Big Finish: JAGO & LITEFOOT & STRAX: THE HAUNTING Review

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Tony Fyler and Strax are two of a clone-batch. 


Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago have been the infernal investigators of choice for Victorian Londoners for around eight years now, since the duo who lit up the chase for Weng-Chiang in 1977 were resurrected at Big Finish, first with a Companion Chronicle, and then with their own series of audio adventures. But Steven Moffat is nothing if not adaptable in the source of his ideas. In the same way as there was a sassy archaeologist on audio long before River Song ever strutted into the Library, so, at the end of A Good Man Goes To War, a rag-tag trio, comprising of a Silurian woman, her human wife, and their Sontaran butler, became the Paternoster Gang, investigating all things alien in Victorian London.

A crossover between the Classic world and the New has been the stuff of fan imaginings pretty much since Vastra, Jenny and Strax took up residence because it has a fundamental logic to it. Why wouldn’t their paths cross with those of their fellow investigators, in the same way as eventually on screen, the worlds of Sarah-Jane, Torchwood and the Doctor intertwined? How could such a thing be avoided? Talk about a Sontaran in the room.

With the granting of licences to Big Finish to use elements of New Who in its audio output for the first time, the unnatural strain of keeping them apart can finally be at least a little relaxed with the launch of Jago & Litefoot and Strax.

Let’s just say this up front – if you’re not a fan of Dan Starkey, or you’re the kind of fan who thinks Strax as a character has ‘made a joke of the Sontarans,’ this is not the story for you. But you knew that coming in, right?

The Sontarans were always intended to be a joke, a satire on militarism, petty bureaucracy and small man syndrome. The Sontarans still are that, with the rider that militarism, petty bureaucracy and small man syndrome can also be appallingly dangerous – you only need to go to Kentucky or Texas to understand that. The Sontarans are open-carry idiots, but with numbers and a guiding philosophy of their own supremacy. Funny as hell to think about at a distance because they take themselves seriously. Deadly as hell if you’re in close enough proximity to have to take them seriously too.

Strax himself of course is a Sontaran who’s not really a Sontaran any more. His journey is similar to that of any artificially intelligent droid in TV or movie history, one of nurture vs nature – the longer he spends away from the perpetual reinforcement of his clone batch, the more the divide is apparent between Strax and typical Sontarans, so he doubles down, holds tight to as much of his Sontaran heritage as he can, while living among humans and serving a Silurian. It’s a situation that is intentionally bound to heighten the comedic value of his struggle. Strax is a self-contained fish out of water comedy walking about with a head like a potato, not so much Sontar – Ha! as Sontar – Ha Ha!

Justin Richards’ Jago & Litefoot and Strax: The Haunting is, let’s make no bones about it, a simple story. It’s practically a training wheels, proof of concept story of a haunted house and a woman being the most refined zombie in Victorian London, stealing the brains of people who can answer a series of what amount to meme puzzles for reasons of her own. But is she a ghost to boot? Strax stomps into the Red Tavern looking for a source of dynachromic energy, then stays for a pint and a brawl before being slung out and placed in the custody of Messrs Jago and Litefoot, who, to be fair, have form in dealing with ‘this kind of thing.’ Richards admits the first outing is basically a way of trying out how the dynamic of the three personalities work together, along with Ellie Higson and Inspector Quick, so a simple haunted house mystery and what it becomes (with themes resonating from a few on-screen New Who stories) allows them to spend a lot of time together in a variety of scenarios. Strax at the theatre is rather fun, if slightly predictable, Strax leading the investigation when things get rather less haunted and rather more dynachromic allows the comedy Sontaran to be rather more than that, his actual expertise and training coming through more than it’s sometimes allowed to do on screen. Strax being convinced Jago and Litefoot are actually Jenny and Vastra is funny, though undoubtedly some less humorously inclined listeners will claim it’s obvious and overplayed. To give him his due though, Richards writes an explanation for the at first seemingly laughable confusion (apparently Moffat’s idea), and Starkey never plays it for comedy – to paraphrase the great theatrical adage, Starkey always asks for a source of dynachromic radiation, he never asks for a laugh.

By giving the story a real threat but downplaying its scale, what you end up with in Jago & Litefoot and Strax is a couple of hours spent in great company, with characters you know and like, having to deal with each other as they’ve never had to do before. Starkey has some fantastic ‘Strax’ lines – “We do not need your assistance, whispering scum!” being a personal favourite when Jago & Litefoot take him to a local library, but it’s more of a joy to see the dynamics merge around each other – Jago and Litefoot explaining Strax to others with ‘Oh ignore our friend, he gets like that,’ and most particularly Lisa Bowerman as Ellie beautifully underplaying her reactions to the Sontaran warrior – simply saying “Oh yeah…you said,’ when Strax repeats his demand for a dynachromic energy source, and giving a brilliant trail-off repeat of some of his militaristic jargon – “Watch out for those anti…thing…erm…lasers…”

Bowerman also directs the crossover with her customary confidence and verve, leaving you admittedly knowing that Richards’ script is basically an excuse to get these characters together and keep them together for extended periods of time, but involved enough not to care, and loving the interactions more than you want to get to the end and uncover the truth about the haunted house. When you get there, you’re still more delighted with the characters and how they work together than you are engaged in the specifics of the threat, reminding on-screen Who viewers of stories like The Power Of Three, but it’s absolutely enough to make you thrill with the potential of the Rubicon that’s been crossed. After this story, Strax will know Jago and Litefoot as themselves, and more challenging plotlines can lie ahead for them.

As this is labelled as Jago & Litefoot and Strax 1, it looks likely that the infernal investigators and the Sontaran butler will cross paths again, but it would also be fun to see how Big Finish copes with the challenge of Jago & Litefoot and Vastra or Jago & Litefoot and Jenny before teaming up for a proper ultimate doozy of a box set – Jago, Litefoot and the Paternoster Gang Meet Scratchman in Doom Coalition 6, the New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield!

Ahem – too much?

Too much, OK. But the idea stands – while there’s enormous development that can now happen to the Jago & Litefoot and Strax idea, it would be great to see how Vastra (and even more how Jenny) would cope without her usual support team, but with the backing of the Jago & Litefoot group.

As a first crossover in audio between Classic and New Who, this release is pretty much exemplary. Go now, human scum, and get some more Sontaran into your life. You won’t regret it.

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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