Since Fitz is one of the franchise’s longest serving companions across at least fifty novels and he’s probably the most understandable of the choices. Sam’s too close in silhouette to Izzy Sinclair who’s also here. Compassion would take too much explaining, as would Anji, arguably. I’ve not met Trix yet, but from what I hear she too has too many traits to be quickly legible in half an hour of drama. Strip away the Kode/Father Kreiner stuff this clone isn’t even properly aware of and he’s a cockerney wide-boy from the 60s, a bit Spike from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in attitude and that’s probably all you need to know.
Unlike the cover of previous narrative interloper featuring the same characters, Fear Itself, there’s nothing on the inlay to explain exactly when this is set, though we know it has to be somewhere between Escape Velocity and The Adventuress of Henrietta Street for reasons which have already been spoiled for me. I’ve followed The TARDIS Index File’s suggestion of between The City of the Dead and Grimm Reality because this probably is about as settled as the character has been in ages, post-New Orleans as Anji herself notes at the close of the previous novel, despite his amnesia (though there are problems, see below).
With just half an hour to play with, Stephen Cole, who helped create the character back during his tenure as editor of the book series, keeps things relatively simple, story-wise, with a concoction that’s rather lighter than some of the novels surrounding it. The Doctor notices the Alien Defence Incorporated, a private Torchwood-lite extraterrestrial invasion eradicator on the planet Entusso is using his image without permission. He decides to visit and tell them not to, which unwittingly puts him exactly where they want him and it's up to Fitz to rescue the Doctor using his wit, charm and reliance on strong alcoholic beverages.
Well, then. Since the original Eighth Doctor audios were the reason I became a fan again last decade, it’s not that surprising to hear Paul playing the character, even the Richards era’s iteration if him. He’s perhaps sneakier than the various other audio iterations, morally flexible to a degree, but it’s a reminder that he’s still generally the same character no matter the period. As with the other plays in the set, which we’ll discuss when we, or rather I, get to them, Paul’s entirely with the spirit of the piece even when called upon to chat through unfamiliar backstory and playing off a companion who’s an old friend for his character even if this is the first adventure for these actors.
Understandably, since this is likely to be bought by listeners unfamiliar with the original novels, this Eighth’s amnesia isn’t played up too much but it’s still there. When he refers to an old adventure with Sam (squee) he follows it with “apparently” which suggests he’s been catching up with his past via the TARDIS records rather than his memory returning and on a couple of other occasions when he suddenly blurts with information, they’re rather like the Artron Energy outburst from The City of the Dead as though he doesn’t know quite where its coming from; or that’s how I’m choosing to hear them.
The apparatus of the story is a potential problem though. One of the reasons Richards decided to wipe everything clean in The Burning was to give new readers an access point and also to take away from the Doctor some of his invincibility, something which the latest television series is also dealing with right now. The example given being that the Daleks are a bigger threat if he doesn’t know who they are. That idea hasn’t really been exploited since the Earth arc, mostly due to the tendency to leave sequels to the past Doctor ranges and the audio series, both in full swing by the point.
Except Fitz’s Story takes place in a universe in which the Doctor’s still an ever present force, he’s lured to Entusso because ADI are using his voiceover in their advertising because the Time Lord has an vulnerably positive reputation. He might not be able actually remember his past or his deeds (a central plank of his characterisation in The City of the Dead) but everyone else in the universe does. Do they also know about what else he did to his people? He’s not a lonely God, of course, some of the Time Lords survived this skirmish in the Time War, it just feels inconsistent with what’s already been established.
The links with the newest television series continue with an appearance by Fenella Woolgar, seen on screen in The Unicorn and the Wasp as Agatha Christie. Here she plays Hellan Femor, the head of ADI and a character not too dissimilar to Yvonne Hartman, the evil ex-head of Torchwood One. It’s another triumphant bit of pantomime from Woolgar who always seems as though she should be more famous than she is, perhaps the lead actress in some long running television series, or would be if long television television series these days, at least in the uk, weren’t so closeted in such a narrow range of genres.
Then, finally, there’s Fitz. Having barely seen Eastenders since the 80s and having stopped watched watching Hustle once Jaime Murray left I’m not familiar with Matt Di Angelo’s career, but he’s perfectly cast here, dropping seamlessly into a role already defined, faced with the expectations of many. His slightly pronounced cockney accent sits well with the idea of a character who’s trying to hold on desperately to his roots and almost exactly the voice I’ve had in my head while reading. How much of Fitz’s back story was Matt aware of? Just the stuff he’s given to read in his prologue (all of the characters have scene setting prologues) or all the Kode/Father Kreiner business too?
All in all, really good fun. About the only real, but understandable disappointment is the lack of audio Anji, trapped in bed with a splitting hangover. Given the short running time, there’s barely enough room for some banter between Fitz and the Doctor and explaining that relationship without another inconsistent back story in the mix. Big Finish have already sequelised one of the other companions, Mary Shelley, mostly because she was already part of continuity going back as far as Storm Warning, but is it too late to have some more audio adventures set in this era? How busy is Amita Dhiri anyway?
Anyway, one book to go before another narrative nuclear bomb from Lawrence Miles. I’m actually getting nervous …