Big Finish: THE YEAR OF MARTHA JONES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony goes back to the year of Hell.

If there’s one thing that marks the time of Martha Jones in on-screen Doctor Who, it’s the sense of a production that didn’t entirely know what to do with her. After an engaging romance plotline with Rose Tyler, the Doctor was alive enough to her qualities to bring her on board and whisk her off into time and space, but not in any kind of emotional position to reciprocate the somewhat overwhelming feelings she had for him. So on-screen, her potential was somewhat squandered in an ‘unrequited love’ narrative.

Eventually of course, that was evolved when the Master conquered the Earth, and Martha Jones became ‘The Woman Who Walked The Earth.’ When the Doctor was Gollumed, her family imprisoned, and when seemingly no-one could stand against the villainous Time Lord and his Toclafane, Martha walked the Earth, telling stories of the Doctor, and was, through the power of a network of satellites, eventually able to turn all the belief she inspired into a power that reversed the year of Hell for most of the world.

It was an experience that was eventually framed – by Martha herself – as her proof to herself that she was as good as Rose Tyler, or any of the Doctor’s other companions, that she could do the Necessary Thing to save the world.

That was back in 2007, and it took place across the space of one episode, Last of the Time Lords.

In 2008, capitalising on the closeness in time to the broadcast of that episode, Dan Abnett published a novel that not only told the story of Martha’s journey, but also included some of the stories she told while ON that journey, in The Story of Martha.

It’s 2022 now, 15 years later, and Big Finish has released The Year of Martha Jones, turning Martha’s experiences during that year of travelling into a set of audio adventures.

There’s nothing fundamentally unique in that – after all, Big Finish revived Survivors from 1975, brought two secondary characters from a single story in the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who and gave us 14 box sets of fabulous Jago & Litefoot adventures. And the company has continued working the same magic into the New Who era, with The Lone Centurion sets fitting entirely into the space of a blinked eye in the Eleventh Doctor era.

So the question is… why does The Year of Martha Jones feel like it doesn’t quite work?

It can’t be down to the writers, because there are three hugely reliable hands at the pumps here – James Goss, Tim Foley, and Matt Fitton. No-one’s about to say any of those writers don’t know how to bring an audience into a universe of particular peril, tell a belting story, and leave listeners entirely satisfied.

It’s not about the actors, either, believe us. Freema Agyeman was brilliant back in 2007, and her much wider experience since then only informs her step back into Martha’s shoes here. The same is true of Adjoa Andoh, who plays Martha’s mother, Francine. And when you can bring actors like Marina Sirtis, Lorelei King, and Julie Graham to your party to anchor the plot and character development, you’re punching at a high level.

So what gives?

Honestly, it might be down to the relentless tone of oppression and terror.

Yeah, we know, 11 box sets of Survivors. But, for instance, in The Last Diner, by James Goss, what we get is a collection of disparate characters, most of whom are clinging on to an existence and a kind of community in the diner of the title, frequently enlivened and given hope by Martha Jones and her stories. Luxuries are few and tiny in scale, the Toclafane, (the Master’s whizzing Terrahawks of childishness and death) are always a threat, but there’s a little beacon of light and hope. Adding Marina Sirtis to the cast as Karen here is a jewel of an idea, and she delivers significantly in terms of that combination of world-weariness and determination to carry on that characterises most people in the suddenly surprised, utterly devastated world under the control of the Master.

And into this environment comes, of all people, Francine Jones.

Now, anyone who comes to this set having already WATCHED The Last of the Time Lords will immediately smell a rat about that – and anyone who HASN’T already watched it will be more than a little baffled by the whole premised of the set, so we assume most people have.

And from the moment she arrives, you remember the true energy that characterised Martha’s relationship with her mother for most of their time on-screen. Martha, so capable, such a logistics expert at maintaining a kind of harmony within her complicated family, as well as working her butt off to become a doctor so that she can help make people better – constantly belittled, prodded, nipped at by her mother’s determination that she not grow too big for her boots. The addition of the Doctor to Martha’s life was just, for the most part, another stick with which Francine could psychologically beat her, so the mission of Martha during the year of Hell is going to get riiiight up Francine’s nose. And it does here, to the extent that she undoes some of the positivity of the stories, giving an admittedly fair but entirely unhelpful counter-argument to the tales of the Doctor’s heroism to people waiting for death in a world where the light dares to flicker before going out.

It's an influence that sows distrust, dissent, and ultimately leads to an ending that – while totally in keeping with the atmosphere of a world ruled by the Master, consumes all the bickering and dissention in a much bigger and more dramatic action sequence that leaves Martha, and her friend Holly, devastated.

James Goss draws us in to his little beacon of hope and light against the all-pervading darkness, makes us care for the characters gathered in the Last Diner, and then puts us through the emotional wringer as the outside world crashes into the nest of hope. Between Francine’s parental nit-picking and bubble-bursting, and the eventual calamity that leads the inhabitants of the Last Diner into disaster and the reality of the Master’s Earth, it feels like the positivity and hope only exist to be belittled, attacked, suborned, and in at least some cases, destroyed, leaving listeners deflated.

In Silver Medal, by Tim Foley, Martha makes contact with a highly successful resistance group in a forest, with a shield that protects them from the sensors of the Toclafane.

Run by Jessie, played by the ever-excellent Lorelei King, this group takes an aggressively capitalist approach to the fight for survival – every daily task is turned into an adversarial contest. Those who win, eat. Those who lose are highly motivated to win next time. This is taken as the norm by the group, but strikes Martha as comparatively barbaric when everyone is confronted with the same reality of life, death and external threat. Her story in this episode is local to the area, but back in history, when she and the Doctor visited the nearby silver mining town. We won’t spoil the story for you, but it has a direct bearing on the events of the ‘present day,’ especially as Jessie is convinced she’s made contact with a race of benevolent aliens who are going to help humanity to defeat the Master.

Martha thinks she knows different, and ultimately splits the group, reducing its effectiveness. And, hopefully without over-spoiling you, the effect of the Master’s Earth catches up with them. The energy is consistent and similar – the arrival of Martha and her stories of the Doctor, along with Francine’s nit-picking, seem if anything to cause disquiet and division, rather than banding humanity together in a single concerted effort, and ultimately, the group face an incursion by the Toclafane, as if nailing any hope and resistance to the floor and slicing its head off. There is, as you get to understand by the end of the set, a solidly logical reason for that, but for a mission that’s supposed to give humanity something in which it can believe when everything is bleak, the bleakness feels like it bleeds through a great deal, and wins at the end of each episode.

That’s the difference between this set and the likes of Survivors. Yes, everything’s probably horrible in the wider world in both scenarios, and yes, the effect of the Big Bad – whether it’s a renegade Time Lord or a pandemic plague, is to heighten the divides between people who are essentially good and essentially corruptible, in Survivors, there felt like there was time for humour, for a giggle against the dark from time to time. That’s a thing which only really appears in The Last Diner here – and is both picked apart and eventually ruined forever.

The darkness is of course both necessary and implied by the nature of the set and its premise. But more room to breathe between the gritty realism of a world on the brink of exhaustion would really help lift The Year of Martha Jones and stop you feeling the urge to fling yourself in front of the nearest Toclafane.

Deceived, by Matt Fitton, is both the apotheosis of the darker outside world breaking through into Martha’s journey, and surprisingly, the most energetic and enjoyable of the three stories here.

With Julie Graham joining the cast, things are amping up a notch. We learn how Francine escaped the Valiant to be here with her daughter, we learn that someone else isn’t what they’ve been pretending to be, and everything clicks into a kind of demented, Master-inspired sense.

Imagine world conquest as a version of The Apprentice, with the Master as Donald Trump or Alan Sugar (and you have no idea quite how much joy it gives us to write those words). That’s essentially the situation here – there are two competing low-life scumbags prepared to fight and kill to be the toadiest toady of all toady time. Told you it was like The Apprentice.

And one of the toadies is Julie Graham’s Miss Beecham, which is just entirely glorious. Gethin Anthony’s Mr Strand is the other arch-toady, and they’ve both been dogging Martha’s steps for much longer than she realises – making sense of the depressive tone of the rest of the set.

Here, we get some full-on Toclafane action, too, and we’re reminded again that part of the thing that makes the little balls of death truly obnoxious is their childlike, sing-song voices and their horrifying single-mindedness. Being killed by a Dalek – fair enough, it hates you, it screams, it kills you. Being killed by a Toclafane is like being killed by something out of Tots TV, and you go to your death under no illusions that there’s anything noble about your end.

As a way of explaining what’s gone before – and of delivering some consequences for Martha – Deceived is highly effective, distinctly action-packed, and very likely to raise the hair on the back of your neck in a couple of places. Which means that the set rallies at the end, as it’s free to explain the oppressive tone that dogs both of the first two stories.

Ultimately then, it’s not just the relentlessly oppressive atmosphere that makes at least two thirds of The Year of Martha Jones a struggle. It’s that that atmosphere is held in place so that the third story can deliver the huge reveals it does.

Could future sets in the Year of Martha Jones work? Beyond a shadow of doubt, yes – if Martha’s allowed to have the effect we saw her having on-screen, of actually enlightening the world about the Doctor and bringing them together. Yes, it would be challenging to squeeze the drama out of too many episodes of such positivity, but we’re not asking for a full-on Kumbayah-fest.

But as with the likes of Survivors, some more light and shade – impossible here until episode 3 – would help turn Martha’s journey into a more agreeable experience overall in any future sets.

The Year of Martha Jones is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 28 February 2022, 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

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