Big Finish: Doctor Who WIRRN ISLE Review

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Tony Fyler heads for the transmat.


My word, the Wirrn are depressing.

They were a great idea by Robert Holmes – space insects, who doesn’t love space insects? – and there was something both realistically horrific about their way of making new Wirrn (several species of wasp on Earth lay their eggs in other creatures, meaning the larval wasp eats the host from the inside when it’s born – sleep well), and about the implacability of nature they embodied. It wasn’t their fault that their life cycle was antithetical to other species they encountered, it was simply biology doing its thing. There’s a bleakness in the mathematics of survival when you put two species together in the same environment that are as ‘indomitable’ at the Wirrn and the humans.

Sadly of course, the Wirrn were a brilliant idea with an early-70s budget and a really quite tricky physical reality to capture. Hence they were rendered on screen as a kind of green bubble-wrap during their transformative stage, and a spindly-legged puppet-looking thing as grown adults, both of which were serious blows to the credibility of their threat.

It’s not the 70s any more, and Big Finish has no visual budget restrictions, so pitting the Sixth Doctor against the Wirrn undoubtedly sounded like a great idea. In fact, we know it did – the extra interviews on the Wirrn Isle release reveal that the Wirrn’s previous Big Finish outing with the Eighth Doctor, Wirrn Dawn, saw a spike in listener take-up. There’s just something irresistibly horrible about the idea of giant space insects, clearly.

Wirrn Isle tries to fit a lot of sub-text into its two hours, plunging us into the life of a family on the resettled Earth forty years after the The Sontaran Experiment. The Buchman family is dealing with the pain of loss and its attendant bitterness after more than a decade. Wirrn Isle covers the difficulty of forbidden love, the all-too-easiness of sanctioned contempt within a ‘pair-bond’ that wasn’t chosen, loss, fear, the need to believe in redemption, and the terrible price that need can bring with it. And then there’s the Wirrn to boot.

See? Depressing.

William Gallagher’s script has a genuine Ark In Space vibe to it – a small group of isolated settlers, the Buchman family, on the shores of what was once Loch Lomond, trying to re-establish a colony which previously failed, and discovering they’re pretty much besieged by deep frozen Wirrn, who are waking up. Shudderfest!

There’s plenty of body-horror here too, as you’d not only expect but pretty much demand from the Wirrn – just a tip: if the Buchman family offer to share their porridge with you, decline, politely. But there are extra dimensions of emotion involved in their entanglement with the Wirrn that make this story more actively heartbreaking than The Ark In Space was. Without getting into spoiler territory, the family we initially meet is not complete, and it’s in uncovering the reasons for that incompleteness that we find not only the reason for their backbiting, but also the reason why they’re freezing their bits off out by Loch Lomond in the first place.

The story’s pretty much divided into two halves, each of two episodes. There’s the creepy, secret-uncovering first half, and the action-packed second half, with the Wirrn on the move, conquering Nerva City (Old Old Old New York), and using another staple of The Ark In Space’s season, the transmat, to take over more and more of the world. That they’re able to do that is all down to the emotional agonies of the Buchman family and the things they do to try and put right an old wrong. There’s a fairly rapid volte-face from the Doctor here that allows him to see the indomitability in the Wirrn too, and to reveal a fact about the insectoid spacefarers that pretty much succeeds in making you admire them. But it’s a realisation that means there’s not going to be any simple us-and-them solution to the events of Wirrn Isle – it can’t be as simple as just killing all the Wirrn. The solution the Doctor comes up with smacks a little of the Silurian gambits he’s used from time to time, and doesn’t fill the listener with confidence that it will work in the longer term. In fact the best he’s able to offer is that the world doesn’t end…today. At least not for everyone, though again as you’d pretty much demand from a Wirrn story, the body count is pretty high. So do you feel, at the end of Wirrn Isle, like the story’s done the space-insects justice?

Well, yes and no. There are elements of their nature which are superbly played here – their rational, seductive side, playing on the emotional distress of potential hosts to get what they want, most especially. Body-horror – check. Complexity of the Wirrn life-cycle and emotional reality – big check. Really though when it gets down to invasion territory, the audio rendering of the Wirrn attack feels a bit lightweight, leaving a lot of the exposition to be delivered by human bystanders. You feel the threat of the Wirrn in Wirrn Isle, certainly. But the delivery of that threat is less successful. Still, Wirrn Isle is an exhausting two hours, because it deals with how actions and losses and recriminations can endanger people just as much as any invasion by space-going deep-frozen alien insects. You may need many a breather on the way to the end of Wirrn Isle.

Of course, talking about Wirrn Isle, we need to talk about Flip Jackson, the Doctor’s companion throughout the story. Everyone talks about the great Big finish companions, but as a company it’s had a pretty much digital success rate in delivering memorable companions – for every Charley Pollard, there’s been a C’rizz. For every Lucie Miller, there’s been a Tamsin Drew, for every Evelyn Smythe there’s been a Hannah Bartholomew, and for every Hex there’s been a Thomas Brewster. Flip Jackson is in the Batholomew-Brewster league of companions, though listening to Lisa Greenwood’s portrayal in Wirrn Isle, it’s difficult to quite understand why. She’s have-a-go, practical, realistic, highly compassionate and not a little reckless. She should absolutely work, and Greenwood gives her a modern nous that should only add to her appeal – when it looks like he’s going to bring their partnership to an end, she describes the Doctor as having ‘break-up eyes,’ how do you not love someone like that?

I’m honestly not sure, but fans, myself included, seem to have found a way not to, meaning when she ends up being – no, spoilers for another story. Let’s just say that she is eventually written out with little in the way of ceremony, but on the Wirrn Isle, Flip is highly capable. Perhaps it’s that she’s a little too grateful for the opportunity of her Tardis travel that stops her working quite so well with the Sixth Doctor as she probably would have with almost any of the others overall. The Sixth Doctor has always worked best when his companions have an argumentative edge to them, like Peri and Evelyn Smythe. When there’s not that spark – as with Melanie Bush – the companions tend to look a little insipid by comparison, despite their positive qualities.

Overall, Wirrn Isle is a story that puts you through the wringer and delivers new angles on the Wirrn. It’s a rewarding, exhausting experience that only really falls down when it tries to conjure the menace of a mass Wirrn invasion.

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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