‘Look at this, they’re giving away dongles. Sparkly dongles. I do like a nice dongle. You can never have too many dongles.’Raise your sonic screwdrivers if you hated the Tenth Doctor and Donna on TV?
‘Doctor – stop saying dongle.’
Mmm-hmm. If you hated them on TV, I have no way of explaining why you clicked this link in the first place, but you’re going to want to toddle off and do something else for a bit. Go on – off you pop.
If you’re still reading this, let’s go spaceman-wild and Earthgirl-crazy, because they’re back, and they’ve barely changed a bit.
This first trio of stories for the skinny gabbler and the supertemp follows a standard TV Who prototype – one story set on contemporary Earth, where Weird Stuff Happens as part of an alien takeover, one in a hyper-techy spaceport with octopoidal crime bosses and a fantastically Time Warlike MacGuffin, and one pseudo-historical, just to whet your appetite for the scale of New Who on audio-
-Sorry, did we not make enough of a to-do about that? Ok, to-do incoming. Yes, we’ve had River Song stories, yes we’ve had remarkably impressive Winston Churchill stories, yes, we’ve had Kate Stewart and Osgood fighting Nestenes, Strax alongside Jago and Litefoot, and yes, we’ve even had War Doctor stories, but this is the first time a full-series incarnation New Who Doctor has had a series of Big Finish audio stories.
If you’re going to kickstart a new era of 21st century Doctor audio stories with Big Finish, you can’t really get a better pairing than David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble, the two chattiest Tardis-travellers this side of the millennium. But given the quality of these actors and the impact they made in the TV version of Who, clearly, the potential for their translation into the audio medium to go horribly, horribly wrong was huge.
It hasn’t gone wrong. If you like the Tenth Doctor and Donna as they were on screen, it’s gone wonderfully, wonderfully right. (Pauses for a quick, geeky, thoroughly embarrassing dance around the room).
Matt Fitton’s Technophobia kicks us off on this new phase of Doctor Who adventuring with a concept that seems quite comic until you really look at it, when it will chill you to the bone. In our smartphone-enabled, tablet-tastic, media-streaming world, technology is our constant companion, our aid to living the kind of life to which we’ve become accustomed. Imagine, just for a moment, technology wasn’t friendly after all. Imagine it was dangerous, and meant you harm. Everything from lifts to light switches, escalators to electric kettles, tablets to toasters. Imagine it was all looking at you. Hating you. Wanting to kill you.
Where, in our world, could you escape to? How would you ever feel safe in a world of ATMs and CCTV, of traffic lights and tannoys. The truth is you’d probably go stark staring mad.
Enter the Doctor and Donna, just in time for the launch of a new tablet. Without warning, people are developing technophobia, becoming afraid of their gizmos, no longer sure the machines are benign. Fitton’s script is crackling with wit and the back-and-forth pizazz that’s the hallmark of the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Donna, but it never loses sight of the reality of Donna’s character – the addition of Niky Wardley to the cast as Bex, the temp receptionist at the Museum of Technology, bridges worlds, as she’s a long-time comedy oppo of Tate’s and a former Big Finish companion in her own right (having played the Eighth Doctor’s friend Tamsin Drew), and here there’s an easy relationship between Donna and Bex as they compare notes – ‘Temps United’ are on the case, saving the world from electro-terror. To be fair, the first story’s positively crammed with Who alumni, including Rachel Stirling (Ada, The Crimson Horror) as techie supremo and CEO Jill Meadows, inventor of the MPad, and Chook Sibtain (Tarak Ital, The Waters of Mars) as Brian…a bit of a numpty. With both an intellectual puzzle for the Doctor and Temps United to solve, and a physical quest of compassion and adventure for the temps and hunky Irish tube driver Kevin to deal with, Technophobia delivers solidly linear plotting that leads to a quease-making inversion of your assumptions that’ll make you look at the situation with whole new, altogether more scared eyes. That said, the solution to the invasion by aliens is classically Doctor Who, and even particularly Pertweean – a nice bit of polarity reversal never goes amiss in most fan’s lives – meaning for the most part it’s great energetic funny scary Who, with a bit of an extra kick and a twist in terms of what’s really going on.
Outside the story, what’s really going on is a pacy re-establishment of the universe mad enough to have the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble in it, and Fitton’s opening act is a joy through which you power before you really even know you’ve done it.
‘I think the universe needs its crossing places where the rules don’t apply. Otherwise, where are us space buccaneers gonna go?’
‘You’re not a space buccaneer!’
‘I think I have the air of a space buccaneer.’
‘You have the air of a primary school teacher-’
‘-Of a space buccaneer!’
‘-On non-uniform day!’
Jenny T Colgan’s developing a reputation among Who-fans for coming at things from a fresh and inventive angle, and her take on the ‘spaceport’ story, Time Reaver, doesn’t disappoint those who expect the unexpected from a Colgan script (personally, we’re still waiting for the crossover mashup between her rom-com novels and her Who work – c’mon, you know The Little Shop of Death or The Puffins of Mass Destruction would just be awesome!). Pitching the Tenth Doctor (the ultimate petrolheaded geek) into events on Calibris, the spaceport planet with a buccaneering attitude to paperwork and some new customs officers who have, to be fair, a pretty decent policy on coffee shops and scones, allows Colgan to weave a story that makes at least a degree of plotting sense while focussing more on character dynamics and again, bringing a surprising dimension to a story about guns and rogues, but also about sadness and hope, naivety and doom and a togetherness that makes life worth living. You’re listening to another top quality cast in this one: Alex Lowe giving Soren the intergalactic grease-monkey and friend of the Doctor’s more than a touch of Classic Who loveable rogue, (a little Drax, a little Glitz); John Banks well and truly getting his Sil on in the role of Octopoidal slimeball Gully; Terry Molloy playing against typecasting as Rone, a dignified man with many headaches, and Sabrina Bartlett playing the achingly optimistic and out-of-her-depth Cora. It’s Cora who allows Colgan to show us the fundamental Donna, caring for the scared child in a world far meaner than she ever imagined. Overall, Time Reaver builds like the original Dalek story from a busted fluid link to guns and threats and hair-breadth ’scapes and all the fun of the Doctor Who fair, while also pulsing with a beat of sad and wonderful optimism underneath it all. Top marks, Jenny T – now about those Puffins of Destruction…
‘Death’s not getting into my pants!’
Death and the Queen, by James Goss, is probably the oddest of the three stories here, feeling in some ways like it should be an Eighth Doctor story – when Death himself is on the cast list, you know you’re in strange territory. But it’s also the most fundamentally Tenth Doctor and Donna story, pulsing with out and out comedy in an 18th century kingdom no-one’s ever heard of, and yet undercut by hard punches of darkness. Castwise, it’s third time lucky as Alice Krige plays a bitch-queens from hell, while another former Big Finish companion, Beth Chalmers (who played Raine Creavy opposite Sylvester McCoy) does solid sidekicking next to the Tenth Doctor as he tries to stop another of Donna Noble’s weddings before…well, we mentioned Death was on the cast list, right? Catherine Tate playing flirty and in-love Donna again is sublime, but what’s even better is Donna on the warpath on behalf of people she comes to care about, and her apparently stolid acceptance of her fate. There’s a quiet beauty to the way this episode unravels, and then some punch-in-the-face funny Donna lines as she puts the world of the 18th century to rights.
As a first step into the world of Big Finish for the Tenth Doctor and Donna, this box set had enormously high standards to meet in order not to be a disappointment or a failure.
This box set’s a stunning, joyful rollicking success. It’s that good, and that much fun. Buckle into your safety straps – the Tenth Doctor and Donna are back, good and proper. Allonsy!
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