We’re…not as doomed as we thought we were, says Tony.
Since moving from single releases to box sets, the Eighth Doctor adventures have attained an epic status, occasionally for no reason more intelligible than we’ve been told they’re epic and they come in a box, so they must be an event.
Dark Eyes began with an interesting premise, then grew more and more distant from that premise as time went on, offering some great episodes and some of less stellar quality and logic along the way. By the time Dark Eyes 4 was released there was quite a strong sense of ‘Wait, who’s doing what-now?’ in the story-arc, and it was difficult for some listeners to follow, let alone care about.
Doom Coalition 1 was a chance to revitalise the Eighth Doctor with the beginning of a new ‘epic.’ It had a great central premise for a villain in The Eleven – a Time Lord who manifests all eleven of his incarnations in a ‘Many Faces of Eve’ way, that, if controlled, could be quite elegant and frightening. If uncontrolled or overused, it could sound like a mockery of the show itself though, so there was still a risk in allowing The Eleven a central place in the action. When the first Doom Coalition box set was released, it was an odd thing, with its first episode – the one with the most of The Eleven in it – by far the most engaging and enjoyable. As the episodes went on, there was a slightly worrying, if familiar, dissolution of the point, meaning it sometimes felt like a bit of a directionless slog.
On that basis, we braced ourselves and pulled on our bull-o-meter helmet here at WarpedFactor Towers when the second Doom Coalition box set was released.
Happily, we can report that there are sighs of relief to be had. The polarity of the storytelling energy flow has been well and truly reversed this time round, so we start with a simple Earth-bound adventure which raises fascinating and disturbing questions, and build in a logical progression from there, through three other episodes that each have a unique flavour but which never (as could not be said for the first box set) disappear up their own fundament and make you wonder why you’re on this particular adventure.
If you’re looking for more and stronger adventures with The Eleven though, take a pass – he’s barely in this box set, featuring most strongly in the finale, and there rather camping it up to little especially useful effect. If you want an on-screen comparison, in this second box set, The Eleven is The Master in The Mark of the Rani. The point about which though is that The Mark of the Rani allowed the besting of a long-established equal of the Doctor’s to push a brand new enemy front and centre in the firmament of top-class Who villainy. That’s very much the territory we’re in throughout Doom Coalition 2. If The Eleven is a great idea, questionably realised, the Big Bad of this box set is a much quieter idea, realised with a great deal better effect.
Each of the four episodes here is agreeably different in almost every way, so you get a good palate-sweep, and each episode has its own sub-set of ‘Oh hell yes’ boxes, and makes sure to tick them. We start off with a ‘Doctor on Holiday’ episode, Nick Briggs returning to the Eighth Doctor to write a short story-style episode which brings back the Voord, and delivers some consequences for the Eighth Doctor from an earlier incarnation’s high-handed assessments. It would be easy to brush over those consequences in the drive to get the story told, but Briggs shows the devastating impact of the Doctor, for once in his life, getting it wrong. Both the location (a British seaside village off season) and the nature of the threat (a long-forgotten Voord ship under the beach) serve to bracket the story off and isolate it, but there’s plenty of rollicking character-development and a good amount for both the Doctor’s companions, Liv and Helen, to do without ever falling back on the traditional ‘What is it, Doctor?’ malarkey of Classic on-screen Who. In fact, both companion actors, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan, do good work here developing the complementary differences in their characters, to make a kind of audio Tegan and Nyssa or Ben and Polly, supportive, friendly, but never the same, allowing each other to have their own reactions and specialisms.
Also, did we mention the Voord? There’s something of a first on that front too, as Kirsty Besterman voices Ishtek, a female Voord commander with a plan. Since their reinvention in Andrew Smith’s Domain of the Voord, Big Finish has allowed there to be a whole new respect for Voordkind, and here there’s almost an inversion of normal Voord protocol – they’re still ruthless and brutal and nasty and grim, but they’re also a species that’s been the victim of tragedy, and are acting out of that need. It’s a need that dangles a thread leading to the second story.
The second story, Scenes From Her Life, by John Dorney, will undoubtedly be a lot of people’s favourite, because it’s glorious and grand and unabashedly weird and has more than a dollop of horror in it. On a degenerating Tardis stuck in the time vortex, a grotesque and quite probably mad lord and lady hold court in their ‘castle,’ a dungeon of victims waiting to be experimented on, and one very special woman held in a mechanical torture chamber with the power to focus her unique abilities as a weapon. Come on, tell us you don’t want to listen to that!
The tone is occasionally temporally dislocated, as you might expect from the title, explanatory scenes from the history of the woman in the device intercut with the action on board this grandiose palace of madness, allowing for a devilish game of unreliable narrators. You’ll probably work out what’s going on before the penny-dropping moment, but like all the best mysteries, you won’t care that you have, you’ll want to hear how it plays out.
If Dorney’s script is weird to a purpose, episode 3, The Gift, is weird because it’s written by Marc Platt. That said, this might be one of the most cogent, understandable scripts Platt’s turned in in decades, inasmuch as its threat is clear, present, and ramps up and up throughout the course of the story, set in 1906 San Francisco, working in the earthquake of that year. It sets the tone for the second half of the box set – mental powers and earthquakes feature heavily in episode 4 too – but it’s rooted in interesting characters, so we care what happens to more than the Tardis crew as the story bubbles up and over. To be absolutely honest, The Gift is the first time we look up and pause for breath in Doom Coalition 2, because the first episode, Beachhead, is pretty character-rich and has Voord in it, and the second is a glorious mad darkly psychedelic trip into memory and power. The Gift gives us our first chance of understanding what the hell might actually be going on, and maybe how to stop it, while also riffing on Big Finish elements like the Eminence (they’re not in the story, but there’s a sense of threat that’s familiar from their stories). You might just possibly check your watch once towards the end of The Gift, but three episodes in to a four-story box set, that’s not bad going.
The final story, The Sonomancer by Matt Fitton, builds on everything we’ve learned along the way, allowing Emma Cunniffe to really let rip in the Big Bad role. It has resonances with plenty of on-screen Who stories, and an atmosphere that tips its hat to the likes of Plant of Fire. It also reintroduces River Song into mainstream Who. I was a River fan for most of her appearances on-screen, but have yet to be wowed by her on audio, and the schtick where she’s not allowed to ‘meet’ the Doctor before his Tenth incarnation grows more tedious on this second iteration – it begs the question of why they’re in a story together. Fitton’s finale is solid though, explaining much of what we need explained, crafting a planet with its own realistic society and delivering – almost with a To-Do List efficiency, the right punch-points, while bringing back The Eleven. The ending is suitably ‘Riverised’ – gadgetry, timey-wimeyness and a quip - but what’s clear is that we’ve heard the last of neither of the lead villains. After a slightly shaky start, the Doom Coalition is beginning to coalesce into something that has believable punch without resorting to throwing traditional on-screen villains and monsters at the listener by the armful. Doom Coalition 2 is four episodes that build, explore and use their central premises to keep the listener hooked, without yet blowing up the universe to do 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
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