With Mary Shelley.

Audio Well, then right then, here we go then, after all these it’s time to finally listen to all of the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish audio stories in order (or as best as I can manage). Even though I hitched on with Storm Warning in 2001 when McGann finally signed with the company, I stepped off again at the end of the first season of the stories broadcast on BBC Radio 7 so like the novels and comics there are tons of new adventures ready to enjoy on top of the revisits. Like the novels, it’s been impossible not to stumble across some of the major events but there’ll hopefully be enough incidental pleasures along with being able to re-evaluate stories which I’ve not heard since their original release. The format for these review posts will be the same as the comics, which as I’ve discovered doesn’t leave much room for opinion over analysis, but we’ll see.

Thanks to Big Finish’s non-linear approach to production we begin with the Mary Shelley stories, developed as a prequel to the original releases building on the initial reference in the original first release Storm Warning as well as veiled material from the Dalek story Terra Firma. The studiousness of these back references mean that it’s not really the ideal stepping on position for new listeners, the franchise’s Byzantine approach to continuity meaning they’d otherwise have to deal with all the mentions of Samson and Gemma Griffin who were introduced as companions that predate Charley in that adventure (to help explain the mention of Sam in Minuet in Hell when the company decided they were creating a separate continuity to the novels before Mary’s Story went out of its way to confirm that yes, actually it is all the same continuity after all).

But in terms of trying to get the Eighth Doctor’s continuity straight, it works wonders. Even though this is supposed to be relatively early in terms of the audio adventures, the figure who appears in these stories is already a matured Time Lord, clear of purpose and psychologically complex with a bit of weariness. You could well imagine that he’s experienced the novels and comics first although its also important to notice that it’s the older version of him who mentions Destrii and Compassion in Mary’s Story leaving enough wiggle room for those who still want to have it that all of this happens in the notorious Greenpeace three months from early on in the novels. This entertaining version mixes everything together and probably would have been a fun way of going about things but I still feel that the different narratives from each company and media should be together.

If that’s the case where is he now? At a certain point he’s left Destrii and he’s travelling alone. Having heard future events already, we can say that once again Gallifrey’s changed, although there’s enough wiggle room in that once comic story too to suggest that it’s all been sorted out again in time for Shada and beyond, notably that Romana’s now the President as established in the Sixth Doctor story The Apocalypse Element (though I’m not sure how she’s back looking like Lalla Ward rather than the third incarnation from the books unless the Doctor did put the planet back together somehow in an earlier version, a bit like a computer returning to an earlier saved backup). None of this really matters I don’t think, though it’s interesting that even the messy version can’t quite square that. James Goss has also confirmed that the Juliet Landau version isn’t Romana III either. See what I mean? Byzantine.

What to make of Mary Shelley? All of the writers have obviously been concerned about simply "creating" Charley 2.0 so that as well as utilizing more archaic language and constant references to her future historic achievements and developing some jeopardy about the implications of her being missing from her own time period and the implications that has especially if she dies in the Doctor's company. One oddness is how little justification is offered either way as to why he would choose to take such an important literary figure on a trip like this with those kinds of risks other than that time hasn't been rewritten that a biography of Mary Shelley can exist in the TARDIS library. Some day perhaps we'll have a story which explores if that library changes whenever the Doctor has an effect on history.

There's also sense of her not really knowing why she's travelling beyond her initial curiosity though as The Silver Turk notices metafictionally we're essentially having a historic figure learning to be a companion with the twin thematic resonance in relation to how that compares to marriage (the Doctor is constantly being compared to Percy Shelley). To that end, she does now and then, as The Silver Turk also predicts falling into a fairly old school companion role of saying Doctor a lot and asking questions. The idea of Shelley keeping a journal (much like Izzy and Charley) does provide some opportunity to reveal her internal thoughts us, not that it provides much warning for the oddness of hearing her tell the Doctor she fancies him in so many words. His reaction's much the same as ours. "Huh? Oh, erm..." In so many words.

The other clear link between these stories is how they're supposed to suggest it's Mary's travels with the Doctor which ultimately influence her literature with lots of little nods here and there ala Timelash and The Shakespeare Code (and it's not often you'll see those two referred to in the same sentence even though they're both doing roughly the same thing).  All four stories are to some extent about extending life through artificial means though in none of them is it clear that Mary's immediately thinking of them as literary sources even as she writes in her journal.  Julie Cox's powerful performance reveals to us a woman who's already exploding with imagination so there's never a chance of diminishing Mary's later achievement, she's already thinking along these lines.

The Company of Friends: Mary’s Story

The Eighth Doctor finally meets Byron and doesn’t think much of him. Or Percy Shelley who also receives a suitably rough ride. There’s a certain element of justifying and explaining why Mary would join the Doctor on his adventures at the end of the story, but it’s refreshing that what is one of the iconic moments in the Eighth Doctor’s adventures is treated with such little reverence, the historical figures portrayed as such feckless idiots, the alternative never quite sitting well. To a degree it’s a pre-cursor to Night of the Doctor as a celebration of the incarnation, hearing McGann listing most of his multimedia companions, right down to Ssard from the Radio Times strips in a similar way to his dying moments before his regeneration. The writer, Jonathan Morris of course wrote one of the also referenced Trix’s best original appearances in The Tomorrow Windows.

The Silver Turk

Sock-faced Cybermen! As projects go this is pretty niche. Recorded two and half years after Mary’s Story but continuing directly on you might well ask who it’s for other than listeners gasping to hear the McGann in a typical format story longer than fifty minutes. Plus it’s a spiritual sequel to writer Marc Platt’s own Spare Parts and it’s refreshing to have real Mondasian Cybermen who can construct whole sentences at a time when the television series has all but reduced them to barely conscious puppets not unlike the wooden marionettes featured here. The other clear influence is Hammer horror though unlike the Hinchliffe years this has some full on, blood curdling scares of a kind that would cause an automatic 18 rating from the BBFC. Clearly Cardiff’s become slightly more relaxed about such things which is all to the good. Not all merchandise should necessarily be aimed at children surely?

The Witch from the Well

Doctor Who does the Witchfinder General via a Moffat loop and trying desperately not to have too much Python. After a slightly subdued turn last time, McGann is incredibly energised here in that way Big Finish Doctors often are when they’re having a ball with the guest cast (mainly chosen by Barnaby Edwards from his Globe Theatre co-horts) and loving the script (a spectacularly assured piece by occasional writer Rick Briggs). He’s tiggerish, his line readings are just right and seems to remember the attitude of the version of the character who appeared in the earlier plays. In the bonus section he talks at length about how he realised that his Doctor doesn’t have one particular attitude, but that there will always be a sense of cloud, an undercurrent that suggests that there’s something in his past that he can’t quite ever forget.

Army of Death

For a legend like the Doctor to exist, especially in more contemporary instances of the franchise, every now and then you have to tell a story which speaks to the legend which isn't about anything other than fighting monsters, toppling unfair regimes and protecting the innocent. Storming cast includes David Harewood (just before Homeland) and one Mitch Benn who sounds like he's having a ball, bless him. Eighth is in "nostalgic" mood too, randomly referring to the Whomobile and The Deadly Assassin in a way which is not usual for him. With so much happening Mary Shelley's story falls through the cracks a bit, though it's a surprise to see that the partnership isn't definitively concluded at the end. Once again we're left with a gap for our imagination to fill with more adventures (and perhaps also Big Finish with future audio dramas).

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