Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE FLYING DUTCHMAN / DISPLACED Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE FLYING DUTCHMAN / DISPLACED Review

Tony goes wibbly wobbly, somethingy womethingy.


The joy about Doctor Who, certainly in the 21st century era, is that it allows us to finish story arcs with particular characters – annnnd then to cheerily ignore that we’ve finished them by popping back and fitting in brand new stories with those characters. That’s more or less the principle by which on-screen River Song lived her life, and in also pretty much the raison d’ĂȘtre of Big Finish.

So give a cheer as loud as you like for the return of the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex, a team who had something joyous and special in their relationships, and whose story arc technically ended some years ago.

In The Flying Dutchman/Displaced, they’re back and it’s relatively early days for them, with the relationship between Ace and Hex still more flirty than sibling. They’re still working each other out, and that adds an uncertainty, a tension in the air which would later melt into trust and a safer kind of ribbing.

The Flying Dutchman is of course a real Earth legend – a ship of doom, a harbinger of grimness and all in all, more bad news at sea than a crate of dead albatrosses.

Gemma Arrowsmith takes our Tardis crew on board the Isabella, an 18th century sailing ship which has troubles. An unpopular captain, an upstart rabble-rouser and would-be mutineer, a disconsolate mob…oh, and the occasional visitations of a glowing ghost ship and her crew.

Standard Doctor Who fare, right?

One of the biggest things to recommend Gemma Arrowsmith’s script here is precisely how far she goes to nail the notion that this is perfectly standard Doctor Who fare – perfectly standard for a Thursday in the life of the Tardis crew, in fact – and then goes absolutely out of her way to tick off the things it could be, and usually would have been, had the story been made for McCoy era Who. She deals with each of these possibilities in reasonably short order, which is as good a way as any to keep a listener guessing as to what the heck is actually going on.

There’s a bit of Sherlock Holmes at work here – when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, and all that. By determining to acknowledge all the things a ghost ship in Doctor Who could be, and crossing them off the list one by methodical one, there’s something refreshingly brisk about the storyline and its plotting, and something inevitable about the Doctor and his friends reaching the inevitable truth by the end of the story.

Another joyful element is the fact that their gaining an increasing amount of knowledge as the story goes on does absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of danger they face. While they may well get to solve the riddle of the ghost ship of ill portent, very little stands in the way of a bunch of fray-nerved superstitious seamen who are all too ready to let their fists do their thinking for them. It’s rather fun to hear this particular crew in that situation – the Seventh Doctor was adept at getting to the heart of a dangerous thug by using very economical speeches. Ace of course is still at the stage where a baseball bat is her preferred method of conflict resolution. And Hex, bless him, still relatively new to time and space but with a history of giving medical help in extreme circumstances, plays the matey working class brother to the Isabella crew – at least as far as it gets him anywhere.

So…not very far at all, then.

There are character journeys here that might seem like you understand them the moment they begin – there’s a cabin boy who never sounds like a boy at all, for instance, who latches on to the fighting spirit of Ace. But there’s enough in the journeys to take you by surprise and make you smile, however much you think you’ve solved them the moment they begin. On some levels, it’s in these character journeys that you begin to realise that this is Doctor Who at its most traditional and pure-hearted – for all the scary ghosts and doom ships, we’re in a PG-13 universe when it comes to the likely response of a bunch of nervous sailors a long way from home when faced with someone who looks like Ace.

And ultimately, that’s a keynote that’s carried through to the conclusion – this isn’t really Doctor Who does Pirates Of The Caribbean. It’s Doctor Who does Scooby Doo. A supernatural mystery, lots of skulking round shadowy corners, grumbling characters and a power struggle for control or ownership of the 18th century version of an abandoned amusement arcade with a hidden goldmine underneath. In this case, control of the Isabella.

Once you get the idea that The Flying Dutchman is more or less an episode of Doctor Doo – oh, for a special appearance by a tin dog! – you can really go with the premise, throw yourself into the scares on their face value and have a rollicking time at sea with a famous ghost ship. Arrowsmith’s gift with characterization and character drama is strong – even as the Tardis team are emerging from the time machine, there are lines that will make you laugh out loud. And if the cabin boy sub-plot is a touch on the nose, Carly Day, who plays young Archie, is at least an enthusiastic young voice with whom to spend some time, especially when Archie’s hero worship of Ace becomes something more balanced and real.

All in all, The Flying Dutchman is intriguing, absorbing and a dose of creepy fun, without ever plunging the Doctor and his team into war with Elder Gods or demented monsters from the dawn of time. It has the feel of a traditional historical story – The Smugglers comes to mind – with touches of The Curse Of The Black Spot around its fringes. It’s probably not a story you’ll burn to re-listen to as soon as you finish it, but as a story with its own weight and pathway, it keeps you listening – and, just as importantly, guessing, right till the end.

Displaced, by Katherine Armitage, is a whole other kettle of haunting.

It’s set in our present or immediate future, in a house. A single house. Locked, empty, eerie, and silent but for the voice of an upgraded version of Siri.

A personal assistant for the house.

Which is singing. And giving odd, cryptic references. And more or less dominating the attention of our Tardis team.

If you’re judging based purely on the creep factor of the hauntings in the two stories on this release, Displaced is far the more shudderworthy of the two. That’s not least because where Gemma Arrowsmith goes out of her way to steer you away from all the obvious things the Flying Dutchman could be, Katherine Armitage tacks right towards 1980s-style creepy dramas, and nails your nerves to her trophy wall.

A word about the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Terrifying.

Another word about the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Absolutely.

The era that saw the likes of Survivors, Threads, and the definitive Day Of The Triffids, along with the likes of Sapphire And Steel, really thrums through the drama here – in fact, the central dilemma in this story is particularly Sapphire And Steel-appropriate – locked houses, creepy voices, escalating drama and dark and horrifying consequences? Oh yes, please, we’ll have that any day you like.

Katherine Armitage is happy to ladle it out to us too – and while there are elements that take a while to click into place, that’s no more or less than you expect of the narrative development in a creepy story. Her dealing with the uncertainty of emotion between Ace and Hex feels quite grown-up, despite they themselves finding refuge in almost-childishness. It’s a borderline that’s believable for the characters as they were back then, and Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier respectively give them that young energy, still bantering on a higher, thrill-edged note than they would eventually settle into. That makes for engaging character-play, dancing along the top of some increasingly dark and all-consuming plotting.

Of the two stories on this release, it’s Armitage’s locked-house mystery that will stay with you longer, if only because the scares in Displaced are played for real and serious, while Arrowsmith tries hard to debunk the inherent mystery of her scenario. Scooby Doo and Sapphire And Steel have very different takes on hauntings, and you get them both on this release. As a return to the days of Young Ace-and-Hex, what you get here is a triumph of moods, playfulness, character development and two very different adventures with an underlying connective theme.

Worth getting? Definitely – and for all it’s Armitage’s script that will stay with you longer, it’s worth getting for both, as they each show a strand of Seventh Doctor storytelling that will thrum and twang the chords of your memory, and give you ample rewards for your attention.

The Flying Dutchman / Displaced is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until October 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.

Tony 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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