The Vengeance of Morbius.

Audio Anyone who has been following this season of plays starring Paul McGann (especially if like me they’ve gone for the post-radio, extra-time option) might have seen the trailer for the BBC’s Christmas offerings and grinned at the shots of Sheridan Smith dashing about in a hoody, closely followed by an inscrutable man with long floppy hair. It’s obviously the Jonathan Creek special, but it’s ironic that at the end of this series of Eighth Doctor plays, we finally have a proper visual reference for Lucie. Expect a mash-up on YouTube by Boxing Day. That’s assuming whoever edits it is still a fan after listening to The Vengeance of Morbius, the kind of episode which is a bugger to write about and remain completely spoiler free.

It’s a bit of a mess, but endearingly so.

As usual that’s mostly because of Paul and Sheridan, and the writing for the Doctor and Lucie. As with rest of the series, even when in the gravest of peril, they’re swapping jokes and taking the piss out of one another. In one of the episode's best scenes they’re trapped in the dispersal chamber, a riff on the airlock scene from Hitchhiker’s, looking at certain doom, but neither of them are really panicking and they reminded me of Tom and Lalla at their best perhaps with a hint of Jon and Katy, if perhaps with slightly less erudition. Like the best Doctor Who, even as the story is falling about around their voices, you know you’ll be listening again simply because you like their company.

The scant duration of the episode is its biggest problem. Perhaps writer Nick Briggs was in the mood to create a new Neverland, but that evolved over two whole cds, and it’s impossible to produce something on that kind of epic scale in fifty minutes, with so few cast members and with the requirements of audio drama to deal with. It’s been a symptom of much of this series, stories too broad and deep for the small screen, but unlike a novel with only just over the duration of a television episode to fit them into, along with the added radio encumbrance of having to describe and explain everything that is happening in what’s an inherently visual franchise.

After a hokey-cokey of a cliffhanger resolution (in, out, shake the molecules about), and some fairly lengthy exposition about what the timelords have been up to lately, we get to enjoy the resurrection of Morbius, a visit to Gallifrey and then one possible future for Doctor and Lucie, who then surprise (!) Morbius in his lair, along with the resolution of a couple of subplots from the previous episode (though having built up Alexander Siddig’s Trel it’s pity he’s rendered mute for most of the episode, no matter how creepy that might be). It’s a muddle of incidents which doesn’t quite gel together and like much of old-Who, the big gestures are happening off speaker, the constant impression that big ideas are being curtailed because there isn’t the time to investigate them fully.

It doesn’t help that Morbius is hardly a timelord ripe for resurrection. Though the original story is held in some esteem (nu-Who make-up designer Neil Gorton’s favourite apparently), Doctor Solon is the chief villain, the nexus of the drama. Though is voice is a bit creepy, Morbius’s growl is louder than his bite, and his menace is in what he looks like rather than the kind of flamboyance some like the Master embodies. He isn’t even granted his own entry in the Wikipedia (though I notice Terry Dicks has had his own crack at a resurrection story in Warmonger for BBC Books, which is almost entirely contradicted here). So Briggs has to essentially create the character from scratch which isn’t really what you’d expect for what’s supposed to be a returning villain.

His version of Morbius is a petty dictator who, having conquered a planet or in this case half the universe is out looking to pick a fight with anyone. Despite some nice character work from Samuel West, after all of the build-up he’s a fairly inert presence, falling into the usual trap of being sold as a vicious and wicked bastard but inherently a typically Gallifreyan bureaucrat. That might be Briggs’s point, that evil can be inherently banal, but it’s an still an anti-climax, and you can’t help wondering that some of the dashing about in the opening episode couldn’t have been cut in favour of giving West more time to develop his character. Still, he looks rather fetching in his regalia on the cover, though the appearance of a certain loiterer from Ellis Island gives away one of the play’s better jokes.

The handling of Morbius’s victory isn’t a million miles away from that other messy season climax, Last of the Timelords, except rather than the viewer skipping a year, it’s the Doctor and Lucie missing their win status by ten of them. Except on television, you could see the results of the Master’s devastation, whereas on audio we have to sit through a good ten minutes of exposition and to get us reoriented, which ultimately proves pointless, because you’re never convinced that this is some new future for the Whoniverse, you know that there’ll a reset switch, and though it comes at a price, it’s still resolved by the old stand-by of the timelords showing up at the end to mostly make right what once went wrong.

It's a good job the cliffhanger is about the ballsiest thing Big Finish have done in some time. Yes, unlike readers of The Strand Magazine when Holmes plunged from Reichenbach Falls, we know the Doctor can’t really be dead; there’s a whole third season to consider not to mention a time war to win yet also lose and a dozen good television stories (at least) and some random speculation about who’ll play his eleventh incarnation (it’s Joseph Fiennes!) to consider. Yet, it’s still wonderfully unexpected when we hear McGann do his best impression of the Wilhelm Scream and we can well imagine Lucie almost chasing him into the chasm, calling desperately after.

What sells it is Lucie or rather Sheridan Smith’s reaction. We’ve heard a similar speech in similar circumstances from many of the post-millennium companions, but what make this work is that Smith’s emotion sound so very real – there’s no poetry, no ‘fire in the heart of the sun’, but genuine grief and anger at the loss of a friend, an inability to put those feeling into words and the inconsolable realisation that he’s never coming back. Barry McCarthy is wonderful here as Bulek who unexpectedly begins to comfort Lucie with the implications of the Doctor’s sacrifice, and his offer to wipe Lucie’s memories echoes Donna and Jamie and Zoe’s fate. She doesn’t take it, of course, but you almost wish that the post credits emergence of an old ‘friend’ wasn’t there, but Big Finish need to sell a few cds and the it’s nice to have a reminder that the adventure is never over.

Not really.

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