In the 1990s, Virgin published two series of novels that told brand new stories of Doctor Who – one range for the Seventh Doctor, the ‘current’ Doctor at the time (the New Adventures), and the other for the first six (the Missing Adventures). These stories were designed to be darker, more adult and have more depth than the original TV series. How well this worked is debatable, as for some writers, this meant more violence plus added swearing and even sex scenes, things that a family TV show would have never allowed, but its undeniable that the books have their own very devoted fanbases. I’ve been reading the New Adventures in order very, very gradually (I’m only about 5 books in so far), but I’m appreciating their take on the 7th Doctor and how much darker and slightly more morally-ambiguous his Doctor started to become.
Within the past couple of years, Big Finish productions have been adapting a number of these novels as full-cast audio drama, and so far, I’ve greatly enjoyed them all. The two stories that have been released this month – both individually in standard releases and together in a limited edition – are both very significant. The Well-Mannered War was the final story published in the Missing Adventures range as well as originally written by the excellent Gareth Roberts, while Damaged Goods (which I’ll be reviewing first) was the first ever Doctor Who story written by Russell T. Davies.
I have never read the original novel, but, even while it’s been adapted by someone else (the ever excellent and reliable Jonathan Morris), still has that clear Russell T. Davies feel to it, not just as a Doctor Who story but in general. There’s a rather urban feel to it, with a focus on a family living on a council estate (and even having the surname of Tyler, although no relation to THAT Tyler), there’s a heap of more down-to-Earth human drama mixed in with all the sci-fi shenanigans, and all the characters are well-written with very human problems. It’s also incredibly dark, in fact possibly one of the darkest Russell T. Davies stories I’ve experienced yet, almost making the story feel like a cross between Doctor Who and Torchwood. More than that – it feels like a combination of both shows at their very, very best.
There were a number of stories that Russell T. Davies wrote for TV Who that I wasn’t too keen on, (especially Love & Monsters,) and some of his stories and villains weren’t really up to scratch, but when he was good, he was damn fucking good. Usually, this was because ironically he limited the sci-fi to a very small idea that allowed a lot of drama to flow – Midnight is one of my favourite episodes because how much it focuses on human paranoia, and how it turns a bunch of really likeable characters into complete monsters within 45 minutes, and The Waters of Mars is more about the dilemma one man faces over whether he can change history or let it take its course. (Like the excellent Star Trek episode The City at the Edge of Forever, but with zombies.) I do wonder if the faster-pace of the new era sometimes meant that other stories of his suffered because of how rushed they were, especially after listening to something as excellent as Damaged Goods, a story nicely spread over 2 hours, only includes just the right amount of science-fiction, and allows the human drama and horror to flow throughout.
The story flows beautifully, giving you very clear visuals and really drawing you in, and there are so many great performances. Sylvester McCoy is brilliant as ever, playing a Seventh Doctor that is still more concerned about the larger picture than with human problems. Michelle Collins, a casting choice I was initially surprised by, is fantastic as the mother of the family, as she plays someone who’s made a very difficult choice that is haunted by the consequences of that choice, but I think my favourite character of the story is the horrifying Eva Jericho. Another mother, but one who’s rapidly losing her sanity, she becomes the worst kind of monster. I’m not going to spoil anything, but when I found out what the title “Damaged Goods” actually referred to, I was completely and utterly horrified. And, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, that’s one of my favourite things about watching, reading or, in this case, listening to Doctor Who – to be scared or horrified as much as possible. 5/5
The Well-Mannered War
This Fourth Doctor and Romana story is, in some ways, a much lighter story, but still incredibly enjoyable.
It begins with our two key heroes arriving in the far future in the middle of a war, although a rather unusual one – while the two sides in this conflict claim to be ‘at war’, no lives have yet to be taken, and in fact the two opposing forces seem to get on rather well with each other. And then of course, as soon as the Doctor and Romana arrive, the words “escalated” and “quickly” immediately spring to mind.
This is clearly a Gareth Roberts story, as its got a huge Douglas Adams influence, full of colourful characters and aliens and wonderful dialogue. It’s also very grand science-fiction that’s also fun, in some ways the equal and opposite of Damaged Goods.
This would be the fourth adaptation of a Gareth Roberts story that Big Finish have done. It’s also my favourite. There’s a rich amount of complexity in this story that makes you wonder how all the strands come together. It’s very gradual, but it really draws you in. There’s also a fantastic mix of comedy and horror within the story, and the number of characters that are hilarious, funny and yet feel distinctly true to life (especially Stokes as brilliantly performed by Michael Troughton) are wonderful to hear. It also has a fantastic ending that’s incredibly memorable – in fact, the ending was the only thing I knew about the story before going in to listen to it. Even when I knew it was coming though, it sent shivers down my spine and I adored it. It’s the kind of ending that’s bold and built up incredibly well and really shows just how flexible Doctor Who storytelling can be.
I really enjoyed The Well-Mannered War. It’s complex, full of colourful characters, and a really fun story to listen to. 5/5
Overall, these two very different stories work really well together. They’re two very different but equally great examples of exactly the kind of storytelling that Doctor Who is capable of: stories full of humour, horror, tragedy, darkness and even pure joy. They’re also two further examples of exactly why Big Finish are so great, translating two stories originally written in novel form for the very tricky medium of audio. Once again, through the excellent production team, including adapters Johnathan Morris and John Dorney, director Ken Bentley, and of course, the brilliant cast for both stories, these stories find a brand new way to come alive for listeners both old and new. One of my favourite releases of the year so far.
(One more thing – anyone who’s a fan of Russell T. Davies, get the special edition of this set directly through bigfinish.com. There’s a bonus disc included with the Limited Edition CD set already that includes behind the scenes stuff for both stories, but you can also download an extended version that’s two hours long, and it’s more than worth it to hear Russell T. Davies himself interviewed, both for his experience when he originally wrote his first ever Doctor Who story and how enthusiastic he clearly is for Big Finish. Absolutely beautiful listen and worth every penny for that little extra feature alone.)