Audio One of the curiously underdeveloped sub-genres in Doctor Who is in the area of interstellar xenobiology. Whereas the Starship Enterprise couldn’t warp through a parsec without bumping into a pregnant object shaped like a brazil nut, Who has tended to shy away from such extraordinary evolution, preferring instead to concentrate on humanoid human-sized varieties of alien, presumably because they were easier to plausibly execute with some fibre glass and bubble wrap. Even in recent years, with CGI capable of creating all kinds of wonders, the television version has only really had that space whale and what’s now forever being called the “Cash Cow” in Torchwood’s Meat because no one in the episode bothered to call it anything else.
As ever spin-off media with its voracious appetite for stories has tended to be more flexible, and Marc Platt’s Night of the Stormcrow is a prime-cut example, the curious creature of the title, as the cover illustrates, a massive avian treating the earth-like a feeding table in its celestial back garden, an observatory full of scientists its fat filled treat. Aided by Vashta Nerada-like “pilot fish” (in The Christmas Invasion sense), from above it devours people and parts of the landscape in a way which even modern CGI would seem incapable of rendering convincingly and in the period when the Fourth Doctor and Leela were in the TARDIS would probably have amounted to FX man Ian Scoones nervously wrangling some ravens against a blue screen.
But like the space whale and cash cow, this isn’t just about the Doctor trying to persuade a genetic marvel to fight against its natural instincts; as soon as he and the savage arrive, he’s dealing with its potential exploitation by humans, on this occasion with reputations and research grants on the line. The unforgettably named Professor Gesima Cazalet has tracking the bird for over a decade and aided by a team headed by erasable American Peggy, desperate to take credit for her “discovery”. This parochial reaction to the remarkable is the kind of thing which Who always does very well, and the highlights are undoubtedly when the Time Lord and the warrior of the Savateem are refereeing their clashes.
As the accompanying interviews indicate, part of that has to do with contrasting acting experiences. As Gesima, Ann Bell brings her very British heritage across the BBC and stage, even starring with Louise Jameson in Tenko. Chase Masterson, who as she says enjoys playing against type as Peggy is best known as she also charmingly reminds us as Leeta the Dabo Girl in Deep Space Nine (and one of my teenage crushes I’m not embarrassed to say) (honestly). Dropped into that maelstrom are Tom and Louise, both on form, the former pointedly given a grumpier Doctor to play than usual but who does at least convince Leela to hilariously utilise her knife for something other than killing. That’s all I’ll say.
But for all its chaotic casting juxtapositions, this is comfort Who, through and through. It’s an isolated base under siege (cf, Horror of Fang Rock for a start), massive, earth shattering tragedies occurring even before they’ve arrived (cf, The Girl Who Waited, I suppose) and suspicion towards these two strangers who’ve wandered in seemingly from nowhere (cf, well, everything). Yet Platt’s script is much stronger than usual, even allowing time for Leela to consider her unique place in the Whoniverse, telling us more about the character in a few sentences than the whole season and a half that she was on television, not that as she promises to keep hunting tirelessly for a home, it explains why she unexpectedly finds it with a Gallifreyan guard.
Doctor Who: Night of the Stormcrow by Marc Platt is available to Big Finish customers who buy a 6 or 12-release subscription to the Doctor Who Monthly Range and will be available to buy from December 2013. Review Copy Supplied.