We’re doooomed, cries Tony. And it feels wonderful.
The Doom Coalition is an odd series. But one thing you can certainly say is that, in contrast to Dark Eyes, which seemed to lose the will to exist as it went along, the Doom Coalition gets more coherent the further into its complex, tangled storyline we go. While The Eleven was a fascinating concept in Doom Coalition 1, and Caleera added some serious psychological spice to the second box set, here’s the headline – this is where The Doom Coalition ACTUALLY STARTS TO FEEL LIKE A COALITION.
If that seems flippant, it really shouldn’t. Up until the start of this box set, we had one interestingly schizophrenic Time Lord, and a girl who came into her own when she shook off the shackles of the stifling civilisation of Time Lord society, becoming something depraved and interesting in her own right. But it’s here in Doom Coalition 3 that we learn enough of what’s going on for the whole thing to connect and lock us in, to make – and we say this, obviously, with a certain degree of trepidation, because it’s Big Finish, and the Eight Doctor, and a sequence of ever-growing box sets – a kind of sense that really refuses to let us go.
That said, the first episode, Absent Friends by John Dorney, is an understated piece, a kind of undertaker’s cough of a set-up that allows – in fact, demands – development of both the Doctor’s current companions, Liv Chenka and Helen Sinclair. Arriving on Earth as wide scale mobile phone use is becoming a reality, the story plays out in a small village where a transmitter has just been erected. There’s a cellphone conglomerate in town, buying off local opposition to this strange new technological scourge on the landscape with free mobile phones. After which, everyone who has one starts to get horrible prank calls from people pretending to be dead friends or relatives, knowing things only they could know. What’s at work in the village? A mind-reading monster? A dastardly technological device which learns your secrets and turns them against you? The company itself, blackmailing locals to co-opt them into its workforce? Maybe one, maybe all – it’s not for us to spoiler you. But we can certainly tell you that when you learn what it really is, it will punch you right in the stomach with the potential and the raw, horrifying, potentially wonderful power of what’s happening.
For Liv Chenka, the dark phone shenanigans are a massively testing moment, and it can truly be said that Nicola Walker will rip your heart right out and stomp on it in this episode. It’s because the set-up is so simple, so small, that this story’s able to punch above its weight so dramatically – it sneaks up behind you, like most of the enormous things in life, and cold-cocks you out of nowhere.
If Liv breaks your heart though, it’s also true to say that Hattie Morahan’s Helen Sinclair breaks her own in the same episode. There’s a fundamental difference of approach to what’s happening here between the companions, and that’s extremely useful because, just occasionally in Doom Coalition 2 and through no fault of their own, the actresses’ voices sounded uncannily similar, leading to a sense of them merging into one. There’s no chance of that here, as Helen’s reckless streak marks her out – it reminds us somewhat of Clara Oswald’s reckless taking on of the tattoo of death in Face The Raven. Helen skips merrily off to look up her past – and comes up against its harsh reality like a frying-pan in the face, underlining for us the nature of what separates fixed points from fluid ones in the New Who universe. There’s pain all along the line here, and we feel for both women, whether they bring the pain on themselves, as Helen does, or whether, like Liv, the agony comes from what she knows she cannot say, but has to anyway. If you’ve ever been in Liv’s position – and most of us have been – it’ll burn right through you in a way that elevates, magnifies and somehow ennobles, leaving a strange, wet-eyed catharsis in its wake.
So – no problem following that, then.
The thing about Absent Friends is that it’s almost entirely contained. As a human drama it’s superb. As the first episode of Doom Coalition 3, it gains plot significance only in the last ten minutes or so, the explanation of the events of the episode leading us on into a mid-set two-parter from Matt Fitton – The Eighth Piece and The Doomsday Chronometer.
Now it’s fair to say that it’s over the course of these two episodes that Doom Coalition 3 goes totally tonto. You’re going to need to fasten your seatbelts and adjust your clerical headpieces for this double bill. First of all, it splits the Tardis team up into three separate time zones, each of them working to unravel the mystery of a disastrous and diabolical MacGuffin, the Doomsday Chronometer of the title. There are monks and nuns, there’s a cameo from Thomas Cromwell (played with an unforgettable voice by John Shrapnel), who sees the Doomsday Chronometer as a dangerously Catholic relic that could rally opposition to his king, and who’s not averse to a spot of mid-evening torture. There’s a great new, absolutely barking mad member of the Doom Coalition, who may or may not be responsible for creating the Chronometer in the first place, and who takes artistic temperament into whole new cheat mode realms of insanity. He’s played with evident, right-off-the-leash delight by Nicholas Woodeson, and you can hear why playing this character is such ungovernable fun. There’s a man in a dungeon who we may or may not have met before, burbling about being a good man – you’re going to want to keep an ear on him, though Latin scholars may work out his identity a little sooner than others. There are Solvers, metallic make-do-and-menders from a distant chunk of cosmos, who also have a vested interest in getting their hands on the Clock of Doom. There’s Padrac, an old Academy-buddy of the Doctor’s, played by Robert Bathurst. Oh, and there’s Sister River Song, Nun With A Gun, dashing about the centuries, already on the trail of the Doomsday Chronometer. There is, in case you’re failing to grasp the subtext here, Really Quite A Lot Going On.
This cracking two-parter (with perhaps just a smidgen too much exposition here and there) is a trans-temporal Da Vinci Code, with religious sects guarding their secrets, clues in plain sight, clues in really rather less plain sight, and possibly a bit of a cheat at the end. It’s tremendous roller-coaster fun, the villains particularly having a walloping good time, and – and this is extremely important – River, for the first time in the Doom Coalition series, working well. She works well by the simple application of a bit of technobabble MacGuffinry which should absolutely be deployed on any future occasions when she has to meet the pre-Tenth Doctors. That’s a thing that’s held her back from being properly enjoyable in the Doom Coalition series before this – all that tedious ‘I can’t meet him now, or the spoilers will be too huge’ business that made her almost a waste of Alex Kingston’s phenomenal presence. That’s sorted out here with a great, simple handful of lines, meaning River can get well and truly stuck in, adventuring both on her own and alongside the Eighth Doctor with not a care in the world.
The suitably apocalyptic-sounding Crucible of Souls, again by Dorney, does a thing that hasn’t worked in previous Doom Coalition box sets either – it gives the whole thing an effectively mammoth pay-off.
As the Coalition starts to come together and make sense, their goal too is at least partially revealed, along with their motivation for doing the stark raving mad things they do. The Crucible of Souls is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a magnificent, universe-ending MacGuffin with a point, and Episode 4 is an exercise in pitch black comedy, with a fairly staggering body count powering on what is otherwise a science-fiction farce. People pretend to be each other in a comical manner which would have made Shakespeare put down his quill for the day and nip off to the pub for a flagon of wine. Consequences are revealed, allegiances shift, the idea of undercutting your own future (which has been around in Who since the days of the Valeyard) is given a technobabble-appropriate and comparatively logical-sounding explanation, and in an ending you don’t see coming even IF you’re a Sapphire and Steel fan and really should, you’re left on a knife-edge to frantically check when Doom Coalition 4 is due for release.
Bottom line – even if you’ve not been that impressed with the Doom Coalition arc till now, Doom Coalition 3 is a stone cold masterpiece.
You’re gonna want to clear some space in your collection for this one.
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