Big Finish: Doctor Who THE SIXTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: WATER WORLDS Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony searches for his water wings.
Water Worlds is a set of stories that drove the internet into wild howls of anticipation almost from the moment it was announced. Quite apart from the fact that it has one of the most earworming advertisements in Big Finish history, it brings a new companion to the Sixth Doctor’s impressive roster of friends, in Hebe Harrison, marine biologist.

What’s even more than that, Hebe is played by the source of acting joy and highly distinctive voice that is Ruth Madeley. That was an announcement that brought a thrill to the launch of Water Worlds, because when you get an actor of her calibre and profile to come and play in the audio Tardis (see also, Nicola Walker), you know you’re in for a treat. Also, because it would be idiotic to ignore it, Hebe’s a wheelchair user, which makes Water Worlds the first time the Tardis has reconfigured itself to meet the needs of wheelchair users – though there are rumours that Ncuti Gatwa’s Tardis may do the same on-screen in an upcoming series.

So – with all our senses primed for fun and wet peril, what does Water Worlds have to offer?

Well, this will come as no surprise, but it’s a collection of three stories set on worlds where water is key.

Whoever saw that coming?

The Rotting Deep (and can we just take a moment to applaud the rich, fruity taste of that title in our mouths, please?), by Jacqueline Rayner, takes the Doctor and Mel to an oil rig in the North Sea. More than that though, they’re actually summoned to an oil rig in the North Sea. Someone on board has a distress button that can reach out through the vortex and tap the Tardis on the shoulder.

When they arrive, they find a situation that has a distinct Third Doctor feel to it. An isolated location, a small group of bickering, paranoid staff, and something apparently inexplicable going on with the local gull population. Think Hitchcock on an oil rig. Something – or someone – is killing off the crew, and opinion among the dwindling number of humans on board is divided as to whether the rig should be allowed to continue its work at all.

Hebe has been called in to assess the rig from a marine biology standpoint, and she makes an almost immediate impact by not being obsessively “oil rigs are bad,” as you might expect a marine biologist to be if you don’t have too much acquaintance with the work. In point of fact, she’s for keeping it in place, because a thriving marine ecosystem seems to be at work around and underneath it.

That, however, doesn’t alter the fact that staying on the rig much longer looks like being a particularly fatal thing to do.

Mel and the Doctor have to try to find out what’s killing people and why, and more importantly, they have to either stop it, or save the remaining people before it gets them. We’re obviously not about to tell you what’s killing people and why – where would be the fun in that? The point is that this first story, like many a great introductory story, is more about the journey of the new companion with the Tardis crew than it is really about the ostensible threat to life. Hebe grows suspicious that the Doctor and Mel are not from around here, and there are quite a few pointed moments throughout the story when it comes to truth, lies, and boundaries.

In particular, there’s meaningful fun here with Mel’s Eighties-style version of respecting the rights of wheelchair users (which sometimes comes across as fighting extra hard ‘on their behalf’ in non-disabled saviour mode, for all it’s actually just Mel’s idea of being a good person) and Hebe’s 21st century view of that well-meaning kid-gloves kind of allyship. In fact, while there are spiky moments with the Sixth Doctor’s assumption of norms, by far the greatest character fun in the episode is had with Mel and Hebe, working out the boundaries with which Hebe herself is comfortable.

The foreground in which all this takes place gets unashamedly bleak and desperate as the rig grows increasingly like a madhouse, and the eventual solution is pleasing in that it allows the Sixth Doctor to get his Third on and Do All The Sciencey Stuff.

There’s an extra punch at the end of the episode too, as we discover the source of the distress call. If you’ve been a long-term listener to the Sixth Doctor stories, that will hit you hard at first, and then melt you into wet-eyed wonder and make you want to run back and have a re-listen to some of the older Sixth Doctor adventures. And pleasingly in a story that has quite a bit to say on boundaries and permissions, the Sixth Doctor doesn’t just assume that Hebe will want to come away with him. Hebe asks to do so, letting her excitement at the potential of a watery universe show boldly through. And it's also pleasing to hear democracy in action – both the Doctor and Mel have to agree that there’s room for one more person on board. And, with the problems on board the rig finally sorted, though not without a grimly high body count, the three set off in search of other watery worlds to visit.

As an opening act, The Rotting Deep has lots to recommend it. Yes, it’s bleak, and grim, and some of the deaths are as gruesome as anything the TV series did in the Peri years. But the journey that brings the Doctor, Mel, and Hebe together is pleasingly bumpy with character clashes, and the relationship between Hebe and Mel particularly is rich, sisterly (with everything that entails) and really good fun.

The Tides of the Moon, by Joshua Pruett, is both glorious and odd in equal measure. First, it takes place on an ancient, inhabited moon. Our ancient, inhabited moon, long before even the Silurians were lording it over our planet. It’s a moon in the grip of a handful of problems.

Firstly, the humanoid fish-people of the moon, the Gilleans, live in nightly terror of an aggressive enemy, the Sheega, that stalks their streets once the sun goes down.

Secondly, gravitational pressure from our unstable Earth is about to make the surface of the moon uninhabitable for either the Gilleans or the Sheega in a handy, ticking-clock number of hours when the Doctor, Hebe, and Mel arrive.

And thirdly, perhaps most relatably, there’s a scientist who’s worked out exactly what’s happening with the gravitational forces, and exactly when the moon is doomed, but – surprise, surprise – she can’t get anyone in authority to listen to her, even with the backing of the strange off-worlder in the colourful coat. Listen out for Virge Gilchrist as Hellas, the despairing scientist who – like Hebe before her – has an unorthodox and bumpy ride towards trusting the Doctor.

Let’s just say “there’s more going on than meets the eye” as a placeholder for any spoilerific detail, but while some aspects of the script feel obvious to the listener early on, there are some surprises left in store that only go click when Joshua Pruett allows them to, so you get the satisfaction of a multi-level plot all coming together with minutes to spare.

The Tides of the Moon also turns the table on Hebe a little, as she’s introduced to gorgeous fish-men on the moon, and can’t resist the urge to reach out and touch at least some of the things about them that make them different from her. That’s something she belatedly and rightly realises she’d take someone’s arm off for if they touched her chair without permission, and her humility in the face of her expanding universe is wonderful to hear. Again, it’s more Mel than the Doctor who sympathises with her growing appreciation of the universe. She never entirely says “That’s how I was with you” – it’s never that crass – but the moment brings the pair closer as they try to work out the mystery of the in-built fear the Gilleans have of the Sheega.

Highly effective storytelling, social satire of governments ignoring inconvenient science, hot fish-men on the moon and some levelling of the playing field between the two companions – that’s an entertaining story right there, and it will leave you feeling satisfied that all is going well with the new companion in the team.

Maelstrom, by Jonathan Morris, is a story whose inclusion in the Water Worlds set you could initially be forgiven for questioning. Granted, it takes place on the water world of Veludia, but there’s much more guts to the story than “Oh look – water!”

A story of mind storage and a resource crisis in terms of bodies to host them digs deep and really gives all of the Tardis teams something to do – notably Bonnie Langford as both Mel, and someone entirely else, using Mel’s vocal cords. The relationship between Hebe and Mel, built across the first two stories of the set, comes into its own here too, especially in terms of spotting the ‘fake Mel’ in the room.

For the longest time, there’s a moral quandary that could make you side with the Veludians – what do you do on a world of water if the mind-maps of your citizens are saved in a bank, but you’re running chronically short on flesh to host them? The inevitable imprisonment of the Tardis crew so they can be used as hosts or “corps” for more important members of Veludian society makes a certain piratical sense.

But there is of course much more going on than that – this is a Jonathan Morris script, after all.

In some ways, Maelstrom has similarities to The Rotting Deep, in that there’s a story that takes place above the water, and the solution to that story is lurking beneath the waves. But where The Rotting Deep has to focus more on introducing Hebe than on the actual plot, here the dynamic is reversed – Hebe’s here, she’s one of the crew, so there’s much more space for the plot (and the moral questions of the plot) to assert themselves. And they absolutely do. Without spoiling the entire thing for you, if you’re faced with extinction due to a lack of bodies, and you live on a world that’s covered in oceans, the temptation to use the resources most abundantly available to you must be strong.

There’s something of an Island of Dr Moreau vibe about the true horror of Maelstrom, and Hebe comes into her own by being able to detect what’s going on more than anyone else – and not just through her mad marine biology skills. The solution the Doctor come up with is morally ambivalent, giving it also a touch of The Beast Below, but as a capstone to Hebe’s first set of stories, Maelstrom delivers all the action and all the moral drama you could wish for, while also encapsulating some big ideas and some impressive character dynamics.

Water Worlds was always going to be exciting, thanks to Ruth Madeley joining the Tardis crew. What you get for your money is three different watery stories, that build progressively from a kind of Fang Rock horror story that lays out the introductory journey of the new companion, through a ‘first time in space’ story of learning to respect the universe on its own terms, while dealing with a wretched amount of governmental blindness and chicanery as your world evaporates, to a full-on ethical dilemma about the right to use others as laboratory tools to try and save your own people.

Through it all, while Colin Baker delivers some stalwart Sixth Doctoring, and especially in a couple of moments will make you watery-eyed with poignancy, the building of a new Tardis relationship in the spirit of Tegan and Nyssa marks Water Worlds out as a must-have for fans of the Sixth Doctor, both old and new.

Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor Adventures: Water Worlds is available to purchase from the Big Finish website.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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