE JÖTUNN Review

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We’re going with the Vikings, says Tony. 


Since meeting the Doctor, Leading Wren Mrs Constance Clarke has dealt with double-crossing double-agents and creatures fighting a spectrum war, then been whisked off to tangle with the amoral Rani on the planet she used to rule. Now it’s time for Constance to encounter another great staple of the life of a time traveler – the insane juxtaposition.

How insane? How about a Viking burial mound in Arizona? That do you for starters?

While looking for somewhere to have dinner (the Doctor has apparently somewhat chronically misplaced the Tardis kitchen), they’re hit by a wave of artron energy, and track it quickly to its source – Arizona, in 2029. A Viking burial chamber, in the middle of Arizona, in 2029.

If there’s one thing that’s emerging as Constance’s signature characteristic it’s an unflappability, a refusal to lose her head, however literally those around her are losing theirs. So she takes much of this in her stride – being in 2029, the Vikings etc. So much so that she rivals the Doctor in her ability to rationally interpret the clues about their situation. Someone, or something, else has been there recently, and has snapped the finger-bones on a Viking corpse removing something round from its grip – a shield, probably.

What’s apparent quickly in Shield of the Jötunn is a bigger scale than usual, simply by the expedient of having a mostly American cast. Like 2005’s Dalek, it gives a sense of both briskness and scale as the plot unfolds: by 2029, the Earth’s pollutant problem has become so bad that the air is filled with tiny nanobots, whose job it is to ‘scrub the sky clean’ – a good slice of solid sci-fi prediction from writer Ian Edginton. Dr Hugo Macht, billionaire philanthropist, is trying to devise a more permanent solution for the climate change problem, and is developing primitive terraforming technology, when diggers on his project crash through a wall and nearly bury the Doctor.

Insane juxtaposition, part two – how about a blizzard, in Arizona, in August? When the blizzard, seemingly sprung from nowhere, starts grabbing people and eating them, leaving their bones picked entirely clean, we’re into full-on Who what-the-hell territory, and soon enough Constance and the Doctor are separated, the Doctor working with Macht, Constance with his assistant, Professor Zetterling (played with disarming honesty and charm by Nell Mooney). In particular, the missing shield is found and the Doctor and Macht have a Boy’s Own tinkering session, while, going about things the more logical way, Constance finds the Tardis translation unit kicking in, allowing her to translate the runes in the Viking tomb, which is as good an excuse as you need in Who to segue to other voices, as the story of why the Vikings ended up in Arizona in the first place unfolds.

It’s a hefty story, this, but a fairly straightforward one. There were Vikings, and there was an Ice Giant (the Jötunn are an established element of Norse mythology) rampaging through villages, leaving nothing but bones in its wake. A wise woman (the smallest of cameos from director Louise Jameson, but an effective one), gives the Vikings a way of defeating the Jötunn, and they do, but with a terrible rider - they know that the Giants could be resurrected through a particular artefact, a shield, so they set sail for uncharted waters, in order to get rid of the wretched thing. It’s a delicious touch, the idea of Vikings not so much playing ‘Last One Off The Edge Of The Map’s A Sissy’ as actively aiming to ditch a piece of Ice Giant tech, and of there being something of substance to the – to be fair, very vivid – Norse mythology of the Jötunn. Ultimately, when you get to the end, you have to ask why they didn’t just drop it overboard at some point, but they didn’t…because they didn’t.

Of course, one recounted Viking story and a flesh-eating blizzard does not a full Who story make, but Edginton’s a smart writer with a comic-book heritage stretching back twenty-five years, so he knows when and how to ramp up the tension and the stakes. There’s plenty of adventure left once you’ve heard the Viking story, and everything has a certain dramatic inevitability – in a similar way to New Who Doctors having to be certain that, say, the whole planet is at risk before they do anything drastic, there’s a moment when this story could all end perfectly peaceably. But arguably then it wouldn’t be a testament to Vikings and Ice Giants, and that’s partially what it is. It’s also a non-preachy look at a future where we have to fill our atmosphere with tiny robots because we still can’t get our heads around clean energy, and where we have to invent terraforming technology not to go and explore strange new worlds, but to stand a whelk’s chance in a supernova of surviving on our own.

Shield of the Jötunn skews towards the dramatic side of the Who story spectrum, with relatively little leavening. But it certainly delivers an intriguing story that will grip you at the start, and then go on to tighten that grip at several key points, as hope is built, and destroyed and built again. Louise Jameson keeps the pace brisk and crisp throughout, which is no mean feat when you consider there are a couple of lengthy diversions to the Viking story to contend with, and Miranda Raison continues to pitch Constance Clarke on the right side of Joyce Grenfell, and here Edginton gives her scenes that allow her to develop her skillset so you can easily point, down the line, to a distinctly ‘Constance moment.’

One to run to the website and order now, then? Probably not – for all its great points, and there are several, Shield of the Jötunn comes off feeling just a tiny bit run-of-the-mill, rather than a shut-up-and-take-my-money release. It’s actually a more solid story than either of its two predecessors, and it certainly delivers Raison more Constance to play with than Planet of the Rani did, but beyond that, does it deliver anything that you haven’t heard before or won’t hear again? Not really. That said, if you have some spare cash and you want to hear how Constance’s arc and characterization develop, then Shield of the Jötunn will deliver for you.

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 day, he 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

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