Big Finish: Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Shades of Fear, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Shades of Fear, Review

Matthew Kresal ends a season of fear.
After seven box sets and nearly two years, it's safe to say that Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor has well and truly found a home at Big Finish. Indeed, the second run of his adventures, which began with Back to Earth last May, has seen the Ninth Doctor Adventures range move from strength to strength. Now, though, this second season finds its finale with Shades of Fear.

As with previous sets, Shades of Fear is linked both by Doctor and its titular theme. Lizzie Hopley kicks it off with style with The Colour of Terror. Focusing on a small cast of characters and a charity shop, Hopley creates a story well within the Modern Who (and the first RTD era in particular) playbook. It's a Russell T Davies-style science fiction story that uses its tropes to talk about people in a small community, with ordinary people facing the incredible. And, despite being on audio, it's a story built around a visual idea, but perhaps better realized in a medium where the suggestions of performances and sound design create better images in a listener's mind than a visual effects house. Colour of Terror also gets a boost from the fact that anything which gives Eccleston and Frank Skinner a chance to bounce off of each other is well worth a listen.

James Kettle changes gears for the middle installment, The Blooming Menace. Though fandom has largely chosen to remember this Doctor and his era for their more serious moments, Eccelston showed a gift for comedic timing and one-liners. Kettle plays to that strength here with a story set in 1920s London and around a group of plants that are lovely in more ways than one. As such, Kettle offers a cross between the ideas of John Wyndham with the comedy of manners of P.G. Woodhouse, brought together with 21st-century hindsight for the era. It's a combination that has no business working, but Kettle does so, offering some laugh-out-loud moments for this Doctor and the listener alike along the way.

Last but not least comes Red Darkness. Roy Gill, who penned the concluding two-parter of the first Ninth Doctor Adventures run, which saw a Cybermen invasion of Scotland, returns to that slot here with another returning enemy. In this case, those "piranhas of the air:" the Vashta Nerada. How to take a silent, invisible enemy and bring them to life in sound was a challenge Big Finish faced with their second Classic Doctors, New Monsters set and which Gill ably rises to here. He does so by creating a base under siege story, one that once more plays to this Doctor's strengths and surrounds him with a strong supporting cast. To call this a horror episode feels unfair to it and Gill, but it's definitely unsettling, particularly if you make the mistake of listening to this when it's dark outside.

If there's a complaint to be had about this set, comparing it to Old Friends (released in this slot a year ago), it's about the finale. Not that Gill's script isn't a fine one or that it doesn't play things as well as it could. No, it's a matter of scale. Gill's two-parter in that set felt like a grand season finale to bring the first run of Ninth Doctor Adventures to a conclusion with a bit of a throughline involved. Red Darkness, as strong as it is, and coming as the final episode in this second run for the range, feels far less so. Try to imagine Eccleston's TV run ending with Boom Town coming after Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways for an idea of what I mean. All of this admittedly might speak to my expectations as a listener more than anything else, but it's a feeling I can't shake off, nonetheless.

Even so, Shades of Fear has plenty to recommend it for, not the least of which is its leading man. Eccelston is clearly having the time of his life in the role. Even after the time that's past since he played the role on TV and seven audio box sets, he's still finding new things to do with the part. Whether it's a lightness of touch in Kettle's Blooming Menace or the voice of hope in Gill's Red Darkness, there's no doubt this is a Doctor (and performer) in their element.

Surrounding Eccelston is everything that makes Big Finish's work as strong as it is. Director Helen Goldwyn brings out not only the best in her Doctor but from her various supporting casts ranging from Frank Skinner and Susan Penhaligon in the opening episode to Milanka Brooks and Adam Martyn in later ones. Beyond the performers, composer Howard Carter presents a sweeping, cinematic score influenced by Murray Gold's 2005 stylings that highlight emotional moments and set-pieces alike with Iain Meadows soundscapes bringing to life the varying settings, menacingly so at times. As was the case with previous sets, they offer able backing for not only the Ninth Doctor's return but present for listeners new and old a chance to hear what Big Finish can do.

From charity shops to a 1920s gentleman club and a far-flung colony under siege, Shades of Fear is a solid conclusion to the current run of Ninth Doctor Adventures. What it may lack in a "grand finale," it makes up for with three episodes that showcase the range of both the series and Eccelston's Doctor. Indeed, it's like a Saturday night in 2005 all over again, and the purest form of time travel.

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Shades of Fear is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 28 February 2023, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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