‘The game’s gone bonkers, Watson!’ cries Tony Fyler.
The Doctor meets Sherlock Holmes. What could possibly go wrong?
Not a whole heck of a lot, as it turns out.
All-Consuming Fire is a bit of what might be called an irresistible romp, if that didn’t make it sound both funnier and more frivolous than it is.
Beginning with a case of three missing library books (albeit from the library of St John The Beheaded, a disconcerting building befitting its name), there’s a solid progression of both Sherlock Holmes story and Doctor Who story throughout All-Consuming Fire – Ace is beggaring about on the planet Ry’leh, while the Doctor has gone looking for the missing volumes. In gorgeously grandiose style, the Pope sends a special train to intercept the Orient Express and recruit Holmes and Watson to find the missing books too. Meanwhile Bernice (or rather, ‘Bernard’) Summerfield is in India, looking into Hindu gods and allegedly disused temples that might not be quite as disused as all that after all.
With both his regular companions out of commission, the Doctor presents himself at Baker Street to perplex the bejesus out of Holmes with the alien mud on his gaiter, and borrow Watson for a while. That goes down well, as you can imagine.
A totally barmy tale unfolds, involving something which looks for all the world like spontaneous human combustion, ancient gods, deeply dodgy empty-headed mercenaries, scheming men who aim to bring the ancient gods back, other scheming men who aim to use them to invade another world and so expand the British Empire, Sherlock Holmes’ other brother, Sherringford, as well as his father (it’s a proper Holmes family affair. That goes down well too, obviously). The thing is though, while Andy Lane’s story, adapted for Big Finish by Guy Adams, is undoubtedly barking mad, it’s barking mad in a way that has such conviction and such threads of rationality driven through it and powering it on that it all seems to make perfect sense as you take the trip.
And it is a trip, too – the Doctor and Watson investigating people who’ve taken out the missing books recently (ideally, though not always before they burst into ghastly, deadly flames), the trail leading them all to India to meet up with Benny – possibly, just possibly, one of Benny’s finest moments on audio, swanning about 19th century India pretending to be a man – and on, to Ry’leh and a final confrontation with what ends up being a fairly rich cornucopia of villainy (keeping the villains straight in your head throughout the whole thing could be a challenge unless you’re especially concentrating), has the feeling of a real journey-arc. Though that said, the pace of this story is nothing if not relentless – despite taking the time to embed the lives of Holmes and Watson in our minds, and faffing about a bit with the criminal gangs of Ye Olde London Town as Holmes goes undercover to discover alien shenanigans, the multiple strands of the piece are twined tight and pushed fast, so what you end up with are three or four separate plot-hooks, all of which yank you forward at their own pace – missing books, immolated people, Indian gods, alien wars, who did what and why? It feels like a ridiculously fast couple of hours, and it’s only when you finish and look back that you realise quite how in depth you’ve gone, and quite how much ground you’ve covered.
There’s an interesting difference between this story and the preceding one, Theatre of War. There, the best characterisation and action was reserved for the Tardis crew. Here, despite being another story where Ace does her thing, Benny hers, and the Doctor his, you couldn’t get away with skimping on the other characters, not least because two of them are Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, and they wouldn’t stand for any such nonsense. Nick Briggs becomes the role of Holmes rather better here than in some other stories, and his frustration at the Doctor’s impossibility, alienness and thoroughly vexing behaviour is a joy. There’s also a multi-Doctor note in this story that brings chuckles to long-term fans – a hark back to the Five Doctors, when Tegan tells Sarah-Jane “I think your Doctor’s worse than mine!” Benny mutters something similar to Watson here, and there’s that wry affection in them both for “theirs.” There’s also a good chemistry between McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and Richard Earl’s Watson, and between Watson and Benny – the two of them end up going for dinner at the end of the adventure, Benny telling Watson that they’ll “get to the forward bit later,” inspiring thrill and embarrassment in equal measure in the eminent Victorian. Speaking of which, the Seventh finally joins the ranks of Doctors to have encountered Jago & Litefoot, and even though this is an off-screen meeting, it’s still enough for a minor whoop of joy.
Bowerman’s Benny and Aldred’s Ace continue what is a longstanding tradition of superb characterisation and wit that pulls the listener through, and even the relatively minor characters here, such as Mrs Prendersly the crazy cat-lady, are given depth and warm and colour so they stick in the memory once the adventure’s done, and they make it matter, beyond the grandiosity of the schemes in play here.
If All-Consuming Fire has a fault, it’s that the pace and the complexity of the story could be said to fight for supremacy, and if you’re not following closely, you might just possibly find yourself wondering ‘Hold on, which one’s this now?’ as villains overlap, coincide or work together. In that, it’s more like a typical Holmes story than a typical on-screen Seventh Doctor adventure, but for the most part, the balance is well-maintained by director Scott Handcock and there’s enough story to get your teeth well and truly stuck into, while it also delivers handfuls of treats along the way. Listening to All-Consuming Fire after Theatre of War, as we’re undoubtedly supposed to do, given their relative positions in the Virgin release schedule, is a fascinating experience, because whereas in Theatre, the Doctor’s best moment is one of those classic Seventh Doctor “Do it, then” stand-offs, from the likes of The Happiness Patrol, Battlefield or Remembrance of the Daleks, here, he maintains a constant sense of impish surprise, and seems to delight in the challenge of not competing with Holmes, and so almost forcing the great Detective to burst a blood vessel by the deductions he’s inevitably led to make. It’s a sustained example of what exactly McCoy brings to the role of the Time Lord, and it adds if anything a calming influence to the madness and energy of Lane’s plot.
If you only have the money for one of the latest Virgin New Adventure adaptations, go – and go unreservedly – for this one. If you have the money for both, go for both, if only to enjoy the contrast in pace and performance from a McCoy who still seems on the top of game as the Seventh Doctor, nearly thirty years after giving up his on-screen tenure in the Tardis.
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