Audio As I’m sure you’re tired of hearing, one of my favourite Doctor Who moments is from Paul Magrs’s novel The Scarlet Empress. The Doctor’s captured by alien birds and to keep them busy while other shenanigans are afoot, he tells them stories of his exploits, but as their clamour for more adventures reaches its apogee, he invokes Vladimir Prop’s study into Russian fairy tales, and just as those feature roughly the same elements across their otherwise diversity (the hero, the princess, the mentor, the rest of the plot of Star Wars), he gives them a set of locales, some monsters, a companion, a story genre and explains how they can write their own.
Big Finish’s latest portmanteau audio riffs on a similar idea, if not exactly plunging into such metafictional depths. Perhaps. Inspired by another piece of socio-mythological literature, a Sultan (Alexander Siddig), having captured the fifth Doctor challenges Nyssa to keep him amused with stories of their adventures as a stay of execution. If she amuses him enough, he may or may not put the Time Lord to death. This is a different approach to previous anthologies which lacked as strong an umbrella story which means that to an extent it’s a richer experience as it soon becomes apparent each of them is inspired by its themes and aren’t simple, stand alone, short trip delights.
Between them, the collected writers Emma Beeby, Gordon Rennie, Jonathan Barnes and Catherine Harvey bring us a psychiatric horror set within a isolated alien prison, some metropolitan demonic possession and what happens on a planet in which stories really are the currency. As with all short fiction, they’re so slender that to provide much more in the way of story information would be to ruin their pleasures, except to say that they all contain a fairly good twist that makes the most of their medium. My favourite, if I must, is the last of the three, which explores its hook in surprising ways. If only a limerick could pay for a round in the pub …
The fourth part brings the wider story to a close and it’s here that the strength of the cast shows itself with Siddig breaking out of what is initially a pointedly stereotypical portrayal of the Sultan to reveal a more angular antagonist. He appears almost exclusively with Susan Sutton in the rare position lately of playing the younger version of Nyssa again during the timey-whimey storytelling of the reunion plays with Turlough and Tegan, which also has the benefit of giving her more to do. Peter Davison offers another floorless performance as his Doctor, avuncular even in the company of the Old Man he meets in the prison played by Nadim Sawalha.
As I think I’ve implied it’s a story best listened to than written about. There isn’t anything spectacularly new here and at a certain point I did begin to wonder if the writers were making a point similar to the Doctor with those blasted birds, that as with fairy stories, there is only a limit to the ways in which his adventures can play out, that they are simply a series of functions. Then in the final few moments the play becomes an investigation into the nature of the Doctor himself and his importance as a protagonist in effecting the narrative of those adventures and 1001 Nights offers its final twist. But you’ll just have to listen yourself to find out what it is.
Doctor Who: 1001 Nights from Big Finish is out now. Review copy supplied.