From the alternate reality where I’m writing this review, where the planet isn’t fucked and neither are the stock markets and I’m married to Emily Maitlis, BBC Radio 7 has decided to do the logical thing and broadcast the finale to this season of adventures. Quite why the radio station in your world decided to knock off this story and broadcast The Chimes of Midnight for the umpteenth time only they know. True it's nearly Christmas and that’s a very nearly Christmassy story, but I’m sure kids who might be following this series for the first time are more likely to be a bit confused as to why the bolshy northern lass has been replaced by a haughty southerner in the space of a week or a week in space.
Before taking this random quest, I did check what you know of as the internet and found out something to do with a cliffhanger and adult content which wouldn’t have fitted the timeslot, though there’s nothing in the first half of this story, Sisters of the Flame which measures as much more grotesque than anything else in the series, certainly in comparison to The Skull of Sobeck which was just yucky. With its chase through the stars and giant talking millipede this play is relatively kid friendly, and no more shocking than the charred remains of Luke’s relatives in Star Wars, the gold standard of what can be sneaked through for Universal consumption.
the planet isn’t fucked and neither are the stock markets and I’m married to Emily Maitlis
Perhaps it's also because unlike the rest of the series with has been closer in style to the television series, Sisters of the Flame is quintessential Big Finish Doctor Who, with the Tardis blown of course by a tussle with the timelords, the Doctor and Lucie being separated by the end of the title music with much of that incident recounted in flashback and memory. Continuity fiends like me will note that the appearance of Gallifrey, even with the relatively new invention Straxus, puts the story firmly in the time frame of that spin-off series before the fall of the citadel suggested the oncoming war. It’s also a direct sequel to The Brain of Morbius so to an extent the BBC’s decision seems somewhat reasonable, though surely none of it breaks that charter directive about not broadcasting something where the norms have to buy spin-off material themselves to understand it.
Most of the adventure focuses on Lucie as she’s locked up on-board a strange ship having stowed-way and finds herself hopelessly wondering if her timelord buddy is lost forever, having seen him snatched away as they tumbled out of the Tardis. This does allow for a lovely moment where the Blackpool girl she makes much the same realisation as all of his companions, that though she might complain about the danger, she’s having the time of her life. It’s beautifully played by Sheridan and not for the first time offers the impression that this pairing have been having far more adventures than those which the BBC have decided to broadcast (or not). If we didn’t know that she’d be matching up with the Doctor again in time for season three, this could have been a good starting point for some radio inspired by the lost Sam-arc from the novels.
From here, the ever dependable writer Nick Briggs offers a surprisingly linear story as Lucie is ‘rescued’ by a benefactor who might not be all she seems and then rescued by Detective Rosto, the aforementioned millipede investigating the Doctor’s disappearance, sardonically essayed by one Alexander Siddig, who along with Colm Meaney is one of the few actors who still seems to be working in places other than theatre after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (when was the last time you saw Avery Brooks in anything?). The scenes between Siddig and Sheriden are very clever as Lucie has to come to terms with the fact that this giant arthropod is one of the good guys and even admits to be somewhat racist in her like totally freaked out first meeting with him. It’s a shorthand Galaxy Four which also reminded me of Mark Michalowski’s recent Tenth Doctor novel Shining Darkness where Donna tarred all robots with the same brush, so to speak.
when was the last time you saw Avery Brooks in anything?
All of this stuff’s so engaging, you hardly notice the Doctor’s only in about three scenes, but McGann certainly enjoys his scraps as gets to pretend to run around the console pressing buttons and sparring with the Sisterhood of Karn, headed my Katarina ‘varied’ Olsson, who I discovered recently after using a search engine can sing mezzo-Soprano, play the clarinet and piano and speaks Swedish, French and German as well as act, which makes her more talented than most people alive so it’s no wonder she gets so much work. Let’s be honest, this is really a sisterhood in the Alicia’s Attic sense of the word – we only hear from two of them, with Olsson joined by Nicola Weeks as Lucie’s initial abductor Haspira (who’s just one vowel away from sounding like a Paul Magrs creation). I particularly appreciated the back reference to Tom and Paul's underscoring of the subtle differences between the two of them.
But there’s enough menace in their dysfunctional unit to suggest that our heroes are in a bit of a pickle as the first proper cliffhanger of the season descends. It’s a smart piece of writing from Briggsy; he knows that the title of the next play will already have been published on Big Finish's website and every other Doctor Who news site online soon afterwards, so there’s no point in making the re-emergence of Morbius the shock horror moment. Instead, he falls on a tried and tested formula used at least once during the original story, not requiring too much build up and epic enough in its implications for an Androzani-style ‘get out of that’, though perhaps to reach those heights they’d truly have to be at the mercy of this ya-ya sisterhood of the traveling particle accelerator.
Next week: Brainz! Brianz!