Tony’s dead. Again. Go back to the start and try again.
Ohhhh, the memories.
For a while in the 80s, ‘Choose your own adventure’ books were all the rage in geekdom. Books that rendered in two dimensions the thrills – if that’s the word we’re going with – of the early text adventure games (such as the agonising Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy). Doctor Who dabbled with this format too, though in a slightly odd note for this Big Finish release, it was the Sixth Doctor who had his adventures subjected to the whole ‘You died. Go back to Page 1’ treatment, rather than the Seventh.
What becomes quickly evident in the Big Finish experiment with the format, You Are The Doctor, is that the continual drive to make ‘wrong’ decisions and be forced back to the start is, if anything, even more annoying in audio format than it is in print. Of course on audio you have more control – you can ‘play’ You Are The Doctor like one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, or you can decide that life’s too short and simply push straight on through the track listing. John Dorney, who wrote this first one-episode story, delivers a reliably naff alien threat like those you’d find in the books, gives the story a hearty kick of slightly kitsch humour...and then gradually pulls the rug out from under the form by delivering a credible in-universe explanation for it – a way the alien threat could force people to go ‘back to the start’ and re-live episodes from their lives till they ‘get it right.’ When it’s revealed, that’s strangely but necessarily poignant, giving a Beast Below feeling – innocent creature, yoked and hurt to perpetuate the designs of a bunch of people who should have been punched more in their lives. Even as a one-episode story, this just about gets its balance right, collapsing the arc of its gimmick into something meaningful at just about the last moment before the premise becomes over-tedious. If we’re being generous then, all hail Dorney’s judgement for getting it exactly right, practically to the minute.
Come Die With Me by Jamie Anderson (groan now at the title, British fans of food TV, and on we go), feels like familiar (for which, if you like, read ‘slightly overdone’) territory – murder mystery games in an Edwardian setting (in space), libraries with secrets and a deadly puzzle, unsolveable even by the best and brightest in the galaxy. The atmosphere of Anderson’s piece is delivered well by a solid cast, and there’s a certain Toymaker feel to the whole thing, but the payoff feels more mid-1980s Doctor Who Annual, which is to say fine but slightly inconsequential. The motivation of the villain feels a bit shrugworthy – as the Seventh Doctor would say, ‘another boring psychopath,’ and other characters too come off as rather more like ciphers than fully-realised individuals to which this story is happening. The result feels like a constructed fog designed to deliver an atmosphere with some fairly familiar ingredients and some underbaked themes in there somewhere, rather than a terribly credible story, though to give it its due, the same could be said of several highly-regarded on-screen McCoy stories (Ghost Light, Curse of Fenric, Survival, I’m looking at you).
There is one thing that Come Die With Me delivers though which is custom-built to prick up our ears. Someone has actually solved the unsolveable before Ace and the Doctor arrive – one Mrs Zingiber.
Nope, that’s all you’re getting. To be fair, it’s pretty much all we get too.
The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel...hmm. Like the movie from which it steals its name, Christopher Cooper’s script is an oddity even in this collection that seems to celebrate oddities. The narrative structure feels needlessly overcomplicated, starting with Ace on trial and the Doctor dead, and going back from there to a kind of crime caper that owes not a little to TV’s Time Heist. What’s perhaps weirdest is that this story runs headlong into the time limit of its single episode, and sums up what will happen going forward with a few lines between Ace and the Doctor about what they’ve got to do next. It’s an artlessness we’re not used to from Big Finish, and it’s the sort of thing that gives this collection a ‘B side’ feel (with apologies for the youth-excluding reference). The frustrating thing is that both stories two and three feel like they might work better in a standard four-episode format, given time and the opportunity to develop their themes and characters, but whereas Come Die With Me is an underbaked fog of atmosphere, The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel is a solidly complex world, with the hotel of the title used as an avatar of conquest and subjugation – but then the development runs smack bang into the brick wall of the one episode format and the lack of time to fully unfold itself.
The final story, Dead To The World by Matthew Elliott feels like a dramatic upswing, the characters given a vividness by the relative simplicity of the story – there’s a spaceship, a nasty, liquefying plague, and some estate agents. It’s fairly stolid base-under-siege stuff, with a silly-funny reasoning behind the whole thing, but by the simple virtue of having a beginning, a middle and an end, and a collection of interesting, if unpleasant characters to frame the mystery that the Doctor and Ace need to solve, it raises itself above the two higher-concept stories in the middle of this collection in terms of listener appeal. It reminds us to some extent of the Blake’s 7 story Mission To Destiny, where, in the middle of a series of otherwise connected stories, some of the Liberator crew stop off to play Hercule Poirot on board a spaceship where murders are being committed. Dead To The World has little of the intensity of the previous two stories, veering if anything back to the comedy framework of the first story in this collection, but giving us a solid mystery to work with, and a fairly linear, logical pathway from A-B within the timeframe allowed.
The Big Finish short story collections are often playgrounds of invention to take storytelling risks with before ideas and authors are let loose in a full-length single story release. This time though, there’s a sense of ‘good enough’ stories having made it all the way to production. You Are The Doctor itself is probably an irresistible story that someone was going to try to tell sooner or later, and it’s done here with a precision of beats that reveals the experience of John Dorney’s hand, killing its gimmick just in time to stop us giving up on it entirely. Come Die With Me is heavy on atmosphere, light on actual plotting or logical underpinning. The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel is something of a grand epic that doesn’t have the time here to fully unfold its potential, and Dead To The World abandons intensity and for the most part originality, but tells a cogent story quickly through several believable characters.
A vital set of stories, then? Not really. What they may well turn out to be though, through the interwoven presence, or at least influence, of Mrs Zingiber, is the beginning of the next story arc in the Seventh Doctor and Ace’s life – having been introduced explicitly in Come Die With Me, she gets several allusions throughout the rest of the release. Is there anything to make her especially alluring as a character? One or two things – the fact that she’s never explicitly there when the Doctor and Ace turn up, but that the Tardis appears to be chasing her through space and time, irrespective of Ace’s attempts to pilot the ship, is a solid hook. The idea, in Come Die With Me, that she might conceivably be at least as clever, perhaps cleverer, than the Doctor is the sort of delicious detail that will drive hardcore fans to buy this release simply to try and ‘figure it out,’ to look for clues to her identity or nature.
As a set of stories then, You Are The Doctor is a goodish collection of ideas, some more original than others, some better in terms of storytelling. They’re goodish ideas that only really in the first and fourth stories feel fitted to the format they’re given in this release, and as such, it’s possible the release as a whole will frustrate listeners more than it entices them. But it does contain a solid gold nugget of ‘what-the-hell’ to drag fans along to buy it in any case, almost as homework for the next series of Seventh Doctor stories, which will presumably feature Mrs Zingiber in greater detail and better battles.
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